the past in pop culture

Category: Television Shows

Envying Amish

Amish country near Arthur, Illinois

Amish country near Arthur, Illinois (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Minneapolis, a group of neighbors started what they dubbed the “Amish Envy Club” to help them tackle tiresome house projects. Inspired by the idea of a barn raising or a quilting party, they get together to rip out carpets or till a garden. A large group works, a smaller group takes care of the kids, and dinner is potluck. They have since inspired others to form A.E. clubs. And elsewhere in America, somebody somewhere is picking up a new Amish romance novel to read since in 2013, one is being released about every four days.

Everybody loves the Amish. They love them so much, in fact, that well-known Amish areas in Pennsylvania and Ohio receive millions of visitors a year and generate hundreds of millions in tourist revenues. Their Amish populations each number about 30,000. On a per-Amish person basis, that’s an amazingly high productivity rate.

Not many things say “pastpersistent” louder than does Amish envy. Scholars tell us that we’re casting a nostalgic gaze back to the past when we take a weekend trip to Amish country, read a “bonnet ripper” as Amish-themed chick-lit is known, or buy a handcrafted piece of furniture or shoe-fly pie. Why? Because the Amish are living in the past, right now. Yes, they are so much realer than those Civil War re-enactor guys who are always a little too old and a little too chubby to make the illusion convincing. And unlike living history interpreters (that is, those people who pretend to be Ben Franklin or some anonymous colonial-era milkmaid), the Amish don’t speechify about the Revolution or give you overly long explanations about how cheese is made. No, the Amish actually live like people used to do in the American past of covered wagons and homesteading. They churn butter by hand, go to one-room school houses, wear clothes without zippers, and—best of all—travel by horse and buggy not just from 9 to 5 or on odd weekends, but every single day, year after year.

We look beyond the fact that we’re just day trippers in Amish land and focus on all the uplifting reminders of the values of how things used to be. It’s the simple life versus the complicated life. No movie got it better than Peter Weir’s Witness in which Harrison Ford’s cynical cop has to flee the corrupt Philadelphia police force for Lancaster County Amish country. The beautifully lyrical barn raising scene is enough to give anyone Amish envy. The plot toys with the idea that he might stay or that his Amish love interest might leave, but go back he must. And she has to stay or the rural fantasy of a superior past would be tarnished. Since Hollywood loves a happy ending, that just wouldn’t do.

It’s easy to forget that envy was traditionally counted among the seven deadly sins (for which you would not burn, but rather freeze in hell). Perhaps this explains the rather darker undertone of Witness when the “present” intrudes on the “past” and Ford punches out a local thug who was getting his kicks taunting the Amish. Even more does it explain the current reality shows such as Breaking Amish and Amish Mafia (reality television motto: leave no sub-culture unturned!). The relentless commodification of the Amish as a wholesome source of traditional values makes the thought of seeing an Amish kid walk through Times Square fiendishly attractive and visits to night clubs and strip joints aren’t far behind. That the moral superiority attributed to the Amish way of life (regardless of whether they claim it) can be turned on its head by a short trip to the temptations of the Big Apple surely has something to do with a kind of sour grapes. Envy isn’t admiration for the achievements of others, it’s resentment of them. It pays to remember that the line between them is thin.

Time of the Roma

Group photograph captioned 'Hungarian Gypsies ...

Group photograph captioned ‘Hungarian Gypsies all of whom were deported’ in The New York Times, Sunday Feb. 12, 1905 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Twenty-five years ago this month, the judges at the Cannes Film Festival named Emir Kusturica as Best Director for his Time of the Gypsies (1988). The audience at Cannes gave the film a five-minute standing ovation. It starred Romani people speaking the Romani language and incorporated symbolism based on their cultural beliefs into its plot. A beautifully constructed and moving film, it also played to nearly every cultural stereotype of “Gypsies” imaginable: psychics, thieves, and beggars abound. Inspired by a real (and sadly common) case of Romani children kidnapped for illegal adoptions, the movie emphasized not victimization but Romani criminality. The term “poverty porn” hadn’t been coined yet (a London critic first used it to describe the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire), but it trafficked in a similar kind of appeal. Ever wonder about the backstory behind the gangs of pickpockets or crews of beggars found in any tourist center in Europe? Well, this film has something for you.

