Monday, May 29, 2017

May 29, 2017: Better Remembering Memorial Day

[This special post is the first of a series inspired by the history behind Memorial Day. Check out my similar 2012 and 2014 series for more!]

On what we don’t remember about Memorial Day, and why we should.

In a long-ago post on the Statue of Liberty, I made a case for remembering, and engaging much more fully, with what the Statue was originally intended, by its French abolitionist creator, to symbolize: the legacy of slavery and abolitionism in both America and France, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the memories of what he had done to advance that cause, and so on. I tried there, hopefully with some success, to leave ample room for what the Statue has come to mean, both for America as a whole and, more significantly still, for generation upon generation of immigrant arrivals to the nation. I think those meanings, especially when tied to Emma Lazarus’ poem and its radically democratic and inclusive vision of our national identity, are beautiful and important in their own right. But how much more profound and meaningful, if certainly more complicated, would they be if they were linked to our nation’s own troubled but also inspiring histories of slavery and abolitionism, of sectional strife and Civil War, of racial divisions and those who have worked for centuries to transcend and bridge them?

I would say almost exactly the same thing when it comes to the history of Memorial Day. For the last century or so, at least since the end of World War I, the holiday has meant something broadly national and communal, an opportunity to remember and celebrate those Americans who have given their lives as members of our armed forces. While I certainly feel that some of the narratives associated with that idea are as simplifying and mythologizing and meaningless as many others I’ve analyzed here—“they died for our freedom” chief among them; the world would be a vastly different, and almost certainly less free, place had the Axis powers won World War II (for example), but I have yet to hear any convincing case that the world would be even the slightest bit worse off were it not for the quarter of a million American troops who lives were wasted in the Vietnam War (for another)—those narratives are much more about politics and propaganda, and don’t change at all the absolutely real and tragic and profound meaning of service and loss for those who have done so and all those who know and love them. One of the most pitch-perfect statements of my position on such losses can be found in a song by (surprisingly) Bruce Springsteen; his “Gypsy Biker,” from Magic (2007), certainly includes a strident critique of the Bush Administration and Iraq War, as seen in lines like “To those who threw you away / You ain’t nothing but gone,” but mostly reflects a brother’s and family’s range of emotions and responses to the death of a young soldier in that war.

Yet as with the Statue, Memorial Day’s original meanings and narratives are significantly different from, and would add a great deal of complexity and power to, these contemporary images. The holiday was first known as Decoration Day, and was (at least per the thorough histories of it by scholars like David Blight) originated in 1865 by a group of freed slaves in Charleston, South Carolina; the slaves visited a cemetery for Union soldiers on May 1st of that year and decorated their graves, a quiet but very sincere tribute to what those soldiers have given and what it had meant to the lives of these freedmen and –women. The holiday quickly spread to many other communities, and just as quickly came to focus more on the less potentially divisive, or at least less complex as reminders of slavery and division and the ongoing controversies of Reconstruction and so on, perspectives of former soldiers—first fellow Union ones, but by the 1870s veterans from both sides. Yet former slaves continued to honor the holiday in their own way, as evidenced by a powerful scene from Constance Fenimore Woolson’s “Rodman the Keeper” (1880), in which the protagonist observes a group of ex-slaves leaving their decorations on the graves of the Union dead at the cemetery where he works. On the one hand, these ex-slave memorials are parallel to the family memories that now dominate Memorial Day, and serve as a beautiful reminder that the American family extends to blood relations of very different and perhaps even more genuine kinds. But on the other hand, the ex-slave memorials represent far more complex and in many ways (I believe) significant American stories and perspectives than a simple familial memory; these acts were a continuing acknowledgment both of some of our darkest moments and of the ways in which we had, at great but necessary cost, defeated them.
Again, I’m not trying to suggest that any current aspects or celebrations of Memorial Day are anything other than genuine and powerful; having heard some eloquent words about what my Granddad’s experiences with his fellow soldiers had meant to him (he even commandeered an abandoned bunker and hand-wrote a history of the Company after the war!), I share those perspectives. But as with the Statue and with so many of our national histories, what we’ve forgotten is just as genuine and powerful, and a lot more telling about who we’ve been and thus who and where we are. The more we can remember those histories too, the more complex and meaningful our holidays, our celebrations, our memories, and our futures will be.
Series continues tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

Saturday, May 27, 2017

May 27-28, 2017: Matthew Teutsch’s Guest Post: Five African American Books We Should All Read

[Matthew Teutsch is a scholar of American, African American, and Southern literature, and Rhetoric and Composition. He blogs at Interminable Rambling, as well as the AAIHS’s Black Perspectives site, and is a prolific Tweeter.]

