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Sunday, March 31, 2013

March 31, 2013: March 2013 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying, which in this case began March 4th after the February recap on March 2-3.]
March 4: Popular Fiction: Cultural Work: A series on popular fiction begins with Jane Tompkins, Twilight, Oprah, and the question of how and why we analyze popular art.
March 5: Popular Fiction: Christian Novels: The series continues with one of the most under-narrated yet most consistently popular genres in American literature.
March 6: Popular Fiction: Small-Town Soaps: The genre that links seemingly contrasting authors Sinclair Lewis and Grace Metalious, as the series rolls on.
March 7: Popular Fiction: Guilty Pleasures: Thinking about the popular fiction we’re ashamed to love—yet love and read nonetheless!
March 8: Popular Fiction: Paradigm Shift: The series concludes with the complex question of how and why we disparage or value best-sellers.
March 9-10: Crowd-sourced Popular Fiction: Other AmericanStudiers weigh in on the week’s posts and topics.
March 11: Supreme Contexts: Marbury and Balance: A series on key 19th century Supreme Court decisions starts with the one that established the Court’s role and power.
March 12: Supreme Courts: Georgia and Sovereignty: The series continues with the cases that illustrate both the limitations and the possibilities of how the Court can respond to national issues.
March 13: Supreme Contexts: Dred Scott and Definitions: The case that represents a low point for the Court’s social role—but the height of its defining powers.
March 14: Supreme Contexts: Santa Clara County and Revision: The case that reimagined both the role of American businesses and one of our landmark laws, as the series rolls on.
March 15: Supreme Contexts: Plessy and Activism: The historical portion of the series concludes with a case that can and perhaps should shift our sense of “judicial activism.”
March 16-17: Supreme Contexts: The Cases Before Us: My take on a few of the lessons that such historical analyses of the Court can hold for very significant contemporary cases.
March 18: Spring in America: Williams and Eliot: Snowstorms be damned, a series on spring in America starts with two distinct but perhaps parallel poetic visions of the season.
March 19: Spring in America: “Appalachian Spring”: The series continues with the composer and work that helped bring America and classical music together.
March 20: Spring in America: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”: The song that exemplifies why simple and symbolic can work just fine for social and political protest music.
March 21: Spring in America: Children’s Stories: Frog and Toad, Abdul Gasazi, and children’s stories of spring explorations, as the series rolls on.
March 22: Spring in America: The Mayflower and the Maypole: The series concludes with two very different sides to the Pilgrims/Puritans, as revealed by two spring images.
March 23-24: Crowd-sourced Spring: Responses and other spring thoughts from many fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours please!
March 25: National Big Read Recaps, Part 1: A follow up series to my roundtable on nominations for the Even Bigger Read, starting with Mary Rowlandson’s narrative.
March 26: National Big Read Recaps, Part 2: The series continues with a nomination of Letters from an American Farmer.
March 27: National Big Read Recaps, Part 3: The Day of the Locust, as the Even Bigger Read series rolls on.
March 28: National Big Read Recaps, Part 4: Why we should all read Invisible Man.
March 29: National Big Read Recaps, Part 5: James Welch’s Fool’s Crow, another nominee for a national Big Read.
March 30: National Big Read Recaps, Part 6: The series concludes with the case for Sebastian Junger’s War.
Next series starts tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Responses to any of these posts or series? Things you’d like to see on the blog? Guest post ideas? Share, please!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

March 30, 2013: National Big Read Recaps, Part 6

[This past Saturday, I chaired my NeMLA Roundtable on a National Big Read. Each of the six participants shared interesting and provocative perspectives on his or her chosen book or author, and so I wanted to follow up those presentations with some further thoughts. Not least so you can add your take on these and other books and authors that all Americans could read at the same time!]
The nominee that takes us there—and back again.
The roundtable’s sixth and final presenter, my Fitchburg State University colleague Irene Martyniuk, nominated Sebastian Junger’s War. Compared to any of the other five nominees, Junger’s book—a very recent bestseller, and the inspiration for an Academy Award-nominated documentary to boot—might seem the least in need of broader exposure. But Irene made a compelling case that we can and should engage much more fully with War and its subjects, on a number of different levels.
For one thing, as Irene noted, you could say the same two things of the war in Afghanistan that I just did about Junger’s book: that it’s been prominently featured in our collective consciousness for a good while now; yet that we somehow manage much of the time not to engage with it nearly enough. Junger’s book, quite simply, takes us there. For another thing, as Irene argued with particular force, tens of millions of American lives have been directly impacted by that war, and will continue to be for many decades to come—and Junger’s book brings the war home with its soldiers, and forces us to better recognize and engage with this sizeable and evolving American community.
There’s at least one more significant, and perhaps even more complicated, place to which Junger’s book takes us, though: to the defining role that war has, in our contemporary moment, in our enduring national identity, and, perhaps, in our human consciousness.  As Irene put it, a hard but seemingly clear truth, and one from which Junger does not flinch, is that we are drawn to war, that it speaks to us somehow. I’m not claiming that’s true for all individuals, as that’d be a serious injustice to some of the best individuals I know. But collectively? We’ve got a deadly serious obsession with war, I’d say—and Junger’s book can help us admit that we’ve got a problem.
March recap tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So last chance for now: thoughts on this nomination? Other nominees for an Even Bigger Read?

