Wednesday, September 30, 2009


In which we see Ms. Bradstreet misjudge the dimensions of a playing field

The Maria Chronicles, #13

Maria, preoccupied with getting the Last of the Mohicans DVD into the computer in her classroom, is a little surprised to see Janey approach at the start of class on a late September Tuesday afternoon. Bent over the machine, she looks up. "What can I do for you, Janey? she asks.

"Hi, Ms. Bradstreet. Hi." She pauses. "I just wanted to let you know that I have an away soccer game at Poly tomorrow and that Coach Atkins said we need to be let out of class at 2:30 tomorrow.

This was not what Maria expected her to say. She stands up, now about Janey's height. "Oh he does, does he?"

"She, actually."

"Ah. She. She needs you at 2:30." Maria puckers her lips and nods her head slightly. "You know, Janey, I have needs, too. Like that colonial history essay you were supposed to give me last week. I never heard back from you regarding that e-mail I sent you yesterday asking about it. I need to grade that essay."

Janey's eyes dart across the room and back before she looks at Maria. "Yeah. OK. I'll turn it in tomorrow."

"Wonderful. So you'll turn it in at the start of of class, and I'll let you go halfway through at 2:30. We have a deal?"

"Uh. Yeah. OK." She walks to the back of the room and takes her seat next to her pal Karina.

Believe it when I see it, Maria thinks. She returns her attention to the pending film screening. With the movie cued, she asks Willie to pull down the shades and Kenny to shut off the lights. At one point she sees Janey staring off into space during the scene when Daniel Day-Lewis rescues Madeleine Stowe from the evil Magua. Maria's annoyance is trumped by her enthusiasm for the movie, which she must have seen a dozen times now. My God, she thinks, Daniel Day-Lewis is a handsome man.

Maria doesn't think about her exchange with Janey again until the next morning, when she arrives at work and sees through the doorway of department chair, Jen Abruzzi, who is on the phone. "Morning, Jen," she says. Jen looks at her, nods, and hold up a finger indicating she wants to speak with Maria in what seems to be the conclusion of her call. She turns away for a second to hang up and then comes out the door. "Good morning, Maria," she says. "Can you tell me what's happening with the Janey Wilcox situation?"

Maria is taken aback, and responds guardedly "Well, not much. I came to an understanding with Janey yesterday that if she gave me an overdue essay I would excuse her early for her soccer game."

Jen nods. "That was Ed on the phone."


"Ed Siborsky. The AD."


"The Athletic Director. Apparently Janey told Sherri Atkins, a part-time coach who doesn't actually teach here, that you weren't allowing her to participate in the game, so Sherri called Ed. Ed called me."

"I didn't say she couldn't participate." Maria pauses and then speaks, unable to contain her irritation. "And I didn't realize my handling of 'the situation' required three other people to get involved. Seems to me that the athletic people are encroaching on what should be an academic matter between student and teacher."

Jen maintains an even tone. "Well, I guess Janey couldn't or wouldn't finish the essay, so she reported she wasn't allowed to go. School policy is that students are to be excused for athletic events at the discretion of coaches, under the supervision of the AD, unless the kid is on academic probation. Ed checked with the high school office that Janey wasn't on probation, so he called me to find out what was going on. He probably should have called you directly, but we've worked together a lot on these things."

"I see."

"Ed's position is that when you tell a kid she can't make a game you're actually penalizing a whole team. He said Janey's coach describes her as 'the linchpin of the defense,' using her fingers as quotation marks to convey that she doesn't necessarily accept everything Ed says at face value.

"Since when do coaches use terms like 'linchpin?" asks Maria, who's only half-joking.

"Now, now Maria," wagging a finger that may also only be half in jest. "I reminded him that the burden of team spirit should fall on the child meeting her responsibilities, not on the teacher managing a course. Ed doesn't disagree. But he points out that this isn't always the way these things are understood by the student or her teammates, and that faculty don't always appreciate the impact of their decisions or the logistical difficulties the PE staff has in trying to organize games."

"Should that be my problem?"

"Don't get me wrong," Jen says, refusing to engage in direct argument. "I understand where you're coming from. If you decide that Janey really should be on academic probation, we'll get that form in and I'll back you with Ed a hundred percent. And he'll back down. I just want to clarify where we stand."

"That's exactly the problem," Maria replies. "I haven't actually seen any real work from this kid yet, so I don't know where we stand. I can't tell if she's lazy, or has a learning disability, or whatever. I don't like her classroom profile much. I probably should have more work from her than I do, which is partly my fault. But until I feel like I have a sense of her, I can't really say where she is. Except that I now know that she's pretty good at gaming the system."

Jen nods. "Well, I think you're going to have to decide if this is a battle you want to fight."

Maria chuckles mirthlessly. "I didn't realize I was in a war zone."

Jen smiles at her sympathetically. "This is just one of those things that happens when you're new. Not really anyone's fault."

No, Maria thinks. But that doesn't make her any less the loser. She believes Jen really would back her -- to a point, anyway. But she can't really afford to take on the Athletic Department now. She simply doesn't have the political capital. Yet conceding the point will undoubtedly cost her with the students. Jen Wilcox will be on the bus to Poly this afternoon, and everyone will know it. God knows if or when she'll actually see the essay, and when she does, any critical comments will be seen as Ms. Bradstreet having it in for her. Wilcox 1, Bradstreet 0.

Maria exhales sharply. "All right then," she says after what has been a long pause. "I'll tell Janey she can go, whether or not she gives me the essay."

