Friday 31 October 2008

News: Happy Halloween

It's Halloween, which means it must be time for our now-annual Halloween round-up.
  • As last year, politics is mingling with Halloween partying in a variety of ways. Unsurprisingly, Sarah Palin is leading the costume race. And as the New York Times reports, it's also a thrifty choice of costume that's in line with the current economic crisis: "Many people will be turning themselves into Sarah Palin this week, and they will do it just by rummaging through their closets."
  • On the other hand, Sarah Hepola runs through what not to wear this Halloween for Salon - and Palin variations run pretty high in the mix.
  • Extreme Mortmain highlights the way that Halloween has crept into campaign rhetoric.
  • More controversially, hanging effigies of both Palin and Obama have been put up - and now taken down.
  • Away from the campaign trail, Bruce Springsteen has cancelled his regular halloween extravaganza.
  • Stephen Moore argues that Halloween ain't what it used to be, for the Wall Street Journal.
  • Maggie Galehouse runs through the unwritten rules of Halloween for the Houston Chronicle.
  • Ever wondered what a witch does on Halloween? Lee Ann Kinkade lets you know, for Slate.
  • And finally: In the Huffington Post, Mari Gallagher, President of the National Center for Public Research, attempts to get parents to reconsider their choice of Halloween treats: "I invite you to 1) give a health-promoting treat or two this year and 2) help kids and parents take the Good Food Pledge."
Are you doing anything for Halloween? If so, please take a picture and let us know about it.

Thursday 30 October 2008

Spirit of theTimes: November 1853

Welcome to Spirit of the Times, the first in a new and occasional series that delves into the ever-expanding world of online resources to recreate what was hot (and, maybe, what was not) in American culture in this month at a certain point in the past. This time, November 1853:
  • Publication of the month: readers of Putnam's Monthly were treated to the first part of Herman Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" (with the second part to come in December).
  • With the inauguration of President Franklin Pierce only a few months old, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the near future, it is unsurprising that the issue of slavery dominated popular culture. Even in November 1853, the ramifications of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) were still being felt. The book was both reviewed in the North American Review and rebutted in DeBow's. (Indeed, 1853 also witnessed the publication of William Wells Brown's pioneering novel Clotel; or the President's Daughter and Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home".)
  • For all that the presence of American writers and themes was powerfully felt in the pages of American journals, the importance of English writers to American readers was still highly significant. In November 1853, the North American Review ran a review of Charles Dickens' recently published Bleak House. Harper's New Monthly Magazine, on the other hand, ran the first installment of William Makepeace Thackeray's The Newcomes.
  • And finally: Harper's New Monthly Magazine reviewed the fashions for November, whilst Scientific American featured the following recipe for toothpaste - as well as the advice that "Washing the face, hands and feet before retiring to sleep conduces to health and longevity."

Election News: The Obama Infomercial

The title and central theme? "American Stories, American Solutions." In full:

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Election News Roundup

As the big day approaches, a round up of today's election stories:
  • The Los Angeles Times reports that Obama leads McCain in Ohio (49% to 40%) and Florida (50% to 43%)
  • The New York Times, however, outlines the fears of black Floridians "that early voting is nothing more than a new disenfranchisement scam, that early votes are likely to be lost and never counted."
  • Michael Gerson explores what the stump speeches really mean for the Washington Post: "When you strip away the cheap lines and petty attacks from presidential campaign stump speeches, you usually find a deeper layer of . . . cheap lines and petty attacks."
  • Slate visits with Obama's grandmother in Kenya...
  • ...whilst the AP notes that Obama "will be a one-man television blitz on Wednesday, saturating prime-time with a 30-minute ad and popping up on the buzzy late-night TV scene. He is also giving an interview to a prominent network news anchor, and appearing with fellow Democratic star Bill Clinton at a rally that is timed to hit the late-evening news."
  • For Salon, William Shapiro wonders what might have been: "All that would have been required to achieve electoral parity and a plausible road map to the White House would have been for the Republican nominee to have transformed himself into ... (Warning: Mind-bending content ahead) ... the John McCain of the 2000 primaries."
  • CNN, on the other hand, has an eye to the future, pondering the possibility of an Obama / Palin match-up in 2012.
Stay tuned as the countdown continues.

