MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Saturday, June 29, 2013

June 29-30, 2013: June 2013 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
June 3: Summer Blockbusters: Star Wars: A series on AmericanStudying summer blockbusters starts with a cross-cultural force.
June 4: Summer Blockbusters: Jaws: The series continues with the layers of American communities at the heart of one of the first summer blockbusters.
June 5: Summer Blockbusters: ID4: The blockbuster that embodies the worst, and perhaps also the best, of America, as the series rolls on.
June 6: Summer Blockbusters: Pearl Harbor: The uses and abuses of history in Michael Bay’s most serious blockbuster.
June 7: Summer Blockbusters: The Patriot: The series concludes with a look at the monstrous flaw in Mel Gibson’s patriotic blockbuster.
June 8-9: A Crowd-sourced Blockbuster: The responses and nominations of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours, please!
June 10: AmericanStudier Blogroll: Teaching Blogs: A series of blog recommendations begins with three great pedagogical blogs.
June 11: AmericanStudier Blogroll: Lit and Culture Blogs: The series continues with three great blogs that examine American literature and popular culture.
June 12: AmericanStudier Blogroll: History Blogs: Three great blogs dedicated to the layers and complexities of American history, as the series rolls on.
June 13: AmericanStudier Blogroll: American Identity Blogs: Three great blogs that analyze individual, collective, and national identity in America.
June 14: AmericanStudier Blogroll: Blogger, Examine Thyself: The series concludes with a few thoughts on my own blog and blogging at the 2.5 year mark.
June 15-16: Crowd-sourced Blogroll: Blog recommendations from fellow AmericanStudiers—add your favorites (or your own blog), please!
June 17: American Swims: Gatsby’s Pool: A summertime series begins with an ambiguous symbol from one of our great literary works.
June 18: American Swims: Weissmuller and Phelps: The series continues with the distinct and telling arcs of two famous American swimmers.
June 19: American Swims: Edna and the Ocean: How we read two complex swimming scenes and what that reveals about us, as the series paddles on.
June 20: American Swims: Race at the Pool: One of the most common and insidious sites of American segregation and discrimination.
June 21: American Swims: Cheever’s Swimmer: The series concludes with a pitch-perfect summertime story from one of our literary greats.
June 22-23: Crowd-sourced Summer: Responses, American swims, and other summertime thoughts from fellow AmericanStudiers—share some of your own!
June 24: Book Release Reflections, Part One: A series in honor of my newly released third book begins with a post on a crucial challenge of public scholarship.
June 25: Book Release Reflections, Part Two: The series continues with three spaces where my book’s ideas incubated.
June 26: Book Release Reflections, Part Three: The things I knew would be in my book and the things I discovered along the way, as the series rolls on.
June 27: Book Release Reflections, Part Four: On a new way I’m trying to get my book, ideas, and voice into our conversations.
June 28: Book Release Reflections, Part Five: The series concludes with three life lessons I learned along the way.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics you’d like to see addressed in this space? Ideas for guest posts?

Friday, June 28, 2013

June 28, 2013: Book Release Reflections, Part Five

[My newest book, The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us About America, was released last Friday (check out that low low Kindle price!). So for this week’s series, I’ll be thinking about some different aspects of the book’s process, goals, and meanings. Would love to hear your thoughts—and if you’re interested in the book but can’t buy it, email me and I’ll send you a copy!]
On three life lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1)      Be Open: When my editor at Palgrave wrote to ask me if I had any proposals that might fit the new Pivot series, my instinct was to say no; I was already working on a book that’s too long for the series, and, as always, had too many other balls in the air as well. But luckily I took a step back and realized how fortunate I was to be asked, and thought about ideas that might work for Pivot books. The rest is, well, present.
2)      Be Realistic: My original hope was to finish the manuscript in time for submission for the first run of Pivot books. But as that deadline approached, I just wasn’t happy with the draft I had. I suppose I could have tried to produce some sort of finished version and send it along, but a) it almost certainly would have been rejected; and b) even if it had slipped through, I wouldn’t be happy with it now. So I missed that deadline, made another one, and here we are.
3)      Be Friendly: When I got my readers’ reports back, one of them was pretty challenging, and I genuinely had no idea how to respond. Fortunately, my best friend Steve was visiting that weekend, and on a long car trip back from a festival with the boys, I talked to him about the book, the reader’s report, my uncertainties, etc. And in so doing, I quite literally came up with the resolution, the way to frame my Intro and project for multiple audiences that I discussed in the History Society post. Thanks, Steve!
Lifelong learning, y’know? June Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What lessons have you learned recently?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

