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Thursday, April 30, 2015

April 30, 2015: Communist Culture: The Blithedale Romance

[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On the novel that significantly shifted an author’s career—and yet its continuity with his two prior masterpieces.
Nearly a century before Richard Wright published his autobiographical essay “I Tried to Be a Communist” (1944), Nathaniel Hawthorne published a semi-autobiographical novel that could have been titled the exact same thing. Between April and November 1841, Hawthorne lived at George and Sophia Ripley’s West Roxbury, Massachusetts utopian experiment Brook Farm; the experiment brought together many other prominent Transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Bronson Alcott. Hawthorne’s experience with the Brook Farm community (which continued for another six years or so after his depature) was mixed, as reflected both in the letters he wrote while there to his future wife Sophia Peabody and in his subsequent description of the period as “essentially a daydream, and yet a fact.” And just over a decade later, he would portray a strikingly similar utopian community in The Blithedale Romance (1852).
Blithedale was Hawthorne’s third romance in three years—following The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851)—and marked a significant shift from the prior two. I would categorize both of them as historical romances: Scarlet quite overtly, as it is set more than two hundred years prior to its publication date; and Gables in its central use of the Salem Witch Trials, a history which Hawthorne calls in the novel’s famous Preface “a legend prolonging itself, from an epoch now gray in the distance, down into our own broad day-light, and bringing along with it some of its legendary mist.” Blithedale, on the other hand, is not only set in its own historical moment but centrally focused on engaging with, challenging, and at times satirizing that moment’s philosophies and ideals, most especially those of both Transcendentalism and communism. Perhaps to aid in that sense of present grounding, Hawthorne likewise shifts from the earlier novels’ third-person narrators to a semi-autobiographical (if also quite complex) first-person one, Miles Coverdale, who narrates for us his own experiences of the Blithedale utopian community.
But if Blithedale is interestingly distinct from the two novels that preceded it, I would nonetheless argue that reading it in relationship to those historical romances helps us analyze how Hawthorne chooses to depict his socially realistic topic. After all, both earlier novels likewise featured realistic historical subjects—community in Puritan New England and the causes and legacies of the Witch Trials—but portrayed them through what Hawthorne described, in that Gables Preface, as the Romance’s “right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation” (in contrast to the Novel, which he argues “is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity … to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience”). Literary historians have long sought to pin down which Blithedale character is which historical figure—Zenobia is Fuller! Hollingsworth is Ripley! and so on—but Hawthorne’s definition of the Romance would lead us in a different direction: to consider instead how he bends the historical realities of that place and time into a new, more Romantic shape, “manages his atmospherical medium” to present “the truth of the human heart.” Like both prior novels, that is, Blithedale ultimately presents the human heart of its histories—an important achievement indeed.
Last cultural communism tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

April 29, 2015: Communist Culture: Doctorow and Coover

[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On two distinct but complementary postmodern historical novels.
As I wrote in this post on American hypocrites, Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America (1991-1993) includes one of the most searing and tragic depictions of McCarthyism: Kushner’s portrayal of Roy Cohn, and most especially of Cohn’s literally and figuratively haunting conversations with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose conviction and demise a young Cohn helped ensure and who becomes in Kushner’s imagining the last “person” to speak with Cohn before his own death from AIDS. And Kushner isn’t alone is capitalizing upon Ethel Rosenberg’s literary and symbolic qualities, as the famous communist (whether guilty of espionage or not, she certainly was that) and her husband also occupy a complex and central place in two of the most significant late 20th century American historical novels: E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971) and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977).
Scholar Linda Hutcheon developed a new category, “historiographic metafiction,” to describe postmodern historical novels, works that put history and fiction in complex and often playful interrelationship and that do so in self-aware and –reflective ways. Both Doctorow’s and Coover’s novels fit aspects of this category, but in very different ways: Doctorow’s novel is narrated by the son of a fictionalized version of the Rosenbergs (known in his novel as the Isaacsons), and it is the narrator Daniel’s awareness of his own project, audience, and historical significance that makes the book truly postmodern; whereas Coover’s novel’s most prominent characters include not only Ethel Rosenberg but also Richard Nixon (who serves as one of the text’s main perspectives) and Uncle Sam (who is a folksy and vulgar chorus of sorts, appearing periodically to comment on the action). Needless to say, despite their shared subject matter, only one of the novels produced a significant controversy upon its publication.
Yet if we consider that shared subject matter, and more exactly the question of how fiction can help us engage with difficult and divisive historical subjects more generally, it seems to me that Doctorow’s and Coover’s books complement each other quite nicely. Coover’s is biting and angry, lashing out at the kinds of hysterias and extremes that McCarthyism exemplified (whether the Rosenbergs were guilty or not) and that Uncle Sam’s America has always included. Doctorow’s is intimate and tragic, considering the legacies of such histories on the individuals and families, as well as the communities and nation, that experience them. Coover focuses on the most public moments and figures, Doctorow on the most private effects and lives. Together, they help us remember that every American history and issue, even the Cold War boogeyman of communism, became and remains a part of our communal and human landscapes as well.
Next cultural communism tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

April 28, 2015: Communist Culture: Dos Passos and Wright

[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On two strikingly parallel yet also importantly distinct 1930s to ‘50s American arcs.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, despite our longstanding collective national antagonism toward communism there have been both moments and communities in which the political philosophy has had substantially broader and deeper appeal. In the 1930s, two such factors came together to help produce a sizeable and vocal cohort of writers and intellectuals who embraced communism: the Great Depression’s heightening of wealth inequalities and social stratification seemed to highlight the limitations and even destructive capabilities of unchecked capitalism, leading a number of American writers and artists to imagine and depict alternative social and communal ways of living; and those economic woes, coupled with the continued destructive forces of segregation, lynching, and other communal ills and threats, led many African Americans similarly to seek an alternative to the dominant American systems.
Those responses happened (and thus differed) within multiple communities, but they can be succinctly illustrated by two individuals, writers whose most significant novels bookend the 1930s in American literature and culture. John Dos Passos had been publishing fiction since the mid-1920s, but it was the trilogy that came to be collected as U.S.A. (1938)—The 42nd Parallel (1930), 1919 (1932), and The Big Money (1936)—that exemplified both his stylistic experimentation and his socialistic philosophies. Richard Wright launched his career with the short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children (1938) but truly entered the literary stratosphere two years later with Native Son (1940), the best-selling and hugely controversial novel that features both one of American literature’s most eloquent defenders of communism (in the lawyer Max) and a character (protagonist Bigger Thomas) whose tragic and brutal arc makes numerous, purposefully ineloquent but nonetheless compelling arguments for the philosophy.
In the 1940s to 50s, both writers famously broke with those philosophies and with the Communist Party: Wright in one pivotal moment, the essay “I Tried to Be a Communist” (1944); and Dos Passos more gradually, in a series of public statements and positions that culminated in his qualified support for Joseph McCarthy (among other turning points). Yet I would also argue that their shifts represent two quite distinct personal and national narratives: Dos Passos genuinely seemed, in response to World War II, the Cold War, and other factors, to change in his political and social perspectives; whereas to my mind Wright’s perspectives remained largely unchanged, and he came instead to see, as does for example Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, the Communist Party as an imperfect and indeed failed vehicle through which to seek such political and social change. Such a distinction would of course become even more important in the 1960s, when a new generation of African American activists found anew a compelling alternative in American socialism.
Next cultural communism tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?