Sunday 26 October 2008

Research Seminars: Research Roundtable

A different (though tried and tested) format at this week's research seminar. AMS PhD students Catherine Barter and Iria Petrou will be talking about their research in an exciting research roundtable setting. They'll be discussing their ongoing projects and giving examples of their works in progress.

Monday 27th October, Room A2.51, 5pm. All welcome.

Friday 24 October 2008

American Psyche: Charles Brockden Brown and the American Wilderness

by Will Greaves

This week, American Psyche goes back to the beginning of America’s literary tradition, exploring one of the nation’s earliest frontier narratives, written by its first serious author.

Writing at the very end of the Eighteenth Century, Charles Brockden Brown employed the Gothic mode, so popular in Europe at the time, to articulate the cultural fears of the young Republic. As he powerfully asserts in his preface to Edgar Huntly (1799), however, the new American writer must reject the vogue for “Puerile superstition…Gothic castles and chimeras” found in Old World Gothic literature, instead choosing “[t]he incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness” as far more reflective of the national experience.

From the time of the earliest settlers, and in the corresponding captivity narratives such as Mary Rowlandson’s, the American wilderness had been imagined as a paradoxical place: on the one hand, a land of diabolic threat, teeming with ‘savage’ Native Americans that needed to be restrained; on the other, a land of opportunity, a tabula rasa on which the settlers could celebrate their new covenant with God, and establish an exceptional society. This dichotomy proved particularly fertile to Gothic interpretation, and Edgar Huntly exploits this national preoccupation to startling effect.

Within the novel, therefore, the wilderness is clearly presented as an arcane and confusing place:

It was a maze, oblique, circuitous, upward and downward… abounding with hillocks and steeps, and pits and brooks (659).

Brown was writing during an era in which notions of what it meant to be ‘American’ dominated the national discourse. As such, Huntly’s violent confrontation with the ‘Indians’ has been read by Jared Gardner as an attempt to create a national identity, one in opposition to the perceived heathen natives (“Alien Nation: Edgar Huntly’s Savage Awakening,” 1994). In the celebrated cave scene, occurring at the centre of the narrative, Huntly even appears to undergo a ‘rebirth’, surrounded by the familiar trappings of this dangerous landscape, including a savage figure, Indian weaponry, and a carnivorous wild beast.

Upon re-entering the landscape, Huntly is indeed in a New World, in which, “No marks of habitation, or culture, no traces of the footsteps of men, were discernable.” Nevertheless, as Allan Lloyd-Smith has noted in his American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction (2004), Huntly’s subsequent violent subjugation of the Indians essentially exposes himself as just as barbaric as his supposed enemies; his metamorphosis in the cave has conferred a new identity on him, but this identity is in sharp contrast to the rational, enlightened figure Americans wanted for their new character.

Brown’s ambivalence towards the American landscape clearly emerges in the text, therefore, and is confirmed through his depiction of Huntly as a somnambulist: the latter’s oneiric wanderings seem to problematize the very ideal of Manifest Destiny, which had propelled much of the earliest settlers ever further into terra incognita. For whilst his somnambulism could be seen as a reflection of the almost subconscious pioneering streak which coursed through the nation, we may also read it as a metaphor for white settlers’ ignorance, as they desperately sought to expropriate the new landscape without consideration for the consequences.

In Edgar Huntly, the American wilderness is no longer the fertile blank canvas, as imagined by many of the Puritan settlers; rather, it is a place which changes them, a dangerous space which vividly symbolises the national concern over what exactly constitutes an American in this brave new world.

Edgar Huntly is available to read online here.

