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!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Week 4 (and 1-3) Recap and Open Thread

This week a presenter from the Places and Spaces panel, Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, blogged about five different aspects of the complicated and crucial American themes of house and home, domestic life and identity, and the American Dream. Her five posts are:

--An introductory post on her major focal points here;

--A post on realities and images of the home post-World War II here;

--A post on domestic consumerism and etiquette over the centuries here;

--A post on recent challenges to federal homeownership policies here;

--And a post on some of her favorite musical images of home here.

Please feel free to continue reading and commenting on all five posts! For your convenience, here are links to the three prior weekly recaps:

--In week 3 we heard from the Pop Culture and Identity and Religion and Identity panels;

--In week 2 we heard from the Transnational and Religion and Identity panels;

--And in week 1 we began with the War and Transnational panels.

Please feel equally free to return to any one of those weeks and posts; they all continue to have a lot to say and offer, the posters will still get the benefit of your comments, and our pre-conference conversations will continue on as many levels as possible. As always, this recap can also serve as an Open Thread for any of those conversations. Next week, we hear from the Literature and Slavery panels!

Home Sings Me of Sweet Things

The issue of home, homeownership, popular culture, public policy, and the inextricable web they weave in our national narrative is fascinating… and I am pleased to be able to present my research and thoughts on the subject at the 2011 New England American Studies Association Conference in November. I hope you will join the “Places and Spaces” panel on Friday, November 4, 2011 at Plimoth Plantation.

In the mean time, I leave you with some of my favorite songs about home... and encourage you to share yours below. 

Little Boxes by Melvina Reynolds 
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,

And they're all made out of ticky tacky

And they all look just the same.

This Must Be the Place by the Talking Heads

But I guess I'm already there
I come home –she lifted up her wings
Guess that this must be the place
I can't tell one from another
Did I find you, or you find me?

Home is Where the Heart Is by Elvis Presley
Home is where the heart is
And my heart is anywhere you are
Anywhere you are is home
I don't need a mansion on a hill
That overlooks the sea
Anywhere you're with me is home

I’m Going Back Home by Nina Simone
I'm going back home where I was born
First I planned to stay but I can't live this way
I'm going back home where I was born

Written by Marieke Van Der Steenhoven
University of Southern Maine, American and New England Studies 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Questioning Federal Homeownership Policy

“As a people we need, at all times, the encouragement of homeownership.” 
Herbert Hoover, 1932

“Owning a home can increase responsibility and stake out a man’s place in his community. The man who owns a home has something to be proud of and good reason to protect and preserve it.” 
Lyndon Johnson, 1968

“Owning a home lies at the heart of the American dream.”
George W. Bush, 2002

Objectives of current U.S. Housing Policy are to ensure a minimum level of housing quality; to increase the supply of housing by stimulating new construction, maintenance, and improvement of existing stock; to maintain incentives for savings and investment; to stabilize rents and asset prices; to reduce racial and economic segregation; to stabilize construction and business cycles; to reduce crowding; to foster community development; and to encourage homeownership.[i]

Federal government intervention to promote homeownership is justified on three grounds: (1) ownership creates positive public externalities, (2) low-income and minority households have inequitable access to ownership, and (3) owner-occupied housing is associated with the stability of the broader economy.

Each of these justifications can, and must, be examined critically: U.S. policy is based on the premise that everyone should be a homeowner, yet by so fervently praising the owned home, other types of housing are left unexplored.

Let me forward a question that the (brilliant) economist and New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman posed in 2008:

Why should ever-increasing homeownership be a policy goal? How many people should own homes, anyway?[ii]

I would further Krugman’s questions by drawing upon those posed by Associate Professor and Chair of Policy Programs at the New School for Public Engagement Alex F. Schwartz’s:

What is the role of housing policy in promoting vibrant communities and the economic interests and social wellbeing of the population? And, based on how we answer that question, what are the relationships between housing policy and energy, transportation, education, and other national programmatic priorities?[iii]

I encourage you to read “Home Not-So-Sweet Home” by Paul Krugman—he is succinct and convincing in arguing what I think are very pertinent issues in U.S. housing policy... namely that ownership has become fetishized to a point that we've come to ignore some salient issues it begets, including financial risk, global warming, and inequality.  Senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Adam S. Posen has weighed in on this in a recent "Room for Debate" article in the New York Times Online"Problem: Home Ownership" is another recommended read. 

