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Saturday, January 31, 2015

January 31-February 1, 2015: January 2015 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
January 5: Waltham Histories: The Watch City: A series on my new home starts with three exemplary stages of Waltham’s and America’s histories.
January 6: Waltham Histories: The Waverly Trail: The series continues with three profoundly American moments in the history of a beautiful natural wonder.
January 7: Waltham Histories: Historic Homes: What we can learn from three of Waltham’s prominent historic houses, as the series rolls on.
January 8: Waltham Histories: National Archives at Boston: Three fascinating document collections found at Waltham’s national archives.
January 9: Waltham Histories: Wilson’s Diner: The series concludes with an example of the compelling everyday history that’s all around us.
January 10-11: Rob Velella’s Guest Post: But wait, a special repeat Guest Post from my favorite Walthamite rounds out the series!
January 12: Spring 2015 Previews: Chesnutt and the Ferguson Syllabus: A series on plans and goals for the spring semester starts with why I added a text back onto my survey syllabus.
January 13: Spring 2015 Previews: The Romantic Movement and Era: The series continues with two different but interconnected layers to a course I’ll be teaching for the first time.
January 14: Spring 2015 Previews: The Relevance of Major Authors: Three ways classic American literature can resonate with our contemporary identities and world, as the series rolls on.
January 15: Spring 2015 Previews: Bringing my Hall to ALFA: The five inspiring American figures I plan to share with my next Adult Learning course.
January 16: Spring 2015 Previews: Independent Studies: The series concludes with three different kinds of work with individual students, and how they all contribute to my perspective.
January 17-18: Spring 2015 Previews: The NeMLA Conference: But wait, once again the series extends to the weekend, this time with three things I’m looking forward to at the NeMLA conference in Toronto.
January 19: MLK Stories: The Real King: An MLK Day series starts with my annual post on why and how we should better remember the many sides to King.
January 20: MLK Stories: Selma: The series continues with what’s especially inspiring and important about the new film, and what’s a bit more problematic about it.
January 21: MLK Stories: Coretta Scott King: Why and how we should remember King’s wife and the Civil Rights Movement’s female leaders, as the series rolls on.
January 22: MLK Stories: The Mountaintop: The recent play and the challenges, benefits, and limitations of humanizing our historical icons.
January 23: MLK Stories: Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton: The series concludes with two men and generations that extended King’s and his movement’s legacy.
January 24-25: Crowd-sourced King: My latest crowd-sourced post, with the responses and other MLK connections of fellow AmericanStudiers.
January 26: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Bad News Bears and Boys: A Super Bowl-week series starts with our obsession with lovable losers, and a problem with it.
January 27: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Hoosiers and Rudy: The series continues with a couple inspiring underdog stories, and what gets left out in the telling of them.
January 28: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Longest Yard(s): What the original and remake help us understand about their respective eras, as the series rolls on.
January 29: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook: The interesting results when an unconventional filmmaker works in a highly conventional genre.
January 30: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Remember the Titans: The series concludes with the over-the-top scene that really shouldn’t work, and somehow still does.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, January 30, 2015

January 30, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Remember the Titans

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On the over-the-top scene that really shouldn’t work, but somehow does.
About midway through Remember the Titans (2000), Denzel Washington’s Coach Herman Boone takes the players on his newly integrated Virginia high school football team (who have gone to Pennsylvania for training camp) on a midnight jog. The team ends up, to their and the audience’s surprise, on the grounds of Gettsyburg National Military Park, where Boone gives a speech on the Civil War battle and both its continuing resonances in and potential lessons for the team’s and its community’s struggles with racial discord and division. The speech and scene ends with Boone’s fervent hope that perhaps, if the players and team can learn the lessons that the battle’s dead soldiers have to offer, they can “learn to play this game like men.”
For anybody who has any sense of the horrific awfulness that was Gettysburg, or just the horrific awfulness that was the Civil War in general (and I’m not necessarily disagreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates when he argues that the war wasn’t tragic, but it sure was bloody and awful in any case, and never more so that on days like Gettysburg’s), this evocation of the battle’s dead for a football team’s lessons feels a bit ridiculous. For that matter, if we think about the most famous speech delivered at the battlefield, in tribute to those honored dead and in an effort to hallow that ground (a phrase that Boone overtly echoes in his own closing thoughts), the filmmakers’ choice to put Boone’s speech in the same spot (and I don’t know whether the Gettysburg speech took place in the real-life histories on which the film is based, but it seems from this article as if it didn’t and it’s a choice in the film in any case) feels even more slight and silly in comparison to that transcendent historical moment.
So the scene really shouldn’t work, not for this AmericanStudier at least—but I have to admit that it did when I saw the movie, and did again when I watched the scene to write this post. Partly that’s due to the performances—Denzel is always Denzel, and the main kids are uniformly great as well (including a young Wood Harris, later Avon Barksdale on The Wire). Partly it’s because great sports films are particularly good at taking what is by definition cliché (all those conventions I mentioned in yesterday’s post) and making it feel new and powerful in spite of that familiarity. And partly, ironically given those Gettysburg contrasts, it’s because of the history—because this football team and its story does connect to America’s tortured and far too often tragic legacy of racial division and discrimination, and because the story and thus the film represents one of those moments when we transcended that legacy and reached a more perfect union. When sports, and sports films, are at their best, they have that potential, which is one main reason why we keep going back to them.
January Recap this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

