After a multi-year absence, I’ve decided to return to this spot and see what happens.

In part, my return is prompted by three other returns I made last week: I went to ASA (I missed last year) which was in DC (a rare visit home!) and on one evening played hooky and headed out to a small venue to see Bonnie “Prince” Billy (although it might have been Will Oldham).




ASA 2013 (or, #2013ASA) has garnered substantial attention for its hotly debated proposed cultural and academic boycott of Israel.  It’s also been mocked for the heavy jargon and overtly political nature of the conference theme and the papers presented.  Tenured Radical Claire Potter has addressed both.  Jonathan Marks finds lots to mock.  More on this in a second.

I largely enjoyed the conference and found the dialogue stimulating.  I saw some great panels.  At a sound studies panel on sampling and covering I learned about John Coltrane covering Rodgers & Hammerstein, memory and loss in the sampling techniques of the RZA and DJ Premier, among other topics.  An Appalachian studies panel on the “hillbilly” helped me see how Appalachia is the south’s other (while the south is,  of course, the nation’s other) and, in Cari Massey’s sharp analysis of Lynddie England in visual culture, the textual and visual construction of the hillbilly as it intersects with gender, sexuality, nation.  Lastly, the panel I chaired was an exciting mix of work in memory studies, almost all of it by graduate students.  The papers explored traditional subjects of memory studies: Rosie Uyola of Rutgers-Newark on commemorations of the 1967 Newark riots and Kathleen Hulser of the New School on walking tours and radical feminist history in Greenwich Village.  Bryan Walsh of IU Bloomington presented a sharp, cogent theorization of toxic waste and U.S. military installations.  Walsh’s paper exposed the legacy of waste at bases within the national borders and argued that this legacy must be understood as an act of violence perpetrated by the U.S. military.  This analysis of how we under stand the “nation” resonated with Robyn Schroeder’s (Brown) analysis of the place of the nation state and federalism in disaster narratives on TV (Jericho, Revolution, and The Walking Dead).  Lastly, Katie Bausch of York presented an analysis of SDS activists’ appropriation of SNCC activists’ strategies for performing racialized masculinities.  Bausch’s paper was smart and very eloquently written.

All in all, I enjoyed the conference.  I learned things I didn’t know; I left rethinking things I thought I already understood.  I was exposed, often in individual papers, to sharp analyses of U.S. history and culture (literature, popular culture, media, political culture).  That is was ASA does better than any conference I know of: thorough, truly interdisciplinary analysis and critique of the U.S.

The recent critiques of ASA posted in CHE’s website seem to have two major bones to pick: the field doesn’t look like what American Studies seems it should be; and the BDS boycott of Israel.  I’m not sure that I know enough or have thought enough about the boycott to comment on it.  But, as to the concern that ASA doesn’t look like American Studies…  well, its current iteration certainly doesn’t look like to America Studies of Henry Nash Smith.  Or Leo Mark.  Or even Patricia Nelson Limerick.  American Studies has evolved rapidly and constantly.  It is always in flux.  Unlike the fields to which it is most closely related (English and History), American Studies doesn’t have a core subject (texts, the past) or a core method (close reading, historiography).  Rather, it’s core subjects are the U.S. and, I would argue, itself.  It’s core method is one of critique and analysis.  As the bulk of the participants in ASA are suspicious of the nation state and reject any notion of American exceptionalism, ASA’s analysis of the US quickly turns towards an analysis and critique of the field itself.  Thus, it is a field which is always in existential crisis.

Certainly, ASA hosts outstanding and important research.  Oftentimes its participants are also doing excellent work in other, more traditional fields of study.  Just as often, it provides an institutional basis for scholars in fields which are less stable, especially Women’s studies, LGBTQ studies, and Ethnic studies.  And, ASA’s impact on scholarly work may be most apparent by the recognition that traditional fields of study (English and History, but also Communications, Sociology, Anthropology, and Geology) now often include work which is very similar to the American Studies of the 1970s and 1980s.  American Studies has been the experimental lab for these larger, more conservative fields.

I’ve been reading Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Culture Studies by Jon Smith.  It’s a challenging, pointed, and oftentimes funny critique of both American Studies and traditional southern studies.  Smith’s critique of American studies and ASA seems to have three main points: its overuse and oversimplification of Birmingham CCCS approach to subcultures; its shallow and often empty appeals to social justice, which are rooted in a boomer-oriented mindset; and its unwillingness and inability to engage rural America.  I may have inverted the important points in item two.  Perhaps his critique is of a boomer mindset, which leads to a shallow and empty appeal to social justice.  Using Lacan and Zizek, he unpacks ASA’s drive and the pleasure derived from that process.  It’s a smart critique with much to admire.  I think he is especially right that ASA is dominated by urban academics from one of the coasts (as for non-coastal institutions which have heavy presences at ASA… Michigan and Minnesota could be considered “north coast” and Texas might be considered “south coast.”  That doesn’t really work, but whatever).  This leads to a disengagement from, disinterest in, and discomfort with the rural, especially the rural west and the rural south.  The excellent panel I attend on Appalachia was the only panel on the program listed under “regionalism.”  As an ASA-based scholar who thinks about the South (as opposed to a SHA- or SSSL-based scholar who sporadically attends ASA), I’ve often felt far out of place within American Studies (although, that hypothetical denizen of SHA or SSSL would feel even more out of touch at ASA than I do at ASA, SHA, or SSSL).

