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Monday, September 30, 2013

September 30, 2013: NEASA Conference Follow Ups: The Blog

[This past weekend, the New England American Studies Association held its annual conference. This week, I’ll follow up some of the most inspiring aspects of the conference and some of the many great talks I heard there. If you were part of it, or if you have your own thoughts on any of these topics, please chime in!]
On the limitations, possibilities, and future of our pre-conference blog.
This year’s conference marked the third in a row for which we’ve created a NEASA Pre-Conference blog, a space where presenters can share some of their ideas and work and start the conference conversations early (as well as extend them to folks who can’t be at the conference itself). The prior two years’ blogs are still online, here and here, which makes for particularly easy comparisons across the three years of blogging. On one level, unfortunately, those comparisons are a bit discouraging: the number of posts has gone down each year, as have the number of comments on those posts. There could be lots of practical and unavoidable reasons for that decline (from busier schedules and worries about job security/tenure [for which such blogging doesn’t generally count] to the need to do more teaching or research work in the summer), and it’s too small of a sample from which to draw any conclusions in any case; but still, of course I’d rather see the conversations gaining steam, ideally even building from year to year but at least feeling broadly communal in their own right.
On the other hand, the internet in general tends to focus far too narrowly on quantity, on things like hits and pageviews, which while the most calculable part of blogging and web usage are not necessarily a measure of anything substantive (and I write that as a blogger who checks his own stats more than is probably healthy). Certainly I hope, and believe, that the folks who have contributed to each year’s pre-conference blog have gotten something out of the experience; speaking for those of us who have followed the posts, I can say unequivocally that we’ve gotten a great deal out of reading these thoughts, more than we could just by attending the conference panels (and of course there are always more panels and talks at a conference than any one person could attend and hear). Moreover, I think there’s significant practical and symbolic value to treating a conference as a conversation, and an ongoing and multi-layered one at that—a conversation that exists before and after the conference’s few days, that includes both those at the conference and many interested folks not there, and that, quite simply, is worth sharing.
So as long as I’m part of the NEASA Council (and I hope to be until they pry AmericanStudies from my cold dead hands, or thereabouts), I can promise that I’ll do my part to keep the pre-conference blog going. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t evolve or change, can’t be done differently, can’t indeed improve in ways that might well facilitate more contributions or conversations. So for those reading this who’ve been part of NEASA and/or the blog over the last few years, and for those reading this interested in scholarly blogging—which, hey, is pretty much everybody reading this!—I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this kind of pre-conference blog could work, what it could be or do, how we could get more folks involved (from inside and outside the conference community), and so on. What say you?
Next follow up tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So what do you think?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

