Wednesday, May 30, 2012
In Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem, Steven Biel explains how a culture created a character
The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.
Over the course of the last two decades, Steven Biel has become the foremost scholar of what might be termed the folklore of consumer capitalism. His 1996 book Down with the Old Canoe (recently reissued in an updated tradition) traced the collective memory both in the immediate aftermath and the century since the Titanic disaster of 1912. In American Gothic (2005), he explored the meanings -- some contradictory, others downright zany -- that have been attached to the classic 1930 Grant Wood painting. Though fundamentally a different kind of enterprise, his first book, Independent Intellectuals in the United States 1920-1945 (1992) derived some of its energy from a preexisting fascination with the legendary writers whose careers he proceeded to reinterpret. Biel is unparalleled in his ability to unearth, and then link, disparate sources in American culture and establish organic links between them.
Biel's new e-book, Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem: How a Couple of Bungling Sociopaths Became Bonnie and Clyde, represents another satisfying chapter in his body of work. Anyone who's managed to get farther than the 1967 Arthur Penn movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty -- which, in truth, is probably not all that many people -- consider the "bungling sociopaths" part of the title common knowledge. It's the "how" here that's intriguing. Biel's point of departure is the self-mythologizing poem the improvisational female outlaw fashioned for mass consumption at the end of her brief career as a gangster. (The poem is included as part of the e-book.) But Biel is less interested in the way Parker effectively wrote herself and companion Clyde Barrow into cultural history -- though he analyzes her work with the deftness of a literary critic -- than the way cultural history imprinted itself on her. With an almost archeological command of detail, he sifts through the books and movies Parker is known to have known. The years preceding her crime spree were a germinal moment in the formation of the gangster genre, which Parker absorbed and recorded in surprising detail. Such an approach permits a new perspective not only on characters like those played by James Cagney, but also real-life ones like Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger (who felt Bonnie and Clyde's ineptitude gave outlaws a bad name).
From there, Biel pivots to analyze media coverage of Bonnie and Clyde in the days preceding their deaths in a hail of bullets, as well as their subsequent mythology in movies that extend from Bonnie and Clyde to Natural Born Killers (1992). This tradition extends to a series of hip-hop songs by Tupac Shakur, Eminem, and Jay-Z (with Beyoncé as the voice of Bonnie). Though I suspect the couple represent a fairly arcane pop culture reference these days, it's probably only a matter of time before the simmering resentment against bankster culture gives avowed criminality a good name again.
Bonnie Parker Writes a Poem is part of "Now and Then," a new e-book series that mixes new works by established writers (Hilton Kramer, William O'Neill) along with reissues of classics by famous writers (Ulysses S. Grant, Jean-Paul Sartre). Running in the $1-3 range, these short books are part of the shifting landscape of publishing in the Kindle era, and suggest its emerging possibilities. With this one, which runs about the length of a healthy New Yorker or New York Review of Books essay, Biel makes a distinguished contribution to an emerging literary form.
Friday, May 25, 2012
As its title suggests, The Passage of Power covers a transitional period in Johnson's life: his departure from the Senate to run a botched bid for the presidency in 1960, followed by his risky acceptance of a place on the ticket as vice-president to John F. Kennedy, his miserable years in the political wilderness, and his subsequent accession to the presidency upon Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963. It seemed impossible to tell the story of the Kennedy assassination again in a compelling way, and yet Caro's account (published recently in The New Yorker) is absolutely riveting. Part of the drama from narrating it from LBJ's point of view comes from a literally simultaneous meeting taking place in which investigators in Washington are learning of politically corruption that seems virtually certain to sink his political career.
One of the great pleasures in these books is the way Caro stuffs them with mini-biographies of other people. So, for example, Means of Ascent offers a deeply compelling portrait of Johnson's opponent in the 1948 Senate race, the deeply principled and politically successful Coke Stevenson. In The Passage of Power, it's Robert Kennedy -- whose mutual hatred with Johnson has long been legend -- who gets the Caro treatment. The biographer mines existing sources exhaustively, but then adds new interviews that make his interpretations fresh. So it is, for example that we learn Texas in the presidential election of 1960 was as much a source of electoral fraud as the far more well-known case of Illinois.
