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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

March 31, 2015: April Fools: The Interview

[A few years ago, I had a lot of fun writing an April Fools series. Foolishly, I haven’t done so since, but this year have decided I won’t get fooled again. So this week I’ll be highlighting and AmericanStudying a series of funny figures and texts. Share your own funny favorites in comments and I’ll add ‘em to the crowd-sourced weekend post—no foolin’!]
On what’s problematic, and what’s important, about the controversial comedy.
In the last post in that 2012 April Fools series, I highlighted five great, enduring works of American satire. Having had the chance to see the satirical film The Interview (2014) earlier this year, I have to admit that I don’t see it ever landing on such a list. Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, based on a story by Rogen, Goldberg, and Dan Sterling, and starring Rogen and James Franco as the producer and star of a celebrity interview show who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the screwball comedy throws a ton of jokes and over-the-top sequences against the wall, many of them vulgar, graphically violent, or some combination of both. There are certainly funny moments, both of the silly and the pointed variety; but for the most part the film feels like it’s working way too hard for much too little payoff. And much of the problem lies in that attempt to combine the silly and screwball with the satirical—satire, it seems to me, requires us to use our brain; and too much of the time, The Interview is trying to hit us far lower than that.
The film became far better known for its controversy than its comedy, of course, and on that level too I would argue that it’s problematic. I don’t have any problem with a work of fiction satirizing (and even, SPOILER and graphic violence alert, brutally killing) a world leader like Kim, and certainly I don’t support the North Korean government’s attempts to suppress the film’s release. But as I wrote in this January piece for my Talking Points Memo column, I don’t believe we Americans have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to critiquing such blind, uncritical worship of our beloved leaders. Since many of the responses to my piece suggested I was equating the two nations overall, let me be clear: America is not North Korea, in any sense. But I would stand by my point that far too many Americans expressed, in response to Natalie Maines’ far less incendiary depiction of George W. Bush, a level of outrage and anger commensurate to the North Korean response to a film portraying their leader in far, far worse light (as well as, y’know, brutally killing him). Which is to say, if we want to make the case that North Korea should be able to handle satire and criticism more calmly, we’re going to have to turn that mirror on ourselves and our own histories as well.
I don’t think it entirely succeeded in doing so, but it is important to note that The Interview does, in fact, attempt to true that satirical and critical lens on America as well as North Korea. It does so partly through the easy targets of the media and our culture of celebrity, both embodied by James Franco’s thoroughly annoying and stupid character (although he is eventually supposed to be a hero, so I’m not sure how much the zingers ultimately connect). But it does so more subtly through the film’s true heroine, Sook, the North Korean officer who hopes to overthrow Kim and establish a democratic government in his place. When Sook reveals her true intentions, Franco and Rogen exclaim that Kim must be assassinated; she replies, “How many times is America going to make the same mistake?,” and Franco responds, “As many times as it takes, sister!” Again, such moments of thoughtful satire of American foreign policy and perspectives are both few and far between and often overshadowed by the silliness and vulgarities and so on; but they’re there, and perhaps they even registered with the millions of viewers who sought out the film after the controversy. For a silly, mediocre screwball comedy, that’d be a surprising and meaningful effect.
Next fools tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Funny favorites you’d share?

Monday, March 30, 2015

March 30, 2015: April Fools: Stooges and Marxes

[A few years ago, I had a lot of fun writing an April Fools series. Foolishly, I haven’t done so since, but this year have decided I won’t get fooled again. So this week I’ll be highlighting and AmericanStudying a series of funny figures and texts. Share your own funny favorites in comments and I’ll add ‘em to the crowd-sourced weekend post—no foolin’!]
On the two groups of siblings at the heart of mid-20th century American comedy and popular culture.
From the Booths to the Barrymores, the Douglas’s to the Bridges, on down to Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and their increasingly visible young ‘uns, multi-generational families have long been a staple in American popular culture. Whether you read the trend as one of many signs that American society is not nearly as class-less as we like to believe, as a symbol of our hankering for an equivalent to the British royal family, or as simply a reflection that it’s easier to get ahead if you know the right people, there’s no doubt that our cultural icons have often come as part of family units. Yet I’m not sure that any other cultural medium or any other historical moment have been dominated by competing families of entertainers as were the 1930s and 40s by the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges.
The two families (which is a slightly inaccurate word for the Stooges, since Moe, Shemp, and Curly were brothers but Larry was unrelated to them) have interestingly parallel biographies: each group of brothers was born to Jewish American immigrant families in late 19th century New York; members of each began to perform in Vaudeville-type acts for the first time in 1912, and achieved their first real breakthrough successes about a decade later; and the similarly-titled films that truly launched each group both appeared within a year of each other, the Marx’s The Cocoanuts (1929) and the Stooges’ Soup to Nuts (1930). The families even feature individual brothers who helped originate the act but left the group at a relatively early point, Zeppo Marx and Shemp Howard. Yet despite these parallels, in my experience it’s very rare to find passionate fans of both the Marx Brothers and the Stooges—they seem today, as perhaps they did in their own era, to have found pretty distinct fan bases.
It’d be easy to attribute that divide to the highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy, and certainly there’s no doubt that the two groups tended to employ very different kinds of comedy: the Marx’s using their scripts and wordplay first and foremost, the Stooges their physical comedy and violence (although certainly Harpo Marx was entirely a physical comic, and in other ways too this division would break down upon close examination). Yet I would say that the two groups also exemplify two very distinct directions for American comedy and popular culture after Vaudeville, both employing developing technologies but in quite different ways: Cocoanuts was one of the first sound films, and throughout their career the Marx Brothers used this new medium of sound film to great effect; whereas most of the Stooges’ classic works were shorts, and while such pieces were often featured before or with other films they were also tailor-made for the new medium of television as it developed in the decades to come. Both films and television remain central media for American comedy, of course, but they work and connect to audiences in fundamentally different ways, and the Marx’s and Stooges can help us analyze those trends at their earlier moments.
Next fools tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Funny favorites you’d share?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