I’m one of those people that typically remembers when and where I first pick up a book or record. I used to recall with fondness the time and place I got a CD. Remember those? I could tell you where I was the first time I heard Radiohead’s Kid A (in the car at a bank teller window with one of those cassette adaptors for a portable CD player). The same goes for most books that I read too. Typically, I stumble upon these books not knowing what to expect. At other times, I have some idea about what I’m in store for before I even begin to read the first page. I want to take you on a journey into the past where I will tell you about some of the books and authors I’ve read that I think need to be picked up, read and reexamined. My research focuses on African American literature, so this list consists of five African American works that we need to reconsider.

Arna Bontmemps’ The Old South (1973)

Even though I’m from Louisiana, I had never read any work by Bontemps until I graduated with my PhD. I had a professor who actually left Bontemps’ novel Black Thunder (1936) in my mailbox as he was decluttering his office. I read Bontemps’ narrative of Gabriel Proser’s failed slave rebellion then picked up his novel about the Hattian Revolution, Drums at Dusk (1939), from the library, and found God Sends Sunday (1931) in a Barnes & Noble in Columbus, OH, during a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute on Paul Laurence Dunbar (more on him later). All of Bontemps’ work needs to be read, including his nonfiction. However, I would suggest that we begin by looking at his collection of short stories The Old South, a book that appeared the same year he passed away. The book collects stories about the South and the African American experience, layered with folklore, religion, pain, suffering, and joy. His most well-known story, “A Summer Tragedy” appears alongside stories such as “Heathen at Home” and “Mr. Kelso’s Lion,” two pieces that explore white liberalism and white supremacy. Along with these stories, the collection includes Bontemps’ essay “Why I Returned (A Personal Essay),” a piece that needs to be read and considered in relation to works by authors such as Ernest J. Gaines and Alice Walker who write about returning to the South, and even in relation to authors like Richard Wright who write about leaving it. Unfortunately, The Old South is no longer in print, so the only option to get a copy is to either find one in the library or order one online. I got lucky by purchasing a copy for under $5.00. My goal is to get The Old South back in print so more people can study his short stories along with his novels.     

Frank Yerby Speak Now (1969)

Every time the Friends of the Library had a sale in Lafayette, LA, I would be there ready to spend time searching through the countless books for ones that would set on my shelf. Without fail, I would always find first editions of Frank Yerby’s books at the sale, and I would always buy them. Yerby wrote 33 novels, numerous short stories, and poems. Even though he is one of the bestselling African American authors of all time, scholars have somewhat ignored him, or he becomes a guilty pleasure. Robert Bone once referred to Yerby as the “prince of the pulpsters.” To a certain extent, this label fits Yerby; however, we need to look past his “costume novel” exterior and peel back the layers that make up his works. For me, this began when I found Speak Now in a bookstore in New Orleans in the fall of 2015. I already had numerous books by Yerby on my shelf, but I had never read one yet. I couldn’t pass up buying another first edition Yerby, so I looked at the cover where an African American man and a white woman stared back at me as revolutionaries charged towards the right of the cover in the background. This was nothing like the “genteel” covers of his other novels. In fact, far from being, as some have termed him, placating to his white readers, Yerby attacks ideas of beauty, identity, interracial relationships, and postcolonial issues in a narrative that, while at times heavy-handed, clearly counters much of the criticism that critics and scholars lobbied against him. He followed Speak Now up with two books about an African man named Hwesu in The Dahomean (1971), which takes place entirely in Africa, and in A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest (1979) which sees Hwesu as a slave in the Deep South. I would suggest, if you want to read Yerby, start with Speak Now and look back at his numerous “costume novels” such as The Foxes of Harrow (1946), The Vixens (1947), Benton’s Row (1954), and others to see the ways that Yerby confronts whites and subverts their ideas subtly through his narratives.    

