Tag Archives: politics

The Way She Was: Writing Eve Merriam’s Life Story

The Faculty Fellows seminar on September 26th was led by Julia Mickenberg, Professor in the Department of American Studies. Building from her previous work on leftist and radical politics in children’s books, Dr. Mickenberg presented a collection of materials that represents her work-in-progress: a book on American writer Eve Merriam. Merriam published a wide range of work from the late 1950s into the late ‘70s, including plays, poems, essays, children’s books, and more, with surprising speed.

Indeed, the breadth of interests, topics, and expressive forms found in Merriam’s work is part of what makes her so fascinating to Mickenberg. Across her career Merriam participated in a number of different literary and political circles, tying together a number of Mickenberg’s own interests, for instance in radical cultures, feminism, children’s literature, and the children’s liberation movement. (These interests are explored in Mickenberg’s books, Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (2005) and American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream (2017).) According to Mickenberg, Merriam is likely best remembered as a children’s poet, but her influence was felt through a variety of contexts, and a variety of genres. Her legacy was further complicated by the 1973 Barbra Streisand film, The Way We Were. Merriam partially inspired screenwriter Arthur Laurents’ take on the Streisand character, Kate Morosky, providing Mickenberg an unexpected inroad to writing about Merriam herself.

Participants in the seminar were amazed at the amount of ground Merriam covered over the course of her life, creating unexpected communities through her work and presaging the feminist work of Betty Friedan in her political essays from the late ‘50s. Many suggested that readers might similarly want to engage with the fascinating diversity of Merriam’s work, and advised Mickenberg to consider collecting some of Merriam’s writing into a separate edited volume. As Mickenberg noted, Merriam’s “The Diary of a White Liberal Racist” seems remarkably relevant to discussions today about some of the subtler forms that persistent racism takes, including institutional racism, implicit biases, and the benefits that even liberal or progressive white people often enjoy at the benefit of people of color.

Mickenberg’s own project is still taking shape and she is exploring different approaches to telling a life story, including the question of to what extent she wants to focus on narrating and analyzing Merriam’s own life and work and to what extent she wants to use Merriam as a lens for discussing some of the broader historical and cultural developments in which she participated. An enticing facet of Merriam’s story is how many major figures in diverse fields across a long stretch of time she had dealings with, ranging from W.E.B. DuBois to Norman Lear!

Seminar participants, including several who had written biographies or, in the case of Paul Stekler, made biographical films, brainstormed with Mickenberg about approaches she might take to organizing her materials and deciding upon a through-line for the story she wants to tell. Participants suggested focusing individual chapters on different genres Merriam had written in or on particularly resonant creative experiences she’d had. One participant suggested that  a chapter might be devoted to the  community created around The Club, her Obie award-winning play, which debuted in 1976. Mickenberg has interviewed the play’s producer Mary Silverman, and through the interview, she discovered how tightly knit the cast became during the play’s premiere at the Lenox Theater in the Berkshires. The actors bonded over a mutual connection with Merriam’s script, a satirical take on men’s clubs featuring an entirely female cast. Mickenberg closed the seminar by showing a series of clips from Merriam’s work in television, including a TV spot for the bicentennial anniversary of the American Revolution, and All That Glitters, a 1970s TV sitcom, directed by Norman Lear, parodying men and women’s roles by entirely reversing them. Seminar participants also discussed how writers include themselves in their scholarly work as narrators and as characters. Though including oneself in a biography or paper can be prove risky, participants agreed that Mickenberg’s reference to her research process added something valuable to her paper.

Getting Back to Abnormal: Politics, Narrative, and Rhetoric in Filmmaking

Dr. Paul Stekler, Professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film and the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on September 19th, beginning with a short overview of what brought him to politics, and more specifically, what brought him to making documentaries like Getting Back to Abnormal (2013). Dr. Stekler credited his family for his lifelong interest in politics, stemming back to conversations with his grandfather on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his first job working for a Republican congressman, among other things. Stekler has worked in a variety of political contexts since then, from the George McGovern campaign in 1972 to working with pollsters from The New York Times. His family spanned both sides of the aisle–his father, a Republican, helped him to get his first campaign work, while his mother is a lifelong Democrat. Stekler earned a doctorate degree in Government from Harvard University, and after working in academia as a political scientist for a number of years, he found his calling as a full-time filmmaker with a focus on politics.

