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
The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America’s Youngest Serial Killer. By Roseanne Montillo. New York: William Morrow, 2015.
Gilded Age Boston and Chicago shared a lot in common. Both had World’s Fairs: Boston in 1883, and Chicago ten years later. Each suffered devastating fires, with Chicago being nearly destroyed in 1871, and Boston losing most of its commercial district in 1872. Both also had notorious serial killers, with Boston holding the dubious distinction of producing Jesse Pomeroy, the first juvenile serial killer to be sentenced to hang. Pomeroy’s story is the subject of Roseanne Montillo’s sometimes fascinating, sometimes frustrating The Wilderness of Ruin.
Montillo, who teaches literature at Emerson College, has an eye for a good saga, and that of Jesse Pomeroy (1859-1932) certainly qualifies. Jesse’s is a biography that would challenge the fictive powers of an imaginative crime writer. He was born into an economically marginal working-class family in Charlestown, a seedy neighborhood best known for its grimy waterfront. A childhood illness damaged Jesse’s right cornea and left him with a distinctive cloudy eye. He was taller than peers and, from an early age, demonstrated disturbing characteristics: social isolation, fascination with his father’s butcher knives, a love of violent dime novels, and acts of animal cruelty. His waterfront jaunts yielded the revelation that twelve-year-old Jesse was responsible for a serious of brutal attacks on boys as young as four. His first victim was stripped naked, tied, hoisted ahigh, and whipped; subsequent victims were cut, stabbed, pricked with pins, and brutalized–often in their genitals. Because there were no known deaths, Jesse was sent to a reformatory where he was supposed to remain until his 18th birthday.
Pomeroy was out in 14 months, paroled to his mother’s care in South Boston, where the family had moved to escape ostracism. Jesse was released in February of 1874, and in March, nine-year-old Katie Curran went missing. In April, the body of four-year-old Horace Millen was discovered, and Curran’s body shortly thereafter–each mutilated in ways suggestive of Pomeroy’s earlier spree. Pomeroy was convicted of first-degree murder in December, and was sentenced to hang. Governor Gaston’s refusal to sign execution orders led to a year and half of legal wrangling before Jesse’s sentence was commuted to life in solitary confinement. Three months before he turned seventeen, Pomeroy was transferred from Suffolk County Jail to the state prison in Charlestown, where he spent the next forty years in a ten-by-ten-by-eight cell. During that time, he made a dozen serious escape efforts, exhausted the prison library, learned numerous languages, wrote a self-serving autobiography, and badgered a dozen governors with pardon requests. In 1917, he was allowed to intermingle with the general prison population, but showed no interest in doing so. Much to his chagrin, he was sent to the Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1932, and died there in 1934. Only two murders were directly tied to Pomeroy, though rumors–sometimes from Jesse and sometimes denied by him–suggest he was responsible for as many as nine.
This is dramatic stuff that Montillo wisely opts to tell in a novelistic voice. This makes swaths of the book highly readable. Her instincts are sharpest when she connects Pomeroy to his broader social milieu, as Erik Larson did in his masterful The Devil in the White City (2003), the tale of mass murderer Dr. Henry Holmes (Herman Mudgett). Larson placed Holmes within a grand narrative stretching from Chicago’s 1871 fire through the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Montillo uses Boston’s 1872 fire as a partial explanation of how Pomeroy’s first spree took so long to solve, and she is in good form when describing the tawdry waterfronts and grimy neighborhoods of Jesse’s youth. Especially crisp is her account of Jesse taking his first and only automobile ride in 1932; she puts herself inside his eyes to “see” how Boston had changed during his 58 years of confinement.
Alas, she dowses her literary fires when she tries to connect Pomeroy to Boston glitterati such as Herman Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes. She wants us to view Jesse’s monomania as analogous to Ahab’s and launches into discursive and unconvincing analyses of Moby Dick. She also delves deeply into Holmes’ biography, though he was peripheral to Pomeroy’s case. There are also detours into Camus, Dickens, Irving, Poe, and others attracted to the dark side of the psyche. By the time I finished, I was reminded of times in which I was dazzled by the sight of a restaurant meal, only to taste it and conclude that the chef spoiled the dish by adding too many ingredients.
I wanted The Wilderness of Ruins to be a Boston version of The Devil in the White City; instead, it is more about Montillo than her subject. Note the subtitle. The “madness” part is mostly perfunctory unresolved psychological speculation; the “fire” offers little insight into a lad whose spree began a year earlier; the “hunt” was brief; and Pomeroy isn’t “America’s youngest serial killer,” only the Bay State’s. Too many ingredients! My advice is to borrow juicy material for your lectures, but only if it makes them more savory.
Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
ANNOUNCING THE POPULAR CULTURE SUMMER RESEARCH INSTITUTE AT BOWLING GREEN STATE UNIVERSITY
MAY 21-25, 2017
Reminder: Travel Grant applications are due 24 March 2017.
“Exploring the Archives: Fifty Years of Popular Culture”
For the second time, the PCA/ACA and Bowling Green State University are jointly sponsoring a summer research institute on the Bowling Green, Ohio campus from Sunday, May 21 through Thursday, May 25, 2017. This institute will introduce a small group of scholars from across the country and abroad to the research and pedagogical treasures of BGSU’s very special collections.