At 600 pages, The Passage of Power ranks as one of the smaller segments of Caro's Johnson saga. But it goes quickly. As one recent reviewer aptly suggested, Caro's books are like J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series for history buffs. There aren't many better ways to spend a holiday weekend. One can only look forward to the fifth and final installment, but Caro himself probably doesn't know when that will be.
Monday, May 21, 2012
The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.
The War of 1812, now in its bicentennial year, is widely regarded as an asterisk in American history. Sparked by a series of British decrees limiting U.S. trading rights during the Napoleonic era that were suspended even as the U.S. declared war, the conflict was a military draw that ended with the status quo ante. Andrew Jackson's celebrated victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 took place after peace terms had already been negotiated (though not yet ratified). As such, the War of 1812 seems not only unnecessary, but just plain stupid.
In The Weight of Vengeance, Troy Bickham, who teaches at Texas A&M, does not assert that the war was fought over high-minded principle. But he does think it had a logic that transcended its stated grievances over trade, the legal status of sailors who may or may not have been British deserters, or the fate of Canadians and Indians in North America. These issues were real enough. But Bickham sees the war as effectively about the two nations' respective self-image. An insecure United States felt a need to assert itself as part of the family of civilized nations. And Britain felt a need to put its former colony in its (subordinate) place. But neither belligerent was in a particularly good position to realize its objectives, and both were subject to considerable internal opposition to their official government positions.
Bickham's parallel arguments seem mirrored by its structure. The book deftly alternates chapters that trace the pro-war and anti-war constituencies in both. For a while, it seems this approach to the subject, however admirably balanced, will only underline the way the various players effectively neutralized each other. But as his analysis proceeds, a decisive view of the war becomes increasingly clear -- and increasingly persuasive.
In Bickham's telling, U.S. conduct in declaring war was remarkably, even stunningly, reckless. The nation's armed forces, particularly its navy, were absurdly unprepared to take on the greatest global power of the age. Its financial capacity for war-making was ridiculously weak, made all the more so by the unwillingness of even the most determined war hawks to make the commitments necessary to place and maintain soldiers in the field. Many observers have noted that there was considerable opposition to the war from the start, much of it with a sectional tenor -- the secessionist tendencies of New England, made manifest by the Hartford Convention of 1814, have long been a staple of high school U.S. history exams. Bickham duly notes this, but asserts the divisions between presumably unified Jeffersonian Republicans were even worse (the principal threat to President James Madison, running for re-election in 1812, came from fellow Republican DeWitt Clinton.) Even in the one universally acknowledged advantage the U.S. military had -- its ability to strike first with an invasion of Canada -- was hopelessly botched. Once that happened, and once the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 freed Britain to redirect its energies across the Atlantic, the U.S. suffered a series of national humiliations, the sacking of Washington D.C. only the most obvious among them. By the fall of that year, the American position was bad and getting worse, with plans for an invasion of New Orleans on the horizon. (The lack of discussion of this strategic and diplomatic dimension of the conflict is a surprising and disappointing omission.)
Viewed in this light, the Treaty of Ghent that ended the conflict is not anti-climactic; it's deeply counter-intuitive, if not a once-in-a century stroke of luck. As Bickham explains, the reasons for the outcome have very little to do with the United States. On the one hand, Britain was under considerable diplomatic pressure to resolve the American situation in ways that did not complicate its broader strategic objectives in Europe. On the other hand, there was tremendous domestic agitation to wind down a quarter-century of war that had taxed the patience of an electorate to the breaking point. At the very moment Britain might have permanently hemmed in American imperial ambitions, it effectively abandoned its wartime objectives in the name of tax relief. The fate of Florida, Texas, and the fate of Native Americans -- who at one point were to get a swath of territory that cuts across modern-day states like Indiana and Michigan -- were cast. Manifest destiny could now become common sense.