Friday, March 29, 2013

March 29, 2013: National Big Read Recaps, Part 5

[This past Saturday, I chaired my NeMLA Roundtable on a National Big Read. Each of the six participants shared interesting and provocative perspectives on his or her chosen book or author, and so I wanted to follow up those presentations with some further thoughts. Not least so you can add your take on these and other books and authors that all Americans could read at the same time!]
The nominee that disorients, devastates, and entirely delivers.
The roundtable’s fifth presenter, Jim Donahue of SUNY Potsdam, nominated James Welch’s Fool’s Crow. If Invisible Man is a famous American novel that (I believe) few Americans have actually read, Fool’s Crow is an almost criminally unknown novel that, Jim compellingly argued, we should all read. For one thing, Jim reminded us, the novel dramatizes the events surrounding one of the most under-remembered (including, I’m ashamed to admit, by me) crucial American events: the 1870 Marias River Massacre. But even beyond such vital historical contexts, Fool’s Crow’s unique form produces two distinct and equally important effects on its readers.
I’ve written in this space about Karl Jacoby’s amazing Shadows at Dawn, and specifically about Jacoby’s multi-vocal and –perspectival structure. Welch’s novel is similarly structured, moving through sections focalized entirely through the voice, perspective, and worldview of both Blackfoot and European American characters. Yet while Jacoby’s work of nonfiction has its historian “narrator” to guide readers through those sections, Welch throws us into each perspective with no guidance—leaving non-English words untranslated, introducing specific and uncontextualized place and character names, and so on. For non-native (perhaps even non-Blackfoot) readers, the effect is profoundly disorienting, forcing us to do what Jim called the “cognitive work” of trying to understand this distinct perspective.
So on the one hand, to echo the end of yesterday’s post, Welch’s novel would fall squarely onto the “challenging” end of the spectrum. Yet on the other, as Jim argued and as I would agree, Fool’s Crow is one of the most beautifully written novels of the last few decades (and then some). And when it comes to considering works for a National Big Read, it’s difficult to overstate how important such aesthetic power could be—after all, if we want to introduce Americans to historical significance and cultural diversity we could give them Jacoby’s book (and that’d be great); but if we want to demonstrate the value and pleasure of reading itself, what it can do to us, I don’t know of any books that would hit us more than Fool’s Crow.
Final nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this nomination? Other nominees for an Even Bigger Read?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

March 28, 2013: National Big Read Recaps, Part 4

[This past Saturday, I chaired my NeMLA Roundtable on a National Big Read. Each of the six participants shared interesting and provocative perspectives on his or her chosen book or author, and so I wanted to follow up those presentations with some further thoughts. Not least so you can add your take on these and other books and authors that all Americans could read at the same time!]
The nominee that would bring greater visibility to profoundly American histories and identities.
The roundtable’s fourth presenter, Kelley Wagers of Penn State Worthington Scranton, nominated Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I don’t imagine I need to say much to introduce Ellison’s novel, which it’s fair to say is one of the most acclaimed and famous works of 20th century American literature. But of course acclaim and fame don’t necessarily equate to actual awareness and engagement, and Kelley made a compelling case for how a broad national reading of Ellison’s novel would bring greater visibility to some American stories that deserve and need it.
Kelley focused on two distinct but interconnected such stories: the histories with which the novel engages; and the identity to which its narrator connects. On the former, Invisible Man has often been described as its title character’s metaphorical journey through many of the complex and crucial stages of African American history, and Kelley argued not only for the broad relevance of such histories, but for how the novel thus engages with the balance between individual and national histories to which we all connect. And on the latter, she noted that the African American men represented at length in existing Big Read selections are almost all accused criminals, making Ellison’s protagonist’s far different experiences and identity that much more worth our attention.
I would agree with both of those emphases of Kelley’s, and would extend the latter point even further. In the panel’s discussion portion we talked a lot about the balance between accessibility and difficulty, between works that engage and works that challenge, and I can see good arguments on both ends of the spectrum for sure. But if we compare The Invisible Man to (for example) Mark Twain’s Jim or Harper Lee’s Tom Robinson, there’s one way in which I would definitely argue for Ellison’s character: his final line, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?,” challenges all Americans to consider what connects us, not just as members of a national fabric but as individuals with a great deal of (often invisible) common threads. Invisible Man might help us see the pattern.
Next nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this nomination? Other nominees for an Even Bigger Read?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

