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Born in the U.S.A.

Born in the U.S.A.: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory

EDITED BY Seth C. Bruggeman
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Born in the U.S.A.
    Book Description:

    Scores of birthplace monuments and historic childhood homes dot the American landscape. These special places, many dating to the early years of the last century, have enshrined nativity alongside patriotism and valor among the key pillars of the nation’s popular historical imagination. The essays in this volume suggest that the way Americans have celebrated famous births reflects evolving expectations of citizenship as well as a willingness to edit the past when those hopes go unfulfilled. The contributors also demonstrate that the reinvention of origin myths at birthplace monuments still factors in American political culture and the search for meaning in an evershifting global order. Beyond asking why it is that Americans care about birthplaces and how they choose which ones to commemorate, Born in the U.S.A. offers insights from historians, curators, interpretive specialists, and others whose experience speaks directly to the challenges of managing historical sites. Each essay points to new ways of telling old stories at these mainstays of American memory. The case of the modern house museum receives special attention in a provocative concluding essay by Patricia West. In addition to West and the editor, contributors include Christine Arato, Dan Currie, Keith A. Erekson, David Glassberg, Anna Thompson Hajdik, Zachary J. Lechner, Paul Lewis, Hilary Iris Lowe, Cynthia Miller, Laura Lawfer Orr, Robert Paynter, Angela Phelps, and Paul Reber.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-209-7
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. INTRODUCTION Locating the Birthplace in American Public Memory
    (pp. 1-25)

    Does it matter where we are born? Does “the accent of one’s birthplace,” as the early modern pundit François de La Rochefoucauld put it, “[persist] in the mind and heart as much as in one’s speech?” Or does our obsession with origins amount to a fool’s quest? Are we, like Herman Melville’s wayward patriot, Israel Potter, condemned to discover that the birthplaces we cherish exist in memory alone?¹ The essayists in this volume neither test La Rochefoucauld’s maxim nor tend Potter’s homesickness. Rather our purpose here is to suggest that both typify a preoccupation with birthplaces that has figured prominently...

  5. 1 Remembering John Muir, the Trans-Atlantic “Father” of Wilderness Conservation
    (pp. 27-47)

    John Muir’s lifelong adventure began in 1838 in the town of Dunbar on the windswept east coast of Scotland and ended seventy-six years later and five thousand miles away in California. A love of the outdoors nurtured in the land of his birth blossomed with his experiences in America, culminating when he became the founding president of the Sierra Club, now one of the most renowned environmental organizations in the world. Despite his being little known in his native land, his fame in his adopted country became such that in 1964 the United States Congress commemorated his home in Martinez...

  6. 2 This House Holds Many Memories Constructions of a Presidential Birthplace at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site
    (pp. 49-71)

    In September 1960, in his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy acknowledged the need to tackle the “so-called religious issue,” which had until that moment overshadowed his presidential campaign. Kennedy’s brief speech drew a clear line between Protestant America’s anxiety over his Catholicism and what he believed were the real issues dominating the American political landscape: the spread of Communism, rural poverty, and the nation’s reluctance to explore outer space. Kennedy elaborated upon this distinction between the secular and the sectarian, identifying himself not as “the Catholic candidate for President,” but rather as the “Democratic...

  7. 3 Commemorating Jimmy Carter and Southern Rural Life in Plains, Georgia
    (pp. 73-93)

    One of the defining characteristics of any historical birthplace is the connection between person and place, particularly the notion that one must know where an individual comes from in order to understand him or her. This is certainly the message in Plains, Georgia (population 776), the birthplace and current home of President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn.¹ Thanks to the efforts of local citizens, the Georgia congressional delegation, and Carter himself, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1987 establishing the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and Preservation District, which is managed by the National Park Service (NPS). Besides the...

  8. 4 Authenticity and Interpretation at Mark Twain’s Birthplace Cabins
    (pp. 95-111)

    Samuel Clemens’s birthplace in Florida, Missouri, has changed a great deal since he was born there in 1835. In the intervening years, Clemens—or, more accurately, “Mark Twain,” his nom de plume—has become a household name. He is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable Americans, and his image is an icon even to those who have never read a page of his work. Even a hundred years after his death, Twain’s autobiography, published unabridged for the first time in 2010, soared to the top of the best-seller lists. The village where Clemens was born, however, is largely lost to...

  9. 5 Stratford Hall A Memorial to Robert E. Lee?
    (pp. 113-129)

    Stratford Hall is a historic home set on 1,900 acres in Westmoreland County on Virginia’s Northern Neck Peninsula. Constructed circa 1738 by Thomas and Hannah Lee, it was home to four generations of the Lee family. These four generations included many well-known figures who shaped American history. Two of Thomas and Hannah’s sons, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot, signed the Declaration of Independence, and three other sons—Thomas Ludwell, William, and Arthur—played key roles in the struggle for independence. Their sister Hannah became an early proponent of women’s rights. Stratford Hall is best known as the birthplace of Robert...

