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Friday, February 28, 2014

February 28, 2014: Short Shorts: Grace Paley

[To commemorate the end of our shortest month—my younger son recently asked me, “Why does February only get 28 days?!”—a series on five great American stories that are as short as they are powerful. Add your favorites in comments!]

On a story that just works, and then some.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve read much Grace Paley yet; but she’s on the short list of folks into whose works I want and need to read more, and the main reason is my sense that she was as good as anybody’s ever been at creating concise and perfect short stories. Moreover, she did so over a nearly fifty-year period, from her 1959 debut through the years before her 2007 death; her fiction and life thus seem to portray and embody numerous crucial historical and social changes over that era, perhaps especially in relationship to women’s lives and experiences. All of those elements are encapulsated in a wonderful short short story from her 1974 collection Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, “Wants.” One last time, check it out, and come back and share your thoughts if you would!
Welcome back! There’s a lot to say about “Wants,” including a couple of lines that just plain took my breath away the first time I read it (perhaps especially “I want, for instance, to be a different person”). But I think my favorite thing about the story is its use of juxtaposition—of two seemingly unconnected settings and scenarios (the narrator’s encounter with her ex-husband and the transaction at the library), of past and present, of the intimate (marriage and divorce) and the global (the war), of the ex’s voice and version of things and the narrator’s, of mild humor and cutting pain. In the span of less than two pages, Paley moves us so expertly through so much, and yet still has the ability to surprise us with the simplicity and power of her final two paragraphs. That, my friends, is a classic short short story worthy of the designation.
So what do you think? This paragraph for rent!
February Recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this story, or others you’d share?

Thursday, February 27, 2014

February 27, 2014: Short Shorts: Jamaica Kincaid

[To commemorate the end of our shortest month—my younger son recently asked me, “Why does February only get 28 days?!”—a series on five great American stories that are as short as they are powerful. Add your favorites in comments!]

On the story that exemplifies the creation of a thoroughly engaging voice.
Even if her fiction were only good, Jamaica Kincaid’s late 20th and 21st century life story—an Antiguan immigrant who began her American experiences as a New York City au pair, briefly attended but dropped out of college, and then forged her own hugely successful and ongoing path as a journalist, novelist, and creative writing and literature professor—would merit our attention. But Kincaid’s fiction is way more than good, combining passion and humor with razor-sharp precision, communal and cultural stories and frames with deeply personal and intimate ones. Exemplifying all those elements is the first story in her first published collection (1983’s At the Bottom of the River), the super short “Girl.” Again, check it out, and come back and share your thoughts if you would!
Welcome back! If you didn’t laugh at least once while reading “Girl”—well, all responses are welcome here, so feel free to tell me why, if that’s the case. But I bet you did—Kincaid’s creation of her narrator/speaker is rich with telling and wry humor, while at the same time capturing so many themes—multi-generational family relationships, gender identities and roles, sex and sexuality, culture and place, social customs and codes, and more—pitch-perfectly. But I think perhaps her greatest feat has to do with reader-response: I taught the story for the first time to a class of undergrads at Temple University, and they sympathized almost entirely with the story’s youthful title character and addressee; and then I taught it recently to an ALFA class of adult learners here at FSU, and they mostly connected with the speaker’s perspective. And I think Kincaid’s story not only allows for those distinct responses, it includes and captures them within the space of its one rambling, run-on, remarkable sentence.
So what do you think? This paragraph for rent!
Final short short tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this story, or others you’d share?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

February 26, 2014: Short Shorts: Eudora Welty

[To commemorate the end of our shortest month—my younger son recently asked me, “Why does February only get 28 days?!”—a series on five great American stories that are as short as they are powerful. Add your favorites in comments!]

