Discussions about, toward,
around, and alongside the
New England American Studies
Association's Fall 2011 Conference.
See the schedule at the bottom of
the page, and please add your voice
and perspective to the mix!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Post-Conference Conversations: Ben Railton's Responses

All this week (11/7 through 11/10) I'm going to be responding to standout conference moments on my own blog: http://americanstudier.blogspot.com/. Please feel free to head over there, see some of my takeaways from the amazing weekend, and add your own voice there (or here, or both).


Sunday, November 6, 2011

Post-Conference Conversations: Cathy Stanton's Responses

The conference has come and gone, with absolutely amazing and inspiring turnout and voices and conversations, but this blog remains; while it might turn into other American Studies dialogues in the months to come, right now it's going to be the host to some conference follow ups.

The first ones come from plenary speaker Cathy Stanton. Cathy has provided an e-version of her plenary talk here:


and has also responded to another Plymouth experience in a blog post here:


More to come! (And please of course continue to revisit or visit for the first time the many great pre-conference conversations present here.)

Ben Railton

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Notes from Day 1

So much fun on the first day!

I was struck as I always am by the diversity of approaches at an American studies conference. As I was remarking to another participant, some panels you learn about things you didn't know (or refine ideas you already did) and other times you learn approaches.

The four panels or events I was able to attend give a good example of the discipline's intradisciplinary approaches. The plimoth/plymouth panel looked at both the town and the site from a visual standpoint in Holly Markovitz Goldstein's talk about the visual components of Plymouth, through an experiential and theoretical idea in Michael Millner's explication of the experience of bringing his college class to Plimoth Plantation, and Karyn Goldstein's talk on the way plymouth has been invoked over time. The discipline often does well when it explores a common text through multiple disciplines, and the audience was engaged by the panel as they were by the plenary speakers. The speakers all approached Plimoth/Plymouth from different disciplines or perspectives--from members of the Wampanoag tribe, Joan Tavares Avant and Linda Coombs, historian Joseph Contori, Archeologist Kevin McBride, and anthropologist Cathy Stanton.

The panel I chaired was one was tied together by the world's relationship to American culture. And the showcase of Native American artists last night at Pilgrim Hall emphasized in many ways the same point as the plenary speakers about the diversity of perspectives both in terms of Plymouth and in American Studies.

--Jonathan Silverman

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Special Session: International Indigenous Video Conference

**Transnationalism and American Studies**
Video Conference with Indigenous Activist Organization from Oaxaca, Mexico

Please join us for a discussion with an organization that struggles for the cultural and social rights of indigenous people who inhabit a transnational local economy increasingly defined by the circulation of tourists, commodities, and culture. The Committee of Defense of the Citizenry (CODECI) was founded in 1996 to organize and advocate for indigenous Chinanteca/os who were displaced by the construction of the Cerro del Oro dam. It is now a multiethnic, multi-state, and transborder organization that works to support peasants, refugees, and migrants. For its efforts it faces constant repression.

Please join us!

Saturday, Nov.5 11- 12:15
Special Session 6D
Shakespeare Theater

New England American Studies Conference
Plimoth Plantation
137 Warren Avenue
Plymouth, Mass. 02360

Please contact Eric Larson with any questions. (larson@fas.harvard.edu)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Week 13 Recap and Open Thread

With the conference only days away now, presenters from both the Regional Indigenous Canon panel and the Friday evening reading shared their voices and ideas here. They make, through the very presence and even more through all that they have to say and offer, a more compelling case than I ever could for why you should find your way to Plimoth Plantation this Friday and Saturday.

This week, as we gear up for the conference, we'll hear from the Images of Plimoth and Plymouth panel, one of many that will focus on elements of our amazing site and space.

But please feel very free to keep digging back into the earlier weeks and posts on this blog, to add your thoughts to any prior post, to share your perspectives on American mythologies in this open thread, and generally to join our e-community even if you can't do so in person this weekend. Thanks!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Friday: Indigenous New England Literature

How many Native American authors can you name from New England? BESIDES Samson Occom and William Apess. At Plimoth, you'll be able to learn about a rich regional indigenous literary history, going at least as far back as Mi'kmaq hieroglyphics and as far forward as Narragansett children's poetry. Even better, you get to meet some talented contemporary local Native authors, hear them read, and buy their books.

On Friday afternoon (Session 3A at 2:15) we will have a roundtable discussion with editors of Dawnland Voices: Writing from Indigenous New England. This anthology, years in the making and about 600 pages in manuscript form, is under contract with the University of Nebraska Press; if we're lucky, we should see it sometime next year.

The book is organized by nation, and each nation has a community editor--a tribal elder and/or historian who selected and introduced the texts. Three of these editors will be on hand to discuss the project: Joan Tavares Avant (Mashpee Wampanoag), Dawn Dove (Narragansett), and Stephanie Fielding (Mohegan). It's awe-inspiring to hear how much they know about tribal writing, how they located and chose texts for publication, and how they presented them. This is grass-roots canon-building!

Friday evening, Joan will read from her book, People of the First Light; along with Larry Spotted Crow Mann (Nipmuc), who has published a book of stories called Tales from the Whispering Basket; Mihku Paul (Maliseet), who has a forthcoming poetry chapbook; and Mohegan Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, who has a new Victorian Gothic, Fire Hollow.

If you want to learn a little more about these and other regional Native writers, you can follow the blog, Indigenous New England Literature . We also have an "Indigenous New England Literature" book discussion group on Goodreads.com. And hopefully, before too long, students at UNH will be launching an online archive of regional indigenous literature. Stay tuned, and come on Friday!

Siobhan Senier
University of New Hampshire

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Week 12 Recap and Open Thread

Less than two weeks until the conference! (Revised and updated program now available at http://www.neasa.org under the Conference tab.)

This week the presenters from the "Whispers, Screams, and Echoes: Creating, Recreating, and Challenging Archaeological Narratives" panel highlighted both their individual emphases and ideas and the panel's underlying questions and arguments here; presenter Russ Handsman of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum added some further questions and thoughts in a comment on that post. Please check out this panel's really interesting and important ideas, and add your own in comments too!

This week presenters from a panel on the regional indigenous canon--presenters who have worked to assemble an anthology of those writings--will share their voices here. Keep an eye out for that, but feel free as well to use this post as an open thread to highlight your building excitement for the conference!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Archaeological narratives

The contributors to “Whispers, screams and echoes: creating, recreating and challenging archaeological narratives” draw on research and experiences with archaeological narratives grounded in Native homelands of northern New England (Roberts Moody), coastal and interior southern New England (Herbster, Loren et al., Kirakosian, Harris & Robinson, Handsman), and central New York (Rossen).

The ideas in these papers intersect and overlap in interesting ways. The common thread woven through all papers is a questioning of stable, normative, and unmarked categories in archaeological narratives and an exploration of the slipperiness of thematic binaries and emplotments. Some emphasize materiality and raise issues of analytic scale (Loren et al., Handsman, Herbster). Others focus our attention on the subject(s) of analysis (Loren et al., Harris & Robinson, Kirakosian), shifting our focus from long unquestioned themes and one-sided stories, such as the educating and civilizing of Indians in a colonial “wilderness”, powerful individuals making decisions that change historical trajectories, and archaeological expertise. Others offer directions for changing and replacing outmoded narratives, drawing on powerful interconnections and relations that come from Indigenous knowledge and traditions, post-colonial theory and cross-cultural engagement (Roberts Moody, Loren et al., Harris & Robinson, Handsman, Herbster, Rossen).

In developing an organizational scheme for the session (and recognizing the pitfalls of imposing our own thematic framework) we see the papers falling into two broad categories that will structure the order of the papers:

Theme 1: Analyzing and Challenging Narratives

(1) Katie Kirakosian provides a discussion of the inherent narrative structure of archaeological publications and offers a discourse analysis of 19th-21st century narratives focused on shell midden sites in southern New England. She lays out a series of framing ideas, drawn from literary analysis. Her preliminary analyses show how archaeological narratives are operationalized in different ways through time.