  10. 6 Memories, Monuments, and Mormonism The Birthplace of Joseph Smith in Vermont
    (pp. 131-151)

    A large stone on the side of a hill near South Royalton, Vermont, bears a plaque with these words: “Around this hearthstone and its glowing fireplace, two days before Christmas 1805, the Smith family washed, dressed and cuddled the future organizer of ‘God’s Kingdom Restored.’” The baby referenced in the inscription grew to be Joseph Smith who, in his thirty-eight-year life, published theBook of Mormon, established The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded the city of Nauvoo on the Mississippi River in northern Illinois, commanded the Nauvoo militia, and aspired to the presidency of the United States....

  11. 7 Rosine, Kentucky Birthplace of Bill Monroe and American Bluegrass Music
    (pp. 153-173)

    The commemoration of Bill Monroe’s birthplace in Rosine, Kentucky (population 41), began with a single nail that, once driven, reshaped the life of an entire town. The May 26, 2001, nail-driving ceremony marked the beginning of a restoration project, but it also drew together the people, places, and memories of the town in a singular focus on one of the leading figures in traditional American music.¹ The commemoration attests to the centrality of Monroe and his music in Rosine. It also stakes a claim for Rosine’s contribution to his life by suggesting that the sights, sounds, and smells of the...

  12. 8 “Right Here in Mason City” Meredith Willson and Musical Memory in the American Midwest
    (pp. 175-195)

    Iowans marveled at reports of a record-breaking fourteen-pound baby born in Mason City on May 18, 1902.¹ That big baby, otherwise known as Meredith Willson, never stopped grabbing headlines. Grown to be a talented musician and entertainer, the adult Willson penned popular songs, film scores, books, and most notably, several Broadway shows. Willson never forgot his birthplace, which inspired his most enduring work,The Music Man(1957). First performed on Broadway and adapted to film in 1962,The Music Mantells the story of Harold Hill, a fast-talking con man who descends on a small Iowa town in 1912 to...

  13. 9 Paulsdale Adapting Alice Paul’s Birthplace for a New Generation of Leaders
    (pp. 197-215)

    A charming historic home sits quietly atop six-and-a-half acres in a suburban New Jersey neighborhood thirteen miles outside Philadelphia. Inside, however, it is anything but quiet. Twenty-five eighth-grade girls squeal with delight as they scramble to free themselves from a “human knot.” This teamwork-building exercise is part of the Lens of Leadership program hosted at Paulsdale, the birthplace and childhood home of Alice Stokes Paul (1885–1977). A Quaker, suffragist, and author of the Equal Rights Amendment, Paul dedicated her life to the cause of advancing equality.

    Today, Paulsdale is home to the Alice Paul Institute’s (API) women’s heritage and...

  14. 10 The Raven in the Frog Pond Edgar Allan Poe and the City of Boston
    (pp. 217-239)

    One of the best-kept secrets in Boston’s literary history concerns the most influential writer qua writer ever born here: Edgar Allan Poe. And the secret is this: he was born here! Over the 200 years leading up to the bicentennial of Poe’s birth on January 19, 2009, his connections to other East Coast cities—Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York—have been celebrated and memorialized. While each of these cities hosts a museum or historic house that commemorates Poe’s standing as a local author, Boston has made itself conspicuous for its apparent determination to treat the master of mystery—America’s...

  15. 11 Du Bois in Great Barrington The Promises and Pitfalls of a Boyhood Historic Site
    (pp. 241-258)

    Two places on the international historical landscape have been set aside to commemorate the remarkable life of W. E. B. Du Bois. One is the W. E. B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture in Accra, Ghana, an impressive burial site and research center built by the Republic of Ghana at the house and compound where Du Bois last resided. The other is the W. E. B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a small local park built through the efforts of a few private citizens at one of the places where Du Bois lived as a...

  16. CONCLUSION Of Babies and Bathwater—Birthplace “Shrines” and the Future of the Historic House Museum
    (pp. 259-266)

    I write the concluding essay of this volume at a time when the viability of the historic house museum is in doubt. So it is with great concern that I approach the question of what the nature of the birthplace site can tell us about the meaning and future of the house museum. Seth Bruggeman has challenged us to ask “how can institutions that interpret birthplace monuments remain vital even as museum professionals openly debate whether house museums are still a worthwhile enterprise?”

    Our generation’s struggle to locate a current, culturally vital role for the house museum has been the...

  17. About the Contributors
    (pp. 267-270)
  18. Index
    (pp. 271-285)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 286-286)