The staff of these exceptional collections will assist institute participants in locating unique resources for use in their teaching and research in accordance with Fair Use guidelines. In addition, volunteer faculty scholars from both BGSU and PCA/ACA will lend their time and expertise to help participants with their own individual projects.
A limited number of $400 travel grants are available for participants. Applications for Travel Grants are due by 24 March, 2017.
For more information, please visit the following link(s):
Please contact Dr. Lynn Bartholome, PCA/ACA Treasurer ( email@example.com ), if you have questions or need additional information.
Don’t miss your chance for a once in a lifetime experience. SPACE IS LIMITED!
Questions: Contact us!
Popular Culture Association
American Culture Association
Call for Papers for Film and History area for the October 27-28, 2017 Northeast Regional Popular / American Cultural Association (NEPCA) annual conference.
Dr. Carol Mitchell; Area Chair of Film and History
Call for Papers: Film and History. The annual fall conference of NEPCA will be held at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, MA on October 27-28, 2017. Deadline for proposals is June 1, 2017. Visit the NEPCA website at: https://nepca.wordpress.com/2017-conference for full information on proposal submission and registration.
Film and History welcomes presentations on a wide range of film topics contributing to popular culture.
Suggestions for topics include:
- Films portraying historical events with great accuracy or which provide fresh or controversial perspectives (e.g., Spotlight; F.K.)
- Films exploring the nature of complex characters or incorporating social, political, and cultural themes (e.g., heroism, friendship, injustice, racism, betrayal, ambition)
- Film adaptations of other media, (i.e., novels, short stories, theatre) or from real life
- Film genres, such as comedy, crime film, the Western, war film, or science fiction
- Filmmaking and film directors (e.g., Scorsese’s portrayal of women)
- History of the cinema and economic and cultural impacts of film on society
- Academy Awards’ nominations, policies, and practices
Please submit your paper proposals by following the 2017 Paper Proposals link at https://nepca.blog/2017-conference/ by June 1, 2017.
NEPCA presentations are generally 15-20 minutes in length and may be delivered either formally or informally. As Area Chair of Film and History, I am happy to preview your proposal. However, all final submissions should be “CC’d” to me at firstname.lastname@example.org in addition to your submission to the program chair.
NEPCA prides itself on holding conferences that emphasize sharing ideas in a non-competitive and supportive environment consisting of graduate students, independent scholars, junior faculty, and senior scholars.
The nominations committee, headed by Sue Matheson, has issued this call for nominations for the 2017 PCA Elections.
Nominations and self-nominations may be sent to
Sue Matheson, Chairperson of Elections Sub-Committee (email@example.com).
CC Brendan Riley, Executive Director of Operations (firstname.lastname@example.org)
All nomination statements must be limited to two pages in length. Each nomination statement must include the following:
Nomination packets should also include
4) An attached, updated CV.
Important note: For those nominations other than self-nominations, a two-stage process will be used. Individuals who are nominated by a second party will be contacted by the EDO to provide the above required information contained in the nomination form in a timely manner to Sue Matheson. If you intend to nominate someone else, please do so as early as possible to give them time to prepare their materials.
Nominations must be received by February 20, 2017. All follow-up nomination materials must be received by February 22, 2017.
SECOND CALL FOR PAPERS
TENTH-ANNIVERSARY SESSIONS OF THE
FANTASTIC (FANTASY, HORROR, AND SCIENCE FICTION) AREA
Visit us at NEPCA Fantastic: https://nepcafantastic.blogspot.com
2017 Conference of The Northeast Popular Culture/American Culture Association (NEPCA)
University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst, Massachusetts
27 and 28 October 2017
Proposals by 1 June 2017
Michael A. Torregrossa
Fantastic (Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction) Area Chair
Formed in 2008, the Fantastic (Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction) Area celebrates its tenth anniversary in 2017, and we seek proposals from scholars of all levels for papers that explore any aspect of the intermedia traditions of the fantastic (including, but not limited to, elements of fairy tale, fantasy, gothic, horror, legend, mythology, and science fiction) and how creative artists have altered our preconceptions of these subtraditions by producing innovative works in diverse countries, media, and time periods and for audiences at all levels. Details on previous offerings can be found on our website at https://nepcafantastic.blogspot.com.
Given the proximity of the conference to Halloween, we are always interested in proposals related to monsters and the monstrous.
Furthermore, in anticipation of the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 2018, we are especially hoping for proposals that address aspects of the Frankenstein tradition and the fantastic. Be on the lookout for a separate call for our 2017 Frankenstein-themed sessions on “Frankenstein: Friend or Foe?”.
Please see our website NEPCA Fantastic (https://nepcafantastic.blogspot.com) for further details and ideas. Presentations will be limited to 15-20 minutes in length (depending on final panel size).
If you are interested in proposing a paper, please address inquiries and send your biography and paper abstract (each of 250 words) to the Fantastic (Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction) Area Chair at email@example.com, noting “NEPCA Fantastic Proposal 2017” in your subject line. Do also submit your information into NEPCA’s official Paper Proposal Form accessible from https://nepca.blog/2017-conference/. Be sure to select “Fantastic” as your designated area.
Please submit inquiries and/or proposals for complete panels directly to the Fantastic (Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction) Area Chair at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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