"And I'll take care of Ed," Jen says.

"No," Maria says. "Let me do it. I'll send him an e-mail and apologize for my ignorance about school policies. Sounds like he's a reasonable guy. Probably better to take my lumps directly than for this to turn into some kind of lingering thing. Who knows, maybe he'll explain the point of soccer to me."

Jen smiles appreciatively at this plan. "Not bad, Maria. Not bad at all."

"Well, not good, at any rate. Serves me right. This is what I get for cutting gym so often."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A 9th of Henry Adams

An unexpected encounter at the movies yesterday

An American History Now extra, in observance of the 100th post of this blog.

I took my boys and a friend to see 9, the latest animated feature to be released under the imprimatur of Tim Burton, which, though I knew little about it, was enough of a recommendation for me, as I’m a big fan of work like Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Like WALL-E, 9 is a post-apocalyptic story (what does it say that this is the second such big-budget movie to be pitched to children in the last couple years?) in which human beings destroy life earth through their addiction to wasteful and dangerous technology. In this particular case, a scientist, remorseful over his role in enabling a fascist regime, hand-crafts a series of small, hand-crafed doll-like objects, dressed in burlap into which he literally pours his soul before he dies. The last in this series, who gives the title to the movie, becomes aware of his compatriots, who are immersed in trying to navigate hostile technological machines that seek to destroy them.

The heart of the plot concerns a small object which, when plugged in, can bring confer tremendous power on that which it is inserted. In the course of rescuing another of the series in a cathedral clearly modeled on Notre Dame, the object ends up in a huge devouring machine that must be destroyed. Given the genre here, I don’t think I’m giving much away to say that while this band of survivors will suffer casualties, they ultimately triumph and open the way for the resurrection of the spirit (though not necessarily the flesh) of humanity.

What I found striking about this is how aptly it evoked the classic image of “The Virgin and the Dynamo,” a famous chapter in Henry Adams’s 1918 autobiography The Education of Henry Adams. Adams discerned two great powers operating in the world of his long lifetime. The first were the spiritual longings embodied in monuments to Mary, the mother of Christ, in medieval French cathedrals. The other great force was technology, embodied in the dynamo, or machine, of the kind he would see at international expositions. Adams had intimations of global catastrophe himself (he lived to see the First World War), which are echoed in 9. The difference here is here is that the dynamo is in the virgin, a striking intensification of the tension, and a suggestion of their fatal union. I don’t know to what degree the allusion is conscious or explicit; the screenplay was written by Pam Pettler, who also wrote the fine 2006 Burton film Monster House (9 was directed by Shane Acker). But the historical resonances contained in what is, in effect, a post-punk, sci-fi, kiddie picture made it that much more enriching to watch. Kept me awake (for most of the time, anyway ;) )

Monday, September 28, 2009

What do women want? Something else.

Kate Walbert's novel
A Short History of Women is a beautiful and unsettling illustration of the limits of feminism

The following review was posted yesterday on the Books page at the History News Network.

The title of this novel is a series of interconnected jokes. Given the emphasis on the diversity of womens' experiences central to contemporary feminism, "a short history of women" is tantamount to a contradiction in terms, a self-evident admission of omission typical of the kind that even well-intentioned men, like the cluelessly condescending professor who in 1914 delivers a lecture with this title early in the novel, make all the time. Any attempt to tell the story of women would almost necessarily have to be long, and yet this book is a conspicuously svelte 237 pages. And given the sometimes fierce internecine battles that have raged in the last century, the women it portrays -- relatively wealthy, white, educated Anglo-Saxons -- verge on demographic parody. This sense of self-aware, compressed irony is the hallmark of the novel. And it is deadly serious.

A Short History of Women consists of a series of fifteen vignettes, rendered largely as interior monologues, centering on five generations of an Anglo-American family spanning from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries. The first of these figures, Dorothy Trevor Townsend, dies as a result of a hunger strike in 1918, as the First World War and the suffrage movement come to a climax in Britain. Townsend leaves behind two young children. Her daughter Evelyn (who, given the first-person narration of her segments, is apparently the locus of the story), becomes a successful scientist at Columbia University. Evelyn's brother, Thomas, is sent to San Francisco and ultimately has a daughter, who marries a World War II POW, divorces him after a half-century, and lives long enough to get herself arrested for protesting the Iraq War. The couple has three children, a son who dies in middle age and two daughters, both of whom we hear from. We get a glimpse of the fifth generation of these women in the Yale undergraduate who posts a cheeky Facebook profile that pays homage to her great-great grandmother.

It would be hard to overstate the artistry that goes into the elliptical, yet resonant, narration of these lives. Walbert demonstrates an exceptionally fluid sense of historical consciousness, moving across time with a grace and clarity reminiscent of Virginia Woolf. Even as she does so, she's able to incorporate a variety of other figures, ranging from the husbands, lovers, and companions of these women, as well as a peripheral figure like an African American maid or working-class G.I., with insight and compassion.

And yet there's something dismaying, perhaps even upsetting, about the major characters and the author's ambiguous stance toward them. This is, by and large, a miserable family unable to find fulfillment. (We can have hope for the latest generation, but historical precedent is not promising.) Political emancipation, occupational and educational opportunity, sexual expression, successful child-rearing: if they aren't elusive they aren't satisfying. And the cost of these women's choices are stark and evident to character and reader alike. Is it really acceptable, for example, to kill yourself and leave two children behind in the name of suffrage, because you say you have no choice, as Evelyn does on the opening page of this book? The men in this story are hardly monsters; at least two are notably decent, if perhaps ineffectual (or prematurely dead). If these women can't be happy, who can?