March 28-29, 2015: March 2015 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
March 2: Forgotten Wars: The Second Barbary War: A series on under-remembered American wars starts with the anniversary of an Early Republic conflict.
March 3: Forgotten Wars: The First Barbary War: The series continues with three longstanding legacies of the late 18th century conflict.
March 4: Forgotten Wars: The Aroostook War: National history, local history, and lumberjacks, as the series rolls on.
March 5: Forgotten Wars: The Occupations of Nicaragua: Two 20th century conflicts that are all too representative, and how to remember them specifically nonetheless.
March 6: Forgotten Wars: Remembering the Sand Creek Massacre: The series concludes with three sites that can help us remember a complex Civil War massacre.
March 7-8: James Fallows on Forgotten 21st Century Wars: But wait, a special weekend post follows up a fellow AmericanStudier’s take on our current, ironically forgotten wars.
March 9: Jazzy Connections: Scott Joplin: A JazzStudying series starts with the musical and cultural legacies of the hugely influential composer.
March 10: Jazzy Connections: Jazz Literature: The series continues with three engaging and important examples of jazz’s influence on American literature.
March 11: Jazzy Connections: Whites and the Harlem Renaissance: White America’s troubling and exploitative yet important relationship to black culture, as the series rolls on.
March 12: Jazzy Connections: Charlie Parker’s Death: On the anniversary of the tragic event, reflections on what is lost and what endures when an artist dies young.
March 13: Jazzy Connections: Jazz in the 21st Century: The series concludes with three ways to argue for the genre’s contemporary relevance.
March 14-15: All That Crowd-sourced Jazz: Additions of mine and the thoughts of fellow AmericanStudiers round off the series—add yours in comments, please!
March 16: AmericanThaws: Eliot and Williams: A Spring series starts with two very different images of the season in two great Modernist poems.
March 17: AmericanThaws: The US and the UK: The series continues with when and how America’s oldest antagonism warmed up.
March 18: AmericanThaws: William Mahone: Late-life evolutions that don’t impress me much, and those that do, as the series rolls on.
March 19: AmericanThaws: Humanity in War: An amazing moment of humanity amidst the horrors of war.
March 20: AmericanThaws: Nixon Goes to China: The series concludes with two ways to contextualize an undeniable historical turning point.
March 21-22: AmericanThaws: Cuba: A special weekend post on two pieces of mine that can help us understand one of our most recent warmings.
March 23: American Epidemics: Influenza and Ebola: A series on past and present epidemics starts by comparing and contrasting two of the most potent.
March 24: American Epidemics: The Measles: The series continues with three stages in the history of a frustratingly persistent disease.
March 25: American Epidemics: Yellow Fever: The Early Republic outbreak that nearly changed everything, and why it didn’t, as the series rolls on.
March 26: American Epidemics: Smallpox and Mather: Two prior posts of mine that highlight the worst and best of American perspectives through Cotton Mather and smallpox.
March 27: American Epidemics: Typhoid Mary: The series concludes with how an anniversary can help us remember a complex and important figure.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

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

Friday, March 27, 2015

March 27, 2015: American Epidemics: Typhoid Mary

[Inspired both by the recent events I’ll include in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts and the historical anniversary on which I’ll focus in Friday’s, a series AmericanStudying epidemics, past and present.]
On how an anniversary helps us remember an iconic and complex figure.
One hundred years ago today, on March 27th, 1915, Mary Mallon (1869-1938)—better known as “Typhoid Mary”—was quarantined by public health officials for the second and final time. The Irish immigrant and cook had previously infected numerous New York-area employers, families, and communities with the highly contagious and dangerous typhoid fever; the incidents began around 1900, but it was not until a 1906 outbreak in Oyster Bay that Mary’s role in them was discovered, and she was quarantined from 1907 to 1910 in a clinic on North Brother Island. Upon her release she agreed to change professions, but instead changed her name and began working as a cook once more. Arrested in 1915 after starting yet another typhoid outbreak, this one at New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women, Mary was taken once again to North Brother Island, where she would remain in quarantine for the final twenty-three years of her life.
Typhoid Mary’s striking story can be contexualized in a number of AmericanStudies ways. The public fascination with her (she was interviewed numerous times during those final decades of quarantine) reflects our longstanding interest in “true crime” narratives and figures, in seeking to understand and perhaps even empathize with those who do horrific or sociopathic things to their fellow citizens. At the same time, but on the other end of the emotive spectrum, the fearful and paranoid responses to Mary (and it is possible to see those responses as extreme at the same time that we recognize her culpability in her arc) were undoubtedly connected to equally longstanding narratives of dirty and diseased immigrants and the threats they pose to our communities and culture: narratives that had long been associated specifically with Irish immigrants; and that in response to the late 19th and early 20th century waves of arrivals from Southern and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and Latin America were newly energized in this period. In both these ways, the Mary of North Brother Island—quarantined away from the rest of America and yet forever available for interviews and pictures—could be said to represent a twisted American ideal.
Comparing Mary’s life and history to a more genuinely idealized American story offers another lens through which to analyze her, however. As part of a September 2013 series on Newport’s The Breakers, I wrote a post on Rudy Stanish, the son of Eastern Europe immigrants who would rise to become the “Omelet King,” one of the most famous chefs in American history. Stanish’s Newport experiences began in 1929, while Mary was still alive and quarantined; in that, and even more in their shared profession, social status (as servants of wealthy families), and immigrant background, the two offer a compelling and complex comparison. Each life and identity is individual and shouldn’t be reduced to types or mythic narratives, but it’s hard for me to resist noting that Rudy and Mary represent two sides to the same coin, the American Dream and American Nightmare respectively. Their versions are extremes, of course—few Americans end up in either lifelong quarantine or as a chef to the stars—but that doesn’t mean they can’t be connected to more typical communal experiences. And it’s fair—if more pessimistic than I like to be—to say that more Americans experience the nightmare than the dream; and thus to note that we might understand how such a nightmare might lead to the life and choices of a woman like Typhoid Mary.
March Recap this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