The ASA program made some mention of its 2013 meeting space: Dupont Circle in DC.  ASA seems to be in DC once every four years, usually a year after a presidential election–in this millennium it has met there in 2001, 2005, 2009, and again in 2013.  In years past ASA was housed at the DC Marriot on Mt. Vernon Square.  This year it moved to the Hilton between Dupont Circle and Kalorama circle.  The new location was an improvement.  The hotel has a better layout for conferences; and Dupont is an actual neighborhood with a nightlife.  However, Mt. Vernon Square is far easier to get to; it’s right by Union Station and right off the Red and Yellow lines, which will get one around DC our out to National Airport.  The biggest drawback of Mt. Vernon Square is that it is in the middle of a business district and felt less real and lived-in.  Mt. Vernon Square is closer to the great waves of gentrification which have crashed out of the federal district and out through Capitol Hill and along H Street.  Right now, the area around Mt. Vernon Square seems to have little to offer unless one is interested in NHL/NBA games or eating at an ESPN Zone restaurant.  Dupont Circle is a lovelier, livelier neighborhood.  Of course, Dupont is the product of older waves of gentrification.  There were some panels devoted to DC and screenings of films about social justice issues in and around the district.  I wish there’d been more dialogue about the actual location of the conference and our joy about being in a lovely neighborhood and happiness to have left behind a boring corporate neighborhood.  Because, as I see it, today the US has more areas like Mt. Vernon Square than it does Dupont Circle.  We’d do well to spend more time inhabiting and critiquing those neighborhoods.


Escaping ASA

Friday night of the conference two friends and I played hooky and walked two miles to Georgetown where we saw Bonnie “Prince” Billy perform a solo set.  He had been conducting a residency at GU, working with music students mostly.  The performance lasted over two hours and featured a few early songs (“Idle Hands are the Devil’s Plaything” “Riding” “West Palm Beach” “Pushkin” and “You Will Miss Me When I Burn” and  heavy doses of songs from Master and Everyone, Superwolf, The Letting Go, and Ease Down the Road.  Nothing from the Pitchfork favorite Viva Last Blues and only “Another Day Full of Dread” and “Nomadic Revelry” from I See a Darkness.  And, very little from his recent collaborations with Emmett Kelly.  I suppose that given their intricacies, the Kelly collaborations don’t work well for a solo performance.  Perhaps he tires of playing “New Partner” and “I See a Darkness” (when people insisted on requesting “I See a Darkness” he said no, that it was “no fun to play alone.”)  I was overjoyed to hear so many songs from Ease Down the Road, one of my favorite records.  He played solo acoustic guitar with a single mic picking up his voice and guitar.  His guitar playing has evolved into very solid rhythm playing.  His voice, especially over the past ten years, has evolved into a confident, full, commanding voice.  He’s a much surer, richer singer than he was twenty years ago.  

I’ve seen Oldham a number of times, usually with a full band.  But, it’d been nine years since the last performance I’d seen.  That was a 2004 show at the DIA.  During that show Oldham played two sets in the Diego Rivera room.  For one set he played an autoharp, for the other an electric guitar.  During that 2004 show and others he was fairly terse and seemed slightly uncomfortable on stage.

At Georgetown Oldham was the most gregarious and chatty I’d ever seen him.  He told stories about the songs, told funny rambling jokes about his career.  I was moved to laughter by the stories as often I was moved to awe by his voice.  It was a heck of a performance.

Oldham is a dangerously and infamously slippery artist.  He’s a difficult interview subject and can cause writers fits with his orneriness.  Musically, his roots are in country traditions–there’s a lot of George Jones and Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn in his songs.  But, he’s also heavily indebted to punk and post-punk.  He has close personal ties to Slint, Tortoise, PJ Harvey.  The Mekons seem to be his truest musical forebears.

At GU Oldham referenced a few of his influences.  He cited The Mekons as an influence for an entire record but also acknowledge that the record in question is rife with Emily Dickinson references (The Letting Go).  He covered George Jones’s “Little Boy Blue” but slowed it down, made it into a sweet love song.

Classic Nashville came up again when he explained that his song “After I Made Love to You” was written with Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn in mind.  Makes sense to me.

Most interesting, though, was his explanation that “Master and Everyone” is based on two sources.  The lyrics come from his reading of a friend’s explanation of the emotional impact a Verdi opera had on her; the music is Oldham’s interpretation of the Indonesian songs “Fajar Di Atas Awan” by Suarasama.  Who knew?