In 1988, Yugoslavia, Kusturica’s country, still existed. Much has changed in the world since the fall of the wall and the end of the Iron Curtain. Not much has improved for the European Roma, and in many ways their situation has worsened. Widespread discrimination and harassment (both official—see France—and unofficial—see skinheads) continue to keep them often impoverished, poorly educated and socially marginalized. Recently, the New York Times reported that a school principal in Slovakia was looking to the American experience for models of how to desegregate schools (FYI: still a work in progress around here). In this principal’s school, Romani children study in separate classrooms for slow learners, play on a separate playground, are not served in the cafeteria, and their parents are forbidden to enter the building. These are just some features of the grave and systematic violations of human rights faced by Roma peoples in Europe.

And then we have My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. The tremendously successful show on TLC is in its second season and about to spawn a spinoff: Gypsy Sisters. Based on a similarly titled British series, the Big Fat franchise gets its kicks by letting viewers into the “secretive, extravagant and surprising world of the gypsies.” The voiceover narration used by the show is a mash-up of old school voice of God omniscience (“explaining” customs such as child marriage) and TMZ style snark. An earlier attempt by an American network to cash in on the newfound popularity of this subgroup titled American Gypsies featured a New York clan that runs psychic shops didn’t manage to get the mix quite right. National Geographic canned it after one season not, apparently, because it was threatened by a potential class action law suit on the grounds of racist discrimination, but rather because viewers found the characters “obnoxious” and the situations “contrived.” Big Fat has avoided an emphasis on criminality by instead taking viewers inside the blinged out wedding rituals and family dramas that accompany them and that the show relentlessly insists are typical in this community. Slate’s reviewer found the show “compulsively watchable,” and had no problem blaming the Roma for being backwards.

The Romanichal (the largest subgroup of Roma people in the United States, Britain, and Ireland) don’t, of course, face the kind of persecution in the U.S. that is more common in Europe. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, some Romanichal fled Europe for just this reason. Generally speaking, they are often lighter skinned than Romani groups in southern and eastern Europe. This fact places the recent reality shows about “gypsies” squarely in the category of a slew of shows that pander to stereotypes about the white working class. From the “hixploitation” of Buckwild to Honey Boo Boo and Breaking Amish to the many iterations of Italian bashing in Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, and Mama’s Boys, white is the new black for entertainment networks skittish about engaging in actual race baiting. As Eric Daggans of the Tampa Bay Times points out about this trend, the African American and Latino communities are far better prepared to bring pressure on producers to avoid creating shows around the most blatant stereotypes of these groups. It’s a good reminder though that it hasn’t been that long in the United States since the boundaries of the word “white” didn’t always include groups such as Italian or Irish Americans.

But as the principal of that Slovak elementary school realized, the African American experience remains relevant for understanding the dynamic of how Romanis (and other white ethnics) are perceived in contemporary popular culture. Reality shows about otherwise marginalized groups offer up the same deal with the devil that characterized how black characters and culture have long appeared in “mainstream” entertainment. From the minstrel shows of the nineteenth-century, to the mammies and Sambos of the early twentieth, to the homeboys and Sapphires of today, playing to a broad audience has meant playing to type. This has often been the only way in for black performers. As Hattie McDaniels famously put it about her mammy role in Gone with the Wind, given the choices available to her, it was better to play a maid than to be one.

It’s remarkable that reality shows are almost the only venues on American television where one is likely to hear regional (especially Southern) accents. It’s also remarkable to see the great diversity of peoples and lifestyles that make up this nation. Only on shows such as Bridezilla does one routinely see mixed race couples and a genuinely broad representation of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Yet they usually come with a kick. Exploiting masquerades as explaining and blaming is never far behind. Theories about “cultures of poverty” often lurk in the background where “traditional” and “backwards” are nearly always synonyms.

Take Me Home, Country Roads

Migrant Mother (LOC fsa.8b29516)

Migrant Mother (LOC fsa.8b29516) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okie. Hillbilly. Redneck. What do “Migrant Mother” and Shain Gandee have in common? The first is the name of the iconic photograph that practically stands in for the words “Great Depression.” The second is the name of the young man who recently died shortly after becoming known for participating in the MTV reality show Buckwild. Similarities between the two? Not many—except a persistent interest in gazing at the rural poor.