March 26, 2015: American Epidemics: Smallpox and Mather

[Inspired both by the recent events I’ll include in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts and the historical anniversary on which I’ll focus in Friday’s, a series AmericanStudying epidemics, past and present.]
On the inspiring, redemptive response of a Puritan leader to an 18th century epidemic.
A few years back, I had the chance to contribute some pieces to Maggi Smith-Dalton’s wonderful “Salem History Time” column for Boston.com. For my second and third pieces, I focused on two sides to the story and history of one of Salem’s most prominent citizens, Cotton Mather: his moral and social failures during the Witch Trials; and his subsequent, far more admirable responses to the city’s smallpox epidemics. Mostly I wanted to use today’s post to highlight those prior pieces, but I would say one more thing about these two American histories: that they reflect a longstanding conflict between fear and rationality, superstition and enlightenment, the worst of what we believe and how it can divide us and the best of what we can learn and how it can save us. In Mather’s own life, he moved from the former to the latter, from the Witch Trials hysteria to his influential innoculations—may we all find ways to make the same move, individually and collectively.
Last epidemic tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March 25, 2015: American Epidemics: Yellow Fever

[Inspired both by the recent events I’ll include in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts and the historical anniversary on which I’ll focus in Friday’s, a series AmericanStudying epidemics, past and present.]
On the Early Republic outbreak that very nearly changed everything, and why it didn’t.
Yellow fever has been a recurring threat to American communities and populations (along with many places, in the Western Hemisphere and around the world), and one that has most frequently targeted the South and the Gulf Coast. From the numerous 19th and early 20th century outbreaks in New Orleans and the Mississippi River Valley; to an 1858 outbreak that killed more than 300 members of a single Charleston, South Carolina, church; to the 1878 Memphis outbreak that forced a steamship, the John D. Porter, to travel up and down the Mississippi for two months, a floating quarantine unable to unload its passengers for fear of infection; much of the region’s history has been shaped by the disease’s presence and effects. Yet Northern cities such as New York and Philadelphia experienced their share of yellow fever outbreaks as well—and it was a late 18th century Philly epidemic that came close to forever altering American history.
Few Americans remember that it was Philadelphia which served as the nation’s capital for most of its first post-Revolutionary years, including the majority of George Washington’s time as president. Washington was inaugurated in New York City but served most of his first term (1789-1793) and all of his second (1793-1797) in Philadelphia; John Adams (president from 1797 to 1801) would likewise lead from Philadelphia, as Jefferson’s 1801 inauguration was the first in the newly completed Washington, DC. And so Washington, his administration, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the whole of the young federal government were located in Philadelphia during the 1793 yellow fever outbreak, the worst in the city and one of the most devastating in American history. The summertime epidemic claimed the lives of more than 5000 Philadelphians, with more than 100 dying each day at its height; Washington and the rest of the government managed to flee the city safely, but given the potency and rapidity with which infection spread (local merchant Samuel Breck noted that many of those affected were “in health one day and buried the next”), it’s very easy to imagine Washington stricken by the illness. What that might have meant for the nascent republic is an interesting and provocative question to say the least.
We don’t and can’t know what that alternate history might have comprised, but we can say with far more certainty how and why the city beat back the epidemic. That story would have to start with Dr. Benjamin Rush, the physician and founding father (he signed the Declaration of Independence and participated in the Constitutional ratification debates, among other contributions) who refused to leave the city and spearheaded its efforts to contain and combat the outbreak (Rush did contract the disease in October but fortunately survived; his methods for fighting the disease were and remain controversial, but became the norm for many decades thereafter). But equally important to the city’s efforts was its substantial free African American population—Rush believed that the African American community were immune to the epidemic, and asked its members to serve as nurses and in other medical and support roles; while he was almost certainly wrong in his assumptions, many nonetheless answered his call and performed vital duties that the fellow citizens were unable or unwilling to execute. In a subsequent memoir, community leaders Richard Allen and Absalom Jones wrote that they felt, in response to Rush’s call, “a freedom to go forth, confiding in Him who can preserve in the midst of a burning fiery furnace, sensible that it was our duty to do all the good we could to our suffering fellow mortals.” Alternate histories can be compelling, but none holds a candle to this actual, inspiring American history.
Next epidemic tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

PPS. After I wrote this post, Jonathan Bryant published a great one of his own on Yellow Fever for We're History: http://werehistory.org/before-ebola/

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March 24, 2015: American Epidemics: The Measles