Monday, April 27, 2015

April 27, 2015: Communist Culture: “The Palace-Burner”

[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On the masterpiece of a poem that destroys easy “us vs. them” narratives.
I made the case for my favorite American poet, Sarah Piatt, in one of my first posts, and did so in large part through her best poem, “The Palace-Burner” (1873). There are a lot of factors that make “Palace-Burner” one of the great American poems, including its exemplification of Piatt’s frequent use of a unique and multi-layered perspective that I named in my first book the dialogic lyric, an individual speaker’s perspective filtered through conversation and the shifts and evolutions it always produces. But at the top of the list for me would be Piatt’s incredibly sophisticated representation—through the lens of a mother and young son discussing a newspaper picture of a female rebel from the 1871 Paris Commune—of what I called in this post three crucial and interconnected levels to empathy: “connecting to seemingly distant others, working to understand those to whom we’re close, and examining our own identities through those lenses.”
This wasn’t necessarily the case in the 1870s (although given the immense popularity of Horatio Alger novels in the period, maybe it was), but over the century and a half since I would say that there have been few world communities with which Americans have had, collectively, a more difficult time empathizing than communists. Of course there are significant exceptions, both in terms of time periods during which that philosophy has seemed more appealing (such as the Great Depression, about which more in tomorrow’s post) and in terms of American communities who have been sufficiently disenfranchised from our dominant national narratives to see the wisdom of such alternatives (such as African Americans in the mid-20th century, on whom likewise more tomorrow). But when it comes to our overarching, dominant narratives, communism has been one of the most consistent “them’s” to our constructed “us” for a long while; we can see both sides of that equation, for example, in our consistent need to define the Soviet Union as “godless” in contrast to equally constructed images of the United States as a “Christian nation.”
There would be various possible ways to complicate and revise that kind of “us vs. them” narrative, including highlighting the many originating and influential forms and moments of American socialism and communism. But Piatt takes another, and to my mind particularly compelling, tack: creating in her poetic speaker a woman who seems thoroughly removed from not only communism but political conversations in general (especially in the “separate spheres” mentality that continued to reign for most middle-class American families in the period); and then giving that speaker the opportunity to consider whether and how she and a foreign communist woman might have anything in common. Neither the speaker nor the poem come to any easy or comfortable answers—empathy is neither of those things in any case—but they ask the questions, and that seems to me to an impressive model for all of us.
Next cultural communism tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

April 25-26, 2014: How Would a Patriot Act?: You

[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I stole a phrase from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlighted five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. This post adds you to the mix—so add your nominees in comments, please!]
This weekend’s genuinely patriotic American is you.
The problem with what I called (in Monday’s post) the “easy” version of American patriotism, the version that asks us to pledge allegiance, stand for the anthem, say “God Bless America” at the drop of a hat, and so on, is not that everybody can do it. The problem, as I see it, is that everybody can do it without much effort at all (other than the rote performance of those kinds of rituals), and certainly without thinking or critical engagement with complex questions and narratives, with defining debates over our ideals and our realities. The problem, in short, is that it’s easy—and, to quote from one of my favorite moments in American literature (a line from the culminating section of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony [1977]), “The only thing is: it has never been easy.”
So this is where you come in—you fellow AmericanStudiers, whoever and wherever you are. If I could highlight one ongoing goal for my work on this site, I’d say the same thing that I’d say for my published writing and works in progress, for my contributions to Talking Points Memo and other sites, for my year-plus of book talks, for my work with students, for my work in the Adult Learning classes I’ve had the chance to teach, for everything I do these days as a professional and public scholar: to help people engage more fully, with more complexity, with our American histories and stories, our national identity and community. While of course I have my own ideas and arguments about those topics, at the end of the day I promise that I’m not trying to get everybody to buy into them—I can’t imagine a better America, in fact, than one in which we can all debate these questions, from positions of knowledge and engagement, of passion and empathy, of civic responsibility and personal stakes.
My guess, without knowing many of you personally yet (and again and as always—introduce yourselves, please!), is that we’re all on the same page here. So the next step is to extend these efforts, to share these goals and ideals with more and more of our fellow Americans (and AmericanStudiers everywhere). Am I asking you to send your friends and loved ones to this blog?? Maybe a bit. But mostly I’m just asking you to have these conversations, to do this work, in your ways and communities with your own voice and perspective, to share in the work that is and will continue to be so crucial to our American future. I know it won’t be easy—it never has been—but I can’t imagine anything more important, nor more patriotic.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. Any thoughts? Any other patriotic Americans you’d nominate?

