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Good news! The rainy weather is clearing and both Friday and Saturday look good. Current forecast for the area is:
Friday: Sun, High 61 degrees F; Low 39 (Celsius: 16/about 4)
Saturday: Sun, High 66 degrees F; Low 56 (Celsius: 19/12)
American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. By Christian G. Appy, Penguin, 2016.
Nations seldom exit wars as they entered them. In an important new book, University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Chris Appy argues that, though the Vietnam War ended thirty-two years ago, the United States continues to struggle with its results. He even asserts that with “the possible exception of the Civil War, no event in U.S. history has demanded more soul-searching than the war in Vietnam,” a conflict that “provoked a profound national identity crisis, an American reckoning” (x). A short list of its impact includes the shattering of “the central tenet of American national identity–the broad faith that the United States is a unique force for good in the world, superior not only in its military and economic power, but in the quality of its government and institutions, the character and morality of its people, and its way of life” (xi-xii).
Few scholars have a better grasp of Vietnam and the workings of the military-industrial complex than Appy. He mines an array of primary sources in this study, but he also understands that popular culture frequently embodies a better understanding of how Americans see their past. Hence, Appy also draws upon movies, advertisements, novels, music, and other such sources in a book that begins with the question, “Who Are We?” and ends with observations of “Who We Are.” The book is divided into three sections: “Why Are We In Vietnam?”, “America at War,” and “What Have We Become?”. An example of Appy’s unorthodox but deeply enlightening approach comes in a chapter titled “Saving Vietnam.” It builds upon Deliver Us From Evil, a 1956 best-selling book from Thomas A. Dooley, which Appy uses to show the deep roots of U.S. misunderstanding of Vietnam, and to place under the microscope Americans’ self-deceptions. This journey takes Apply into the geopolitics of post-World War II, as well as into the sermons of Fulton Sheen, Cecil B. DeMille’s rants on “godless communism,” the exceptionalist pronouncements of Henry Luce, and the naïveté of films like South Pacific.
Scholars won’t find much new in what Appy relates about the illogic of American reasons for entering Vietnam or the inappropriateness of how the war was conducted. His revelations lie in his innovative narrative and in the depth of how various missteps continue to impact society. For example, in his look at American soldiers (“Our Boys”) he sets the stage for understanding the gap between admiration for U.S. warriors and rejection of their cause. It’s hard to find common ground between —on one hand, the film The Green Berets, Barry Sadler’s hyper-patriotic ballad of that title, and Merle Haggard’s middle finger to the counterculture and — on the other hand —revelations of My Lai, the rise of the antiwar movement, former Green Beret Donald Duncan’s excoriation of the American way of war, and the spate of songs and movies critical of the conflict and those who conducted it.
In his final section, Appy turns his capacious mind to Vietnam’s impact. Among its effects is the “Victim Nation” (221-49), a simultaneous sense that American ideals have always been under attack, “willful amnesia” (224) concerning Vietnam, a loss of faith in American institutions, a reconfiguration of GIs as “the primary victims” of the war (241), and a contradictory go-it-alone attitude as seen in films such as Rambo.
Conservatives from Ronald Reagan on have fanned post-Vietnam disillusionment and disunity to argue for a reinvigoration of American supremacy. Indeed, though Appy’s book went to press before the 2016 election, it’s easy to cast Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan in this light. But Appy incisively captures the problem facing the sloganeering of both right and left in his chapter “No More Vietnams.” As he captures it in vignettes, such bromides can justify both the 1983 mass force invasion of Grenada and the antiwar activism of Brian Willson four years later.
Appy ends his book with bleak notes and a clarion call. He sees Vietnam in the war in Iraq, noting that it took President Obama three years “to find an exit” for a “war that began in March 2003 with ‘shock and awe’ [and] ended almost nine years later in head-shaking silence” (305). 9/11 brought back American exceptionalism, even support for the idea of empire. These took their place aside new contradictions: the national security state and attempts to manage the news versus leaked revelations of misconduct such as that of David Petraeus and troops at Abu Ghraib; the valorization of Pat Tillman versus a lack of public support for the mission in Iraq; and belief in “global hegemony” versus critiques on the right and left that see it as “expensive, destructive, and antithetical to republican institutions” (319). By 2009, a scant 24% of Americans saw any value in the Iraqi conflict. Shades of Vietnam indeed! But how does one reconcile this with a 2010 poll in which 80% affirmed that the USA has a responsibility to lead the world? You don’t. In Appy’s words, “As long as we continue to be seduced by the myth of American exceptionalism, we will too easily acquiesce to the misuse of power….” Our best hope is to “seek a fuller reckoning of our role in the world that the Vietnam War so powerfully awakened…. It is our record; it is who we are” (335).