January 29, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On the interesting results when an unconventional filmmaker works in a conventional genre.
Like any well-established and longstanding genre (from romantic comedies to slasher films to Westerns to action movies), sports movies tend to operate according to certain conventions. As my posts this week have demonstrated, there are certainly different options within those conventions, such as the lovable loser story or the heroic underdog tale. But even across those sub-genres, many of the genre’s conventional beats and stages still apply: the training montage, the moment when all seems hopeless and lost for our protagonists, the dramatic shift that signals the start of something more positive, and so on. Whether we’re talking about the Daniel-san in The Karate Kid (1984), the Jamaican bobsled team in Cool Runnings (1993), or Keanu and his fellow scabs in The Replacements (2000; another team coached by Gene Hackman, in case the genre echoes weren’t strong enough), the story is still the story, by and large.
So what happens when a filmmaker whose career has been one long refusal to adhere to convention turns his attention to sports movies? We’ve seen two recent examples of that combination in the career of David O. Russell, the highly unconventional filmmaker behind movies as diverse but uniformly unusual as Spanking the Monkey (1994), Three Kings (1999), and I Heart Huckabees (2004). Russell’s most recent film was the Oscar-nominated blockbuster American Hustle (2013), but before that he made two successive films that I would classify as highly unconventional sports movies: The Fighter (2010), the story of real-life Lowell, Mass. boxer Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) and his drug-addicted half-brother Dickie (the phenomenal Christian Bale); and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), a screwball romantic comedy about two troubled Philadelphians (played to perfection by Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) that turns into a sports movie as they train for a climactic dance competition while Cooper’s father (Robert De Niro) makes a life-or-death bet on an upcoming Eagles game.
In some ways, both films adhere closely to the kinds of conventions I highlighted above: Silver Linings has both an extended training montage for the dance competition and a lovable losers ending (they score a highly mediocre score, but it’s what they needed for the bet so mediocrity is victory in this case); The Fighter ends with its heroic underdog overcoming his obstacles, winning against all odds, and winning the girl in the process. But it’s in their extended, nuanced, dark yet thoughtful portrayals of mental and physical illness that both films go outside the bounds of typical sports movies. By far the best sequences in The Fighter involve Bale’s Dickie, who neither a hero nor a lovable loser, but an addict and criminal struggling to survive from day to day. And despite its more conventional (and foreshadowed from the title on) happy ending, Silver Linings takes all three of its protagonists and its audience with them to uncomfortable places, asking us to see these characters not as underdogs or losers or any other types, but as three-dimensional humans struggling with the kinds of challenges against which there is perhaps no victory, simply endurance. That might not be a sports movie lesson, but it’s a pretty important one.
Last MovieStudying tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

January 28, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: The Longest Yard(s)

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On what the changes between an original film and its remake can tell us about American narratives.
I’m not going to try to make the case for the original The Longest Yard (1974) as some sort of American classic, but it does offer a pretty gritty and realistic depiction of prison life and community amidst its more comic moments and its lovable underdogs sports story. The film’s sadistic Warden Rudolph Hazen, played to sleazy perfection by Eddie Albert, could be transplanted without much revision to a more overtly realistic contemporary film such as Cool Hand Luke (1967). And as the disgraced football star turned convict, Burt Reynolds feels precisely as flawed and frustrating yet ultimately heroic as Paul Newman in that film or Jack Nicholson in the following year’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). So you know what, maybe I am making the case for Longest Yard as a minor American classic, perhaps not quite on par with those contemporary films or another like Dog Day Afternoon (1975), but in the conversation at least.
It will likely come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Adam Sandler’s film oeuvre that the 2005 Longest Yard remake, starring Sandler in the Reynolds role and James Cromwell as the Warden (among many other celebrity roles), is not a classic, minor or otherwise. While I try not to sum up entire works with one moment or detail, I’d say this one qualifies: in the original film, the climactic game between the prisoners and guards was a brutally realistic grudge-fest, with lives and futures on the line; in the remake, that’s ostensibly still the case, but at one point Sandler’s quarterback gives one of the guards a wet willy. I can’t say it any more clearly than does the Wikipedia entry on the remake and its critical reception: “the greatest complaint from critics was that it replaced the original’s dark comedy and grit with juvenile humor and visual gags.” Since “juvenile humor and visual gags” is what you’ll find if you look up “Adam Sandler” in the dictionary, it’s fair to say that his presence had a lot to do with that change; but I would also argue that the two films reflect a significant difference in our national narratives about prison.
In my post last summer on Dog Day Afternoon, I wrote about the 1971 Attica Prison rebellion, and the way those prominent and controversial events foregrounded issues of prisoner treatment and life in this easily overlooked American community. Popular and influential films like Luke and Yard likewise reflect the presence of those issues in the era’s collective conversations. In the 21st century, on the other hand, we tend not to think about our prisons and their communities at all; when we do, as John Oliver highlights in this brilliant piece, it’s mostly as fodder for jokes about prison rape (perhaps the least appropriate subject for jokes imaginable) or as the subject of melodramatic entertainments like Oz and Orange is the New Black. So if the remake is set in the same community that was the subject of those gritty, socially realistic earlier films but is instead full of dumb jokes and silly entertainments untethered from reality (which are the variant definitions of “Adam Sandler”), that would seem to be a pretty accurate depiction of the way we now engage with prison, when we engage with it at all.
Next MovieStudying tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

January 27, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Hoosiers and Rudy