On the story that’s both thoroughly grounded and profoundly universal.
I can’t believe I haven’t yet written about Eudora Welty in this space—but my memory indicates that I haven’t, and a search of the blog (with that handy search bar up top) reveals the same. Better late than never, I suppose, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I’ll write about this unique and very talented 20th century great. To my mind, Welty captured the culture, society, communities, and identities of her native Mississippi just as well as the state’s most famous writer, William Faulkner; and she portrayed African American characters with a complexity and humanity that Faulkner could never quite manage. All of those elements are on display in Welty’s greatest story, and one of the great American short stories period: “The Worn Path” (1941). Again, check it out, and come back and share your thoughts if you would!
Welcome back! When I’ve taught Welty’s story, I’ve tended to focus on drawing out students’ takes on two particularly ambiguous aspects: potential symbolic readings of different parts of Phoenix Jackson’s path (which bears an interesting resemblance to another famous American literary path, Young Goodman Brown’s); and whether her young grandson is indeed dead as the nurse suggests (and what the stakes are of how we answer that question). I’d certainly be interested, again, in your thoughts on either or both of those questions. But I also think attention to such ambiguities shouldn’t take away from our appreciation of Welty’s incredible balance of two often competing elements: a deep specificity about the place and time she’s portraying, and her character’s identity within them; and yet a powerfully universal set of themes to which she connects that character and her life and journey. To do either of those things successfully in a short short story is a great accomplishment; to be both is a sign of true mastery.
So what do you think? This paragraph for rent!
Next short short tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this story, or others you’d share?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

February 25, 2014: Short Shorts: Ernest Hemingway

[To commemorate the end of our shortest month—my younger son recently asked me, “Why does February only get 28 days?!”—a series on five great American stories that are as short as they are powerful. Add your favorites in comments!]

On the story that captures the varieties and vicissitudes of identity, community, and life as well as any I know.
I’ve made the case for reading Ernest Hemingway before in this space, and won’t repeat all of those points here. Instead, I’ll put it more simply: if one of literature and art’s most enduring goals is to portray (and thus help us better understand) humanity in all its forms, I think Hemingway was, at his best, as good at producing complex and compelling such portrayals as any American author. Of course he had his weaknesses and flaws; but at his best, again, he economically and yet so potently peered into the depths of our identities and perspectives, relationships and communities, worlds and souls. At or near the top of that list, in his career and in American fiction and literature period, I would locate his short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (1933). Again, check it out, and come back and share your thoughts if you would!
Welcome back! “Clean” of course includes many of Hemingway’s trademark elements: that sparse, dialogue-driven style; the use of two of his favorite settings (a European city and a culinary establishment); a tonal and thematic mixture of cynicism and hope, the former more dominant but the latter finding its way through, somehow, nonetheless. But what I find most impressive about “Clean” is how, through its three characters and their distinct but also overlapping perspectives and situations, Hemingway manages to include so many different kinds of life experiences and stages, as well as a sense of how they interconnect with each other, with those of other people around us, with the places we inhabit and visit, with the darkest and brightest parts of our shared worlds. I can’t imagine anyone for whom some part of the story won’t hit home and hit hard, and that’s a pretty good indication of a successful short short story if you ask me.
So now I’m asking you: what do you think? This paragraph for rent!
Next short short tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this story, or others you’d share?

Monday, February 24, 2014

February 24, 2014: Short Shorts: Kate Chopin

[To commemorate the end of our shortest month—my younger son recently asked me, “Why does February only get 28 days?!”—a series on five great American stories that are as short as they are powerful. Add your favorites in comments!]