The Weight of Vengeance also discusses other hemispheric implications of the War of 1812, among them the emergence of a distinct Canadian identity (which Bickham feels is overstated) and the diminishing importance of the Caribbean in British imperial calculations. As such, book the reflects the increasingly global cast of U.S. historiography generally, even as it remains attuned to domestic politics. This multifaceted quality is among its satisfactions, including readable prose. It's doubtful that the bicentennial of the war will amount to much more than a commercial or academic blip in the next few years. Whether or not that's fair, the conflict receives a worthy chronicle here that will clarify its meaning for anyone who cares to understand it.
Thursday, May 17, 2012
The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.
For many years now, I've dealt with the topic of late 19th/early 20th-century immigration in my teaching by relying on pieces from Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans, as Told by Themselves, a collection of first-person accounts first published in book form in 1906. There are few better ways of dramatizing this epic global transformation, which typically must be dealt with in sweeping generalizations, than vivid primary source documents like "Story of a Polish Sweatshop Girl" or "Story of a Chinaman," which render the daily of immigrant life with vivid granular detail, from monthly budgets to racial harassment. I was interested in Attachments, the companion volume to a new exhibit at the Nation Archives, for the way it might help amplify this primary source approach to the subject. At first I wasn't so sure it would; the approximately 20 primary source brief essays that accompany the documents in the book rarely contain the voices of immigrants themselves. But the cumulative impact of those documents -- photographs, letters, standardized forms, among others -- is surprisingly forceful, given that the book runs less than a hundred pages.
The core of Attachments is three chapters called "Entering," "Leaving," and "Staying." One need not get far in the first to see the striking variety of reasons why people came to the U.S., among them political persecution, the force of family ties (which were sometimes invented to circumvent stringent rules), and economic opportunity. A number of stories involve people fleeing the Holocaust.
Strikingly, the longest chapter is "Leaving," a reminder that a large percentage of immigrants left the U.S., willingly and unwillingly, to return to their native lands. Looking at records of the deported, we see the reasons range from political radicalism to the theft of peas, with the broad category of "moral turpitude" considered capacious enough to include everyone from prostitutes to those unfortunate enough to have the wrong kinds of friends. Even those who were ultimately not deported were forced to endure long periods of waiting. One particularly striking tale in the book concerns an American-born Caucasian who forfeited her citizenship by marrying a Chinese man -- she became a "lawfully domiciled Chinese laborer" in South Dakota -- who was forced to reapply for citizenship after returning the U.S. after a trip abroad.
A disproportionate number of stories in Attachments involve Asians. This reflects the racist attitude of the American government, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the "Gentleman's Agreement" barring the Japanese after 1907. While the east coast's Ellis Island was largely a way station for immigrants to get into this country, west coast's Angel Island was largely an interception station to keep them out. Europeans had their own problems with the quotas established in 1924; in a number of cases people were thrown out of the U.S. on the basis of questionable political beliefs. Even Mexicans, who were not subject to them, still had to scale bureaucratic hurdles.
The poignance of Attachments derives in part from the very fragmentary quality of the tales it contains. We (literally) get snapshots of people in motion, the facts of their lives listed on standardized forms but captured by the emotionally rich faces in their photographs (taken to prevent fraud) and accompanying documents. These people, otherwise lost to history, get resurrected, a haunting reminder of the hopes and struggles of people seeking a promised land achingly in view.
Friday, May 11, 2012
“It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to,” pop singer Leslie Gore asserted in her 1963 hit single “It’s My Party” (followed later that year with its sequel, “Judy’s Turn to Cry”). Ever since, generations of young women – Janis Ian, Debbie Gibson, Alanis Morissette, Avril Lavgine, among others – have given voice to the hopes and fears of adolescent females in pop music. As such, Taylor Swift is part of a long tradition. But in the space of a few years, she has staked a claim to cultural history that may well prove to be broader and deeper than most.
