Category Archives: American Studies

Recommended Reading: Cinema Studies

With the Academy Awards set for this weekend, we want to aim a key light on our terrific books in film history and cinema studies. Call the gaffer!

luzziA Cinema of Poetry: Aesthetics of the Italian Art Film
by Joseph Luzzi

“Luzzi brings a set of powerful resources to his new study: a vast erudition, an ear finely attuned to inter-arts allusions, and an ability to discern the workings of poetic tropes within the language of cinema. The result is a deepened understanding of the category of the aesthetic as it relates to Italian film criticism and an affirmation of the riches that this body of canonical films offers to scholars and lay connoisseurs of the seventh art.”—Millicent Marcus, Yale University

Music in the Shadows $20.97 (reg. $29.95) FORTHCOMINGMusic in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films
by Sheri Chinen Biesen

“The book nicely balances in-depth historical research and previous film noir scholarship with fresh ideas and a writing style that is both evocative and concise. The author doesn’t force the films into the model of her theory; instead the films guide the theory, a quality often lacking in film writing. Music in the Shadows ultimately succeeds on two levels, both in providing an entertaining and enlightening read, as well as an impetus to watch previously unseen films and rewatch familiar classics with a new perspective.”—Noir City

osteenNightmare Alley: Film Noir and the American Dream
by Mark Osteen

“Only a few of the many books on film noir are essential. This is one of them . . . A smart, clearly written book.”—Choice

“Mark Osteen manages to add something new and substantial to the discourse on film noir—an examination of the ways in which the American Dream is subverted, challenged, and ultimately discounted by the harsh realities of a noir universe, which more directly aligns itself with society than with the phantom hope of endless upward mobility.”—Wheeler Winston Dixon, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Gilles Deleuze: Cinema and Philosophy, by Paola Marrati, translated by Alisa Hartz
When Stories Travel: Cross-Cultural Encounters between Fiction and Film, by Cristina Della Coletta
Math Goes to the Movies, by Burkard Polster and Marty Ross
Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film, by Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman

Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ, by Thomas Leitch
The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II, by David Welky
Unless the Threat of Death Is Behind Them: Hard-Boiled Fiction and Film Noir, by John T. Irwin
Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons, by Jonathan Rosenbaum




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The Press Reads: Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County

Guest post by David F. Allmendinger Jr.

allmendingerpostedIn August 1831, in Southampton County, Virginia, Nat Turner led a bloody uprising that took the lives of some fifty-five white people—men, women, and children—shocking the South. Nearly as many black people perished in the rebellion and its aftermath. Our recent book by David F. Allmendinger Jr. presents important new evidence about the violence and the community in which it took place, shedding light on the insurgents and victims and reinterpreting the most important account of that event, The Confessions of Nat Turner.  Throughout Black History Month, we will offer a series of excerpts from recent publications, and today we are pleased to begin with Allmendinger’s thoughtful look at this history in Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County.

From Chapter One: A History of Motives

“I must go back to the days of my infancy, and even before I was born.” —Nat Turner, The Confessions of Nat Turner

Of all the accounts that appeared in 1831, only the memoir within The Confessions of Nat Turner advanced the notion that the rebellion leader’s motives had a history. No previous account had linked so many events in Nat Turner’s life to specific points in the past: 2 October 1800; the year 1803 or 1804; around 1809; about 1821; exactly 1825; around 1826; 12 May 1828; and early 1830. The level of detail in itself suggested authenticity. Not every incident was dated or placed in proper sequence, but an emphasis on the importance of time infused the account and the sensibility that produced it.

Turner dictated this portion of his confession in the jail on 1 November, during his first long interview with Thomas R. Gray. In the pamphlet’s introduction, Gray claimed that the prisoner had spoken voluntarily, even expansively. He claimed, moreover, to have recorded the statement in Turner’s voice (except for material in parentheses, footnotes, or clearly marked exchanges) “with little or no variation from his own words.” But Gray was a novice at such devices. He intruded as early as the fourth sentence of the memoir, coloring the prisoner’s remarks about the “enthusiasm” that had “terminated so fatally to many,” for which he, the prisoner, was about to “atone at the gallows.” The intrusions raised doubt. And there were other difficulties: Gray was the sole witness to the statement and the sole keeper of the document, much of whose content would prove difficult to verify; by late November, when The Confessions of Nat Turner was published, the source had been hanged. Still, there are signs that Gray managed to convey more fully than he realized the substance of what the chief insurgent said.