(2) Donna Roberts Moody asks: “Why is there a gulf between archaeology and Native people in Northern New England?” To address this question, she provides a critique of mainstream archaeological practice and raises three important issues: (1) how archaeological narratives become entrenched; (2) the limitations of interpretations that de-privilege context; and (3) the potential benefits of collaboration. Roberts Moody provides insights into current debates in New England archaeology surrounding stone chambers and stone piles that challenge positions staked on existing archaeological narratives.

(3) Jack Rossen offers direct engagement with four archaeological narratives that shape popular understandings of Native history in Cayuga territory. Rossen traces the production of these narratives and the archaeological evidence marshaled in support. He outlines the ways that they are deployed to reinforce efforts to undermine Native land claims and support racist attitudes towards Native revitalization. Rossen counters each narrative with empirically-based alternatives that draw on the transformative potential of Indigenous archaeology.

Theme 2: Resisting, Accommodating, and Changing Narratives

(4) Holly Herbster provides an example of collaborative archaeology from southern New England, tracing the changes in archaeological concerns on the island of Martha’s Vineyard from early-mid 20th century preoccupations with culture history and environmental adaptations, to present-day collaborative approaches towards Wampanoag heritage preservation. The case study offers insights on the issue of trust, long-term commitment, shared goals, “mutual education,” communication, and shared knowledge production. One of the critical issues raised relates to narrative control and the potential conflicts and compromises necessary in collaborative, compliance-based contexts.

(5) Doug Harris and Paul Robinson chart a course for changing entrenched historical narratives through a critique of explanations for the beginning of King Philip’s War. They problematize the notion that a stable peace existed prior to the war, citing archaeological evidence of pronounced stress on Native communities in Narragansett territory. They argue that labeling the pre-war era as a “time of peace” ignores both the suffering of Native people and the strategies they employed for consensus building and avoiding conflict in the face of provocation. They suggest an alternative interpretation based on analysis of the motivations and intentions of Native people who recognized potential consequences of their actions.

(6) Diana Loren, Christina Hodge, and Patricia Capone examine conversion and Native American literacy at Harvard College, demonstrating that the Puritan logic of colonialism based on regulated cultural categories (wilderness/civilization; English/Native) were subverted by the cultural nearness and inherent messiness of colonial encounters. They argue that English see themselves in their view of Native peoples, informing us more about Puritan habitus than Native peoples themselves. They draw on the notion of hybridity—that colonial encounters result in something new and substantially different—which is engaged as a means of understanding the materiality of the Harvard Indian College.

(7) Russell Handsman explores why “disappearance” narrative are so difficult to dislodge. He examines the unintended silences and contradictions of the earliest exhibit installations at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and the recent efforts to re-orient the narratives communicated in exhibits by “inserting Pequot experiences into unexpected places”: urban environments, the military, and other off-reservation contexts. He wonders at the impotence of such narratives for tribal members and concludes that the various narratives that co-exist at the museum—loss, continuity, change, survivance--all undercut the disappearance myth.

Questions for reflection:

(1) The contributors to this session describe, problematize, and/or challenge thematic dichotomies that pervade archaeological narratives. Why are the thematic binaries that structure colonialist and archaeological narratives so pervasive and perduring?

• continuity/loss (e.g., Handsman)
• presence (or homeland)/absence (or empty) (e.g., Handsman, Rossen, Loren et al.)
• peace/war (e.g., Harris & Robinson)
• powerful/disempowered (e.g., Harris & Robinson)
• past/future (e.g., Handsman)
• economy/heritage (e.g., Herbster, Handsman)
• site of scientific research/sacred site (e.g., Herbster)
• civilization/wilderness (e.g., Loren et al., Rossen)
• English (Puritan, Christian)/Indian (e.g., Loren et al.)
• hybridity/homogeneity (e.g., Loren et al.)
• scientific knowledge/Indigenous knowledge (e.g., Roberts Moody, Rossen)
• material/oral (e.g., Roberts Moody, Rossen)
• oldtimers (ancient)/newcomers (e.g., Rossen)

(2) Whom do particular archaeological narratives serve? What is at stake in challenging archaeological narratives?

(3) How do we move beyond critique of archaeological narratives? Is it a matter of re-focusing the subject/scale of analyses or research questions, how archaeological evidence is marshaled, or engaging with different forms of knowledge?

(4) What has, or is, changing/unchanged in archaeological narratives as a result of collaboration, regulation, and/or heightened attention to ethics?

(5) As Loren et al. and Handsman point out, a pervasive assumption throughout the Northeast is that Native Americans disappeared through assimilation, dislocation, and death and “that for something to be Native American, it must seem Native American; that is, is must not seem English”/Euroamerican (Loren et al.). How can archaeological narratives challenge historical erasures on the one hand, and resist reifying these categories, especially in a contemporary sociopolitical contexts where such categories matter in the material conditions that stem from identity politics?

(6) Several contributors refer to current debates in New England/Northeastern archaeology that question established archaeological narratives, knowledge and interpretations (e.g., stone piles in New England, antiquity of Haudenausaunee Confederacy). Are there certain times that are riper for new narratives to take hold? Or less so? What do these alternative narratives (archaeological and otherwise) offer that was lacking before?

(7) How are narratives about the past simultaneously narratives about the discipline of archaeology and present day social relations or preoccupations?
(8) Are certain narratives deep-rooted in the identity of the nation, the region and us?

(9) Are there instances where we have an ethical obligation to speak out against some narratives?

(10) Are narratives the most powerful when they have tangible elements? Does this privilege or empower archaeologists as producers (or “contesters”) of narratives based on the nature of the discipline? What about intangible aspects of narratives?

(11) Can and should oppositional narratives occupy the same space?

Session organizers: Siobhan Hart, SUNY Binghamton, and Katie Kirakosian, UMass Amherst

Week 11 Recap and Open Thread

This week featured Craig Perrier of the Native Americans panel, blogging about collective and educational memories and histories of the Pequot War here.

Please continue to read and comment on Craig's post and all those that have come before in this space, and please feel free to use this post as an open thread for any thoughts and conversations about or toward our conference (less than three weeks away--the program has been added to once more and is still available at our www.neasa.org site).

This week we hear from presenting on the "Creating, Recreating, and Challenging Archaeological Narratives" panel. See you soon!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Craig Perrier's (Native Americans) Post

My paper, ““Confronting American Genocide: United States History and the Pequot War” is part of the “Native Americans” panel on Saturday at 2:15 p.m. Below is an excerpt from my piece.

"Emblazoned upon the white backdrop and blue shield prominently displayed in the center of Massachusetts’ state flag stands the golden figure of a Native American. Massachusetts general law Chapter 2, section 1, identifies the form simply as an “Indian”. Inference suggests, however, the character is a representative of the Algonquian language family. Specific references typically identify him as a member of the tribe, subsequently immortalized in the state’s moniker, “Massachusetts”. Both labels regarding the Native American’s identity make geo-historical sense. Algonquian societies, including the Pequot, populated greater New England and were among the first people to encounter English colonists in North America. What’s more, the decision to include an “Indian” on the Commonwealth’s banner seems celebratory, a tribute to the indigenous people of the New World. There are, however, two other elements on the state standard which invite alternate interpretations of native-colonial relationships. The first feature, an unraveled ribbon flowing around the blue shield framing the centerpiece, is inscribed in Latin, “Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem.” (By the sword we seek peace, but peace only under liberty). The quote directly references the second image; a bent, sword-wielding arm hovering above the Algonquian’s head akin to Damocles’ fateful blade. Taken together, this iconography conjures up a variety of historically contextualized imaginaries. Among them are incidents of war, paternalism, and scalping. In this light, the celebratory “Indian” mentioned earlier, can be just as justifiably understood as a memorial over a conquered, decimated foe.