Friday, April 24, 2015

April 24, 2015: How Would a Patriot Act?: César Chávez

[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. Please nominate your own choices to contribute to a collectively patriotic weekend post!]
Today’s genuinely patriotic American is César Chávez.
I don’t have any illusions about how many Americans would disagree with me that a labor activist and leader, and one who did most of his work on behalf of migrant workers, undocumented immigrants, and other impoverished American communities, could be a unifying and inspiring figure. Our increasingly divided and partisan versions of American history (and everything else) have, I would argue, meant one of a couple things for how we remember inspiring recent patriots: either we create warm and fuzzy images of them that elide much of both their complexity and their greatness, as we have with Martin Luther King, Jr.; or many of us come to see them as a negative and destructive force, as I believe is the case with Chávez.
But one of the central jobs of public American Studies scholarship, as I see it, is precisely to find the way to do a couple difficult and even potentially contradictory things at the same time: to help us collectively connect more fully and with more complexity to our national histories and stories, perhaps especially the dark and divisive ones; and alongside and (at least ideally) through them to imagine and argue for unifying American communities and identities to which we can all connect as we move forward. And I think our most impressive and inspiring Americans offer a great opportunity to do both of those things at the same time: with King, for example, if we can remember both his impassioned stands against poverty, war, and other injustices and yet at the same time recognize his transcendent arguments for a universal, color-blind, whole national future and community, we have a model for both sides of this two-part process.
I’d say exactly the same for Chávez. It’s certainly fair to say that he wasn’t scared of a fight, of taking a stand, of being divisive or unpopular in service of his goals, even of appearing to be anti-American (at least if “American” means the government and its various extensions) as a result; there’s a reason why he, like King, was the target of FBI investigations for decades. But I would argue that such activism, far from seeking to undermine American identity or ideals, embraced and extended them; that, just like Quock Walker, Chávez worked to embody the Declaration of Independence’s arguments for equality, to live them in his own efforts and to help millions of other Americans connect to them as well. And as the ongoing work of his Foundation makes clear, those efforts, while focused on particular American communities, can and should be extended to every American, as an ideal embodiment of Bruce Springsteen’s belief that, “In the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.” Pretty patriotic concept, I’d say.
Your nominees this weekend,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Nominees you’d add for that weekend post?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

April 23, 2015: How Would a Patriot Act?: Yung Wing

[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. Please nominate your own choices to contribute to a collectively patriotic weekend post!]
Today’s genuinely patriotic American is Yung Wing.
I’ve written a lot, starting with that linked post (still one of my favorite blog posts to date) and continuing into my third book and this piece, about Yung Wing’s amazing story and the many significant and powerful American stories to which it and he connect. Yung’s work founding the Chinese Educational Mission exemplifies his contributions to American identity on many levels: from the idea for the school, to bring more than one hundred young Chinese men to America and help create a trans-national and cross-cultural community through such connections; to the requirement that the students be allowed to attend West Point as part of their experiences; to the Celestials, the baseball team that the students formed and through which some of their most inspiring and heartbreaking (and profoundly American) moments occurred.
But Yung’s individual story and life feature many equally amazing American moments, and I want to reiterate and highlight two here. The first is his attempt to volunteer for the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War. Yung had been in America for less than two decades at that time, had graduated from Yale only a decade before (in 1854), and was still ostensibly a diplomatic representative of the Chinese government; yet at this moment of extreme national crisis, when many of his fellow Americans would choose to buy their way out of enlistment, Yung volunteered to serve. He was turned down, which just goes to show how frequently our official national narratives (of patriotism and much else) have failed to recognize the best of what our nation is and can be. But official bigotry shouldn’t and can’t elide his individual patriotism and courage. (Which could also help us better remember the Chinese Americans who did serve in the Civil War.)
The second moment I want to highlight came even more directly in response to such official bigotry. As I traced at length in that blog post, the discrimination leading up to and culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act destroyed Yung’s American life on two significant levels: it forced the closure of the Mission and the departure of its students; and it led to the revoking of Yung’s citizenship and his own forced exile from America, during which (among other tragedies) his wife Mary passed away and his sons were fostered to another family. But when his younger son Bartlett was graduating from Yale in 1902, the next stage in the family’s multi-generational American story, Yung returned to attend; he came as a diplomatic guest, but from what I can tell he then stayed as an illegal immigrant, spending much of the final decade of his life in Connecticut (with, I devoutly hope, his sons). Am I arguing that an act of illegal immigration—during the first years when that concept had any meaning—was an inspiringly patriotic American act? You’re damn right I am.
Next nominee tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

April 22, 2015: How Would a Patriot Act?: Quock Walker

[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. Please nominate your own choices to contribute to a collectively patriotic weekend post!]
Today’s genuinely patriotic American is Quock Walker.
I wrote a lot about the Revolutionary period’s African American slave petitions for freedom, of which Quock Walker’s is one of the most famous, in the blog post linked at his name above, and won’t repeat all those specifics, or my sense of why those petitions embody the best of what the Revolution and its ideas and ideals meant and have continued to mean in American culture and identity, here.
But I will take things one step further, and ask this: what if we thought of Walker, and his fellow petitioners, as among the Founding Fathers (and Mothers)? After all, the Declaration and Constitution were (as we’ve long acknowledged) based on existing ideas and writings, given new American form. And that’s exactly what Walker and his peers and supporters did with their petitions, taking the Declaration’s and Revolution’s language and ideas and bringing them to powerful, eloquent, vitally American life.
Walker’s case is credited with helping end slavery in Massachusetts (a complicated question as they always are, but it contributed for sure). Using the Declaration to end part of the national tragedy with which it was intertwined? That’d be plenty patriotic enough on its own terms. But if we go bigger, if we see Walker and his peers as true Founders, among the most genuinely and impressively Revolutionary Americans, then our whole legacy of patriotism has a different, and even more inspiring, point of origin. Works for me.
Next nominee tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

April 21, 2015: How Would a Patriot Act?: Squanto

[To follow up Monday’s Patriot’s Day post, I’m going to steal my title from Glenn Greenwald’s great book and briefly highlight five genuinely and impressively patriotic past Americans, one per post-contact century. Please nominate your own choices to contribute to a collectively patriotic weekend post!]
Today’s genuinely patriotic American is Tisquantum, better known by the Anglicized name “Squanto.”
It’s fair to say that the whole tone of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation—and also, quite literally, of the Pilgrims’ first experiences in America, as Bradford describes them at least—changes with the arrival of Squanto (paragraph 136 in that edition). From that first mention it’s clear that this is a man with a complex identity and perspective: he is described as “a native of this place” but also one who has “been in England,” and with these two identities and the multiple languages that come with them he connects the Pilgrims to the local Wampanoag chief Massasoit, with whom they make their first peace treaty. And Bradford finds Squanto’s individual experiences, as a kidnapped slave turned explorer and translator, compelling enough to spend most of the rest of this chapter quoting another Englishman’s narrative of them.
Partly Bradford’s extended focus is due to his culturally myopic sense of Squanto as literally a gift from God, “a special instrument sent of God for their good beyond their expectation.” Yet if we set aside the paternalism and, again, myopia necessary to define another person as an instrument for one’s own good, Bradford’s descriptions, coupled with the history provided in the extended narrative, can help us realize a striking and crucial fact: Squanto turned a horrific and traumatic set of experiences, ones based directly on cultural conflict and oppression, into a perspective and life that worked toward and indeed modeled cultural conversation and connection. He did so, it seems clear, for the good both of the Pilgrims and of the Wampanoags, and more exactly for the good of the new, cross-cultural community that came into existence the second those two peoples met. What’s more patriotic than that?
As will be the case for all of this week’s focal figures, there’s plenty more, and more complexity and even tragedy, in Squanto’s story and what it symbolizes than I can get into here. The arc of the 17th century in Massachusetts was not, after all, toward justice. Yet if I have one overarching argument here, it’s the same one that’s at the heart of my fourth book: we can’t seek our ideal America, nor our ideal Americans, by eliding the darkest histories; instead we have to look to precisely those histories and find the genuine and impressive patriots who lived and engaged with and responded to them. Tisquantum is a great place to start.
Next patriot tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Any nominations?

