Category Archives: American Culture

Posts to do with American culture, places, and history excluding WW2 history

Nightmare Alley

Image courtesy of Criterion Collection

‘Let me tell you something, kid. In the carny you don’t ask nothing. And you’ll get told no lies.’ – Nightmare Alley

Noir afficionados, including this one, are greeting the release of director Guillermo del Toro’s film adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley with rapture. Crime fiction writer and noir scholar Megan Abbott tweeted: ‘As a lover of both the original novel and movie, @RealGDT’s sumptuous remake is irresistible…’. TCM’s Noir Alley host Eddie Muller called it ‘extremely faithful’ to the novel’s ‘world view’ and ‘truly a color film noir.’ Bonus for purists (at least those resident in Los Angeles): a black and white version of the film will have a limited theatrical release in January, according to the Deadline site. 

While I haven’t yet seen the 2021 picture, I’m a big fan of the novel and of the 1947 screen adaptation directed by Edmund Goulding, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. That version, however, traded the book’s dark ending for a ray of hope, at the insistence of studio boss Darryl Zanuck.[1] In this writer’s opinion, such a change (while not uncommon in adaptations), violates one of the cardinal rules of noir: there are no happy endings. Another is that the characters, while believing themselves to be in control of their destinies, operate in a world subject to the capricious laws of fate.

Gresham embraced—and, indeed, helped to shape—that aspect of literary noir, structuring his novel on the trump cards in the tarot deck, which he uses to introduce each chapter. He begins Nightmare Alley with an epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land: ‘Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel, And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card, Which is blank, is something he carries on his back, Which I am forbidden to see.’ To drive the point home, Gresham warns the reader by entitling the first chapter ‘The Fool’: ‘who walks in motley, with his eyes closed, over a precipice at the end of the world.’ But, like hapless noir protagonists, readers are by nature driven by hope (or else why read to the end?), rooting for the hero—or anti-hero—to triumph, for the villain to be punished, for a moving, entertaining or instructive tale. Nightmare Alley promises all of these but delivers its own funhouse version, along with a gritty tour of the noir universe of venality and lust, high hopes and low impulses, compulsion and despair, which, as readers (or voyeurs), we can safely experience from the front row.

Set in the topsy-turvy world of the carnival, Nightmare Alley is a story about a con artist who preys on people’s hopes and cashes in on their weaknesses. But carny folk aren’t all cold-hearted operators, or at least not when off duty. Some of Gresham’s cast of fortune tellers, strongmen, acrobats, geeks and freaks are sympathetic, welcoming the book’s protagonist, Stan Carlisle, when he has nowhere else to go, and showing him the proverbial ropes. At the Ten-in-One show, Stan finds a family of sorts, one that, in true grifter form, he will betray. He takes up with the show’s astrologist, Madame Zeena, who schools him in mind reading, a clairvoyant act helped along by coded questions and a shrewd knowledge of human nature, and in the arcana of the tarot. He soon outgrows her tutelage and joins forces with ingénue Molly Cahill, formerly ‘Mamzelle Electra’, and the duo take their show on the road as headliners, drawing a well-heeled society audience with a spiritualist act.

But Stan’s inner demons, including a thirst for liquor, are soon unleashed by his amorality and greed. He dumps Molly for Dr. Lilith Ritter, a psychiatrist and a suitable siren for Gresham’s modernist novel. Stan thinks he’s using her to exploit her patients’ darkest secrets, but in true femme fatale fashion, she’s a hustler too, playing Stan as relentlessly as T.S. Eliot’s ‘Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,’ must have played her marks. As deftly as a carnival barker on the midway, Gresham has conjured us into his world, palming our price of admission for a ticket to guess what happens in the end. Astute observers of human nature may believe they already know. Reader, could that be you?

‘This book formerly sold for a dollar, but for today I’m going to let you have it for two bits—a quarter of a dollar. Let’s hurry it up, folks, because I know you all want to see and hear Madam Zeena, the seeress, and her act does not go on until everyone who wants one of these great books gets one. Thank you, sir. And you. Any more?’

—post by Suzanne Solomon


[1] Carl Macek et al., Film Noir : An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, 3rd ed. (Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1992).

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Native American Heritage Month

As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving at the end of the month, fittingly, November is Native American Heritage Month, with the theme ‘Gifts of Our Ancestors: Celebrating Indigenous Knowledge and Cultures.’ Indigenous people are believed to have inhabited the North American continent since at least 15,000 years ago, and were stewards of the vast natural resources, from sea to shining sea, that European explorers found when they landed in 1492.