The account begins with a stilted salutation. “Sir,” says the prisoner, “You have asked me to give a history of the motives which induced me to undertake the late insurrection, as you call it—To do so I must go back to the days of my infancy, and even before I was born.” In that voice, according to the only record of what was said, Turner commenced a review of events that had occurred long before August 1831. The memoir proper, 2,055 words in length, covered five full pages in the original pamphlet. Turner told Gray he had been born “the property of Benj. Turner of this county,” and that he was thirty-one years old on 2 October, thereby establishing the year of his birth. His father, mother, and grandmother (whose names he did not provide) appeared in his earliest memories of childhood, when all three had lived at Benjamin Turner’s plantation, before his father ran away. Nat Turner recalled three incidents that must have occurred between 1803 and 1808 at his master’s house in the Cross Keys neighborhood of St. Luke’s Parish. Together, these incidents gave rise at the time to a belief that he was exceptional, destined for “some great purpose,” he said, and later to a feeling that destiny had been thwarted.

The germ of rebellion had formed by his twenty- first year. The memoir’s  account of its origin came to this: Turner once had believed that because of his unusual intelligence his masters might offer him special treatment, perhaps in the form of freedom, which would lead to some great purpose. In time, his masters proved disappointing.

David F. Allmendinger Jr. is professor emeritus of history at the University of Delaware. He is the author of Paupers and Scholars: The Transformation of Student Life in Nineteenth-Century New England and Ruffin: Family and Reform in the Old South.

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Filed under African American Studies, American History, American Studies, Biography

Picture this: Washington and Baltimore Art Deco

strinerThe bold lines and decorative details of Art Deco have stood the test of time since one of its first appearances in the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925. The style reflected the confidence of the age—streamlined, chrome-clad, glossy black. Along with simple elegance, sharp lines, and cosmopolitan aspirations, Art Deco also carried surprises, juxtaposing designs growing out of speed (race cars and airplanes) with ancient Egyptian and Mexican details, visual references to Russian ballet, and allusions to Asian art.

Melissa Blair, coauthor with Rick Striner of Washington and Baltimore Art Deco: A Design History of Neighboring Cities, speaks on Wednesday, January 28 at 1:00 p.m. at Baltimore’s Pikesville Library about the legacy of this exuberant architectural style in two quite different cities: the white-collar New Deal capital and the blue-collar industrial port city. Visit the library website for more information about the talk—and enjoy this  selection of images from the very handsome book.

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Filed under American History, American Studies, Baltimore, Book talks, D.C., Uncategorized, Urban Studies, Washington

Treat yourself this holiday season: subscribe to a JHUP JOURNAL!

 By Janet Gilbert, JHUP Journals Staff

After two hours at the mall, my feet are burning in my pointy work shoes. I hoist my packages up the first set of ten and the second set of five steps to my front door, and toss the bags of gifts in the foyer. I’ll wrap them tomorrow. Because now it’s time for a cup of hot cocoa by my garish tree replete with homemade egg-carton and coffee-scoop ornaments—and the latest issue of The Hopkins Review.

ITHR_7.2_rgb like to treat myself. And to me, this particular journal from our catalog of more than 80 provides slow-down-and-reflect moments in a hurry-up-and-do-something world. It’s a gift I enjoy all year, but appreciate most at this time when I have so many extra-festive elfish tasks.

Why not treat yourself to a subscription to an academic journal this year? It may be the smartest gift you give yourself: time to consider a different perspective, time to think. As a graduate student in the Hopkins Writing program, my natural inclination would be to pick up the Sewanee Review, one of the most storied literary quarterlies in the United States. But wait, Studies in American Fiction offers a tasty smorgasbord of writers from a range of historical periods, and Callaloo serves up the very best original work by writers and visual artists of African descent worldwide. Callaloo Art, the new fifth issue devoted to visual art and culture of the African Diaspora, is simply an inspirational and lush read.