In 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange stopped at a pea pickers camp in California. She found the pickers suffering from hunger because the crops had frozen and there wasn’t enough work to go around. Many were from the Ozarks and especially Oklahoma—and so “Okies” became a disrespectful term for the desperate Dust Bowl migrants who flooded into California. Lange was working for one of the New Deal agencies designed to relieve the suffering of the Great Depression. Lange’s job was to document said suffering. She did so most brilliantly with this photograph of Florence Owens Thompson and two of her children. The “Migrant Mother” title came later. The original caption read, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.” Lange never took down Thompson’s name nor sent her a copy of the photograph.

Thompson, then, became famous anonymously. Shain Gandee only became truly well-known this week, after he and two others died of carbon monoxide poisoning after his truck got stuck in the mud. Gandee was just 21 years old. Producers selected him and a handful of other young people for Buckwild, a show intended by MTV to replicate the popularity of Jersey Shore. Instead of Italian Americans partying hard on the boardwalk down the shore, Buckwild had backwoods West Virginians drinking, fighting, and racing pickup trucks through the mud. “Mudding” was what Gandee was doing when he died. This has since led MTV to suspend production on the second season of a show that had already been criticized for exploiting stereotypes of West Virginians. In case you’re not sure what these might be, they include characterizing West Virginians as “moonshine-swilling, gap-toothed inbred hillbillies in tattered clothes and bare feet.” In fact, most of the West Virginian young adults on Buckwild were college students or graduates. Gandee was an exception.  Part of his appeal, according to the show’s producers, was that he didn’t have a cell phone and wasn’t on Facebook. He was described as genuine and down to earth. His local accent was thick enough that the show gave him subtitles so the rest of America could understand him.

Gandee, in other words, was a simple man from the hollers of the backwoods. It was an unlikely story that landed him in the news this week. His death brought out the facts of his life into greater relief especially as news reports revealed that his family was trying to organize charity events to pay for his funeral. (This finally shamed the producers into offering to pay for it.) This is oddly reminiscent of Florence Thompson. She was only recognized as the woman in the “Migrant Mother” photograph late in life. Thompson hated the picture for defining her by her poverty and hated it even more for having made her image, but not her self, world famous. Yet when she became sick with cancer, her children were able to use the photo’s fame as a way to raise money for their mother’s health care in the last months of her life.

It’s been nearly a century since a majority of Americans were rural people. Yet the influence of the rural past persists. For the 2013 Superbowl, Dodge ran a commercial for its Ram truck that is a heartfelt hymn to the American farmer. It ends with the tagline, “for the farmer in all of us.” This is one side of the rural inheritance. On the other side stand the Beverly Hillbillies. In life, Gandee was the “reckless redneck.” In death, the ugliness of the show’s hillbilly-sploitation is more apparent. The persistent poverty of Appalachia isn’t particularly funny. Appalachia and the Deep South are places where life expectancies are actually declining. In the 1930s, the iconic photos taken by Lange and her fellows at the Farm Security Administration of dirt poor farmers of the backwoods and barren plains shocked Americans by revealing to them the squalor and desperation of their lives. They also showed their dignity. This is why “Migrant Mother” still appeals even as it condescends. Two of Lange’s colleagues, photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee, chronicled the lives of some of those tenant farmers in a book. They titled it, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The fame, of course, went mostly to the writer and photographer.

Extreme Couponing on the Prairie

Little House on the Prairie book - original cover

Little House on the Prairie book – original cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Laura Ingalls Wilder often wrote about stockpiling food in her childhood homes. From the big woods of Minnesota to the barren plains of North Dakota, making it on the frontier meant having enough food to last the winter. For the extreme couponers of TLC’s reality show, stockpiling runs year round. Revealing walls of paper towels in the garage, racks of soup cans in the kid’s closet, and tubs of toothpaste under the bed, featured couponers revel in their readiness not for a single winter, but for years to come. These underground bunkers of abundance bring out the armchair psychologist in all of us. Where couponers see thrift and prudence, the audience sees OCD and hoarding. To this, one woman on the show replied that hoarders’ piles have dust on them. And that makes all the difference.