On the story that shows just how much sixty minutes can include.
I’ve already written in this space about two Kate Chopin works, both of which are pretty short and pack a hell of a punch in their own right: the controversial and unpublished (in her lifetime) short story “The Storm” (1898) and her masterpiece of a novel The Awakening (1899). But to my mind, there’s not an American short story that does more with less—less time passing within the story, less space (both in terms of setting within the story and space on the page), fewer words—than Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (1894). My central goal for this week’s series is that I share these stories and get your takes, so I’ll say first and foremost, for each story and post: Check out the story at that link, and come back here and share your thoughts!
Okay, welcome back! I don’t want to say too much about my own take, because I am genuinely more interested in hearing yours. But I will try to say at least one thing for each story, highlighting one of the many reasons why I think they’re worth our (amazingly brief) time and (nonetheless far deeper) engagement. For Chopin’s story, I think perhaps the most impressive thing is this: the story centers on the perspective of its main character, Louise Mallard, and manages to convey so much about her perspective and identity in such a brief space; yet at the same time, I would argue that Chopin likewise includes multiple other perspectives on Louise, from those of at least three other characters (her sister Josephine, her husband’s friend Richards, and her husband Brently) to that of the sympathetic but also observing outside narrator. The Awakening is often described (and I agree) as a model creation of complex narration and perspectives—but “Story” manages to do the same, and in less than twenty paragraphs.
So what do you think? This paragraph for rent!
Next short short tomorrow,
Ben
PS. Thoughts on this story, or others you’d share?

Saturday, February 22, 2014

February 22-23, 2014: Crowd-sourced YA Lit

[Recently the boys and I have moved into chapter books, including the wonderful John Bellairs series. So in honor of that next stage of reading, this week’s series has AmericanStudied chapter books and Young Adult lit. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and favorites of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours, please!]

Following up Monday’s Little House on the Prairie post, my colleague Heather Urbanski writes, “While I'm not sure the Little House books count as YA (they seem more middle-grade to me), your speculation that readers learned more about that era from those books than from official school is spot on for me. I've been thinking a lot about this lately because of a recent post that came across my feeds critiquing the character of Ma. I realized that I read those books much like I encountered science fiction/fantasy: as set in a different world from mine and the details of that world were what I took away. As for other YA faves, I am still captivated by Hunger Games years after first reading it and just finished Lissa Price's Starters/Enders series and loved it.”
I would also follow up my last point in that post to note a great children’s book on 19th century Chinese American railroad laborers that I recently discovered, Yin’s Coolies.
Following up Tuesday’s Encyclopedia Brown post, Tammi Minoski Tweets that “Encyclopedia Brown Gets His Man was a favorite of mine when I was in 5th grade! It was just entertaining and I remember fancying myself as a ‘little girl’ Encyclopedia Brown.” LaSalleUGirl notes that, “I used to do the same thing with the Hardy Boys!” And Rob Velella adds, “I'm pretty sure my love of literature began with Encyclopedia Brown in 2nd grade. Perhaps ironically, I don't care for the entire mystery book genre today.”
Roland Gibson also follows up that post, writing, “I'm 47 years old this year, but that was one of my favorite reading pastimes growing up—when my father would take me and my older sister and my younger brother to the Littleton MA town library, and I would get Encyclopedia Brown books. As a boy, I didn't always have the focus and the speed to read longer, more involved stories, so the Encyclopedia Brown series was perfect for me.”
Following up Friday’s Doctor Proctor post, commenter Jaime Lynn writes, “So interesting. I had similar experiences when reading Pippi Longstocking as a kid. (When you're a kid, it's hard to tell whether it's just normal to live with a horse if you're Scandinavian, or whether that's another of the things that make Pippi quirky and unique.) More recently, as an inveterate devourer of middle-grades and YA books despite my childless status, I've been struck by how European and Australian books meant for young readers are darker? weightier? less dumbed-down? I don't know how to describe it. Silvana De Mari's The Last Dragon comes to mind. I was surprised -- repeatedly and pleasantly -- by the depth and thoughtfulness of the book and its themes. Cornelia Funke's The Thief Lord and Inkheart hit me the same way. And if you ever have a whole day to listen to me rave about it, I'll be happy to wax endlessly about Alison Croggon's Chronicles of Pellinor (which is written in English, but brings an Australian sensibility to Tolkienesque fantasy).”
On Twitter, Philip Nel highlights some favorites: M.T. Anderson's Feed, Nancy Farmer's The House of the Scorpion, Walter Dean Myers’ Monster, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat.
Anastasia Salter does the same: Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, Libba Bray's Going Bovine, Francesca Lia Block's I Was a Teenage Fairy, Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan, and China Miéville's Un Lun Dun.
@Frittersandclam does the same, noting that she “loves Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies series so much.”
On Facebook, my colleague Anna Consalvo shares some more favorites: “Anything by Neil Gaiman. I'm thinking Coraline and The Graveyard Book. Sort of a modern Grimms Brothers. I think these would be great read-withs (as opposed to on a child's own). Beautifully descriptive, warm. dark, complicated in a fairy tale kind of way. And Brian Jacques’ Redwall series? Set of stories of good and evil played out by critters in the English countryside. Well written, delightful. A tad less scary and dark -- though any tale of good and evil gets shadowy.”
And Anna also shares the NY Times’Notable Children’s Books of 2013” list.
Finally, an interesting article on the “John Green effect” in YA publishing.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. So what YA lit favorites and memories would you share?