Some careers in pop music are the product of private turmoil and professional struggle. Youthful adversity has shaped the legends ranging from Elvis Presley to Shania Twain. Swift’s background, by contrast, is one of comfort and security. She was born on December 13, 1989 in eastern Pennsylvania, the eldest of two children. Both her parents were in the financial services industry before at the time of her birth – her mother left the profession to become a full-time mom – and the family had a Christmas tree business on the side. Music figures strongly in her heritage; Swift’s maternal grandmother was a professional opera singer, and both her paternal grandparents were musicians. She herself was named after singer/songwriter James Taylor (an important fact considering the trajectory of her evolution in the music business). Swift demonstrated a penchant for performing very early in life, appearing frequently in school and local stage productions and entering karaoke contests. She was inspired by the career of child-sensation Leann Rimes, who influenced Swift’s orientation toward country music. She was a child herself when her mother began taking her down to Nashville in a quest to get the attention of record company executives. While lightning didn’t strike immediately, Swift got sufficient encouragement in the form of development deals (which paid some recording costs in exchange for a future option to sign) and the family decided to relocate to Hendersonville, Tennessee, a suburb of Nashville, when she was fourteen years old. Between 2004 and 2006 she began collaborating with professional songwriters, as well as forming a professional relationship with producer Nathan Chapman and executive Scott Borchetta, who was in the process of founding his own label, Big Machine Records. In 2006 Swift released her first single, “Tim McGraw,” named after the country star she later befriended. The song, in which she expresses the hope that a former boyfriend will think of her whenever she hears a particular McGraw song, combines an aching sense of loss with a subtle sense of retribution, two qualities that would characterize Swift’s work in years to come. A string of subsequent hits from her 2006 self-titled debut album followed, including “Teardrops on My Guitar” and “Our Song.”
For a mere adolescent, Swift showed an unusually adult degree of discipline as a songwriter and recording artist, and extended it to other aspects of her career: relentless touring (generally expected of a country music star) and assiduous attention to detail in terms of managing her career in arenas like social media (which was not). She was really the first country music star of the digital age, selling millions of downloads in an industry only gradually making the transition from compact disc, and one who demonstrated a desire to connect with her fans reminiscent of the young Bruce Springsteen, an artist Swift is said to admire. (She is also a fan of a favorite of her mothers, the rock band Def Leppard, with whom she has performed.) These qualities, combined with skillful promotion, made her second album Fearless (2008) one of the most successful of the decade, spawning a whole new series of hit singles, among them “Love Story,” “You Belong with Me,” and the title track, which describes the hope and anxiety of a high school freshman on the first day of school with disarming directness.
Swift was richly rewarded for her talents, not only in terms of phenomenal sales, but also in the bevy of awards she won for her work, among them a series of prestigious Country Music Awards (CMAs). But her career took an unusual turn in September of 2009 when she won a Video Music Award (VMA) from MTV for Best Female Video. Swift had just begun her speech acknowledging the honor when she was interrupted by rapper Kanye West, who grabbed the microphone she was using and congratulated her but opined that his friend Beyoncé really deserved the honor for her song “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” Swift was stunned into silence and left the stage. When “Single Ladies” ultimately took the award for Video of the Year, a gracious Beyoncé coaxed Swift back to finish her remarks. Amid the widespread condemnation of West – President Barack Obama called him a “jackass” – Swift received sympathy and a new wave of attention.
In the fall of 2010, just as she was turning 21, Swift released her third album, Speak Now. In the liner notes, she described it as a concept album whose songs “are made up of words I didn’t say when the moment was right in front of me. These songs are open letters. Each is written with a specific person in mind, telling them what I meant to tell them in person.” Though her subjects are never identified explicitly, it’s not hard in some cases to see to whom they’re directed. So, for example, the song “Innocent” seems directed at West, expressing sympathy for his well-known inner turbulence for forgiving him for his excess (“who you are is not what you did”). Another, less charitable song, “Dear John,” is addressed to former paramour John Mayer – the bluesy style of guitar playing alone is a dead giveaway. In one way or another, Swift’s well-chronicled romantic life had always been the source of most of her music, and this album is no exception.