Albery Allson Whitman The Rape of Florida or Twasinta’s Seminoles (1884)

Unlike the other works on this list, I do not recall the exact moment I discovered Albery Allson Whitman. I do know that I found him while working on my dissertation. His work interested me partly because he wrote epic poems and explored the intersections between Native Americans and African Americans during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Not A Man, and Yet A Man (1877) focuses on the Midwest and Fort Dearborne, and The Rape of Florida centers around the Seminole Wars. Whitman was not the only author of the period to explore these junctions, Pauline Hopkins did as well in Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest (1902). What struck me about The Rape of Florida, apart from it being about Spanish settlers, runaway slaves from Georgia, and the Seminole, was Whitman’s decision to write the epic poem in Spenserian stanzas. This, along with the epic nature, intrigued me, and led me to do more research on him. James Weldon Johnson claims Whitman as the best African American poet between Phyllis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, and he appeared in numerous anthologies through about the 1970s when he, along with other authors such as John Marrant and John Russwurm started to disappear as well. Like other authors during the Nadir, we need to reexamine Whitman’s work. At this time, the most recent book that I know of that explores Whitman in detail is Ivy Wilson’s At The Dusk of Dawn (2009). Whitman’s entire oeuvre is important because it provides us with a link from earlier African American poets to Dunbar. In fact, Dunbar and Whitman both read at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, and Dunbar had a signed copy of The Rape of Florida in his library in Dayton, Ohio. 

Paul Laurence Dunbar The Fanatics (1901)

In the summer of 2015, I participated in an NEH Summer Institute on Paul Laurence Dunbar. I applied for a couple of reasons; one of the main reasons was because I wanted to continue my work on Whitman, so exploring the connections between Dunbar and Whitman would be an important aspect of that project. Before going to Ohio, I did not realize how prolific Dunbar was during his short life. He started his own newspaper with the Wright brothers while in high school, wrote numerous volumes of short stories, wrote plays, and wrote four novels. This is not including his poetry, newspaper writings, and speeches. Most people only know a handful of poems Dunbar wrote, the ones that appear in anthologies or collections; however, to understand the full picture of Dunbar’s work, we need to look at everything. For me, the short stories are fertile ground for exploration, along with the novels. Like Yerby, three of his four novels center on white characters, while African American characters exist in the background, and The Love of Landry (1900) even takes place in the West, Colorado to be exact. While interesting in their own rights, The Fanatics presents readers with two families in Ohio that have a falling out when the Civil War breaks out. One family is from the North and the other is from the South. We need to consider this novel in relation to other reconciliation novels of the period. We can even think about this novel as a migration narrative; at one point, blacks come North to Ohio and experience inter and intraracial oppression. As Herbert Woodward Martin, Ronald Primeau, and Gene Andrew Jarrett say, the move and “[t]he resistance of Stothard and many like him forecasts the modern African American ‘ghetto.’”

Attica Locke The Cutting Season (2012)

I first heard about Attica Locke when she won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence in 2103. For me, The Cutting Season caused me to think about the numerous ways that we examine and “preserve” history. Considering discussions surrounding the Confederate Battle Flag in 2015 and the current conversations around the monuments in New Orleans, Locke’s novel interrogates these sites and images of history that we continually encounter on a day-to-day basis. Specially, Locke explores how we react to the plantation homes that dot the Southern landscape, especially in Louisiana. Taking place right outside of Baton Rouge, on the River Road, The Cutting Season is a mystery novel where the past and the present collide. The narrative revolves around Caren Gray, an African American woman who went to college but returned to Belle Vie Plantation to manage it. Her ancestors, and those who owned her ancestors, lived and died on the same land that she oversees now. Throughout, Locke calls upon readers to question the language we use to describe the past and to interrogate the ways we remember that history. As well, Locke looks at the ways workers, specifically migrant workers, become exploited in the present. The woman that Caren finds murdered, Inès, is an undocumented migrant worker who left her family so she could make money to help them survive. In many ways, Inès’ story presents a similar narrative to that of Gaines in his own life and in his novels. Locke’s book needs to be read within the context of authors like Gaines, Walker, Morrison, and Sherley Anne Williams. 