Monday, April 20, 2015

April 20, 2015: Patriot’s Day Special Post

[In honor of Patriot’s Day—a holiday up here in New England, at least—here’s my annual post on the easier and harder forms of patriotism. A series on complex, genuine American patriots will follow!]

On the only time and way we can be patriotic.

One of my favorite literary exchanges of all time, and the one with which I begin the Introduction to my recently completed fourth book, occurs in the opening chapter of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996; the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series that has been adapted into the popular HBO show). Seven year-old Brandon “Bran” Stark is riding home with his father and brothers from his first experience witnessing one of his father’s most difficult duties as a lord, the execution of a criminal; his father insists that if he is to sentence men to die, he should be the one to execute them, and likewise insists that his sons learn of and witness this once they are old enough. Two of Bran’s brothers have been debating whether the man died bravely or as a coward, and when Bran asks his father which was true, his father turns the question around to him. “Can a man be brave when he is afraid?” Bran asks. “That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father replies.

On the surface the line might seem obvious, an appeal to some of our very trite narratives about courage in the face of danger and the like (narratives that operate in explicit contrast to the ideas of cowardice with which I engaged in Friday’s post). But to my mind the moment, like all of Martin’s amazingly dense and complex series, works instead to undermine our easy narratives and force us to confront more difficult and genuine truths. That is, I believe we tend to define bravery, courage, heroism as the absence of fear, as those individuals who in the face of danger do not feel the same limiting emotions that others do and so can rise to the occasion more fully. But Martin’s truth is quite the opposite—that bravery is instead something that is found through and then beyond fear, that it is only by admitting the darker and more potentially limiting realities that we can then strive for the brightest and most ideal possibilities. I find that insight so potent not only because of its potential to revise oversimplifying narratives and force us to confront a complex duality instead, but also because it posits a version of heroism that any individual can achieve—if everyone feels fear in the face of danger, then everyone has the potential to be brave as well.

HBO recently premiered the fifth season of their award-winning series A Game of Thrones; the first season covered all of that first book of Martin’s, the second moved on to book two, and so on for subsequent seasons. I’ve watched season one and have mixed feelings, but no matter what the series has brought Martin’s works and themes to a far wider audience. But if that’s one reason why I’m thinking about this exchange today, the other is the aforementioned Massachusetts-specific holiday: Patriot’s Day. As with our narratives of courage and heroism, I believe that far too many of our ideals of patriotism focus on what I would call the easy kind: the patriotism that salutes a flag, that sings an anthem, that pledges allegiance, that says things like “God bless America” and “greatest country in the world” by rote. Whatever the communal value of such patriotism, it asks virtually nothing of individuals, and does even less to push a nation to be the best version of itself (if anything, it argues that the nation is already that best version). So in parallel to Martin’s line, I would argue for the harder and more genuine kind of patriotism, the kind that faces the darkest realities and strives for the brightest hope through that recognition, the kind that, when asked “Can an American be a patriot if he/she is critical of his/her country?,” replies, “That is the only time an American can be a patriot.”

Happy Patriot’s Day! The patriotic series continues tomorrow,
Ben


PS. What do you think?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

April 18-19, 2015: Crowd-sourced Reading List

[This week I’ve offered another entry in my biannual series on interesting and impressive new releases in AmericanStudies. This reading list is drawn from the responses and recommendations of fellow AmericanStudiers—add yours in comments, please!]
First, an addendum to the series: here’s my review of Allyson Hobbs’ wonderful A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America in the current issue of the American Book Review!
In response to my call for other books, Mark Rice highlights “Jill Lepore’s book on Wonder Woman.”
Candice Roberts Tweets, “I’m really enjoying Jo Paoletti’s Sex and Unisex.”
Nancy Caronia writes, “Although not brand new, my students are LOVING Adichie’s Americanah. They find it smart, funny, and incisive with regards to the critique of American culture. Memoir—Daisy Hernandez’s A Cup of Water Under My Bed for its third wave feminist intersectionality. The memoir is a poignant look at gender fluidity, immigraition, bilingual education (or not).”
DeMisty Bellinger-Delfeld agrees with Nancy about Hernandez, noting, “I just read with Daisy last weekend! It was such a wonder to meet her and yes, A Cup is great. I am reading Mr. and Mrs. Doctor by Julie Iromuanya. So far, so good.” Later DeMisty does double duty, Tweeting out another rec, Seedlip and Sweet Apple by Arra Ross.
Emily Lauer Tweets that she’s “talking about the graphic novel Americus at a conference this week. It’s YA, about a small town book banning.”
Patricia Ringle Vandever notes that she “just finished Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and loved it!”
Grace Connor shares, “I’m working on the truly massive (14 and counting, all 900ish pages…) Realm of the Elderlings series by Robin Hobb. I almost hoped starting out that it wouldn’t be worth committing to the full series, but it has some of the most innovative fantasy characters ever!”
My student Andrew DaSilva highlights, “Although not new by any means, might I suggest The Jesuit Relations, or The New American Economy if one might have an interest in the US and its economic policy shapers. And for fun novels that take place in America Trauma by Patrick McGrath or the slightly older novel The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. I almost forgot to include Coolidge by Amity Shales and True Compass by Ted Kennedy along with Pat & Dick by Will Swift if you're into memoirs and biographies. I've read or plan to read all the suggested above if ya have any questions or comments. All cover a variety of topics and genres.”
Sam Southworth writes, “Seems that Mr. Kissinger's last tome and that French income inequality economist guy are the ones that pop up most often in written sources. I personally have been drawn into David Rothkopf's 2014 volume entitled National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, particularly Chapter 7 ("Eyeball to Eyeball Again") concerning the nefarious machinations of Mr. Putin. These sorts of books can be stunningly dull with a rare pearl among the analytical chowder, but this guy has some insight due to his research on the NSC, and a fairly good writing style, which blessed scholarly trait seems to grow more rare with each passing season. Almost one hundred pages of notes invites wing-nuttery source-checking, and I am inclined to agree with him when he says we cannot entirely turn our backs from dismal and strife-torn areas, whatever our weariness and incomprehension of the essential underlying forces at work in the Middle East and elsewhere, but, dear God, who among us would wish for more foreign adventure and warfare as the over-riding motif of the Twenty-First Century? The very best of these sorts of strategic thinkers can help us shift our thoughts beyond mere tawdry political considerations, wherever we find ourselves on the spectrum, and introduce welcome reference points in the past that can perhaps, by dint of herculean heavy lifting and good leadership, point the way to some future worth the having, and not the zombie apocalypse that our culture seems fascinated with.”
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What books would you add to this list? 

