MyAmericanFuture

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Monday, December 31, 2012

December 31, 2012: December 2012 Recap

[Recapping the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
December 1-2: Chilly Crowd-sourcing: A series on winter in American culture concludes with the responses and thoughts of some fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours, please!
December 3: AmericanStudying the Pacific, Part One: A Pearl Harbor-inspired series starts with a post on commemorating or remembering war—and Clint Eastwood films.
December 4: AmericanStudying the Pacific, Part Two: The series continues with the two distinct sides of San Diego’s USS Midway Museum.
December 5: AmericanStudying the Pacific, Part Three: On Midway, The Thin Red Line, and two distinct eras and types of war movies.
December 6: AmericanStudying the Pacific, Part Four: On what I took away from a childhood building war-related models, as the series rolls on.
December 7: AmericanStudying the Pacific, Part Five: The series concludes with a special post on remembering Pearl Harbor and similarly infamous days.
December 8-9: Lincoln, Culture, and History: Another special post, this one on some of the questions about cultural images of history raised by the new Spielberg film.
December 10: Fireside Reads, Part One: A series on AmericanStudies works to read on long winter’s nights begins with two late 19th century mega-novels.
December 11: Fireside Reads, Part Two: The series continues with Carlos Bulosan’s contribution to our fireside reading.
December 12: Fireside Reads, Part Three: On my favorite American poet, and one with whom you could definitely spend some quality time by the fire.
December 13: Fireside Reads, Part Four: The American mystery novelist who will give you the best kind of winter chills, as the series rolls on.
December 14: Fireside Reads, Part Five: The series concludes with some worthy fireside reads from international, honorary AmericanStudiers.
December 15-16: Crowd-sourced Fireside Reads: Suggestions for fireside reads from fellow AmericanStudiers—add your own, please!
December 17-23: AmericanStudier Needs You: The old AmericanStudier site is sadly defunct, but I plan to rebuild in the new year—and would love your suggestions, contributions, and feedback!
December 24: Making My List (Again), Part One: My annual list of wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves kicks off with the Christmas Eve attitude we could all use a bit more of.
December 25: Making My List (Again), Part Two: The series continues with my wish for what we can all take away from the best Christmas film ever.
December 26: Making My List (Again), Part Three: On my wish for American attitudes toward and inclusion of atheists.
December 27: Making My List (Again), Part Four: The website and project that all Americans should engage with and support, as the series rolls on.
December 28: Making My List (Again), Part Five: The series concludes with my wish for an experience that all American kids should get to have.
December 29-30: Making Our Lists: A crowd-sourced post on AmericanStudies wish lists—but it could use some more wishes! Add yours, please!
New year and series stars tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Things you’d like to read about in this space in 2013? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

December 29-30, 2012: Making Our Lists

[Last year around the holidays, I shared a few items on my AmericanStudier wish list, things I hope Americans could do and be. In this most wonderful time of the year™, I wanted to do the same with a handful of new wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the response and wish of a fellow AmericanStudier—but I know there are more wishes to share, so please add yours below. Thanks, and happy holidays!]
Rob Gosselin wishes, simply and crucially, for “patience and tolerance.”
December Recap Monday, and a new year of posts beyond,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Wishes you’d add to Rob’s?

Friday, December 28, 2012

December 28, 2012: Making My List (Again), Part Five

[Last year around the holidays, I shared a few items on my AmericanStudier wish list, things I hope Americans could do and be. In this most wonderful time of the year™, I wanted to do the same with a handful of new wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. Please share your own wishes and hopes, and I’ll add ‘em to the weekend’s post and make sure the Elves get ‘em too. Thanks, and happy holidays!]
On the educational experience that I wish all American children could have.
Today is the birthday of my first Guest Poster, one of the most inspiring Americans I know, and, yes, my Mom, Ilene Railton. I wrote in the post hyperlinked under “the most inspiring Americans” about the amazing work that she has been able to do and contribute to as part of the Albemarle County (Virginia) Bright Stars preschool program. I also made the case, in the first paragraph of this post on John Dewey, for why preschool should be universally available to—in fact, mandatory for—all American children (especially those in the most desperate situations, such as the Bright Stars kids; but really all of them, with no exceptions). Given that, as I wrote in that Dewey post, a year of such universal preschool for all American children could be paid for simply by the additional revenue that would be gained if the Bush tax cuts for the highest tax bracket were allowed to expire, I find it frankly disgusting that our society seems to prioritize garage elevators (for example) over universal preschool.
I don’t know that there’s much more I need to say, AmericanStudies Elves. I wish that all American kids could get at least one year of preschool education. But even more than that, I wish that we as a society could prioritize education period, early childhood education specifically, and such ideas in general so much more fully and centrally than we do. I believe a lot of our most challenging and destructive problems would be substantially ameliorated by such programs and priorities. But I also believe that we’d be a better, stronger, more communal nation as a result, one significantly closer to the best of our ideals and what we could be. Let’s make it happen, Elves!
Crowd-sourced wishes this weekend,
Ben
PS. So last chance: what do you think? Responses to this wish? Wishes of your own you’d share with the Elves?