March 27, 2013: National Big Read Recaps, Part 3

[This past Saturday, I chaired my NeMLA Roundtable on a National Big Read. Each of the six participants shared interesting and provocative perspectives on his or her chosen book or author, and so I wanted to follow up those presentations with some further thoughts. Not least so you can add your take on these and other books and authors that all Americans could read at the same time!]
The nominee that speaks to much of our contemporary moment—and a broad American audience.
The roundtable’s third presenter, Jeff Renye of Temple and La Salle Universities, nominated Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. West’s tragically brief career produced (among a few other works) two particularly unique and striking novels, Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts; both have plenty to recommend them and deserve more of a place in our collective consciousness, but Jeff argued convincingly for a couple particularly significant and salient components to Locust.
For one thing, Locust remains, more than 70 years after its publication, perhaps the best and certainly one of the most complex and challenging representations of that defining American cultural presence and influence, Hollywood. West takes seriously the attractive as well as the destructive qualities to that place of dreams, and his depiction of it has yet to be surpassed. Yet as Jeff noted, West is fully aware of the even bigger dream—the American Dream—to which Hollywood, journeying to the West, and many other concurrent narratives can be connected, and there are likewise few novels that deal with the dark underbelly of the Dream (sometimes called the American Nightmare) better than Locust.
Jeff also discussed at length some of the more practical questions that underlie my Even Bigger Read concept, however, and so I want to make sure to mention that part of his presentation as well. To paraphrase his point: it’s all well and good for interested academic scholars to talk about what books we’d like everyone to read, but it’s quite another matter to think actively about how we connect to our fellow Americans, particularly those for whom reading—and even literacy—is far more of a complicated challenge than a job requirement. At the very least, we need to think about books that will speak to broad American audiences—and Jeff made a great case that West’s novel can and would do so.
Next nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this nomination? Other nominees for an Even Bigger Read?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

March 26, 2013: National Big Read Recaps, Part 2

[This past Saturday, I chaired my NeMLA Roundtable on a National Big Read. Each of the six participants shared interesting and provocative perspectives on his or her chosen book or author, and so I wanted to follow up those presentations with some further thoughts. Not least so you can add your take on these and other books and authors that all Americans could read at the same time!]
The nominee that raises, and embodies, some defining national questions.
The roundtable’s second presenter, Diana Polley of Southern New Hampshire University, nominated J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer. As Diana noted, Crèvecoeur’s book, which while generally treated as non-fiction could also be described (as she nicely put it) as the first American novel, represents in any case one of the first post-Revolutionary attempts to address—and still to date one of the most extended and explicit engagements with—the evolving and crucial question of what “American” means and entails.
Diana did a great job making the case for why it is precisely Crèvecoeur’s emphasis on questions, rather than any particular answer (of his or of ours in analyzing his work), that makes his book one all Americans should read. For one thing, those questions allow him to consider virtually every significant issue of the era (most of which remain salient today); for another, his opening question, “What then is the American, this new man?” is just as open and potent in 2013 as it was in 1782; and for yet another, thinking of American identity as a series of questions highlights as well the fraught, contested, and potentially mythic nature of our national community.
Diana likewise mentioned how much Crèvecoeur’s own life and identity highlight such American questions, and I wanted to drive home that level to the book’s appeal. As she noted, it’s possible to describe Crèvecoeur as largely foreign to America—he was born and died in France, and by the time he published the book he was living in London. But if do categorize him as an international visitor to the U.S., we’d have to do the same for one of the Revolution’s most influential voices: Thomas Paine, who was born in England and spent his final years in France. Which is to say, Revolutionary America wasn’t just international because of Lafayette, and transnational AmericanStudies goes as far back as America does. Crèvecoeur can help us think about all of that.
Next nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this nomination? Other nominees for an Even Bigger Read?

Monday, March 25, 2013

March 25, 2013: National Big Read Recaps, Part 1

[This past Saturday, I chaired my NeMLA Roundtable on a National Big Read. Each of the six participants shared interesting and provocative perspectives on his or her chosen book or author, and so I wanted to follow up those presentations with some quick further thoughts. Not least so you can add your take on these and other books and authors that all Americans could read at the same time!]
The nominee that would help us think about some of the worst and best of where we started.
The roundtable’s first presenter, Frank Hillson of the University of Delaware, nominated Mary Rowlandson’s personal narrative (originally titled The Sovereignty and Goodness of God). As Frank noted, the book was perhaps America’s first best-seller, returned in full force in the Revolutionary moment and has been in print ever sense, and helped originate one of the nation’s (and perhaps world’s) most defining and persistent literary genres, the captivity narrative.
Frank focused in his talk (I was a harsh taskmaster and limited each speaker to about 8 minutes, and I know each has plenty more to say of course) on one of the captivity narrative’s principal features, the creation of a savage “other” against whom the captive must struggle; as he noted, reading Rowlandson thus introduces us to some of the ways in which European Americans have consistently created and defined themselves against such cultural “others” since the first post-contact decades. Certainly that’d be a vital takeaway for all American readers.
Yet there would be more inspiring potential lessons as well, takeaways that Frank likewise mentioned but one of which I wanted to reiterate here (and that I also discussed in this earlier post). Despite her originating and to some degree overarching emphases on cultural division and hostility, Rowlandson cannot help but document the many cross-cultural kindnesses and, to my mind even more importantly, social and economic relationships that develop between her and many of the Wampanoags. While early (and general) American history did not go in those unifying and inspiring directions nearly frequently enough, they were nonetheless part of our originating moments and community—and ones that we would do well to remember. Rowlandson can help us do that too.
Next nominee tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this nomination? Other nominees for an Even Bigger Read?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

