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Honey Boo Boo, Bill Nye, and Views of Americans

Last year as a Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway it was my job to answer lots of questions about the United States. Norwegians are in many ways intensely familiar with the U.S.—from television and movies but also from personal experience and/or having relatives in the U.S.—but in other ways there often was a deep divide between what Norwegians expected of an American and what I represented to them. For example, some of the questions I was asked were what I would have anticipated, “Who did you vote for?” “What do you think of the current president?” Others were a little more surprising but somewhat understandable, “Do you have a gun?,” for example. And sometimes I was simply astounded by the perceptions that came at me. One teacher that I worked with asked if I minded taking the stairs to class. I said that of course I didn’t mind, thinking that she was asking in case I had trouble with stairs because of health concerns she couldn’t see by just looking at me. After I answered, she looked at me and replied, “I thought I should ask because you are American.” Or take the case of a very sweet student who came up to be after class and said as politely as one can say this that she was surprised because I seemed so “normal.” I asked her what she expected me to be like, and she blurted out, “Honey Boo Boo.” No shade to Honey Boo Boo, but we don’t have that much in common.

There have been many times when I’ve hit my limits with people’s perceptions of me and become frustrated and annoyed. Luckily, I have some really good friends who will listen to me complain about this when I need to. But mostly I think (I hope) I manage to be open and not too defensive.

One big piece of helping me think through all of this is that many of these views are not just based on individual encounters with Americans but also on the way that my country has acted on the world stage since the end of the 2nd World War. That is a topic for another day, or another lifetime, but worth at least noting now.

The thing I wanted to write about today, though, is how much this view of Americans now reminds me of similar exchanges from the nineteenth century. As a scholar of that time period, I’ve read a lot of novels where brash Americans and cultured Europeans just don’t quite get each other. It’s sort of funny to think that these big cultural generalizations haven’t changed much in hundreds of years.

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Bill Nye

I was reminded of this again recently when I was reading the newspaper columns of Bill Nye. Bill Nye, in this case, is the nineteenth-century humorist and not the science guy. (I have written more about him here.) I’m working on a slow-going article about Nye and how he uses regional humor to connect his readers into a group based not on location in the nation but on access to and participation in print culture. As I was sorting through Nye’s newspaper articles that I might use, I stumbled upon one that made me laugh because it addressed exactly this American culture/European culture divide that I have experienced in Norway, but it does so in an unexpected and odd way.

In this newspaper article, Nye jokes about how he thinks that more European thinkers would be more partial to American writing if they had the chance to read writing about baseball. The joke here is that baseball writing is very colloquial and lowbrow, exactly the thing that high culture thinkers would not be swayed by. In the beginning of the column, Nye directs his comments specifically at Matthew Arnold, who was famously unimpressed with American culture. As just one example of Arnold’s views, here is a quote from Arnold that Amanda Adams writes about in her article, “The Uses of Distinction: Matthew Arnold and American Literary Realism.” Arnold wrote about his visit to Chicago, “That which most impressed me…was a certain assumption of culture, which, upon close observation, I found to be very superficially varnished over a very solid basis of Philistinism” (37). That is pretty much peak Arnold and gives a taste of the context in which Nye was writing his article.

Nye writes that Arnold would not view Americans as such a “vulgar people” if he had been able to read more of their great sports writing. Nye is touching on the fact that baseball itself is a particularly American sport that Arnold would probably not appreciate and also that baseball writing is quick-paced and written in haste. It is certainly not the labored over words of the artist.

This is an illustration of Nye’s idea of good baseball writing:

“it looked rather rather [sic] equally for the Giants, for instance, till Slattery jolted merry thunder out of the horsehide, tore the tar out of the willow, smashed the leather, and then, while the Phillie fumblers were pulling dandelion greens beyond the Harlem, the Metropolitan infielder lit out like future punishment beating tan-bark accumulated a one-bagger, a two-bagger, and a three-bagger, straightened himself out like a long-waisted jack rabbit across the plate and made his royal red homerun just as the New York Central got in with the ball and the band played, ‘Tommy Make Room for Your Auntie.’”

This description he imagines illustrating not to Arnold but to Lord Tennyson and ends his musings with “I think Alfred would like that.” I’m butchering Nye’s jokes for description purposes, but in the context of the column this line still makes me laugh more than 100+ years after it was written.