CAL_37.2_rgbEnough about me. If you are a historian, don’t you deserve Reviews in American History? It’s one journal that throws a window wide open on all areas of American history: culture, gender, law, politics, the military, and more.

If you are a health professional, you might have to sit down to make your pick: Bulletin of the History of Medicine will inform your work by providing a social, cultural, and scientific context for all kinds of medical practices and procedures. Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved will spark your advocacy, and Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics will provide you with first-person patient and practitioner narratives that will do more than inform you—they will move you.

DPH_3.1_rgbLest you think we’ve forgotten you, person-keenly-interested-in-all-things-French-and-medieval, we have the perfect gift: Digital Philology. With an electronic subscription, you can sit in your living room with your laptop and transport yourself effortlessly and immediately to the library of the Universidade de Coimbra in Portugal to study a little-known manuscript from the thirteenth century.

My point is, take a vigorous, year-long intellectual adventure from the seat of your most comfortable armchair. From African American Review (African American literature, theatre, film, poetry and culture) to Feminist Formations (feminist, gender, and sexuality studies) to Victorian Periodicals Review (editorial and publishing history of Victorian periodicals), we’ve got an academic journal for you.

Why not feed your intellect and restore your soul this season by giving yourself a subscription?

Best of all, you don’t have to trek to the mall. Just click on the titles below or browse our entire collection.

African American Review
Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Digital Philology: A Journal of Medieval Cultures

Feminist Formations
Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved

Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics: A Journal of Qualitative Research
Reviews in American History


Studies in American Fiction
The Sewanee Review

The Hopkins Review
Victorian Periodicals Review

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Filed under African American Studies, American History, American Studies, Ancient, Bioethics, Caribbean Studies, Classics, Cultural Studies, Ethics, Gender Studies, Health and Medicine, History, History of Medicine, Journals, Journals, Literature, Women's History

A passion for film noir and cinema heritage

Music in the Shadows $20.97 (reg. $29.95) FORTHCOMINGGuest post by Sheri Chinen Biesen

I’m a bit of a nerd. I like digging around in Hollywood studio archives investigating classic cinema like you see on Turner Classic Movies with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I specialize in film noir, a series of 1940s–1950s American crime pictures noted for their moody, shadowy visual style of black-and-white photography and hard-hitting themes. Literally “black film” or “dark cinema,” the term film noir was coined by French critics in 1946 to describe brooding, cynical crime films produced in Hollywood during World War II when filmmakers adapted hardboiled fiction that had been censored for nearly a decade. I’m also fascinated by how film noir influences other genres, such as a dark strain of noir musical films noted for their shadowy jazz nightclubs.

As an archival film historian, I examine original studio records to explore how classic films were made. In my research, I look at actual documents from filmmakers when they were shooting the film—scripts, memos, letters from writers, directors, stars, producers, cinematographers, designers, censors and publicity—to piece together the history behind the making of classic films such as Double Indemnity, Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Gilda, and The Big Sleep.

I got interested in film noir and noir musicals studying cinema at the University of Southern California. Noir cinematography was considered a lost art form, as Hollywood maestros were dying off. No one knew how to shoot or light black-and-white film anymore. Since then, noir style has become influential on all kinds of contemporary media, and “neo-noir” films pay homage to classic film noir.

I became a film historian and noir scholar after working as a technical writer in computer graphics. My colleagues encouraged me to teach future generations about film noir. When I was a film student, my lights blew out one night while I was shooting a movie, and my film suddenly became a film noir. When I tried to research another project, the archive was closed, so I had to find a different topic. I chose film noir, and accidentally stumbled upon filmmaking memos about the blackouts in Hollywood during World War II. This research became my first book, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir. I continued my noir research and discovered a remarkable array of noir musical films, including Blues in the Night, Gilda, A Star is Born, The Red Shoes, and Round Midnight, which became the basis for my next book, Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films.

I’m passionate about film noir, classic cinema, noir musicals, and restoring classic films, as well as preserving and teaching future generations about our vibrant cinematic heritage.

Sheri Chinen Biesen is the author of Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir and Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Filmsboth published by Johns Hopkins University Press. She is an is associate professor of radio, television, and film studies at Rowan University.