Thursday, December 27, 2012

December 27, 2012: Making My List (Again), Part Four

[Last year around the holidays, I shared a few items on my AmericanStudier wish list, things I hope Americans could do and be. In this most wonderful time of the year™, I wanted to do the same with a handful of new wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. Please share your own wishes and hopes, and I’ll add ‘em to the weekend’s post and make sure the Elves get ‘em too. Thanks, and happy holidays!]
On the man and project that I wish we could all give our fullest support.
First, a link; not to that post itself, although it’s interesting as always from Digby, but to the NYT Magazine story to which she links, and which I believe you can read login-free if you go through her site. Jose Antonio Vargas, the author of that Times Magazine story, has been well-known for some time as a Pulitzer-winning journalist; but in this lengthy and incredibly powerful essay he outed himself as an undocumented immigrant, and more exactly as precisely the kind of American identity whom the DREAM Act is meant to aid—came to the US as a very young kid, made a success of himself in this home land including college and much after, and has more than fulfilled every possible promise he possessed and opportunity he earned.
Jose hasn’t stopped at sharing these potentially controversial but also deeply inspiring personal experiences, though; he has created a website and project, Define American, where he hopes to use his story and the many, many American stories like it to help revise and strengthen two types of crucial national narratives: the specific ones about illegal immigrants and immigration overall; and the broader and even more vital ones about who is and is not an American. It no doubt goes without saying, even for those who know me only through this blog, that I am fully and admiringly and gratefully in support of what he’s doing; not only his work with these crucial national narratives, but also and even more strikingly his willingness to open up about his own, far-too-often attacked but entirely impressive, American identity and experiences.
On the other hand, I suppose it’s possible for someone to dismiss Vargas’ efforts, his work to change these broader narratives, as simply (or even partly) self-justification or –rationalization, as an attempt to legitimize his own otherwise illegitimate identity. (I would hope that no one would feel that way after reading his piece or checking out the website, but of course a large part of adhering to simplistic narratives often entails not engaging with the evidence and texts.) Which makes it that much more vital, AmericanStudies Elves, for those of us with no conceivable personal stake in this equation to express both support for Vargas and, even more significantly, our own shared beliefs that if American is to mean anything genuine and important, if it is to comprise a community that’s more than just geographic or political or legal, that’s human and interconnected and inspiring, it simply must include, and should in fact celebrate, an identity and life like Vargas’. So Elves, I wish that we all could give Vargas’ site and project the attention it deserves, and see where we go from there.
Final wish of mine tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this wish? Wishes of your own you’d share with the Elves?