Friday, April 17, 2015

April 17, 2015: New AmericanStudies Books: Cowardice: A Brief History

[Another entry in my biannual series on interesting and impressive new releases in AmericanStudies. Add your favorite works, new or old, in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list!]
On a book that reminds us of the value of looking at things from the other side.
In John Guare’s complex and powerful play Six Degrees of SKeparation (1990), a great deal is made of a certain painting by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, which is, as the oft-quoted refrain puts it, “painted on both sides.” Ultimately this detail, highlighted by con artist Paul to his confident Ouisa Kittredge the last time they see each other, seems to function as a way to remind Ouisa that the life she’s currently leading is not her only option, that there are other possibilities and other choices that might lead to them (one of which she begins to take as the play concludes). But I would argue that there’s another and equally salient way to read this repeated line: to see it as a more specific reminder that many things have two sides, and that looking at any particular thing from the other, perhaps less frequently observed side (the reverse, that is) might yield a very different perspective than what we are used to seeing from the front.
Exemplifying that shift in perspective is the first book by my friend and former Boston University Writing Program colleague Chris Walsh, Cowardice: A Brief History (Princeton, 2014). When I worked with Walsh, he was (as I understood it, at least) working on a book about war, which is to be the sure the side of this particular duality at which we most often look. Not only because it is through wars that we tend for example to view and define our history (there’s a reason why two-part American literature and history surveys so frequently divide at 1865), although that certainly is a part of my point. But also and even more saliently because when we remember wars, when we think and write about them, when we tell stories of them, it is almost always through moments and histories from or directly related to the war itself—those who fight them, those affected by them, those on a homefront but connected to the war nonetheless, their causes, their legacies, and so on. Sometimes those war stories do feature individual characters who are afraid to fight—Jeremy Davies’ cowardly translator in Saving Private Ryan (1998), for example—but whole stories or narratives focused on such so-called cowards? Not so much.
I can’t say for sure if Walsh’s Cowardice is the first scholarly analysis dedicated entirely to the subject, but it’s the first I’ve seen, and an excellent illustration of the value of looking at a topic from the other side in any case. Partly that’s because of the new ideas about the familiar topic, war, produced by that shift in perspective: Walsh’s focus helps us think both about the often unspoken narratives that underpin war efforts and the corresponding fears against which those narratives are created. But this new perspective is even more striking precisely because it examines one of those alternative narratives, the concept of cowardice, and considers the social, historical, literary and cultural, and psychological causes and effects of this narrative on its own terms (rather than, like Davies’s character, as an afterthought in war narratives). Such an alternative focus might, for example, help us start to unpack one of the most unexpected moments in any American text, the concluding lines of Tim O’Brien’s short story “On the Rainy River” (from The Things They Carried), in which the narrator has traveled to the Canadian border to consider dodging the draft: “I was a coward. I went to the war.”
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So one more time: what AmericanStudies books would you recommend? 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

April 16, 2015: New AmericanStudies Books: Chinese Yankee

[Another entry in my biannual series on interesting and impressive new releases in AmericanStudies. Add your favorite works, new or old, in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list!]
On the book that helps correct a significant historical omission—and why that’s not its best effect.
In the first of a series of Veteran’s Day posts I wrote for the great We’re History site, I highlighted a number of stories of Chinese Americans who fought in the Civil War. As I highlighted in that post, I had been led to that topic by (among other texts, but hers was certainly the most prominent) historian and novelist Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s book Chinese Yankee: A True Story from the U.S. Civil War (Design Enterprises of San Francisco, 2014). As of that writing I hadn’t had a chance to read McCunn’s book yet (it was released on Veteran’s Day); now that I have, I can confirm that she tells the truly remarkable story of Thomas Sylvanus (Ah Yee Way) with power and skill, employing both a historian’s skill at providing details and contexts and a novelist’s talents for story and suspense. And indeed, I would argue that both the historical and the novelistic sides to McCunn’s work are worth highlighting—but that the latter is particularly noteworthy.
Historically speaking, McCunn’s book can help fill in some serious gaps in our collective memories. One of the central arguments of my Chinese Exclusion Act book was that Americans don’t remember at all our originating multicultural community and identity, as exemplified by our collective sense of the Chinese American community as a 20th and 21st century one (as opposed to its continuous presence here since the late 18th century); remembering prominent individual mid-19th century Chinese Americans like Sylvanus would be an important first step in correcting that broader omission. Similarly, I think we’ve been terrible at remembering the multicultural histories and stories connected to our wars and conflicts—that would include the hugely diverse army that fought and won the Battle of New Orleans, for example; and is likewise illustrated by Chinese American Civil War soldiers such as Sylvanus and the others about whom I wrote in that aforementioned post. Given the prominent role and status which we accord military leaders and heroes in our national narratives, better remembering these multicultural soldiers and stories would be a particularly effective way to broader our understandings of American identity overall.
It’s not enough just to say we have to better remember figures or histories, however—we also have to find ways to highlight and narrate them compellingly enough to draw and sustain our collective interest and engagement. And on that note, McCunn’s novelistic side offers a potent illustration of the importance of finding and telling good stories in achieving those effects. I’m far from the first observer to note that academic writing would benefit from a far more consistent and central role for storytelling, but I would most definitely agree with that assessment. I know that story can seem the antithesis of analysis: simple and streamlined rather than complex and layered, for example. But it’s not either-or, as McCunn’s historically rich and layered yet novelistically narrated book nicely illustrates. And by keeping the story and its telling central to her purposes throughout, she does the thing that all writers hope and need to do: engage with her audience, draw them into her work and guide them through its different moments, elements, and ideas. I can think of no more crucial effect for any book, AmericanStudies or otherwise.
Last new book tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What AmericanStudies books would you recommend? 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