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On the appeal of underdog champions, and the untold sides to their stories.
If yesterday’s two types (heroic losers like Rocky Balboa and lovable losers like the Bad News Bears and Costner’s protagonists) occupy two spots along a spectrum of sports movie protagonists, then heroic underdog champions occupy a third, even more inspiring slot. Such characters are as admirable and heroic in their personal qualities as Rocky, but seek something more than just going the distance—they want to achieve the unlikeliest of victories, to knock off the seemingly unbeatable champion. Perhaps the most striking such underdog champions in both sports and sports movie history are the Miracle on Ice hockey gold medalists of 1980—but since that group was still an Olympic team for one of the most successful nations in Olympic history, I would argue that the midwestern protagonists of Hoosiers (1986) and Rudy (1993), both films directed by David Anspaugh and written by Angelo Pizzo, provide even more clear examples of this type.
It’d be hard to decide which of those inspired-by-a-true-story underdog victories is more unlikely and more inspiring. The Hickory high school team in Hoosiers (based loosely on Milan High’s 1954 championship season) is coached by two men as collectively flawed as Buttermaker in Bad News Bears—Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale has been dismissed from his prior job for losing his temper and striking a student; Dennis Hopper’s Shooter Flatch is an alcoholic town outcast—and has barely enough players to field a team, yet goes on to win the state championship against a vastly more deep and talented South Bend team. Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, whose life and events are portrayed relatively close to accurately by Sean Astin and company, is the undersized son of an Illinois factory worker who refuses to give up on his dream of playing football for Notre Dame, overcoming numerous challenges and obstacles and finally making his way onto the team and into the final game of the season, in which he sacks the quarterback on the final play and is carried off the field by his teammates. Having critiqued lovable loser films for their merely pyrrhic victories, it’d be hypocritical of me not to applaud films that depict underdog victories, and such stories are indeed undeniably appealing and affecting.
Yet in order to tell their stories in the way they want, these films also have to leave out a great deal, elisions that are exemplified by the way racial issues are not addressed in Hoosiers. For one thing, Hickory’s opponent in the championship game, South Bend, is intimidating in large part because it features a racially integrated team, which would have been a significant rarity in 1952 and which would seem to make them a team worth our support. And for another, as James Loewen has written in his groundbreaking book Sundown Towns (2005), southern Indiana in the early 1950s was a hotbed of overt and violent racism; to quote Loewen, “As one Indiana resident relates, ‘All southern Hoosiers laughed at the movie called Hoosiers because the movie depicts blacks playing basketball and sitting in the stands at games in Jasper. We all agreed no blacks were permitted until probably the '60s and do not feel welcome today.’ A cheerleader for a predominantly white, but interracial Evansville high school, tells of having rocks thrown at their school bus as they sped out of Jasper after a basketball game in about 1975, more than 20 years after the events depicted so inaccurately in Hoosiers.” Such histories don’t necessarily contrast with those featured in these films—but it would be important to complement the films with fuller engagement with their perhaps less triumphant contexts.
Next MovieStudying tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

Monday, January 26, 2015

January 26, 2015: AmericanStudying Sports Movies: Bad News Bears and Boys

[Each of the last few years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I wanted to do the same, focusing this time on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your thoughts in comments, please!]
On the American obsession with lovable losers, and a problem with it.
One of the best sports movies of all time, Rocky (1976), features a protagonist whom I’d call a heroic loser. That is, even before Rocky Balboa went on to win all the climactic fights in his subsequent films, his initial losing effort against Apollo Creed was a reflection of his heroic qualities: his grit and perseverance, his desire and ability to “go the distance.” Well, that’s not the kind of loser I’m going to focus on in this post. These losers are the drunken coach and his team of misfits and outcasts who lose the championship game and then start a brawl with the winners (The Bad News Bears), the drunken career minor leaguer who ends his career setting a record that nobody will remember and then quitting (Bull Durham), the drunken washed out golfer who blows his one chance at redemption due to a stubborn insistence on perfection over success (Tin Cup). Other than drunkenness, what defines this bunch is precisely how anti-heroic they seem.
But on the other hand, they are the heroes of their stories, each of which culminates very fully with a moment that asks us to cheer for the protagonists—often in the precise moment of their lovable losing (such as Tin Cup’s catastrophic final hole), and always in triumphs that are framed as far more important than the actual on-field victories would have been (the Bears proving that they’re a team, Costner’s characters getting the girl). Concurrently, their stories’ actual victors are typically framed as either unlikable snobs (the Yankees in Bears, Don Johnson’s rival golfer in Cup) or at best clueless jocks who will never understand what’s most important (Tim Robbins’ star pitcher in Bull). In a nation that was created out of a revolution that pitted farmers against the world’s greatest army, a nation whose general and first president pretty much never won a battle in the course of that revolution, it’s easy to see where this embrace of losers over snobs, the flawed but lovable everyman against the powerful champion, arises—and easy to embrace it ourselves as well.
I enjoy those characters and their stories as well, and am certainly not advocating rooting for the Redcoats during the Revolution (you definitely lose your AmericanStudier card for that one). But I think there’s a subtle but significant problem with these lovable loser stories, now more than ever: they make it much easier to swallow substantial inequalities, to see it as sufficient to achieve pyrrhic victories against the powers that be and thus leave those powers ultimately unscathed. That is, whereas Rocky hit the unbeatable champion Apollo hard enough that he famously noted, “There’ll be no rematch,” in these lovable loser stories the champions don’t seem much affected at all—it’s simply about the little guy achieving whatever victory he can reasonably get, and us all being happy with that. And at the end of the day, that seems like a recipe for giving up even the idea that either side can win—an idea that, mythic as it may too often be, is to my mind at the core of the best version of American identity and community.
Next MovieStudying tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

January 24-25, 2015: Crowd-sourced Selma

[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, this week’s series has focused on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. For this crowd-sourced post, I decided to highlight a few of the many wonderful pieces that have been written about and in response to the film Selma—add your thoughts or reviews, please!]
I’ll start by highlighting one more time my Talking Points Memo piece from this past Monday.
Wesley Morris’s review of the film on Grantland was very much in the same vein as my thoughts.
As with this great Amy Davidson piece in The New Yorker.
The inspiring John Lewis wrote an op ed sharing his own thoughts on both the film and the histories it captures.
Public historian and scholar Devin Hunter wrote some first thoughts on the film here.
Lonnie Bunch, director of the African American History Museum, had this perspective on the film.
Scholar Brittney Cooper wrote a great piece for Salon.com on the LBJ controversy.
Film critic and historian Robert Jones, Jr. wrote an open letter to the film’s director, Ava DuVernay.
DuVernay screened and discussed the film (with the help of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) here in Somerville.
And We’re History published this piece by co-editor David Chappell on the past and present debates over the MLK holiday and the many historical and contemporary issues to which it connets.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other responses or connections you’d add?