Oldham is a fascinating subject.  He’s a hell of a songwriter and a phenomenal singer.  He has an ambivalent relationship to the south and is worthy of further consideration as a liminal southerner.  I’ve done two ASA presentations which dealt with Oldham.  I wish more folks in American Studies and Southern Studies engaged him.  He’s as interesting as Johnny Cash or Sun Ra and possibly as important.

He’s also a slippery Southern.  Kentucky-born and bred, he seems resistant to being marked as “southern” but also relishes the opportunity to use “the southerner” as a performance which allows him creative space and independence.

I won’t go to ASA next year.  LA is simply too far of a journey.  But, the theme, “the fun and the fury,” is interesting.  If I went I’d do a paper on “The Other Side of This Life” and the transition from beat/folk culture to hippie culture.  There’s something interesting about Fred Neil’s melancholic celebration of the wayfaring life transforming into Jefferson Airplane’s high-speed, intricate celebration of, well, LSD I think.  And, the topic fits perfectly with the boomer-mindset that dominates the field.

Ron Resenbaum’s recent piece in Slate articulates well what I find so deeply troubling and unsettling about what passes for political dialogue in the U.S.  The historical amnesia and victimization in most heated political rhetoric minimalizes the expansive and institutionalized realities of historical inequality and polarizes the electorate. 

And, as a recent essay on Emmett Till by Myissha Priest in American Quarterly so powerfully demonstrates, the pain and violence inflicted upon black bodies has historically been used as a site for the articulation of whiteness and an inspiration for anti-racist activism.  I suspect that the victimization which is so central to whiteness is an articulation of whiteness’s need for attention and its need for the denial of black identities. 

As a white man who teaches African-American and comparative Ethnic studies, I am constantly aware of the ways my social location and my body can frustrate and stimulate student engagement and dialogue within the classroom.  To put it simply, my physical presence can intimidate and frustrate students who are understandably suspicious of whiteness.  But, if I am able to demonstrate my compassion and command of the material without co-opting identities which are not my own I can empower my students to engage critically and productively the knowledges attached to identity. 

It is with all of this in mind that I cautiously and pointedly bring my students face-to-face with the histories of American racial violence.  Although I run the risk of fetishizing violence or traumatizing students, I see a great value in having students confront the stark physical and emotional histories of racism.  For example, one of my classes is currently wrapping up a unit in which we considered the violence of the Jim Crow era primarily by looking at images and reading first hand accounts of lynching, racialized sexual assault, and the daily humiliations of Jim Crow.  Among many goals, this unit is designed to have students confront the past and to consider its lasting impact and resonances and, ideally, thereby counter the toxic rhetorics that structure so much political discourse. 

One of the challenges I face in teaching this material is that students tend to view American racial violence as an African-American issue which is only incidentally significant to American history.  Obviously, I incorporate into this unit a discussion of the privileges afforded to whiteness because of racial violence.  And, I guide to students to see the ways violence has historically led to outrage and activism which, ultimately, leads to positive change.  I try to draw students’ attention to the ways lynching and other forms of Jim Crow violence influenced and hastened the African-American freedom struggle.

Perhaps the most productive approach, though, is to adopt a truly comparative ethnic studies orientation and place violence enacted upon African-American bodies in dialogue with other forms of violence and, thereby, situate the victims of lynching alongside other victims of American capitalist violence.  To show students that Jim Crow violence was linked to U.S. expansion into the Southwest, American imperialism in the Philippines and Cuba, and the organized violence of strike-breaking and the daily violences of sharecropping and American industrialism. 

This is a difficult orientation to adopt, especially when students are accustomed to learning history piecemeal and are encouraged to see identities as fixed and isolated constructions.  And, to be frank, it was not until a chance sequence of events brought me face to face with the victims of American neoliberalism that I completely understood the liberating empowerment that comes from understanding the intimate yet obscured unity of violence of the United States.

In March, 2009 I had to leave town for a job interview.  I set up in-class activities and film-screenings for my students to complete in my absence.  My upper-level course, which was then considering institutionalized racism and the effects of poverty and residential segregation, watched the first two hours of Spike Lee’s When the Levee’s Broke in my absence.  That section ends with a ten-minute montage of abandoned bodies that littered New Orleans. 

And, so, I left with the knowledge that my students were facing raw pain and I wended my way through the airport with the images the dead left behind in the wake of Katrina, men and women simply left to suffer as we turned our backs on New Orleans, men and women who died not because of an overt act of violence but because of the more insidious violences of decades of neglect.  When we reached cruising altitude the captain mentioned that a member of the armed services was returning from Iraq aboard our flight and that out of respect he requested that we wait until this person was off the plane before disembarking in St. Louis.  At first I presumed he meant the uniformed naval officer I had seen escorted onto the plane with the flight crew; but as he explained the situation, it became apparent that the service member in question was a deceased sailor or marine whose body was in a coffin in the cargo hold of our plane.  As luck would have it, my window seat was immediately above the cargo hold doors and when we reached the gate I watched closely as members of the ground crew removed the coffin from the plane.  The coffin was stored in a cardboard box printed to look like an American flag and many of my fellow passengers ignored the captain’s request and hurried off of the plane.