Perhaps Walbert is saying that this really is the history of women: thwarted aspiration. As Evelyn says at one point late in the story, "I often wished for more, or rather, other things, and that was it, wasn't it? The wishing?" These are people haunted by the promise of modernity, the idea that life really can be different, be better, than it currently is. This is true for men, too, of course, but for women only more so. "A problem without a name," Evelyn's daughter Dorothy tells her husband, echoing Betty Friedan. "It's who we are by God, it's our type, our lot, our cross to --" But she never finishes her sentence because she senses he's not interested. He is, but he's simply not as dissatisfied his life generally (or his marriage specifically) to the extent his wife is. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud's famous question, "What do women want?" The answer is: something else.

For these women, it seems, feminism, like communism, seems to have become a secular god that failed, and a truly transcendent vision of life is impossibly remote, if not retrograde. They lack the gift of faith, and, at the same time, are unable to reliquish their commitment to a sense of choice that finally oppresses them. It's hard to fault them for that, and hard not lose patience with them.

This is especially true because there are plenty of women for whom feminism has been a genuinely liberating force, if not always an unalloyed blessing. It's been instructive in this regard to finish this book and begin reading Gail Collins's forthcoming
When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present (which I will review as well). Here we encounter some people, at least, who find a measure of contentment with the pursuit of happiness, whether or not it is entirely attained.

I'm very aware in writing this review that I do so as a man who almost surely is demonstrating a kind of obtuseness that is at least lamentable and quite possibly infuriating to the target audience of this novel. In the end, I don't really know what Kate Walbert wants (or whether she knows what she wants, either). But I honor the intelligence and artistry that went into the provocative and troubling novel.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Born (Again) in the USA

The following is the text of Jim Cullen's plenary address prepared for "Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium," 2009 Eatontown, New Jersey, September 25, 2009

It is also the third in a trilogy of Springsteen posts. Click here for the first and second.

I’m a historian, so I tend to think about lives in time, in contexts. I imagine a lot of other people do, too, but I also think people come to something like the music of Bruce Springsteen from a variety of other perspectives as well. A Springsteen fan who happens to be a musician, for example, is likely to think about his work a little differently than I do. So would a psychologist. Or a nurse.

Anyway, as I said, I tend to think about lives in time, and when I do I sometimes find myself thinking with surprise about two people who are contemporaries in a society but who might as well be on different planets. Back when I was in graduate school for example, I thought it weird to think that Andrew Jackson and Ralph Waldo Emerson were household names for millions of Americans at the same time. Emerson, a Harvard-educated intellectual, toured the world giving talks and writing celebrated essays and poems. Jackson was a soldier and politician and president of the United States who once joked he could never respect a man who only knew one way to spell a word. Or, to take an example closer to home, consider Miles Davis and Elvis Presley. Last month marked the 50th anniversary of Davis’s landmark album, Kind of Blue. The #1 single in the country at the time was Presley’s “Big Hunk o’ Love.” Put them in the same room and I’d guess there’d be a fair amount of mutual incomprehension.

But of course it’s often the case that when you reflect such lives you can discern distinctive patterns that mark people as sharing a cultural moment – different sides of the same coin, but the same currency nonetheless. Emerson and Jackson disagreed on a great many issue in American life, and yet they were both embodiments of a widely noted, and celebrated, individualism that fore-grounded self-reliance and a new emphasis on freedom in the generational turnover following the American Revolution. In many respects, Davis and Presley had antithetical musical goals – one sought to challenge his audience, while the other sought as broad a one as possible, to cite one example – and yet both men were shaped by a social revolution in race relations that they were able to tap in the formulation of distinctive as well as exciting art. As often as not it’s the questions, or even oppositions, which define a time as much as similar outcomes.

I bring up these examples as a prelude to a more relevant odd couple I know we’re all familiar with: Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen. In many respects, it’s hard to imagine two people with less in common. Reagan, born almost forty years before Springsteen, was a Conservative Republican politician who looked upon the counterculture of the 1960s with contempt, and indeed rose to prominence in voicing his opposition toward it. Springsteen, by contrast, was a largely apolitical product of that counterculture and indeed rose to prominence by building on its legacy. Reagan spent the sixties and early seventies hobnobbing with the wealthy of Orange County California in the Governor’s mansion; Springsteen spent that period as a vagrant on the Jersey shore fraternizing with a bunch of scruffy but hopeful musicians. Both men had ties to California, yes, but they were very different Californias. Springsteen’s parents moved to the Bay area to start their lives anew in 1969, when Reagan was governor, and Springsteen would occasionally visit. Reagan used southern California as the power base from which he would launch a successful bid for the presidency that would land him in the White House.

That the two mens’ lives would briefly intersect twenty five years ago this week was the product of a coincidence we can now recognize in retrospect: their professional careers happened to crest at precisely the same moment. In the summer of 1984, Springsteen’s Born in the USA was dominating the airwaves, and the second single from the album, “Cover Me,” was working its way up the Billboard pop chart as he toured the country in what would become a landmark concert tour. Reagan, for his part, had just been re-nominated for president by a united Republican Party, and would soon go on to win one of the most crushing electoral victories in American history. Both men were at the apex of their fame and influence.