American Music: 39 Snapshots

As part of their coursework for our module on American Music, UEA students had to write an essay about a piece of American music entirely of their own choosing. Why might this be interesting to the wider world? Because their choices provide us with a fascinating picture of both the development of American Music over the twentieth century (and, in one instance, the nineteenth), and tell us a great deal about the forms of American music that are of interest to today's undergraduates. All 39 individual songs are available to view below as part of a youtube playlist. Some interesting statistics: Bob Dylan is the most represented artist with four songs. Billie Holiday and Don Mclean are a close joint second, though, with three students each electing to write on "Strange Fruit" and "American Pie." Guitar based music, particularly of the sixties and seventies, dominates, though there's a good smattering of country, soul, hip hop and folk. So why not have a browse? I guarantee it will be an education.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

News: Blogging, One Final Time

To cap off an unexpected week of blogging about blogging, it only seems right to highlight a recent story from Wired that gives the other side of the coin. After all, they're not the only ones trying to announce the death of blogging:
Writing a weblog today isn't the bright idea it was four years ago. The blogosphere, once a freshwater oasis of folksy self-expression and clever thought, has been flooded by a tsunami of paid bilge. Cut-rate journalists and underground marketing campaigns now drown out the authentic voices of amateur wordsmiths. It's almost impossible to get noticed, except by hecklers. And why bother? The time it takes to craft sharp, witty blog prose is better spent expressing yourself on Flickr, Facebook, or Twitter.
On the other hand, IzeaBlog has already responded to this death knell, and they're arguing that "blogging will be bigger than ever in 2009." Whichever way things develop, rest assured that Containing Multitudes will be here to document the changing nature of technology and scholarship, and to print all the news that's fit to print about the world of American Studies.

In that vein, now seems a good time to announce our new presence on Twitter. If you twitter, you can now keep up to date with everything on the blog here:twitter / AmericanStudies

Monday 20 October 2008

News: Travel Broadens Your Prospects

Good news for anyone studying in AMS and undertaking a year abroad. A new study by the Council for Industry and Higher Education has just come to the conclusion that graduates who have studied abroad as part of their degree are more employable. The Guardian article on the report is available here, but here's a snippet:

UK graduates are missing out on high-flying international jobs because fewer of them are choosing to study abroad as part of their degree.

New research presented today by the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) found that international businesses are increasingly seeking graduates who have a global awareness, particularly those who have the initiative to study overseas as part of their learning.

Graduates who have studied abroad tend to be more culturally aware, able to work in multicultural teams and move around the world as part of their career. But UK graduates are less competitive in the international job market as they are now less likely to study overseas than they used to.

Remember that when it comes to writing your CV.

Sunday 19 October 2008

News: Blogging on Blogging, Again

Not that blogging's a self-obsessed medium or anything, but following close on the heels of THE's examination of the state of academic blogging in the UK, Andrew Sullivan has written a compelling ode to the possibilities of blogging for the Atlantic - "Why I Blog" - available here. Lots of interesting arguments and insights - here's the preamble:
For centuries, writers have experimented with forms that evoke the imperfection of thought, the inconstancy of human affairs, and the chastening passage of time. But as blogging evolves as a literary form, it is generating a new and quintessentially postmodern idiom that’s enabling writers to express themselves in ways that have never been seen or understood before. Its truths are provisional, and its ethos collective and messy. Yet the interaction it enables between writer and reader is unprecedented, visceral, and sometimes brutal. And make no mistake: it heralds a golden era for journalism.

Saturday 18 October 2008

Carter Revard Redux: Rattlesnake Meat in the Garden of Walmart

by John Heavens

I consider myself very fortunate to have been present at the first AMS Research Seminar of the new academic year where an American scholar and poet called Carter Revard read and discussed some of his work. Whilst I am no authority on poetry, what struck me at the time was the power of the vocal delivery. Carter Revard juxtaposes an intense intellectual sophistication in the employment of language and imagery in his poetry with a gentle, almost playful articulation which makes for a potent mix in which meaning forcefully ‘comes down’. The vocal delivery at the seminar prompted me to buy a copy of his book ‘How The Songs Come Down’, which was published by Salt Publishing in 2005. There is much in this book to commend it to readers who seek to make sense of today’s chaotic world.