It’s odd how much a frontier mentality pervades Extreme Couponing. In reality (the real reality), the very idea of couponing is about as far removed as possible from the hardship of breaking the plains. Exploiting coupons and in-store policies like doubling designed to lure customers in is only possible given the depth and breadth of the American consumer market. If everybody tried to use coupons extremely, they’d quickly be phased out. The system only works because most people, most of the time pay full price. It doesn’t feel like that between the shoppers’ rewards cards and daily specials but we all know that these are just loss leaders. Those who manage to really game the system do so by virtue of heroic effort. They forage for coupons in dumpsters, burn the midnight oil strategizing over their spreadsheets, and wrangle herds of carts through parking lots and grocery aisles.

The extreme couponers present themselves as individualists making it on their own on the harsh plains of post-recession America. One of the plot points on every segment of the show is the moment when each woman—and the occasional man—explains why they turned to couponing. A job loss, unexpected pregnancy, or other family emergency often lurks in the background. Once the system failed them, they were forced to set out on their own and figure out how to feed a family on next to nothing. A few even supplement their couponing habit with deer hunting and gardening. Most, though, live nowhere wilder than suburbia where all the housing looks depressingly the same and the appeal of turning the basement into a personal mini-mart seems sadly universal.

Although one mother on the show tells her children that “free always tastes better,” one wonders. As the narrator helpfully points out in another segment, coupons are never for fresh produce and rarely for meat or dairy. Just as the Great Plains were much less fertile than land speculators claimed they were, coupons are generally for foods much less healthful than their makers would have us believe. The free land that tempted Charles Ingalls ever westward rarely paid off for him. Homesteading  frequently reduced the family to near desperation and even starvation. Yet the enduring appeal of the stories always allows us to overlook the failures and focus on the sincerity, ingenuity and pluck of the characters. The tale of how the west was really won is much grimmer, involving more than a few corrupt deals between banks, railroads, and politicians and a series of violent conflicts that reduced the original inhabitants of the Plains to miserable poverty and subjugation. The Great Recession of the past few years echoes some of these themes. Regardless of the causes, it also led to many families finding themselves on a new frontier where fending for themselves was the only option. This very American response rests on our belief that success is just around the corner, or perhaps over the next horizon. Until then, it’s best to stockpile food in the basement. As the Ingalls learned the hard way, the winter is somtimes longer than we expect.

By the Decade: Russians in Mom Jeans

Vintage Ad #1,246: Class Fashions at Oakland Mall

Vintage Ad #1,246: Class Fashions at Oakland Mall (Photo credit: jbcurio)

The new show The Americans on F/X features a perfectly typical (ok—TV typical, meaning white and affluent) family living in the DC ‘burbs just shortly after Ronald Reagan became president. The catch is that, really, they’re super undercover Russian spies. So super undercover that they never ever speak Russian and even in flashbacks to their spy-in-training days they merely have heavy accents. Their kids aren’t in on it and so they innocently pipe up with the occasional mindless anti-Soviet remark. Meanwhile their mom, Elizabeth (Keri Russell), bustles about the kitchen but is really wondering whether she should go cut the throat of the Russian defector tied up in the trunk of the family Oldsmobile.

There are two ways to explain the appeal of the show’s premise. One is to put it down to Cold War nostalgia. The other is to chalk it up to 1980s nostalgia. Of course, since they happened at the same time, the answer can also be both. If the political issues were serious, the rest of the 1980s now seem quaint and laughable: look at those glasses! that hair! Isn’t that Roxy Music? Really, though, it’s the mom jeans. The show’s drama is supposed to be dark and serious, its moral quandaries, quagmires. But when the suburban mom / Russian double agent is wearing mom jeans, we’re in Red Dawn territory. No, not the remake, the original with Patrick Swayze (rest in peace), C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Grey and even Charlie Sheen. The movie’s Cold War conceit—that high school students would lead the resistance after a Soviet invasion of the heartland—was pretty late in the game to be convincing. By 1984, the dark threat of nuclear annihilation still loomed, but fears of a full scale invasion were so 1950s. Thus Red Dawn—the dawn of the Soviet occupation that is—was more of a red herring. The movie’s most dramatic moment comes when C. Thomas Howell executes one of their own when he’s found to be hiding a Soviet tracking device. The Cold War setting just happens to be contemporary but its values have more in common with the 1980 WWII film, The Big Red One. And so it is with The Americans. It’s not about the Cold War, it’s about characters who aren’t sure who they can trust. Its 1980s setting seems like comic relief.