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with Krugman and Posen? Should homeownership receive less prominence in U.S. housing policy? Please share your musings below... 

Written by Marieke Van Der Steenhoven
University of Southern Maine, American and New England Studies

[i] Richard K Green and Stephen Malpezzi, A Primer on U.S. Housing Markets and Housing Policy (Washington DC: The Urban Institute Press, 2003): 85.
[ii] Paul Krugman, “Home Not-So-Sweet Home.” New York Times (June 23, 2008), http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/23/opinion/23krugman.html (accessed December 10, 2010).
[iii] Alex F. Schwartz, Housing Policy in the United States: An Introduction (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006): 252.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dream Homes: Domestic Consumerism and Etiquette

My post yesterday on Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House left me thinking about the plethora of ways that the fantasy and consumerism of home infiltrates our lives…

Think: Home Depot, Martha Stewart, HGTV, Extreme Makeover Home Edition… 

Each of these examples engages us in a home-oriented consumer-culture: a homeowner is responsible for a varied set of commodities and services to maintain the home, from general repairs and snow shoveling to garbage cans and washing machines… but in addition to that we are enticed by a (constructed) cultural ideal of home.  

This fantasy of the ideal home has been shaped in many ways by the domestic advice manual: hundreds of which have been written over the course of the past 150 years.

These are some of my personal favorites:

·         The American Frugal Housewife 
by Lydia Maria Francis Child (1834)
Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy this manual is available on Google Books. 
·         The American Woman's Home: or, Principles of Domestis Science
 by Catharine Esther Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1869)
A guide to the formation and maintenance of economical, healthful, beautiful, and Christian homes written by the Beecher sisters is also available on Google Books.
·         Guide to Easier Living
by Mary and Russell Wright (1950)
Republished in 2003, this a handbook for the modern home intended to liberate women from old-fashioned formal entertaining, and families from old-fashioned and high-maintenance furniture. Though not available on Google Books, there is a great New York Times article about the Wrights.
·         Martha Stewart
·         Domino Book of Decorating
by Editors of Domino Magazine (2008)
The amazing Domino magazine is no longer in publication, nevertheless this indispensable style manual takes readers room by room, demystifying the decorating process and providing the tools for creating spaces that are personal, functional and fabulous.
·         DesignSponge
edited by Grace Bonney (2004-present)
A daily website dedicated to home and product design with over 20,000 readers daily. 

For a thoughtful study of these manuals (and more), turn to historian Sarah A. Leavitt’s book From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: A Cultural History of Domestic Advice.  Domestic-advice manuals have always been the stuff of fantasy, argues Leavitt, demonstrating cultural ideals rather than cultural realities... but these rich sources reveal how women understood the connection between their homes and the larger world. At its most fundamental level, the true domestic fantasy was that women held the power to reform their society through first reforming their homes.

Have a favorite domestic advice manual? Please share below. 

Written by Marieke Van Der Steenhoven
University of Southern Maine, American and New England Studies 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The American Home in the Post-WWII Era

1940 marks a pivotal moment on the U.S. Homeownership Rate graph: looking to a post-war America, architects, designers, and planners saw home as the foundation to national growth and betterment. 

The Veterans Administration Mortgage Program guaranteed low down payments and an increased loan-to-mortgage ratio to returning soldiers, which accounted for significant bump in homeownership during the decades following World War II. 

In addition to this amendment of the G.I. Bill, homeownership grew rapidly in the post-WWII era due to the increase in incomes caused by the strong expansion of the U.S. economy and the new institution of affordable, long-term, fixed-rate, self-amortizing mortgages.[i] 

The subsidy of homeownership at the end of World War II reaffirmed American rights to those who had fought for the ideals of freedom and liberty and the country transformed from a nation of urban renters to suburban homeowners.

Serving as a testament to this is the 1948 film Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

In this film, starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, a man and his wife decide they can afford to have a house in the country built to their specifications… though it turns out to be a lot more trouble than they think.