Carter Revard is special because his personal native American traditions have been combined with a scholastic discipline that he refined at Oxford and Yale Universities during the 1960s to produce a unique approach to creative writing. I think that the poem ‘Making Money’ is an excellent example of this ‘double vision’, but also a marvellously apposite observation on the woeful state of the world’s economic affairs. The clever recontextualization of a couplet from Alexander Pope’s ‘On the Use of Riches’ adds even more gravitas to the condemnation of the diabolical machinations of the money manipulators of today’s world, whilst making a poignant appeal to ecological concerns with the plaintive cry, ‘Bulldozers let them be...’ For me, this poem sums up beautifully the potential tragedy inherent in our current global situation, of which we all need to be aware, and I would recommend Carter Revard’s work to anyone who has an interest in finding a way forward.

'Making Money', from How the Songs Come Down (Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005) - reproduced with permission of the author.
Stamp a picture on some metal
that you've shaped thin and round
and it's worth lots more.
Same way with planets:
draw your lines across one,
say you've divided it into
small pieces, and it's worth
a million times as much.
The closer you have drawn the lines,
the more each piece is worth.
A field you couldn't walk around in less
than half a day
won't pay it's way
in fruit or cattle, honeybees or deer,
but cut it into single acre lots
and you'll be rich.
Moons are worthless, but
look at the price of moon-rocks.
-This is all true, of course,
only if you make a piece of paper
with certain lines drawn on it, curving
in shapes we call names;
those marks combined
with arabesques that we call numbers
turn Paradise or Death Valley into
real estate, transform a tree
to money order, savages
into good citizens:
Blest paper credit, last and best supply,
That lends corruption lighter wings to fly,
as certain also of our own
poets have said.
Cities become the best machines
for generating capital, as it's called.
Look at them from the air at night,
the twinkling tentacles suckering
a wounded earth -
but in the daylight see the smudge
from which their twinkling comes,
then notice how the great lakes
and power stations in the desert lands
and in the mountains have become
their slaves, the clean air turned
to power and the sparkling lakes and rivers sending
pure heat and light into the heart
of great squared-off deserts of glass
and asphalt where the money's made.
What happens when the lines have all been drawn?
The cities die and rot from inside out,
the weeds come up through asphalt cracks,
blue chicory flowers grow across the sidewalks.
Bulldozers let them be: they're scraping clear
another Garden, toppling
old Trees of Life and Knowledge to plant
a Walmart where the shelves will hold
pulp mysteries and romances, exotic
apples and rattlesnake meat in plastic bags.

Thursday 16 October 2008

Election News: Final Presidential Debate

Any conclusions? Perhaps. The New York Times calls John McCain "angry and desparate", Obama's lead grows, and Joe the Plumber becomes an insta-celebrity.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

News: THE Profiles Academic Blogging

As if proof were needed that AMS was ahead of the curve when it came to all things blog-based, Times Higher Education has just published an article about the state of blogging in UK academia. It has some interesting things to say, and a compelling list of academic blogs. The field is developing in fascinating ways. Here's a snippet:

Although they are still lagging behind their colleagues in the US, British academics are slowly but surely moving into the blogosphere. The appeal of academic feedback, as well as the opportunity for public engagement and the potential for enhancing reputations, has those who blog hooked.


Exactly how many academics are blogging is undocumented, but anecdotal evidence suggests that only a scattering of UK scholars blog. As an indication of scale, Birmingham City, one of the only institutions to list its academic bloggers, has links to 18 blogs.

Most academics seem to blog on platforms outside their universities, using only oblique references to their day jobs. Some even blog anonymously. Younger academics, unsurprisingly, appear more actively involved in blogging.

"There are enthusiasts but I think the enthusiasm is fairly thinly distributed," says Michael Jubb, director of the Research Information Network, who has been closely monitoring blogging trends in universities. "It has not reached the kind of critical mass that it has among US academics ... you are very much at the cutting edge if you are doing it at the moment."

Monday 13 October 2008

News: Happy Columbus Day America! Happy Thanksgiving Day Canada!

by Katie McFarlane

Americans and Canadians are both in festive mood today, the second Monday in October, as they celebrate, respectively, Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.