September 28-29, 2013: September 2013 Recap

[A recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
September 2: Labor Day Special: To celebrate Labor Day, I highlighted a handful of posts in which I’ve addressed work and the labor movement.
September 3: Virginia Daytrips: Frontier Culture Museum: A series on AmericanStudies trips in the Commonwealth starts with a site that makes a compelling argument about our communal identity.
September 4: Virginia Daytrips: Colonial Williamsburg: The series continues with the inevitably presentist and propagandistic sides to any historic reenactment.
September 5: Virginia Daytrips: Monticello: Two tours that help visitors consider some of the contradictions and complexities of one of our most famous historic houses, as the series rolls on.
September 6: Virginia Daytrips: Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center: The series concludes with the limitations and possibilities of a museum that goes really big.
September 7-8: Crowd-sourced Daytrips: The responses of fellow AmericanStudiers to this week’s series, as well as a prior one on New England daytrips.
September 9: Newport Stories: Cornelius Vanderbilt II: A series on stories connected to Newport’s The Breakers starts with the complex man who built the mansion.
September 10: Newport Stories: The Omelet King: The series continues with the very American story of the Newport chef who made good (and made good eggs).
September 11: Newport Stories: Gertrude Vanderbilt: The Vanderbilt daughter who looks like just another rich heiress—until we look closer.
September 12: Newport Stories: Alice and Alva Vanderbilt: The two sisters-in-law whose identities and lives took dramatically different turns, as the series rolls on.
September 13: Newport Stories: To Preserve or Not to Preserve: The series concludes with the million-dollar question behind Newport’s historic mansions.
September 14-15: Public AmericanStudying Update: A follow up to my first two book talks of the fall, at Boston’s Suffolk and Wellesley Universities.
September 16: Gloucester Stories: Judith Sargent: A series inspired by a visit to our oldest seaport starts with the house that imprisoned and liberated one of my favorite American women.
September 17: Gloucester Stories: The Sense of the Past: The series continues with some of the reasons to better remember Gloucester’s long-term American histories.
September 18: Gloucester Stories: Rocky Neck: On the historical and contemporary Art Colony that complicates and enriches our narratives of Gloucester.
September 19: Gloucester Stories: What’s Next: Thinking about where a city like Gloucester goes from here, as the series rolls on.
September 20: Gloucester Stories: Hammond Castle: The series concludes with the historic site that’s just too weird, and too American, not to include.
September 21-22: Welcome to AmericanStudier!: An introductory post for those visitors and readers who are new to the blog, and everybody else too! (Now permanently featured to the right on the blog’s home page.)
September 23: Justice is Not Color Blind: Scottsboro: A series on race and the American justice system starts with the book that helps us think about why dark histories happen, and what we can do about it.
September 24: Justice is Not Color Blind: The Hurricane: The series continues with the benefits of both macro and micro approaches to a historic injustice.
September 25: Justice is Not Color Blind: Duke: On the swinging pendulum, the benefit of the doubt, and the role of public scholars.
September 26: Justice is Not Color Blind: Oscar Grant: What has and has not changed in the age of digital and social media, as the series rolls on.
September 27: Justice is Not Color Blind: The New Jim Crow: The series concludes with the deeply depressing book that we should all read.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. What would you like to see covered on the blog? Guest Posts you’d like to write?

Friday, September 27, 2013

September 27, 2013: Justice is Not Color Blind: The New Jim Crow

[In this week’s series, I’ll highilght American histories and stories that help us contextualize one of the summer’s most controversial moments: the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict. Like that case, each of these topics was and is a lightning rod—but what good is AmericanStudies if it can’t help us take hold of such charged conversations? Add your thoughts to the electric mix, please!]
On the broadest, and most disheartening, context for race and justice in 21st century America.
I’ve written before in this space about the way that wars, even those with the most noble or necessary purposes, tend to draw out and feature the very worst in human behavior. I’ve also used that dark reality to make my case for why the phrase and concept “the war on terror” has been the worst outcome from the September 11th terrorist attacks (and, fortunately, one that seems to be waning in our national conversations). And I’ve likewise argued for the striking wrong-headedness of the “war on drugs,” a conflict that has produced just as many dark effects as and is just as impossible to imagine “winning” as the war on terror, and one directed even more overtly at those who are already victims (at least if you believe, as I do, that the war on drugs is much more consistently a war on drug users and drug addicts than on dealers or other criminals).
Given all of that, I can’t imagine a more trenchant and timely book, nor a more thoroughly depressing and horrifying one, than Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). Moreover, while Alexander’s work focuses first and foremost on the drug war and related realities of our horrifically distorted justice system, her title indicates the book’s broader and crucial historical sweep: her connection of these contemporary realities to the histories of racism and discrimination that have (as I hope this week’s series has illustrated) so long been intertwined with law and justice in America. Quite simply, the book is like The Wire in public scholarly form, only without the wonderful performances and moments of humor and occasional happy endings and Omar Little-y goodness (show spoilers in that video) to distract us from the crushing weight of all the wrongs that both the show and book document and deconstruct.
So how on earth do we—we public scholars, we Americans, we people period—respond to such realities? Other than by weeping softly, anyway, which I’m pretty much doing right now. It’s not a magic bullet by any means, but I think one important step is simply to read Alexander’s book, and thus to raise our communal awareness of all these interconnected histories and current events, issues and themes. I’m proud to say that my own institution, Fitchburg State University, has chosen The New Jim Crow as its first Common Community Read; over the next couple of years I’ll get some direct evidence for what such communal reading and engagement might mean, and will keep you posted for sure. Awareness and engagement are of course only the first steps, and can’t themselves solve—or even necessarily address—any of the root causes or problems that contribute to this dark national reality. But if we’re going to fight this war—to fight against this war, that is—they’re a pretty important ground from which to do so.
September Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