Friday, February 21, 2014

February 21, 2014: YA Lit: Doctor Proctor

[Recently the boys and I have moved into chapter books, including the wonderful John Bellairs series. So in honor of that next stage of reading, a series on AmericanStudying chapter books and Young Adult lit. Please add your favorites, memories, and ideas for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On what gets lost in translation, and what definitely doesn’t.
Every time I teach American Literature I, I struggle with an early-semester question to which I haven’t yet found a satisfactory answer. In the second week of our first unit, we read three texts that have been translated from their original Spanish: two letters by Christopher Columbus; and excerpts from the narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. I think it’s vital to expand our collective vision of American literature to include such figures and texts, and if anything wish I had time and space to bring in French missionaries in Canada, Dutch explorers, and so on; but at the same time, it’s hard to ask students to read and analyze these translated texts closely, to consider the choices made by their authors, when those texts and choices were created in a language distinct from the one we’re reading. I know that many professors face this challenge of teaching lit in translation frequently, and my briefer experiences certainly confirm that it raises tough questions.
Recently, I’ve been confronted with a surprising but parallel set of questions in relationship to my boys: my colleague Irene Martyniuk very generously shared the four books (to date) in Jo Nesbo’s Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder series with us, and the boys have totally fallen in love; we’re done with the first three (each representing at the time the longest book we’d read together) and are well into the fourth as I write this. Nesbo is best known as Norway’s best-selling crime novelist (and perhaps novelist period), and the Doctor Proctor books are similarly written in Norwegian and translated into English by Tara Chace. The translations are (as best I can tell) superb, and it certainly doesn’t seem to affect how the books read; but nonetheless, there are numerous moments and details that feel very specific to Oslo, Norway, and other elements of the books’ original milieu, and for which (when the boys ask about them, as of course all young readers do about everything) I can’t provide any relevant contexts or frames. Such cross-cultural confusions aren’t limited to translation issues, of course—but they seem closely tied to those issues, and the related questions of how works from one language and culture do and don’t speak to audiences from others.
Those are interesting and meaningful questions, for anybody and doubly so for a 21st century transnational AmericanStudier. But at the same time, to reiterate, the boys have totally fallen in love with Nesbo’s series; I think it’s fair to say that the books are their favorites of any we’ve read to date. Some of the reasons have to do with the same kinds of universally boy-pleasing silliness and disgustingness I discussed in yesterday’s post; the series is named Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder, after all. But to my mind, the books work so well for other and more important reasons that similarly transcend any specific language or culture: the arcs of their stories, the identities of their characters, bits of recurring humor and imagery that tie not only each book but the whole series together, the funny illustrations by Mike Lowery that perfectly complement the prose, and more. If reading to the boys has taught me anything (and it’s taught me a ton), it’s that the pleasures of books and stories are truly timeless and universal and enduring—and Doctor Proctor’s one more case in point.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So last chance to be part of that post—what YA lit favorites and memories would you share?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