April 15, 2015: New AmericanStudies Books: Belligerent Muse

[Another entry in my biannual series on interesting and impressive new releases in AmericanStudies. Add your favorite works, new or old, in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list!]
On a classic work that has endured, a new one that complements it, and what they offer us together.
In those moments when I wonder how on earth I’m going to keep writing six blog posts a week for, well, as long as the interwebs will have me, I take comfort in reflecting on just how many topics of significance to me I have yet to cover (to say nothing of all those I continue to discover). A prominent example would be historian George Frederickson’s The Inner Civil War: Northern Intellectuals and the Crisis of Union (University of Illinois, 1993). While not Frederickson’s most prominent work (that would have to be White Supremacy, his comparative study of America and South Africa that was nominated for a Pulitzer), Inner Civil War was a particularly seminal book in my own development; I read it during my first year of college, as part of my first American History and Literature Tutorial, and it gave me one of my first glimmers of the breadth and depth possible in genuine AmericanStudies scholarly analysis. In his combinations of intellectual history, literary analysis, use of historical primary documents, and sweeping arguments about American culture and identity, Frederickson helped push both our understanding of the Civil War and the possibilities of our scholarly endeavors forward.
It’s much too early to say whether Stephen Cushman’s Belligerent Muse: Five Northern Writers and How They Shaped Our Understanding of the Civil War (University of North Carolina, 2014) will similarly influence and endure in our scholarly conversations. But in his book, Cushman (who is, full disclosure, a long-time colleague of my Dad and family friend) considers his handful of historical and literary subjects (Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, William Tecumseh Sherman, Ambrose Bierce, and Joshua Chamberlain) through a multi-layered, interdisciplinary lens that is just as sweeping and as successful as was Frederickson’s. Just the act of bringing together those five figures and considering them through the same two-part lens—the way they tried to make sense of the war through writing, and the role that their writing has played in shaping our own subsequent narratives of the war—is a striking and significant one, and forces us to rethink our conceptions of not only the figures themselves, but of our categorizations and distinctions between such roles as politician and poet, military leader and creative writer, actor and reflector. For that reason, among others, I wouldn’t be surprised if Cushman’s book did indeed endure as Frederickson’s has.
As is so often the case, I believe these strong individual works have even more to offer our collective perspective if we put them in conversation with one another. For one thing, their chronologies are nicely complementary—Frederickson begins before the war and moves his subjects and readers into and through it, whereas Cushman begins in the war and moves us into the post-bellum era. For another, Frederickson’s focus on a group of intellectuals (including philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison) likewise complements the more political and literary figures and writers in Cushman’s frame; while both, interestingly enough, analyze Walt Whitman through their respective lenses, providing a bridge between these approaches. Finally, and to my mind most compellingly, the two books offer an interdisciplinary combination that extends and amplifies that element within each: Frederickson starts from the perspective of an intellectual historian and then extends to military and political history, literary analysis, and more; whereas Cushman is first and foremost a literary scholar, and then weds that approach to historical analysis, military and political history, and more. Taken together, the two have even more to tell us about the Civil War and the 19th century, American ideas and narratives, and the way we remember and engage with our histories and writers.
Next new book tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What AmericanStudies books would you recommend? 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

April 14, 2015: New AmericanStudies Books: States of Trial

[Another entry in my biannual series on interesting and impressive new releases in AmericanStudies. Add your favorite works, new or old, in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list!]
On a book that exemplifies two important scholarly trends.
Over the last few years, without any overt plan to do so, I’ve devoted a significant portion of my scholarly work to Philip Roth. That has included both part of an American Literary Realism article and (even more fully) an essay in an edited collection analyzing Roth’s masterpiece American Pastoral (1997), and culminated in my work on the Oxford Bibliographies entry on Roth. I’ve greatly enjoyed the chance to research and write all those pieces, and hope that they have added a bit to our scholarly conversations about the ongoing career of this seminal American novelist; but perhaps the most significant effect of this focus on Roth has been how much it has exposed me to the international community of scholars working on him and his texts. I wrote in a long ago post about one such international Roth scholar, Velichka Ivanova; and through my connection to Ivanova, I was introduced to a book manuscript by another such scholar, Ann Basu.
Well, with a bit of feedback (and a back-cover blurb) from me and a few other scholars, and mostly a lot of great work from Basu herself, that manuscript became States of Trial: Manhood in Philip Roth’s Post-War America (Bloomsbury, 2014). Like Ivanova’s edited collection Reading Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (2011), which includes that aforementioned essay of mine but also contributions from scholars from around the world, I believe that States of Trial exemplifies the benefits of an international American Studies community and approach. For one thing, there’s the way in which Basu includes and employs theoretical concepts without losing her clear focus on the texts and histories with which she’s concerned—at times, in American scholarship, theorizing can seem like a separate choice from close reading or historicizing, but Basu weds them all in a way that feels to my mind distinctly European. And for another, there’s the outsider-insider dynamic of her approach not only to Roth but to American culture and identity, one that allows her to perceive through a new lens the prominence of a theme like “trial” across the second half of the 20th century.
In the way she deploys that thematic thread, Basu’s book also exemplifies a truly, potently interdisciplinary approach to literary analysis. Through her close readings and historical and cultural contextualizations of five principal novels (Operation Shylock, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America), as well as the few that both preceded and followed this period of Roth’s career, Basu brings that lens of “trial” to bear on a wide range of different subjects: masculinity and gender studies, the Cold War and law/justice, race and ethnicity, disease and studies of the body, the Constitution and theories of democracy and governance, and religion and morality, among others. Which is to say, Basu’s book is interdisciplinary not simply in the works on which she focuses or the historical and cultural connections through which she contextualizes them, but also and even more strikingly in the methodologies through which she analyzes them and the conversations into which those analyses enter. For that reason, as I put it in my back-cover blurb, even those American Studies with no specific interest in Roth will find a great deal to learn and take away from Basu’s impressive book.
Next new book tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What AmericanStudies books would you recommend? 