That said, Speak Now represented an important developmental leap forward. For one thing, Swift wrote all the songs on the album herself (though she no doubt got input from Chapman, among others). For another, the record marked a bold foray into a new musical direction: Speak Now is at heart a rock record. To be sure, Swift’s country heritage continued to be evident, nowhere more so than on the hit single “Mean,” which was marked by bluegrass elements. (The song, a cheerfully acidic rant, was directed toward a critic who complained that she couldn’t sing.) But a bona fide heavy metal element was evident on a number of tracks, in particular the catty “Better than Revenge,” in which she excoriates a rival for stealing her boyfriend. But the best showcase for Swift’s command of a rock idiom is the shimmering title track, reminiscent of the early Beatles in its catchy hook and hand-clapping. The song, almost cinematic, is reminiscent of the 1967 movie The Graduate, except that this time it’s the girl, not the guy, who rescues her true love from marriage to someone else.
Perhaps the most important dimension of Swift’s growth in Speak Now is a new sophistication in her songwriting. The great appeal of her early records was their emotional simplicity (albeit a deceptive one in that such an effect was achieved through a strong sense of songcraft, something that often involves subtraction rather than addition). “You Belong with Me” is a schoolgirl’s lament that she can’t compete with a cheerleader for the heart of a boy; the cliché riddled “Love Story” works not so much because the imagery is original but rather because you believe that the adolescent who invokes Romeo and Juliet is living a romantic drama for the first time. In Speak Now, however, the conflicts are more recognizably adult ones. In the album’s opening track, “Mine,” the narrator tells her boyfriend, “you made a rebel of a careless man’s careful daughter,” a line that manages to encapsulate a lonely childhood and suggest how liberating having a partner can be. The very exultant intensity of “Mine” seems to derive from how close a call, how truly unexpected, such an outcome was – and is. “Do you believe it?” she asks toward the end of the song, her voice joy mingling with surprise.
In “The Story of Us,” the surprise is not that a love story ends happily ever after, but miserably. The narrator, who believed she was part of a blessed union, instead finds herself locked in a stubborn struggle with a man – “you held your pride like you should have held me,” she complains – that defies a script about the way a relationship should work. Another song marked by hard-driving guitars, “The Story of Us” derives much of its power from the exasperation in Swift’s voice – and the abrupt way the song severs at the end.
Speak Now was another triumph for Swift, selling over a million copies in the first week of its release in October of 2010, and four million copies by year’s end. In the five years following the release of her first album she has sold over 20 million records – this at a time when the record sales have dropped sharply amid a global recession and the upheaval caused by the digital music – and was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records for scoring 11 consecutive singles on the Billboard pop charts. If one were to assume she never made another hit record, her place in the annals of pop music history would be secure.
There are those who wonder how much staying power Swift has. Certainly, the history of pop singers, female and otherwise, is littered with sensations whose youthful work remained memorable but whose later work has, rightly or wrongly, largely been forgotten. The range of Swift’s themes – she studiously avoids politics, for example – may also lead one to wonder how much room she has to grow. (Certainly Speak Now has more than its share of love songs that could just as easily have ended up on Fearless in their adolescent frame of reference.) But she has also shown herself to be an apt pupil in the ways of the pop music, and made the transition to adulthood with relative grace. Perhaps her fate will be closer to that of Joni Mitchell, the singer-songwriter she expressed an interest in portraying in a forthcoming movie, whose body of work has won her generations of admirers. At the moment, at least, there are plenty of people who are eager to grow old Swiftly.
Monday, May 7, 2012
The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site.
The notion that middle age is essentially a cultural construction is not one that will be surprising to historians. But New York Times journalist Patricia Cohen makes this case with breadth and verve. Though it seems to sprawl at times, with a range of opinions that can become tiresome in their predictable diversity -- every opinion about middle age has its rejoinder -- In Our Prime is a serious and useful survey in the subject likely to remain a standard of its kind for some time to come.