June 27, 2013: Book Release Reflections, Part Four

[My newest book, The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us About America, was released on Friday (check out that low low Kindle price!). So for this week’s series, I’ll be thinking about some different aspects of the book’s process, goals, and meanings. Would love to hear your thoughts—and if you’re interested in the book but can’t buy it, email me and I’ll send you a copy!]
On my new plan for getting the word out about the book’s ideas.
As I’ve discussed a good bit in this space, one of the most important yet at times more frustratingly hard-to-control aspects of public scholarship is the need to connect to audience. And not just an academic audience, of course—that isn’t a given either, and I’m always hugely grateful for any academic response and feedback on my work; but at the very least an academic book or article feels like an overt way to add our voices to those conversations. But if I’m writing public scholarship, I’m doing so because I feel that my focal points are likewise and perhaps most fundamentally of interest and value to audiences beyond academia—yet it can feel at best totally random, and at worst impossible, for our work to find its way to such broader audiences.
There are various ways to push back on that feeling and try to connect to audiences, and I’ve engaged in many for a good while now: blogging (duh), writing op-eds (so far without publication success, but I’m not giving up!), working with organizations both academic (NEASA) and public (the American Writers Museum). But with this current book, I’ve decided to focus on another and even more direct method of connecting my voice and ideas to audiences, and to do so far more aggressively than I would instinctively prefer: I’ve been contacting numerous institutions and organizations and asking if it would be possible for me to give a talk/presentation on aspects of the book. I’ve already got about a dozen such talks preliminarily lined up for the upcoming year, and have a lot more possibilities still in the mix.
None of the talks are quite finalized enough for me to mention them specifically here (but watch this space for info down the road!), so I’ll just briefly highlight two different categories and the different audiences to which I hope to connect through them. Some talks will be at universities, both as guest lectures in individual courses and as talks for groups of faculty and students; my primary goal for them will be to give students a better understanding of our collective past, and a secondary goal will be to share my take on public scholarship for fellow AmericanStudiers. And some will be at libraries, historical societies, museums, and other public institutions; my goal for them is more overtly parallel to my goal for the book itself, to share the lessons of these histories and stories with interested public American audiences. I’m excited to see what responses I get, and will be sure to keep you posted!
Final reflection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. To continue the aggressiveness, do you have suggestions for places (specific or general) where I could share these ideas? I’d love to hear ‘em!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

June 26, 2013: Book Release Reflections, Part Three

[My newest book, The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us About America, was released on Friday (check out that low low Kindle price!). So for this week’s series, I’ll be thinking about some different aspects of the book’s process, goals, and meanings. Would love to hear your thoughts—and if you’re interested in the book but can’t buy it, email me and I’ll send you a copy!]
On what I knew my book would include—and what I didn’t.
At the time of my dissertation/first book, I was deeply invested in strategies of inductive argumentation. I believed so strongly that a work’s main ideas and arguments should develop out of the research and reading and writing process that I didn’t even have a central argument yet when I submitted the final copies of my dissertation ahead of my defense—it was only in conversations before and at that defense that I finally pulled together that thesis! There were definite disadvantages to that approach (when I sent out job cover letters, for example, I wasn’t yet able to articulate my main argument, which I’m sure didn’t help my chances), but also many advantages, including this one: it allowed me to discover numerous texts and focal points as I worked, many of which became crucial to the project.
For my second and (current) third books, however, I have shifted gears dramatically: starting each project with pretty clear main ideas and arguments. Partly that’s due to an even more dramatic life change: since parenting is now my #1 priority, I have far less time at the moment to wander the stacks of Harvard’s Widener Library, discovering focal texts as I go. And partly it’s due to my shift toward public scholarship, which (I believe) requires clearer and more defined main arguments in order to connect to and make its case for broad audiences.  With this current book, for example, I don’t believe it would be sufficient to argue, “We need to remember the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in this project I’ll explore those memories and see what they produce”; I had from the outset a much more defined sense of what lessons I wanted to highlight, and they remain the focal points of my book’s three chapters.
Yet such clear and defined main ideas shouldn’t preclude unexpected discoveries, of course, and each of my chapters likewise includes significant and (I hope) interesting such finds. To highlight only three: I knew next to nothing of New York’s Castle Garden Immigration Station until I began researching the process of arrival for 19th century immigrants; I first learned of Louisiana’s 18th century Filipino community while researching foundational American diversity; and I had never heard of one of America’s most inspiring individuals, Chang Hon Yen, until I looked into the individual lives of Chinese Educational Mission students. Such discoveries are far from secondary to projects like this one—if the main arguments can highlight the contemporary and ongoing stakes of doing public scholarly work, the forgotten moments and communities and figures can provide the compelling histories and stories that help us all connect to our national past.
Next reflections tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What have you discovered that you’d want to share? Other thoughts on these questions?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