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
FOUR OF THE THREE MUSKETEERS (2016). By Robert S. Bader. Northeastern University Press, 544 pages. 2016.
I am a Marxist—a devotee of Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo. I’ve seen all the films numerous times, read every book I can get my hands on, seek out new documentaries, and scour DVDs and YouTube for lost clips. But until Robert Bader’s new book, my Marxist education was weak concerning their vaudeville days—those years before durable recording devices or movie cameras were there to capture moments in time for posterity. Bader—who also writes and produces for Warner Brothers—has unveiled a work that is meticulously researched and encyclopedic in scope.
It’s not news to scholars that many Marx memoirs—Groucho and Me, Harpo Speaks, Growing Up with Chico, etc.—are filled with inaccuracies dutifully repeated by biographers and passed off as truth. Lots of these tales were embellishments and some were outright fabrications, but Bader forces us to consider that many resulted from the memory lapses anyone might have who led such a vagabond lives as the children of Minnie Schoenberg Marx. She was the ultimate obsessed stage mother—determined that her children would make it in show business like her brother Al, part of famed comedy duo Gallagher and Shean. When Julius (Groucho) showed talent for singing, she pushed him onto the stage—his brothers to follow. Today, most people think of the Marx Brothers as film stars. From 1929 through 1949, the Marxes made 14 feature films and only Charlie Chaplin rivaled their comic fame. Overlooked in the big screen glamour is what it took to become stars. From 1905 on, the brothers toiled in vaudeville in a dizzying array of ensembles and acts—mostly musical variety sketches; their comedy evolved organically. Because the conniving Minnie angered vaudeville’s biggest booker, B. K. Keith, the Marxes were shut out of a lot of Eastern theaters and Minnie moved her family to Chicago so she could develop hinterland bookings. For her sons, it meant a whirlwind existence of three-a-day performances, split bookings, and if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Nacogdoches travel. Their grueling schedules were such that troupe members—often including Minnie–came and went quickly. Sometimes key members quit in the morning and instant replacements were readied for the afternoon curtain. It’s no wonder that the only reliable names the lads retained were those of the chorines they bedded, though that was quite a few!
Bader has sifted through playbills, newspaper advertisements, reviews, and archives to the degree that he knows the Marx Brothers performance schedule better than they ever did, and he corrects details in the extensive Marxian literature trove. Along the way he reveals little known tidbits, one of which might startle: Leonard’s (Chico) legendary gambling addiction was real, but the bonafide bad boy of the family was Herbert (Zeppo!), a street punk who was lucky to make it to adulthood. He also gives accurate particulars of events such as Groucho’s first use of a greasepaint moustache, how Arthur became Harpo, how the Marxes stumbled into comedy, and how many of Groucho’s patented “ad-libs” were not.
That last point is critical. If the Marxes look natural on the screen, it’s because they spent time on the road perfecting small bits, such as the pilfered silverware falling from Harpo’s baggy clothing gag. The Marxes were workhorses until they finally had a Broadway hit with “I’ll Say She Is” in 1924, but they never really left the circuit; both The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) were stage hits before they were films. Movies sounded the death knell for vaudeville in the early 1930s and closed a lot of “legitimate” theaters as well, but the Marxes continued to travel to test sketches and songs before they made they shot their films (and sometimes during). They continued touring into the early 1940s, by which time they were rich and tired enough to stop. In a palpable way, though, the vitality of the movie Marxes ended with their tours. Does anyone think that a Night in Casablanca (1946) is one of their great films, or that Love Happy (1949) has much to offer other than an early Marilyn Monroe performance?
We are indebted to Bader for his exhaustive research. My only nitpick is that Four of the Three Musketeers is also exhausting in places. Bader has compiled a vast array of material, but his insistence on presenting it all makes sections of the book read like a chronicle. You will savor this detail if, like me, you are a Marx Brothers fanatic, but many of his revelatory corrections will be lost on those unaware of the errors in the first place. Marxist comrades might disagree, but I think that shorter, snappier synopsis with expanded explanatory footnotes would have fit the bill better. Still, Bader’s book is indispensible for any Mark Brothers research project.
University of Massachusetts Amherst
The Medieval in American Popular Culture:
Reflections in Commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of Prince Valiant
The comic strip Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur was launched in 1937 and continues to be produced to this day. Begun by illustrator Hal Foster and now under the direction of writer Mark Schultz and artist Thomas Yeates, Prince Valiant celebrates its eightieth anniversary in 2017. This is a significant achievement for a work of popular medievalism. In recognition of this milestone, the Association for the Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching of the Medieval in Popular Culture seeks papers that explore the appeal (either in the United States or abroad) of the strip and its characters and/or the significance of other works of American medievalism both in the past and in the world today. The session is being submitted for consideration at the 2017 meeting of the American Literature Association to be held in Boston, Massachusetts, from 25-28 May 2017.