Nye finds that he can imagine that Tennyson would have quite a great time, really, with American baseball prose “unless he has a foolish prejudice against American writers.” This is Nye’s most insistent dig—that maybe if you have made your mind up about what you will find in a certain place/person/text that is what will you will find there. I think that’s a worthwhile thing to consider. (And I’m sure that Nye and I could use that advice just as much as anyone else.)

Works Cited

Adams, Amanda. “The Uses of Distinction: Matthew Arnold and American Literary Realism.” American Literary Realism, vol. 37, no. 1, 2004, pp. 37–49. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27747151.

Nye, Bill. “Bill Nye on Baseball.” The Philipsburg mail. [Philipsburg, Mont.], 17 May 1888. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025320/1888-05-17/ed-1/seq-4/

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Belt Revivals

If you follow me on social media, you have seen me tweet about and at Belt Publishing a time or two. They are a small press that publishes material about the Rust Belt and the Midwest. So basically, my catnip. I have been a fan since the beginning, and in their magazine, they published my first (or second?) non-academic piece.

BUT my excitement for Belt offerings has hit a peak with its latest series, specially my nineteenth-century heart is a flutter. Belt is reissuing late nineteenth and early twentieth century writing from the region in their revival series. I’m thrilled that Belt is reviving important but mostly forgotten books of the midwest. And it’s not a surprise to me and anyone else who has studied this time period that the themes in many of these texts resonate with our contemporary conversations. Here are some topics that these books (or at least the three out of five that I have read) cover that might sound familiar to our current conversations: poverty, income inequality, corporate greed, the state of art and culture in our society, etc. They are not always the jolliest of books, but they often ask clear questions about topics we don’t always want to discuss.

Also, on a very shallow level, look at these gorgeous book covers:
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I’m burying the lede a bit here, because the real reason for this post is that through a bit of serendipity I was able to write the introduction to Main-Travelled Roads by Hamlin Garland. Garland’s writing is both lyrical and direct in a way that has to be read to fully understand. He writes about the farm land of his midwest upbringing and outlines the suffering he finds there with occasionally stiff but more often lovely prose. I would definitely recommend Main-Travelled Roads to anyone interested in the time period or the places (Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin) Garland writes about, and of course, don’t skip the introduction.

For me writing about Main-Travelled Roads was a little personal too. It was on my comps list and was an important part of finding my way to my dissertation topic. Making a comps list was the first time I was really discovering writers on my own to study—sort of laying down what my field of interest was beyond what my professors or the canon or years and years of school had told me to read. It is, therefore, an important book in my scholarly trajectory and also marks the turning point of me being allowed to become a more independent thinker. Like the best books of our lives, Main-Travelled Roads and I have a personal and professional relationship.

Here is a full look at the cover for Main-Travelled Roads; pre-order it at Belt.

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“Lyric Facts,” Pittsburgh Writers, and Richard Realf

I wrote in my bio recently that I am interested in Pittsburgh writers, but I am not sure that I am because I am not sure that it is a thing. Can we define writing from a place? Could the totality of what has been written from or about the city of Pittsburgh be described with a label? Probably not. But we have to have ways to talk about what we are designating, so I’m interested in Pittsburgh writers.

The most predominant theme that I have outlined in literature about Pittsburgh is work. I touched on this idea a little bit in a piece I wrote for Belt Magazine, but it is one that I keep returning to over and over again as I think about writing from Pittsburgh. This is a theme that I have seen in newspaper writing from the nineteenth century and more contemporary writing of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. From steel mills to the intellectual labor of professors, work comes to define the way that Pittsburghers not only organize their lives but also understand themselves.

Work, of course, defines a lot of people’s lives. Is it special in Pittsburgh? I have thought about this a lot, and I can’t say that I have a definitive answer. As Americans are known for being workaholics, can I really say that this is a defining principle of only Pittsburgh? Probably not, but I can say that work is not only a theme in Pittsburgh writing, but it also becomes the impetus for creative energy in the work. While work might be common to a vast majority of people, I see in Pittsburgh writing a direct link between labor and creative endeavors. One of my favorite examples that provides a blueprint for how this works is Richard Realf’s poem, “The Hymn of Pittsburg.”