As President Joseph Biden said in his Proclamation of National Native American Heritage Month:

Despite a painful history marked by unjust Federal policies of assimilation and termination, American Indian and Alaska Native peoples have persevered.  During National Native American Heritage Month, we celebrate the countless contributions of Native peoples past and present, honor the influence they have had on the advancement of our Nation, and recommit ourselves to upholding trust and treaty responsibilities, strengthening Tribal sovereignty, and advancing Tribal self-determination. 

One notable fact stood out for me:  Native Americans, resident in America before anyone else, were not granted citizenship until 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, motivated in part by their high rates of enlistment in WWI. However, it took until 1962 for all 50 states to guarantee Native Americans the right to vote.

On a lighter note, hockey fans may be interested to know that Native Americans are credited with inventing the sport, which they called ‘shinny ball’.

Nacoista drawing of man and woman playing shinny ball game, ca. 1881-1891
National Museum of Natural History https://www.si.edu/object/archives/sova-naa-ms166931

The Library of Congress kicked off the month with an event featuring Joy Harjo, the first Native American U.S. Poet Laureate, and Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary. Libraries around the United States have been celebrating by holding readings and making book recommendations.

Here at the  American Library, former Scholar and staff member Linda Sheppard did a deep dive into our collection to highlight titles exploring Native American history, culture, art, literature, culinary traditions, wartime contributions and more.

Here are a few:

We’d love to see you at the American Library where you can browse the full display and take books home to learn more about the rich and diverse heritage of Native Americans and their many individual tribes.

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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This Golden Land

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Perhaps nowhere is the dream and myth of immigration so potent as in America, the Golden Land, Di Goldene Medine, as it was called by the Eastern European Jews who migrated there in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From the beginning, America declared itself a country of immigrants, our national motto E pluribus unum, ‘out of many, one.’ In New York Harbor, those who entered by way of Ellis Island (which would process over twelve million immigrants in its history) were greeted at the end of their arduous journey by the Statue of Liberty:

‘Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’[1]

But as David Schearl experiences in Henry Roth’s 1934 semi-autobiographical novel, Call It Sleep, about a Jewish immigrant family arriving in New York City in 1907, the difficulty of the journey doesn’t end there. Lady Liberty may be welcoming, but she is also forbidding:

And before them, rising on her high pedestal from the scaling swarmy brilliance of sunlit water to the west, Liberty. The spinning disk of the late afternoon sun slanted behind her, and to those on board who gazed, her features were charred with shadow, her depths exhausted, her masses ironed to one single plane. Against the luminous sky the rays of her halo were spikes of darkness roweling the air; shadow flattened the torch she bore to a black cross against flawless light—the blackened hilt of a broken sword.

There may be opportunity in this Golden Land, but there is also the crucible of assimilating in America’s melting pot, of honoring the old customs while adjusting to the new. In the young protagonist’s case, there is the additional trial of forming an identity separate from his beloved mother and violent father, of negotiating the rough, poor environs of New York’s Lower East Side. As a New York Times reviewer put it: ‘Quarrelsome grown‐ups, marauding toughs, experiments in voyeurism and precocious sex, dark tenements with rat‐infested cellars and looming stairways, an overwhelming incident in which David’s father, a milkman, whips two derelicts who have stolen a few bottles of milk, the oppressive comedy of Hebrew school where children cower before and learn to torment an enraged rabbi—all these comprise the outer life of the boy, described by Roth with deliberate and gritty detail.’

It’s the child’s eye view that is so consuming and alive in this book, a tour de force narration from the perspective of eight-year-old David. The author uses a striking multi-lingual technique which replicates (in English) the different languages that signify the boy’s divided world. At home, his parents speak an eloquent and expressive Yiddish; on the street, with its clash of cultures, Roth employs a pungent immigrant patois. His characters and the Schearl’s New York City environs are vividly drawn. This impressionistic journey of a boy trying to make sense of an adult world, of the safety and restraints of tradition, of what happens when the ‘huddled masses’ are pressed together in dire conditions yet manage, somehow, to thrive in a tarnished Golden Land, is unforgettable. As David’s mother says to the rabbi: ‘[A]s for learning what it means to be a Jew, I think he knows how hard that is already.’ 

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Where Call It Sleep creates a world from two years of an immigrant family’s life on a New York City block, Annie Proulx’s sweeping epic Barkskins, published in 2016, spans three centuries and the North American continent, with stops in Europe, Asia and Australia, beginning in New France in 1693. Proulx writes of a different kind of immigrant encounter: that of the natural world with the European settlers who would explore, extract, exploit and ultimately destroy it. These first encounters were not auspicious for the indigenous tribes living and hunting in the vast forests, attuned to and stewards of the trees’ interconnected web of life, nor for the forests themselves, which were uprooted, cut, burned and cleared to satisfy the new inhabitants’ bottomless thirst for land and lumber. 