We are especially interested in proposals that respond to one of more of the following questions:
- Why is the medieval popular in the United States, a nation with no physical connections to the medieval past?
- What is the continued appeal of the medieval to Americans?
- Do Americans do different things with medieval material compared to their contemporaries around the globe?
- How have Americans’ view of the medieval changed over time?
- hy do some forms of American-made medievalism endure while others are forgotten?
- How well do American-made medievalisms translate into other media and/or cultural settings
Please submit proposals to the organizers at firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 28 January 2017. Please use “Medieval in American Popular Culture” as your subject line. A complete proposal should include the following: your complete contact information, a clear and useful title of your paper, an abstract of your paper (approximately 250 to 600 words), a brief biographical statement explaining your academic status and authority to speak about your proposed topic, and a note on any audio/visual requirements
Final papers should be delivered between 15 and 20 minutes, depending on the number of presenters. Potential presenters are reminded that the rules of the conference allow individuals to present only one paper at the annual meeting.
Further details on the Association for the Advancement of Scholarship and Teaching of the Medieval in Popular Culture can found at http://medievalinpopularculture.blogspot.com. Additional information about the conference and the American Literature Association can be found at http://americanliteratureassociation.org/.
The Subject of Torture: Psychoanalysis and Biopolitics in Television and Film. Hilary Neroni. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
Note: This book was selected as the Rollins Prize Winner as the best new book on popular/American culture by an author living or working in New York of New England.
Hilary Neroni’s excellent new book The Subject of Torture breaks exciting new ground for the disciplines of pop culture and body studies. Her central argument posits that in the wake of the Al-Qaeda attacks, American popular culture became deluged with images of torture particularly in film and television, but also in print images and that society was ready and eager to absorb these images. She argues that American society was already well positioned to accept the prominence of these images as the function of biopolitics in American culture had prepared the media to disseminate images of the dehumanization of individual bodies for a public that accepted that bodies- especially foreign and Islamic bodies- could easily be viewed and exploited as sites of pain and political power.
Neroni builds her argument brilliantly and with great expertise. She begins with the historical moment, specifically the photos released from Abu Ghraib in April 2004. As shocking as they were, these images seamlessly entered the American mainstream media and migrated easily into pop culture. She analyzes the cultural response to the photos and explains their historical and social importance. Then, she turns her attention to their influence on the growing acceptance and prevalence of torture in documentary films such as Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007), Taxi to the Other Side (2007) and Standard Operating Procedure (2008). All of these documentaries condemned the use of torture as a military weapon, a theme that contrasts sharply with fictional depictions of torture that tend to be more patriotic, glorious and glamorous. From documentaries, she moves to an examination of the evolution of torture porn as an increasingly noticeable genre in film, a genre that she feels has grown in popularity based on Americans’ constant exposure to images of torture and acceptance of its use in places such as Abu Ghraib. Specifically, she looks at the films from the Saw and Hostel series. Finally, she continues following the connections from historical event to documentary to silver screen to television. Neroni argues that the explosion of shows featuring torture fantasies and American force as evidenced in 24, Homeland and Alias reveal a new phase in the development of American identity and its sense of place in the world- namely as a protective nation empowered to use any conceivable method to guarantee security in a frightening world.
Neroni’s careful and thoughtful argument addresses all facets of torture in contemporary American culture. She meticulously defines her terms, provides the legal and political context in which to understand the international understanding of torture and engages current theory as well as Freud and psychoanalysis. She unpacks the historiographical arguments that have been made about power as well as current academic work being done on bodies. She wrestles with theories of sadism and desire. She explains and responds to both Foucault’s and Georgio Agamben’s theories on biopolitics as she advances her own theories about the role biopolitics play in dominating American popular culture’s fascination with displaying bodies in pain.
This book is beautifully written and organized. Each chapter solidly advances and develops her thesis. Neroni offers a deep analysis of a variety of pop culture media that she constantly relates back to her main thesis. The writing and analytical strength of this monograph would be reason enough to assign the book in an undergraduate course.
The Subject of Torture demonstrates all that the academic study of popular can be. She analyzes the images found on film and television to identify the ideological shifts happening in American politics and public discourse as the result of recent profoundly violent historical events and an emerging emphasis on biopolitics because of pop culture’s growing fixation with torture.
Western Connecticut State University
NEPCA has closed its submissions for the fall 2016 conference as of July 1. From that point on we will solicit only papers to complete existing panels.