Central to this paper’s inquiry is the relationship between the concept “genocide” and its existence in American historical memory. Furthermore, the interplay between narrative and education are subsequently formalized in institutionalized conceptualizations of the American identity.Commenting on the influence of historical memory construction, Harvard educational psychologist Howard Gardner, details that ”over time and cultures, the most robust and most effective form of communication is the creation of a powerful narrative. Any one person or agent or institution that has the capacity to decide which story is operative, to sideline or minimize rival stories and to prepare for the next generation’s stories, is in a very powerful position.”The implications surrounding “genocide” and its relation to national identities are especially sensitive and nuanced. A principle contested theme of interpretation is the marking of the war as an example of genocide. Since Raphael Lemkin’s creation of the term in 1943, “genocide” labels have been applied to events which predate the mid-twentieth century. The Pequot War is fertile ground for arguments over such branding.

This paper supports the claim that the Pequot War was a case of genocide. Paramount to this rationale is a definitive understanding of genocide’s formalized terminology and its relevant application to an event three centuries before its codification in the 1948 United Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Furthermore, the functions of education and memory are considered crucial elements in the relationship among national narratives, identity, and acts of genocides. The ultimate goal of this paper is to make a case for high school history curriculum standards to identify and teach the Pequot War as a genocidal act. Furthermore, memory and education are considered essential elements for prevention of future genocide. Altering existing high school content, and teaching genocide in the U.S. national narrative, works to greater understanding and deterrence of genocide."

Monday, October 10, 2011

Week 10 Recap and Open Thread

This week the presenters from the "National Identity and Ethnic Counter-Narratives" panel--Katie Daily, Diane Hotten-Somers, and Paul Schmitz--shared their paper and panel ideas here.

The conference is less than four weeks away, and we'd love to have you join us there--see http://www.neasa.org for all the info, including a full program. But in the meantime, please keep reading and commenting on the earlier posts here, use this post as an open thread for any other ideas or conversations, and look for posts from the Native Americans panel this coming week!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Re-Envisioning, Re-Staging, and Retailing: National Identity and Ethnic Counter-Narratives

European immigrants and ethnic Americans are often viewed as exemplars of the American Dream. In the commonly told story, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants arrive in America and struggle to find employment, but after much hard work and perseverance, finally achieve success and, in the process, exchange their native identities for normative, bourgeois American ones. Through the papers proposed for this panel, Daily, Hotten-Somers, and Schmitz will challenge this narrative in three different forums: business and immigration history, the theatre, and the novel. In each of these papers, the scholars engage in a re-telling of a master narrative of what it means to become and be American.

Katie Daily’s paper, “(re)Envisioning Jewish America: Counterfactual History in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Plot Against America,” considers Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America alongside Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union to understand the ways in which these two contemporary American Jewish writers employ counterfactual strategies to explore questions of American and ethnic identity. In pushing the bounds of history, asking readers to consider how we read the past, Roth and Chabon uncover the fracturing of identity that occurs as racial and ethnic minorities search for a place in the nation. Daily argues that such rewritings of history in the form of the postmodern novel offer ethnic counter-narratives that challenge conventional understandings of immigration and assimilation.

Diane Hotten-Somers’ paper, "Jewish America Awakes and Sings the Irish Blues: Sean O'Casey, Clifford Odets, and Working-Class Identities,” engages similar ideas as Daily’s in that it considers how Jewish-American immigrants constructed themselves in the face of an Anglo-American Protestant normative cultural identity. Through comparatively analyzing Sean O’Casey’s tenement drama Juno and the Paycock with Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!, this paper explores the ways in which Odets redraws the stage Jew by employing O’Casey’s prior strategies of rewriting the stage Irishman. Through their re-stagings, Hotten-Somers argues, both O’Casey and Odets provided not only more complicated theatrical representations of the Irish and Jewish-Americans, but also exposed the complex cultural-historical experiences of the early 20th-century urban, working-class in Ireland and America.

Paul Schmitz’s paper, “Urban Pastorals and American Dreams: Narratives of Business and Identity in New York’s Italian Community,” shifts the focus to another group of white ethnic Americans and their urban environs. Schmitz analyzes the ways in which Italian immigrants negotiated their identities through ethnic commerce, demonstrating that food retailing provided a crucial avenue of upward mobility for New York’s immigrant community. Schmitz argues that the retail food business—from pushcarts to corner groceries—played a fundamental role in the immigrants’ cultural conversion from an alien underclass to symbols of American enterprise. This paper is especially attentive to the tensions between the popular narrative of New York’s Italian grocers as a kind of “Old World,” urban underclass and the immigrant merchants’ own desires to master the narrative of the American Dream and the free-market system to serve their own aspirations for social mobility and assimilation.

These three papers individually address how white ethnic Americans negotiated, indeed reconstructed, their identities in the face of a normative, non-ethnic American cultural identity. At the same time, in positioning the stories of Jews, Irish, and Italians alongside each other, the panel as a whole highlights the advantages of a interdisciplinary comparative ethnic methodology, illustrating how attention to the similarities and differences between immigrant representations, histories, and experiences compels a rewriting of the myth of the American Dream.

Diane Hotten-Somers, Boston College

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Week 9 Recap and Open Thread

This week we featured three posts from the "Activating Public Memory" proposed panel and one from the Slavery panel:

--From the latter, Vanessa Varin blogged about slavery, capital punishment, and narratives of race, justice, and identity here;

--And from the "Public Memory" panel, we heard from Elena Gonzales on the National Museum of the American Indian; from Robyn Schroeder on memory and Obama's presidential campaign; and from Amy Johnson on the legacies of Japanese internment.

Really great stuff, and I hope you'll get a chance to read and respond to these provocative and important posts and ideas. With the conference exactly a month away, I can't think of a better way to get excited for our full and rich two days of panels and voices than by checking out the first 8 weeks of this blog as well; see the Recaps category at right to get a quick sense of all of our posts to date. And please check out the full conference program draft and much more at www.neasa.org (Conference tab) for all the info on the conference.

Five more weeks of great voices here too--and next week we feature presenters from the Ethnic Counter-Narratives panel. Come check back in!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Vanessa Varin's (Slavery) Post

Reports from the Gallows: Southern Capital Punishment, 1776-1820

On March 28, 1820, Jordan- a Virginia slave convicted of the murder of his overseer- was ushered before a sizeable crowd eager to witness his death. Slaves convicted of capital crimes faced swift justice, for southern legal norms dictated an expedited trial and punishment. Often, large gangs of slaves were brought in to witness the spectacle. Their inclusion was a political move by the slaveholders to deter future slave resistance. Before climbing to the top of the ladder, Jordan murmured a short prayer- a public act of contrition expected of criminals. Finally, a spectator reported, “…he was turned off; his struggles lasted three to four minutes.” His body presumably remained before the public’s view for the rest of the day, a symbolic representation of white supremacy in the South.

Jordan’s case tested the boundaries of plantation justice. His body reminded the public of the swift and merciless nature of southern justice. Executions were harsh, theatrical, and purposeful. The southern imagination on the subject of capital punishment was closely tied to race and protection of the social order. Southerners embraced capital punishment as a prescription to the ills of society-either civic or theological deviance. Instead of viewing the gallows as a symbol of the wrongs of society, southerners romanticized and mythologized death sentences, imagining the gallows to be a mechanism to produce conformity and order. Moreover, southerners constructed myths that legitimized their support of the institution, including: the guiding hand of god at the gallows, the belief of crime as a contagion, and the threat of slave revolts. Myths served to underpin the existing social order, and planter authority.

Vanessa Varin, Louisiana State University

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Activating Public Memory: Amy Johnson's Post

[Panel's overall statement: As a panel, we're interested in the many ways in which history and memory have influenced the construction, dissemination, and reception of racialized national mythologies. In each case, the central question revolves around how national mythologies and narratives at the core of an American collective memory have be activated to challenge, bolster, or erase certain issues concerning race and social justice.]

“We are setting a standard for the rest of the world for the treatment of people who may have loyalties to an enemy nation. We are protecting ourselves without violating the principles of Christian decency. And we won’t change that fundamental decency no matter what our enemies do. But of course, we hope most earnestly that our example will influence the Axis power’s treatment of Americans who fall into their hands.”