Friday, January 23, 2015

January 23, 2015: MLK Stories: Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton

[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a week’s series on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. Please add your responses and other MLK connections for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the significance of two post-King generations and leaders.
There’s a direct, and almost contemporaneous, through-line that links Martin Luther King, Jr. to Jesse Jackson and then to Al Sharpton. Fiery 24 year old Jackson had come to King’s attention after the 1965 Selma marches, and by 1967 had become the national director of Operation Breadbasket, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)’s economic organization. He was close enough to King to be with him at Memphis at the time of his assassination, and continued to run Operation Breadbasket after that tragic event. And a year later, in 1969, Jackson appointed a charismatic and ambitious 14 year old, Al Sharpton, as the youth director of Operation Breadbasket’s New York City branch. Even if you’re not willing to link Jackson and Sharpton in the negative, Fox News kind of way—and it should go without saying that I’m not—the two men are indeed inextricably linked by that organizational connection, and through it to King and his legacy.
When it comes to how they have carried that legacy forward, however, I would have to separate the two. Two of Jackson’s most prominent endeavors, his early 1970s founding of the new political and social organization People United to Save Humanity (PUSH; the S was later change to Serve) and his 1984 creation of the Rainbow Coalition and subsequent presidential candidacy, represented what I could call important next steps for a post-1960s Civil Rights Movement, bringing similar perspectives and activisms to bear on evolving and new concerns and issues. Sharpton has helped create his own such organizations, from 1971’s National Youth Movement to 1991’s National Action Network, and I don’t want to downplay the significance of those efforts. But Sharpton’s most consistent role has been as a media presence and voice, culminating in his current work as both a radio and television host. The size and scope of media have of course grown substantially since King’s era, however, so this too could be seen as a next step in the legacy of his activism and movement.
Each man has in any case followed his own personal and career path, and there’s no way to know with any certainty whether and how King would have connected to these next steps (although Coretta Scott King apparently declined to endorse Jackson’s presidential candidacy, arguing that her husband would never have run for president). But while I will admit to preferring many of Jackson’s choices to Sharpton’s (I’m not sure that being a syndicated radio and TV host is conducive to activism, to put it bluntly), it seems to me that the ideal way to view all three men is additive, rather than as alternatives or opposed. That is, the history and story of the Civil Rights Movement over the last sixty years cannot be told without all three, and more importantly without the broader factors and issues that they collectively help us remember. One of the great tragedies of American history is that King did not live to contribute to all those subsequent efforts, and no one can replace him; but Jackson and Sharpton have offered their own meaningful contributions, and have become an important part of King’s legacy in the process.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben

PS. So one more time: what do you think? Responses or other connections you’d share for that weekend post?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

January 22, 2015: MLK Stories: The Mountaintop

[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a week’s series on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. Please add your responses and other MLK connections for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the challenges, benefits, and limitations of humanizing our historical icons.
As I was researching Tuesday’s post on the current film Selma, I learned that James Bevel, the Civil Rights leader who spearheaded the Selma march among many other efforts, was arrested a few years ago and convicted of committing incest with one of his daughters. I struggled with whether or not to include that detail as part of my reference to Bevel, but decided not to—partly because the conviction was more than 40 years after the Selma march, and so didn’t feel relevant to that historical moment; and partly for the more complicated reason that I was worried it would overshadow the more important points I was trying to make. Certainly I don’t think Bevel’s personal issues and crimes merit the same attention as the Selma march or the Civil Rights Movement; but on the other hand, are we doing a disservice to the activists and leaders of those events if we idealize them, pretend that they weren’t complex humans like all the rest of us?
An argument that we are, and that we need to engage with the most human as well as the most heroic sides to such leaders and icons, can be found at the heart of one of the most acclaimed American plays in recent years, Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop (2009). Hall’s play, which opened first in London and then made its Broadway debut with mega-stars Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, depicts the final night in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, imagining him engaged in an extended conversation, flirtation, and eventually inspiration with a Memphis hotel maid. The play offers a warts-and-all portrayal of its fictionalized King, including not only light details such as his smoking habit and smelly feet but more serious ones such as complex relationship with his wife Coretta and his supposed womanizing. Hall’s script ultimately returns to a more idealized depiction of King as an orator, leader, and philosopher, and it’s certainly possible to argue that such ideals are more believable when paired with the more complex and human details. Indeed, I’ve made precisely the same case in this space when it comes to towering American figures like Thomas Jefferson.
So why do I feel that it’s a bit more problematic to portray such complex and human details for King, as Hall’s play does? For one thing, I’d say that timing is an issue—by setting her play on the eve (literally) of King’s assassination, Hall seems to be offering a culminating reflection on his life and work; King of course did not know it was his last night (although he was well aware of death threats, as the play notes), but the audience does, and such overarching reflections feel inevitable in that case. And I’ll be honest, I don’t think Hall’s less ideal details merit much of a place in those broad reflections on King’s life and work. And for another, and even more salient thing, I would argue (as I did in Monday’s post) that there are many hugely significant aspects of King’s career and perspective that we don’t yet remember well, particularly when compared to such widely and deeply remembered figures as the Founding Fathers. I don’t have any problem with a more humanized King eventually entering our collective memories, but I’d say much more of the historical and, yes, heroic sides to the man should take their place there first.
Last MLK story tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Responses or other connections you’d share for the weekend post?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January 21, 2015: MLK Stories: Coretta Scott King