Whilst spending last year studying at the University of Colorado at Boulder, my American friends were determined to throw more than just a few interesting facts about Columbus Day my way...
  • The holiday was not really acknowledged until 400 years after Columbus first arrived in the Americas on October 12, 1492; it was only in 1892 that President Benjamin Harrison took special notice of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America.
  • In 1905, with the help of highly influential Senator Barela, Colorado became the first state to officially observe Columbus Day. Barela also played an influential role in setting up the Columbus Day parade in downtown Denver, now recognized as the longest-running Columbus Day parade across the nation. Originally beginning in 1907, this year the parade will celebrate its 101st anniversary. (If you’re one of the lucky UEA students studying at Boulder this year, check it out! We had an awesome time joining in the festivities which spread out across the streets of Denver last year!)
  • It was not until 1937 that President Roosevelt nationally proclaimed October 12th as Columbus Day. However, since 1971 the holiday has officially been observed as the second Monday in October.
  • Despite the fact that Columbus Day is named in memory of Christopher Columbus, some organizations across America have now renamed the holiday Indigenous People’s Day, believing that this name better reflects the realities surrounding this historical event. Native Americans were already inhabiting this supposedly ‘new’ land and they were cruelly pushed aside by the subsequent influx of Europeans. It is thus believed that this holiday should be about commemorating the resistance of the Natives against the oppressive forces which threatened to destroy them, whilst at the same time celebrating the survival and revitalization of Indigenous cultures over recent years.
If you’re experiencing Columbus Day first-hand this year, why not leave a comment telling us what you’ve been up to?

Meanwhile, just across the border, Canadians are already enjoying their three-day Thanksgiving celebration. Family time, turkey dinners and a great deal of merriment – it reminds those of us in England that Christmas will now be fast approaching! Those of you in Canada, please post some pictures of your holiday experiences! (And remember: Canadians are in the middle of their own election campaign, too).

Sunday 12 October 2008

Research Seminars: Malcolm Mclaughlin

L to R: Floyd Paterson, Archie Moore

At this week's research seminar, UEA's Malcolm McLaughlin will be talking about "Ole Mongoose and the Glass Mountain: Archie Moore's ABC Youth Delinqency-Deterrent Program and Conservative Community Activism in the 1960s." 

Monday 13th October, A2.51, 5pm. All welcome.

As a bonus, below you can see highlights of Archie Moore's fight with his protégé Cassius Clay:

Friday 10 October 2008

American Psyche: Nathanael West and the Hollywood Apocalypse

by Will Greaves

This week, American Psyche examines the role of Hollywood in inspiring one of the most apocalyptic novels in American literature: Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939).

Born and raised in New York, Nathanael West displayed a distinctly lacklustre attitude towards studying whilst at school and college. He did, however, acquire a love for grotesque stories, and, after a short stint living in Paris, West later fell in with a circle of Manhattan writers including William Carlos Williams. It was after becoming a scriptwriter for Columbia Pictures in California that West would be compelled to pen perhaps the quintessential Hollywood satire.

Accompanying a number of ‘serious’ authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, into the lucrative scriptwriting profession, West’s move to California reflected the pull of one particular manifestation of the American Dream: thousands of Americans had been lured by the perceived possibilities of the west during the hardships of the 1930s, as John Steinbeck recorded in The Grapes of Wrath (released in the same year as Locust). And just as in Steinbeck’s novel, this Dream is revealed as nothing more than a delusion.

West’s novel is crowded with characters of “grotesque depravity”: Faye Greener mixes naiveté with a serious manipulative streak; desperate to succeed as an actress, she is willing to sell her innocence as an exchange. Homer Simpson (almost certainly the inspiration for Matt Groening), on the other hand, is a sterile shadow of man, ineffectual in all areas of life. Even Earle, the cowboy, is described as having a “two-dimensional shape that a talented child might have drawn”. The Day of the Locust is, clearly, populated by a series of B-movie stereotypes that suggests West’s frustrations with the illusory world he inhabited, and even, perhaps, his own guilt for contributing to this industry.

In the novel, Hollywood is a myriad of “Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas […] Tudor cottages,” where even the “dressers are painted to look like pine.” In fact the only certainty amidst this simulacra of gaudy styles is the sheer artificiality of the landscape. Hollywood, an industry centred on the construction of a reality that fulfills our desires, becomes the most poignant manifestation of the corrupted Dream: deluded by the glamour of the screen, West is condemning a society that has misinterpreted this initially spiritual ideal as a desire to achieve wealth and fame. As if to emphasise this corruption, even the Californian oranges – intrinsic to Grampa Joad’s perception of the Dream in The Grapes of Wrath – lose their symbolic promise for West’s characters, being unable to “titillate their jaded palates.”