On February 19, 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the Secretary of War to designate certain areas in the United States as military zones. On March 18, 1942, Roosevelt established the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and appointed Milton Eisenhower, brother of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and a New Deal bureaucrat in the Department of Agriculture, to oversee operations.

In 1942, the Office of War Information released "Japanese Relocation," a strategically titled short film produced on behalf of the U.S. government and and the WRA. The film explained the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan living on the western coast of the United States. Eisenhower not only provides the rationale for the removal of Japanese American citizens but he also claims that the Japanese "cheerfully" participated in the relocation process. According to the film, the process was amicable, with "the military and civilian agencies alike determined to do the job as a democracy should: with real consideration for the people involved."

Framing the newly constructed internment camps in California, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Arkansas as "pioneer communities," the film the features the relocated Japanese acting as they "should" -- smiling and waving to the cameras as they board trains for the camps; making the best of the newly constructed group housing and dining halls; and participating in "Americanization" classes. The Japanese are the cooperating and accommodating "model minority" more than twenty years before the term was coined.

My talk explores on the legacy of the internment experience during the last two decades, focusing specifically on the inscription of this "model minority" mentality on the physical space of the National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism in World War II. In many ways, the memorial is a rearticulation of the film's main tenets. Situated on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, the memorial is a site of remembering, commemorating, and most importantly, forgetting. While the site should be recognized as a public site of redress and its significance to various Japanese American communities, I'm critical of the invisible but equally important erasures of certain histories in order to promote this story of "patriotism" and the "model minority" myth inscribed both implicitly and explicitly on this space.

Where do draft resisters and "disloyals" fit into the history of Japanese internment in the United States? What does it mean that over one thousand Japanese Americans signed a petition against the inclusion of Mike Masaoka, the leader of the Japanese American Citizens League, on the memorial wall? If this is not a war memorial but a civil rights memorial, how does our understanding reading of this site change when these "absent presences" of dissent are made visible?

Amy Johnson, Brown University

Activating Public Memory: Robyn Schroeder's Post

[Panel's overall statement: As a panel, we're interested in the many ways in which history and memory have influenced the construction, dissemination, and reception of racialized national mythologies. In each case, the central question revolves around how national mythologies and narratives at the core of an American collective memory have be activated to challenge, bolster, or erase certain issues concerning race and social justice.]

The time had come, according to Barack Obama in his Inaugural Address, for Americans to “choose [their] better history" (emphasis mine). The line was political memory at its finest, openly marrying selective memory to national destiny, the culminating gesture of a campaign in which exhortations to anticipate, recall, and enact history were de rigueur.

The use of historical memory by Obama’s 2008 political campaign provides a superb case study for an important question in memory studies: how do historians of memory adjudicate distinctions between “chosen”and “imposed” memories? I pick up on a point made by Michael Schudson about the vernacular burden of memory; writing about the ways in which readily available idioms, laws, and political conventions manifested themselves during the Iran-contra affair, Schudson argues, “People did not choose the Watergate frame. It chose them. It imposed itself.”[1]I argue that particular memories—specifically, of race baiting, U.S. political assassinations,and partisan animosities—“imposed themselves” in this way on the otherwise triumphalist, civil religious memories chosen by the Obama campaign. The sense of history which emerged joined anxious nostalgia to confident telos, positing the essential American identity as simultaneously master of destiny and victim of history. That tension in national memory has—at this point almost self-evidently—unsettled a segment of the cultural consciousness.

To wet our appetites for thinking about the historical gestures of Obama and what Barry Schwarz calls the “post-heroic” mode ofmemory, I invite readers of the blog to visit (or revisit) the will.i.am video which riffed on Obama’s speech on the occasion of losing the New Hampshireprimary:


This video, I think, might tell us a great deal about the intersection of chosen and imposed memories. What happens when the face of celebrity substitutes for the image of populism and collective action? How does the song’s mournful tone interact, in terms of political effectiveness, with Obama’s “American history”? If memory is a kind of “enchantment” (as Patrick Wright, in Living in An Old Country, suggests)—that is, memory is history plus certainty—then does this song enchantor disenchant the sphere of national memory?

[1] Michael Schudson, “Lives, Laws, and Language: Commemorative vs. Non-commemorative Forms of Effective Public Memory,” The Communication Review, Vol. 2 (1), 1997, p.13.

Robyn Schroeder, Brown University

Activating Public Memory: Elena Gonzales's Post

[Panel's overall statement: As a panel, we're interested in the many ways in which history and memory have influenced the construction, dissemination, and reception of racialized national mythologies. In each case, the central question revolves around how national mythologies and narratives at the core of an American collective memory have be activated to challenge, bolster, or erase certain issues concerning race and social justice.]

Here is a 2.5 minute video from the National Museum of the American Indian: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZpd4V1eqNs. This film takes place on the grounds of NMAI during the summer of 2007 when Nora Naranjo-Morse created Always Becoming, a monumental, yet ephemeral, outdoor family of sculptures. The artist collaborated with a large team of native community members and as many other visitors, staff, and as many local residents as they could recruit in order to construct the piece. (Here's a link to the whole project: http://www.nmai.si.edu/alwaysbecoming/AlwaysBecoming.html)

The film and the Always Becoming project provide an opportunity to think about the position of various national cultural institutions in the national landscape and in the making of national identities and common public memory. I wanted to whet your appetite for the session with thoughts of NMAI because, among the various kinds of museums I'll consider in my presentation - culturally specific museums, museums dedicated to civil rights, federal museums, and museums that deal with atrocities - NMAI is the least bound by these categories. That this museum is neither fish nor fowl should inspire us to further inquiry about the nature of the category of "national" and the role of culturally specific museums.

With that, I leave you with a couple of questions in the hopes of learning from you as I prepare for the conference.

- How does this video cause you to see NMAI as an American institution or as more of a pan-American Indian one? Which nation is the one the museum's name refers to?

- What does it mean about the US that culturally specific institutions are also Smithsonian Museums on the national mall?

- What does NMAI's existence mean about international relations between the US and Native nations?

Can't wait to see you at our session!

Elena Gonzales, Brown University

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Week 8 Recap and Open Thread

This week on the blog we featured the "Resisting Narratives of New England Exceptionalism" panel:

--Sarina Isenberg blogged about Henry David Thoreau's Eastern spiritual and philosophical influences here;

--And the panel's proposers blogged about both their overarching goals and their specific paper plans here.

Please keep checking those posts (and all our earlier ones) out and adding your voice in comments! Come back this upcoming week for posts from the "Activating Public Memory" panel. And remember to check out a full conference program draft and register for the conference at www.neasa.org. Thanks!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Resisting Narratives of New England’s Historical Exceptionalism

New England has always played a prominent role in the construction of U.S.-American historical myths. This prominence is not only reflected in U.S.-origin narratives which view New England as the cradle of American democracy, but also in cultural origin narratives, in which New England is the center of literary and cultural production from the 1600s to the late 1900s. However, as scholars in the last 30 years have pointed out, the overemphasis on New England’s historical exceptionalism has ignored the cultural complexity and diversity of New England since colonial times. Consequently, the moments of protest and resistance against hegemonic narratives of the past continues to be in need of exploration.

Our panel focuses on three such moments, ranging from 1724 to the present day, thus exposing a historical narrative centered on protest and resistance. However, our panel also highlights the geographical diversity of New England culture as it brings into focus moments of resistance originating in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Maine.

Hayden Golden’s paper will discuss William Apess’s “Eulogy on King Philip,” performed at the Odeon Theater in Boston twice in 1836. Golden argues that “Eulogy” constitutes one of the most visible acts of Native resistance in the eastern United States during the nineteenth century. Employing a combination rhetorical devices and theatrical-performative methods, Apess deconstructed the Jacksonian narrative of American history and rewrote it through a Native lens. I will lay the foundation for considering Apess’s “Eulogy,” not as a text to be interpreted, but as a performance to be understood within the larger frame of theater culture.