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

December 26, 2012: Making My List (Again), Part Three

[Last year around the holidays, I shared a few items on my AmericanStudier wish list, things I hope Americans could do and be. In this most wonderful time of the year™, I wanted to do the same with a handful of new wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. Please share your own wishes and hopes, and I’ll add ‘em to the weekend’s post and make sure the Elves get ‘em too. Thanks, and happy holidays!]
On the American community I wish we could recognize and include more fully.
If there’s one way in which I have occasionally been made to feel like an American minority, left out of many of our national narratives—don’t worry, I’m not going to go into one of those routines about how tough it’s getting for a white male these days; I have long since instructed friends and family that if I ever come within a million miles of that utterly nonsensical perspective, they should have me euthanized immediately—it’s as an atheist. In my Intro to American Studies class on the 1980s we watch a portion of Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech, and as part of that speech’s intro he approvingly quotes an anonymous entertainer who had said that he would rather his two young girls die as children, believing in God, then grow old and die non-believers in the USSR. Despite the Cold War-specific context, Reagan absolutely and unequivocally endorses the broader themes of the anecdote, making clear, at least to this atheist, that the man who was president for eight of my first eleven years of life feels I would have been better off dying as a child then living a full life with my particular spiritual point of view. (And yes, the speech was delivered to an evangelical organization, but the president is still the American president, regardless of where or to whom he’s speaking, so I still take that sentiment pretty personally.)
That was more than twenty-five years ago, of course, and I suppose there have been signs that this particular limit of our national definitions is broadening slightly. Certainly I was deeply gratified when Barack Obama, in his 2009 Inaugural address, argued (and the Reagan speech proves just how much it is an argument, not a given) that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers”; moreover, while that line and various other meaningless moments and details have contributed to the deeply sleazy line of right-wing attacks on Obama as a closet atheist (and/or Muslim) who only professes a Christian faith, for the most part Obama’s inclusion of non-believers in the national community went unremarked upon. Yet no one can listen to the president end every speech with “God Bless America,” or listen to both my son’s preschool class and my university’s honors convocation still including “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance, or witness the number of ballparks at which “God Bless America” has permanently replaced “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the 7th inning stretch, among many other daily and constant reminders, and argue that we do not still define ourselves as a religious people in ways that implicitly but unquestionably render us atheist Americans slightly less fully part of the national community. Again, I hasten to add that this kind of exclusion is far, far less weighty than others on which I have focused in this space—but nonetheless, until we can imagine an avowed atheist successfully winning the presidency, exclusion it very much is.
With it being just after Christmas and all, this post might seem unnecessarily provocative or argumentative. But AmericanStudies Elves, I’m not wishing for anyone to lose their own personal faith, for anyone to feel the slightest bit mocked in what they believe or obligated to believe as I do (or don’t), for any American community not to feel that its identity is part of who we are. Quite the opposite, I’m wishing that every such community, including one that does not believe in God, be recognized as just as definingly and meaningfully American. In his keynote speech at this year’s Republican National Convention, Marco Rubio argued that “faith in our Creator is the most important American value of all.” So Elves, we’ve got a ways to go yet, and I’m hoping that we can make some progress in the year to come.
Next wish tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this wish? Wishes of your own you’d share with the Elves?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

December 25, 2012: Making My List (Again), Part Two

[Last year around the holidays, I shared a few items on my AmericanStudier wish list, things I hope Americans could do and be. In this most wonderful time of the year™, I wanted to do the same with a handful of new wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. Please share your own wishes and hopes, and I’ll add ‘em to the weekend’s post and make sure the Elves get ‘em too. Thanks, and happy holidays!]
On the lessons that I wish we could all take away from one of our holiday classics.
In the final moments of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), perhaps the single film that best represents the holiday season for many Americans (including this AmericanStudier), the angel Clarence sums up one version of the final’s ultimate message. “Dear George,” he writes in a book that Jimmy Stewart’s character opens as the film concludes, “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.” Not a bad message at all, particularly in a society that has for so long defined success—and saw in this presidential election a renewed emphasis on such definitions—in direct relationship to wealth. Yes, George Bailey is getting a big bucket of money dumped in front of him at this climactic moment in the film, but that money directly exemplifies his community of friends, and how much they care about him and are willing to support him as he has always supported them. Works for me, Clarence.
But the moment and film also provide at least two other, interconnected but distinct, lessons that I believe we could likewise focus on much more fully. For one thing, the reason George has all those supportive friends is because of what he’s been able to do and mean in his individual life, as a person of integrity who has dedicated his time to doing right by those around him and his community. One reason, to go back to yesterday’s post, why it can be hard for us to feel hope these days is that it can feel so impossible for an individual to make any kind of meaningful difference—but George illustrates that possibiility for sure. And for another thing, despite that individual success George is anything but a self-made man—as the film’s conclusion reflects so perfectly, every individual’s power is ultimately and happily dependent on the communities of which he’s a part; we are thus at our best, individually and collectively, when we all succeed together. To quote another piece of good advice, from my boy Bruce, “Remember, in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.”
So, AmericanStudies Elves, I wish that all Americans could remember these lessons from one of our most enduring holiday texts. That success is a community of supportive friends; that each of us can make a big difference in those communities and in our nation; and that we’re all in it together. Think that about says it all!
Next wish tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this wish? Wishes of your own you’d share with the Elves?