June 25, 2013: Book Release Reflections, Part Two

[My newest book, The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us About America, was released on Friday (check out that low low Kindle price!). So for this week’s series, I’ll be thinking about some different aspects of the book’s process, goals, and meanings. Would love to hear your thoughts—and if you’re interested in the book but can’t buy it, email me and I’ll send you a copy!]
On three significant spaces where my book incubated.
In late 2011, I had helped Fitchburg State University’s Graduate English Program schedule a guest speaker for our colloquium series. When she subsequently disappeared a week out from the talk, failing to respond to any emails or phone calls, I volunteered to step in and give a presentation; I obviously had nothing planned, and so decided to go with a topic that had been kicking around my head for a while: “Two Wrongs and a Right: Lessons from the Chinese Exclusion Act.” Besides being an argument for sharing the things that kick around our heads, my colloquium talk was also significant in that I received some impressive feedback and questions from the audience of colleagues and students, all of which helped make the eventual book much stronger.
The following spring, I was fortunate enough to teach my first five-week course in Fitchburg’s Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) program; I’ve blogged on multiple occasions about the wonderful ALFA students, and won’t repeat that praise here. For one of the five weeks in my course on “Expanding Our Collective Memories,” I focused on the Chinese Exclusion Act, extending and adding layers to my colloquium talk (and getting lots more responses in the process). The experience also ended up directly shaping my book’s Introduction: literally, as I begin the intro with some reflections on that week of the ALFA course and what I took away from it; and philosophically, as I came to see and articulate the book’s central goal as a parallel kind of teaching, a passing on of some of the Exclusion Act’s lessons to a public classroom in the broadest and most democratic sense.
The book wouldn’t exist without either of those spaces, and I’m grateful to both programs and conversations. But there’s an even more foundational and fundamental space out of which the book emerged: this one. I don’t just mean that its ideas began with blog posts, although kernels can certainly be found here (Chapter 1), here (Chapter 2), and here (Chapter 3), among others. But it’s bigger and even more fundamental than that: my emerging and evolving public scholarly voice, my desire to write for interested readers out- as well as inside academia, my sense that AmericanStudies work must speak to us all if it is to resonate as fully as it should, have all developed throughout my two and a half years of writing here. Whatever my book is and does, it owes it all to AmericanStudier.
Next reflections tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What spaces have helped your work, ideas, and voice develop?

Monday, June 24, 2013

June 24, 2013: Book Release Reflections, Part One

[My newest book, The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us About America, was released on Friday (check out that low low Kindle price!). So for this week’s series, I’ll be thinking about some different aspects of the book’s process, goals, and meanings. Would love to hear your thoughts—and if you’re interested in the book but can’t buy it, email me and I’ll send you a copy!]
On a central challenge of public scholarship.
A few weeks back, thanks to a generous offer from Heather Cox Richardson, I wrote a guest post for the great The History Society blog. In that post, I addressed a topic that has come up numerous times in this space as well: the challenge of writing historical or AmericanStudies scholarship that seeks to connect to both public and academic audiences. The post is still up and I’d still love your thoughts, so for this week’s first reflection I’ll direct you there:
Next book reflection tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So what do you think?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