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Confronting the world, shaping national identity

Guest Post by Dane A. Morrison

morrisonISIS, Ebola, globalization, the Ukraine. State-sponsored terrorism, globally transmitted disease, worldwide economic disruption, fraught relations with overseas powers. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and FOX News shout this constellation of dangers to even the casual, cowering observer. In response, we imagine better times and think of these troubles as symptomatic of a modern world that is more complex, more chaotic, more existentially fraught than anything our early American ancestors would have confronted. Today’s global problems challenge us as well to reflect on questions that are more deeply practical and philosophical, concerns that get to the crux of our national culture. How should we respond the array of challenges that confront us? And, what do our responses say about us as a people?

Those of us who read the past regularly, especially we who take America’s early encounters on the world stage as their subject, know that these are the same questions that confronted Americans at the birth of their new nation. Americans who had called themselves Virginians and Carolinians and New Yorkers were perplexed when confronted with the question, “What then is this new man, the American?” It is intriguing to read their words, recover their voices, and realize that they sought answers from abroad. From inception, we have been concerned with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” as the Second Continental Congress described in its Declaration of Independence. As Samuel Shaw, one of these early travelers observed, they wanted to know what other peoples thought of Americans, both “nationally and personally.”

This concern—and its solution—were manifested in Americans’ first voyages round the world. As I write in True Yankees:

In the years between the Treaty of Paris (1783) and the Treat of Wangxi (1844), that is, between the end of the War for Independence and the Mexican War, Americans’ first contacts in the Great South Sea—the term that early Americans used to describe the expanse of oceans, lands, and peoples situated between the Cape of Good Hope and the coasts of North and South America—contributed to the economic recovery of their new nation and to the consciousness of their countrymen. Hundreds of merchants, shipmasters, and expatriates shared their experiences in published books and private journals, logs, letters, and newspaper reports. Yankee travelers introduced their countrymen to the ports of Algiers and the bazaars of Arabia, the markets of India and the beaches of Sumatra, the villages of Vietnam and the factories of Canton. But, it was also the particular opportunity, and especial burden, of American travelers in the East to defend their nation’s honor and to define its character. And, in this forgotten aspect of the American experience was a paradox: Their encounters with other peoples in what they called the Great South Sea, depicted in the letters, journals, books, and newspaper reports that they sent home, offered their countrymen the most salient means of understanding their own national identity.

And, so, Yankee voyagers charted their ways through the terrors of the Great South Sea, surviving tropical fever in Batavia and typhoons off Macao; they learned how to adapt to the global economy, negotiating prices with rajahs in Qualla Batoo, compradores in Canton, and banyans in Bombay; and they defended their ships and crews from the ravages of world-wide conflicts, fighting pirates in the South China Sea and European men-of-war in the Indian Ocean.

Encounters with the wider world, enhanced awareness of the experiences of other peoples, and a deeper understanding of who they were as a people gave early Americans a new national confidence and enabled them to better deal with the struggles the world presented. As the Congress toasted two months later at its Independence Day banquet, “May the Simplicity of Manners, Industry and Frugality distinguish the Character of an American” and bring “Liberty, Peace and Happiness to all Nations.” It is surprising that the nation ,so often disparaged today for high-handed imperialism, for foisting its web of culture, commerce, and geopolitical strategies onto the disadvantaged peoples of the globe, should have entered an age of globalism with such self-doubt. Perhaps a greater awareness of their experiences might empower us to situate the complexities of the modern world within a broader, more reflective context.

Dane A. Morrison is the author of True Yankees: The South Seas and the Discovery of American Identity, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a professor of early American history at Salem State University.

Dane Morrison will be speaking and signing copies of True Yankees at these events this fall:

November 6
, 7:30 p.m.
Salem Maritime National Park Service, Salem, MA
Salem Visitor Center, 2 New Liberty Street, Salem
Free and open to the public, seating limited.
Information: Call 978-542-6286
 or visit the website.

December 11, 7:00 p.m.
Lynn Museum, Lynn, MA
Author talk & book signing
Information: Visit the website.

December 18, 5:30 p.m.
Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH
Festive book launch, talk & book signing
Information: Visit the website.