I sat back dizzied by the mental juxtaposition of the exposed, ignored black bodies and the cloaked yet half-heartedly celebrated body of an anonymous soldier thrust into a neo-colonialist endeavor.  It was only at this moment that I could see the union between the victims of neoliberal governance in New Orleans and the victims of neoliberal invasion in Iraq.  Though the conditions of their death and the treatment of their bodies made clear the stark differences in citizenship, they remained victims of the same historical movements, the same historical forces. 

If our nation is to have a constructive political discourse and remain committed to its democratic ideals we need to identify and elucidate the ways our history is a history of shared pains and shared burdens and not the contest of victimization and cooption that has been a defining feature of our culture.  Our work, then, should be designed to push students to moments at which these interconnections and moments of interethnic unity are most clear.

Aristocracy and Political Culture

Many have seen the rightward turn of Virginia’s government as a rebuke of the Obama administration.  Although Obama was the first Democratic candidate to win Virginia since 1948, his 2008 win and Mark Warner’s ascent to the Senate were followed by the 2009 election of conservatives to state offices, most importantly governor and attorney general.  Before getting excited or depressed, it is useful to remember recent history: Virginia elects its governors the year after presidential elections; for thirty years the party which won the presidency has gone on to lose the gubernatorial campaign.  McDonnell’s victory is no more a rebuke of Obama than Doug Wilder’s 1985 win was a rebuke of Reagan’s ’84 landslide victory. 

There are many possible reasons for this unique factoid of Virginia politics.  Maybe (and I’m contradicting myself here) it is related to backlash; but then the backlash would happen with every single election.  Perhaps it is related to excitement: many Obama supporters were “worn out” from 2008 did not come out to support Deeds in 20009, while McCain backers were worked up over the 2008 loss and came out for McDonnell. 

I think, however, that to understand these shifts you have to look at Virginia’s political culture and the performance of leadership in The Old Dominion.  Historically, Virginia has favored political leaders who project an aristocratic bearing and connect themselves to Virginia’s memorial culture of genteel manners and purpose all the while embracing a business-friendly political agenda. 

Perhaps the most successful performance of aristocracy comes from Doug Wilder.  The grandchild of slaves, a child of Jim Crow, and the first African-American to be elected governor of a U.S. state, Wilder presented himself as mannered and almost aristocratic leader.  This often put him at odds with Richmond’s African-American community, a tension which was most visible when he worked in local government in the 1970s and 1980s and was often at odds with local Civil Rights leaders on grounds that stretched from the political to the personal and often included criticisms rooted in the class divisions of African-American identity.  This public performance of elitism was married to a fiscally conservative agenda which Wilder cultivated in the 1960s, when he worked outside the civil rights group The Richmond Crusade for Voters and alongside the Chamber of Commerce group Richmond Forward.  As a “post-racial” conservative Democrat, Wilder anticipated and then flourished under neoliberalism, an economic logic which has long found a clear articulation in Virginia. 

Of course, Wilder is but one example of Virginia’s political leadership.  The Republican politician George Allen has cut a similar though divergent path.  Allen is a prime example of the conflicted performance of Southern aristocracy that has marked Virginia’s contemporary political culture.  Allen is not Virginian by birth; he moved to Northern Virginia from Los Angeles as a teenager (his father was a successful coach of D.C.’s NFL franchise).  Much like George W. Bush, another Republican transplant to the South, Allen’s political rise was defined by a cultivated performance of “country” identities: cowboy boots, big hats, horse-riding, good-ole-boy charm.  He married this faux-folksy charm to an agenda which was marketed as “compassionate conservatism” but which is perhaps more correctly extreme neoliberalism.  He was very much a rising star of the Republican party and, in many circles, was seen as an ideal candidate for the White House.  But, behind this veneer lay a more problematic identity: at a 2006 reelection event Allen was caught on tape using an obscure slur to describe a man of South Asian descent; in the wake of this event stories began to arise which described Allen’s past use of similar slurs, his display of Confederate battle flags and nooses in his legal office and the Governor’s office, and, on occasion, his clear articulation of bigoted sentiments.  These accusations enabled Jim Webb to seize momentum and take Allen’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

We have in Virginia two models for post-racial, neoliberal leadership, both of which stress Southern masculinities.  Wilder succeeded by presenting himself as an aristocratic and admonishing the working class members of his coalition.  Allen succeeded by merging that aristocratic identity with a good-ole-boy charm.  His immediate and swift decline came when he broke the codes of political conduct and engaged directly in the kinds of race-baiting and antagonism which have long been suspect in Virginia.  Although the home of the Confederacy and long a bastion of Southern “values”, Virginia has historically defined itself as the most gentle and benign of Southern states.  The history of Virginia is a history of positioning against the harsh, violent, and dangerous slavery of the deep South and the cold, calculating industrial might of the North.  The types of race-baiting and racial antagonism and overt violence common to the Jim Crow south was not as widely accepted in Virginia, or other upper-South states.  Rather, its harshly segregated society was built upon subtle codes of conduct and masculinity and a military culture of aristocratic leadership.  Former Senator John Warner is a fine example of the removed, aristocratic manner and military bearing of the Virginia aristocracy.  Allen, I suspect, fell from grace because he was seen to be a bigot in the most grace-less manner.