June 22-23, 2013: Crowd-sourced Summer

[For me, summer has always meant swimming: in the pool across from my childhood home, at the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, with my boys. So in honor of the summer solstice, this week’s series has focused on meaningful swims in American culture and history. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and memories of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours, he warmly requested!]
AnnMarie Donahue follows up Monday’s post, writing, “When I think pools, film nerd that I am, my mind goes straight to Sunset Boulevard. I've always thought that was a brave, emotional, evocative, provocative and brilliant opening shot for a film. A corpse, floating above the audience, as we sit in the bottom of the pool. Enjoying a well framed shot, but also being told (in no small words) that we are just as trapped, just as drowned and just as doomed as our narrator. We are beneath the surface, something that few audiences get to enjoy, and in recent film-making technique (Wes Anderson especially, although I do love him) something we are banished from entirely. Although you should probably go with Caddyshack's pool scene!”
Paul Beaudoin follows up Tuesday’s post, writing, “You just brought back my memories of Weissmuller's Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale.”
Asia Leeds follows up Thursday’s post, sharing the history of a segregated public pool in Costa Rica. As she puts it, “Costa Rica is somewhat unique in its explicit discourses of whiteness and white purity. The public pool I write about only served people of ‘good morals’ and ‘persons belonging to the white race.’ Blacks who lived in area certainly protested.”
Rebecca Onion shares a complementary piece of hers about photos that reflect the histories of segregation in the National Parks.
Other summertime connections:
Donna Moody highlights “Cape Cod by William Martin. Not exactly Pulitzer writing but just packed full of home.”
Donna Campbell mentions “Edith Wharton’s Summer, but then again, I always lean toward EW.”
Heather Cox Richardson highlights “Almost anything by E.B. White, who loved summer himself and it shows,” to which I would add in particular the great essay “Once More to the Lake.” Heather adds that White’s essay “might fit well with Wyeth, Homer, or Hopper. Or Herreshoff (who influenced White's famous boatbuilder son).”
Steve Edwards highlights a couple great poems about swimming pools and all that they bring with them.
Monica Jackson writes, "I've read a lot of short stories that have themes of summer, but no novels come to mind. However, this topic reminds me of one of my favorite movies by Spike Lee. Crooklyn (which came out in the 90's) told the story of a young girl's life in Brooklyn during the summer. It showed the contrast of the inner-city with southern suburbia, so you end up getting two viewpoints of summer. In New York: there are fights with siblings over the remote, side walk spinklers, and ice-cream heists from the nearby bodega. In South Carolina/North Carolina/Georgia (somewhere in one of those states) there are barbecues and roller skating. The first vision of summer in New York makes me dream of a hometown I never had, while the second in the South makes me realize that like most things, summer is really all about memories made with family and friends."
Jeff Renye highlights a very different summertime connection, to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” As he writes, “’Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon’—that snippet of the old belief, upon which the now-divorced-from-rite is based, suggests that the communal event is tied to the summer growing months and occurs directly before the Solstice.”
Finally and more happily, Amara writes that for her, summer means “Childhood memories of Canobie Lake Park with my family. I don't even care for amusement parks but we had such fun.”
Special book release series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What do you think? What AmericanStudies summer memories or connections you share?

Friday, June 21, 2013

June 21, 2013: American Swims: Cheever’s Swimmer

[For me, summer has always meant swimming: in the pool across from my childhood home, at the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, with my boys. So in honor of the summer solstice, this week’s series will focus on meaningful swims in American culture and history. Add your responses and summertime thoughts for a warm weekend post, please!]
On the pitch-perfect story from one of our true American greats.
There’s only so much room in our collective consciousness, and within that space there’s similarly only so much room for creative writing—which is to say, I understand that not every deserving author is going to be remembered. And I certainly get why John Cheever has largely vanished from our collective memories—like his contemporary John Updike (who similarly is less well-known than he was a few decades ago, although the shift has not been as dramatic in Updike’s case), Cheever tended to write stories about middle to upper-middle class men and families, characters whose identities and communities don’t seem quite multi-cultural enough, nor their problems significant enough, for our 21st century moment.
There would be various ways to push back on those ideas, to argue that our literary canon can and should contain Cheever and Jhumpa Lahiri, and as many other voices as possible. But the simplest and most vital argument might be this: like Lahiri, Cheever was quite simply a master of the short story; there’s no experience quite like reading a perfect short story, and Cheever produced at least a few works that make it into that exclusive category. One of his very best also happens to fit this week’s series perfectly; it’s called “The Swimmer” (1964), and it’s about … no, enough from me. Just read it at that link, and lose yourself in the deceptively shallow waters of Cheever’s funny yet tragic, satirical yet sympathetic tale.
You know what? There’s not only so much room in our collective consciousness, not in this 21st century world of digital archives and virtual classrooms and ever-expanding conversations. If we can work to remember any great writing, we can work to remember all of it—and Cheever and his story are a pretty good place to start.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. Summertime stories we should read? Other summer connections you’d highlight?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