René Sel and Charles Duquet (later Anglicized as Duke) came to the forests of what is now Canada as indentured laborers (habitants) meant to clear and populate New France. Their new seigneur lays down the settler’s manifesto early on: ‘Men must change this land in order to live in it.’ Sel will marry an indigenous Mi’kmaq woman and raise a métis (mixed blood) family on his land grant. Charles Duquet will become a lumber baron, his descendants the owners and extractors of forests that René Sel’s descendants will log.

The rising and sinking fortunes of each family will mirror the rise of the French and English colonies and the new United States as they consume what they believe to be limitless forests, displacing the indigenous tribes who have no cultural conception of ownership. The tribes will be forced to adapt to the white man’s ways in order to survive. Like Roth, Proulx uses a multilingual technique to convey her characters’ divided worlds, adding liberal spatters of French, Dutch and Mi’kmaq to flavor the narrative. Their lives are often cut short by disease, violence, drowning, fire, and logging accidents. But it’s the forests whose ebbing life is chronicled here that are the living heart of Barkskins. Proulx’s book is a cri de cœur for a dying ecosystem.

–post by Suzanne Solomon


[1] From The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus (1883).

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Amanda Gorman, 2021 U.S. Inaugural Poet

The inauguration of Joe Biden, the 46th President of the United States, on 20 January 2021, was historic in a few ways. One was its virtual nature, the physical absence of crowds, necessary because of the global pandemic. Another was the swearing in of America’s first female Vice President, Kamala Harris, who is also the first woman of color to be elected to the position. It was notable for another reason, too: Amanda Gorman, the sixth inaugural poet, brought down the house with an electric reading of her poem The Hill We Climb. Selected for the spot by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, she follows in the footsteps of poets like Maya Angelou, Richard Blanco and Robert Frost. At 22, Gorman is the youngest person to receive the honor.

Gorman begins her poem by asking how, as a nation, we can overcome adversity, alluding to the challenges the country has experienced over the past few years: the bitter political divisions, the grievous losses caused by the pandemic, and the renewed struggle for civil rights and equality for all Americans. She answers her question by invoking a just pride in the country’s past, but reminds us how that past inevitably shapes the promise of our future:

If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promised glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

You can hear Gorman’s inaugural reading of The Hill We Climb here.*

Gorman, who, as is customary, composed the work for the inauguration (in poetry speak, this is known as an ‘occasional poem’), had a little over a month in which to write it. She sought inspiration in the work of her predecessors, as well as in speeches by Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Winston Churchill. The young poet was not a novice, however. She served as the first National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, when she read her work at the Library of Congress at the inaugural ceremony for U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.

Gorman grew up in Los Angeles, where her mother is a middle school teacher, with her twin sister, Gabrielle. She was an avid reader and fell in love with poetry at a young age. As she said in a 2018 TED talk to students in New York City: ‘Poetry is interesting because not everyone is going to become a great poet, but anyone can be, and anyone can enjoy poetry, and it’s this openness, this accessibility of poetry that makes it the language of people.’ Gorman graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 2020, and along the way has received a number of awards and honors, including the Poets & Writers Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award. She was also a 2020 Writer-in-Residence at our ‘sister’ American Library in Paris. 

Gorman’s poem is emblematic of spoken word poetry, with its rousing repetition and incantatory passages. Spoken word, as scholar Kathleen M. Alley has written, has its origins in ‘oral traditions and performance’ and is ‘characterized by rhyme, repetition, word play and improvisation’. Which brings me to another notable fact: like President Biden, Gorman has a speech impediment, which she overcame in part by writing poetry and reading her work aloud. ‘I don’t look at my disability as a weakness,’ Gorman told the Los Angeles Times. ‘It’s made me the performer that I am and the storyteller that I strive to be.’ 

This young American poet inspires for any number of reasons: her talent, her drive, her sense of style, her bravura performance, her confidence. But any writer’s measure of success ultimately lies in the work, in the words she crafts, and by that measure, Gorman succeeds brilliantly. ‘A poem should arise to ecstasy, somewhere between speech and song,’ wrote poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a long-time champion of spoken word, who died in San Francisco this week. Amanda Gorman’s poem soars over that bar, moving this writer to tears and hope for a future in which Americans ‘will rebuild, reconcile, and recover’:

For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.

Gorman’s poetry collection, The Hill We Climb, will be published by Penguin Random House in September, along with her children’s book, Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem.

*I was advised by a Researcher and Reference Services librarian at the Library of Congress that the poem is protected by copyright, so the text is not reproduced here in full. 

 — post by Suzanne Solomon

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