As a promotion for the film, the studio built 73 “dream houses” in various locations in the United States, most of which were equipped with General Electric appliances.[ii]

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House  (besides being a highly entertaining movie) engages in a fascinating discourse that encompasses issues of homeownership, national identity, consumerism, popular culture, postwar planning (or reconversion), and so much more…

Written by Marieke Van Der Steenhoven
University of Southern Maine, American and New England Studies

[i] Richard K. Green and Susan M. Wachter, “The American Mortgage in Historical and International Context,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 19, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 97.
[ii] “General Electric has made your Dream House come true!” (advertisement), Life Magazine 24, no. 26 (June 28, 1948): 78.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Home Sweet Home: The Role of Homeownership in American Popular Imagination and Public Policy

I will be blogging all this week about home/homeownership and its presence in public policy, politics, and popular culture. These are just a few of the issues and questions that I will address in November at the NEASA Conference…

Homeownership has long been ingrained in the mythology of what it means to be an American. As former CEO of the government-sponsored enterprise Fannie Mae James Johnson stated, “Property as an individual right has been fundamental to the American vision. Homeownership, from town house to farm, was the central image and reality that defined that right when the nation was born.”[i] The concept of the “American Dream” is grounded in the aspiration of citizens improving their own situations—living better than their parents—wherein democratic ideals promise prosperity. Homeownership (specifically the detached, single-family dwelling) is the cornerstone of this dream.

In her work Redesigning the American Dream (2002), architect and urban studies scholar Delores Hayden, states: 
During the last six decades, government subsidized programs have concentrated the bulk of capital resources for housing on the single-family detached house, and with two-thirds of 100 million occupied housing units are single-detached homes. These house encode Victorian stereotypes about “a woman’s place,” while single-family neighborhoods sustain the separation of the household form the world of jobs and public life. Together, houses and neighborhoods form an architecture of gender to twenty-first-century life.[ii]

In American society we understand homeownership as a fundamental desire, a right, and a sound financial investment. Yet, with the burst of the housing bubble we must begin look critically at the social value of ownership and to negotiate the 19th century ideologies of home with the socio-economic realities of 21st century families. Government subsidies for homeownership have created an imbalance in economic resources and demonstrate an inequality for citizens.

For an example of the social/economic inequalities of sub prime lending see: Natasha Lennard, “Community Stands Strong to Block an Eviction” New York Times, August 19, 2011

The housing crisis has impeded the simple notion of homeownership as benefiting the general public and the American home has become muddled in our desires to take a chance, to participate in consumer culture, to achieve social mobility, and to cultivate our family by the hearth simultaneously.

I leave you to ponder the following, and encourage you to comment below... 
  • Is it possible to update American housing to satisfy many different constituencies and imbue the mythology of the “American Dream” new meaning? What would this look like?

  • Is there a utilitarian distinction between renting and owning? Are the benefits associated with homeownership because of ownership itself or from other characteristics of the homeowners?

Written by Marieke Van Der Steenhoven
University of Southern Maine,  American and New England Studies 

[i] James A. Johnson, Showing America a New Way Home: Expanding Opportunities for Home Ownership (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1996): 30.
[ii] Dolores Hayden, Redesigning the American Dream: Gender, Housing, and Family Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002): 28-29.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Week 3 Recap and Open Thread

This week presenters from the Pop Culture and Identity and Religion and Identity panels shared some of their ideas and interests:

--Dani Abulhawa blogged about skateboarding, youth culture, place--both in LA and the UK--, and much more, and included lots of great clips for further watching, here.

--Stelios Christodoulou analyzed Rocky, The Great White Hope, race and ethnicity in the world of boxing, and many related themes, once again with lots of great clips, here.

--And Melody Graulich linked Cormac McCarthy, Native American spirituality, William Faulkner, and cross-ethnic intersections on the frontier here.

As with prior weeks, the conversations happening in the Comment sections are just as interesting as those in the posts, and we invite you to continue adding to those conversations. But also feel free to use this Open Thread as a place to add your perspective on any and all related American Studies questions, texts, and ideas. Two featured panels next week, Culture and the Body and Places and Spaces. Thanks!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Melody Graulich's (Religion and Identity) Post

The Night the Stars Fell: Historical Convergences and Cross-Racial Histories on the Southern Plains

Cormac McCarthy begins his trilogy of southwestern history with the 1833 leonid meteor showers, which mark in his historical universe the birth date of the kid in Blood Meridian.  My presentation on the oral, visual, and written mythology about “the night the stars fell” focuses on the work of earlier historians who also saw the meteor showers as marking a moment of cataclysmic change. I suggest the meteor showers provide us with a historical crossroads of multicultural simultaneity, yielding a complex cross-racial history of the Southern Plains, complicating the relationship between myth and history.