June 20, 2013: American Swims: Race at the Pool

[For me, summer has always meant swimming: in the pool across from my childhood home, at the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, with my boys. So in honor of the summer solstice, this week’s series will focus on meaningful swims in American culture and history. Add your responses and summertime thoughts for a warm weekend post, please!]
On one of the most insidious sites of American segregation, past and present.
I learned to swim at the intimidating, demanding, impressive, and inspiring hands of one Mr. Byers (I wish I knew his first name, but to us he was always Mr.). A big African American man with a shaved head and booming voice, Mr. Byers was definitely scary to this young 7 year old AmericanStudier; I can still remember how, if I came out of the locker room with even mildly wet hair, he would wrap my head in a towel and dry so vigorously I thought my head might come clean off. But he was also incredibly good at his job; not only at teaching young kids to swim, but also at lifeguarding: he had been struck by lightning at least a few different times while trying to get the last swimmers out of a pool as a thunderstorm arrived. And he could be tender and caring as well, both in his lessons and when the unexpected occurred—it was while at a lesson with Mr. Byers that we watched the Challenger explosion, and I distinctly remember his calming presence in that terrible moment.
Thanks to Mr. Byers, my memories of that tragic historical moment are a bit less traumatic than they might otherwise have been. But thanks to a more long-term and just as tragic American history, Mr. Byers wouldn’t have been welcome at—wouldn’t have been allowed entrance into—many of the swimming pools in his (and my) hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. De jure racial segregation endured in Charlottesville as long as it did anywhere in the South; the public schools only gave in and desegregated in the late 1960s, nearly 15 years after Brown v. Board of Education (and after closing for a year in a last-ditch effort to avoid having to desegregate). De facto segregation continued for far longer still, as illustrated by the city’s swimming pools in the early 1980s of my childhood—most of the private pools and clubs prohibited African American members or visitors, making the city’s public pools almost entirely and exclusively African American as a result. Even where the segregation was not so overt, it tended to follow this overarching trend—my family’s pool, Fry’s Spring Beach Club, had desegregated in 1968, but in my memories it was still almost entirely white (despite being located near predominantly African American neighborhoods).
We like to think that such de facto segregation is a thing of the past in America, but quite simply that’s not the case—as recent controversies involving proms, neighborhood covenants, and, yes, swimming pools amply demonstrate. But even where segregation is no longer either the law or the rule—and that’s most American places, of course—its potent legacies linger. As documented in this NPR interview and the book to which it connects, the history of race and swimming pools has produced a number of complex and ongoing effects—including the striking statistic that more than 50% of African American schoolchildren are not able to swim. Which is to say, not only would Mr. Byers have not been allowed to practice his craft at many of the pools in our shared hometown, but his lessons would also have been far less likely to make it to his young African American brethren. That’s not a history that we Americans much like to think about—but both for its own sake and for its present ramifications it’s vitally important that we do so.
Final American swim tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on these histories or issues? Other summer links you’d highlight?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