In a way, it’s silly to make too much in the way of contrast or comparison. Even the most dedicated Springsteen fan will recognize that Reagan had a more decisive impact on American society, if only to lament that fact. Springsteen may have changed the nation’s tune, but Reagan changed the nation. He did so by embodying a series of ideas, values, and policies we have come to know as neo-conservatism. Like many important collective concepts, neo-conservatism would come to mean a series of different, and at times contradictory, things, and even a figure as plastic at Reagan could not single-handedly represent all of them. Still, when people thought of Reagan, they associated him with a cluster of concepts – capitalism, a rededication to patriotism, and traditional religious values, to cite three prominent examples – that were dominant in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and even into the current decade. It’s for this reason that at least two historians have published books with titles “The Age of Reagan.”[1]

The key to Reagan’s success, and the reason he of all people became the voice of the Conservative movement, were his exceptional gifts in conveying his message in an appealing and vital way (Springsteen, of course, could do the same in a very different way). There was an element of contradiction in this, just as there was in the crippled FDR managing to convey tremendous personal vitality during the Great Depression that Herbert Hoover never could. Reagan was the oldest man ever elected president, and there were signs, even before as the failed assassination attempt he weathered in 1981, that he was not always fully engaged with reality. But he nevertheless projected a vibrant optimism that even his critics had difficulty resisting. Part of his success in this regard was a gifted staff, notably Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, who managed Reagan’s public image. It was Deaver, following up on a glowing column on Springsteen by conservative columnist George Will, who believed that Reagan could cement his appeal with young voters by having Springsteen appear with Reagan at a campaign rally in New Jersey in September of 1984.[2] As we all know, that was never going to happen. But as we also all know, Reagan ended up invoking Springsteen in Hammonton on September 19thAmerica’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.”[3] anyway in an episode that is now part of our collective Springsteen mythology. “

Now I’m guessing that everybody in this room knows to a great degree knows this story to a greater or lesser degree. They may remember George Will’s syndicated column, in which he wrote, “If all Americans – in labor or management, who make steel or cars or shoes or textiles – made their products with as much energy and confidence as Springsteen and his merry band make music, there would be no need for Congress to be thinking about protectionism.”[4] They may remember the media coverage of Reagan’s appearance in Hammonton, Democratic challenger Walter Mondale’s witty riposte (“Bruce Springsteen may have been born to run, but he wasn’t born yesterday”[5]), and they may remember that Springsteen referred to the incident a few days later when he wondered what Reagan’s favorite Springsteen album was before springing into a pointed rendition of “Johnny 99.” The dominant reaction at the time – certainly the way I felt, and the way I perceived others did – that Reagan’s invocation of Springsteen was a glib travesty, at best crudely uninformed, and at worst a cynical inversion of everything Springsteen stood for.

This is certainly the dominant chord in what has to be considered the dominant interpretation of this episode by Dave Marsh in Glory Days in 1987 (later incorporated into Two Hearts in 2004).[6] Distinct in the annals of Springsteen chronicles as an amalgam of shoe-leather reporting and cultural analysis, bolstered by his unique degree access to Springsteen himself, Marsh portrayed Springsteen as the victim of cultural theft, albeit as a victim who maintained his dignity and learned from the experience. Interestingly, Marsh observed that a Reagan/Springsteen juxtaposition had actually been made almost a decade earlier by Boston Globe writer Marty Nolan, who called Reagan “the Bruce Springsteen of politics,” adding “Bruce Springsteen may be the Ronald Reagan of rock.” But while Marsh recognized a vein of logic in a Springsteen-Reagan connection, there is never any doubt in his justly influential reading of the event that such an interpretation is finally misleading.

That said, my own reading of the affair partially demurred from it. In a 1992 article for a small scholarly journal, I noted what I called an “ambiguous” strain in Springsteen’s musical politics, arguing that Springsteen’s portrayal of working class passivity left him open to the kind of opportunistic, though finally shrewd, reading of the Right-wing political apparatus represented by Will, Deaver, and Springsteen.[7] Five years later, in my book Born in the USA, I tweaked that view by making a distinction between a “good” conservative like Springsteen, who had respect for the egalitarian values of what I called “the American tradition” and, implicitly, “bad” conservatives like Reagan who denied that tradition and uncritically upheld free-market capitalism as the only valid basis of American life.[8]

But from the perspective of 25 years since that event, five years since Reagan’s death, and a year since a watershed election that many of us consider the final repudiation of Reaganism, I feel a lot less inclined to mince words or nuance concepts. Although I didn’t want to admit it then, I think I should make the assertion straightforwardly now: Bruce Springsteen’s success in the 1980s is a function of him being at heart a conservative artist. Period. It is no accident that the Age of Reagan corresponds to the Age of Springsteen, and I’ll even go so far as to say that in some important respects Springsteen has been a more thoroughgoing conservative than Reagan ever was.

Now, we could argue about just what it is that people such as Reagan and Springsteen wanted to conserve, and could reasonably conclude that the content of conservation matters more than the temperament to conserve. Certainly that’s true in a political sense. We can talk about that, and I hope we will. But for the moment, at least, I’d like to advance my proposition that conservatism in the 1980s was always more than political conservatism, and that Springsteen, at least as much if not more than Reagan, was captured the spirit of his time in important ways. In the time we have I can only begin to suggest some reasons with a few examples that I hope will serve as a point of departure for further discussion . I don’t feel I’ve worked out my thinking on this to my own satisfaction, and hope this session will both help me and serve as a satisfying venue for intellectual exploration.