September 26, 2013: Justice is Not Color Blind: Oscar Grant

[In this week’s series, I’ll highilght American histories and stories that help us contextualize one of the summer’s most controversial moments: the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict. Like that case, each of these topics was and is a lightning rod—but what good is AmericanStudies if it can’t help us take hold of such charged conversations? Add your thoughts to the electric mix, please!]
On what has changed, and what hasn’t, in the age of digital and social media.
On New Year’s Day, 2009, 22 year-old Oakland resident Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer while detained (along with many others) at the city’s Fruitvale Station train stop. Grant was returning from New Year’s Eve partying in San Francisco, and was unarmed; Johannes Mehserle, the officer who killed Grant, claimed he had intended to use his Taser to subdue the allegedly combative young man, who was lying face down at the time. Mehserle was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and not guilty of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter; he served roughly seven months in the Los Angeles County Jail before being released in June 2011. This dark and tragic history has recently returned to the public eye thanks to the acclaimed independent film Fruitvale Station (2013), which uses the final day in Grant’s life to chronicle the young man’s shortcomings, possibilities, and killing.
The shooting, which was not at all unlike numerous other incidents over the last decade, received the attention and response that it did thanks in large part to digital and social media. Multiple cell phone videos of the incident were recorded at the time and have since surfaced; each is of course as partial and haphazard as any such video would be, but collectively they provided a far fuller picture of the moment than would have been otherwise possible. Similarly, the spread of those videos, as well as details of protests and collective action, on social media brought the case to a significantly wider swath of the American public (at least those under a certain age) than would have ever learned about it from the Bay Area media coverage. In short, what differentiated Grant from those many other unarmed African American victims was simply and solely the ways in which new media captured and highlighted his death—it’s fair to say that whatever justice was achieved in the subsequent trial would not have been possible without this digital and social coverage; and certainly there would not be a film, and perhaps not the Oscar Grant Foundation which that film is supporting, without it.
Yet it’s far from clear, to this AmericanStudier at least, that the tangible results of the case—the conviction of and sentence for Mehserle, the financial aftermath for Grant’s family, and so on—are the slightest bit different from (for example) those in the 1999 Amadou Diallo shooting or the 1992 Rodney King beating (which itself received attention in large part because of the home video taken by a bystander). There’s certainly something to be said for changing the narratives, the conversation, the way in which we engage with and understand such dark histories and the issues to which they connect, and clearly digital and social media have done that. But absent other changes—and from King to Diallo, Grant to Trayvon Martin, it’s hard to feel that much has changed—the fundamental question becomes that age-old professorial one: So what?
Next case tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

