North American news stories and politics fill our screens. Chances are the last film you saw was made there. If you have studied English Literature, History or Politics you are likely to have encountered some American or Canadian topics or texts.
Maybe some of this caught your eye and got you thinking about a degree in American and Canadian Studies. Here are some recommendations from lecturers at Birmingham to get you thinking harder, further, and in lots of different directions:
Rona Cran recommends:
Some of the most brilliant writing to emerge from the United States takes the form of essays or memoir. Innovative, unsettling, and powerful, Margo Jefferson's memoir Negroland (2015) reveals a life lived on a faultline of race, class, and gender, a life lived uncertainly, framed by distinctions and negotiations, certainties and uncertainties, and by myriad conflicts and confrontations of identity. Joe Brainard's I Remember (1975), a kaleidoscopic sequence of juxtaposed memories, departs from the conventions of traditional memoir to provide a hilarious and revelatory evocation of a childhood in Oklahoma and life as an adult in 1960s-1970s New York City. Other great American memoirs include Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), Anatole Broyard, Kafka Was The Rage (1993), and Patti Smith, Just Kids (2010).
Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp performing the 'dinner roll ballet' from The Gold Rush (1925). One of the most memorable moments in Hollywood history, and one of my favourites. When the film was first shown audiences were so thrilled by the scene that some theatres were obliged to stop the film, roll it back and perform an encore.
Nina Simone, 'Mississippi Goddam' (1964). Furious, strident, and demanding, but with a miraculously catchy tune, this song marks a dividing line in Simone's career, demonstrating a level of outrage and immediacy unlike anything seen so far in the Civil Rights Movement. ‘It’s a very moving, violent song’, Simone said, ‘cause that’s how I feel about the whole thing’. In her directness and her anger, and in saying what male civil rights activists seemed afraid to, Simone recalled another singer who had also gone where few men had dared to venture – Billie Holiday, whose song ‘Strange Fruit’, recorded in 1939, addressed the lynching of black men in the South, and arguably laid the groundwork for Simone's role as a protest singer.
Tom Cutterham recommends:
Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes (2011). One of the United States' most diverse and engaging historical writers explores the Tea Party movement and its relationship to the historical "Boston tea party," interrogating the complex political uses and abuses of America's revolutionary past.
Titus Andronicus, The Monitor (2010). The rock band's concept album looks to the Civil War for a "usable past," drawing on themes of class struggle and radical abolitionism, with references to Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen alongside samples of Lincoln's speeches.
The Homesman, dir. Tommy Lee Jones (2014). This modern western puts questions of gender and civilisation at the heart of a quietly devastating exploration of the nineteenth-century northwestern frontier.
Nathan Cardon recommends:
William Faulkner, Light in August (1932): Faulkner, like he so often does, captures the white South’s visceral obsession with race in the character of Joe Christmas. He demonstrates how race's instability caused havoc in the minds of southerners.
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996): A history of our present-future. Few novels have affected me more than Wallace’s masterpiece.
Tribe Called Quest, “We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service” (2016): This will be my soundtrack to the early months of the Trump administration.
Blind Willie Johnson, “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” (1927): Johnson in this haunting song with no words captures the darkness and coldness of the Jim Crow South. So important to not only the history of the United States but the World, “Dark Was the Night” is included on the Voyager Satellite’s Gold Record. A worthy introduction to humanity for an extraterrestrial civilization.
Jimmy Packham recommends:
America continues to be a nation fascinated by its own borders and wildernesses. Thinking around these ideas, I recommend two nineteenth-century tales of the sea: ‘Benito Cereno’ by Herman Melville and ‘The Wreck of the Whale-Ship, Essex’ by Owen Chase.
The first is an increasingly tense narrative of a slave-ship where nothing is quite what it seems, and a stark exploration of race relations. The second tells of the extraordinary dangers involved in one of nineteenth-century America’s most lucrative industries: the crew of the Essex are stranded in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from the mainland, after their ship is sunk by a sperm whale.
The recent film The Witch is a particularly evocative portrayal of colonial fears about New England’s seemingly haunted forestland.