Richard Realf via Kansas Historical Society

Richard Realf via Kansas Historical Society

You have probably never heard of Realf, but he was a minor literary figure in the nineteenth century. He was best known for being friends with John Brown; he also had a series of marriages that were various degrees of lawful and committed suicide in California in 1878. He lived in Pittsburgh for several years before his death and wrote the “Hymn of Pittsburg,” which encapsulates how centrally Pittsburgh was tied to the industries that dotted its rivers. The poem reads in full:

My father was a mighty Vulcan;
I am Smith of the land and sea;
The cunning spirit of Tubal-Cain
Came with my marrow to me,
I think great thoughts, strong-winged with steel,
I coin vast iron acts,
And orb the impalpable dreams of seers
Into comely, lyric facts.

I am Monarch of all the Forges,
I have solved the riddle of fire,
The Amen of Nature to cry of Man,
Answers at my desire,
I search with the subtle soul of flame
The heart of the rocky Earth,
And hot from my anvils the prophecies
Of the miracle-years leap forth.

I am swart with the soots of my furnace,
I drip with the sweats of toil;
My fingers throttle the savage wastes,
I tear the curse from the soil.
I fling the bridges across the gulfs
That hold us from the To-Be,
And build the roads for the bannered march
Of crowned humanity.

Throughout the poem, Realf uses the history of labor and capital in the city to describe its role in an industrializing landscape. Pittsburgh is pitched as a ruling force in industry, a “Monarch,” but the poem is not exclusively about the superiority of Pittsburgh from an industrial perspective. Rather Realf links the production of goods and materials to the development of creative forces. Realf writes from the perspective of Pittsburgh, “I think great thoughts, strong-winged with steel” (142). In this quote, the “thoughts” are fortified by the addition of “steel.” The steel is not an impediment to creation or generation of thoughts; it is what is supporting the thoughts. By the end of the first stanza, the reinforced thoughts have become dreams. Realf writes that in Pittsburgh the “impalpable dreams of seers” are being turned into “comely, lyric facts” (142). To describe “facts” as “comely” or “lyric” defies conventional ideas of what a fact is but in this case it is an appropriate part of the mixing of the elements of industry and poetry. Lyric connotes expression and feeling, which are not things associated with facts, steel, or Pittsburgh. Realf is suggesting that in the facts, in the industry, in the hard-nosed grit of Pittsburgh is expression and beauty. The production of iron and steel and the other industrial aspects of Pittsburgh add to creative acts rather than detract from them.

Pittsburgh in the mid-nineteenth century via Pitt Libraries

Pittsburgh in the mid-nineteenth century via Pitt Libraries

As the poem continues it is industry and labor that produces the progress of, as the poem says, “humanity.” In the second stanza of the poem, the king and monarch imagery continues and so does the idea of Pittsburgh as a revealer of the potential in the natural resources that are used to make industrial products. Once again the poem does not just formulate the usefulness of the labor in terms of production or in the literal terms of the use value of the industry. Here the industrial work results in “prophecies.” The last few lines of this stanza read: “I search with the subtle soul of flame/ The heart of the rocky Earth,/And hot from my anvils the prophecies/Of the miracle-years leap forth”. The “prophecies” come directly from the earth, but they are only brought forth by the “anvils” of the speaker. The labor here gets translated into inspiration; instead of divine inspiration or the prophecy coming from a spiritual source, it comes directly from the earth through industrial labor.

In the last stanza, it is the energy supplied by the labor that becomes the impulse which is thrusting forward the progress of “humanity.” The “I” in the stanza works through amazingly tough physical situations—”soots of my furnace,” “sweats of toil,” and “savage wastes”—but instead of being defeated by or succumbing to the work the “I” “tear[s] the curse from the soil” and “fling[s] the bridges across the gulfs”(142). This work stops the things that “hold us from the To-Be” in order to “build the roads for the bannered march/Of crowned humanity” (142). Pittsburgh is the force that is moving humanity forward. The argument that sets up that claim is not one that might be expected. In order to argue that Pittsburgh is a place for progress one might make the claim that industry moves the country forward, but Realf is making a much more complex and bolder claim that industry produces creativity and inspiration that moves us forward.

What Realf sees in Pittsburgh is what I want to capture when I discuss the literature of Pittsburgh. The literature of Pittsburgh is not monolithic, but it shares a common thread of work and labor and the creative inspiration inspiration of the city comes from that history.