Using slides, I examine the picture ledger of the Kiowa elder Pohd-lohk, as recorded in Momaday’s The Names, and the Bible quilts of the African American Harriet Powers, both born after 1833.  Neither was "literate" in our common use of that word, but Pohd-lohk was a celebrated storyteller and Powers a preacher.  Although their words were passed down through oral traditions, both insured that their historical and spiritual understanding would be recorded by their own hands, in visual media, a reminder that there are many kinds of literacy. Their creators saw the ledger and the quilts as historical documents and as acts of self-preservation.  Pohd-lohk viewed his ledger as "an instrument with which he could reckon his place in the world."  Powers referred to her quilt as a "sermon in patchwork."  Both used their creations to place the self within history and within a community. 

            One particular moment is central to both documents, both historical visions.  Pohd-lohk's "first page" chronicles "Da-pegya-de Sai, November, 1833 [when] the stars were falling," a moment that becomes central to Momaday's mythological and historical vision; his epilogue to The Way to Rainy Mountain begins, "During the first hours after midnight on the morning of November 13, 1833, it seemed that the world was coming to an end."  A central square in Powers's quilt explodes with a meteor shower, which she described as "The falling of the stars on November 13, 1833.  The people were frighten and thought that the end of time had come."  For Pohd-lohk, Powers, and Momaday, the meteor showers signify a cultural ending. Yet the world does not come to an end: the showers are a way for them to record a transitional moment of dramatic change and to establish historical continuity with their communities. 

            I conclude with the ledger book of Uncle Buck  and Buddy  McCaslin in Faulkner’s Go Down Moses.  Buck uses the “year the stars fell” to mark another transitional moment, the birth of “Tommy’s Turl,” son of Tomasina, a slave girl, and her father, the white patriarch Carruthers McCaslin. When Isaac McCaslin, largely reared by the half-black, half-Indian Sam Fathers, reads his father and uncle’s barely literate records and pieces together this racial crossing, the revelation leads him to “relinquish” his “birth right” and to remain childless.  On the night they fell, the stars revealed to Pohd-Lohk, Powers, Momaday, McCarthy, and Faulkner the burden of the history of racial injustice on the southern Plains—what to give up, how to go on.

Melody Graulich, Professor of English and American Studies, Utah State University

Two of the images discussed here:

"The Night the Stars Fell Square" from the Harriet Powers quilt:

Alfred Momaday, image from N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Stelios Christodoulou's (Pop Culture and Identity) Post

When Rocky was first released in November 1976 many commentators and reviewers quickly noted the racist overtones in the white hero’s struggle to defeat Apollo Creed, the arrogant black champion cast in the unmistakable mould of Muhammad Ali. Andrew Sarris described the film in The Village Voice as “the most romanticized Great White Hope in screen history.” In the real-life world of boxing, similar hopes for the rise of a white heavyweight champion date back to the time of Jack Johnson, the African American title holder from 1908 to 1915.  Johnson managed to defend his title against a series of white opponents and scandalized Jim Crow America with his sexual relationships with white women. At the time, author and amateur boxer Jack London led the campaign for the discovery a great white hope. In 1910, Jim Jeffries returned from a six year retirement to give Johnson a taste of Anglo-Saxon manhood, but ended up a “betrayer of his race” (click here for footage from the fight).

Sarris’s italicized Great White Hope refers to the eponymous 1970 film, adapted from a successful stage play based on Johnson’s life (watch the trailer here). Outwardly, the film seems to criticize the ideology represented in its title, making it blatantly clear that the white establishment had railroaded Johnson’s eventual defeat in the ring. Yet, The Great White Hope does not entirely escape the noble savage paradigm, turning Johnson into a misunderstood hero. As Pauline Kael wrote for The New Yorker, the movie “is so afraid of letting its hero antagonize the audience that instead of having a blonde tucked under each arm, [Johnson] is allowed only one dowdy brunette.”