[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a week’s series on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. Please add your responses and other MLK connections for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On why and how we should better remember King’s partner, in life and in activism.
In a January 1966 interview with New Lady magazine, Coretta Scott King argued that the stories of the Civil Rights Movement far too often left out its female participants. “Not enough attention has been focused on the roles played by women in the struggle,” she noted. “By and large, men have formed the leadership in the civil rights struggle but women have been the backbone of the whole civil rights movement.” As I have written elsewhere in this space, even the one woman consistently present in our collective memories of Civil Rights, Rosa Parks, has been generally turned into nothing more than a tired working woman, rather than the longtime activist and leader she was. So I agree entirely with Coretta Scott King, believe that the problem hasn’t really been addressed in the half-century since her interview, and would argue that she herself represents a perfect opportunity for us to better engage with women in the Civil Rights Movement.
For one thing, Scott King was there with her husband at every stage of his activism and leadership, complementing his efforts with her own. When she married King in 1953 she gave up a promising career in music performance and education (she was on a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music when the two met in early 1952), but in so doing also continued along an activist path that was well underway by that time: while at Ohio’s Antioch College she had joined both the college chapter of the NAACP and its Race Relations and Civil Liberties Committee, and had petitioned the administration to grant her a teaching placement in a local school despite a discriminatory denial. After their marriage, despite bearing and raising four children in eight years (from Yolanda in 1955 to Bernice in 1963, with Martin III and Dexter in between), Scott King worked alongside her husband in his evolving career, not only accompanying him to marches and protests in Montgomery and Selma but also doing her own consistent advocacy for Civil Rights legislation.
For another and even more inspiring thing, after her husband’s 1968 assassination Scott King continued and expanded his efforts and legacy, all while raising their four children on her own. In the years immediately following the assassination, for example, she both published her memoirs, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (1969) and founded the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, a pioneering institution for which she served as president and CEO for many years. Over the next few decades, so brought her activist perspective to bear on a number of other issues, from helping lead an anti-apartheid protest outside the South African embassy in 1985 to chairing a 1995 effort to register one million African American women voters ahead of the following year’s elections. Because of the tragic killings of King and Malcolm X, it can feel difficult to connect Civil Rights leaders to the events and issues of subsequent decades—but like another prominent female Civil Rights activist, Yuri Kochiyama, Coretta Scott King illustrates how fully the 50s and 60s efforts continued and expanded in the years beyond. Just one more reason to better remember her life and work!
Next MLK story tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Responses or other connections you’d share for the weekend post?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

January 20, 2015: MLK Stories: Selma

[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a week’s series on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. Please add your responses and other MLK connections for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On what’s very inspiring, and what might be more problematic, about the new film.
This is a great time for films about African American stories and histories. Steve McQueen, director most recently of 12 Years a Slave (for my money the best film to date about African American history, and on my short list of best films about American history period), has announced that his next project will focus on the amazing life of actor, performer, athlete, activist, and icon Paul Robeson. One of the breakout stars of McQueen’s film, Lupita Nyong’o, is set to star in an upcoming film adapation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stunning novel Americanah (2013). And there’s no need to wait for those two future films—in theaters now is Ava DuVernay’s historical and political drama Selma, perhaps the first mainstream American film to focus centrally on portraying histories and stories of the Civil Rights movement from African American perspectives.
That last phrase is one main reason I find DuVernay’s film so inspiring. There have certainly been prominent and successful films about the Civil Rights movement: Mississippi Burning (1988) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), to name two of the most acclaimed. But I would argue that both of those, like similar but more slight films such as The Long Walk Home (1990) and Ghosts of Mississippi (1996), have approached Civil Rights and African American history through the lens of white protagonists and perspectives—perhaps an understandable choice, and one that (as I would argue Glory [1989] proves) does not render it impossible to connect with African American histories, but also a necessarily limiting starting point. I haven’t had the chance to see Selma yet, but it seems clear that its protagonists and central perspectives are King, his wife Coretta Scott King, and other Civil Rights activists and leaders (such as James Bevel, the principal architect of the Selma march). The fact that this groundbreaking film was directed by an up-and-coming female filmmaker who was born seven years after the Selma march? Well, that’s just one more inspiring detail.
Ironically, given this inspiring reversal in racial emphasis and perspectives, the one critique of Selma I’ve encountered has been of its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as an adversary to King and the Selma march. That op ed was written by Joseph Califano Jr., one of Johnson’s principal domestic advisors for most of his presidency, which both lends it an air of accuracy yet also means it comes from a subjective point of view to be sure. And again, as of this late-December writing I haven’t had a chance to see DuVernay’s film yet, so I should try to reserve judgment. But if the film does set up Johnson as an adversary in the ways Califano suggests, I would say two things: that’s an understandable and reasonable storytelling choice, one that certainly highlights the substantial national opposition faced by King and his fellow activists; but nonetheless, on the spectrum of white American responses to the Civil Rights Movement, I would put Johnson toward the positive end for sure. And if Selma helps us think and talk about such questions, that’d be one more inspiring effect of the film.
Next MLK story tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Responses or other connections you’d share for the weekend post?

PPS. After I scheduled this post, DuVernay responded passionately and convincingly to Califano's criticisms.

PPPS. And long after, I had a chance to see the film, understood even more fully the motivations behind such choices, and wrote this piece about it: http://talkingpointsmemo.com/cafe/selma-did-distort-history-and-was-right-to-do-so

Monday, January 19, 2015

January 19, 2015: MLK Stories: The Real King

[In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a week’s series on histories and stories salient to understanding and engaging with the life and legacy of one of our greatest Americans. Please add your responses and other MLK connections for a crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the limits to how we currently remember King, and how to get beyond them.
It probably puts me at significant risk of losing my AmericanStudies Card to say this—and you have no idea how hard it is to get a second one of those if you lose the first—but I think the “I Have a Dream” speech is kind of overrated. I’m sort of saying that for effect, since I don’t really mean that the speech itself isn’t as eloquent and powerful and pitch-perfect in every way as the narrative goes—it most definitely is, and while that’s true enough if you read the words, it becomes infinitely more true when you see video and thus hear audio of the speech and moment. But what is overrated, I think, is the weight that has been placed on the speech, the cultural work that it has been asked to do. Partly that has to do with contemporary politics, and especially with those voices who have tried to argue that King’s “content of their character” rather than “color of their skin” distinction means that he would oppose any and all forms of identity politics or affirmative action or the like; such readings tend to forget that King was speaking in that culminating section of the speech about what he dreams might happen “one day”—if, among other things, we give all racial groups the same treatment and opportunities—rather than what he thought was possible in America in the present.