March 23-24, 2013: Crowd-sourced Spring

[As spring gets ready to spring, this week’s series has focused on the season in American culture. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and spring connections of fellow AmericanStudiers. Add your bloomin’ thoughts, please!]
Jeff Renye follows up Monday’s post, writing, “In his essay ‘Uncle Tom's Shantih,’ which can be found in the collection Melodies Unheard: Essays on the Mysteries of Poetry (2003), the American poet Anthony Hecht focuses on the first 18 lines of The Waste Land. Through a contextualization of those first lines, Hecht's excellent close-reading shows how important Eliot's allusions are to an introduction and set up of the themes of exploitation, sexual and otherwise, that play out in many other parts of the poem before those repeated words of hope that are uttered in the poem's final line.”
Steve Railton highlights another great spring poem, Emily Dickinson’s “A little Madness in the Spring.”
On Twitter, Daniel Cavicchi writes, “I reflect on this poem annually at the start of April.”
Irene Martyniuk responds to Tuesday’s post, writing, “So not American but so wonderfully Modernist and a piece of music I and others still enjoy--Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. It was, of course, created as a ballet for the 1913 Paris season of the Ballets Russes under Diaghilev and choreographed by Nijinsky. Even better, there were riots on the opening night because the style was so different. I think I like the music because it is based on pagan Slavic folk songs, which played in my house a lot growing up. Anyway, the collaboration here is so fabulously Modernist that it hurts.”
Virginia Clemm Poe follows up Wednesday’s post, writing, “While this is not as thoughtful as the songs of protest, the images of spring are just as beautiful in Big Fish. Burton tied the flashbacks of the father's youth (and the eventual future of the son's acceptance of the folkloric tradition) in the spring. This made the entire film (having never read the book) feel youthful, resilient and visually appealing. Specifically the proposal scene with the glowing daffodils. Which I have to keep running in my head with the never-ending supply of snow... at least it will grow daffodils all over my front yard!”
Monica Jackson follows up Thursday’s post, writing, “Frog and Toad....I've never read them, but for some reason they remind me of characters from The Wind in the Willows. I lived in England as a kid and loved those stories, mainly because my school always took us on field trips to watch plays and that was one of them.”
And Rob Gosselin adds that “All children have a special relationship with fiction. They take it to heart at a depth that some people grow out of. Grown-ups who keep the magic eventually become English majors. Or writers. … The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Mr. Pine's Purple House by Leonard P. Kessler. These were two of my favorites.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Friday, March 22, 2013

March 22, 2013: Spring in America: The Mayflower and the Maypole

[As spring gets ready to spring, a series on the season in American culture. Add your vernal associations and responses for a blooming weekend post!]

On two contrasting images and narratives of spring for America’s earliest English arrivals.
Sylvia Plath’s sonnet ”Mayflower,” another Plath poem that should be more widely known than it is, captures quite eloquently, through an extended metaphor connecting the ship to an actual flowering plant, the quality I most admire in the Pilgrims: their perseverance, in the face of some of the most daunting circumstances (including but in no way limited to Cape Cod in December!) to have faced any fledgling American community. As Plath indicates, their faith (particularly in the concept of Providence) provided one critical element to that perseverance; as I’ve written elsewhere in this space, Tisquantum (or Squanto) provided another. But in any case, I agree wholeheartedly with Plath that, like the may flower after which they named their ship, the Pilgrims embodied “how best beauty’s born of hardihood.”
 
That flower, as Plath envisions it at least, was the bud of the hawthorn plant—and, not quite coincidentally, it is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne (who was throughout his life and career hugely interested in his Puritan ancestors) which provides our clearest illustration of a very different side to May for that fledgling New England community. As fictionalized in Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” (1836)—and as documented in William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation—one of the earliest splinter groups from the Puritan communities was that led by Thomas Morton, the man who came to be known as “the pagan Pilgrim” for his embrace of a far livelier and more celebratory set of practices. Those celebrations were exemplified by the May-Pole that Morton and his followers erected in their town of Merry-Mount (Mt. Wollaston), and it was perhaps the appropriation of this be-flowered “pagan” symbol that led to the full condemnations of Morton and his community by Bradford and his fellow orthodox Puritans.
 