Six years later, in the immediate post-Civil Rights period and coinciding with the nation’s Bicentennial, a much clearer version of the great white hope returned to the big screen. Rocky topped the box office by refashioning the American dream in a white man’s rags-to-riches story. While Rocky pursues his goal with honesty and hard work, the profit-seeking Apollo Creed stands for the evils of corporatism and a misguided sense of black empowerment. Apollo conceives of the fight as a Bicentennial media spectacle and stages his memorable entry into the ring as a parody of American history. Rocky, however, manages both to go the distance and to teach his black brother a lesson in good sportsmanship, redeeming him of his post-materialist excesses.

Rocky’s nostalgic resurrection of the American dream stands in sharp contrast to the actual Bicentennial celebrations. In the middle of an economic crisis, before the dust of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal had settled, the nation’s anniversary offered as much a chance for celebrating America as for de-mythologizing it. The New York Times described the celebrations as a mixture of “self-doubt, hope and pride,” noting “an undercurrent of uncertainty about what succeeding Fourths of July hold for future generations of Americans.” If we consider how bluntly Rocky presents its racial binaries and how overtly it links them to the Bicentennial, it is indeed hard to disagree with the description of the film as a romanticized great white hope.

With this background in mind, my paper for the conference will attempt to reconsider Rocky’s Bicentennial myth, not so much to refute the prevailing interpretation, but to problematize its obviousness and to explore some the contextual discourses that underpin it. I will consider such questions as the differences between white backlash and white victimization in the mid-70s, the relevance of Stallone’s star persona (it can be difficult to imagine today that he was once hailed as the new Marlon Brando), and the subtle differences between Apollo Creed and Muhammad Ali (watch here a comic exchange between Ali and Stallone at the 1977 Academy Awards, with the former claiming to be the real Apollo Creed). 

For some of the answers I will be looking at the 70s ethnic revival movement. Sarris alludes to the significance of Rocky’s Italian American ethnicity, describing the film’s version of the American dream as “Horatio Algerino style.” I want to propose the argument that the film invests in the cultural cachet of white ethnicity, not only to bring the American dream up to date, but also to render its racial politics more palatable. As an Italian American, Rocky stands for what Jacobson calls a whiteness of a different color, which allows him to believably combine a 70s sense of white victimization with an old-fashioned model of American manhood. 

Stelios Christodoulou, University of Kent.

Dani Abulhawa's (Pop Culture and Identity) Post

In a broad sense, my area of research for the conference is in looking at how specific topographical features and landscapes produce and are visible within cultural narratives. More specifically, I’m using skateboarding and it’s origins within the physical landscape of 1960s LA as my example.

The cultural myth at the centre of my research is the documentary film Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001). You can have a look at the trailer for the film here: 'Dogtown and Z-Boys' trailer on YouTube

In the documentary, the origins of contemporary skateboarding begin not, as you might expect, with the production of the skateboard, neither with the Z-Boys themselves – this comes a little later. Rather, it begins with a place, ‘Dogtown’, which is defined as an area within Los Angeles county consisting of three beach communities: South Santa Monica, Venice and Ocean Park. 

When I began analysing the documentary, as a sub-cultural creation myth, I expected to discover inherent codes of behaviour and attitude, which corroborated the range of existing research into skateboarders and skateboarding and my own experiences as a British skateboarder. Things such as, rebellion against a perceived mainstream, the rewriting of dilapidated or ‘edgeland’ (Shoard 2002) urban locations as productive play spaces, participant control (Beal 1996) and supportive/competitive homosocial group dynamics (Borden 2001). I also expected to learn more about the relationship between skateboarding and surfing, since what marked the Zephyr team as different from mainstream skateboarding in the 1960s, was their crouching, gliding and generally surf-inspired approach to movement.

What came as a surprise was a particular strand of the narrative that suggests the major significance of simulations of topographical features and landscape to the progression of skateboarding, and an inescapable sense of ‘flow’ as a defining characteristic of the subculture.

As someone whose first-hand experience of skateboarding is based entirely in the UK, when analysing Dogtown and Z-Boys, I couldn’t help but feel like somewhere between LA and the UK, this particular narrative strand had become transformed.