But the more significant overemphasis on the speech, I would argue, has occurred in the process by which it (and not even all of it, so much as just those final images of “one day”) has been made to symbolize all of—or at least represent in miniature—King’s philosophies and ideas and arguments. There’s no question that the speech’s liberal univeralism, its embrace (if in that hoped-for way) of an equality that knows no racial identifications, was a central thread within King’s work; and, perhaps more tellingly, was the thread by which he could most clearly be defined in opposition to a more stridently and wholly Black Nationalist voice like Malcolm X’s. Yet the simple and crucial fact is that King’s rich and complex perspective and philosophy, as they existed throughout his life but especially as they developed over the decade and a half between his real emergence onto the national scene with the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and his assassination in 1968, contained a number of similarly central and crucial threads. There were for example his radical perspectives on class, wealth, and the focuses of government spending, a set of arguments which culminated in the last years of his life in both the “Poor People’s Campaign” and in increasingly vocal critiques of the military-industrial complex; and his strong belief not only in nonviolent resistance (as informed by figures as diverse as Thoreau and Gandhi) but also in pacifism in every sense, which likewise developed into his very public opposition to the Vietnam Year in his final years. While both of those perspectives were certainly not focused on one racial identity or community, neither were they broadly safe or moderate stances; indeed, they symbolized direct connections to some of the most radical social movements and philosophies of the era.

To my mind, though, the most significant undernarrated thread—and perhaps the most central one in King’s perspective period—has to be his absolutely clear belief in the need to oppose racial segregation and discrimination, of every kind, in every way, as soon and as thoroughly as possible. Again, the contrast to Malcolm has tended to make King out to be the more patient or cautious voice, but I defy anyone to read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”—the short piece that King wrote in April 1963 to a group of white Southern clergyman, while he was serving a brief jail sentence for his protest activities—and come away thinking that either patience or caution are in the top twenty adjectives that best describe the man and his beliefs. King would later expand the letter into a book, Why We Can’t Wait, the very title of which makes the urgency of his arguments more explicit still; but when it comes to raw passion and power, I don’t think any American text can top the “Letter” itself. Not raw in the sense of ineloquent—I tend to imagine that King’s first words, at the age of 1 or whenever, were probably more eloquent than any I’ll ever speak—but raw as in their absolute rejection, in the letter’s opening sentence, of his audience’s description of his protest activities as “unwise and untimely.” And raw as well in the razor sharp turn in tone in the two sentences that comprise one of the letter’s closing paragraphs: “If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
I guess what it boils down to for me is this: to remember King for one section of “I Have a Dream” is like remembering Shakespeare for the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy in Hamlet. Yeah, that’s a great bit, but what about the humor? The ghost? The political plotting and play within the play? The twenty-seven other great speeches? And then there’s, y’know, all those other pretty good, and very distinct, plays. And some poetry that wasn’t bad either. It’s about time we remembered the whole King, and thus got a bit closer to the real King and what he can really help us see about our national history, identity, and future. Next MLK story tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Responses or other connections you’d share for the weekend post?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

January 17-18, 2015: Spring 2015 Previews: The NeMLA Conference

[With the start of a new semester comes all the new opportunities and possibilities provided by a fresh group of courses. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a few of those semester plans, among a couple other things on my Spring 2015 radar. I’d love to hear about your spring plans and goals in comments!]
On three additional reasons—besides the always-stimulating program of panels, roundtables, seminars, and talks—why I’m looking forward to NeMLA’s 2015 Conference in Toronto.
1)      A Ground-breaking Keynote: NeMLA’s current President, Daniela Antonucci, has arranged for a truly innovative keynote address for Toronto. Christopher Innes and Brigitte Bogar will present “Multi Modal Adaptations of Romeo and Juliet: A Performative Analysis,” featuring both a lecture component and accompanying musical and dance performances. The talk exemplifies Daniela’s commitment to bringing interdisciplinarity to NeMLA, not just as an element of scholars’ work but as a primary goal and methodology for the organization. I couldn’t agree more, and look forward to this keynote as a next step in that direction!
2)      Welcoming New Board Members: We’ve completed our annual election, and have a number of new Board members who will be joining us in Toronto and for the next few years beyond: new 2nd Vice President Maria DiFrancesco; American Area Director John Casey; Comp Lit and Languages Area Director Richard Schumaker; Culture and Media Studies Area Director Lisa Perdigao; and Member-at-Large for Professional Development Angela Fulk. I’m very excited to work with all of these new folks as well as all our returning Board members, not least because of…
3)      The Start of My Presidency Year: As of the membership brunch on Sunday, the transition to the 2015-2016 year—the year for which I’ll be NeMLA’s President—will be underway. In recent months I’ve really begun to feel that the movement toward the 2016 conference in Hartford has commenced, including securing two great University of Connecticut graduate students to be our local representatives and working with the wonderful Dean Shirley Roe and Dr. Cathy Schlund-Vials at UConn to help plan many aspects of the conference. But I’m still very interested in getting any and all thoughts on my two personal goals for the conference: helping NeMLA better connect to and serve adjunct and contingent faculty; and linking the conference to the Hartford community, and specifically the city’s public schools, in one way or another. I’d love to hear your takes on either or both of those ideas!
MLK-inspired series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d share?