At the same time, I suspect that Allen’s loss has much to do with the man against whom he was running for re-election.  Jim Webb is a remarkable figure for his record of military service and his accomplishments as a writer and politician.  He is not the only exceptional military veteran in the U.S. Senate.  But, unlike John McCain or John Kerry, he has never sought out or carried the trappings of wealth or prestige.  Although an officer who served in high civilian positions in Reagan’s Department of Defense, he has consistently and effectively presented himself as a soldier.  This is not merely performance—he doesn’t simply don a jumpsuit and lead pep rallies on aircraft carriers.  Rather, Webb is a military man through and through who has the bearing and intelligence common to officers of high rank.  Why does this matter?  Well, I suspect that Allen’s fall came about because the mask he had chosen, that of a good-ole-boy, was pulled aside and he was exposed an imposter who used a folksy demeanor to push through policies which benefited the wealthy at the expense of the working class.  Webb, however, was legitimately a descendent of Virginia’s Appalachian Scots-Irish immigrants who was committed to working class values and concerns.

While Virginia’s senators are both Democrats—Webb is joined by the moderate, technocrat Mark Warner—its visible political leadership includes McDonnell and Representative Eric Cantor.  Cantor, interestingly, is the lone Jewish Republican on Capitol Hill and a Chamber of Commerce-type who, as Dana Milbank put it, has to “ride the tiger” of culture warriors who are often anti-Semitic.  And, McDonnell was elected to office by downplaying his extremist social views on gender and sexuality.  Both dance the thin line between aristocracy and populist rage. 

Aristocracy, Populism and Virginia Heritage

My central concern and frustration with this revivification of Confederate Heritage Month is that it ignores the realities of modern Virginia and speaks to a subset of the population.  There has been ample, thoughtful coverage of the declaration.  I especially like Jon Meachem’s piece from the New York Times for its clear explanation of the historical uses of Confederate heritage as a cultural tool for white supremacy.  I would add that in these many historical instances, Virginia’s brand of historical identity leaned to heroic and mythic forms and avoided the overt populism of Southern Heritage in the Deep South.  To cite one, minor example, during the Civil War Centennial many Southern states ceremonially flew the Confederate Battle Flag in official settings; in some states, it was simply left up at the end of the centennial and became entrenched—for a rich explanation of this history in South Carolina see K. Michael Prince’s Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys; for a general history see John M. Coski’s The Confederate Battle FlagIn Virginia, however, the centennial was marked by the display of the Confederate national flag, or the Stars and Bars, a much less recognizable emblem which many mistake for the Texas state flag.  [EDITED ON TUESDAY APRIL 27TH REMOVING MISSTATEMENTS/MISTAKES.  PLEASE SEE COMMENTS SECTION]

Additionally, Eugene Robinson’s recent editorial is a strong and powerful articulation of the absurdity of Haley Barbour’s defense of McDonnell.  As both pieces point out, McDonnell’s initial statement endorsed an outdated view of the Confederacy which emboldens separatist ideologies and white identity politics which are inherently and historically anti-Black.  In its insensitivity and its inducement to a false heritage, McDonnell has engaged in the subtle race-baiting common to Virginia history; he has not overtly endorses Confederate Heritage as white heritage; he maligns Black history with a nod to whiteness. 

But while Confederate Heritage month is divisive and offensive to all of us who are sensitive to the histories of slavery, Jim Crow and the African-American freedom struggle, it is equally, if not more, problematic and divisive for how very removed it is from the lives of the vast majority of Virginians.  Celebrating the Confederacy without exploring and acknowledging slavery is not only lazy and bad history which offends a significant portion of Virginians; it places at the heart of communal, memorial identity a moment and a conflict which is far removed from Virginia’s dynamic, global economy and society and which builds upon and exacerbates Virginia’s commitment to aristocratic, military identity.

Despite the South’s mythic and historical agrarian past, the South is today a suburbanized, sprawling, global space.  Like most of the South, Virginia is dominated by its metropolitan centers.  In terms of population and economy, Northern Virginia is the preeminent region within the state; and, the connected sprawls of Norfolk, Richmond, and Charlottesville constitute a second, closely linked urban conglomerate.  In both spaces military, government, and high-tech industries drive the economies and attract diverse populations with roots in other regions of the U.S. and, more importantly, other regions of the World.  The Confederacy and the Civil War are in many ways completely irrelevant to the lives of technocrats or bureaucrats in Alexandria, Dominican or Salvadorian communities in Arlington, or Vietnamese and Korean communities in Fairfax. 