Michelle Kew challenges the myth that American women were nothing but downtrodden and oppressed before they got the vote. Contrary to the impression that many modern Americans may have of pre-1920 America, women played an ever-increasing role in public life during the 19th century and had in fact been speaking for themselves and publishing their arguments for equality in newspapers and magazines for decades. Using examples from contemporary literature of the day, ranging from literary magazines and conduct books to William Dean Howells’ novel The Rise of Silas Lapham, she argues that “the woman question,” as it was then known, was a highly debated one for a long time, and in fact women’s voices and calls for greater equality were more often heard than many people realize.

Sabine Klein will discuss the historical and contemporary contestations of the battle of Norridgewock (1724). This understudied massacre resulted in the exodus of the Abenaki nation from their homeland in Western Maine, the killing of a French missionary, and the beginning of English predominance in the reason. While this event has never played an important role in the history of the U.S., on the ground in Maine it has been contested continuously both in literary and material culture. Focusing primarily on the multiple ways in which the event is commemorated at a memorial site in Madison, Maine, Klein argues that the creation, recreation, and resistance are ongoing processes that attest to the contested nature of national narratives.

Hayden Golden, Michelle Kew, and Sabine Klein, University of Maine at Farmington

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

“A Very Yankee Sort of Oriental”: Cosmopolitanism and Orientalism in Henry David Thoreau’s Engagements with Eastern Religions

Until quite recently, due to the prevalence of the myth of American literary autonomy during the early national period, few studies have addressed the international influences upon American works. Following the work of Wai Chee Dimock, Paul Giles, Susan Manning, and Andrew Taylor which positions American literature as a form of world literature, this paper explores the interactions between American Transcendentalism and Eastern religions in the writings of Henry David Thoreau.

Segments of Eastern texts appear in Walden, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and his journals, and Thoreau translated Eastern texts into English (from French and German translations) in the “Ethnical Scriptures” column in The Dial. Thoreau’s writings on the East can be conceived in two ways. First, they reflect an emerging cosmopolitan American identity that features a positive opening to the richness of foreign cultures. For example, in the Artist of Kouroo parable, Thoreau combines Eastern and Western perspectives to create a culturally harmonious work. Conversely, Thoreau’s writing is as a continuation of a conventional Western Orientalist perspective that essentializes the East and uses its representation as a means of defining the West. In Walden Thoreau portrays the East as backward, mythologizes different religions and cultures, defines the East with a Western lens, and commodifies religious practice. Thoreau’s writings are therefore cosmopolitan and Orientalist and, this conflicted state of being reaffirms Laura Dassow Walls’ argument that the two identities frequently overlap.

While there has been a lull of scholarly interest in Thoreau’s connection to Eastern religions, my research paper aims to spark the debate by demonstrating the theoretically problematic nature of this relationship. Furthermore, given Thoreau’s foundational role in American literature, his works suggest that the early American canon was an international product that permeated borders.

Sarina Isenberg, Queen's University

Friday, September 16, 2011

Week 7 Recap and Open Thread

A very full and engaging week here on the blog, with presenters from the Heroism, Recreating the Revolution, and West panels sharing their voices and ideas:

--Lara Kuykendall blogged about American art, painter Palmer Hayden, images of John Henry, and folk mythology here;

--Laura D'Amore blogged about gender, history, and accuracy in New England Revolutionary reenactments here;

--Lucinda Hannington blogged about maps and legends of Route 66, images of the West, and folk narratives of place here;

--Erin Eisenbarth blogged about collective memory and images of the Revolution in late 19th and early 20th century collections of George Washington memorabilia here;

--And Craig Smith blogged about competing national and multi-ethnic memories and celebrations of the Centennial in Boston here.

As always, please feel very free to return to these great posts and add your voice into the comments; this post is also an open thread for all ongoing ideas and responses and perspectives. If you want to hear and add more, you're all invited to the conference itself, a draft of the full program of which is online at www.neasa.org. And please come back here next week for posts from a panel on narratives of New England exceptionalism!

Claiming the Centennial: Descent and Dissent in Boston, 1870-1876

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1874, at Boston’s Parker House, Thomas J. Gargan, the President of the Charitable Irish Society, created a storm of controversy as he boldly declared, “the scepter is to fall from the descendants of the May Flower to unlineal hands, and the Celtic supersede the Saxon elements even on the Rock of Plymouth.” The battle for the memory of American history was well underway—and every historical symbol, analogy, and mythology would be called to the front lines. My paper, entitled “Claiming the Centennial: Descent and Dissent in Boston, 1870-1876,” discusses how both the descendants of the American colonists and numerous immigrant, minority, and feminist groups worked to create inalienable memories about the events of the American Revolution and why this mythology was so important. It analyzes how this memory of the American Revolution influenced socio-cultural and political life in Boston during the late nineteenth century.

During the 1870s Boston is a city on the decline, but one that is still grappling to retain its importance amidst a rapidly expanding nation. This paper uses the Boston commemorations of the centennials of the Boston Massacre, Boston Tea Party, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Evacuation Day, and Independence Day as a lens through which to view and understand the mentalities of the day. These centennials became a battleground between native Yankee citizens and immigrants over what it means to be “American” and who is “American.” Yankee citizens of direct lineal descent from the Revolutionary generation attempted to claim supremacy over the celebrations, the American Revolution, and the country itself though their blood ties; at the same time, they also tried to exclude immigrants not only from the celebrations themselves, but also from being part of the national collective identity. Immigrants, minorities, and female suffragists all fought against this exclusive mentality, while advancing their own claims to the Revolution based on ideological, spiritual, and ethnic/racial connections to the revolutionaries.

By trying to retain control over the centennial events, while resisting other mindsets, each group attempted to create an established and undeniable narrative about its role in the founding of America and its place in the national doctrine. This paper will show how this perpetration of a mythological identity came to dominate Bostonian political and social life, portending the clear economic and ethnic divides that would continue to plague the city and the country into the next century.

Craig Smith, Brandeis University

Relics of the Revolution: Collecting George Washington Memorabilia, 1876-1920

“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

By the time Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee delivered his famous eulogy for George Washington, mere days after his December 14, 1799 death, Americans were already busy proving his statement true. Memorabilia celebrating Washington’s life and contributions was flooding the marketplace, artisans and amateurs were creating tributes to their fallen hero with pen and needle, and a wide variety of goods were elevated to relic status, gaining value and power because Washington had owned them, used them, or merely passed near them.

In the more than two hundred years since Washington’s death, this mania for all things George (and all of George’s things) has yet to abate. His face and name adorn countless products, places, and institutions, and a Washington pedigree remains one of the most desirable provenances an American object can have.

Studying Washington memorabilia (often known as “Washingtoniana”) as well as the history of its collection and collectors has allowed me to investigate a number of questions surrounding American identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, which Washington are people collecting? The victorious general? The noble statesman? The reluctant Cincinnatus, who stepped away from his beloved home to serve his even more beloved republic? Different collectors favored different visions of Washington, using his name and image to lend historical weight and an imprimateur to their own political, social, and personal agendas. As arguably the most important figure of the American Revolution, George Washington (or at least the Gilded Age’s vision of George Washington) played a crucial role in the Colonial Revival, a period of intense nostalgia for and lionization of the colonial past on the part of many white elites that reached its zenith in the years between the Centennial in 1876 and the beginning of World War I. Frustrated by industrialization, immigration, and other perceived threats to their cultural hegemony, many Americans began to recast the Colonial and early Federal period as the nation’s lost golden age – a period of prosperity and propriety that had been lost in a mechanized and increasingly foreign present.