September 25, 2013: Justice is Not Color Blind: Duke

[In this week’s series, I’ll highilght American histories and stories that help us contextualize one of the summer’s most controversial moments: the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict. Like that case, each of these topics was and is a lightning rod—but what good is AmericanStudies if it can’t help us take hold of such charged conversations? Add your thoughts to the electric mix, please!]
On the pendulum, the benefit of the doubt, and the role of public scholars.
There’s a school of revisionist historical scholarship that actively seeks to recover and portray the less attractive (or, to put it more bluntly, bad) sides of idealized public figures and events, to tear down (for example) some of the “great men” on whom historiography long depended. I think that kind of revisionism was never as widespread as its critics would argue, and is largely absent from contemporary work; but it certainly was a prominent part of the field in the 1970s/80s era, accompanying (if not necessarily caused by) the rise of multiculturalism. And while I find it too simplistic in its attitudes toward its subjects—mirroring, ironically, the mythologizing of the “great man” narrative and its ilk—I also understand and to an extent agree with the rationale behind such revision. After all, when the pendulum has been located so consistently on one side of its arc, it almost has to swing all the way to the other if a full trajectory is ever to be achieved.
But when the pendulum swings, it has effects in the present as well as on our sense of the past—contemporary impacts that are just as understandable but that also have the potential for more genuine damage. Exemplifying that possibility would be the infamous Duke lacrosse case, the 2006 incident in which three white members of that team were accused of rape by a young African American woman (a student at nearby North Central Carolina University) who had attended (and likely stripped at) a house party. In an earlier era, perhaps even a couple decades earlier, the privileged white male students would have been given the benefit of the doubt, and it would have been very difficult to charge them with assaulting an African American woman; in this case, thanks in part to that swinging pendulum and to other factors (including an overzealous and unethical prosecutor), it was the woman whose story received that benefit, despite substantial evidence in favor of the lacrosse players’ stories. More than a year later, long after the team’s 2006 season had been canceled, the coach forced to resign, and so on, the state’s Attorney General dropped all charges against the three players and the prosecutor was disbarred; the fallout from the case has continued in a variety of forms since.
One of the more controversial aspects of the case were the actions of the so-called Group of 88, a group of Duke faculty members who co-signed an advertisement (which appeared in the Duke Chronicle but is no longer available online) addressing both the case and broader issues of racism and sexism on campus. As a public scholar, one who works to address contemporary as well as historical issues and themes, I’d be a hypocrite to critique any other scholars for doing the same. On the other hand, by addressing an ongoing investigation and trial, and moreover one that involved students at their own institution, these faculty members did reflect, at least in part, one of the dangers as the pendulum swings—that too overt revisionism does not allow for the kinds of thoughtful and nuanced analyses that scholars would otherwise bring to their work. A statement addressing issues of sexism and racism in general, on the other other hand, would be a perfect example of how public scholars can engage with the broader issues at stake in any event, while reserving judgment on the specifics of a case and hopefully in the process contributing to communal and analytical narratives rather than divisive accusations.
Next case tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

September 24, 2013: Justice is Not Color Blind: The Hurricane

[In this week’s series, I’ll highilght American histories and stories that help us contextualize one of the summer’s most controversial moments: the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict. Like that case, each of these topics was and is a lightning rod—but what good is AmericanStudies if it can’t help us take hold of such charged conversations? Add your thoughts to the electric mix, please!]
On the benefits of the macro and micro approaches to representing history.
I wrote at the end of yesterday’s post about comforting but limiting mythologized historical narratives, the kind in which (for example) great men (or women) achieve meaningful advances, bad people produce the dark histories, and never the twain shall meet. The problem with those narratives isn’t just that the world doesn’t work that way—it’s that they make it impossible to get at either the complex realities or the deeper truths of the past. Take the case of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, for example—by all accounts, including his own, boxing champ Carter had a lengthy and deserved criminal record at the time of 1966 arrest and 1967 trial for triple murder; it’s also undeniable that the evidence against Carter was (at best) extremely weak, and almost certainly manipulated and falsified by racist police offers on a vendetta against Carter, and after nearly twenty years in prison Carter was freed in late 1985. But can we tell the latter story while acknowledging the former aspects of Carter’s identity and life?
In his 1975 song “Hurricane,” Bob Dylan opted to focus entirely on the macro histories, the story of individual and institutionalized racial prejudice and injustice “in a land where justice is a game.” As such, Dylan’s song focuses at length on the identities and perspectives of Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, the two career criminals on whose testimonies much of the case against Carter depended; and very little on those of Carter, about whom (outside of the details of the arrest and trial) we learn only that he was a “number one contender for the middleweight crown” who “could take a man out with just one punch / but he never did like to talk about it all that much.” Dylan’s choice makes sense, particularly given the broader histories of racism and lynching with which the Carter case must be contextualized (alongside the 1966 race riots that were unfolding at the time of Carter’s arrest, and to which Dylan alludes in the line “Four months later the ghettos are in flame”), and in light of which the individual identity of an African American man made absolutely no difference. But on the other hand, for those who learn about Carter’s case from Dylan’s song, the specifics of Carter’s own life and identity would seem to be part of the story as well, not because they necessarily change the broader realities but precisely because those realities tend to elide individual identity.
More than two decades later, Norman Jewison’s 1999 film biopic The Hurricane took a distinctly different approach to the story. The film is far from a documentary, and has been critiqued for its factual inaccuracies; but where it succeeds, thanks both to its intimate focus and to a truly stunning performance from Denzel Washington, is in its extended development of Carter’s character and perspective. As such, the film directly flips the narratives of faceless or interchangeable African American men within a racist system, becoming instead, quite literally, the story of Carter/Washington’s face as it evolves over his time in prison. That is, while its simplifications of some of the case’s broad details require an audience to investigate further in order to learn more about the relevant histories, its close attention to Carter helps it reveal profound truths about what such broad systems and histories can do to the people caught up in and affected by them. While Dylan’s song is the story of the kind of tragic storms that so often have swept our nation’s race relations and dynamics, the film is instead the story of The Hurricance himself; both have a great deal to tell us about ourselves.
Next case tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Monday, September 23, 2013