1. Springsteen as a musical conservative. We all know that rock & roll music began as an expression of youthful rebellion. (We also know that it derived from the age-old musical idiom of the blues, and that the blues was as much a music of accommodation as it was protest, but we’ll leave that matter aside for now.) But Springsteen, born in 1949, was an heir, not a founder, of rock & roll. More specifically, he was a rock grandchild. The Founders, embodied by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and the girl groups, blazed a new path. The second, represented by Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Woodstock generally, took the promethean energies of the first generation and added an element of self-conscious artistry. Literally and figuratively, Presley’s first records were something new under the Sun. Blonde on Blonde, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Are You Experienced?: these were artists who were trying to remake the world. (So, in a different but at least as significant way, were the presumably more conventional performers at Motown.)

Bruce Springsteen absorbed these influences, as well as others like the sounds of Stax, the one-hit wonders of the early sixties, Van Morrison, and others. By the early 1970s, he had forged them into a recognizably personal style that defined Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. Crucially, however, that’s as modern as Springsteen ever got. From that point on, his music was more about revivifying the old rather than creating the new. Two good examples that come to mind from Born to Run are the allusions to Roy Orbison in “Thunder Road." and the Bo Diddley nod of “She’s the One.” Reading accounts of Springsteen’s fabled shows at the Bottom Line in 1975, as I have in Louis Masur’s fine new book on the making of Born to Run, and you get a palpable sense that part of the thrill of those shows was the way in which Springsteen integrated rock’s history into the present moment, typified by his decision to perform songs like the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” or Gary U.S. Bonds’s “Quarter to Three.”[9] “Born to Run,” is nothing if not neoclassic, a quality that Springsteen would achieve, in somewhat different form, in many of the songs on “The River,” ranging from “Sherry Darling” to “Ramrod.”

It’s true that Born in the USA did not sound dated. But it’s striking to juxtapose the choices of Springsteen’s peers of the same moment who made a self-conscious effort to strike out in new musical directions in the years before and after its release. Prince’s Purple Rain, for instance, was the other monster album of 1984, notable for its unmistakable freshness (was there anything on the radio that had ever sounded like “When Doves Cry”?) Moreover, while Prince never quite seemed comfortable with hip-hop, he made a game effort in the years that followed. Or consider the Talking Heads and the ground they covered in the 1980s. Or even, in her own way, Madonna, whose frame of reference in the eighties stretched from disco to the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers to techno.

Springsteen has not been static, of course. But musically speaking, his moves have been backward rather than forward. Perhaps the first hint was the Roy Acuff flavored “Wreck on the Highway.” Another was the decision to add Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” in his live shows. The most cohesive powerful statement in this regard was Nebraska. The passage of time has only seemed to lead him further back, from the thirties of Tom Joad to the Seeger sessions, where he zooms back to Stephen Foster. The choices he’s made are not so much of a man who seeks to embody his time as to incorporate himself into the broader musical flow of history. If this isn’t conservatism in the most elemental sense of the term, I don’t know what is.

2. Springsteen as an exponent of entrepreneurial capitalism..

We’re all familiar with Bruce Springsteen as the sometimes fierce critic of capitalism. No need to explain the ravages of unemployment as depicted in the song “Born in the USA” to this crowd. Whether in the humorous vein of “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch” and “57 Channels” or the caustic outrage of “Roulette” and “Seeds,” Springsteen has consistently depicted the excesses of corporate greed and championed egalitarian values we’ve long associated with the left.

All that said, it seems fair to say that Springsteen is a critic of capitalism’s excesses more than he is of capitalism itself. No one who’s paying attention would ever mistake Darkness on the Edge of Town with Give ’Em Enough Rope, to cite a Leninesque Clash album from the same year. Moreover, Springsteen’s representation of the working class has tended to be more nostalgic than realistic: the dockworkers of “Out in the Street” had largely vanished from New York, at least, by the time he released the song in 1980. And who in 2009 swings a hammer for a living the way the protagonist does in “Working on a Dream?” I will say that Springsteen’s vision of work has generally taken on a more stark clarity in recent years, as in the drug-manufacturing brothers of “Sinaloa Cowboys” or even waitress of “I’ll Work for Your Love.” But none of these characters, much less Springsteen himself, consider it particularly realistic to articulate a class critique of the system.

It is seems worth remembering here that Bruce Springsteen himself is a capitalist extraordinaire. We tend to regard the moniker of “The Boss” as an affectionate metaphor, but he got the nickname almost forty years ago as a description of reality, and it’s been true ever since. (Ronald Reagan, for his part, was a salaried employee for most of his professional life, and more specifically a government employee in the pivotal years of his life.) I’m not a financial journalist, and know relatively little about his financial affairs. But it takes no great leap of speculation or exaggeration to describe Springsteen’s business empire as a billion dollar enterprise. According to an article about ticket prices in last month’s New Yorker, the Magic tour alone grossed over $200 million.[10][11] This was not a terribly enlightening read (the lessons include things like “Keep it Fresh” and “Experience Matters”) but one gets a much more concrete picture of Springsteen’s management style in “Springsteen Inc.,” a 2006 Business Management Daily ran a story this spring entitled, “What Leaders Can Learn from Springsteen.” piece in Pittsburgh Quarterly, written by Sanford Neiman, former attorney for Clarence Clemons. There are no scandalous revelations to be had here; only a portrait respectful of The Boss as what Sanford calls the Chairman of the Board in a company in which Jon Landau is CEO. Neiman seemed to understand and accept the 1986 ultimatum Springsteen gave Clemons when Clemons was about to do a Diet Coke commercial, which Springsteen said would result in his expulsion from the E Street Band.[12]

So let’s not be under any illusions here about who runs the show. Springsteen has never given us any indication that getting rich wasn’t part of his plans, and that staying rich doesn’t remain part of them. And you probably can’t succeed the way he has without an executive mentality. A visionary and extraordinarily generous executive mentality, but an executive mentality nonetheless. American tax policy under Ronald Reagan and his successors has been very, very good to The Boss. No need to find offshore havens a la U2.