There are many more underread novels and texts that I could talk about here, but I think five is enough to get started with. Here are more texts if you are interested in reading more works that we need to reexamine or even begin to examine. I hope you enjoyed this list. Let me know what you think about these books and authors on Twitter @SilasLapham.

[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other books you’d share?]

Friday, May 26, 2017

May 26, 2017: Star Wars Studying: The Thrawn Trilogy

[May 25th will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the first Star Wars film (it wasn’t titled A New Hope at that point!). So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. Share your own different points of view for a force-full crowd-sourced weekend post, my fellow padawan learners!]
On what Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels meant to fans, and what that can help us analyze about genre storytelling.
It’s very difficult to explain to my sons, growing up as they are in the era not only of the new Star Wars films, but of the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series, of numerous Star Wars video games, and even of Star Wars amusement parks for crying out loud, how much of a void there was for a young Star Wars fan in the years after Return of the Jedi (1984). I was almost 7 when Jedi came out, just coming into my own as a full-fledged Star Wars fan; the next new film, The Phantom Menace, wouldn’t be released until 1999, when I was about to turn 22 and not quite in the same place as that 7 year old StarWarsStudier had been. Although George Lucas tried to bridge the gap by re-releasing the original trilogy with new footage in the 1990s (not all of it uniformly awful, although I still shudder in horror every time I have to watch Han Solo step on Jabba the Hutt’s tail in that inserted New Hope sequence), I think it’s fair to say that if we fans had been left with no new Star Wars stories between Jedi and Phantom, many of us might have left the Star Wars universe behind for fresher storytelling pastures.
But we weren’t left so bereft, and the main reasons were the three novels in science fiction writer Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy: Heir to the Empire (1991), Dark Force Rising (1992), and The Last Command (1993). There had been novelizations and comic book versions of the films, but Zahn’s books, set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi and featuring both returning and new characters, were the first truly new literary stories set in the Star Wars universe, creating (or at least popularizing) the now-familiar concept of the “expanded universe.” This teenage AmericanStudier had already read and loved plenty of fantasy and science fiction books and series by the time Heir to the Empire appeared, but there was nonetheless something different about such expanded universe books, something particularly potent in the way they (that is, the way Zahn) blended the familiar with the new, built on a world and characters and settings we knew and cared about while taking them and us in unfamiliar and uncertain directions. Clearly that wasn’t just me; Heir to the Empire was a #1 New York Times bestseller, the trilogy sold a combined 15 million copies (to date), and the books’ popularity has even been credited by one Star Wars historian (Michael Kaminsky) with helping convince George Lucas to make the prequel films.
So what might we make of those effects, of the potent cultural role of Zahn’s Star Wars novels? Much of what my Fitchburg State colleague Heather Urbanski argues in her study The Science Fiction Reboot: Canon, Innovation, and Fandom in Refashioned Franchises (2013) is certainly relevant to that question; Urbanski counter critiques of reboots or sequels as unoriginal, arguing instead that such works, and franchises overall, tap into audience desires and needs in profound ways. I would agree with all of that, but would also suggest that there’s something specific to novels and their form of storytelling that was also at play in the role and success of Zahn’s Star Wars books. Of course multi-episode TV shows can expand a universe in their own ways, as we’ve seen with the recent Star Wars shows (characters from which have, tellingly, made their way into the most recent films). Yet—and I grant that this might be the literary scholar in me talking—I would argue that a novel can expand and deepen a cinematic universe in ways that no other genre can, and that it’s thus far from coincidental that it was Zahn’s Thrawn novels that first truly opened up not only the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but even the concept of an expanded universe at all. They certainly had a distinct and vital effect for this StarWarsStudier.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: what do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?