September 23, 2013: Justice is Not Color Blind: Scottsboro

[In this week’s series, I’ll highilght American histories and stories that help us contextualize one of the summer’s most controversial moments: the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict. Like that case, each of these topics was and is a lightning rod—but what good is AmericanStudies if it can’t help us take hold of such charged conversations? Add your thoughts to the electric mix, please!]
On the book that helps us think about how the most appalling histories can happen—and what we can do about it.
As we learn more about the darkest human histories, the toughest question is often not what happened—as hard as it can certainly be to get at, and then to understand, historical truths—but how it did. That is, if we’re not willing to believe that much of humanity is essentially evil (and I definitely am not willing to believe that), we are left with the question of how, in the case of so many historical horrors, large numbers of people directly contributed to (and at least generally supported) them. Probably the most telling example would be the Holocaust; while there is significant scholarly disagreement over exactly how much most Germans—or even most in the Nazi military—knew about the final solution, the very question has led to extended and important works, such as Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996).
The same complex and challenging question can be applied to dark, communal American histories such as the lynching epidemic or the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan—it’s relatively easy to acknowledge racial discrimination and violence as overall presences on our landscape, but far more difficult to think about all of the ordinary men and women who comprised those brutal efforts. I know of no book, scholarly or otherwise, that better engages with precisely that question than James Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro (1994). Goodman’s book narrates the dark and tragic history of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American men who were falsely accused of raping two white women on an Alabama train, railroaded (pun intended) into convictions and then (after the Supreme Court twice vacated the verdict) re-convictions, and wrongfully imprisoned for years (with one dying in prison and the others all dramatically affected in their own ways by the experience). But Goodman goes one step further—through a combination of deep research and (limited but effective) imaginative extension, he constructs the perspectives of many of those involved in the case, including the two accusers (one of whom eventually recanted), the authorities who prosecuted the boys, and those who served on the juries that repeatedly convicted them.
It would be possible for such a kaleidoscopic approach to make it seem as if there’s no such thing as historical truth, but through a deliberate balancing act Goodman does the opposite: keeping the case’s most significant truths in front of us, while at the same time helping us to see how those truths could be elided, ignored, and destroyed by so many Americans for so many years. That the boys’ persecutors come across as complex and even sympathetic figures does not lessen in any way the horror of what happened to the boys—but it does make those events a bit more understandable. And as a result, I would argue that Goodman’s book offers an implicit model for how we can respond to such dark histories—not by turning them into mythologized narratives of good and evil, with their accompanying comforting but also limiting effects; but instead by engaging directly with how we (and I do mean “we”) come to support, take part in, and produce such histories. We cannot change the past’s injustices, but we can confront them, and what they tell us about our own capability for injustice as well.
Next case tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

September 21-22, 2013: Welcome to AmericanStudier!

