Woodstock: the greatest American carnival of the 20th century. “The defining event of the 1960s,” if you believe Life Magazine. The one that all music festivals since aspire to be, but can never re-create.
Then ponder why Americans have music festivals, and why we like to append “-stock” or “-palooza” to the end of things to make them sound – well, more chaotic, free, and unplugged than they really are. Is this how we like to see ourselves? Why?
Also: don’t forget to write your course reflection paper by Friday, Dec 10th! (see the previous post for details)
This assignment is not “graded” but do I expect everyone to complete it. Your input is very valuable as I think about how to teach this course again in the future. Your responses will only be seen by me. Reflect on some or all of the following questions. Length of the paper is up to you.
Over this semester, in what ways has this course affected your…
Critical reading skills
Critical thinking skills
Information literacy skills
Active learning/ Participation skills
Class discussion skills
What was most new/ surprising/ difficult for you in this class?
What scholarly tools (practices, techniques, strategies) did you develop this term to approach people, events and ideas of the past?
Which readings, class activities, or assignments contributed the most to your learning this term?
Which readings, class activities, or assignments did not contribute as much to your learning this term?
How successful was the fiction project? What suggestions do you have for how to structure it differently next time around?
In the course design, I built in flexibility and gave a greater-than-usual measure of student control over certain aspects of the course, including class session agendas, the number and scope of assignments, and the schedule of deadlines. Comment on that design, or how that design affected your learning.
Compared to your other classes, was taking an “honors course” different in some noticeable way? If so, how was it different?
Comment on the use of technology and/or web tools in this course. What worked well for you, what didn’t?
After the Thanksgiving break, we’re moving from Atlantic boardwalk resorts and the cities which nurtured them, to “destination” amusements and resorts in the American heartland, reflecting on the commercialization and commodification of American leisure.
For Tues 11/30, read Aaron Shapiro’s article, “Up North on Vacation: Tourism and Resorts in Wisconsin’s North Woods, 1900-1945″
For Thursday 12/2, two articles about the imaginative, highly structured, amazingly successful artificial worlds created by Walt Disney – remembering the connection he had to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The articles are Richard Francaviglia, “History After Disney: The Significance of ‘Imagineered’ Historical Places” (The Public Historian) and “Michael Steiner, “Frontierland as Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Architectural Packaging of the Mythical West” (Montana: The Magazine of Western History).
Photo caption:“This is the sky above Disney World, which here substitutes for an image of the place itself. Disney World is the first copyrighted urban environment in history, a Forbidden City for postmodernity. Renowned for its litigiousness, the Walt Disney Company will permit no photograph of its property without prior approval of its use. Is there a better illustration of the contraction of the space of freedom represented by places like Disney World than this innocent sky?” –Michael Sorkin, “See You in Disneyland” (1992), photo by Gui Trento
Thursday’s discussion questions:
What does it say about Americans who claim the ethos of freedom but (choose to) acquiesce to the highly scripted Disney vacation experience—an experience which not only institutionalizes but celebrates certain forms of unfreedom (in the form of, for example, long lines, one-way trams, age/height restrictions, narrowing of options)—as the pinnacle of the vacation dream?
What’s the relationship of Disney’s ever-expanding realm of physical locations to its television, film, virtual, and imagined spaces? To put it another way, where is Disneyworld/land?
What are continuities between Disney World/Land/Kingdom and the older carnivalesque of the Barnum circus, the World Fair, or the anarchic boardwalk empire? What are discontinuities, in other words, what’s utterly new and different about Disney’s “imagineered” places and the way that people experience them?
As an urban utopia, how does Disney reimagine work and leisure?
Do you buy Francaviglia’s argument that Walt Disney is a gifted “applied popular historian”? Why or why not?
If, as Steiner argues, “people yearn for the things they annihilate,” discuss what it is Disney might have first annihilated, and then consciously created a yearning for.
“The [Disney] park’s attraction,” writes Steiner, “would be its vivid contrast to the outside world.” In what ways was this true when it opened, and in what different ways is it true now?
Next week – two sessions on great American seashore sites of amusement–particularly for the working class–at the beginning of the 20th century. For Tuesday 11/16, read the available pages of Jim Lilliefors’ book America’s Boardwalks on Google Books. As of the weekend, there were 36 pages you can read for free – all the chapter on Atlantic City’s boardwalk and about half of the chapter on Coney Island.
On Thursday 11/18, we’ll read an excerpt from Kathy Piess, Cheap Amusements about Coney Island as a destination for working-class immigrant New York women and how that place, and its delights, shaped the urban immigrant experience.
Bonus: the great silent film star Harold Lloyd goes to Coney Island:
Nothing’s due next week but Chapters 6 and 7 should begin writing in earnest, using the drafts of the previous chapters to guide the progress of the novel. As 6 and 7 take shape, it’s fine for 1-5 to go back and tweak what they’ve written. The final version of each chapter is due on 12/7 and your team should feel free to continue working on it over the next few weeks.
History Lab #6 (Film) will be due the week of Thanksgiving, on Tues 11/23.
It will now be worth 10 points instead of 5. Each of the prior History Labs will now get an additional 3 points added on, making them worth 8 each.