[Inspired both by the recent events I’ll include in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts and the historical anniversary on which I’ll focus in Friday’s, a series AmericanStudying epidemics, past and present.]
On three telling stages in the history of a frustratingly persistent disease.
In the mid to late 19th century, outbreaks of the measles devastated two different South Pacific paradises. Beginning with a series of deadly epidemics in 1848-1849 (including whooping cough and influenza as well as measles), and continuing through much of the next decade, the disease took roughly one-fifth of Hawaii’s population. In 1875, the disease was introduced to the tropical island of Fiji by King Cakobau, upon his return from a diplomatic trip to Australia, and before it was contained it had killed 40,000 Fijians, roughly one-third of the small nation’s population. As these and many other outbreaks make clear, measles, often perceived here in the United States as nothing more than a potential childhood annoyance, has been as deadly a worldwide epidemic as any, and remains so: it is estimated to have killed roughly 200 million people between 1855 and 2005, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 158,000 were killed in 2011 alone.
The fact that the disease has come to be perceived so differently in late 20th century America (and beyond) is due directly to two interconnected individuals. In 1954, medical study of David Edmonston, a 13 year old infected with the disease (one of many affected by an outbreak at a Boston private school), allowed for the virus that causes it to be isolated for the first time; the efforts of one young researcher, Dr. Thomas Peebles, were instrumental in achieving this success. Subsequent work over the next decade to develop a vaccine culminated in the 1963 successful creation of one by Maurice Hilleman, a researcher and vaccination specialist working at Merck; Hilleman’s vaccine (eventually folded into what is now known as the MMR [Measles Mumps Rubella] shot) has been estimated to prevent up to 1 million deaths each year. To my mind, few developments capture the best of the 20th century better than vaccines, and their combination of science, technology, research and collaboration, and international efforts to improve lives and communities; by any measure, Hilleman and the MMR certainly have to occupy prominent spots on that list.
Which brings us to now, and a particularly frustrating 21st century trend. As those WHO estimates indicate, measles has never been eradicated; but it has nonetheless made a striking recent return to our conversations, thanks in no small measure to a new American community: the anti-vaccinaters. This community has been around and making its controversial case for nearly two decades, aided and abetted by a fraudulent researcher and his hoax of a scientific study, but a recent outbreak of measles, caused it seems by the presence of unvaccinated and infected individuals at California’s Disneyland, has brought the community and the disease together in our collective consciousness. There are lots of ways to argue against this extreme and dangerous perspective, but to my mind chief among them would have to be a better understanding of each of these prior two stages: the long-term history and effects of measles, and the hugely destructive force of outbreaks such as those in Hawaii and Fiji; and the vital breakthroughs and successes of the vaccines, and the way they have turned measles into something manageable instead. It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone who would want a return to that earlier stage in the arc of this epidemic.
Next epidemic tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Monday, March 23, 2015

March 23, 2015: American Epidemics: Influenza and Ebola

[Inspired both by the recent events I’ll include in Monday’s and Tuesday’s posts and the historical anniversary on which I’ll focus in Friday’s, a series AmericanStudying epidemics, past and present.]
Contextualizing and analyzing two of the worst epidemics in modern history.
A widespread international pandemic that crosses the ocean to the United States in the blink of an eye, threatening American lives and communities. Health and relief workers and soldiers infected, and many more quarantined, with nations desperately seeking to prevent the further spread of the deadly virus. Yet despite such measures, hundreds of millions around the world are infected and tens of millions die, including more than half a million American casualties. Right up until that last clause, it might have seemed that I was writing about the current Ebola crisis—but as deadly as that crisis has been for the African nations most affected, it has to date taken the lives of only two Americans; whereas the 1918 influenza pandemic (colloquially known as the Spanish Flu, due to that nation’s more straightforward reporting about the disease’s presence and effects) killed more than 500,000 Americans and nearly 100 million people across the globe before it finally was contained.
Contextualizing the influenza pandemic requires extended attention to two distinct but related globalizing trends. Most obviously, the crisis overlapped—not only in time, but in both cause and effect—with the final year of World War I (known then as The Great War); some historians have argued that it began in the war’s trenches or camps, but even if that wasn’t the case, it certainly spread and lingered in direct relation to the war (if, as many have noted, its casualty numbers far exceeded the war’s devastating effects). More subtly, the pandemic’s truly global spread—it reached even the world’s most remote locations, such as the Arctic—has to be linked to the ways in which advancements in technology and travel had made the early 20th century world far more interconnected than ever before; from the increasing ease of steamship travel to the rise of new technologies such as the automobile and airplanes, such developments allowed for international movement and connections in evolving, unprecedented ways. And as that linked Arctic story illustrates, another, linked international trend—the rise in imperialistic endeavors around the world—likewise facilitated the pandemic’s spread.
Both of these international contexts might seem equally relevant to analyzing our contemporary Ebola epidemic. Many of the African nations most affected by the disease have been and remain war-torn, and those conditions have no doubt contributed to the epidemic’s spread and effects. And the many American politicians and pundits who called for the suspension of all trips to and flights from those nations during the crisis’s early moments were quite explicitly arguing for international travel as both a contributing factor and a threat. But since, despite the absence of such drastic measures and the presence of various returning health workers, the epidemic has not spread to the United States (again, only two Americans have died from Ebola to date, and only a handful more have been affected), I would have to contexualize and analyze this current epidemic’s American story quite differently. To my mind, the American response to the Ebola epidemic has been driven by irrational or at least exaggerated fears—of globalization and its effects, of dangerous “others” (from terrorists to illegal immigrants), even of our fellow citizens. The Ebola epidemic remains quite real and horrific in West Africa, and requires continued attention—but here in the U.S., comparisons to the influenza pandemic reveal more about our current political and psychological state than our health.
Next epidemic tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

March 21-22, 2015: AmericanThaws: Cuba

[After a mild start, it ended up being a long, cold, wintry winter. But all winters end, metaphorically as well as seasonally, and in this week’s series I’ve AmericanStudied a few cultural and historical such American thaws—leading up to this weekend post on one of our most recent warmings.]
Two posts of mine to contextualize a recent warming—and a request for more perspectives!
In December, President Obama announced a striking shift in America’s foreign policy, one not quite as stunning as Nixon’s visit to China but in the same conversation: a thawing of our half-century-long coldness toward our island neighbor of Cuba. In response to this action, and more exactly to many of the over-simplified and inaccurate critiques it received from American politicans and pundits, I wrote a piece for my biweekly Talking Points Memo column, highlighting the 150 years of Cuban-American relations and history that such simplistic responses forget or ignore. In that piece I engaged briefly with perhaps the single most important figure in both Cuban and Cuban American history, José Martí; I would thus argue that engaging more fully with his individual life and story, as I tried to in this post, also offers important contexts and connections for understanding the longstanding and unfolding relationship between these two nations.
So those are two places I would begin to contextualize and deepen our conversations about this recent thaw and the relationship and history to which it connects. But what about you? I would love to get more perspectives and voices, to hear other ways that you would contextualize, analyze, understand, critique, and so on Obama’s decision, our narratives of this neighboring nation, and any other relevant issues you’d bring into the mix. So I’m going to cut this post short, in a symbolic but genuine attempt to leave room for your own comments and responses. What do you think?
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. You know what to do!

