Thursday, February 14, 2013

Jim Cullen's "Sensing the Past"

Jim Cullen teaches history at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation, Born in the U.S.A.: Bruce Springsteen and the American Tradition, and other books. Cullen is also a book review editor at the History News Network.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Sensing the Past has a photograph of Meryl Streep with the following caption:
UNEASY EMBRACE: Streep as Joanna Kramer, reuniting with her son Billy even as she looks back at her ex-husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). “If there’s anything that runs through all my work, all my characters, it’s that I have a relationship with them where I feel I have to defend them,” she said of her feelings for the character.
My book looks at the way versions of American history are embedded in the careers of movie stars. It surveys the careers of six actors and how each body of work as a whole offers a coherent vision of U.S. history. These versions are not necessarily conscious, are never incontestable, and indeed may be marked by any number of internal tensions. But they reflect collective understandings that are quite powerful. One chapter, “Tending to the Flock,” traces the surprising strain of Jeffersonian-styled communitarianism that runs through Clint Eastwood’s apparently individualistic corpus. Another, “Shooting Star,” explores the way Daniel Day-Lewis reconfigures Frederick Jackson Turner’s vision of the frontier. A third, “Rising Sons,” focuses on Denzel Washington’s recurrent choice of roles involving parenting and mentoring in the context of African American history (a motif with an often religious subtext). A fourth, “Team Player,” looks at Lincolnian accents in the movies of Tom Hanks, the generational heir of Jimmy Stewart. Other chapters trace the careers of Meryl Streep and Jodie Foster. These are all people with considerable power to choose their roles, and thus to register patterns that would be otherwise difficult to trace among more workaday actors. The generational thread that connects these people, all born in the middle third of the twentieth century, is the climate of institutional skepticism that has dominated American life in the decades since they came of age.

There are thus three concentric circles of argument in the project: one about specific actors and the often surprising cohesion in their bodies of work; one about the generational tenor of American life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries; and one about the way a notion of history – defined here as a belief, rooted in perceptions of collective experience, about the way society changes – that threads through the work of people who are often thinking about other things, an existential condition that applies to many of us.

The caption in question is part of a larger arc I’m trying to trace: In Meryl Streep’s earlier career, her feminism has a private cast: her characters are trying to attain personal freedom. I go on to show that her more recent work has a more public one in which her characters grasp the levers of power. They’re not always pleasant, but they’re still admirable – just the way we’ve always felt about a lot of powerful men.
Learn more about Sensing the Past at the Oxford University Press website, and visit Jim Cullen's American History Now blog.

--Marshal Zeringue