Friday, January 16, 2015

January 16, 2015: Spring 2015 Previews: Independent Studies

[With the start of a new semester comes all the new opportunities and possibilities provided by a fresh group of courses. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a few of those semester plans, among a couple other things on my Spring 2015 radar. I’d love to hear about your spring plans and goals in comments!]
On what three kinds of independent student work add to my semesters and perspective.
This spring, I’ll have the chance to direct my fourth Interdisciplinary Studies (IDIS) Capstone project. Students majoring in IDIS at Fitchburg State are required to produce a senior project that combines three different disciplines; this past semester, for example, I worked with a student who combined English Studies, Art, and Comm/Media to create the first pages of an amazing graphic novel based on the King Arthur legend. My spring student will be bringing together English Studies, Early Childhood Education, and Psychology to study children’s books and their impacts on our individual and communal identities. Each of my Capstone experiences has been revelatory for me, opening my eyes to new ways to combine these disciplines and see our world, and I look forward to seeing where this one takes both the student and me!
I’ll also be directing a different kind of individual undergraduate work this spring: an independent study, where a talented and dedicated student works with me to create a semester’s syllabus investigating a topic of interest to him or her. This student, whom I’ve taught in two prior courses and who is one of the couple best undergraduates I’ve worked with in my career, is hoping to apply to PhD programs next year and wanted to fill in one of the gaps in his coursework to date: Modernist American poetry. To say that I’m excited for the chance to spend a semester talking about Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, H.D. and Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams, and the Harlem Renaissance poets (among others) would be to understate the case. But in truth, I’m much more excited still to see how this student responds to these poets, and how my own perspective on them grows and deepens through his work and our conversations. I’ll keep you posted!
Finally, I will be working this spring with two graduate students who are completing their Master’s theses in our M.A. in Literature program. By complete coincidence, the two theses are interestingly complementary: one student is re-reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as an immigrant novel through connections to a number of 21st century such novels; and the other is analyzing Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao as a new kind of immigrant fiction, one informed by the genre of autoethnography as well as many only formal and stylistic trends. Compared to any of these other kinds of independent work, graduate theses are far more truly individual, and I see my role mainly as reading and responding to their work and ideas, rather than providing the kinds of more overt direction I do in the undergraduate cases. Which also means that I learn at least as much from the process each time as I contribute to it—and I can’t wait to see what I will learn about these past and present texts and their social and cultural contexts from these two strong students.
Final preview this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d share?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

January 15, 2015: Spring 2015 Previews: Bringing my Hall to ALFA

[With the start of a new semester comes all the new opportunities and possibilities provided by a fresh group of courses. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a few of those semester plans, among a couple other things on my Spring 2015 radar. I’d love to hear about your spring plans and goals in comments!]
For my next Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) course, I decided to share the lives and writings of five figures (one for each week of the course) that I’ll be nominating for my Hall of American Inspiration project. The five I chose, and a prior post that helps explain why:
1)      William Apess!
2)      Ida B. Wells!
3)      Sui Sin Far!
4)      Abraham Cahan!
5)      José Antonio Vargas!
Can’t wait to see how my always-inspiring ALFA students will respond to the histories and stories, texts and contexts, to which these five connect.
Next preview tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d share?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

January 14, 2015: Spring 2015 Previews: The Relevance of Major Authors

[With the start of a new semester comes all the new opportunities and possibilities provided by a fresh group of courses. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a few of those semester plans, among a couple other things on my Spring 2015 radar. I’d love to hear about your spring plans and goals in comments!]
On three examples of classic literature’s salience for contemporary students and life.
1)      My 3000 (Junior)-level literature seminar Major Authors of the 20th Century starts with Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie (1900). As I wrote in this very early post, Dreiser’s novel resonates remarkably well with 21st century society, identity, and culture, and I have found that it helps students consider issues like consumerism and work, celebrity and identity, ethics and the American Dream. I look forward to seeing how this group of students responds to Carrie Meeber and her story and world!
2)      The course’s second reading is another big novel, Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). I would put Wright’s novel right alongside Chesnutt’s Marrow on the #FergusonSyllabus about which I wrote in Monday’s post; indeed, the novel’s second part, in which its protagonist Bigger Thomas is on the run from the police and being constantly defined by the Chicago media as a “black beast” and the like, echoes very potently some specific details of the Darren Wilson/Mike Brown situation (such as Wilson’s description of Brown as a “demon”). As with Chesnutt in my survey sections, I plan to foreground these relevances to our contemporary moment, so we can make them an overt part of our class conversations.
3)      From there, the course turns to four weeks of poetic readings: two weeks each with the collected poems of Langston Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Hughes’ poems offer a complementary, far more intimate (yet ultimately no less political) portrayal of African American identity and community than Native Son, one that can work well with Wright’s novel to help us continue those conversations. While many of Plath’s poems, from the satirical “The Applicant” to the long dramatic work “Three Women,” offer a potent way into talking about contemporary topics such as birth control and images of women’s sexuality, “leaning in” and debates over women’s opportunities and choices, and how culture and society impact our individual identities and perspectives.
All great arguments for literature’s relevance to our world and lives—and that’s just the first four of the course’s seven authors! Next preview tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d share?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

