Category Archives: American Culture

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

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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The National WWII Museum: How to Bring History into the Present

Emma Goodyear, 2018/19 Chuck Walker scholarship recipient 

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When I was travelling around the United States this summer, I saw so many museums and galleries in so many different cities that I think I could become an attractions review page. However, as the exhibits and portraits and artefacts of many of these locations blur into one in my mind, there is one museum that left a lasting impression. The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana struck a chord, not just for its standards as a clean, accessible and sufficiently time-consuming attraction, but for its ability to push boundaries in the way its visitors study and remember history.

The museum opened its doors in 2000 as a D-Day memorial museum and was designated by the U.S. Congress as the ‘official’ National WWII Museum in 2003. Situated in the Warehouse District, it’s a quick (albeit often crowded) streetcar ride from the French Quarter. At $28.50 per person ($24.50 seniors; $18 students/military) it isn’t the cheapest attraction, but then again you can easily lose a whole day here if you’re looking to do so, especially if you add on the bonus movie and submarine experience for $7 each [exhibits may be subject to change]. As an attraction, the National WWII Museum is very sleek and spacious. The campus is very new and has clearly been designed with a plan or storyline in mind – each of its exhibits seem to be self-contained within large rooms or entire storeys spread out across five buildings on the site (with further expansion planned for the next two years). This design makes learning and placing information easier, having already grouped it into organised subcategories. One thing the museum lacks that would be beneficial here is a comprehensive tour trail or direction. With some of its interactive tables spread out across the rooms labelled with numbers, it creates the impression that there is a set order in which to view the museum. However, the first table I approached ended up being a table number 2, making my party confused and causing us to backtrack to figure out where we were supposed to go, before concluding that it didn’t seem to matter too much, and powering ahead out of order. The museum was reasonably accessible: it is worth bearing in mind that it is a reasonable sized campus of buildings, and you have to walk between buildings to get to all the exhibitions. There are very large and clean lifts, and the interactive screens are low enough to be visible from a standard wheelchair, its videos subtitled and equipped with individual audio listening devices. There are benches to rest on outside of exhibition rooms, although once in the rooms, there seemed to be the typical fast-paced rigmarole you would expect in such an attraction.

In its physical design, the museum matches what you would expect of such a new and spacious facility, but it is in its handling of history that the National WWII Museum stands out. The museum leads not with displays of facts and timelines but with personal oral histories, jumping in on the rising trend of interactive displays and audio tours to help create a more immersive experience. Every guest begins their experience ushered -as the guide points out the soldiers would have been- into a train carriage, where they are given a dog tag that is digitally linked to the profile of a real WWII soldier. This tag allows you to ‘tap in’ at certain points of the museum, checking in on your person’s story as you progress (another reason that the museum would benefit from a specific tour line to ensure you don’t miss stages of your person’s life story as I did). The focus here on personal histories humanises those involved in the war, creating an emotional investment that forces the guest to empathise and visualise the conflict in a way that artefacts in a display case do not tend to do. This is an interactive idea I have seen at use in a select number of museums -the equally poignant Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles springs to mind- but what really set this feature apart here was the ability to save the story, along with many of the artefacts and articles you can find on interactive screens throughout the museum, to send to your email address or retrieve off the website with your dog tag number at a later date. Given the pressure when in a crowded museum to skim information and move on swiftly, the National WWII Museum deliberately ensures that its knowledge, which could otherwise be fast forgotten, is accessible long after the fact for you to take in and truly learn at your own speed. In this, the museum recognises the importance of leaving a lasting impact on its visitors, rather than just being a way to keep people busy for an afternoon to the song of twenty-something bucks each.

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While the top-notch facilities and the personal oral histories played a huge role in creating an enthralling and enjoyable experience, the museum really shone in its thoroughness and educational scope. With exhibitions spread across five different (and large) buildings on the site, the National WWII Museum has the space to create an in-depth study of the war, and it utilises it very well. It should be obvious that studying or travelling abroad opens your eyes to different perspectives, even on issues you thought you were educated and resolved on, but it was at the museum in New Orleans where I first came across a perspective in America that was less American-centric and more deliberately global. It is true that even though I had a solid schooling about the Second World War, British education (including educational media such as documentaries) tends to skew Euro-centric: the major (and in some instances sole) focus is on the conflict in Europe between the Nazis and the Allied forces, often ignoring conflict across North Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Meanwhile in classes and textbooks I encountered while studying in America, the increased focus on the conflict across the Pacific is offset by the insistence that the war may as well have started worldwide in 1942, as there is little attention paid to the conflict in Europe prior to American involvement. There are ample fantastic examples of museums and media where dedication has been shown to the in-depth retelling and preservation of either the European or the Pacific story of the war. The National WWII museum is especially powerful in that it dedicates a great deal of attention to showing the whole image, without having to compromise because of it. In having two equally large exhibits contained within its Campaigns of Courage building, one dedicated to the conflict in Europe and one to the conflict across Asia and the Pacific, the museum refuses to prioritise or taint the history of one element with the lens of the other. Each exhibit has its own distinct architectural and decorative style, with the European Theater dark, snowy and rubble-covered and the Pacific Theater designed like war ships and jungles. The oral histories and digital artefacts spanned both rooms, and both had similar introductory maps, displays and videos. The rooms avoid centering heavily around the expected talking points for each region -namely the Holocaust and the atomic bombing in Japan- in order to focus on stories frequently glossed over by other WWII media and facilities. Each theatre can function individually as an excellent standalone exhibition on its chosen region, but it is in the thoroughness of the story when piecing the two together that the museum shines in a way many more specialised or biased facilities fail to do, utilising its vast amount of space and facilities to ensure all major elements of the WWII story are represented in equal measure.