This has led me to consider a number of questions, which I’m hoping to explore in more detail in preparation for my paper in November. These questions are quite broad; I was hoping that perhaps people reading this might have ideas about some of these questions and examples they could raise either inside or outside of a skateboarding context:
ª      How might place contribute to the development of cultural identity?
ª      How might the topographical features and landscape of a place appear within cultural narratives?
ª      If specific cultures are closely linked to landscape, what happens when these cultural narratives are adopted in other places?
Also, because I’m thinking about how place relates to cultural narratives and identity, It’s tricky for me to think about the larger scope of national narratives, since nations consist of such a diversity of places and landscapes.

These are the main questions and concerns I’m working around at the moment, and I’m really keen to hear any perspectives.

Dani Abulhawa, University of Chester

Friday, August 12, 2011

Week 2 Recap and Open Thread

This week presenters from the Transnational and Religion and Identity panels kept our pre-conference blogging ball rolling, with a little meta-help:

--William Stark compared Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz and Anne Hutchinson here.

--Eric Larson considered narratives of American decline at home and abroad here.

--And Jonathan Silverman thought about what we've done and are doing in this space here.

As always, responses to those posts are still very welcome in their respective comment sections. But once again this open thread is a place to keep thinking about transnational, religious, wartime, and many other releted narratives and mythologies and ideas of America. Or you can respond from your own interests and knowledge: what have the conversations so far made you think of? What else should we be considering? What narratives and mythologies and ideas of America are of especial interest to you?

Please keep the thoughts and comments coming, and look for more Religion and Identity as well as Pop Culture and Identity posts next week!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Eric Larson's (Transnational) Post

Left, Right, or Center? Narratives of National Decline in U.S. History
The unprecedented downgrading of the U.S. credit rating has led to a rejuvenation of one of the handiest political billyclubs around: the specter of national decline. Decline narratives have been particularly useful for conservatives in the last several decades, but they appear in a variety of forms in U.S. history, including in terms of racial decline. (See, for instance, Frank Usbeck's post on racial purity, Native Americans, and U.S. and German nationalism.)
Casting debt-and-credit problems as symptoms of a pernicious, all-encompassing national decline is only one variant in this election season’s versatile lexicon of “declinism.” Columnist Deneen Borelli linked economic decline to “moral decline,” violence, and “flash robs” by poor, often African American, youth. (http://dailycaller.com/2011/07/14/obamas-policies-are-causing-economic-and-moral-decline/) For Tim Pawlenty, the country’s “murky” foreign policy signals the emasculating “shrink[ing]” of the country’s fatherly global stature. (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0611/57900.html) (Would an adjective like “mushy” – see Usbek’s post and his use of Jacobson’s Barbarian Virtues – have worked as well as “murky” for the Minnesota governor?) More generally, both E.J. Dionne, Jr. and Politico.com have suggested that decline could be the main issue in the 2012 elections. (http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/american-decline?page=0,0); (http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0311/51309.html).
My NEASA paper, “Family, Country, and Foreign Competition: National Narratives and Union Reform in the 1980s,” will examine how the liberal and labor left brandished the decline idea in the 1980s. Decline, indeed, knows no partisan boundaries, and I will examine how unionists in the 1980s blamed “unfair foreign competition” for a variety of social and political ills, including, of course, “national decline.” Competition from businesses in East Asia, Germany, South Africa, and South America did indeed challenge a variety of unionized industries in the 1980s, and as the murder of Vincent Chen in 1982 suggests, nationalist narratives and specters of decline articulated themselves with racial and economic violence in tragic ways.
How and when have narratives of decline gained widespread political and social traction, and how and when have they remained the province of doomsdayers and eccentrics?
How would comparing U.S.-based narratives of decline with those of other countries enrich our understanding of U.S. history? In my own work on Mexican history, for instance, the gendered and sexualized nature of such narratives illuminates the power discrepancies between the two countries. Just as Pawlenty articulated U.S. decline as resulting from “shrink[ing]” from global challenges, a common narrative of decline in Mexican history is based on U.S. ascendancy – ascendancy in terms of its increasing economic, political, and cultural penetration of an open, vulnerable Mexican society.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Some thoughts about the blogging and American Studies

As the initial schemer of this idea, I've been fascinated to see what might happen when people started posting. After the first week, I am genuinely more interested in the panels that have presented thus far--I especially like having a lot of conference material in one place and the links to visual material is terrific.