Monday, December 24, 2012

December 24, 2012: Making My List (Again), Part One

[Last year around the holidays, I shared a few items on my AmericanStudier wish list, things I hope Americans could do and be. In this most wonderful time of the year™, I wanted to do the same with a handful of new wishes for the AmericanStudies Elves. Please share your own wishes and hopes, and I’ll add ‘em to the weekend’s post and make sure the Elves get ‘em too. Thanks, and happy holidays!]
On the Christmas Eve attitude I hope we can all find a way to embrace more fully.
It’s a cliché, but having spent these last five Christmas Eves with boys who were old enough to know what was coming, I can say with certainty that it’s one of the most accurate clichés out there: nothing exemplifies excitement and anticipation like a kid on Christmas Eve. I know the boys would disagree, and so would my youthful self, but honestly I think that the excitement is the best part of the holiday—better than the presents themselves, better even than the family togetherness (that’s good, but hopefully not unique to the holiday), and definitely better than the inevitable letdown when all is opened and moving back toward normal. To me, the magic of Santa is likewise caught up in the anticipation, and the traditions that go with it—hanging stockings, putting out the milk and cookies, preparing the house in that time before anything has happened and when it’s all still in the future to which we look forward so excitedly.
I don’t want to speak for everybody here—or at least, as always, I’d love to hear your own thoughts, even (no, especially) if they entirely disagree with mine—but I think we’ve largely lost the possibility for that kind of anticipation, as a society. Obviously it’s always been and always would be harder for adults to feel such pure excitement than for kids, given all the things we carry around in our heads and lives, the hopes and pressures, the responsibilities and worries, the memories and baggage. But I also feel as if the constant stream of bad or threatening news, the very real effects of recession and climate change and political and cultural and social divisions, the way in which any triumph or positive moment seems immediately and inevitably greeted by a backlash of naysaying and anonymous internet trolling, just so many aspects of our 21st century moment make it very hard to feel, or at least to keep, an individual (much less a communal) sense of anticipation and excitement about what the future might bring.
And that’s a very bad thing. I’ve written many, many times here about my current book project on hope, and at the end of the day that’s what hope is: anticipation and excitement that the future might be good, might be better, might be what it ideally could be. So AmericanStudies Elves, today’s wish is that we can find a way, as a nation, to get back to Christmas Eve-level anticipation and excitement about the future, at least sometimes and in some ways. How we do that is obviously another and a tough question—I believe, as the book will argue, that it comes at least in part from a more accurate awareness of our past, of where we’ve been, of who we are. But as with any positive change, part of it will also just be admitting the possibility, recognizing that we can and should strive for such excitement, that there’s nothing wrong with believing at night in the magic of a next morning on which our wishes can come true.
Next wish tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Responses to this wish? Wishes of your own you’d share with the Elves?

Monday, December 17, 2012

December 17-23, 2012: AmericanStudier Needs You!

[As this website’s first year draws to a close, I still greatly need your input for the year(s) to come! So I’m re-posting and keeping up for a week this September post on the many different ways you can contribute to the site. But please feel free to share other suggestions, of any and all types, in addition to what I mention here. Thanks in advance!]

[IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: As of right now, it kind of looks like americanstudier.org has gone defunct. But I most definitely hope to recreate it, or something like it, in the year(s) to come. So I'll leave this post scheduled and ask still for your input, not only on all these aspects of that prior site but on anything and everything you would like to see, read, find, contribute, etc, on an AmericanStudier website. The sky's the limit, folks! So I'd love to hear your thoughts, even more than I already did.]
On my ongoing goals for this here AmericanStudier website.
The American Studier website that Graham Beckwith and I designed and created has been up and running for nearly a year now, and there’s a lot about it that I’m already proud of for sure. It’s become a very good home for the daily blog posts and Memory Day calendar nominees, which have so far been and might always be the most consistently updated part of the site. But I’ve also, and even more importantly, really enjoyed the chance to include and highlight the voices and ideas of fellow American Studiers: in the Analytical Pieces section; in Forum posts; and in suggestions for Archives, Collections and other Resources, to name three places that have been constructed out of those other voices. My most central goal for the site is that it become generally communal and collaborative, and these represent definite starting points in that direction.
I’d love to build each of those sections further in the year(s) ahead, so if you have: briefer American Studies questions, perspectives, interests, and thoughts, create a Forum thread; longer analytical takes that haven’t found a home (or that have but to which I can link), share ‘em (brailton@fitchburgstate.edu) for the Analytical Pieces section; suggestions for good American Studies Resources (online, archives and collections, in any of that page’s categories, etc.), send ‘em along; and so on. But I’m even more interested in seeing what we can do with the least developed (to date) part of the site, the Multimedia page. As you can see, I’ve created some preliminary categories and have posted a few examples for each; I’d love if every American Studier who visits this site could share one or another text (available, at least in part, online) that he or she believes we should all engage, making that page a genuine database of American Studies primary sources. But I’m also open to other ways to think about American Studies and to analyze our history, culture, identity, narratives, and so on—so if you have suggestions on how a page like that could be constructed, please send ‘em my way (again, brailton@fitchburgstate.edu) and I’ll make sure to credit you and your work.
Those are some of my ideas and hopes. But the truth, to get all Rumsfeld-ian for a moment, is that I don’t know what I don’t know, and I need your help on that front even more fully. I’d say that’s particularly true when it comes to teachers, professors, and program directors in American Studies—what would benefit you all when it comes to a site like this? We could create a whole Pedagogy page, for example—what would you like to see there? What kinds of materials and resources could make your jobs easier, would benefit your students, could help you use a site like this in a course or the like? I’ll ask the same question of students, at every level—what could this site include and do to help you in your work? Ditto for researchers and scholars outside of any academic or educational setting—what would help you pursue your interests or work? No matter who or where you are, the simple fact is this: I would love to get a sense of those things, of what brings you to the site and of what could make it even more successful as a resource for you. That question, in any and every form, is what I hope will drive my—our—work on the site as it and we move forward.
Next series next week,
Ben
PS. You know what to do! Answers to any and all those questions, now and at any moment down the road, will be greatly appreciated and very valuable.
12/17 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two unique, talented, and influential 20th century cultural and artistic figures, Arthur Fiedler and Erskine Caldwell.
And that’s it, a whole year of Memory Day nominees! See the Memory Day Calendar for the complete current roster, and please share your own nominations as Comments there!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

December 15-16, 2012: Crowd-sourced Fireside Reads

[Earlier this year, I featured a series on AmericanStudies Beach Reads. But winter calls for something different—longer, denser works with which you can settle in by the fire for the long winter’s night. So this week I’ve highlighted authors and books that fit that bill. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from other Fireside Read suggestions by fellow AmericanStudiers—share your warm and cozy nominations below, please!]
Irene Martyniuk writes, “Any Dickens. I'm no fan of Dickens, but if you must read him, a fire is good. This is the man who includes spontaneous human combustion in Bleak House and defends it. Joyce, of course. Snowbound? Try Ulysses. If not, revisit Portrait. Well worth it. Proust. Science fiction and fantasy. Escape that snow. Dune. Just Dune. Don't worry about the later 5 books. Dune will stick with you. Same for Stephen R. Donaldson. Giants and leprosy and white gold. Amazing. Martin Amis' London Fields. Hilarious and complicated. Like Amis himself, I suppose.”
Isabella Greene writes, “Margaret George's The Autobiography of Henry VIII. A huge work of historical fiction where you can totally lose yourself in the life of one of the most complicated, fascinating, and in many ways, most disturbed monarch of all time. I'm gonna have to otherwise go with my girl Margaret Atwood. Both The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake have that dark, apocalyptic density that will give you shivers even sitting by the fire.”
On Twitter, Kris Schindler nominates “anything by or about Katherine Graham.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What would you highlight for a good winter's read?
12/15 Memory Day nominee: Maxwell Anderson, for his important and influential plays, his interestingly varied collection of screenplays, and his equally talented AmericanStudier of a son.
12/16 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two very different but equally pioneering and impressive 20th century icons, Margaret Mead and Morris Dees.