The apocalyptic and deeply ironic climax sees a crowd of fans descend into a savage mob, clamoring on top of each other, desperate to catch a glimpse of Hollywood stars at the premiere of a new film:
An ambulance siren screamed in the street. Its wailing moan started the crowd moving again and Tod was carried along in a slow, steady push […] It gathered momentum and rushed […] He held on desperately, fighting to keep from being sucked back.
West seems almost to be predicting the mass human suffering of the following decade; indeed his depiction of a society on the verge of anarchy, conveyed through a bleakly humorous writing style, seemed to tarnish the novel’s critical reception: writing to Fitzgerald, a close friend who died only a day before him, West admitted: “So far the score stands – good reviews: fifteen percent. Bad reviews: twenty-five per cent. Brutal personal attacks: sixty per cent.” America, it seems, was not yet ready for West.

The Coen brothers’ 1991 film Barton Fink offers a similarly dark satire on the scriptwriting profession in 1930s Hollywood, even including a fictionalised version of Faulkner as a raging alcoholic.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Election News: Second Presidential Debate

Thanks again, C-Span. Still no knock-out blow, though instant polls gave the edge to Obama. Slate reviews the print analysis here.

News: AMS at Cinema City

Advance warning about two exciting AMS appearances at Norwich's Cinema City. First, Malcolm McLaughlin will be talking about "Silver Screen, Black Power: The World of Shaft" on Wednesday 15 October at 6.45pm. Next, Sarah Churchwell will be talking about "Fighting For Balance: The Battle of the Sexes in Screwball Comedy, 1934-1946" on Tuesday December 9 at 8.30pm. Book early to avoid disappointment.

Monday 6 October 2008

(PSI) Research Seminar: Andy Rudalevige

No AMS Research Seminar this week (as we anticipate our very own Malcolm Mclaughlin's appearance next week). Fear not, though: Director of the Dickinson Exchange Programme (and Containing Multitudes contributor) Andy Rudalevige will be talking about "The 2008 American Election: Themes and Variations" for PSI on Tuesday afternoon.

Tuesday, October 7, 5pm, A3.26. All welcome.

News: 2nd Air Division Memorial Library

Left to right: Professor Richard Crockatt, Libby Morgan, Meghan Purvis, Dr Jacqueline Fear-Segal, Matthew Martin

Last week the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library (located in the Millennium Library in the Forum) played host to AMS faculty and graduate students. The event marked the fact that the 2nd Air Division Trust has just funded a scholarship to support an American arts graduate studying at the UEA - this year, Meghan Purvis (pictured in the middle, above) - by providing 10 hours of work a week at the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library. Next year, there will be two such scholarships. AMS students should also be aware of the library's excellent holdings, which might come in useful for a wide variety of research projects. Here's more about the library, from their website:
During the Second World War over 6,700 young Americans, members of the 2nd Air Division of the 8th United States Army Air Forces, based in Norfolk and Suffolk England, lost their lives in the line of duty. The 2nd Air Division Memorial Library, through the Memorial Trust of the 2nd Air Division USAAF, has been funded largely by the 2nd Air Division Association which is comprised of former members of the 2nd Air Division USAAF.

The Memorial Library makes available for loan current material covering all aspects of American history, culture, and life. This includes approximately 5,000 American books, 25 American periodicals, and several hundred videos. It also includes some specialized material about the Second World War in the air, and material about the special relationship between the people of the United Kingdom, specifically the people of East Anglia, and the people of the United States.

Friday 3 October 2008

Election News: Vice-Presidential Debate in Full

Here, in one convenient package, is the complete vice-presidential debate (thank you, C-Span):

Slate gives a comprehensive review of newspaper reaction to the event here. And as a follow-up to a story that we featured earlier this year about presidential campaign songs, NPR offers a new profile of campaign music here.