February 20, 2014: YA Lit: Captain Underpants

[Recently the boys and I have moved into chapter books, including the wonderful John Bellairs series. So in honor of that next stage of reading, a series on AmericanStudying chapter books and Young Adult lit. Please add your favorites, memories, and ideas for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On the undeniable appeal of silliness, and a drawback to it.
If I had to pinpoint one series that truly brought my boys into the world of chapter books, I would definitely highlight Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series. It’s difficult to sum up the books in a simple sentence (or three), but they include two of the most delightfully mischievous protagonists ever created, a grumpy principal who turns into a tighty-whitey wearing superhero, comic book texts within the text, villains who tap directly into the schoolboy delight in the gross and grosser, and, of course, the magic of Flip-o-Rama. While those elements all appeal most especially to the ten-and-under set, Pilkey also uses a meta-textual style and other small touches (such as wryly hilarious chapter titles) that reward any adult who happens to be reading the books to his or her kids.
The book’s are about an un-educational as it’s possible to get, and—to go back to the topic of yesterday’s post for a moment—I certainly would imagine that any attempt to read them in a classroom setting would lead to instant and likely successful challenges. That’s understandable, but the truth, as I saw first-hand with my boys, is that a central goal—perhaps the most crucial goal—of any early reading chapter book is simply to get kids reading in those extended and focused ways, period. It was so rewarding to see the boys able to stay with the Captain Underpants books over multiple nights, across more than two dozen chapters, following plot threads and remembering details and enjoying the way a story can unfold in that form. And certainly Pilkey’s books have been gateway drugs into numerous other chapter books and series, some (like the subject of tomorrow’s post) just as silly, but many (like John Bellairs’ thrillers, or Beverly Cleary’s Ralph S. Mouse books) entirely different from Captain Underpants.
So I think that if we devalue silliness and even disgustingness, at least in such early reading books, we do an injustice to what it can help bring about. But on the other hand, there’s a part of the Captain Underpants silliness—and, I feel, of many similarly silly and over-the-top entertainments for young boys—that I find far more disturbing and potentially destructive. Harold and George, the two young protagonists, hate school, focus in that space only on finding a way to turn the school day into an extended prank—and everything about the world of their school seems designed to reinforce those attitudes. And whereas other aspects of the series’ silliness feel unique and organic to its stories and worlds, this nascent anti-intellectualism (a big word for it, but I think an accurate way to describe the thoroughgoing contempt the series demonstrates for any and all aspects of education) feels shoe-horned in because it’s “cool.” And that, frankly, is a message—especially for young boys—that’s not at all silly, but dead serious, and in the worst ways.
Last YA favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What YA lit favorites and memories would you share?