Friday, December 14, 2012

December 14, 2012: Fireside Reads, Part Five

[Earlier this year, I featured a series on AmericanStudies Beach Reads. But winter calls for something different—longer, denser works with which you can settle in by the fire for the long winter’s night. So this week I’ll be highlighting authors and books that fit that bill. Add your own nominees for Fireside Reads for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post and help us all stay warm and cozy, won’t you?]
On some worthy additions to the series from outside of our borders.
This is an AmericanStudies blog, but good Fireside Reads can of course come from anywhere. So here are a handful of long, complex, and very fire-worthy novels by (for today) honorary AmericanStudiers:
1)      David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (2004)
2)      Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter (1999)
4)      Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra (1975)
5)      THIS SPACE FOR RENT! YOUR FIRESIDE READ HERE!
Sorry to yell, but it’s true—I need your nominations for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post.
Ben
PS. Do I have to ask again?
12/14 Memory Day nominee: Margaret Chase Smith, one of the 20th century’s most prominent and influential political figures and voices, and the author of one of America’s most brave and important speeches.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

December 13, 2012: Fireside Reads, Part Four

[Earlier this year, I featured a series on AmericanStudies Beach Reads. But winter calls for something different—longer, denser works with which you can settle in by the fire for the long winter’s night. So this week I’ll be highlighting authors and books that fit that bill. Add your own nominees for Fireside Reads for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post and help us all stay warm and cozy, won’t you?]
On the birthday boy who exemplifies one of the most American literary genres—and whose novels will send the best kind of winter chills down your spine.
When I was initially thinking about what to include in this blog’s purview, I went back and forth on whether to include topics that are particularly, deeply personal, authors or texts or events that have captivated my attention and interest at various moments in my life (and still do) but that aren’t necessarily quite as far-reaching in their significance as others on which I’ll focus in this space. But what I have realized, at least as of this point in my thinking, is a combination of two things: everything here is here, first and foremost, because I care deeply about it, so it’s kind of silly to try to parse out which ones I care about for which reasons; and the central reason why I care about these things enough to consider ‘em as topics isn’t just that they make me happy, but that I think they’re meaningful and powerful enough to merit our attention. Which is to say: I love the movie Willow (that’s right, I do), but I’m not going to create an entry on it. But birthday boy Ross MacDonald’s series of hardboiled PI novels? Yes, yes I will.
At one early point in my plans for a dissertation—and I do mean early; I was the kind of high school nerd who was already thinking of dissertation options—I thought about tracing the 20th century evolution of the hardboiled PI novel, from Dashiell Hammett to Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane to Ross MacDonald, and up to the female authors (Marcia Muller, Sara Paretksy, Sue Grafton) and protagonists who dominated the 80s and 90s in the genre. The character type is one of the most genuinely and meaningfully American in any artistic medium, and so we can certainly identify core elements of our national identity in each time period across those different authors—Hammett’s cynical and bitter PIs in the late 20s and early 30s shifting to Chandler’s more intellectual Phillip Marlowe in the 40s, for example. In the 50s and 60s, Spillane and MacDonald created amazingly contrasting PIs: Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an old-school hard-ass and misogynist, a creature of the masculine 50s, someone who watches a woman strip naked for him, thinks to himself that “she was a real blonde,” and then shoots her dead in cold blood a moment later; while MacDonald’s Lew Archer is a romantic idealist, an echo of the Beats and counter-cultures of these decades, someone who often articulates a cynical perspective aloud but whose narration is consistently lyrical and impassioned, sympathizing with the worst in who and what he finds in the course of his investigations and consistently seeking the best in them (including falling in love multiple times, and never once, to my knowledge, shooting one of them in cold blood).
Archer’s voice and MacDonald’s prose style are consistently pitch-perfect, and make any one of the twenty or so books in the series (which MacDonald published between 1949 and 1976, while publishing a number of other works under other names; MacDonald itself was a pseudonym for Kenneth Millar) well worth a read. But in the series’ best novels—and I think the high-water marks are The Chill (1964), The Underground Man (1971), and Sleeping Beauty (1973)—MacDonald also creates rich and layered multi-generational historical mysteries, plots that stretch back decades and involve literally dozens of characters, different families and settings and eras, and a wide range of core social and political issues. The structures of these novels are ridiculously tight and impressive and the payoffs deeply satisfying (let’s just say that The Chill in particular is very aptly named), but this historical depth makes these books a lot more than just pleasure reads; they are American sagas without question, tracing families and relationships and identities and places across much of the 20th century, considering how both one very full and compelling world (that of Southern California) and the diverse and changing nation that it in many ways encapsulates grew and decayed, lived and died, from the end of World War II to the post-Vietnam and -Watergate era.
Some of the authors with whom I was obsessed for a time I look back on and, well, I try not to look back on ‘em; I won’t name names, but one such rhymes with Dom Chancy. But every time I’ve gone back to MacDonald in the two-plus decades since my first encounters, I’ve found new aspects within these texts, new ways in which they can help me understand not only the mysteries of love and relationships and family (as can, say, Agatha Christie or Conan Doyle as well), but also of American identity; there is perhaps no character type more American than the hardboiled PI, and no PI more worth our time and attention than Lew. Final Fireside Reads tomorrow,
Ben
PS. You know what to do—nominations for Winter Reads, please!
12/13 Memory Day nominee: Ella Baker, whose mentoring and leadership inspired virtually every Civil Rights activist, and helped change the course of American and world history.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