3. Springsteen as the voice of religious orthodoxy. I’ve had a lot to say about Springsteen’s religious vision, which I will not rehearse in any detail here. I can sum it up by saying that Springsteen is a classic example of the maxim that while you can take the boy out of Catholicism, you can’t take Catholicism out of the boy. The very first song Springsteen performed at his audition for Columbia Records in 1972 was “If I Was the Priest,” a scandalously profane satire of Catholicism that led John Hammond to conclude “I knew he could only be Catholic.” Springsteen took a number of swipes at the Church on his early records, which tended to recede over time. In songs like “My Father’s House” and “Reason to Believe,” from Nebraska, he seemed to point toward a new engagement with religious questions. But all intents and purposes, Born in the USA is a strongly secular record.

As we know, the late 1970s and early 1980s are notable as a time of evangelical revival in the United States. We also know that Ronald Reagan’s ascent to power was to a great degree premised on his support from evangelicals. This of course is a curious fact, given that the man Reagan defeated, Jimmy Carter, was a bona fide evangelical Christian, and that Reagan, a non-churchgoing divorcee from Hollywood, hardly seems like a poster child for traditional family values. But politics, as we know, makes for strange bedfellows.

There are two facts that I want to call to your attention for the sake of this discussion. The first is that the evangelical revival of the 1970s and 80s, which crested in this decade, is by no means a unique event in American history. Evangelical fervor is something that has been waxing and waning at least since the First Great Awakening of the 1730s.

One of the signal characteristics of all these revivals has been their challenge to dominant organized churches of their day. In modern times, notably since the rise of fundamentalism in the 1890s, this has meant mainline Protestant churches, widely perceived by their critics to have become too accommodating to the conventions of liberal secular society. In the minds of their supporters, Evangelical churches, are, in effect, renegade churches. Though secular humanists may see them as at best nostalgic and at worst authoritarian, they see themselves as embattled rebels. They do not hew closely to traditional theological or denominational traditions, and are highly adaptive to the cultural landscape at their disposal, whether in storefront churches or the megachurches of people like Joel Osteen. In some important respects, they buck tradition, not embrace it.

The second fact that’s notable here is that Springsteen has not surrendered his Catholic identity. Actually, it’s an identity he has been increasingly explicit about claiming in art and life since the time of Tunnel of Love. Religious metaphors and religious concerns have become increasingly important, and while they were once a source of satire or irony, they are now embraced with a high degree of spiritual intensity (my favorite recent example is “Jesus Was an Only Son” – an assertion which is, by the way, a specifically Catholic interpretation of the New Testament, as Protestant doctrine holds he was not an only child). Springsteen has also apparently resumed going to his mass periodically with his family.

I don’t want to go too far down this road, either in claiming with any certainty that I know just what Springsteen’s degree of religious fidelity is, or in believing he has much interest in knowing, much less hewing to, a Roman Catholic doctrinal line that many Catholics, myself among them, have difficulty taking seriously as regards the role of women in the church, for example. My real point is that in the context of the late twentieth century of Reagan’s America, Springsteen’s spiritual orthodoxy is a form of conservatism.

For most of American history, Catholics, as well as Jews, were socially marginal in what has been, and culturally remains, a Protestant nation. One of the unique characteristics of modern evangelicalism is its newfound alliance with conservative Jews and charismatic Catholics. But Springsteen’s life and work have shown little affinity for this. Politically speaking, he may be liberal Catholic. But culturally speaking, he’s a traditionalist Catholic.

So: music, economics, religion. These are all ways in which one can speak of Springsteen as a conservative, in a period in American history where conservatism, political as well as other kinds, has been dominant. As we know, Springsteen has been understood as a liberal in the political realm, and I don’t really contest that, except to say that liberalism has traditionally been a matter of advocating managed change, a more pragmatic form of conservatism. But in many other ways, ways that are likely to matter in the long run in our view of the man, Springsteen has been a conservative. He was born again when he was baptized, the old-fashioned way.

Many of the points I’ve made here today have been made by others, notably Robert Christgau, who recognized Springsteen’s conservatism early on (and, I think, has struggled to make his peace with it).[13] Marsh has also noted that he and others have recognized Springsteen’s bedrock conservatism, as has Springsteen himself (“I’m pretty conservative in some ways,” Marsh has him saying in an unattributed quote that I’m guessing came from a personal interview in the eighties. “I don’t really have a desire to experiment for the sake of experimentation”). I believe that we don’t tend to focus on this truth, because the feelings of many Springsteen fans toward Reagan have led us to displace, if not ignore them. My hope is that by trying to achieve some clarity on candor on this point, we might be able to see Springsteen in a more realistic and fruitful way. Whether that’s true is something I may be able to find out very quickly. Thanks for your attention; I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

[1] Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008 (New York: Harpercollns, 2008). The avowedly partisan Steven F. Hayward is the author of a two-volume work also entitled The Age of Reagan: the first volume, Fall of the Liberal Order, 1964-1980 was published by Prima Lifestyles and reissued by Three Rivers in 2009. The second volume, The Conservative Counterrevolution,1980-1989, was published by Crown Forum in 2009.