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

February 19, 2014: YA Lit: The Giver

[Recently the boys and I have moved into chapter books, including the wonderful John Bellairs series. So in honor of that next stage of reading, a series on AmericanStudying chapter books and Young Adult lit. Please add your favorites, memories, and ideas for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On why “banned books” aren’t quite as obviously wrong as you might think.
You’re not likely to find a more lifelong opponent of banning books, and I do mean lifelong—one of my favorite sweatshirts in middle and high school (what can I say, I was an uber-nerd) read “Celebrate Freedom, Read a Banned Book” and then listed a group of works that have been banned at one time or another. So it wasn’t easy for me to write the teaser sentence above, believe me. But the truth is that in our conversations about banning and censorship we tend to conflate a couple pretty different actions: attempting to remove books from schools and/or libraries (a practice that I thoroughly oppose); and advocating that we not teach books in particular classes, for certain grade levels, and so on. The latter, which is generally known instead as “challenging” those books, is certainly complicated and often problematic, but is not the same as banning the book from those institutions.
For a case in point, we could go to the ur-source for such conversations: Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Within a year of its 1885 American publication the novel was banned by the Concord Public Library, the first of many such bannings. But even if we agree with the premise that the CPL and other banning institutions were mistaken (and I do), it doesn’t necessarily follow that Huck is (for example) perfectly fine to teach in middle or high school English classrooms (both places where it has been taught with some frequency). On that question I tend to agree with my Dad, Stephen Railton, who has argued that the book’s defenders have short-changed genuine questions about its language and racial depictions, particularly when it comes to the challenges of presenting them to younger readers. Which is to say, challenges of Huck in the classroom not only aren’t the same as banning or censorship—they also have, at least, a leg to stand on.
And then there’s the case of Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993). Lowry’s award-winning novel is one of the most acclaimed young adult books of the last few decades, and so it stands to reason that it would be a good choice to teach in middle school classrooms. But while the novel does not include unintentionally problematic or objectional material like Twain’s book, it does create an incredibly complex and dark dystopian world, one in which characters, situations, and themes are far more sophisticated and troubling than in many other young adult works. There’s something—a great deal, in fact—to be said for teaching precisely such complex works, provided there is sufficient time and space for the teacher and students to discuss and analyze and engage with those complexities. But there’s also something to be said for parents and organizations worrying that, in the absence of those resources, Lowry’s novel will affect students more negatively than positively. I don’t agree with the challenges that Lowry’s novel has received, but I understand them—and they shouldn’t all be dismissed as simple censorship.
Next YA favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What YA lit favorites and memories would you share?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

February 18, 2014: YA Lit: Encyclopedia Brown

[Recently the boys and I have moved into chapter books, including the wonderful John Bellairs series. So in honor of that next stage of reading, a series on AmericanStudying chapter books and Young Adult lit. Please add your favorites, memories, and ideas for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On youthful fun and the mysteries of adulthood.
I don’t think it’s any mystery—nor does it require any complex AmericanStudies analysis to figure out—why Donald Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown books have remained so popular for the fifty years since their 1963 debut (the most recent appeared just after Sobol’s 2012 death, but I’m quite sure the series will be continued by other authors). I’m not sure I can think of a youthful intellectual pleasure to match trying to solve the case alongside Encylopedia (Leroy, but no one ever called him that) and then getting to flip to the back to read the solution and see if you had gotten it right. Sobol’s unique structure boiled the appeal of the mystery story into both a bite-sized and an interactive form, and the only painful challenges were a) not reading them all in one sitting; and b) not flipping to the back out of frustration before giving your more average brain a chance to catch up to Encyclopedia’s boy genius one.
As I’ve returned to the series with my boys, however, I’ve noticed another prominent aspect with which I didn’t much engage as a young reader: the back and forth between mysteries featuring Encyclopedia’s youthful nemesis Bugs Meany and those featuring adult criminals (sometimes brought to Encylopedia at the dinner table by his father, the town’s police chief and apparently a substantially less impressive crime-solver than his son). The different kinds of cases certainly help keep each book from feeling too repetitive or one-note (although the basic arc and balance are very similar from book-to-book), but they also introduce significantly varying themes and tones: Bugs is certainly a bad kid and a neighborhood bully, but his transgressions don’t generally rise above the level of Tom Sawyer-like tricks; whereas the adult cases tend to involve far more serious crimes, including bank robberies and fraudalent scams.
Encylopedia solves them all in pretty similar ways, so maybe I’m making too much of the distinction. But I can’t help but feel that this thematic and tonal variety positions Encyclopedia, his books, and thus his youthful readers on the border between childhood and adulthood, between a world where the biggest threat is a guy named Bugs trying to pass off a fake autographed baseball bat and a world where complex people commit serious crimes that profoundly impact a city and society. If so, it would be worth noting that the series’ most prominent adult and authority figure, Encylopedia’s father, can’t seem to solve those serious crimes—which either means that we need to keep looking at the world through the eyes of a (super-smart) kid or that, perhaps, the adult world is full of mysteries that require a lot more than flipping to the back of the book. Both lessons would be important ones for young readers to learn, I’d say.
Next YA favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What YA lit favorites and memories would you share?