The mom jeans, in other words, beg to be laughed at. Just in case you didn’t know this, what we now call “mom jeans” are direct descendants of the above-the-bellybutton style of the ‘80s. Some people debate whether the high waist alone is enough to define a pair of pants as mom jeans, but it’s nearly impossible to look at people wearing jeans from the early ‘80s and not think it. To test this theory, you might try watching one of the live versions of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. As they perform the power ballad of the decade, the band members are decked out in muscle shirts, mullets, and, c’mon say it, mom jeans. Even so, surely one of the reasons the song has remained a hit for all these years, is its total sincerity. Its chorus, and Steve Perry’s performance of it, don’t hide a trace of irony. The band still tours on the strength of this song, even now that Perry refuses to have anything to do with them. (Amazingly, the remaining members managed to outsource the job to a singer from a cover band in the Philippines who they discovered via a youtube video. Really.)

The nostalgia of looking at and laughing at early ‘80s style in a 2013 show would seem to have a lot to do with the reputed sincerity deficit of our own times. No doubt it also has a lot to do with the fact that people who were teenagers in the 1980s are now forty-somethings, and suffering the first pangs of mid-life crises. It’s somehow less ridiculous to look back longingly for one’s lost youth if one first engages in ritualistic mockery of it. And sad to say, middle aged women bear the brunt of it (mom jeans, after all, feminizes something that was unisex back in the day). How else to explain the popularity of recent episodes of What Not to Wear that featured makeovers of Mindy Cohn (Facts of Life) and Tina Yothers (Family Ties), adolescent stars of 1980s hit shows? Both decided to hide their aging, and now less than famous selves, behind ill-fitting clothes until Stacy and Clinton swoop in to save them. The show’s usual early doses of humiliation are made collective by virtue of the fact that they were practically family for those old enough to have watched TV in the 1980s. The women’s ultimate redemption—now clothed in of the moment style—is that much more satisfying for the suffering. We can laugh at the 1980s and love them, too. The Russians in The Americans are about as threatening as they were back in that Wendy’s commercial. But Boy George, who was hard to take seriously back in 1983, now seems so sweet, so sincere, and so right when he points out that the past is never truly gone.

Karma karma karma karma karma chameleon,

You come and go, you come and go-oh-oh-oh . . .

Sing it, everyone.

It’s a Downton, Downton, Downton World


Highclere (Photo credit: neilalderney123)

What’s a Downton fan to do in the absence of the Abbey? Season three has ended and with it Sybil and Matthew, never to return. Oh yes, season four is in production but the only truly kind sister and the heir to the earl have signed off for good—unless of course Downton takes a turn towards the undead. If previously we suggested that Downton: Empire Edition might be a good idea, Downton: Vampire Edition sounds even better. Then the show could run for eternity and all that English pallor would be put to good use. At Donegal, most of the downstairs cast wouldn’t even need any new makeup or costuming.

But while awaiting these developments, we’ll need some interim entertainment. The obvious place to start is with an English aristocracy movie and TV marathon. Sure you’ve seen it all before, but it will fill up some of those empty hours. Go to Gosford Park, return to The Remains of the Day, slink on back to Brideshead Revisited. If your conscience doesn’t trouble you too much, take a tour of Upstairs, Downstairs. Some say Downton ripped it off and then resented its revival, but what’s another fox hunt or two between friends? After that, you’ll have to go a little farther afield. Bleak House beckons, and every Jane Austen movie ever.