[2] My treatment of this event comes from a variety of sources, among them my own memory, but the principal account is that of Dave Marsh in Glory Days: Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s (New York: Pantheon, 1987), pp. 254-266.

[3] Francis X. Clines, “President Heaps Praise on Voters n the Northeast,” The New York Times, September 20, 1984, B20.

[4] One easy way to access this column is at

[5] Mondale quoted in Marsh, 264.

[6] Dave Marsh, Bruce Springsteen/Two Hearts: The Definitive Biography, 1972-2003 (New York: Routledge, 2004). The passage in question occurs pp. 479-489.

[7] Jim Cullen, “Bruce Springsteen’s Ambiguous Musical Politics in the Reagan Era,” Popular Music and Society 16:2 (Summer 1992): 1-22.

[8] Jim Cullen, Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), Chapter One. The book was reissued in a second edition by Wesleyan University Press in 2005.

[9]Louis P. Masur, Runaway Dream: Born to Run and Bruce Springsteen’s American Vision (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009), 9-14.

[10] John Seabrook, “The Price of the Ticket,” The New Yorker, August 10/17 2009, p. 35.



[13] I base this assertion on my own reading of Christgau’s work over the years and Masur’s references to him in Runaway Dream (126, 142-147). For one specimen of his ambivalence, see his treatment of the 30th anniversary release of Born to Run at

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Font of information

A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, Dennis Baron situates the computer as merely the latest in a long line of information innovations.

The f
ollowing review was published earlier this week on the books page at the History News Network.

This is an odd hybrid of a book. Part narrative history, part snapshot of the current technological landscape, and part meditation on the cultural implications of the written word, it's a little hard to see the whole from the sum of the parts when you're in the middle of it. Dennis Baron is a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champagne, and the book has the anthology-of-essays quality typical in volumes of literary criticism. This sensibility is commercially fatal in contemporary publishing, so it's probably for the best that it's masked -- best for author and publisher to be sure, but best for reader, too. If you make your way through this lively and well-written book, you'll have an edifying and intellectually provocative experience (though you can also profitably dip into pieces of it).

Three core ideas thread through A Better Pencil, all interrelated. The first, made repeated
ly, is that all forms of writing are forms of technology. Even a medium of communication seemingly as primitive as clay tablets involves mastering a series of skills and processes that take time to acquire and disseminate. (Baron makes this point in a chapter where he describes an assignment in which his students use a stylus to write on clay.) The remarkably useful pencil, first developed to mark sheep, is in fact a complex instrument that took a long time to perfect. British pencils were long considered the best, though U.S. production took a major step forward thanks in part to the work of Henry David Thoreau, who developed a new calibration of air and graphite that kept his family fortunes alive and gave him the means to go live in the woods for a while, a fact that the well-known techno-skeptic omitted from Walden.

The second
is that new writing technologies also generate widespread uncertainty and anxiety. Besides the challenges involved in mastering them, they engender fears that they will undermine the social fabric of the societies in which they emerge. Actually, the mere act of writing itself was suspect among oral cultures that ranged from the Ancient Greeks to the medieval Anglo-Saxons of Norman Britain, who suspected that their conquerors would use written language to swindle communities where personal relationships and public discussions were considered the most trustworthy source of social contracts. Baron notes that such fears were by no means wholly irrational; all new writing technologies bring with them a series of tradeoffs, and the potential to do good inevitably means the capacity to harm. Typewriters are wonderful, once you know how to use them, provided they don't get jammed and you have a replacement ribbon. Group e-mails greatly simplify collective communication, but the mere click of a mouse can cause a mountain of regret if you make an error or say something you'll regret. Baron has a whole chapter, "The Dark Side of the Web," surveying the various forms of fraud, hate, and oppression digital technology makes possible.

Finally, notwithstanding these issues, Baron comes down decisively as a supporter of new technology, and on balance sees t
he digital revolution as a decisive force for good in the modern world. Though computers are among the most sophisticated devices in the history of mankind, their adoption and evolution has been remarkably rapid. Indeed, one of the most striking parts of this book is Baron's chapter on the history of word processing, in which he reminds us of developments that many of us who lived through them are likely to have forgotten, among them that computers were never really developed with writing in mind -- as their very name suggests, they were made with mathematical considerations in mind -- and that the seemingly transparent Microsoft Word software so many of us use was preceded by clunky, complex predecessors like WordStar, WordPerfect, and MS-DOS. And yet, within a generation, it's possible to take a laptop out of a box, plug it in, and get to work. Literally child's play. Though he notes that the impact of computing on education is no more clear than that of the typewriter, he nevertheless concludes that "because of computers, people are writing more, they are creating new genres of writing [Baron includes discussion of instant messaging and blogs, among other kinds]; and they have more control over what they write and how it is distributed."

If there's one aspect of the modern world that gets stinted here, it's the interface of written communication with other media. These days text is only one component of digital experience that includes sound and image, and there's some reason to think that text will someday be a junior partner in this mix. Barron does at one point consider visual images in the chapter on the problem of authentication (there's a witty discussion of an image juxtaposing Abraham Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe, with observations that Lincoln would unlikely to be looking away from Monroe and the Monroe's taste ran toward Democratic politicians), but no real reckoning with the growing use of video online that in some cases is actually replacing print, as in how-to manuals that show rather than tell, or journalism that owes its media lineage more to television than newspapers. If it seems unlikely that written communication will ever disappear from human civilization, it's by no means clear that it will retain its prominence, any more than voice mail will survive the age of instant messaging.