For some recent poetry, I recommend Claudia Rankine’s brilliant Citizen: An American Lyric -- a volume that continues America's long tradition of pushing the boundary of poetic forms.
Zara Dinnen recommends:
I recommend reading Oreo by Fran Ross (1974). Ross does postmodern comedy before all the canonical writers we discuss were doing it. A “feminist odyssey” about a young African-American, Jewish woman who sets out to find her father and come to terms with her biracial identity; Oreo is a coming of age story upside down as Oreo (Christine) is way older than her age, than her time, than we are. And, as with much New York-centric culture of this period, it does martial arts like Tarantino can only dream of.**
I also recommend the comic book Saga (2012---), by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples. This intergalactic epic is utterly awesome. The artwork is exceptional. The characters are lively. The allegories about tolerance and multi-racial living are, as they always are, utterly necessary to the world as we know it.**
** Thanks to the friends who passed these books on to me; it’s a pleasure to pass them on again.
Rachel Sykes recommends:
2016 hasn't been good for much, but that’s when culture feels more vital. Two novels by two very young novelists, Brit Bennett’s The Mothers and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, provide strikingly different interrogations of what it means to be black, female, and American. In much the same way, I continue to be grateful for and recommend the work of both Knowles sisters, whose respective albums, Lemonade and A Seat at the Table, can be read in dialogue with Bennett and Gyasi.
Scott Lucas recommends:
After listening to the speech Scott wrote: “Is Obama's invocation of "America", one which stemmed from and added to the hope of today, one that is going to be offered to others, both friend and foe? Or will it be delivered in the terms of "you lead, we follow"? Freedom is a wonderful concept, but in the current conflicts that always face the Obama Administration, it is an abstraction beyond political, economic, and military realities.”
You can read Scott's January 2009 ‘gut reaction’ at EA WorldView.
Steve Hewitt recommends:
John Mueller, Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them - this courageous 2006 book by a political scientist challenged conventional wisdom around the US "war on terror" and as time passes has been increasingly proven to be right.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (1985) - a Canadian dystopian vision of the future of the United States that can be read as indulging in a certain kind of anti-Americanism or a certain kind of Americanism.
Helen Laville recommends:
Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic (1998) - a great account of the legacy of the Civil War and the ideology of the American South
Marilyn French, The Women's Room (1977) - a novel which describes the life of American women and the birth of feminism - the best example of how 'the personal is political.'
Oliver Stone's JFK (1991) – this film reveals much about the importance of Vietnam in the modern American psyche and the American obsession with conspiracy.
John Fagg recommends:
I’m most excited by stuff where at first I have no idea what is going on and I have to figure it out – or enjoy the confusion. To this end I recommend Das Racist for lyrics that reference Howard Zinn, General Hospital, police brutality, Justin Bieber, Arundhati Roy, White Castle burgers, Ralph Ellison, Donkey Kong Country...
For a very different effect, I recommend looking at the clarity of vision and purpose that the FSA photographers brought to the task of documenting Depression Era America.
And some recent-ish novels to help think about why you can’t separate literature from history or history from literature:
Sara Wood recommends:
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855) - an original and effusive poet attempting to capture the boundless energy of the United States.
Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) ; and Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845) . These two eloquent and stirring accounts of slavery and freedom are both important historical documents and literary classics.
Woody Guthrie, “This Land is Your Land” (1940) - an alternative anthem for the United States.
African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era and Beyond - an online exhibition featuring some wonderful artworks by African American artists in this dynamic period of American history.
Michele Aaron recommends:
There is an astonishing number and array of early films now available online. Eadweard Muybridge's 'Race Horse' of 1878, considered to be the first ever 'film', is on YouTube:
So too are many films by Edison from the 1890s. I use his telling but gruesome 1903 film, 'Electrocuting an Elephant' (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCx89BRbVeU) as a benchmark for cinema's romance with the spectacle death.
In terms of North American Studies, my favourite/recommended read from the last few years is Frank B. Wilderson III's, Red, White and Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (Duke, 2010).