theatre front

This thoroughness carried over in the attention to detail shown in many of the exhibitions the museum had to offer. The oral histories and digitised biographies told the experiences not just of army soldiers but of nurses and medics, air force, marines and naval officers of many walks of life. In terms of artefacts, there was a display dedicated to weaponry and uniform of both the American and German fighters in the main Memorial Pavilion, and if jets or tanks are your thing, the Freedom Pavilion hosts a collection alongside its $7 submarine experience. The star of the show for me was the vast exhibit showcasing American life during the war. Whilst the exhibit was equipped with the obligatory quaint household set filled with examples of rationed food and old radio sets that you would expect to depict American life in the 40s, it also went much deeper into the intricacies and hypocrisies of the period. The museum addressed racial inequality more than I had expected of it with segments on racially segregated corps and a corner dedicated to experiences of Japanese internment. Ideally, I would have loved this part to be larger and more in-depth, but that’s from to personal interest in the subject; the content that was available was a sufficient basic overview. There were still a couple of times that bias or lack of willingness to take culpability was revealed, often in relation to America’s relationship with Japan: while anti-Japanese propaganda during the period and afterwards was particularly virulent from posters to Bugs Bunny cartoons, the museum makes reference to such propaganda only once in a tiny plaque in the Pacific exhibition, when it would have helped create a cultural backdrop to the Japanese internment section in the lifestyle exhibition. Similarly, the room at the very end of the Pacific exhibition on the dropping of the atomic bombs was particularly bare in comparison, perhaps in a way that was meant to seem respectful but in reality seemed under-informed: with no real reference to Japanese civilians or its impact on Japan but instead with recollection to the wind conditions faced by the pilots, the room felt like it missed the mark, especially when the rest of the museum was so thoroughly organised. In this aspect, the rest of the museum sets such a high bar for itself that it is perhaps more noticeable when some small areas miss the mark.

            Overall, the National WWII Museum took the crown of the best museum I visited on my travels, mostly due to a prevailing feeling that those behind it cared about more than just creating a profitable and mildly entertaining attraction. While the museum is a success in those elements, it truly shines in its dedication to ensuring that a vast range of war stories are not forgotten, creating a platform for individual voices through its interactive oral histories that better equip its visitors to empathise and understand the war behind the facts and figures. And in ensuring with its digital dog tag experience that guests can take the stories home with them, the National WWII Museum cares about preserving the history it showcases within its walls, long after you have stepped out of the door.

Article first posted on https://www.agoodyearinthelife.com

 

https://www.nationalww2museum.org/

Open daily, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Closed Mardi Gras Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.

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FORGOTTEN HOLLYWOOD: Captain Newman, M.D. (1963)

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For my final entry in the Forgotten Hollywood series, I would like to draw attention to a film that is similarly about transitions. Based loosely on a true story, Captain Newman, M.D. (1963) is about Capt. Josiah Newman (Gregory Peck), the head of the neuro-psychiatric ward at a military hospital during WWII. Throughout the film, he and his staff treat a range of patients dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder and other mental ailments. It’s an episodic structure, one that would have lent itself well to a proposed television adaptation.

This setting allows for the supporting actors to indulge to the expected histrionics, chewing the scenery in their respective scenes while Peck falls back on his reliable movie star charisma. These are the performances that garnered critical attention and an Oscar nomination of Bobby Darin as Cpl. Jim Tomkins. However, there is an exception. A relative newcomer at the time, Robert Duvall plays Capt. Paul Winston, who spends much of the film in a catatonic state until one of the final scenes.

I will not spoil the specifics of this moment, but it becomes clear that we are witnessing the birth of a new generation of actor, the type who would dominate the next decade of Hollywood. He goes small rather than big. He whispers were others had projected. His pain and shame are internalised rather than put on display. Instead of a brightly lit room surrounded by an audience of orderlies and nurses, this scene takes place in the shadows and in close-ups, with only him and Peck. Especially when compared to his co-stars, Duvall’s performance reveals a transition not only in dominant acting styles but also in how we remember WWII.

WWII is fading from living memory. Soon, we will be left with nothing but shadows and flickering lights in the likeness of the dead. The heartbreak of I’ll Be Seeing You and the cautionary tale of None Shall Escape are losing their immediacy. The names of Sessue Hayakawa, Preston Sturges, and Anna May Wong are being forgotten. The treatment of Japanese Americans at home and abroad is being elided from our shared memory. With this series, I had hoped to help revitalise interest in these stories and storytellers, a Sisyphean task. They too are fading.

Beyond cinema, I reflect on my time here at the 2AD Memorial Library, on how we memorlise WWII. Scrawled notes on scraps of paper. Faded photographs. Names in a roll of honour. If we do not preserve these stories, they will be lost. How will we remember this time in history? How will we share these stories with others? For this, I am grateful for institutions like the 2AD Memorial Trust. We have a responsibility to keep these stories alive, even as the style of their telling changes over time.

If you want to learn more about the story of Captain Newman, you can reserve a copy of Leo Rosten’s Captain Newman, M.D. (1961). The film adaptation is available on DVD at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library.

Thank you.

-Francis

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