I found myself in reading this book thinking about it as a book: it is an artifact no less than a chronicle. At one point I wondered if it might have worked better as a series of blog entries than a bound volume, especially because it lacks an entirely satisfying sense of narrative cohesion. But in its thematic unity and burnished prose, A Better Pencil embodies and honors its hard-copy heritage. Anchored in the past while looking to the future, its message both reflects and transcends its medium.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Swift current

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet try to make sense of a pop song – and her life

The Maria Chronicles, # 12

“Back in sixty seconds with Taylor Swift,” the deejay says between commercials.

All right then, Maria thinks as she sits in her Prius at a red light at 7:46 on a Monday morning, I’ll stick around. I’m curious about this Taylor Swift.

Maria has a vague notion of her. Some song about Romeo and Juliet she hears now and then on the light FM radio stations she’ll put on when she isn’t listening to NPR. Pretty hackneyed; Daddy has to give the girl away and the happy ending doesn't quite square with the Shakesperian tragedy. But the melody is undeniably catchy. Maria was surprised recently when the Times ran what seemed like a pretty respectful review of a Taylor Swift concert at Madison Square Garden, written by one of the male reviewers.

The thing that’s really piqued her curiosity, though, is the whole Kanye West brouhaha at that awards ceremony. She saw the clip of him interrupting her acceptance speech to say that Beyoncé should have won best video. What a jerk. Couldn’t quite accept the possibility that a white girl doing country deserved an award. (Beyoncé was a class act when she won something else, handing over the microphone to Swift like that – Maria has always liked her.) As a Latina, albeit a relatively culturally conservative one, Maria knows plenty about white privilege, having witnessed it up close for much of her life, long before there was a term for it. But sometimes she finds herself wondering if there isn’t such a thing as black skin privilege, too. That toxic combination of entitlement and aggrievement she hears in the voices of those rapper guys. She can’t say she pays attention to the lyrics blaring from cars and hallways before and after school. But that’s what she hears, and Maria considers herself to have a pretty good ear for voices.

She realizes her irritation is distracting her from the song, which is well underway.

She wears high heels, I wear sneakers
She's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers
Dreaming bout the day when you'll wake up and find
That what you're looking for has been here the whole time

Maria is charmed. Nothing remarkable here in what the singer is saying, but there’s an emotional directness she finds appealing (she’s reminded of Miley Cyrus and that clichéd extended metaphor of mountaintops – give me a break). And the ache in that voice when she sings "you belong with me": Maria loves the power of the emotion. Like the exasperation in Avril Levigne's "So Complicated" or the anger in Alanis Morrisette's "You Oughta Know." It's true.

Of course she’s inclined to like the song because she can relate to it. She thinks about a boy she knew in tenth grade, Johnny Hoffmann. Johnny was in the middle of this intense relationship with Erica Fass, but Maria was crazy about him – she can still see those crystalline green eyes whose very elusiveness made him maddeningly attractive. They became friends, even confidants. Maria pretended to be interested in the conjunto music her mom played all the time because she knew that Johnny liked it. They talked about it at the end of that year at a party at Connie Alvarez’s house when Johnny and Erica were in the middle of one of their big fights. Maria and Johnny must have kissed for an hour in the laundry room at Connie’s – Maria smiles at the memory – but the next day Johnny pretended it never happened and she later learned that Erica and Johnny got back together again over the summer. God, that hurt, and the hurt of his cool distance lingered until she graduated two years later. Does Taylor Swift have a song about that, too? She’ll have to ask Felicia next time she calls. Evan will tell her that she should just download the album on the iPod he bought her for Christmas – “Time to enter the 21st century, Mom,” he told her, a dig that undercut the generosity of his gift – but she’d rather have the CD so she can play it in the car. They probably have it at Barnes & Noble; she can get it when she picks up her drycleaning after school.

Johnny. That was a long time ago – before Roy, before Brian, before Mark, from whom she expects she will be officially divorced any day now. She heard a couple years ago that Johnny is living in San Antonio with his wife and two daughters, running his dad's old Ford dealership. She thinks of the man she’s seen a couple times in the cafeteria, balding but trim, slacks and dress shirts, sleeves partially rolled up. Clean-shaven, and a kind face that breaks into a smile quickly for students and colleagues. She doesn’t even know his name, much less whether he’s married. But this is not the time for any of that, she reminds herself as she makes a right and approaches the school.

As she does, she sees her star pupil, Wilhelmina, a.k.a. Willie, heading up the sidewalk to the main entrance. Willie’s hunched over a backpack that looks like it’s crushing her and bears a grim expression in marked contrast to the animated child Maria typically sees. Apparently Willie is like Maria herself, most fully alive in the classroom. Not really a pretty girl, tall, pale, flat-chested and a little scrawny, Willie’s warm personality has always made her appealing in Maria’s eyes. But will the boys see it? “Hang in there, Willie,” she says aloud. “Time is on your side.” Yet even as she says this she sees a melancholy middle-aged Willie, tired and a child no more.

Maria pulls to an abrupt stop in a parking space at the back end of the school, and lurches a bit from hitting the brakes too hard, killing the ignition and cutting off John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change” midstream. The queasiness of this hard landing sticks with her as she grabs her briefcase and slams the door. What -- like it has for you? she asks silently, unexpectedly bitter. Has time been on your side, Maria?