December 12, 2012: Fireside Reads, Part Three

[Earlier this year, I featured a series on AmericanStudies Beach Reads. But winter calls for something different—longer, denser works with which you can settle in by the fire for the long winter’s night. So this week I’ll be highlighting authors and books that fit that bill. Add your own nominees for Fireside Reads for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post and help us all stay warm and cozy, won’t you?]
On my favorite American poet—and one with whom you could spend some tough but rewarding fireside hours for sure.
I’ll be the first to admit—well, my students might beat me to it, but I wouldn’t be the last to admit, anyway—that there are some works of American literature that maybe don’t need to be remembered and read widely and frequently. I’m not talking about stuff that’s just not that interesting or worth reading at all, but rather works that are just difficult or obtuse enough that I get why they aren’t part of our broad national conversations, why mostly scholars are the ones reading and discussing ‘em. Even if there’s value to working with them in the classroom—and I tend to think there is, as evidenced by the fact that I once taught a whole class on Henry James!—that doesn’t mean that they’re ever going to be on nation-wide reading lists, nor that they necessarily should be. We can’t read or even be particularly aware of everything without diffusing our attention a bit too fully in any case.
All of which is to say, part of me gets why my favorite American poet, Sarah Piatt, is also one of the least-read of all the American authors with whom I’ve worked. Much of Piatt’s work fell into the categories of children’s or courtship poetry, sweet but very forgettable pieces that paid the bills but weren’t ever destined to set the world on fire. And the more serious and meaningful stuff, well, let’s just say that it gives Emily Dickinson a run for her money—dense, demanding as hell, allusive and elusive poems, the kind of things that my students likely mean when they say “poetry” with that slight shudder (as they often do). But there are a couple of things that Piatt does phenomenally well, and the combination of the two makes her unique and extremely important in our literary history: she creates genuinely dialogic poems, works in which multiple speakers (sometimes all explicitly present, sometimes with certain voices implied) engage with each other’s perspectives and voices in complex and rich conversations; and she tackles huge, defining elements of identity, factors such as gender and class and multi-generational family relationships, without losing a bit of the nuanced and impressive humanity with which she imbues her characters and worlds.
To cite one example (available, among many of her best poems, in the excerpts at this link), “The Palace-Burner” (1877): Piatt’s speaker is a mother who is sitting with her (seemingly) young son, looking through old newspapers, when they come upon a picture depicting events from the 1871 Paris Commune (where communist revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy and, briefly, governed the city and nation). As the mother talks to her son, responding to his unintentionally insightful questions and thoughts, she moves through a range of themes and emotions, from the revolution’s overarching objectives and realities to the class status and motivations of the picture’s female palace-burner to, ultimately, her own identity as a mother, relationship to her son, and sense of the value and significance of her self and soul. In just nine four-line stanzas, we learn more about this woman and mother-son dynamic—to say nothing of the complex and already then in the process of being forgotten historical event about which they talk—than we might in novels by lesser talents. And despite the distance of over a century and the differences in gender (among others) separating me from Piatt’s speaker, the poem, like all Piatt’s best works, has also taught me a great deal about my own perspective and identity.
Piatt’s poetry doesn’t necessarily point us to a lot about American history or identity in specific ways, and of course those are central focuses of this blog and my work and career. But when it comes to doing perhaps the most significant thing literature and art can do—creating voices and identities as rich and complicated and human as our own, and so allowing, or maybe forcing, us to examine ourselves, to consider what and who we are and what we should and can be at our best—she’s way up there. Next Winter Read tomorrow,
Ben
PS. You know what to do—nominations for Winter Reads, please!
12/12 Memory Day nominee: William Lloyd Garrison, not only for his courageous abolitionism, but for his pioneering journalism and profoundly progressive vision of America and the world.