January 13, 2015: Spring 2015 Previews: The Romantic Movement and Era

[With the start of a new semester comes all the new opportunities and possibilities provided by a fresh group of courses. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a few of those semester plans, among a couple other things on my Spring 2015 radar. I’d love to hear about your spring plans and goals in comments!]
On two layers to a course I’ll be teaching for the first time, and how I hope they’ll work together.
This spring I get to teach one of our department’s 4000 (Senior)-level literature seminars, The Romantic Movement in US Literature; I’ve taught many other 4000-level courses over the years, but haven’t had the chance to teach this one before. Per both the title and the catalog description, the course focuses on different strains of American Romanticism: from creative literature such as Hawthorne’s stories and Bryant’s poems to the writings and philosophies of the Transcendentalists, from the visual and musical arts to, yes, a great deal of Edgar Allan Poe. And I think I’ve created a syllabus that does justice to those Romantic goals, with our first five weeks featuring extended work with Poe and Hawthorne complemented by briefer engagements with Brockden Brown, Irving, Bryant, Melville, Cooper, Sedgwick, Emerson, and selections from The Dial.
I’m far too much of an AmericanStudier to teach any particular movement or literature in a vacuum, however, and so I made an important change in my version of the course: retitling it The Romantic Era in U.S. Literature, and with that shift from “Movement” to “Era” giving myself the freedom to include a number of other authors and texts, genres and contexts, from across the first half of the 19th century. So in the second half of the course we’ll have a couple weeks focusing on Fanny Fern and many other journalists and non-fiction writers (such as William Apess and David Walker), a couple focusing on Harriet Jacobs and other autobiographers (slave and non-slave), and a couple on Elizabeth Stoddard and other mid-century literary innovators (such as Rebecca Harding Davis and Bret Harte). In their own ways all of these authors and genres could certainly be connected to Romanticism, but there’s no question that they also represent a far broader spectrum than that promised by the original course title and description.
If I were asked to defend why I’ve changed that existing course into my version, I might boil my answer down to the specific example of Poe. Many of Poe’s works, including virtually all of his best-known stories and poems, don’t seem to have any specific connection to the American setting and world in which he was writing them; indeed, as I’ve written here before, the Gothic mansion of “The Fall of the House of Usher” (for example) seems far more likely a part of Europe than the United States. Certainly we can and should read and analyze such works on their own terms, and I hope my course will give us a chance to do just that. But on the other hand, every work and every author are influenced by and likewise influence the world around them in any number of ways, and we can understand neither an individual work nor a cultural and historical moment without engaging with those multi-layered and multi-directional relationships. Which is to say, I very much hope that students in this course will feel as if they have learned about both the Romantic Movement and the Romantic Era—and, most importantly, that they have learned about their interconnections.
Next preview tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d share?

Monday, January 12, 2015

January 12, 2015: Spring 2015 Previews: Chesnutt and the Ferguson Syllabus

[With the start of a new semester comes all the new opportunities and possibilities provided by a fresh group of courses. In this week’s series I’ll highlight a few of those semester plans, among a couple other things on my Spring 2015 radar. I’d love to hear about your spring plans and goals in comments!]
On how I’m hoping a last-minute syllabus change can connect my classroom to the world beyond.
Almost exactly a year ago, as part of last January’s spring preview series, I wrote about one of my more difficult pedagogical decisions to date: to replace my favorite American novel, Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) as a mainstay on my American Lit II syllabus (one of the courses I teach most frequently at FSU). All of the reasons I highlighted in that post remain in play, and in both that spring section of the survey and my Fall 2014 American Novel to 1950 course I have found that students do indeed connect very well to Chopin’s novel and all the complex and important questions and themes with which it presents us. So when I put in my book orders in October for this spring’s two sections of the survey, I kept Chopin on there and Chesnutt off—and then, just a few weeks before the semester’s end, I called the bookstore and switched those two texts.
The reason for the change can be boiled down to one hashtagged phrase: #FergusonSyllabus. What began as that Twitter trend has grown into an evolving, extremely impressive public scholarly conversation about how readings and discussions in American literature, history, society, sociology, and identity (among other topics) can provide a broad and deep contextual framework for a better communal understanding of the Ferguson violence, protests, and all the related issues to which they connect. There have been lots and lots of great nominations for that shared syllabus, but I can’t think of a better book through which to connect students to conversations about race and history, the shadows and legacies of slavery and discrimination, segregation and lynching, law and ethics, family and generational relationships, violence and community, the worst and best of American history and identity, and much more than Chesnutt’s monumental novel.
As I noted in last year’s post, in most (if not all) of my prior experiences teaching Chesnutt’s novel, the majority of my students haven’t been able to finish that dense and demanding work. But while that certainly presents a challenge, I would also argue that in this case it offers an opportunity: for me to frame for them in every way I can, from the use of other contextual materials (such as the lynching website Without Sanctuary) to analytical connections to our contemporary moment and its histories and stories, the significance and resonance of this book. I’ve written elsewhere about the balance of democracy and direction I have come to feel is necessary in a survey course, and in this case, that is, I believe that substantial direction from me will help make Chesnutt’s novel the rich vehicle for historical and contemporary connections it can and should be. I still and always will want to hear what the students think and have to say—but there are clear and good reasons why I made the change back to Marrow, and I plan to share them with the students throughout.
Next preview tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d share?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

January 10-11, 2015: Rob Velella’s Guest Post

[Two years ago this week, I moved to my new home in Waltham, Massachusetts. Since then I’ve learned a lot more about the histories and stories of this great town, and shared a few of them this week. I’ve also reconnected with Rob Velella, who has lived here for years. Although Rob has just moved away, he’ll always be connected to Waltham for me, and so I wanted to wrap up the series by linking to this great Guest Post of his from a few years back!]
[Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think?]

Friday, January 9, 2015

January 9, 2015: Waltham Histories: Wilson’s Diner

[Two years ago this week, I moved to my new home in Waltham, Massachusetts. Since then I’ve learned a lot more about the histories and stories of this great town, and wanted to share a few of them this week, leading up to a Guest Post from one of my favorite Walthamites!]
On the layers to the ordinary history that surrounds us.
In 1999, Wilson’s Diner, a small restaurant located on Main Street (Route 20) in Waltham, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. That date marked the 50th anniversary of the diner’s installation—not its construction, exactly, since the diner was built by the Worcester Lunch Car Company (only the 819th such diner built by WLCC) and delivered to its location in 1949. As such, its continued existence helps connect us to a unique moment in the history of American architecture and food service, as well as to the ways in which American communities were created and evolved in the post-war period, and I believe it richly deserves that National Register designation.
I can’t speak to the diner’s original 1949 ownership, but having had a few meals there in the last couple years, I can certainly testify to how much its current owner’s identity connects to another complex, longstanding American history: the 20th century explosion and evolution of Greek diners. As with Vietnamese nail salons and Korean convenience stores, among the many other such ethnic sites and settings, the link between Greek immigrants and families and diners has its stereotypical or exaggerated side to be sure, but has also become a central and crucial part of this American community’s histories and identities, one that has significantly evolved but that remains a part of our 21st century society. And one which, in my experience, literally greets all contemporary customers at Wilson’s Diner.
Guest Post this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Any histories and stories from your hometowns you’d share?