We are not generating much commentary on the subjects, which was both my fear and perhaps my expectation. As someone who teaches new media, I find new media to still retain a lot of qualities to old media in terms of interactivity of expression. And with subjects as scholarly as the ones we have presented so far, even with the questions that the posters put forth, they require a type of intellectual engagement that casual reading doesn't naturally engender.

 But with that said, I still very much think the posting we're doing is very much worthwhile. Reading and thinking about these subjects does not have to be in realtime. It can take place over weeks and months, and I won't be surprised if I think of something to add to earlier posts sometime soon after I digest the posts more fully. And even these discussions really happen in the sessions themselves, in the hallways after, or over dinner and drinks, I still think it will have been worth it. Blog on!

Jonathan Silverman

William Stark's (Religion and Identity) Post

Two Women across the Cultural Divide: the Tolerance of Intolerance
As iconic figures of American history, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Anne Marbury Hutchinson stand in stark contrast to one another. Comparing these two outstanding women invites many burning questions. When we cross national, linguistic and cultural divides, such an association reminds us that historically America has represented, and continues to represent, many things to many people. It recalls for us that we all occupy other selves and different geographies.
When we consider the cultural implications and historical narratives of Anne Hutchinson of New England and Sor Juana of New Spain, the veil that separates geopolitical, cultural, religious and linguistic perspectives lifts to reveal two women whose lives and works figure prominently in discussions concerning the conflict of authority with intellectual liberty and religious tolerance in America. Narratives that recall details of their lives also emphasize both women’s ties to issues of gender and feminist rights as they have developed historically in America.
                 Ultimately, this examination traces a line in space that extends from north to south: from Portsmouth, Rhode Island to Mexico City; and in time: from the twilight of the Elizabethan age to the present.

William Stark, Department of Modern and Classical Languages, University of Rhode Island.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Week 1 Recap and Open Thread

This week presenters from the War and Transnational panels got our pre-conference blogging off to a great start!

--Anne Berke blogged about Bugs Bunny fighting the Japanese here and followed up with a second cartoon and some questions here.

--Frank Usbeck blogged about German and American narratives of Native Americans, the frontier, and national identities here.

--And Lauren Tilton blogged about the National World War II museum and questions of collective memory here

Responses to those posts can still be raised in their comments. But please consider this post also an open thread in which to keep discussing these issues of war, memory, media, national identity, propaganda, images of "others," and many more besides. What do you think? What specific texts or moments or ideas or scholars can be added to these conversations? What else should we American Studiers be thinking about?

Keep the thoughts coming, and remember that next week presenters from the Religion and Identity panel will be adding their voices into these conversations!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lauren Tilton: Recreating World War II: Experiencing The National World War II Museum

Advertisements, billboards, and business cards invite New Orleanians, tourists
and the nation to come “Experience the Victory” at the National World War II (WWII) Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Experience is a fascinating word choice particularly in light of the museum’s recent expansion.  Phase one was recently completed to the tune of 300 million dollars and resulted in a dinner-theatre, a celebrity chef restaurant (that serves $20 entrees) and 4-D movie theatre narrated by Tom Hanks.  (For a funny Onion article on Tom Hank’s obsession with WWII, visit http://tinyurl.com/2dtyuot)

 Dinner-Theatre performance of “Music of the 1940s” 

 Celebrity Chef Restaurant – John Besh’s American Sector

4-D movie theatre Beyond All Boundaries

The expansion creates quite a different experience than one imagines when learning in textbooks, reading books or watching films about the daily sacrifices on the homefront or fighting on the front lines. What is this collective memory or prosthetic memory (to borrow from Alison Landsberg) the museum is creating?

I would love any questions, feedback, or thoughts. Please feel free to link more youtube videos or other interesting info!