Since I’ve recently given the first few of my many scheduled book talks, I’m hoping that some of the folks who have attended those events might make their way here as well. So I wanted to take this chance to introduce myself and the blog a bit, through four different aspects of my ongoing scholarly work and identity. Whether you’re a brand-new visitor or a long-time reader, please feel free to say hi in comments!
1)      This Blog: Is barreling toward its three-year anniversary, in early November. For the first year or so I wrote mostly individual posts; for the last couple years I’ve done weekly series. In any case, your best starting point for finding out what’s here would be the Monthly Recaps (under that Label at right); you can also search for particular topics with the search bar at the top. If you’re interested in something in particular, feel free to leave a comment or to email me (brailton@fitchburgstate.edu).
2)      The New Book: While I’m trying to tailor each of my talks to the particular place and context in which I’m giving it, they all connect to my most recent book, The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us About America (Palgrave Pivot, June 2013). The book is available in either e-book or hard copy format, at that site, through Palgrave, or in many other places. But if you’re not able to pay for a copy, please feel free to email me and I’ll send you an e-copy of the proofs.
3)      The Website-in-Progress: One of my goals for the coming year is to develop a new website, The Hall of American Inspiration. Right now that’s just a starting point, but I’d still to hear your thoughts on Americans who should be included in such a project—past or present, famous or not, public or private. Again, feel free to leave a comment below or to email me with any nominations, or any other thoughts on that project.
4)      Public Scholarship: Those three provide good specific examples of different sides to my scholarly work and identity. But I should also mention a broader goal: what I call, in my Twitter bio, “Trying to make my tiny contribution to our national narratives.” I’ve written a good bit about that goal in many of the “Meta-Posts” (see Label at right) here, including this post from a few months back. Here I’ll just add that such public scholarship is, as I see it, entirely communal, and thus depends on my hearing your voices and perspectives just as much as on sharing my own. So please share yours, in comments, by email, on Twitter, however you want!
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. If you’re new to the blog, or whatever the case may be, please say hi and let me know what you’d be interested in seeing here! Thanks!

Friday, September 20, 2013

September 20, 2013: Gloucester Stories: Hammond Castle

[A series of posts highlighting some of the many interesting American histories and stories in our oldest seaport. Add your thoughts, please!]
On the Gloucester site that is as random, weird, and fascinating as America itself.
The term “Americana” gets thrown around a good bit, and I suspect we mean as many different things by it as that Wikipedia article suggests—but if I had to boil it down, at least for this AmericanStudier, I think I would have to go with what Weird Al Yankovic argues in “The Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota” (off of the UHF album from 1989). “Kids, this here’s what America’s all about,” the song’s teary-eyed patriarchal speaker claims of the titular site and the many parallel (and all real!) ones for which they already have their window decals (“There's Elvis-O-Rama, the Tupperware Museum, The Boll Weevil Monument, and Cranberry World, The Shuffleboard Hall Of Fame, Poodle Dog Rock, And The Mecca of Albino Squirrels”).
Along the coast near Gloucester is a site that, while not quite as strikingly strange as those, is pretty weird and unique in its own right: Hammond Castle. This faux medieval castle was built by eccentric inventor John Hays Hammond, Jr., between 1926 and 1929, and if the existence of a medieval castle on Massachusetts’ Cape Ann isn’t random enough for you, the three purposes for which Hammond built it (as elucidated on the Castle’s official website, linked above) should help: “as a backdrop for his collection of Roman, medieval, and Renaissance artifacts; as a wedding present for his wife Irene Fenton Hammond to prove how much he cared for her; and to house the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Dr. Hammond produced over 400 patents and the ideas for over 800 inventions.” I don’t mean to downplay that third motivation, since Hammond was indeed a serious and successful inventor (he’s known, for example, as the “Father of the Remote Control”)—but still, that’s a pretty eclectic set of rationales, no?
So unlike The Biggest Ball of Twine, about which Al’s speaker asks “Oh, what on Earth would make a man decide to do that kind of thing?,” we have a definite answer (a trio of them, even) for Hammond Castle. But Al’s larger point, as further elucidated in the next lines—“What was he trying to prove? Who was he trying to impress?—still stands. The sheer audacity and hubris, the excess, and, most of all, the striking randomness of the Castle demands our attention and (my best pitchfork-carrying impulses notwithstanding) a begrudging respect. Probably didn’t hurt that on the day I visited the Castle was closed to host a “Psychic Faire,” and I happened to arrive just in time to see some of the psychics emerge from the medieval door in full regalia. Makes me want to write a song, actually.
Special post this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other Gloucester or Cape Ann connections you’d share? Other sites you’d highlight?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