Thursday 2 October 2008

American Psyche: Gary Snyder and the Pacific Northwest

by Will Greaves
Each week, American Psyche will explore a region of the States that has become inextricably connected with one of the nation’s most famous poets, authors or playwrights. In the first installment, we look at the formative role of the Pacific Northwest in shaping Pulitzer Prize-winning Gary Snyder’s young mind.
“We’re on our way
out of town
go hitching down
that highway ninety-nine”

So begins Gary Snyder’s ‘Night Highway Ninety-Nine’, a poem which charts his journey through the heart of America’s Pacific Northwest in early 1956. One of the poets to ‘jam’ at the famous Six Gallery reading the year before – a night that provided the most powerful manifestation yet of the Beat Movement, as well as heralding the emergence of the nascent San Francisco Renaissance – Snyder’s work nevertheless offered a noticeably different perspective to those of his colleagues that night. Unlike Allen Ginsberg’s vitriolic condemnation of contemporary America in ‘Howl’, for instance, Snyder was rather compelled by the natural landscape and man’s place within his environment, appropriately earning the title of ‘laureate of Deep Ecology’.

Despite moving to California, and later following his love for Zen Buddhism to the Far East, Snyder’s poetics were nevertheless formed from an early life spent in the states of Washington and Oregon. At Reed College, Portland (possessing the wonderfully nonconformist motto “Communism, Atheism, Free Love”), Snyder met Lew Welch and Philip Whalen. They formed an avant-garde triumvirate, and Snyder had his first poems published in the campus literary magazine, Janus. Yet it was his experiences away from urban America – at times as a logger, a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains, and as an ethnographer spending time researching Native Americans – that resonate most strikingly in his poetry. The abstract ‘Pine Tree Tops’, for instance, acknowledges the overwhelming power of nature, within which man is merely a questioning component:

“in the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
The creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
What do we know.”

Snyder would later become an ecological activist and trained Zen monk, and this zealous spirituality is half-lauded, half-mocked in Jack Kerouac’s fictionalised account of him in the Dharma Bums. Indeed this portrayal of Snyder’s attitudes and values (not to mention his poncho, plaid shirt and jeans aesthetic) became, according to Beat critic Ann Charters, “a blueprint for the hippie culture a decade later” (The Portable Beat Reader, xxix). Laurence Ferlinghetti also playfully alluded to this temperament when identifying Snyder as the ‘Thoreau of the Beat Generation.’

Gary Snyder clearly occupies a more thoughtful and spiritually inclined counterpoint to such Beat figures as Neal Cassady. And yet ‘Night Highway Ninety-Nine’, like the classic Beat text, On The Road, is fundamentally a celebration of one of the key features of the American Dream, freedom:

“Slept under Juniper in the Siskiyou
a sleeping bag, a foot of snow
black rolled umbrella
ice slick asphalt […]
chewing froze salami”

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Election News: Palin, Biden Prepare for Debate

by Jack Ramm The policies, thoughts, moves and shakes of both Obama and Mccain have, in recent weeks, been overshadowed by their somewhat intriguing choices for Vice Presidential candidates. Joe “The Delaware Destroyer” Biden squares up against Sarah “The Lipstick Pit-bull” Palin in St Louis on Thursday evening. After a frankly lacklustre Presidential debate, we’re pinning our hopes on its Vice Presidential counterpart to be entertaining as well as enlightening.

The build up has already started and the gloves are coming off with both candidates preparing their game faces and providing us with some exciting pre-match sparring. Fears that Biden will have a slip of the tongue, or just become a very angry man, are certainly legitimate - although he has countered in his own idiosyncratic manner.

As for Sarah Palin, no one can be sure how she will perform as she is something of a newcomer to national political debating. She’s keen to prove her credentials as a serious candidate, though one would hope she performs in St Louis with more eloquence than in other displays. Looking back into her history reveals a tenacious but disarmingly charming debater and the Republican PR team have been quick to point out that she is "Queen of the Zinger."

Whatever the outcome the pairing certainly sets the stage for a lively debate. Teams Obiden and Mcalin have readied their competitors well and now all eyes are fixed upon the city of St Louis tomorrow evening for the big fight live.