A wide variety of “souvenir” or “commemorative” goods featuring Washington’s name and image were available shortly after Washington’s death, and such memorabilia has provided (and continues to provide) ample fodder for scholars. My own interest lies with objects that Washington owned (or at least was purported to have owned). Made sacred by their association with the great man, by the third quarter of the nineteenth century these home-grown American relics had become highly-sought-after collectibles. But how did they leave the hands of Washington’s family and friends and enter the marketplace? What kinds of changes did they undergo as they moved from priceless artifact to priced commodity, and what kinds of strategies did both buyers and sellers use to reconcile themselves to this transformation? The period of my study (approximately 1876 to 1920) was a formative one for the American antiques trade, and the case of Washingtoniana is an excellent example of the debates between historical importance and aesthetics as criteria for evaluating an antique object’s importance that were taking place during this era.*

My paper deals with two collectors – the father and son team of Luther (1841-1918) and De Lancey Kountze (1878-1946). Though they both collected Washingtoniana, they did so for very different reasons, creating a group of objects that says just as much about their search for their own identities as it does about their search for Washington’s. While Luther was attempting to establish an American pedigree for himself by buying Washington’s possessions, it was Washington’s service in the army which seems to have enthralled De Lancey, who saw in it parallels to his own experiences in France in World War I. My study of the Kountzes and their Washington collection demonstrates how the American colonial revival and the longstanding cult of the founding fathers influenced the ways in which upper-class, white American men intertwined historical memory, patriotism, and collecting with their own quests for personal and national identities.

*For more on this debate, see Briann Greenfield, Out of the Attic: Inventing Antiques in Twentieth-Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009), particularly the first two chapters.

Erin Eisenbarth, The Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Maps of 66: How Road Maps Built an American Legend

Firstly, I would like to apologize for my late post as I am presenting as part of the West panel and should have gotten this up last week.  
My entry here was intended to be a teaser of the online exhibit I will be presenting in November, but due to technical issues, the website remains incomplete.  That being the case, here’s the textual preview:
Route 66 has become a deep-seated part of American pop-culture, even for those born after the road’s decommissioning. Generations of travelers, including many who have never traveled down its fabled pavement, have adopted it as the icon of the American road trip--a rite of passage that lives on today, even in the face of affordable flights, superhighways and skyrocketing gas prices.  
But how did this come to pass?  A certain amount of mythology can be attributed to figures like John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, and Jack Kerouac, but there is another cultural avenue that deserves exploration for its role in the rise of popularity of Route 66.  
Road maps have done far more for popular culture than one would think, but because they were, for most of the twentieth century, the only way to navigate from one place to another they were a highly prominent part of American popular and vernacular culture.  What a road map’s publisher chose to feature was directly related to what was visited by travelers.  As a result, the now-iconic landmarks that lined Route 66 were there largely because someone decided that they deserved to make it--quite literally--onto the map.  
The allure of Route 66 did not come purely from the depictions of the road on maps--such a claim would be far too extreme to be accurate, but in order to understand the way in which the road’s popularity rose and fell in the mid-twentieth century, road maps must be taken into consideration as valuable pieces of ephemera that reveal far more than their authors likely imagined.  
I hope this peaks your interest and I look forward to sharing the full exhibit in November!     
Lucinda Hannington, University of Southern Maine

Women Fought in the Revolution? A Discussion of Historical Authenticity in New England Reenactments

As my two young girls and I stood behind the stone wall, awaiting the beginning of the battle at Minuteman National Park in Concord, MA, during Patriot's Day weekend last April, we gazed around at the reenactors.  We ended up behind Colonial lines, with Minutemen gently moving us out of their way on their way to their shooting perch.  Approximately one-third of the reenactors was a woman: some attempted to look like men, but most didn't, hair blowing in the breeze, shapely bodies evident beneath their mismatched uniforms.  Women with guns, moving into battle formation against the formidable Red Coats across the park green.  My daughters were mesmerized.

Later that morning, we found ourselves drawn by the smell of pie baking over a hearth.  Wandering over to take a peek, a camp follower-- a woman-- began a historical dialogue with my daughters.  "Now," she said, "If you were alive during the 17th century, since you are a girl, you'd be back here behind the lines, cooking, and sewing, and keeping the soldiers well fed and clothed."  My oldest daughter, who is 7, looked at her like she had two heads.  "No I wouldn't," she argued back, "I'd be out there with the guns, shooting at the bad guys!"

The confusion, of course, emerges from the space of historical authenticity.  Women did not fight as soldiers in the Revolutionary War, unless they secreted themselves into the ranks dressing and acting like men.  There are stories here and there of brave women taking up arms (Deborah Sampson, for example, whose lineage I can trace in my own family tree), but by and large soldiers were men.  And the battleground was a distinctly masculine space.  So, in 2011, when women choose to participate in battle reenactments, our view of history is compromised.

How do we balance the competing histories: one contemporary, women's liberation, which argues that gendered spaces are limiting.  Women have fought hard for access to men's worlds, to all male clubs and communities.  Reenacting is one such space that women have recently claimed.  And two, 17th century, and the desire to "educate" the public, which is the inspiration for most of the reenactors that I've interviewed.  The education they provide to audiences who do not "know how it really was" is altered by the very representations that they present to the public.  Reenactors consider themselves experts in history, and insist upon perfection in historical detail.  And yet, with women in the ranks they are imperfect even before they reach the battlefield.

My paper will address the perspectives of reenactors of the American War of Independence, as well as theoretical foundations of the legitimacy of historical memory in popular commemoration.  Ultimately, this is a story of women's rights versus historical veracity, and re-imagines what public history actually embodies.


Laura D'Amore, Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies , Roger Williams University

Palmer Hayden, artist, and John Henry, hero

First, I want to say how much I am looking forward to all the wonderful papers and panels introduced on this blog. Thanks to Ben and Jonathan for their tireless preparations of this virtual forum and our upcoming in-person discussions at the conference.

When I got the call for papers months ago, the title of our conference, “American Mythologies: Creating, Recreating, and Resisting National Narratives,” felt like a perfect way to think about a topic I’ve been working on as of late. I want to introduce to you (or remember them to those of you who have seen these paintings before) Palmer Hayden’s John Henry series (c. 1944-47), a collection of twelve paintings (plus two thematically-related works) that represent the life and death of that legendary hammer-wielding railroad man. In his attempt to translate a folk song he’d known since childhood into a series of epic cultural importance, Hayden was creating, recreating, and resisting national narratives.

Palmer Hayden, His Hammer in His Hand

Hayden’s project was more ambitious than any previous visual iteration of the John Henry legend. Twelve paintings, in color, on a scale of approximately 30 x 40 inches each, dwarfed previous book illustrations and small-scale works on paper. Hayden’s research was unprecedented in scope; he read books, spoke with leading Henry scholars, and traveled to West Virginia two times to the site where Henry allegedly made his stand against the steam drill invented to replace human labor in railroad construction. Hayden came to believe that John Henry had actually existed, that he had actually challenged the steam drill to a contest, which he won, and that he had indeed perished after demonstrating his unsurpassed strength and fortitude. In these paintings, Hayden, an African American artist, sought to convey the reality of Henry’s life and his significance for 1940s Americans of all geographic and ethnic backgrounds. He attempted to create a national hero.

Palmer Hayden, Where'd You Git Them Hightop Shoes

In his efforts to create, Hayden also was recreating a story that so many Americans knew well from countless versions of a folk song. Titles like When John Henry Was a Baby and Where'd You Git Them Hightop Shoes reflect Hayden’s effort to incorporate lyrics and narrative details found in various versions of the song as a way to appeal broadly to Americans from diverse parts of the country.

The issue of resisting national narratives is more complex. It is an idea that I am still grappling with and one that I hope may elicit some discussion here and/or at the conference. I believe we can see Hayden’s series as an act of resistance against a national narrative of American heroes, which had been developing for decades upon decades, that neglected, minimized, undermined, or obliterated references to black folk heroes. Hayden’s insistence upon the actual existence of John Henry at a specific moment in history at a specific railroad tunnel in West Virginia (Big Bend, near Talcott, WV) and his repeated inclusion throughout the series of the patriotic red, white, and blue palette register as attempts to insert Henry into a national pantheon. His incorporation of white characters into crowds of onlookers and mourners, along with his depiction of Henry’s “woman” as white, may be further attempts to assert Henry’s applicability for a society that was grappling with issues racial justice and inclusion. All of this is complicated, however, by Hayden’s much-maligned figural style, which some viewers in the 1940s and since have found to resemble objectionable racial caricatures.