You could try getting creative. Follow those plot leads and read Jane Eyre for another inconvenient married-man-with-a-mad-wife romantic complication. It must be Lady Edith’s bad luck to only get recycled love stories. Her earlier suitor, the disfigured amnesiac with a Canadian accent, sure did remind one of The English Patient, except of course for the fact that Ralph Fiennes didn’t whine about having a mummy’s head. Maybe it’s just that some Downton scriptwriter has a thing for movies with Juliet Binoche—Matthew’s last drive looked an awful lot like the final minute of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

If that’s too far afield, find yourself some Downton fanfiction: with two thousand plus entries and counting, you’ll have plenty to read. Prefer professional writing? Never fear: the Fellowes’s are here. Jessica and Julian have helpfully penned The World of Downton Abbey and The Chronicles of Downton Abbey. Don’t think the actual inhabitants of Highclere are just renting it out for sets either. The Countess of Carnarvon would very much like you to read Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle. In case your taste runs more to the downstairs, Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” has been conveniently re-issued and re-titled.

For the less literal minded, Downton as metaphor might work. Downton’s depiction of a hierarchical social structure under pressure has inspired some reflections on contemporary Catholicism. On the secular side, it turns out that Downton confronts us with questions of free will and individual agency. It might seem a bit like shooting fish in a barrel to point out that Downton’s popularity can be pegged to current concerns about rising income inequality, but that doesn’t make it less true.

Too many words, not enough pictures? Let’s take a look at the lamps of Downton Abbey. We could consider the clothes as Downton struts the runway. But you don’t have to drop that many dimes to dress Downton with these outfits for under a hundred. Don’t forget our crafty friends at Etsy: handmade Downton, anyone? Once you’re all decked out, you might as well go on the road. There are all inclusive season three tours and DIY budget vacays. For those stuck stateside, a tour of the mansions of Newport might do as the next best thing. By the time you’re back, season four might be ready to roll. Finally, don’t forget to cook up some Downton dainties. They’ll come in handy in case you get the Downton d.t.’s.

Royal Reliquaries, or Who Do You Think You Are?

Richard III Royal Collection

Richard III Royal Collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Richard III’s bones were found under a car park, Henri IV’s head was kept in a jar, Louis XVI’s blood was soaked into a decorative gourd. All of these remains were recently proved real by DNA testing and publicized with splashy press releases. Each had met a violent end: Richard hit over the head on Bosworth Field by a pretender to the throne, Henri stabbed to death by a religious fanatic, Louis guillotined by revolutionaries. None of those stories were ever in doubt yet the positive identification of these relics has made international news. One wonders why. Ghoulish fascination? Henri’s head was, after all, mummified. Perhaps it’s related to the rise of the royals as pop culture icons. Even more than her wedding, Lady Di’s funeral brought the world to a standstill. It might be all those forensic science shows. What’s been called the “CSI effect”—or our television induced belief that we know our way around a crime scene—has proved strong enough that it’s changing not only the behavior of jurors (who now expect evidence to be DNA tested) but also that of criminals (who have learned how to destroy crime scene DNA traces). A mixed blessing to say the least.

Our relationship with DNA testing is fraught. The CSI effect has also tended to make people believe in the infallibility of the process when, in reality, genetic matches are based on probabilities and not certainties. Belief, in other words, hinges on faith even now. Reliquaries always relied on magical thinking for their power. The image on the Shroud of Turin can be proved a fake over and over and yet its power persists: the image is miraculous. With bodily relics, the science and the magic come together. Royalty, after all, can only be maintained by a belief in bloodlines. In a world where royals exist outside of real political power, we can trade skepticism for escapism with little harm.

Yet if forensic science can ratify the fame of the named, it can do the same for the nameless. While the power of DNA evidence in popular culture feeds our fairytale fantasies, it also fuels our desire for justice. It goes far beyond the wrongly convicted who are freed by the analysis of a decades old crime scene sample or the coldest of cold cases that finally comes to a conclusion. Ordinary people have bloodlines, too. has made a fortune off of this insight and its ingenious infomercial series, Who Do You Think You Are?, managed to sprinkle star dust on genealogical research. Ancestry, of course, is record and not DNA-driven, but when African Americans Blair Underwood and Emmitt Smith guest starred on the show their ancestral searches took inevitable turns toward genetic science. For some people, the paper trails stop cold. After the Middle Passage, the enslaved lost their connections to their homelands and only the rise of DNA databases has been able to bridge that gap. Smith located part of his ancestry in Benin, while Underwood got to meet a (very) distant cousin in Cameroon who seemed a little confused by the premise of the show but threw a party anyway.