Monday, February 17, 2014

February 17, 2014: YA Lit: Little House on the Prairie

[Recently the boys and I have moved into chapter books, including the wonderful John Bellairs series. So in honor of that next stage of reading, a series on AmericanStudying chapter books and Young Adult lit. Please add your favorites, memories, and ideas for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On what YA stories can teach us—and what they can’t.
Some of my strongest memories of my young adulthood involve trips to the public library to play educational games on the one computer in the kids’ area (I still remember vividly the thrill of seeing that there was a half-hour time slot available to sign up for). Sometimes I played Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, about which more another time perhaps. And there may have been another game or two I’m forgetting. But often my game of choice—and this will come as no surprise, either to anyone who grew up in the 80s or to anyone who knows AmericanStudier-friendly computer games—was The Oregon Trail. It’s fair to say that I learned more about the rigors of frontier life—fording those rivers, trying to shoot those squirrels, struggling with that damn dysentery—from those half hour sessions than I did from any other source.
Similarly, I’m willing to bet that more American children have learned about westward migration and settlement from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books (and of course from the subsequent TV show) than from all the textbooks on the subject put together. And like Oregon Trail, but of course in far greater length and depth, Wilder’s books certainly immerse readers in the world of the frontier, its threats and challenges, the new worlds always waiting across the next river, the experience of navigating and surviving and even prospering in them as a family. Indeed, the game and books parallel and complement each other very interestingly: the game offering kids the chance to connect their own identities and perpectives to the same kind of frontier world in which young Laura and her siblings develop their own such connections throughout the books. I think there’s great value in helping kids make such empathetic links to distant, past experiences, and Wilder’s books offer wonderful opportunities for doing so.
On the other hand, I can’t help but feel that my position on both the game and Wilder’s books creating such empathy is a classic example of what has come to be called “white privilege.” That is, for so many American communities, each with their own histories and stories of the 19th century west, those narratives bear precious little resemblance to the past. That’s most obviously true for Native Americans, but would be equally applicable to African American slaves (or even freedmen), Mexican American landowners, Chinese American immigrant laborers, and other groups who helped constitute and shape the frontier. I’m not saying that Wilder’s books should have engaged with all those communities—she wrote what she knew—but instead that it’d be vital for any young reader to complement and supplement those books with other stories, ones that can help him or her learn about, and perhaps even empathize with, those other frontier lives and worlds.
Next YA favorite tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What YA lit favorites and memories would you share?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

February 15-16, 2014: Crowd-sourced Love

[Last year, I wrote a Valentine’s Day-inspired series on some of my AmericanStudier loves. I had fun, so I decided to do so again this year. This crowd-sourced post is drawn from the loves shared by fellow AmericanStudiers—please share more of your loves in comments!]

Following up Monday’s Wire post, a commenter writes, “I couldn't resist the offer to mention a television show that I love. BBC's Sherlock is witty fun and brilliantly written. The co-creator Steven Moffat is a veteran of the latest Dr. Who iteration which most of my students love, and I admit I love it too! The show is a nod to the original 19th century stories with an interesting and fresh 21st century feel. It's wonderfully Anglo-centric and best of all Benedict Cumberpatch is yet another Sherlock that most fans would line the streets to kiss!”
On the same post, Joe Bastian writes, “Much like every other fan, I've always loved Omar's cowboy-esque attitude. In addition, though, Bodie's arc has ultimately been my favorite. His character's growth is brilliant, every internal strength advances him down a path that could only seem to induce harm.”
Following up Wednesday’s Bruce post, Roland Gibson writes, “I'm a big Bruce Springsteen fan, myself. However, I think my all-time greatest musical performer award for me would have to go to Michael Jackson. Even as a child—back when he was singing lead with his family in The Jackson 5—he showed so much raw musical talent and energy.  I don't own a copy of his album Thriller (my CD collection is quite modest) but it was the biggest selling album of all time, if I'm not mistaken.  I don't want to come across as trying to take anything away from what Bruce Springsteen has done—any more than my love for apples takes away from my feelings about oranges. Maybe—when I finally grow up—I'll be able to take credit for writing a song that could compare to something—anything—by Bruce Springsteen. I doubt it, but it's fun to think about.”
Susan Stark loves, “My Girl Maya: I find it rare that a poet can be so specific- to time and place, to race and culture and gender- yet so universal in their thoughts. Maya Angelou does that better than almost any poet I know. She is economic with words, but grand with the scope of her ideas. Her writing is soothing to the soul and inspiring to the spirit!”
Jeff Renye loves Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, and specifically this moment: “It was Miss Lonelyhearts’ turn to laugh. He put his face close to Shrike’s and laughed as hard as he could.”
On Twitter, the staff of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum note that they “particularly enjoy Vinegar Valentines from the late 19th century when it comes to Valentine's Day!”
Finally, Robert Greene II shares a few AmericanStudies loves:
Robin D.G. Kelley--who I consider to be an excellent historian and practitioner of American Studies, as a field that takes the best of the humanities to explain what it means (and, especially for Kelley, what it can mean) to be an American.