June 19, 2013: American Swims: Edna and the Ocean

[For me, summer has always meant swimming: in the pool across from my childhood home, at the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, with my boys. So in honor of the summer solstice, this week’s series will focus on meaningful swims in American culture and history. Add your responses and summertime thoughts for a warm weekend post, please!]
On the two interconnected and ambiguous scenes that offer a mirror for each reader’s identity and ideals.
I’ve taught a lot of texts in my time (he said sounding old), including some that inspired very strong opposed responses: sympathy for or condemnation of Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas; laughter with or horror at Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy; intellectual excitement at or angry frustration with Gloria AnzaldĂșa’s style. But I’m not sure that any class discussions have been as divisive as those over Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), and specifically over how we read her protagonist Edna Pontellier. Each of the three times I’ve taught the novel, the class has been evenly divided into profoundly opposed camps: roughly half of the students sympathizing with Edna and applauding her tentative moves toward awareness and independence; the other half disliking her and criticizing her arc as self-indulgent and foolish.
The culmination of those arguments is also the famous culmination of the novel (SPOILER ALERT!): Edna’s final, suicidal swim into the Gulf of the Mexico. That swim is certainly tragic however we read it; but again, I’ve had plenty of students read it sympathetically and with understanding, and plenty of others do so critically and angrily. But just as complex and ambiguous, and foundational to how we read that final swim, is Edna’s first true journey into the Gulf, in Chapter 10; having “attempted all summer to learn to swim,” she suddenly gets it and decides “to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” The next two sentences are a master class in narrative ambiguity: “She had not gone any great distance; that is, what would have been a great distance for an experienced swimmer. But to her unaccustomed vision the stretch of water behind her assumed the aspect of a barrier which her unaided strength would never be able to overcome.” When she does make it back to shore, Edna says to her husband, “I thought I should have perished out there alone,” to which he replies, “You were not so very far, my dear; I was watching you.”
Is Mr. Pontellier expressing his watchful concern, or downplaying her achievement? Was it an achievement (given her prior lack of experience), or is she silly to think so (due to her prior lack of experience)? Has she experienced a titular awakening, one that carries her past gendered expectations or history? Or is she seeing a fantasy version of the world, one not borne out by its realities? The answers depend in part on whether we emphasize or downplay Edna’s own perspective; and in part on whether we read the narrator in a phrase like “her unaccustomed vision” as sympathetic to Edna’s growth or pointing out her naivete. But because of those ambiguities, those answers also depend on our own perspectives and experiences, how we see the world and how we analyze themes such as gender and identity, marriage and independence, history and social change. They’re all caught up in Edna’s swims, but what’s under the surface of those Gulf waves depends a lot on we navigate the waters ourselves.
Next American swim tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this book or these questions? Other summer links you’d highlight?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

June 18, 2013: American Swims: Weissmuller and Phelps

[For me, summer has always meant swimming: in the pool across from my childhood home, at the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, with my boys. So in honor of the summer solstice, this week’s series will focus on meaningful swims in American culture and history. Add your responses and summertime thoughts for a warm weekend post, please!]
On the two Olympians whose divergent narratives reveal a great deal about their respective eras.
America has had its share of Olympic stars, but I don’t know that any have been more successful, or more famous, than Johnny Weissmuller and Michael Phelps. Weissmuller won five swimming golds, a bronze in water polo, and numerous other medals at the 1924 and 1928 Summer Olympics (along with 52 US National Championships during the decade); he then went on to an epic Hollywood career over the next twenty-five years, starring in a dozen Tarzan films and thirteen in the Jungle Jim series (which also became a short-lived TV show). Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, winning 22 total medals across the 2004, 2008, and 2012 Summer games, and his 8 golds in 2008 were also an all-time individual record; he has since started his own charitable foundation and begun to work as an advocate for swimming and health initiatives, amassing nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers in the process.
That last clause already highlights just how distinct fame and celebrity have become in the nearly 90 years between Weissmuller and Phelps’ Olympic triumphs—not only because our 21st century stars (in sports as in every other arena) are expected (if not indeed required) to interact with the public quite consistently and thoroughly, but also because the lives of those stars are just as consistently and thoroughly scrutinized by that public (through its media middlemen). As a result, Phelps’ missteps and problems—a party where he apparently smoked pot, an arrest for DUI, various romantic misadventures—have been chronicled and dissected time and again; Weissmuller, on the other hand, was married five times between 1931 and 1963 (the years during which he was at the height of his film success) but received far less public scrutiny or critique for those personal details.
The causes of this shift are obvious enough—the proliferating mass media and 24-hour news cycle, the rise of the internet and social media, changing journalistic ethics and agendas. But it’s also possible to argue that Weissmuller and Phelps illustrate an under-noticed effect of this shift in public attention. Phelps’ life and work are far from over, but it’s difficult at best to imagine him going on to a thirty-year acting career, or staying in the public eye in any capacity for that long; or, more exactly, it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to do so, given all that such celebrity requires and entails. F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of yesterday’s text, famously wrote that “There are no second acts in American lives”—Weissmuller certainly proved him wrong (although Fitzgerald was, in fairness, referring principally to the possibility of a second act revival after a first act collapse); but perhaps such second acts will indeed prove far harder to achieve in our 21st century moment.
Next American swim tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on these stars or questions? Other summer links you’d highlight?