So two images of spring: as a beautiful, hard-earned reward for enduring the winter; or as a time of excess and luxury, of plenty and its resulting vices. And two corresponding images of the Puritans: as a persistent and hardy community, blossoming into American fullness after making it through their first and hardest winter; or as an overly dour and intolerant bunch, suspicious of any deviation from their norms and most especially of anyone, anywhere, having a good time. The truth? As so often on this blog, all of the above, or more exactly a combination of them all that hopefully leads us toward something more and different and stronger. Spring, like any season and experience, can indeed bring out the worst in us (whether we see that worst as carnival or condemnation); but it can also allow us to wonder at the best, of who we are and of the world we live in. There’s value, I believe, in engaging with each and all of those sides.
 
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
 
PS. So how would you engage with the season? Thoughts on this or any of the week’s posts? Other takes on spring in America?
 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

March 21, 2013: Spring in America: Children’s Stories

[As spring gets ready to spring, a series on the season in American culture. Add your vernal associations and responses for a blooming weekend post!]
On two pioneering children’s classics that capture very different sides to the challenges that a new season can present.
In “Spring,” the opening story in Arnold Lobel’s award-winning first book about his most iconic characters, Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970), Frog arrives at Toad’s house to announce the arrival of the new season, only to find his best friend unwilling to emerge from his long winter’s nap. The story very nicely introduces the two characters’ personalities and relationship: Frog more optimistic and hopeful, pushing Toad in new directions; Toad more pessimistic and worried, reining in Frog’s occasional excesses. Yet, like all of Lobel’s deceptively simple (there’s that phrase again) Frog and Toad stories, it also illustrates a universal and important emotional lesson for young readers: the ease of resisting change or staying in our comfortable homes and routines (when we’re lucky enough to have them), and yet the importance of pushing past that to find the wonders of the ever-changing world outside our door.
In The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979), the award-winning first book by iconic author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, young Alan is led by a naughty dog named Fritz (for whom he’s pet-sitting) into the mysterious, enchanted, and possibly dangerous titular garden.  The book features all the main elements that have distinguished Van Allsburg’s works and career ever since: stunning, (usually) black and white illustrations; an undertone of the supernatural, as experienced by seemingly ordinary young people; an interesting final twist to add another layer to the book and its effects. Yet, despite not explicitly identifying its seasonal setting, I would argue that Garden highlights subtly but significantly themes that complement yet contrast with Lobel’s arguments for experiencing spring: Alan, a cautious and proper young man content to stay at home, is led into his garden adventure against his will; and while both he and Fritz escape the titular enchanter (more or less; I won’t spoil the final twist!), there’s nothing to indicate that Alan is particularly happy to have had the experience.
It might seem like a truism to note that the world in general, and every new season in particular, is indeed both of these things: a wonder to be explored (even if we have to shake off our rest to do so), and yet a source of potential dangers (many of which we won’t see coming until we’re dragged into them). But one of the achievements of great children’s books is to present such truisms in original and compelling ways, and thus to introduce them to our earliest audiences. Moreover, the very best children’s books speak to the adults reading them at the same time that they’re speaking to those young audiences; I would argue that one of the central dualities of parenting is how much we want our children to explore and experience the world, yet also how terrified we are of all the dangers that world will throw at them, making this pair of books and images of spring very resonant for this Dad as well.
Final spring connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these or other children’s books? Other images of spring you’d highlight?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

March 20, 2013: Spring in America: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

[As spring gets ready to spring, a series on the season in American culture. Add your vernal associations and responses for a blooming weekend post!]
On the simple and vital song that captures the essence of political music.
As I tried to make clear in one of my very first posts, on Public Enemy and N.W.A., I don’t have anything against overt and aggressive political, protest music; quite the opposite, some of my favorite American songs, from the ones referenced in that post to many by Springsteen and Steve Earle (among other songwriters), fit that bill quite directly. And I certainly have moments where nothing other than a Rage Against the Machine song seems to capture my AmericanStudier’s perspective on our politics, society, or culture. Yet at the same time, I would argue that the most effective political or protest songs are often far more simple and subtle, weaving their melodies and meanings into our consciousness in a quiet and compelling way; that’s how I’d describe Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” for example (my nominee for a new national anthem!).
Guthrie’s song might be the most exemplary such simple political song, but it’s got some serious competition from Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”  Inspired by some lines in a Russian novel, based on a melody from a different Russian folk song, and expanded through a series of additions (both by Seeger and other songwriters) in the decade after its initial appearance, Seeger’s song certainly has had a complicated history and evolving American presence. But at its core is an even more simple use of structure, repetition, and imagery than in Guthrie’s song—yet “deceptively simple” is probably a better phrase, because by the end of its third verse (Seeger originally wrote only the first three, although again they have been expanded since) the song has tied together allusions to environmental destruction, fleeting and lost youth, marriage and its effects on women, and the consequences of war, among the many complex and sweeping themes to which we might connect its seemingly straightforward lines and phrases.
But what about spring, you might ask? (If you care as much about the continuity of these weekly series as I do, which, I know, is asking a lot!) The song’s title and first verse might of course suggest the seasonal opposite, the shift toward fall that brings with it the close of each year’s most abundant flowering. Yet I would disagree, and would instead analyze the first verse as a statement about (in part) the worst kind of human response to the natural wonder that is spring’s annual rebirth. That is, those symbolic “girls” who have “picked every one” of the flowers represent to my mind the way in which we can come to take such natural wonders—and ultimately, of course, the environment and planet on which they occur—for granted, as simply more material of which we can take advantage for our own beauty and happiness. Would it be possible for us to appreciate and enjoy the flowers without picking them? Just as possible, Seeger might argue, as it would be to stop sending young men (and now women) to die in wars—which means incredibly difficult, yet worth aiming for. Sounds like a political anthem to me.
Next spring connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on Seeger or political music? Other images of spring you’d highlight?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