Monday, April 13, 2015

April 13, 2015: New AmericanStudies Books: Fugitive Slaves and the Unfinished American Revolution

[Another entry in my biannual series on interesting and impressive new releases in AmericanStudies. Add your favorite works, new or old, in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend reading list!]
On a book that helps us understand a complex, crucial Early Republic question.
First, I’ll ask you to check out this long-ago post of mine, on the complex question of whether we progressive AmericanStudiers can and should support more noble nullification efforts (such as Thomas Jefferson’s resistance to the Alien and Sedition Acts or William Apess’s arguments in favor of the Mashpee Revolt) and yet oppose more ignoble ones (such as John C. Calhoun’s South Carolina nullification fight) without hypocrisy. Of course I believe that specific contexts matter, and that absolutist perspectives very rarely make sense; but on the other hand, in all three of these cases the arguments were in favor of states or communities having the ability to resist and even nullify federal laws and thus the Constitution itself, and that is, to say the least, a slippery and dangerous slope that seems to end quite clearly at secession.
However we answer those vexed questions, the overarching takeaway from all those histories is that the Constitution, like America itself, remained an entirely living and evolving entity throughout the Early Republic period (and still does to this day, but I’d say that it was even more fragile and in-progress in that post-Revolution era). In his impressive Fugitive Slaves and the Unfinished American Revolution: Eight Cases, 1848-1856 (McFarland, 2013), Professor Gordon S. Barker goes one step further, arguing that the Revolution itself was still unfolding through such national and Constitutional crises. Beginning and ending with two of the most famous fugitive slave cases (William and Ellen Craft, whose racial and gender passing was just as revolutionary as their legal status; and Margaret Garner, whose choice of infanticide became the starting point for multiple cultural works including Toni Morrison’s Beloved), Barker moves through eight such historical moments, arguing for what each contributed to these evolving debates over law, justice, and America.

I’m not going to summarize or paraphrase Barker’s arguments—as with every post in this week’s series, one of my main points is that, to quote LeVar Burton’s magnum opus, if you want to know the rest, read the book! Instead, I’ll end by connecting these arguments to one of my favorite Americans, Quock Walker, the Massachusetts slave whose petitions, along with those of fellow slaves—and all based directly on the language and ideas of the Declaration and Revolution—contributed significantly to that state’s Revolutionary-era abolition of slavery. Edmund Morgan’s magisterial book American Slavery, American Freedom argues that the founding of America was inextricably tied to, and even required the existence of, the system of slavery—but what Walker and all of Barker’s cases (and his impressive analysis of them) illustrate is how much debates over that system helped shape and reshape our national identity and ideas, in the Revolutionary moment and long after.
Next new book tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What AmericanStudies books would you recommend? 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

April 11-12, 2015: Tim McCaffrey’s Guest Post on Jackie Robinson

[As I’ve done each of the last couple years, this week I shared an Opening Day series—this time focused on AmericanStudying some particularly interesting baseball identities. Leading up to this repeat of one of my favorite Guest Posts, on one of my favorite Americans!]
I’ve written about Jackie Robinson in almost every post this week, and for good reason—his is perhaps the most famous (and certainly the most influential) baseball life in American history. So it might seem like we know the key moments and details of that life very well. Yet there’s always more to learn, and in one of my favorite Guest Posts to date, my great former student, friend, and fellow AmericanStudier Tim McCaffrey highlighted one such amazing story from Robinson’s pre-baseball service in the Army. Check it out:
Next series starts Monday,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Other baseball lives or stories you’d highlight?

Friday, April 10, 2015

April 10, 2015: Baseball Lives: Maria Pepe and Mo’ne Davis

[As I’ve done each of the last couple years, an Opening Day series—this time focused on AmericanStudying some particularly interesting baseball identities. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly important baseball life!]
On two young stars who reflect how much has changed, and why we must remember both.
In 1972, a Hoboken, New Jersey Little League team quietly contributed to sports and American history—the team’s coach, Jim Farina, invited 12 year old Maria Pepe (a baseball fanatic with many friends on the team) to join the team, and she pitched in three games, becoming one of (if not the) first girls to play Little League baseball. Pepe’s presence didn’t remain quiet for long, however—the league threatened to revoke the team’s charter unless she left the team; and although she agreed to do so, the National Organization for Women (NOW) took up the cause, eventually bringing the case to the New Jersey Superior Court which decided in favor of girls having the ability to try out for Little League teams. Unfortunately, Pepe was 14 by the time the case was decided, and thus above the age limit for Little League play. But thanks to her three-game performance and all that followed it, future girls have received the chance to participate in a youth sport that is, as Superior Court Judge Sylvia Presser put it in her decision, “as American as the hot dog and apple pie. There is no reason,” Presser added, “why that part of Americana should be withheld from girls.”
More than 40 years later, Pepe watched with what she admits is a mixture of admiration and pain as the most famous female Little Leaguer to date (and one of the most famous youth athletes in American history), Mo’ne Davis of the Philadelphia-area Taney Dragons, became the first girl to earn a win and pitch a shutout in the 2014 Little League World Series. Thanks to those singular achievements, to her status as the first African American girl to play in the LLWS, and certainly as well to the 24-hour news cycle/social media age in which her successes occurred, Davis has become a genuine sensation: the first Little Leaguer to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, star of a documentary short film directed by Spike Lee, recipient of numerous honors and recognitions (including her LLWS jersey making it to the Hall of Fame), and more. While Maria Pepe left behind her moment of youth sports fame for a career as a hospital accountant and what seems to have been a relatively typical American life (if one punctuated by brief returns to the limelight in response to stories like Davis’s), it’s difficult to imagine that Davis—who apparently prefers basketball to baseball and dreams of playing collegiately for the University of Connecticut and then in the WNBA—will not continue to occupy the public eye in one way or another.
That’s a good thing, to be clear—not only because Davis is a far more deserving and compelling recipient of such attention than many of her fellow media sensations, but also and more importantly because her story reflects how far both youth sports and America have come in the 40 years since the New Jersey Superior Court’s decision (which is not to say there is not much farther to go, of course). Yet at the same time, it’s vitally important that we better remember the Maria Pepes of our history. For every Jackie Robinson, a pioneer who received and has continued to receive well-deserved recognition for his historic role and influence, there are many other figures, in sports as in the rest of society, whose important and inspiring lives and contributions do not occupy such a place in our collective memories. It’s precisely to help us better remember such figures that I am working on my current book and website project, the American Hall of Inspiration. While Maria Pepe’s inspiring contribution might have lasted only three games, its impact and legacy makes her more than worthy of inclusion in such a project, and more importantly in our collective memories.  
Guest Post post this weekend,
Ben