September 19, 2013: Gloucester Stories: What’s Next

[A series of posts highlighting some of the many interesting American histories and stories in our oldest seaport. Add your thoughts, please!]
On where a city like Gloucester goes from here.
There’s a really striking and compelling sign located on the Gloucester waterfront. I wish I could remember exactly what it says (and the Google is letting me down in my searches for it), but the gist of it is this: there’s a currently unoccupied and pretty sizeable plot of land standing vacant amidst the Harbor Walk, the restaurants, and the fishing docks, and the city has posted a sign explicitly asking visitors (and presumably locals) to share their ideas about what could be done with the space. It’s a unique and impressive approach to city planning and public policy, but it’s also profoundly symbolic of the kinds of questions that Gloucester and all so-called “post-industrial” cities face as they transition from the economies that have supported them for centuries to … well, whatever’s next.
I don’t mean to suggest that Gloucester’s fishing industry no longer exists; nearly 25 years after Billy Joel released “The Downeaster Alexa” (1989) and sang that “there ain’t much future for a man who works the sea,” I still saw plenty of active fishing boats on the city’s docks. But like Martha’s Vineyard, a fishing community with which I’m deeply familiar, Gloucester can certainly no longer depend on the sea to sustain its community. The obvious answer, particularly for a place with as much interesting history as Gloucester, is tourism; but besides being hugely vague, that option (at least if pursued too comprehensively or predominantly) seems to me as if it risks turning a place into a museum to itself, rather than a living 21st century community. Emblematic of that danger would have to be the Crow’s Nest bar, a local establishment that was recreated (nearly adjacent to the actual space) for the film version of The Perfect Storm (2000) and that continues to fly a banner proclaiming its role in that story and movie.
I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers about where Gloucester could go from here—and in any case I agree with the idea behind that striking sign, that such developments should be crowd-sourced in the fullest and best sense, should solicit and build upon as many voices and perspectives as possible. Interestingly, there’s already one space where many Gloucester residents are already sharing such voices and perspectives, and it’s a digital one: the blog “GoodMorningGloucester.” Started by one man, Joey C., the blog has evolved into a deeply communal space, one as likely to highlight current events, restaurants and attractions, and inspiring local residents as historical and cultural connections, scenic views, and local issues and debates. Such a blog isn’t itself a next step for the city, necessarily—but it certainly illustrates the role that digital and social media can play in helping to bring a community together, present what’s best about that place, and, perhaps, imagine how the community builds upon those starting points as it moves forward.
Final Gloucester story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