Filed under American History, American Studies, Book talks

Thinking about display and design at the Smithsonian

Guest post by Robert C. Post

Bob Post 1On the dust jacket of my book, Who Owns America’s Past, there is a blurb from Dr. Deborah Douglas, Director of Collections at the MIT Museum and a marvelous historian. Debbie calls it “part history, part memoir, and part polemic,” and I’ve had to admit that she “got” my book in a way I never intended. The book addresses ways in which the Smithsonian Institution—in particular the Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum—has put artifacts on display, and on that basis it can also be separated into three parts, in a way I fully intended. The conventions for exhibits are categorized under three different headings. First, there are exhibits of one particular type of artifact that are collections-driven—a Hall of Horology, Railroad Hall (pictured above), and so on. When artifacts are small, such as clocks and watches, there may be dozens or hundreds of them arrayed in display cases. When they are large, as with locomotives, one or two of them may dominate an entire exhibit hall by their dramatic presence.

Bob Post 2Then, there are exhibits that can be called story-driven, often with names like the titles of books—We the People, Suiting Everyone, A Nation of Nations (pictured right). In conceiving such exhibits, a narrative is developed first, and artifacts of many different kinds are then deployed like illustrations in a book. Sometimes the techniques of exhibit design, such as dramatic lighting, are as striking as the artifacts themselves.

Finally, there are exhibits that are best called postmodern. A pioneering example of this, The Henry R. Luce Hall of News Reporting (pictured below). Here, “real” artifacts are intermixed with “props,” and together they are exhibited in whatever historical context seems to offer the most potential for immersing an audience in some sort of “experience.” Can’t you hear the sculpted newsboy calling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”?

Bob Post 3In postmodern exhibitry, “realities” are constructed from an array of storytelling possibilities; they are like a literal reading of historian Hayden White’s remark that “any historical object can sustain a number of equally plausible descriptions or narratives of its processes.”

It is tempting to cast these three kinds of exhibits in an evolutionary sequence, from spare taxonomies with only one tale to tell, to the collaborative inventions of storytellers (curators) and dramatists (designers) selecting from many possible options. Even today, however, the Smithsonian still stages collections-driven exhibits, one reason being that the other two types are much more expensive to mount. Both are design-intensive, and postmodern exhibits also involve costly elements of “experience”—sound, fury, electromechanical interactives. Exhibits of this type are almost always a product of “outside” funding, corporate or institutional. Are we to assume, then, that they may harbor some sort of “spin,” to the order of donors? Would The Henry R. Luce Hall have feature Time and Life at the expense of Newsweek and Look?

Or, coming up to date, would The General Motors Hall of Transportation do more with Chevrolets than with Fords? Actually, it does not; to assume otherwise would be mistaken. But another assumption, that collections-driven exhibits are somehow more certain to be “objective,” this is also mistaken. Something exhibited even in the most unadorned fashion—the old locomotive all by itself, say—is being affirmed: People are being told that this is worthy of being “in the Smithsonian,” and it is worth celebrating. So, back to Dr. Douglas’s blurb and the characterization of my book as “part polemic.” This refers largely to the artifact on the cover—the Enola Gay, the B-29 from which an atomic bomb was loosed on Hiroshima in 1945. Fifty years later, when the Smithsonian planned to display the Enola Gay, it seemed that there were two “equally plausible” narratives. One of them would include evidence of what happened on the ground: melted watches and lunchboxes, total ruination, ghastly photos. The other would be limited to the airplane itself as a technological marvel. It was the latter narrative that won out after a wrenching political dispute, and the way it is presently displayed. My distress about this is why I can now understand Debbie’s three part assessment, ending with “part polemic.”

Bob Post received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1973, and then was employed by the Smithsonian for twenty-three years, as a technician, historian, editor, and exhibit curator. Exhibits are the subject of his latest book from Johns Hopkins University Press, Who Owns America’s Past? The Smithsonian and the Problem of History. Pictured in the photos above, showing off exhibits for which they were responsible, are two of his most esteemed colleagues: Jack White (with the locomotive), also an prizewinning Johns Hopkins author, and Peter Marzio (with the newsboy), who followed his Smithsonian tenure with a distinguished career as director of the Houston Art Museum. A note of clarification: The Museum of American History opened in 1964 as the Museum of History and Technology; the name-change took place in 1980.


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Filed under American History, American Studies, D.C., History of technology, Popular Culture, Washington