Cohen begins by noting that until the twentieth century, there was rarely discussion of what he have come to know as middle age. To the extent that the concept was understood, it was generally regarded as one of productive maturity -- often enviable to the youthful, who longed for the gravitas maturity conferred. This situation began to change a century ago, heavily influenced by the advent of mass media, particularly movies and advertising, which substantially changed the terms of the equation.
The status of middle age receded still further in the first half of the twentieth century, as psychologists Sigmund Freud and G. Stanley Hall focused on infancy and adolescence as the crucial staging grounds of personal identity. Not until the path-breaking work of Erik Erickson was there much effort to delineate a notion of midlife, and even he backed into via his attempts to segment the either end of a lifetime. Ironically, it was not until the 1960s, in the zenith of youth culture, that there was any real effort to systematically define and trace midlife using longitudinal studies and neurological research backed by serious foundation money. In recent decades these efforts have led to a greater understanding of the the (still imprecisely defined) concept senescence. Current scientific opinion emphasizes the plastic nature of the brain long after maturity, with recent speculation that there are certain kinds of aptitude (like responding to unexpected stress) that older people seem to handle better than younger ones, even if there are not currently good ways to measure a quality that falls into the category of wisdom.
In the last third of the book Cohen surveys "the Midlife Industrial Complex," which she sees as a largely capitalist-driven phenomenon. She notes how a wide array of conditions associated with age, ranging from physical appearance to sexual drive, have been medicalized in recent decades by huckters seeking to exploit the emotional vulnerabilities and relatively deep pockets of Baby Boomers. Yet even this seems to have a silver lining, as marketers are gradually realizing that their mania for the 18-49 demographic overlooks some of the most fertile terrain for their wares. Such a recognition has begun to have an impact on television, for example, where shows geared to more mature and diverse audiences have become more common.
In Our Prime has an even tone and intellectual depth that talks frankly about some of the most dismaying aspects of the aging process. But its overall mood is upbeat: mid-life -- which Cohen resists defining precisely even as the book ends -- is a lengthening time of opportunity. Her message of hope is worth buying, literally and figuratively.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
Here's a sneak preview of the cover of my forthcoming book, to be published by Oxford University Press later this year. The book looks at the way trajectories of American history are embedded in the careers of movie stars. It surveys the careers of six actors and how each body of work as a whole offers a coherent vision of U.S. history. These versions are not necessarily conscious, are never incontestable, and indeed may be marked by any number of internal tensions. But for better and worse they reflect and project collective understandings that are quite powerful and often independent of scholarly opinion (which will be a point of reference throughout). One chapter, “Tending to the Flock,” traces the surprising strain of Jeffersonian-styled communitarianism that runs through Clint Eastwood’s apparently individualistic corpus. Another, “Shooting Star,” explores the way Daniel Day-Lewis reconfigures Frederick Jackson Turner’s vision of the frontier. A third, “Rising Sons,” focuses on Denzel Washington’s recurrent choice of roles involving parenting and mentoring in the context of African American history (a motif with an often religious subtext). A fourth, “Company Man,” looks at Lincolnian accents in the movies of Tom Hanks, the generational heir of Jimmy Stewart. A fifth looks at the feminist trajectory of Meryl Streep, and the final chapter explores the career of Jodie Foster as an American loner. These are all people with considerable power to choose their roles, and thus to register patterns that would be otherwise difficult to trace among more workaday actors. The generational thread that connects these people, all born in the middle third of the twentieth century, is the climate of institutional skepticism that has dominated American life in the decades since they came of age.
There are thus three concentric circles of argument in the project: one about specific actors and the often surprising cohesion in their bodies of work; one about the generational tenor of American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries; and one about the way a notion of history – defined here as a belief, rooted in perceptions of collective experience, about the way society changes – that threads through the work of people who are often thinking about other things, an existential condition that applies to many of us.