March 19, 2013: Spring in America: “Appalachian Spring”

[As spring gets ready to spring, a series on the season in American culture. Add your vernal associations and responses for a blooming weekend post!]
On the composer and work that helped bring classical to America, and vice versa.
I’m no music historian, yet I would argue that many, indeed most, of the last century’s dominant genres of popular music originated in America: the blues, jazz, rock and roll, country, rap, hip hop, all would seem to have had distinctly American origins. By the same token, however, it’s inarguable that when it comes to one of the most longstanding world musical traditions, classical music (or orchestral music, to make clear that the tradition has continued into our contemporary moment just as much as those other genres), America’s historical role has been far more insignificant. For example, the 19th century saw such classical masters as Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Dvorák, and Mendelssohn, among many others; yet in America during roughly the same period, it’s fair to say (again, says the non-music-historian) that the only composer to achieve any sort of international prominence would be John Philip Sousa—and his marches were of course themselves not exactly classical symphonies.
By the mid-20th century, many of the aforementioned popular genres had begun to emerge in earnest, and with them many significant American composers and musicians. Yet the same decades witnessed the rise of (to my mind) America’s greatest classical composer, one deeply indebted to contemporary American genres such as jazz yet also able to stand toe to toe with any international peer: Aaron Copland. Copland’s earliest (1920s) compositions reflected both sides to those influences, with more classical pieces such as “Symphony for Organ and Orchestra” (1924) complemented by jazz-inflected ones like “Music for the Theater” (1925). His more mature and famous compositions carried forward both trends, as evidenced by two pieces from 1942: the classical (“Fanfare for the Common Man”) and the American (“A Lincoln Portrait”). But perhaps no single piece, of Copland’s or of any other composer’s, better weds the classical to the American than “Appalachian Spring” (1944).
Copland composed the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Appalachian Spring” for Martha Graham’s ballet of the same name, but of course the music has endured in our popular consciousness more fully than the ballet. There are various possible reasons for that persistence, but I would argue it’s most centrally due to just how successfully Copland balances American folk motifs (such as the traditional Shaker song “Simple Gifts” on which he apparently based one of his central melodies) with classical traditions. The truth, of course, is that every nation’s version of a “classical tradition” is due precisely to a combination of unique, local influences with overarching tropes and elements—as brought together and taken to another level by the kinds of musical masters I cited above. That isn’t to downplay the legacies of the world’s greatest composers, but to note, instead, how fully Copland stands among those greats, and how thoroughly he brought America with him into the classical conversation. An uncommon man, and piece, indeed.
Next spring connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on Copland or music in America? Other images of spring you’d highlight?