Just as significantly, the coded political message of celebrating the Confederacy—the enshrinement of states’ rights—strikes me as at best irrelevant and more likely totally hypocritical to a state which so mightily depends upon the federal government.  Perhaps only Maryland has a higher percentage of federal employees or contractors among its residents.  And, Virginia is, quite literally, home to some of the most important and most respected of American’s military installations.  The state is intimately connected to the nation state, its founding myths, and its modern political economy.  It is simply asinine to presume that secession would be a viable or attractive option in a state so dependent upon the federal government and in which so many serve their nation with honor and distinction.

It is important to point out that Virginia has a proud military heritage which is reflected in the state’s official commemorative culture.  The Pentagon is, of course, adjacent to Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery.  And, though Arlington is a relic of the Confederacy and the Civil War it is, along with Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial, at the heart of a commemorative network which enshrines national reunification and the emancipation of slaves.  Arlington, of course, was built on the grounds of a plantation which had been owned by the Lee and Custis families and, as such, has ties to George Washington and Robert E. Lee, who have long been the twin pillars of Virginia traditionalism.  That traditionalism obscured their status as slaveholders and emphasized their aristocratic, principled leadership and their commitment to the common good.  The myth of Washington depends equally upon his heroism as a soldier and the modesty he exhibited in guiding the U.S. into republican, not oligarchic, government.  And, Lee’s mythology emphasizes his leadership, his aristocratic identity, and, most importantly, his work in building a peace to repair the nation.  These myths tragically ignore their slaveholding and gloss over the reaffirmation of whiteness and masculinity as standards for citizenship which they did so much to defend.  More importantly, Lee and Washington are celebrated as aristocratic models of masculinity.  Their cults, thus, have historically articulated the rightness and justness of a social order in which aristocratic leaders wisely and bravely guide the masses.  On the other side of this narrative are the melancholic and lyrical images of the honorable, if meager, lives of common soldiers.  This mythic evocation of heroic leadership and honorable soldiers which obscures or ignores the realities of slavery depends upon and furthers constructions of citizenship in which the most important border is the imaginary border drawn around whiteness, not the material and economic border between the working class and the landed gentry.  Not only did Washington and Lee own slaves; they were leaders from a select privileged class of landowners and other economic elites who profited from the labor of and took advantage of the white working class. 

Reforming Virginia Heritage

Let me quite clear: as a child of Virginia and a cultural historian, I have an immense respect for and admiration of the riches of Virginia’s past.  But, for that heritage to speak inclusively and productively to all Virginians it needs to be reformed away from simplistic notions of Confederate and colonial heritage; and, it must recognize the state’s great cultural and temporal diversity.  Certainly, a starting point is an increased recognition of the role slavery and the removal of Native Americans played in Virginia’s early history; along with that shift in emphasis, the lives of African-Americans, Native-Americans and working class whites needs to be a component of any space for Virginia history.  This inclusion of social history has long informed the site museum at Colonial Williamsburg and other heritage spaces.  It should be the standard.

More importantly, Virginia could revolutionize national heritage by moving away from narratives of American (and Southern and Virginian) exceptionalism.  Colonial sites could and should locate the Virginia Colony within the First British Empire.  Spaces dedicated to slavery could and should emphasize Virginia’s place in the Black Atlantic and its ties to other plantation colonies.  And, though the Old Dominion has a rich 18th and 19th century heritage to build on, there is no reason narratives of Virginia heritage cannot celebrate other moments in its past.  For example, Northern Virginia has much to celebrate in its recent acceptance and celebration of immigrant communities, many of them made up of refuges.  Arlington was not just Lee’s home and the site of a military cemetery; it is also the place in which many Vietnamese found refuge in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The recession’s impact on higher education has been far and wide.  As state budgets crumble and personal savings are threatened, the funding for universities and colleges have been hit alongside a reorientation of student and faculty resources.  Like many of my fellow aspiring academics, job options have become fewer and further between while class-sizes and professional development funds have withered.  And so I find myself with a strong C.V. and only marginal employment.  I’ve gone from a comfortable non-tenure track position in an exciting department to working part-time in an equally exciting program.  While I couldn’t be happier with my teaching, I am frustrated by my professional station.  This frustration has been complicated as I’ve watched close friends and colleagues move on to greener pastures in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Texas.  It’s been challenging to tread water while cheering on those who swim away.  Or get in a boat and paddle away.  No, speed away.  In a rocket-shaped motor boat.  Made of gold.  Am I mixing metaphors?