These DNA matches aren’t perfect. But they’re also close enough to the truth that no one can deny what they reveal. Witness the recent announcements about Michelle Obama’s mixed race ancestry and the discomfort it has caused for what it says about the American past. DNA-based revelations about Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings certainly helped lead to the recent statement by a well-known scholar that Jefferson was “one of the most deeply creepy people in American history.” Skeletons just don’t stay in the closet anymore. Even now archaeologists are exhuming the bodies of the mistreated and forgotten at a Florida reform school. In Pennsylvania, at a site called Duffy’s Cut, a team of dedicated historians, students, and scientists have dug up the remains of Irish railroad workers believed to have died of cholera in 1832 and revealed that they were murder victims. One was identified as John Ruddy in part by an abnormality in his teeth that matched that of living descendants. They hope to repatriate the body to Ireland. If so, Ruddy will be like Richard. Both king and commoner can rest in peace at last.

Three and a Half Weddings and a Funeral

British Female Munitions Worker

British Female Munitions Worker (Photo credit: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives)

The leading ladies of Downton have almost caught up with Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell. Sybil, Mary, and Anna (yes, she’s a shadow sister) are all married. Edith got halfway married. And now Sybil is buried. So that makes three and a half plus one. One wonders of course whether the other half will be the forthcoming happy ending of season three, but since there’s only a little over a week to wait we can be patient. For the moment, Lady Edith remains unmarried and on the verge of turning into a career girl. For once, the historical reference for this plot line is both subtle and resonant. If Ernest Hemingway’s lost generation was mostly men, the other half of the sun that also rises was the generation of women who came of age with them. Back in Lady E’s day, poet and novelist Vera Brittain helpfully coined the term “superfluous woman” for all the single ladies left unwed by the war. Just a few years ago, Virginia Nicholson wrote a book titled Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men after the First World War. If Edith represents the high end of the trend—an educated woman of means who becomes (just guessing here) a crusading journalist—then kitchen maids Daisy and Ivy (btw: what’s up with the plant names?) represent the low—service workers who scrabble over the footmen. It’s a pity the scriptwriters didn’t think to come up with the third option: emigration. If we usually think of first world men importing third world women as picture brides, apparently British women were encouraged to take advantage of their vast imperial holdings and set out for India to husband hunt. Hmmm…a Downton Abbey: Empire Edition has real possibilities.

For now though, Edith remains tethered to the island. Her travails might be historically accurate but they are also notably of the moment. It’s been hard not to notice the full slate of “sex-marriage-mommy” magazine pieces that have made a big splash in the past year or two. If the lack of intellectual coherence in the genre that ranges from “Marry Him!” to “The End of Men” has made Pamela Erens in the L.A. Review of Books ask whether The Atlantic is making us stupid, its salience reminds us why Downton has done so well. As a group, its ladies and their domestics confront the modern girl’s every trial, tragedy and tribulation. As this post’s title suggests, most of these are by now resolved. Only Lady E’s fate remains to be seen. If one suspects—due to relentless conditioning over three seasons—that it will be a happy one, a word of caution. While Erens main point is that the recent high profile writings on the state of modern womanhood lack a crucial historical sense of feminism, one of the kickers in the piece is the news on how outnumbered women writers are at serious magazines and journals. So let’s cheer on Edith and her newspaper column. The world could use another woman writing.