Hayden certainly believed in the heroism of John Henry and hoped his paintings would elevate and solidify Henry’s status in American culture. He sought, albeit unsuccessfully, to place his entire series into the collection of the Smithsonian. I look forward to examining these works and their context with many of you in November.

Lara Kuykendall, Ball State University

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Week 6 Recap and Open Thread

This week presenters from the Visual Arts and Identity and The West panels added some of their diverse and compelling topics and interests to the mix:

--Bonnie Miller blogged about media and propagandistic images of women and race in and around the Mexican, Spanish, and Afghanistan wars here;

--Rachel Miller blogged about race, region, and identity in Currier & Ives "Darktown" series here;

--And Steven Bradley blogged about transatlantic and transnational stories and images of the Wild West and frontier here.

Each of these posts deserves continued and in-depth thought and response, so please feel free to continue reading and responding to them in their own comment threads. But as always this post is also an open thread, and we'd love to hear what you all are thinking about--on these topics, on overarching questions of American mythologies and narratives, or on whatever else you want to share. Next week, we'll hear from presenters on the Heroism and Recreating the Revolution panels!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Whose National Myth?

Any of us can easily recall numerous examples of the appropriation or reinterpretation of the mythic narratives and characters of the Old West by creative artists and writers from outside America—particularly in film, we think of Akira Kurasawa’s Seven  Samurai, Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti  Westerns” in the 1950s and 1960s or even more recently Willem Dafoe’s “le cowboy” character who arrives to console a grieving Parisian mother in Nobuhiro Suwa’s contribution to Paris, Je t’aime! (2006)  The appeal of the Old West myth with its larger-than-life characters and spaces seems to be global, rather than national.  But what can these reinterpretations of the Old West by creative artists from outside the US tell us about the cultural values that motivate them?  Are the elements of the Old West myths so universal that they can fit into any cultural context with a consistent meaning?  

My approach takes an intentional transatlantic context by comparing examples from 20th century American and European, particularly German, interpretations of the Old West and its characters.  Through this approach I hope to show that the myth of the Old West is infused with values that reflect ideas and attitudes which are more indicative of European rather than American concerns.
Although his writings are hardly known in North America, the novels of the Wild West by the late 19th century German author Karl May have exerted an influence on the national psyche of Germany for over a century, forming a fixed image of the American West for several generations of Germans that simply cannot be supplanted by the more recent imaginary visions of TV and film Westerns or by any actual first-hand experience of the American West.  In contrast to the North American stereotypes of Western characters, in May’s Western novels the Native American is the “good guy”, the hero, rather than the Cowboy.  May’s admiration for the Native American follows the European tradition of the “noble savage”, but May develops this stereotype even further as he imbues his fictional Western characters, the Apache Winnetou and his white (German) companion Old Shatterhand with personal credos and world views that reflect the author’s own commitment to the principles of the late 19th century International Peace Movement.
Separated from May by two World Wars and much of Germany’s terrible recent history, in his famous 1974 performance piece, I like America and America likes Me, German artist Joseph Beuys revives the concept of the encounter with an essential spirit of the American West that can catapult modern man into a new ideal relationship with his surroundings.  Winnetou’s murder at the end of May’s trilogy signals the end of this noble race and Beuys begins his encounter at this tragic moment: “I believe I made contact with the psychological trauma point of the United States’ energy constellation: the whole American trauma with the Indian, the Red Man.”  Just as May’s vision of the American West was infused with the philosophical ideals of the International Peace Movement, Beuys too filters his conception of the American West through a philosophical system: the philosophy of spiritual freedom found in the writings of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy.
Finally, the films of German director Wim Wenders present a much less utopian view of the American West.  From Paris, Texas (1984), his first collaboration with Sam Shepard, through Land of Plenty (2004) and Don’t Come Knocking (2006), his most recent collaboration with Shepard, Wenders examines the legacy of the Old West in the increasingly desperate lives of modern Westerners as they struggle with the loss of that legacy in the face of the social, psychological and political realities of the contemporary America.
What I hope to suggest is that the meaning of the Old West for an entire European nation over several generations can be vastly different from the meanings that our American culture imbues in this national myth.  This can have a significant impact on international understanding and particularly on the practice of and on the premises and purposes of American Studies in the US in comparison with our academic counterparts Europe.
Steven Bradley, Colorado Mesa University

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Race and Region in Currier and Ives

I'd like to start with a quick shout-out to my classmate (and fellow renter) Marieke Van Der Steenhoven and her epic week of homeownership and its discontents. In response to Marieke’s query concerning the future of renting and owning I’ll give a brief quotation from everyone’s favorite New England summer tourist Teddie Adorno:

“Whoever flees into genuine but purchased historical housing, embalms themselves alive.”

You're welcome, Marieke.

Although my own presentation is part of the “Arts and Identity” panel on Friday afternoon and has nothing to do with homeownership, it does concern the persistence of American identity narratives that inscribe and normalize rules of national belonging. As my co-presenter Bonnie Miller suggested in her post, the images circulating through public consciousness can give immediate and convincing testimony in favor of governmental policy, whether in the 19th or in the 21st century.

“A Staple Winter Article of Not the Usual Kind”: Currier and Ives’ Darktown in the Northern Winter” examines the relationship between two parallax views of New England in late 19th century visual culture, embodied in the familiar “Old New England” scenes and the once-popular Darktown series. The thought processes that makes these prints legible cannot be separated from policy making of the same period, the 1880s and 1890s, which includes Plessy v. Ferguson and the codification of Jim Crow laws.  Here you're looking at "The Road, Winter," based on a drawing of Nat Currier and his wife near their home in Amesbury, Massachussetts, and the Darktown "A Team Fast on the Snow."

The Darktown series catalogs a staggering number of African American failures at a wide range of activities from firefighting to picnicking. Illustrator Thomas Worth’s vociferous version of the racist comic idiom long used in genre paintings, minstrel shows and cartoons will make most contemporary viewers extremely uncomfortable.

This had not always been the case at Currier and Ives, where in 1872 the printers had expected to make a profit from the serious, respectful group portrait The First Colored Senator and Representatives, in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States. In a similar manner, the widely distributed lithograph of Mathew Brady's photograph of Hiram Revels, a Mississippi senator, offered Northern viewers a rhetorically powerful image of an African American politician. "Whatever may be the prejudices of those who may look upon it," wrote Frederick Douglass about this photograph, "they will be compelled to admit that the Mississippi Senator is man."


Rachel Miller, University of Southern Maine

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Mobilizing Power of Endangered Femininity