Regretting Patrick Rothfuss

Watching my good friends’ recent successes pales in comparison to admiration and confusion that has marked rediscovering a friend with whom I had lost touch.  In the Spring I reconnected with Pat Rothfuss, a fellow I met in 2000 when we both entered the MA in Literature program in the English Department at Washington State University.  Pat came to the Palouse from central Wisconsin and was a site to behold.  A solid man of remarkable posture with a beard that was perpetually stuck between close-shaven and wizardly, Pat had spent years as an undergrad studying anything and everything that struck his fancy.  To be completely frank, I found him a bit puzzling and rather, well, geeky.  He was happy delving into the minutiae of the fantastical and the fey and in our first semester was enthused by a course on Alchemical and Hermetic traditions in Renaissance literature.  He saw no reason we couldn’t discuss Tolkien and other fantasist writers in our other seminars and I remember well a seminar in Early American Lit. and his excitement to talk about narratives of first contact through the fantastic.  And I, well I had come to grad school to study Hawthorne or John Barth, high on cultural theory and the power of the past.  Frankly, I was a little puffed up and failed to see that my own condescension to Pat’s interests masked my own arrogance.

There was also this: Pat brewed mead.  He didn’t drink, not that ever saw.  He wasn’t a teetotaler; I believe he just didn’t care much for alcohol.  But he certainly brewed mead and would happily fill empty wine bottles with his concoctions.  He gave me a bottle and I took it home to Virginia to share with my brother over the Christmas holidays.  It was rather good and I enjoyed drinking it.  I’d like to have a bottle now, in fact.  But I had never know a sober person who brewed their own alcohol, especially alcohol as archaic and Teutonic as mead.

There was also this: Pat wrote fantasty novels.  When we started grad school he proudly shared that he was working on a huge novel which he might break into a trilogy.  Of course, most of the folks in our graduate program had some creative aspirations.  I read awful poetry at open mic nights and toyed with an idea for a farcical historical novel.  But only Pat openly and confidently described himself as a novelist and only Pat comfortably embraced genre fiction.  Pat asked if I’d like to read his novel in progress and, in a decision that I have come to regret for its arrogance, meanness, and confidence, I told him no.  I did not think it would be worth my time because, after all, it was a fantasy novel.

This is not to say Pat and I were not friends.  In hindsight, he was one of the kindest people I knew in Pullman and I have many fond memories associated with him.  But we were not particularly close and we parted ways after graduation, when I returned to Virginia to teach and apply to Ph.D. programs and Pat went back to Wisconsin to teach and write. 

When we parted ways Pat he told me that a short excerpt from his novel had won a prize through the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest.  This minor detail popped into my head when we reconnected on Facebook this past Spring.  That prize had opened doors and Pat found an agent and a publisher.  And, upon checking out his Facebook page, I learned that the first volume in his trilogy, The Name of the Wind had made the New York Times best-seller list and had been praised by Ursula K. Le Guin, among others. 

I was, to be quite frank, flummoxed and confused.  “How the hell did Pat get on the Times best-seller list?” I asked myself.  “How did he get fancy blurbs and great reviews and legions of fans who come out to see him give readings?  And not just in the midwest, but across the nation and in Europe!?”  To be quite clear, I was and am very happy for Pat.  He is a kind, intellegent and funny man.  His success, though, was frustrating. 

I convinced myself that Pat had only done so well because he worked in genre fiction.  His book might be a great fantasy novel, but it surely isn’t that great. 

This summer I found myself in a book store and decided to buy a copy of The Name of the Wind.  As I was in the midst of another, longer book and couldn’t tackle it right away I passed it on to my wife.  She devoured it in four days and hectored me to read it as soon as possible.  I opened it on a Friday afternoon and by Sunday evening had finished.  And my lord, is it a good book.  It’s a finely told story with a rich sense of the traditions of heroic literature.  The narrative devices, the comedic and romantic devices, and the richly detailed and fully realized universe of the narrative reminded me books I have long loved, especially The Sot-Weed Factor and some of John Fowles novels, particularly The Magus and A Maggot.  I know little about fantasy or speculative fiction (outside of a childhood love of Star Wars) and so I cannot comment upon its place within those genres.  But it is easily one of the most enjoyable books I have read in years.

My respect for and pride in Pat’s accomplishments mask the discomfort and chagrin that have haunted me since I read his novel.  When we studied together I had discounted Pat’s ambitions.  While I had never openly mocked him I am sure that my disregard for his work was evident.  And, surely, his aspirations had been dismissed or mocked by countless friends, teachers, colleagues and acquanitances.  “How did Pat do it,” I asked myself.

Well, I can only assume he did it–that he continues doing it–through a combination of persistence and ego.  I recall now an autobiographical essay in which John Barth describes his years fresh out of grad school when he taught composition at Penn State and struggled to feed his growing family.  In those years he was surrounded by aspiring novelists, friends from Johns Hopkins and colleagues at Penn State, the majority of whom never made it as writers.  In accounting for his success and their failure Barth observes that he wasn’t better, smarter or more talented.  He simply wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote.  And wrote so more.  He kept at it and the persistence paid off.  [I ought to have a citation here, but I haven’t one.  If memoery serves, the essay is in either The Friday Book or Further Fridays.  Barth may make this observation in one of his later, autobigraphically-inclined novels.]