PS. One more time: what do you think? Other baseball lives or stories you’d highlight?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

April 9, 2015: Baseball Lives: Cuban and Japanese Stars

[As I’ve done each of the last couple years, an Opening Day series—this time focused on AmericanStudying some particularly interesting baseball identities. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly important baseball life!]
On two relatively recent communities of international Major Leaguers, and the divergent strains of immigration to which they connect.
As this week’s earlier posts have no doubt reflected, to my mind the most interesting way to frame the 20th and early-21st century histories of baseball (not from the sport’s earliest 19th century moments, that is, but over at least the last hundred years) is through the lens of diversification. Although Monday’s subject, Hank Greenberg, helps us consider that trend’s longstanding presence, many of the most famous and striking moments on the diversification timeline relate to African American ballplayers: the rise of the Negro Leagues, the stories of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby, the inspiring and uglier sides to Hank Aaron’s record-setting career, and so on. But in the last few decades, paralleling of course the nation’s expanding and evolving multi-cultural community, baseball has grown far more diverse still: with the explosion of Hispanic and Latin American ballplayers, for example, but also with the increased presence of the two groups of international stars on whom I want to focus in this post, Cuban and Japanese players.
These two groups share a couple of core similarities: both have to this point featured mostly players who were already successful professional ballplayers in their home countries (a very different dynamic from young Latin American players drafted in their teens and brought to the US minor leagues, for example); and both became particularly prominent with the mid-1990s arrivals of especially legendary such national stars, including the brothers Livan and Orlando “El Duque” Hernández from Cuba and Hideo Nomo and Hideki Irabu from Japan. But due to the drastically distinct situations in those home nations at the time, such stars came to the United States and the Major Leagues in very different ways: the Cuban players generally defecting and escaping from the then closed-off island nation, and thus often leaving family and friends behind in the process; and the Japanese players generally being publicly courted through high-priced bidding wars, and thus often leaving their prior teams and leagues as conquering heroes. Of course I can’t speak for any of these individuals, but it seems clear that the move from their home country to the majors was far more fraught, diplomatically and personally, for the Cuban than the Japanese stars.
Those Cuban professional athletes are not, of course, directly equivalent in any way to other potential refugees from that nation or similar situations—not least because their prior prominence and unquestioned talents all but guarantee them employment upon their successful arrival in the US—but they can remind us that even in a high-profile world like major league baseball, the very different cultural and historical paths to American identity and community remain. Similarly, while the Japanese stars are not in the identical situation as immigrants who come to the United States to (for example) study at elite universities or perform high-skilled occupations, they can be connected to such experiences, and to the complex narratives of national and immigrant need that both link and contrast those immigration stories with arrivals who find themselves instead at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Professional sports can feel like a fantasy world, and in many ways they do fit that description; but as with any part of our culture and society, they’re full of exemplary lives and identities, histories and trends, and ripe for AmericanStudying.
Last baseball life tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Baseball lives or stories you’d highlight?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

April 8, 2015: Baseball Lives: John Rocker

[As I’ve done each of the last couple years, an Opening Day series—this time focused on AmericanStudying some particularly interesting baseball identities. Leading up to a special Guest Post on a particularly important baseball life!]
What the three distinct and even contradictory stages of John Rocker’s public disintegration reveal about contemporary American sports and society.
As a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, I was, in the fall of 1999, a John Rocker fan as well—Rocker was the young relief pitcher with the near-100 mph fastball who had blazed onto the scene during that season, helping the Braves reach the World Series in the process, and it was hard not to like the kid (despite, or perhaps even partly because of, his over-exuberant mound presence and antics). And then came the December 1999 Sports Illustrated profile piece, an article on Rocker’s extreme personality and perspective that included some of the most bigoted and disgusting quotes (about New York City, about one of Rocker’s own Caribbean American teammates, and more) I’ve seen outside of an anonymous internet comments thread. The article tore away any pretense that sports or America were free of old-school bigotry and hatred (such as that faced by the subjects of Monday’s post, Hank Greenberg and Jackie Robinson) at the turn of the new millennium.
Rocker was suspended by the Braves for a good bit of the next (2000) season, but during that same period a second, very different and even contradictory set of stories and narratives about Rocker began to emerge. The stories focused in particular on his parents and home, and on their experiences taking in fellow minor leaguers of multiple races and ethnicities to live with John and his family during his time in the minors. Inspired in large part by those stories, prominent local African American leaders like Andrew Young (a Civil Rights hero and generally inspiring American) intervened on Rocker’s behalf with the media and the Braves, and helped get him both reinstated from his suspension and (to a degree) more balanced news coverage. Both the stories of Rocker’s family and the efforts of men like Young suggested new, cross-cultural communal relationships and identities in America, ones that might indeed represent changes from the kinds of divided pasts that Rocker’s comments had so echoed.
Rocker went on to a brief and undistinguished career with the Braves and a couple subsequent teams, but the real third stage of his American sports life and narrative has unfolded in the years since his retirement. With a book on not just his career but also his social and political views (seriously) to publicize, Rocker has begun speaking out again, and in so doing has admitted not only to using steroids in the 1999 and 2000 seasons, but to Major League Baseball having tested him and known about (and thus covered up) his steroid use. The story indicates in part that Rocker has not learned from his prior experiences the value of holding back, although I suppose this time his honesty is at least as self-critical as it is generally belligerent (not expecting to say the same about Rocker’s book, Scars & Strikes [2011], if I ever have the time and desire to read it, but I’ll try to keep an open mind). But this third stage in Rocker’s baseball life also reminds sports fans that the true outrages of baseball at the turn of the 21st century were not the bigoted beliefs of individual athletes, but the widespread and dangerous deceptions in which even far more well-spoken and admirable players played an equal role.
Next baseball life tomorrow,
Ben

PS. What do you think? Baseball lives or stories you’d highlight?