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.