Pat wrote.  While most of our cohort, myself included, spent our weekends and some weeknights at the local tavern, Pat was at home writing.  And, I presume, he had the same steady work ethic before he came to the Palouse and when he returned to Wisconsin.  He was persistent.

And Pat had, and presumably still has, an ego.  I do not mean to say he is arrogant.  He is kind and convivial and forthcoming.  What I mean is that he had a clear sense of himself and his abilities.  When I dismissed his work I presume he shrugged it off.  He had faith in himself and his abilities and he persisted in his task.  My personal fondness for Pat and his novel have become shaded with a deep respect for his persistence and his ego.  I regret not getting to know him better and not reading early drafts of his novel when I had the chance.  I might have learned something about persistence and ego.  And, who knows, he might have named a wool merchant after me.

Complicating Persistence and Ego

I am lucky to have other models of persistence and ego, many within my own family.  My maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother both overcame childhood poverty through strong work-ethics and great faith in themselves.  My grandfather was one of six children born to an uneducated Irish-American bricklayer in Washington, D.C.  He went on to have a long career in the State Department and the U.S. Navy.  His brothers had equally succesful careers as members of the Jesuit order and and in the Foreign Service.  My grandmother was born in rural South Carolina and at a young age moved to North Carolina to work in a cotton mill.  She was a single-mother who raised six children, among them my father who left their mill house and became a respected administrator at D.C. are prep schools.  My grandfather and my grandmother had a firm sense of themselves, a strong ego, and were persistent in improving their lives.  My material comfort and my education are possible because of their persistence.

But, as they both raedily admit, my grandfather and grandmother did not simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps.  My grandfather had a supportive, caring family and a loving wife.  And, as he often pointed out to me, his education would have been impossible without the religious order that ran his parochial school or the encouragement and financial support of the Jesuits at Gonzaga High School and Georgetown University and its law school.  And, as a long-serving member of the Naval reserve, my grandfather had access to services and benefits given to veterans of the armed services.  Similarly, my grandmother has always pointed to the support offered by the owners of the mill at which she worked; the company provided affordable housing and offered support children of  millworkers who went on to college.  More importantly, my grandmother credits the spiritual and material supported offered to her by the Baptist church.  And although I never heard them acknowledge it, my grandparents benefitted from the historical and economic privileges of whiteness. 

Frank Brew was a persistent man with a strong, healthy ego.  At ninety years, Flossie Barbee is as strong-willed and proud as she was when she had to scrape together spare change to feed her children.  But those strong personal qualities were formed through social support.  They were products of their community.  And, from what I can gather from his novel and his website, Pat is earnest in his praise for all those who helped him in his path.

Persistence and Ego in the Composition Classroom

I have been thinking a lot about persistence and ego and their value within academia.  And while much of this consideration has focused on their impact on my own academic career, I would here like to offer a few thoughts on their place within the composition classroom. 

I am fortunate enough to work at a school where the students seem to be hard-working and curious.  In the first week of classes I was impressed with my students willingness to take on difficult tasks, to ask hard and toughtful questions, and their general good cheer throughout.  In this, I am fortunate.

While the primary mission of my class is to teach students the fundamental practices and processes of academic writing, I hope that I can infuse this work with a commitment to raising students’ senses of persistence and ego.  Why do these values matter?  In the immediate spaces of academic writing, it is important to teach students to persevere, to work through the challenges of writing and to employ constructively the criticism offered by me and their classmates.  The writing process is nothing more than persistence in the face of a composition.  Additionally, a healthy ego is important.  To become strong writers students must have faith in themselves and their skills.  And, they need to know their own weaknesses and learn how to work through them.

But outside the basic tasks of the writing, it strikes me that composition classrooms can be a space in which to form healthy work habits which will translate to persistence and ego in students personal and civic existences.  If my students learn to fail and then struggle onward with their essays, they can translate those skills to their lives and, hopefully, their communities.  And in developing a sense of their writerly egos they may develop a better sense of how the self operates within society and how crucial it can be for citizens to know themselves and have faith in themselves as citizens.

It is in this last point that the lessons of American and Ethnic Studies comes to bear on my composition classroom.  In addition to teaching students about the diversity of social and cultural experiences within and without the U.S., American and Ethnic Studies also teaches them to see how our existences are socially constructed.  American and Ethnic Studies (and, I ought to add, Women’s/Gender Studies) take seriously the elucidation of social location as central to individual experience.  While the composition classroom cannot focus on the histories and present states of justice and injustice, they can take the ethos of A/E/W/G studies and apply them to the way we teach writing.  By teaching students to see writing as part of larger processes and to teach students to work collectively, we may be able to help students have persistence and healthy egos, which can make them stronger citizens committed to building their communities.