Monday, March 18, 2013

March 18, 2013: Spring in America: Williams and Eliot

[As spring gets ready to spring, a series on the season in American culture. Add your vernal associations and responses for a blooming weekend post!]
On the two modernist poems that exemplify alternative, contrasting, yet ultimately complementary narratives of hope.
When it comes to literary images of spring, the first work that (pardon me) springs to mind is William Carlos Williams’ poem “Spring and All” (1923). Created at least in part in response to Williams’ work as a doctor (hence the “contagious hospital” in the opening line), and more exactly his experiences dealing with at-risk young patients whose very existence and future were in doubt, the poem transcends any specific contexts to become both a realistic and yet an idealistic depiction of spring itself: of what it means for new life to make its struggling, haphazard, threatened, perennial, inspiring journey to the surface of a world that had been cold and lifeless (in terms of blooming things, anyway) only days before. Making the best use of an unpunctuated last line since Emily Dickinson, Williams’ closing line captures perfectly the precise moment of “awaken[ing],” as both an uncertain transition to whatever comes next yet also a miraculous achievement in its own right.
Williams at times consciously positioned himself and his poetry in contrast to high modernist contemporaries such as T.S. Eliot, and it’s difficult to imagine a more direct contrast to “Spring and All” than the opening lines of Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). “April is the cruelest month,” Eliot’s poem begins, and in case the reader thinks he’s upset about Tax Day or something, the speaker goes on to make clear that it is precisely spring’s rebirths to which he refers: “Breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain. / Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow, feeding / A little life with dried tubers.” Where Williams’ poem focuses on the season’s partial and uncertain but still powerful moves toward a future, Eliot’s thus looks back at a past, one that would be better left buried yet that is instead brought back with every new blossom. And where Williams creates images of awakening new life, of spring as birth, Eliot portrays the season as a painful re-awakening, back into identities already (it seems) too much in the world.
Those contrasts are genuine, and again reflect more overarching distinctions between these two poets as well. Yet I think in at least one significant way the two poems (particularly when we take all of Eliot’s into consideration, not just his opening line) complement rather than contrast each other. After all, one clear way to describe the modernist literary project is as an attempt to represent life in the aftermath of disaster, destruction, death, doubt, all those characteristics so amplified within a post-WWI world. To that end, we can see both poems’ speakers as struggling with that question, and trying to imagine whether and how new life and possibilities can or should emerge into such an inhospitable world (whether represented through a contagious hospital or a barren wasteland). The poems do differ greatly in tone, but it’s possible to argue that the very act of writing is in both cases a hopeful one, a pushing through the wintry ground into some evolving new form. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” Eliot writes in his poem’s final lines—and what is spring (he said at the tail end of a New England winter) but a fragmentary yet inspiring annual rebirth of a ruined world?
Next spring connection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on these poems? Other images of spring you’d highlight?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

March 16-17, 2013: Supreme Contexts: The Cases Before Us

[Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear its next two landmark cases, these related to the issue of same-sex marriage. So this week I’ve highlighted five significant 19th century SC decisions, and more exactly analyzed one key contextual frame for each. That has lead up to this special post on the upcoming decisions. Add your judicious thoughts and takes in the comments, please!]
Three thoughts on how a historical perspective on the Supreme Court can help us consider the possible outcomes of these significant cases.
I’m no legal expert, and I’ll leave the analyses and speculation on that front to those who are. So these are three AmericanStudies takes on the Court and its historical precedents:
1)      Always Political, But Worse than Ever: It’s impossible to examine the kinds of cases I did this week and argue that the Court has ever been divorced from politics, from relationships to presidents and Congress, to contemporary national debates, and so on. Yet at the same time, I stand by what I wrote in this post: that the last decade or so has seen a significant uptick in the Court’s overt political roles, stances, voices, and so on. Justice Scalia’s recent reliance on talk radio talking points in commentary on the ACA and the Voting Rights Act would be exhibit A in that brief. Makes it hard to argue that politics won’t play a role in these gay rights cases.
2)      Yet Can Rise Above It: I suppose you could make the case that even the Court’s most inspiring decisions—such as against Indian Removal in Worcester v. Georgia, or against segregation in Brown—were motivated in part by political concerns: an opposition to Andrew Jackson in the former, for example. But I’m not willing to be that cynical. At times, the Court has to my mind transcended political or social debates and found the more ideal and powerful side to the law, and particularly to what it offers all Americans. Those are two examples, and perhaps these gay rights cases will be another.
3)      They’ve Got the Power: The Court doesn’t get the final say on anything, and especially not on huge and evolving issues like same-sex marriage. The arc of the universe will keep bending in any case, and, I believe, will indeed bend toward justice. But a case like Dred Scott illustrates the Court’s genuine power to shape current events, for good or for ill. Would an anti-slavery decision in Dred have staved off the Civil War? Most likely not—but at least it would have given abolitionism national momentum and support, instead of reinforcing its seemingly radical and revolutionary nature in those pre-war years. Would a ruling against same-sex marriage rights be akin to a 21st century Dred? Not sure, but let’s hope we get instead another Brown.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What’s your take on these cases? Or on the Supreme Court in American history, identity, and society overall?

PPS. Speaking of significant cases, and to follow up a post of mine from last year, an Arizona judge has recently (and damn frustratingly) upheld the state's Ethnic Studies ban. Sigh. La lucha continua!