Friday, March 20, 2015

March 20, 2015: AmericanThaws: Nixon Goes to China

[After a mild start, it ended up being a long, cold, wintry winter. But all winters end, metaphorically as well as seasonally, and in this week’s series I’ll be AmericanStudying a few cultural and historical such American thaws—leading up to a weekend post on one of our most recent warmings.]
On two ways to better contextualize and AmericanStudy an undeniable turning point.
By any measure, President Richard Nixon’s February 1972 trip to the People’s Republic of China was a stunning moment in American and international history. It wasn’t just that no prior president had visited the PRC since its 1949 founding, but more that the two nations had barely recognized each other’s existence over that quarter century, at least outside of stereotypical narratives of evil enemies and occasional wartime foes. Moreover, the broader Cold War contexts add at least two more layers of stunning to the mix: the U.S. was still entrenched in a prolonged Southeast Asian war against “Communism” at the time; and that political concept, one tied nearly as strongly to the PRC as it was to the USSR, remained the nation’s most significant and terrifying boogeyman (and would for at least another decade and a half). For a leader who had come to prominence as a crusader against Communism, and one who had recently deepened the war in Vietnam to boot, to make this historic trip was, again, nothing short of stunning.
Yet we can recognize a moment’s truly unexpected nature and still find ways to contextualize it, to connect it to longstanding and ongoing histories and narratives. For one thing, if for the quarter century leading up to Nixon’s visit the U.S. had had no diplomatic relations with China, that period marked a turning point from the prior century’s worth of exchanges and encounters between the two nations. The individual identity and story of Yung Wing, the 19th century Chinese American student, diplomat, soldier, and educator about whom I’ve written at length in multiple places, offers a particularly salient starting point for engaging with those long-term US-China relationships. Over the course of the nearly eight decades between Yung’s 1840s arrival to the United States and his 1912 death “at his home in Hartford” (as his New York Times obituary put it), Yung experienced and exemplified numerous stages and shifts in those diplomatic and political relationships: from the most friendly, as illustrated by his Civil War-era mission to secure American arms for Chinese military needs; to the most hostile, as illustrated by his exclusion from the United States after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the concurrent threats to his life he faced in China because of his prior American activities. To treat Nixon in China as a starting point for a relationship would be to forget these prior centuries of history.
Across the same centuries that those histories were unfolding, however, a longstanding and multi-layered narrative of bigotry and discrimination toward the Chinese was also developing in America. That narrative is best summed up by the phrase “Yellow Peril,” as it consistently depicted the Chinese as a threat to the United States in a variety of ways: physically, through diseases, drug addictions and other vices, rape and sexual dangers; economically, through everything from low-wage workers to the destruction of communal businesses and neighborhoods; internationally, through the image of an alien foreign power hell-bent on taking over the world; and more. (I imagine that China had its own, perhaps parallel developing narratives and stereotypes about America over the same years—I just am not familiar with them, and would welcome any thoughts in comments.) It’s important to note that the Cold War fears of “Red China,” despite the color shift, strongly echoed and extended the Yellow Peril narratives—and that those fears and narratives continued after Nixon’s visit, and indeed have endured into our present moment in many ways. Which is to say, stunning and transformative as Nixon’s trip was, there are longer histories to which it must be connected, contexts that help us understand the moment and the two nations far more fully.
Special post this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other thaws you’d highlight?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

March 19, 2015: AmericanThaws: Humanity in War

[After a mild start, it ended up being a long, cold, wintry winter. But all winters end, metaphorically as well as seasonally, and in this week’s series I’ll be AmericanStudying a few cultural and historical such American thaws—leading up to a weekend post on one of our most recent warmings.]
On an amazing moment of wartime humanity.
I’ve written many times here about the toll that war takes on all who fight and encounter it, and most especially about the way it requires a loss of humanity that is as damaging to those who lose it as it is to those they attack or destroy. Earlier this year, I had a similar response to Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper, and specifically to the bigoted and hateful perpectives of the real soldier, Chris Kyle, on whose autobiography that film was based (and in which he expressed those perspectives clearly and proudly). Without excusing Kyle’s individual responsibility for his own perspective and words, that is, it seems clear to me, as I wrote in a Facebook post on Kyle and the film, that he was, in those perspectives as much as in his talents as a killer, “perfect for war. Which makes a perfect image for how horrible war is and always will be.”
I would stand by that perspective, on the film and its subject and more importantly on war overall. Which makes this unbelievable and unbelievably moving story, of a moment of shared humanity during World War II and all that followed it, even more striking and worth remembering and sharing. Honestly, I don’t want to take up any more of your reading time with this post, when I can ask you to read that story instead. If there’s a better example of the possibility of warmth, empathy, and even love, amidst the coldest, darkest kinds of human conflict and brutality, I don’t know it.
Last thaw tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other thaws you’d highlight?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March 18, 2015: AmericanThaws: William Mahone