By the way: here are some additional resources for History Lab #6 -
Your Barnum Chapter becomes your final project, worth 15 points of the final grade. I will give both partners the same grade for that final project, unless you feel the workload has been very unequal, in which case, please write me a letter explaining why you would be uncomfortable with both partners getting the same grade and I will consider what you have to say.
There will still be a (short) end-of-term reflection paper, which was to have been part of the final project; I’ll give out guidelines for that after the Thanksgiving break.
I will update the calendar to reflect that the Barnum book will be the focus of our second-to-last class, which means we will end with a look at Woodstock (and other -Stocks and -Paloozas) as a feature of American popular culture in the late 20th century.
All this talk of Hollywood and films reminds me that your last History Lab #6 is how to critically read a film – due Tues 11/16Tues 11/23. You have done some of this kind of detailed visual analysis in Professor Yang’s class also, and now you get to put those skills to use doing a critical “deep reading” of a film scene and reflect on how a film might be useful as a historical source. Which film is up to you, but it should (of course) relate to the theme of the course. I’ve put a list of suggestions on the Labs page, and have requested the one that our university owns to be put on reserve, but you will likely have better luck with getting the films from your own sources (Blockbuster, Netflix, public library loan) which means you need to plan ahead and allow time to view the film. Probably view it several times, actually. You can watch the film in groups, if you so choose, but if more than one person uses the same film you’ll need to choose different scenes to use in your paper.
On Tuesday, 11/2, you’ll turn in your paper (History Lab #5) on the novel Water for Elephants – we’ll screen a documentary about New Orleans, a city stereotyped by exoticism, vice, jazz, and hedonistic carnival–and more recently, a stark reminder of the persistence of underclass and residential segregation in American cities, and possibly even a harbinger of social conflict wrought by approaching climate change. For all these reasons and more, New Orleans is essential to American culture and makes a fascinating counterpoint to Las Vegas.
Thursday 11/4 will be a wider-lens look at Mardi Gras in American culture more generally. Choose two of these three articles (read all three if you want, but make sure to read at least two) and prepare for a student-led discussion about Mardi Gras in (and outside of) New Orleans. These are big files, so I’m file-sharing them this week only – they’ll be unavailable after next week. Once you open the PDF, you can choose to save it to your own hard drive if you like, to be able to refer to it again.
Anthony J. Stanonis, “Through a Purple (Green and Gold) Haze: New Orleans Mardi Gras in the American Imagination,” Southern Cultures, Summer 2008, 109-131.
Aileen Ribiero, “The Old and New Worlds of Mardi Gras,” History Today, February 1986, 32-35.
Reid Mitchell, “Carnival and Katrina,” Journal of American History, December 2007, 789-794
This week and next week we’re reading Sara Gruen’s novel, Water for Elephants.
We’re mining it for ideas on how to construct a successful historical novel
We’re looking at it for what we can learn about circuses in the 1930s
We’re critiquing her research and her writing, weighing how aesthetically successful & historically authentic the novel is
Along the way, you’re working on History Lab #5 using this novel, possibly taking up one of the suggested questions for analysis, or developing your own question on a historical aspect of the book.
Finally, we’re making progress on our own novel–especially on the early chapters, perhaps putting our “idle” writers to work as researchers for the “active” writers & reversing those roles when the early chapters are done. We’ve created a character who’s a foil to P. T. Barnum, a fire-juggler and beloved comic performer, a veteran of the Crimean War from St. Petersburg named Dimitri Tarsov, stage name “Tosser.”
This week’s something of a light one. You have the scholarly article “autopsy” due on Tuesday 10/19, and in class we’ll screen a documentary about Las Vegas that aired on PBS recently. We’ve been talking about traveling entertainments and about the development of amusement as a (very lucrative) American business industry. With this film, we begin a conversation about two places in the US (Las Vegas and New Orleans) that have excess, entertainment, guilty pleasures, and vice/fraud as their main reasons for existence. Both cities, ironically, are built in places where a city really shouldn’t be built–in other words, these places are constructed on fantasy and risk to begin with, and both definitely have a carnival vibe. We’ll look at New Orleans later in the term, and also at other “stationary” amusements like Coney Island, Atlantic City and its famous boardwalk, and the worlds of Disney.
On Thursday 10/21, we’ll return to Janet Davis’s book on the Circus Age, and see how she ends the story. As the “great age” of the traveling railroad circus ended, what happened to this thriving industry? What has its legacybeen in American history and culture (besides the persistence of the “Greatest Show on Earth” circuses, albeit in very truncated form, and marketed–as you saw in Worcester–primarily to small children)?
Over the next week or so, we’ll be beginning to read and discuss Sara Greun’s novel, Water for Elephants. It’s new historical fiction, but set in the 1930s at the twilight of the traveling show & during the Great Depression. The novel alternates between the protagonist’s memories of having been a circus veterinarian & the lover of a bareback rider, and his present-day life as an elderly resident in a retirement home. You’ll no doubt recognize some of Davis’s and Bogdan’s themes in this novel, as well as prose images drawn from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s photographic collection on the circus and from the Ringling and/or Barnum Museums and archives. The novel may help serve as a model or inspiration as you write your own chapters this coming month. (By the way, there’s a major feature film of this novel in production now. The release is in April; it stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon – fan site with film info here). You’ll do your 5th History Lab exploring how novels work as historical sources & what value they might have for people interested in the past – it’s due on Tuesday 11/2, so I’d recommend starting the novel well ahead of time.