September 18, 2013: Gloucester Stories: Rocky Neck

[A series of posts highlighting some of the many interesting American histories and stories in our oldest seaport. Add your thoughts, please!]
On the art colony that complicates, beautifies, and enriches our narratives of Gloucester and the past.
Much of my argument in yesterday’s post, or at least much of my final point about why we don’t better remember Gloucester’s longterm histories, depended on the city’s identity as a predominantly working—and thus working class—community. But of course no place—and certainly no place in America—is as uniform or simple as that, and Gloucester is no exception. I’m sure there would be plenty of ways to complicate such narratives of Gloucester’s working class identity, to highlight other histories and communities that have contributed to the city’s story as it has unfolded over nearly four hundred years; but the easiest complication to spot is located directly across the harbor, on the beautiful peninsula known as Rocky Neck: the Rocky Neck Art Colony.
The Art Colony’s history dates back to at least the early 19th century, when local painter Fitz Henry Lane (long misidentified as Fitz Hugh Lane) began to capture Gloucester’s landscapes, cityscapes, and ships in a unique style that came to be known as Luminism. As the Colony attracted additional artists over the subsequent century—most famously Winslow Homer for a time, but also Frank Duveneck, John Sloan, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, and many others—it continued to be defined by a close relationship between Gloucester’s images and these artistic ones. That is, while of course such artists were drawn to the area and colony because of that legacy and supportive community of other artistic presences and relationships, they were also clearly drawn (as their works consistently reflected) to the city’s natural and manmade beauties and views, making the art colony truly inseparable from Gloucester’s overall and evolving identity and histories.
The Art Colony is alive and vibrant into the 21st century, with numerous galleries in which (as this AmericanStudier can attest) you’re likely to meet the artists themselves, if not indeed to catch them at work. Because of that continuity, a visit to Rocky Neck, particularly if we can do so informed by the place’s longer term histories and community (which I confess I was not prior to my visit), becomes a kind of intimate historical interpretation, a way in which we can inhabit what the place has long been and meant. Too often, historic sites in America are explicitly separated from the present places and life around them, treated as a monuments rather than as a living and evolving part of their communities; Rocky Neck Art Colony is impossible to treat in that way, and demands instead that we engage with both past and present, and all the artists and images that they contain.
Next Gloucester story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

September 17, 2013: Gloucester Stories: The Sense of the Past

[A series of posts highlighting some of the many interesting American histories and stories in our oldest seaport. Add your thoughts, please!]
On a couple important reasons to better remember Gloucester’s long-term histories.
This AmericanStudier is never ashamed to admit all the things I’m still learning about America; heck, I wrote a whole recent series on that topic! But this might be the first time that one of the central premises of a week’s series has fallen into that category: before I visited Gloucester for the first time, in late August, I had no idea that the city was as old as it is. I probably would have guessed sometime in the late 17th or early 18th century for Gloucester’s origin, but in fact the city was permanently settled as a fishing and trade village in 1623, only three years after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth. Moreover, initial explorations of the area by both French explorer Samuel de Champlain and English adventurer John Smith significantly predate either of those arrivals, making Gloucester and Cape Ann one of the oldest sites of European contact in New England.
Such early, complex, and foundational American histories are, as I have argued many times, worth better remembering for their own sakes; but there are also other benefits to improving our collective memories of Gloucester’s past. For one thing, recognizing that 1623 settlement date forces us to engage with just how diverse—in purpose and mission, in demographics, in identity—the English settlers and communities in Massachusetts have always been. Even the Mayflower arrivals were composed not only of the stereotypical Puritans seeking religious freedom but also of many other Englishmen and women hoping for a new and better economic and personal situation, as the Plimoth Plantation interpreters do a great job highlighting. And as Gloucester demonstrates, within a few years the Massachusetts and New England world would include entire English communities dedicated entirely to such commercial pursuits—and thus, for example, ones with very distinct and far more economically motivated relationships to local Native American tribes and communities than those of the Massachusetts Bay colony as a whole.
Partly we have tended to equate the English in New England with the Puritans because they’re a really compelling (if often oversimplified or falsified) story—but partly we have done so because the colony’s own leaders and historians, from William Bradford and John Winthrop down to the Mathers and many others, emphasized precisely that identity. So better remembering Gloucester’s place in that early history would also help us to see how much such collective narratives of community and identity are constructed, in their own moment and in the writing of their histories—and how much they are influenced by factors such as religious ideology and class. Certainly the former seems to have been paramount for the Puritan leaders and historians, but I would argue that it’s difficult to separate religion from class, Puritanism from elitism—which is to say, that Gloucester’s working class identity was as much a factor in its earliest histories as it has continued to be in its 20th and 21st century story (on which more later this week). We’re not so good at talking about class here in America, but a place like Gloucester can certainly help us to do so.
Next Gloucester story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think?