[After a mild start, it ended up being a long, cold, wintry winter. But all winters end, metaphorically as well as seasonally, and in this week’s series I’ll be AmericanStudying a few cultural and historical such American thaws—leading up to a weekend post on one of our most recent warmings.]
On late-in-life evolutions that don’t impress me much, and those that do.
In a footnote to this post nominating Nathan Bedford Forrest for an American Hall of Shame, I mentioned Forrest’s apparent, late-in-life reversals in perspective on issues like race. In that footnote, I called Forrest’s shifts “far too little and too late,” and I would stand by that assessment. Of course I’m glad that Forrest seems to have seen the error of his ways before the end, but unlike (for example) Ben Franklin, whose late-in-life change in perspective on immigration was accompanied by extensive writings and efforts, Forrest’s shifts seem to have been mostly in personal relationships, which are nice but don’t leave nearly the same legacy or influence. And thus, Forrest’s enduring legacies can and should still be defined by the worst of what he did: as a slave trader who designed a particularly “successful” system for such transactions; a Civil War general responsible for one of the war’s most brutal massacres; and, most of all, the creator of one of America’s most longstanding terrorist organizations.
Just because Forrest’s thaws don’t strike me as historically significant, however, doesn’t mean I would say the same for all Confederate veterans. I’ve elsewhere made the case, for example, for why and how we should better remember James Longstreet’s impressive post-war evolutions. Even more striking, and to my mind even more impressive, were the second-act shifts of another Confederate general, William Mahone. My fellow blogger and scholar Kevin Levin tells Mahone’s story (in the article linked at Mahone’s name) much better than I can here, but the sweep of it can be summed up in two details: the former railroad engineer Mahone rose to prominence leading the Confederates to victory in the Battle of the Crater, another of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most brutal battles; and yet in the post-war era he became a leader instead of Virginia’s Readjuster Party, a political coalition of African Americans, Republicans, and Democrats that offered a profoundly different vision of Southern politics and identity than most of the period’s trends and narratives. In 1881 Mahone helped the Readjusters elect both a new Virginia governor (William Cameron) and himself as a US Senator.
There are lots of reasons why I find Mahone’s shifts as impressive and inspiring as I do, but I would highlight two in particular here. For one thing, I can’t imagine a better example of going against the popular trend—not only in Virginia and the South, which by 1881 were well on their way to the dominance of Jim Crow and all its accompanying histories; but throughout the nation, which likewise was well on the way to becoming “distinctly Confederate in sympathy” (as Albion Tourgée famously put it in an 1888 essay). And for another, related thing, Mahone’s post-war choices and actions exposed him to unrelenting criticism and hatred from many throughout the state that had been and would remain his lifelong home (and in the 19th century development of which he had served a key role). To do something unpopular, at great personal cost, seems to me one of the most difficult and most admirable choices a person can make. The Readjuster Party may have faded in the century’s final years, but Mahone’s efforts, and the personal, political, and historical shifts they exemplified, have left a far longer and deeper legacy for us to remember and respect.
Next thaw tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other thaws you’d highlight?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

March 17, 2015: AmericanThaws: The US and the UK

[After a mild start, it ended up being a long, cold, wintry winter. But all winters end, metaphorically as well as seasonally, and in this week’s series I’ll be AmericanStudying a few cultural and historical such American thaws—leading up to a weekend post on one of our most recent warmings.]
On how a longstanding animosity began to change, and why the specifics matter.
Thanks to popular cultural texts from Paul Revere’s ride to Mel Gibson’s Revolution, it seems to me that even the most history-phobic Americans are likely to have a sense that our nation began through hostile conflict with the British. Thanks to a burning White House and a flag that was still there, many Americans might even know that we fought another significant war with the same British foe only a few decades after the Revolution. And the animosity between the new United States and its former colonial mother country didn’t end with the War of 1812—from the anti-European import of the Monroe Doctrine to border disputes between the two countries in Maine and Oregon, and through the extended British flirtations with allying with the Confederacy during the Civil War, the 19th century was marked by consistent diplomatic chilliness punctuated by occasional wintry storms.
Yet by the mid-20th century, of course, the two nations were staunch allies, fighting together in the two World Wars (yes, the US began each war officially neutral, but in each case we were aiding the UK’s cause long before we militarily joined it) and subsequently enjoying a so-called “special relationship” that has continued to this day. The late 19th and early 20th century shift that led to this new and enduring relationship has been studied by historians of both nations for many years, and has come to be known as The Great Rapprochement (a term perhaps first coined by historian Bradford Perkins in his 1968 book of the same name). As the many cartoons, lithographs, and other primary documents collected at this site illustrate, the shift was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic while it was happening, and was folded into many other narratives of the two nations’ expanding turn of the century identities, concurrent imperialistic ventures, and other social and cultural trends.
There was no single factor in that multi-decade rapprochement, but I would argue that tying it to those imperialistic endeavors is of particular importance. The first test of the two nations’ newfound friendship, after all, came during the Spanish American War; most European nations sided with their fellow colonial power, but England opted for their new ally, a choice that certainly contributed to the eventual American triumph in that conflict. Perhaps as a quid pro quo, and perhaps as just another reflection of the new relationship, the U.S. likewise sided with the U.K. during the bloody and controversial Second Boer War. It’s tempting, and not I would argue inaccurate, to tie these turn of the 20th century imperial alliances to the two nations’ leading roles in the early 21st century Iraq War, as well as the effects of both British and American influences on and presences in a nation like Afghanistan. But even leaving such contemporary connections aside, the role that imperialism played in bringing together the US and the UK is hugely telling of how the nations moved together into their 20th century and ongoing identities and roles.
Next thaw tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other thaws you’d highlight?

Monday, March 16, 2015

March 16, 2015: AmericanThaws: Eliot and Williams

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

PS. What do you think? Other thaws you’d highlight?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

March 14-15, 2015: All That Crowd-sourced Jazz

[Inspired by the anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death—on which more in Thursday’s post—this week I’ve been AmericanStudying some figures and issues related to the very American musical genre of jazz. This swinging crowd-sourced post is drawn from the responses and recommndations of fellow JazzStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]
First, I just have to put in my strongest possible plug for David Simon’s Treme, a show very much about jazz (among many other topics). As of this writing I’ve watched through Season 2 (of 4), and while it’s different in almost every way from The Wire, it’s also both a wonderful complement to that show and an incredibly successful work of American art in its own right. If, like me, you hadn’t gotten around to watching it yet, I give it my strongest possible AmericanStudier recommendation!
Second, I have to mention another cultural representation of jazz I had the chance to check out this past week, Whiplash. Interestingly, Whiplash takes almost the exact opposite tack on jazz than Treme—for the latter, jazz is one of the most affirming and inspiring parts of a world that can be bleak and painful so much of the time; whereas in Damien Chazelle’s film, jazz itself is literally and figuratively painful, pain that might well be necessary in order to produce great art. And it uses the subject of my Thursday post, Charlie Parker, to make that case!
On Monday’s Scott Joplin post, commenter sunshine_247 writes, “I studied Scott Joplin at a very young age … I even learned ‘The Maple Leaf Rap’ when I was 12 … he is amazing!”
Robert Greene II follows up Friday’s request for contemporary artists by highlighting:
“1. Robert Glasper--who I would argue is most pertinent to your post. His most recent albums, Black Radio and Black Radio 2 have been attempts to fuse together jazz with contemporary genres of hip hop, soul, and R&B. He worked with some well known mainstream artists on both albums. 

