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, 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