Quoth the Raven

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

We seem to be having a Poe-ment. Between the premiere of The Following and the Ravens in the Superbowl, it looks like Edgar Allan is making a comeback. Poe could use a little love. He’s the patron saint of the down and out after all and Baltimore certainly qualifies on this count. They’ve had to fight for their Poe legacy. A couple of years ago an English professor threatened to mount a grave robbing expedition to retrieve Poe’s body. No, it wasn’t Joe Carroll, the fictional prof turned serial killer who gives Kevin Bacon’s telltale heart a run for the money, but a real life scholar from Philadelphia. After all, Poe spent a lot more time in Philly then Baltimore. Although it’s not known whether he wrote “The Raven” in Philadelphia or New York, he composed most of his major works in the city of brotherly love. (But hey, Philadelphia named its team after a different bird.) Baltimore has the distinction of being the city where Poe dropped dead after being found wandering the streets in a delirium. For their part, the citizens of Bodymore—a nickname that combines the best of Poe and the worst of The Wireplan on turning out in force should anyone try to bodysnatch their mascot. (Actually, the team has three: Edgar, Allan, and Poe.) It will be a historic contest this evening, pitting one bay city against another, east coast against west, poets versus gold diggers. Poe wrote a poem titled “Eldorado”

But he grew old–
This knight so bold–
And o’er his heart a shadow
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.

He finished it the spring of the gold rush year, but Poe never made it to Eldorado. In early October of ’49, he died and was buried in Baltimore.

1890s Redux: Portlandia, Steampunk and All Things Gilded

Elbert Hubbard

Elbert Hubbard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What’s up with the new 1890s? Portlandia nailed it with the “Dream of the 1890s” sketch last year. Except the ‘90s are not just alive and well in Portland, but also Brooklyn and a hundred hipster enclaves in between. Keeping chickens in the backyard and wearing Bible beards has even bled into the ‘burbs, surely suggesting that their cool factor is approaching its sell by date. And in related news, trendwatchers tell us that steampunk—the late 19th century inspired mashup of retro, sci fi, and post-apocalyptic style—is about to go big. By big they mean mainstream: forget Etsy, try Target.

Pickling, knitting, cheese making, and beer brewing can all be explained as a search for authenticity. But alienation is not exactly new. “It’s a long way back and this modern world has gone off the track. But you can escape it all in Portland.” The clue here is when Carrie Brownstein shimmies into the “Dream of the 1890s” as a flapper and gets re-styled. This ain’t the 1920s. That was so 2006: remember, before the bubble burst? The 1890s were a little darker. The Homestead Strike, Coxey’s War, the Panic of 1893, the Pullman Strike, the McKinley assassination, the start of the first overseas counterinsurgency in the Philippines. And let’s not forget the one percent. It’s not for nothing that economists and political scientists keep reminding us that it really is the Gilded Age all over again. Corporations have their human rights back; the plutocracy is eclipsing the meritocracy.

It’s all very Elbert Hubbard. Who? The original 1890s rebel, that’s who. Hubbard was a boy from the country who became a traveling salesman and then a corporate wunderkind (Hubbard innovated direct mail advertising). But the stresses and strains of the Gilded Age troubled him and he sold out his shares of the Larkin Soap Company to set himself up as a writer. After that, he did the coolest thing ever by today’s standards: he went to and then dropped out of Harvard.  He finally found his way when he started a utopian craft community, the Roycroft. Hubbard affected a personal style that stood out in his day, with long flowing hair and a hat from an earlier decade. He wrote that, “to wear a hat just like everybody else is to acknowledge that your head thinks the same thoughts that all other heads think. To wear a hat long out of fashion…is to throw down the gauntlet to the bourgeoisie.” And so Hubbard and his followers wore their outdated fashions and lived as artisans making fine furniture and hand-printed books.

The funny thing is that Hubbard never did stop wanting to make it big. He’d been inspired by William Morris’s uncompromising principles about handcrafted quality, but made sure to sell his Roycroft products at accessible price points by cutting corners where necessary. He endlessly promoted himself as an outsider even as he went on tour as a lecturer for increasingly large fees. And if he skewered the pretensions of the cultural elites in his ‘zines (that is, self-published chapbooks and literary journals), as his career went on, he wrote ever more admiring hagiographies of the one percenters of his day. In 1912, he wrote the original paean to the wealthy men of the Titanic who gave their lives so that women and children might live. Some of that text turned out to be eerily prescient, as he and his wife would go down on the Lusitania in 1915. It is often said that the sinking of the Titanic marked the end of the Gilded Age, but maybe the dream of the 1890s ended with the death of conflicted hipster huckster Hubbard on that other boat, the one sunk not by an iceberg but by an explosion.

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