2. Esperanza Spalding--a prodigy out of Portland who has also done some great work. 

3. Trombone Shorty--this artist has kept up the fantastic jazz tradition of New Orleans.”
Michael Rifenburg goes with “Sun Ra!”
Andrea Grenadier adds, “I love jazz, and this reminds me I'd better start updating myself, since I'm a purist, and have always loved the wild roots of jazz, until the late 1940s. Although never a fan of fusion, I love when the traditional collides with the present. To me, Marcus Roberts is a genius, and not only because he focuses for the most part on those pre-1950s riffs. I love great trio work, and hey! Here's a shout-out to bassist Larry Grenadier, who plays with Brad Mehldau's Trio, and Fly.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other jazzy connections or recommendations you’d share?

Friday, March 13, 2015

March 13, 2015: Jazzy Connections: Jazz in the 21st Century

[Inspired by the anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death—on which more in yesterday’s post—this week I’ll be AmericanStudying some figures and issues related to the very American musical genre of jazz. Please share your own responses and thoughts for a swinging crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On three ways to argue for the genre’s continued contemporary relevance.
First and foremost, I’m quite sure that the quantity and quality of new jazz being made and recorded in 2015 equals any and every other musical genre. The sad but important-to-admit truth is that I just don’t know about it yet (I try to be the most all-encompassing and knowledgable AmericanStudier I can be, but, y’know, the realities of time and the choices they require get in the way sometimes), and thus can’t make the case myself for listening to these contemporary artists. I have to think that at least some of the folks reading this post will have far broader and deeper such knowledge than me, however, so I ask—nay, I implore!—you to share your recommendations and tips in comments. I’ll put them right into the crowd-sourced weekend post, and together we can help get the word out about 21st century jazz artists and works. Deal? Excellent.
Yet such contemporary talents aren’t the only way to frame jazz’s 21st century presence and role, and I would stress two others in any case. For one thing, as I hope this week’s posts and topics have all illustrated, there’s the genre’s historical, social, and cultural significance. To put it simply, you can’t tell the story of 20th century America without including jazz in a prominent role—and I would concurrently argue that you can’t include jazz in that role without, y’know, listening to and engaging with many of its artists and works, moments and movements. There’s much to be said, of course, for listening to music for the aesthetic and emotional effects and enjoyment it can produce—but it’s not an either/or proposition, and I’m far too analytical not to consider all that the music can also contribute to our perspectives on these historical and cultural topics. Take Miles Davis’s landmark recording Kind of Blue (1959), for example—seriously fun to listen to, but also an amazing embodiment of how American culture was changing as the 50s became the 60s.
And then there are jazz’s places. I’ve written elsewhere in this space about the unique and profoundly American identity of New Orleans, and I can think of no better way to represent and engage with that city’s culture and history than through jazz (a point made consistently, it seems, by the #1 TV show on my must-watch list, David Simon’s Treme). The same case can be made for other complex American cities and spaces, from Kansas City to Memphis to Houston; to know their jazz is to know them, and vice versa. (Is it a coincidence that many of the best jazz cities are also among the best bbq cities? I have to say it’s not, but more research into this hypothesis will no doubt be required.) While I’m sure the same case could be made for rock ‘n roll, or country, or even different cities’ symphonies, it seems to me that there’s something distinctly local and live about jazz—a phenomenon exemplified by the unique experiences offered by every jazz club and corner of New Orleans. If we want to connect with these American places—and we should—I can’t think of a better way to do so than through jazz.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

March 12, 2015: Jazzy Connections: Charlie Parker’s Death

[Inspired by today’s anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying some figures and issues related to the very American musical genre of jazz. Please share your own responses and thoughts for a swinging crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On what is lost when a genius dies far too young—and what endures, now more than ever.
For one of my non-favorites posts last year, I wrote about Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, and specifically about our tendency to romanticize the lives and arcs of talented artists who self-destruct and die too young. Jazz has its share of such artists and stories as well, and none looms larger than Charlie “Bird” (or “Yardbird”) Parker, the virtuouso be-bop saxophonist and composer (a forty-minute recording, to be clear, but worth every second of your time) who died on this date sixty years ago at the tragically young age of 34. Parker’s official causes of death were pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, but he was also suffering from chronic cirrhosis and heart problems as a result of his long-term (if apparently by that time overcome) addictions to heroin and alcohol, and it thus seems fair to me (although I’m not that kind of doctor) to lump him in with other talented musicians and artists whose self-destructive tendencies contributed to their far too early deaths.
In the non-favorites post, I was perhaps overly hard on Morrison and Cobain, especially in terms of my sense that their music has been over-rated. Because in truth, one of the most tragic things about such youthful deaths (at least on the communal level—of course the loss to their families, loved ones, and friends is the most tragic thing) is that we are denied the chance to see how these artists and their voices and talents evolve, grow, and deepen over time. If I try to imagine, for example, the career of my own personal favorite, Bruce Springsteen, if it had ended in the mid to late 1970s (when he was about the ages at which Morrison, Parker, and Cobain died), it would be far less rich and impressive, diverse and influential. Similarly, another artist whom I highlighted in a non-favorites post this year, Elvis Presley, died at the still-youthful age of 42, robbing us of the same chance when it came to his own later decades and works. When I think about where all these artists might have gone in their subsequent efforts, what new and important works they could have created, such losses become, collectively, one of the greatest tragedies in American culture and history.
Those losses and that tragedy are unmistakable, and nothing I write here can blunt their edge. But at the same time, one of the most important things about art and culture is that they endure beyond the life of any individual artist, or any generation or period—all of which, of course, whether early or late, tragic or inevitable, end. That’s always been true, as evidenced by the remarkable fact that around this time in the semester I’ll be teaching a five hundred year old Shakespeare play in my Intro to Lit Theory course. But in our increasingly digital 21st century moment, art’s endurance—and more exactly our ability to find and connect to art—has never been more apparent. As of the moment of this writing, a YouTube search for “Charlie Parker” produces “about 202,000 results,” most of which lead to interesting and exciting performances, compositions, and works. No one of course could possibly watch and listen to all those results—not without some sort of NEH grant and a lot of coffee, anyway—but the opportunity to check out even a few, and thus to connect to the life and work of one of jazz’s greatest talents, gone too soon but still with us in so many ways, is something to be prized.
Last jazzy connection tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Jazzy connections you’d share?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