Monday, June 17, 2013

June 17, 2013: American Swims: Gatsby’s Pool

[For me, summer has always meant swimming: in the pool across from my childhood home, at the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, with my boys. So in honor of the summer solstice, this week’s series will focus on meaningful swims in American culture and history. Add your responses and summertime thoughts for a warm weekend post, please!]
On the tragic dip that’s as difficult to pin down as the man taking it.
Jay Gatsby spends his final moments relaxing in his home’s luxurious swimming pool. As Nick Carraway is about to leave his neighbor for what turns out to be the last time, Gatsby’s gardener arrives to drain the pool; fall is arriving and he’s worried that “leaves’ll start falling pretty soon and then there’s always trouble with the pipes.” But Gatsby asks him to hold off for one more day, noting to Nick, “you know, old sport, I’ve never used that pool all summer.” And so it is during Gatsby’s first and only dip in his own swimming pool, lying on “a pneumatic mattress that had amused his guests during the summer,” that the grieving George Wilson arrives, an “ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.” Wilson is armed and crazed, seeking vengeance for the death of his wife Myrtle, and kills both Gatsby and himself.
It’s a striking and evocative image and moment, as so many of Fitzgerald’s are. And like so many others in the novel, it seems clearly symbolic—but of what, exactly? The imminent shift in seasons feels significant—Gatsby is a novel of summer, and here the season has ended but Gatsby is not willing to let it go, not least because he has not yet had a chance to enjoy it. Or perhaps the pool is simply a microcosm of Gatsby’s palatial home—the height of luxury and excess, of the Roaring 20s and their decadent atmosphere, but offering those thrills less for its actual owner (who barely makes use of it as anything other than a host for visitors) and more for all those guests who come to bathe in its excesses. Or maybe it’s just the final irony in a novel full of them—Gatsby finally takes a moment to relax, for what feels like the first time in years, and looks what it gets him.
All of those interpretations hold water (sorry), but I would also note a historical context that it’s easy for us 21st century readers to forget: like so many of the novel’s crucial social and technological features (cars, Hollywood films, recorded music), an in-ground swimming pool in the early 1920s represented a striking innovation. The first such pools in America had been open for less than two decades, and were generally public or communal spaces; it was not until more than two decades later, after World War II, that they would become part of the typical imagery of the ideal American home. So as with every aspect of Gatsby’s success, here too he would seem to have been ahead of the curve, helping to embody the American Dream—as well as its dark and violent undersides—as it would continue to develop for the rest of the American Century, and into our own.
Next American swim tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on Gatsby’s swim? Other summer links you’d highlight?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

June 15-16, 2013: Crowd-sourced Blogroll

[For this week’s series, I’ve highlighted a handful of the many fellow bloggers/blogs on my reading list, divided up by categories (although all these blogs go beyond any one category). This crowd-sourced blogroll is drawn from the suggestions and nominations of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours, please! And remember to say hi in comments in any case, per yesterday’s request!]
In response to Monday’s post on teaching blogs, Kisha Tracy highlights a few others: Joshua Eyler’s, Derek Bruff’s, and Annie Murphy Paul’s.
Also in response to that post, Kate Jewell highlights Teaching United States History, which contributor Tona Hangen notes has “gone kinda quiet over the summer but we’ll be back!”
In response to Wednesday’s post on history sites, Paul Beaudoin writes, “For me one of the best websites for American History is the Library of Congress' ‘American Memory’ project. From 18th century Broadsheets to musical manuscripts of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein - to fantastic resources in American popular music history.” And Donna Moody adds, “I've used this site extensively in papers (even my MA thesis) I've written relating to captive Africans and slavery, spiritual beliefs and healing ways carried from Africa. Great pictures also.”
In the comments on Friday’s post, Mark Cheathem shares his historical and political history blog, Jacksonian America.
I would also add a new historical blog I discovered this week, Points: The Blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society.
And finally, here are the blogs/websites of some other folks with whom I Tweeted about the series or related topics this week: Matt Loveland, Steve Edwards, C.W. Anderson, Joseph Adelman, Lou Freshwater, James Schirmer, John Hennessy, Brooks Simpson, and Elizabeth Covart.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. So again, two requests: share any blogs (including your own) you’d highlight; and say hi in comments, please!