Pauli Murray--An underrated champion of civil and human rights in the middle of the 20th century, who was heavily involved in the Civil Rights and women's rights movements.
 
Harold Cruse--an important figure for both the Civil Rights and Black Power eras, his writings on African American intellectuals are required reading for anyone studying the 1960s, 1970s, or even the 1980s.”

Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. I’ll ask one more time—what do you love about or in American history, culture, identity, community?

Friday, February 14, 2014

February 14, 2014: I Love My Job

[Last year, I wrote a Valentine’s Day-inspired series on some of my AmericanStudier loves. I had fun, so I’ve decided to do so again this year. I’d love for you to share some of the things you love for a crowd-sourced weekend post full of heart!]

On two of the many reasons why I love what I do for a living.
There’s no way around it, higher education and academia are fraught with huge, interconnected, and growing problems, many of which I’ve written about in this space and all of which have received a good deal of well-deserved attention in recent months and debates (as well as for many years prior): the exploitation of adjunct faculty; public and political assaults on our institutions and educational system; and disappearing funding and jobs coupled with increasing numbers of grad students and PhDs and academics, to name only a few. I’m an optimist, but I’d also have to be blind and a fool not to recognize those realities and challenges (among others), and nothing I write in this post (or any other) should be read as a denial of them or an attempt to minimize their significance to higher education’s present and future.
I love this job, though. I’m a tenured faculty member, not an adjunct (although I was one for a time) or a job seeker (ditto) or in any other uncertain position, and I don’t want to pretend that the differences don’t matter. But to be honest, one of the things that I love about this profession—I’m not focusing in this post on the two things I love most, working with students and with colleagues; for them, see most of the Teaching Posts and many of the Tribute Posts—is the collegiality that I have so often felt, from the most senior faculty members to the most new graduate students, and in every community and connection in between. I know there are conflicts and politics, hierarchies and discriminations, as in every human community (which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to identify and ameliorate them in ours, of course). But I’ve seen conversation and collaboration far more frequently, and love that part of who we are and what drives us.
Another thing I love about this job is that it provides, indeed requires, constant opportunities for reinvention and growth. Every semester is a new start, new courses with new communities of students and new voices and ideas to be heard. Every conference presentation or article or book (or blog post!) is a chance to say something new, certainly in conversation with what we’ve (and others have) said before but still a blank page waiting for us to fill it once more. Even some of the less consistently compelling sides to what we do—the department meetings, the assessment committees, the curriculum conversations—offer continual chances to try something new, help move our communities in new directions, experiment and innovate and challenge and improve. Of course it’s possible to get static or stagnant, individually and communally, within this as any world—but I think the dominant forces push us to do the opposite, to keep starting fresh. And I love the opportunity to do so.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So last chance—what do you love about or in American history, culture, identity, community?