March 11, 2015: Jazzy Connections: Whites and the Harlem Renaissance

[Inspired by the anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death—on which more in Thursday’s post—this week I’ll be AmericanStudying some figures and issues related to the very American musical genre of jazz. Please share your own responses and thoughts for a swinging crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On white America’s troubling and exploitative yet potentially productive obsession with black culture.
The trope of African American cultural trends entering the American mainstream through white imitations is a very familiar one: from the high five to graffiti to rap music, and right up through twerking and numerous other 2014 trends, the pattern is as clear as it is consistent. Yet I don’t know that the pattern was ever more central to American culture and society than in the 1920s heyday of the Jazz Age, a period overtly named (by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, natch) for an African American cultural genre. Obviously New York City only comprises one part of America, and Harlem only one neighborhood within that city—yet as the endurance of Fitzgerald’s name for the era suggests, the entire period came to be and often still is associated with precisely that city and community; and more exactly, I would argue, with the large crowds of (mostly) white Americans who descended on Harlem to enjoy its jazz clubs and scene.
No single figure better encapsulates that trend than Carl Van Vechten, who rose to fame as a patron and photographer of the Harlem Renaissance, and no single work does so more clearly than his novel Nigger Heaven (1926). As that excellent linked New Yorker article indicates, Van Vechten knew full well that his title would be a controversial one, and went ahead with it anyway—partly, it seems, because of his belief that he had “succeeded in getting into most of the important sets” of Harlem African Americans (as he wrote in a 1925 letter to his friend Gertrude Stein about the novel-in-progress), and thus that he had a pass to use such a word; and partly, I would argue, because he knew that the title would draw more attention to the novel, and thus help it make a significant splash (which it certainly did). Which is to say, even though Van Vechten undoubtedly and genuinely supported the Harlem Renaissance and the broader Harlem community, it seems clear to me that he likewise exploited the place and its art and identity to advance his own career and success.
Yet at the same time, it’s difficult to argue that the Harlem Renaissance, and specifically the period’s jazz artists and performers, did not benefit significantly from the interest both illustrated and generated by folks like Van Vechten. In order for musicians and artists to survive and succeed, after all, they need enough support (of all kinds), as well as the kinds of publicity and attention that can increase audience awareness and support. I don’t know that Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Duke Ellington, and their many 1920s peers could have gained enough support from within the Harlem or African American communities alone to achieve the broad and deep levels of success, prominence, and influence that they did—and I do know that American music, culture, and identity would be significantly impoverished if it did not include those artists and many others. That effect doesn’t in any way mean we can’t still analyze and, if appropriate, critique the attitudes and actions of Van Vechten or any of those Jazz Age white audiences; but as we do so, it seems to me that we must also thank them for doing their part to help bring these jazz artists, and their community and period, into our collective consciousness and national story so fully.
Next jazzy connection tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Jazzy connections you’d share?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

March 10, 2015: Jazzy Connections: Jazz Literature

[Inspired by the anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death—on which more in Thursday’s post—this week I’ll be AmericanStudying some figures and issues related to the very American musical genre of jazz. Please share your own responses and thoughts for a swinging crowd-sourced weekend post!]
Three engaging and important examples of jazz’s influence on American literature.
1)      Langston Hughes’s Jazz Poetry: As I wrote in that post on Hughes’s Collected Poems, his voice, style, and themes can’t be reduced to any one element or influence. Yet as illustrated by his important essay “Bop,” Hughes was deeply interested in jazz and its many variations, and that interest manifested itself in a good deal of his poetry. Take, for example, the complex short work “Dream Boogie,” the opening part of Hughes’s book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951). “Dream Boogie” both uses and analyzes the sounds, rhythms, and styles of “bop,” and in the process makes a subtle but compelling case for the genre’s social and cultural significance as well as its aesthetic appeals.
2)      The Prologue of Invisible Man (1952): The Prologue of Ralph Ellison’s titantic mid-century novel has much to do as the rest of that sweeping book, but is anchored by a recurring allusion to one specific text: Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” (1929). In a Prologue—and a novel—defined so fully by metaphors and allegories, Ellison’s use of Armstrong’s song does two important things: illustrating how jazz specifically and African American art more broadly have likewise utilized such extended metaphors; yet at the same time grounding his metaphors and symbols in a song and sound that are quite potently concrete and real. When he ends his Prologue with the question, “But what did I do to be so blue?,” Ellison is thus reiterating how much the allusion, the song, and jazz itself can tell us about his narrator’s American story and identity.
3)      Toni Morrison’s Jazz (1992): Morrison’s historical novel, set in the 1920s (a period seen and defined as the height of jazz’s popularity and influence in America) in Harlem (the locus of those trends), has a great deal to say about that time and place, the potency yet also potential problems of jazz as both a cultural form and a way of life, and how those things connect to the long arcs of African American and American history. But it also offers a successful prose equivalent to Hughes’s jazz poetry, a fictional style that includes improvisation, call and response, and other hallmarks of the musical genre. Taken together, these three works trace jazz’s literary presence and influence across the 20th century.
Next jazzy connection tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Jazzy connections you’d share?