Friday, March 15, 2013

March 15, 2013: Supreme Contexts: Plessy and Activism

[Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear its next two landmark cases, these related to the issue of same-sex marriage. So this week I’ll be highlighting five significant 19th century SC decisions, and more exactly analyzing one key contextual frame for each. That’ll lead up to a special weekend post on the upcoming decisions. Add your judicious thoughts and takes in the comments, please!]
On the obvious reading of another of the Court’s worst decisions—and the arguments for seeing it in precisely the opposite way.
We’ve heard a lot in recent years, mostly in the context of the issue on which those upcoming Court cases will focus (same-sex marriage), about “activist judges” and “judicial activism.” Much of the time I find myself agreeing with those who have sarcastically noted that the phrases seem to mean “judges or courts that interpret and apply the law differently than I would.” But on the other hand, it is fair to note that there have been throughout American legal history moments that might objectively qualify for those categorizations, circumstances when, for example, the Supreme Court has broken with precedent and ruled based on social changes or the like; Brown v. Board of Education (1954) could be seen as such an instance. Whether we agree or disagree with the resulting rulings (and of course I do in the case of Brown), I can see how they could thus be defined as moments of “judicial activism.”
With that definition in mind, the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) would seem to be the exact opposite of judicial activism; judicial conservatism, perhaps. After all, the Court’s reification of Jim Crow segregation in Plessy seemed to represent simply a judicial rubber-stamping of decades of accumulating discriminatory laws, including the Dred Scott decision about which I wrote two days ago as well as the numerous Black Codes and other racist and segregating laws created in the Reconstruction era and its aftermath. Such segregation had become, by the late 19th century, not only the law of the land throughout the South but also quite common (if less consistently enshrined in specific laws) across the nation. And so it could be argued that if the Court had ruled against segregation (or at least the specific segregated railway cars that were the case’s focus), it would have been seeking to redirect dominant social and cultural trends in precisely the way implied by the phrase “judicial activism.”
Yet it’s just as possible, if not in fact more accurate, to call Plessy a more genuine and troubling kind of judicial activism. After all, whatever laws had been passed by state legislatures in the throes of white supremacist demogoguery, racial segregation seems clearly opposed to the 14th Amendment and its guarantees of equal protection under the law for all American citizens (among many other details and aspects of the nation’s founding documents and ideas with which such segregation does not comport). For any court, and most especially the Supreme Court, to supercede such fundamental legal and civic ideas—cloaked in the “separate but equal” nonsense that fooled no one at the time, nor since—represents a particularly egregious kind of judicial activism, one that weds our most august legal body to the worst impulses of an era and American history. What could be more activist, that is, than converting the Supreme Court into an enforcer of racism?
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

March 14, 2013: Supreme Contexts: Santa Clara County and Revision

[Later this month, the Supreme Court will hear its next two landmark cases, these related to the issue of same-sex marriage. So this week I’ll be highlighting five significant 19th century SC decisions, and more exactly analyzing one key contextual frame for each. That’ll lead up to a special weekend post on the upcoming decisions. Add your judicious thoughts and takes in the comments, please!]
On the seemingly offhand sentences through which the Supreme Court radically revised American law, history, and community.
In the spring 1886, the Supreme Court heard a trio of cases related to California’s taxation of railroad corporations and properties, cases collectively entitled Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886). The cases’ specifics hinged on small and (to this AmericanStudier) relatively uninteresting questions of (for example) whether fences adjoining railroad tracks were considered part of those tracks for purposes of land categorization and taxation, and the Court’s decision, written by Justice John Marshall Harlan, similarly focused on those small (if, of course, significant to the affected parties) questions. But it was in a “headnote” to that decision, transcribed by a court reporter and attributed to Chief Justice Morrison Waite, that the Court went far beyond those specific questions and helped change the course of American law and society.
In that headnote, Waite stated, “The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does.” The note was not part of the Court’s official decision, but the reporter (J.C. Bancroft Davis, a former railroad company president) included it immediately preceding the decision in his transcription for the official Court record. He did so, it’s worth adding, only after writing to Waite to inquire whether it did indeed represent the Court’s collective perspective; Waite responded that it did, and the sentences became part of the decision’s text and permanent identity from then on. Such a headnote would have no legal standing or precedent—yet nonetheless, by all accounts and all available evidence this informal opinion, that corporations were the equivalent of people under the 14th Amendment’s “equal protection” clause, became far more impactful than anything in the decision’s formal text.
Santa Clara thus represented a watershed moment in the evolving narrative of “corporate personhood,” one that saw its latest statement during the 2012 presidential primaries, in Mitt Romney’s oft-quoted remark at the Iowa State Fair that “corporations are people, my friend.” Yet I would also argue that Waite’s headnote illustrates another of the Court’s striking powers, one perhaps not part of its original Constitutional mandate but certainly part of how the Court’s role has evolved over the centuries since: the power to revise, to change our national understanding of key issues and questions. It did so here not only in the 14th Amendment’s language (which focused entirely on “persons” and “citizens”) but also, if far more subtly, on its contexts. The Amendment, after all, was drafted first and foremost to ensure full citizenship and equal protection for freed and former slaves—for persons, that is, who had suffered at the hands of one of America’s most sweeping capitalist and, dare I say it, corporate entities, the slave system. To read that Amendment’s effects to include protection for corporations was thus, to my mind, a stunning revision.
Next landmark case tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?