The Black Legend Effect: Images of Mexicans, Cubans, and Spaniards in 19th Century American Visual Culture, 1848 to 1898
I am pleased to introduce the topic I will be presenting on at the upcoming NEASA conference, on the panel “Visual Arts and Identity.” 
When I saw on CNN reports of the Taliban’s mistreatment of Afghan women in the buildup to the recent U.S. invasion, I thought to myself, here we go again.  There may be some truth to that claim, but it certainly was not driving American military policy.  This type of charge is recurrent in the making of domestic and foreign enemy images throughout American history, and it provides policymakers or propagandists with a rationale for war that upholds the nation's moral mission while eliding the actual strategic gains of such actions.  Just how many times is this country going to justify aggression in the name of protecting women?  My talk isn’t going to answer this question comprehensively, but it will demonstrate the salience of this narrative in the propaganda of two nineteenth century wars.  This theme of endangered femininity has proven effective because it turns action into manly heroism and inaction into selfish negligence.  It also enables media makers to infuse elements of sensation and drama into these political scenarios, amplifying their commercial appeal. By making explicit the formulaic nature of these rallying cries, perhaps we can help make future generations less susceptible to their mobilizing power.
This project grew out of the book I recently completed, which traces patterns of visual representation in a range of cultural forms during the Spanish-American War of 1898 and its imperial aftermath.  It is titled From Liberation to Conquest: The Visual and Popular Cultures of the Spanish-American War of 1898 and is forthcoming this October from the University of Massachusetts Press.  I realized that cartoonists, filmmakers, playwrights, and other cultural producers often reshaped existing narratives in order to convey the politics of war and empire in simple, compelling ways.  This inspired me to explore the roots of this iconography in earlier conflicts, and I began with the media campaigns of the Mexican-American War.
Media makers predominantly represented the stakes of these international conflicts as sexual melodrama, with the American male hero coming to the rescue of the imperiled Mexican or Cuban woman.  Image makers depicted the Mexicans (and later the Spanish) as a lecherous breed that preys upon women.  Propagandists heightened the enemy threat by drawing upon a set of stereotypes that had existed in Western culture since the sixteenth century – the Black Legend.  When the Spanish empire was at the height of its power, its Northern European rivals branded Spain as exceptionally barbaric and fanatical based on the alleged brutalities of colonialism and the Spanish Inquisition.  Although the Black Legend had originally targeted Spain, media makers in the 1840s fused Spanish and Mexican peoples under the category of the “Latin” race.  They claimed that Spain’s prolonged imperial rule in Latin America and the high incidence of miscegenation between Spanish and native peoples caused Mexico to internalize the characteristics of the Black Legend.  The Black Legend furnished media makers with a shared language to dehumanize the Spanish and Mexicans in 1846 and 1898 in order to rally the nation for war.  The prevailing images of the dark, evil Spanish bandit and the sexualized Latina set important precedents for the representation of Latin American peoples inside and outside American borders in American popular culture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Bonnie Miller, University of Massachusetts Boston

(Belated) Week 5 Recap and Open Thread

Week 5 on the blog saw one extended post and two new ones:

--Melody Graulich added two powerful images to her Religion and Identity post on cross-cultural spiritualities on the American frontier here.

--Steve Wilson blogged about Jack Kerouac, the literary marketplace, and questions of work, genre, and value here.

--And Rachel Boccio blogged about issues of life writing/memoir, race and slavery, imperialism, and identity here.

We're already into Week 6, where we will be hearing from folks on the West and Visual Culture & Identity panels. But please feel free as always to continue commenting on these earlier posts, or to raise parallel or additional ideas and thoughts in this Open Thread. See you soon!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Full Conference Program (Draft) Now Available!

To see how these different participants and panels fit into our full plan for the conference, as well as the many other exciting and engaging events we have planned, please head over to http://www.neasa.org/, click on the Conference tab, and check out the attached Program draft. Thanks!

Rachel Boccio's (Slavery) Post

“The Black Christian”:
Life, Rhetoric, and the Transition from Slave to Imperialist

            Life writing, in its manifold forms, is a significant constituent in the present-day landscape of literary studies. The field, which includes autobiography, biography, diaries, letters, travelogues, etc., is pivotal to debates about the creation and analysis of discourse as well as the political and social ramifications of literature. Ishmeal Baeh’s harrowing account of life as a child-solider in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone, for example, was credited with provoking debate in Washington as regards human rights and the ethics and politics of using children in war. The memoir was cited by Senator Dick Durbin as he announced passage of the Child Soldier Prevention Act (1997), officially banning the practice of employing child-soldiers in America and extending the government’s ability to deport those accused of utilizing children in combat situations. Accounts such as Baeh’s invoke the question, how does a life become a rhetoric? All attempts to narrate lives, whether our own or someone’s else’s, involve to a certain degree elements of self-fashioning and self-negating, all cooperate with, resist, or invent forms of composition and narrative. The vast array of historical and literary potential that life writing opens up creates both exciting possibilities and troubling dilemmas.     

            Olaudah Equiano’s eighteenth-century transnational slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, is easily positioned in debates over the purposes and problems of writing a life. Equiano’s narrative was published in 1789, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade. Appearing in nine English editions, translated into many languages, and read throughout the world, Equiano’s first-person tale of enslavement, cultural and religious transformation, and international voyage became the most powerful publication of the British antislavery movement. It utilized the conventions of traditional genres such as the spiritual autobiography, the sentimental novel, and the picaresque, while simultaneously ushering in a powerfully persuasive new literary form: the slave narrative.   It is seemingly impossible to overstate the value of Equiano’s narrative as an abolitionist tool, and yet, questions about the book’s authenticity and realism have plagued it since its earliest days. Equiano knew that the rhetorical power of his narrative relied heavily upon its focus on his own life; of course this very requirement – to conflate life and rhetoric- has profound impacts on the processes by which one remembers and contextualizes a life.  This is especially true in the case of traumatic memories, which not only resist narrativization, but also make one vulnerable to repeating the effects of trauma in discourse.  Though Equiano’s tale is conventionally regarded as an abolitionist project, the narrative problematizes notions of personal autonomy and independence by revealing Equiano’s own imperialistic religious and economic practices. 

Rachel Boccio, University of Rhode Island

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Steve Wilson's (Literature) Post

Mythic Sales Figures: Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans and the Marketplace

Work is productivity.  Work is sex.  Work is moral. Work is art.  Throughout Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, protagonist Leo Percepied struggles with his desire to “work,” in all these 1950s definitions of the word.  The novel portrays a young passionate writer seeking redemption from a capitalist system that values work over contemplation.  As we know from Kerouac’s biography, his own father found little practical value in his son’s writing, noting that Jack could not “be supported all [his] life.”  That the jargon of the day conflated work with sex adds to Leo’s conflicts: he enters a relationship with the half-black, half-Cherokee Mardou Fox as at once an experiment in race relations and a chance to prove his own masculinity. Mardou cannot reach orgasm, we learn from Leo; and he considers it his duty, and good works, to “cure’ her of this illness.  Moreover, since Leo wonders why his friends often call him a “fag,” and he reveals in a thinly veiled recounting of a night with fellow writer Arial Lavalina his underlying homosexual desires, his “work” on Mardou has restorative powers far beyond proving his worth as a productive member of the marketplace.  Thus, The Subterraneans compels us to consider the nature of work and commodity.  Of what value is art?  Of what value is ethnicity in a racist society?  Of what value machismo?  These and other questions rest at the center of Kerouac’s complex psychological text.

The Beat era has been highly marketable over the decades since Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Kerouac’s On the Road first appeared in the mid-1950s.  Coming at the birth of a truly global media, the Beats were commodified into pop culture icons almost from the first publication of their works.  Their own lives and images stood at times above their literary achievements in terms of market value.  Eventually Beat writers would be used to sell revolution in the 1960s and khaki trousers the 1990s, among many other products.  This commodification parallels the ongoing market strength of their books: Kerouac’s On the Road has sold some six million copies since its publication in 1957, and Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems over a million copies.  If appropriation by the marketplace is a sign of redemption for one’s “work,” the Beats have cleansed themselves of all their bohemian sins.

For these reasons, it is an interesting exercise to investigate the ways the marketplace has sold The Subterraneans to its buyers in the decades since its 1958 publication.  In the 1950s, a market that had traditionally been the purview of “potboiler” novels, the paperback trade, would broaden to include more serious works of literature.  Mass marketing of literary fiction adopted many of the methods employed to market dime store westerns, romances and crime novels: hyberbolic cover language, in particular, but also the use of cover art to attract buyers.  Such cover art provides us direct insight into the elements of texts that marketers considered saleable, as well as the ways those marketers viewed their audiences.  Our question, then, is to ask how The Subterraneans, a text on work and value, is sold in the marketplace.  What traits of the novel were saleable?  Did those traits change over time?  As one would expect, since The Subterraneans remains in print some 50 years after it first appeared, there have been many different covers and editions of the novel – in the US and abroad.  My analysis will be limited to US and UK editions, since I have had access to cover images from those markets.  No doubt one could undertake an equally revealing exploration of other foreign editions.  Kerouac’s marketability remains a worldwide phenomenon.

Steve Wilson, Texas State University-San Marcos