- Lauren Tilton
American Studies Graduate Student, Yale

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Frank Usbeck's (Transnational) Post

Who's the Barbarian Here? Or: Exceptionalism in German and American Group Identity around 1900
While analyzing the German interest in Native American topics, I came to understand the interrelation of German nationalism and identity formation with this interest for Indians. Following this thread, I became very interested in ways how German nationalists claimed German uniqueness by way of alluding to the primitive, and the same time I discovered numerous parallels in American nationalism and in the myth of the frontier. I want to share and discuss these parallels in this blog and possibly use them as premises to our presentations and discussions in November. I'd be interested in how far similar parallels and claims to exceptionalism  using the same trope existed among other groups.
Reaching back to the first phase of European expansion, the German infatuation with Native American topics has become a phenomenon of popular mass culture during the 19th century and has, in varying adaptive expressions, prevailed until now. Termed German "Indianthusiasm" by American Studies scholar Hartmut Lutz, this phenomenon has been found to be more revealing about German perceptions of self and the American other than about (Native) America itself. The depiction of contemporary Native Americans helped German nationalists of the 19th century to relate Germans to their Germanic ancestors, and thus ascribe to both Germans and Native Americans positive "national/racial" character traits which enhanced a notion of German-Indian sameness. In my dissertation project, I described two major tropes of Indianthusiasm which helped  build a sense of German exceptionalism by way of Indian imagery and allusions to primitivism/barbarianism, the German Sonderweg.
In the Fellow Peoples motif, many nationalists assigned positive character traits to Germans. In the sense of Anderson's concept of imagined community, these character traits served as group markers believed to be ancient and inherent, and thus declared the German people per se to be honest, brave, loyal, untiring, and hospitable. While these traits were mentioned in early Roman texts about Germanic peoples (i.e. Tacitus' Germania), they also fit the description of the proverbial noble savage. Because it was claimed (and believed) that Germans had preserved their character traits, customs, and social structure, and thus their peoplehood, since the days of ancient Rome, and since 19th-century descriptions of Native Americans mirrored the character traits Germans had assigned to themselves, the similarity and familiarity seemed obvious. This similarity, on the other hand, invited the notion of exceptionalism because it set the Germans as a people apart from other Europeans who where excluded from these inherent group markers.
In the Common Enemy motif, long-standing rivals and perceived threats to the German self were identified as alien and anti-German, massive changes in the socio-political structure due to industrialization and secularization caused people to blame basic principles of the Enlightenment. Germans, believing to be indigenous people and thus soul-mates with Native Americans, perceived the introduction of modernity as the intrusion of alien concepts (such as liberalism), as well as the economic and military threat of invasion by expansive outsiders. In this sense, Germans often saw parallels with Native Americans as the victims of French, British, and American trickery, greed, and cultural pressure.
In order to preserve Germanness, then, politicians, philosophers, writers, and academics time and again invoked virtues and character traits such as honesty, bravery, fierceness, loyalty, or hospitality, all traits that were said to be inherent and inheritable national/racial character traits. Ominously, all these traits were present and valued in Indian imagery as well.
One of the most puzzling and fascinating insights of my study was the perception of uniqueness among many German nationalists who did not seem to realize that the positive relation to a people perceived as original and thus the identification with what was seen as primitive was by no means a unique treat of identity formation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Academic literature both in Germany and the Americas at the time could have shown that these character traits did not describe a unique group but were items in what a colleague described as the "barbarian catalog." Following a suggestion after a conference presentation, I researched discourses on Americanness  at the same time and stumbled over statements by Theodore Roosevelt which were very similar to many German ideas about the positive role of barbarian virtues in the formation of national identity:
"Over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail " (Jacobson, Barbarian Virtues 3).
Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis of the Frontier as the main tool of American identity formation dwells on the recurrence of "primitive" stages of development, on the fact that immigrant pioneers are turned  into Americans by having to start from scratch and having to rely solely on the resources the American continent provided. Roosevelt's quote emphasizes the same idea - the notion that American greatness grew out of originality and simplicity, and that the spoils of modernity have weakened the essence of the people by distracting them with material wealth.
Both German Indianthusiasm and American nationalism's concept of barbarian virtues interpreted aspects of what they saw as "primitive" and "barbaric" as sources of strength and believed their own groups were unique in being strong by way of the barbarian catalog. At the same time, both Americans and Germans also developed national(ist) narratives in which the primitive was portrayed as a contemptible or even dangerous other.
   Frank Usbeck, Universitat Leipzig.