Stekler showed the Fellows a series of clips from an NEH-funded film he made in 2000, titled George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire. The film allowed him, he explained, a new context in which to apply his political knowledge and background, but the challenge was presenting this information in a narrative appropriate to a broader audience. George Wallace, for Stekler, represented a transition point for American politics, and a documentary presented a unique opportunity to bring his conversations within academia into the mainstream.

Participants asked Stekler about his methods, from how he finds his subjects and characters to his methods for mapping the trajectory of a documentary film. Stekler emphasized narrative fundamentals, such as conflict, but he also noted the importance of finding an accessible subject–someone who would not only be open with the filmmaker, but who would be compelling to watch on the screen. Though crafting a story is of the utmost importance, Stekler explained that as a documentarian he seeks to balance storycraft, accuracy of representation, and visual interest. Several Fellows pondered what exactly could be told best in the context of documentaries and other projects for public audiences, and what academic and discipline-specific projects offers alongside more popular works. Participants agreed that although some work can be translated into popular projects, teaching also offers a venue for transmitting one’s research to the public.

Participants also raised questions about Stekler’s development as a documentarian. Much of his knowledge about filmmaking, and more generally, narrative, Stekler said, was learned through collaboration with other creatives. Stekler credited the producer of Eyes on the Prize, one of his first films, for teaching him some of the fundamental aspects of filmmaking–mainly, that the goal was to keep the audience watching. Overall, he admitted, he learned much of what he now knows about story from experience.

The conversation turned more specifically to Getting Back to Abnormal, and the variety of New Orleans documentaries that had been made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Having lived in New Orleans himself, Stekler explained he had found many documentaries of post-Katrina New Orleans lacking what he identified as the city’s true character. Stekler told the group that he and his collaborators wanted to tell the story of whether or not New Orleans had changed, capturing something of what he saw to be New Orleans’ contradictory nature. Stekler shared that at the Controversy & Conversation screening of the film the week before at the Austin Public Library, he had the chance to rewatch it with a number of engaged audience members. During the discussion he led, a member of the audience asked what the film would look like if he had made it in 2019. Although Stekler felt that his connections to the city have grown more distant, making him “not the right person” to make a present-day version of the film, he believes that the sway between the joys and sorrows of the city are unlikely to have changed.

Looking towards the future, Stekler stated he was working to raise funds for a film on the McDonald Observatory and astronomy–moving from the politics of the city to the stars.

See Dr. Stekler’s career reel here.

 

Biography as Political Science Methodology in The Strategist

Much like the previous week, seminar leader Bartholomew Sparrow began the Faculty Fellows seminar September 5th with a question: what qualities of biography make it most amenable to or consistent with science (specifically social science), and how can biography fit within academic research? Dr. Sparrow, Professor in the Department of Government, discussed the ways in which academic disciplines can determine narrative methodologies in relation to The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, his 2015 biography of the former National Security Advisor of the U.S.

In his 2016 article published in Perspectives on Politics, “Why Would a Political Scientist Write a Biography?” Sparrow interrogated his own desire to write life stories. He in turn invited the seminar to discuss the merits and drawbacks of biography as a form of scholarship. Participants in the seminar pondered the methods that their own disciplines use to posit theories or hypotheses, uncover previously unknown facts, and discuss new approaches to problems. Many noted that the Fellows were discussing different ways of approaching truth, or approaching knowledge as a whole. One participant noted that disciplinarity was similar to upholstery–depending on your discipline, a scholar might be more inclined towards making their reader comfortable and their prose more accessible, but (despite some views to the contrary) “upholstering” one’s facts with more accessible language does not necessarily remove its structural integrity as a piece of scholarship.

The seminar’s conversation turned to academia’s frequent struggles to position researchers in relation to their audience, and to their subject matter. There might be a desire to view certain disciplines as more objective, but as participants noted, acknowledging one’s own position as interpreter, observer, and/or researcher does not necessarily make a work less truthful, or less valuable. Biographies, as some participants noted, are not infrequently sold for either entertainment or for a more political agenda, making their status occasionally uncertain within the academy. However, others noted that elements of biography appear in a variety of fields, from anthropology to psychology, and that certain works of biography occupy areas of heady scholarship. Biography can serve as a potential case study, some suggested, or narration of biographical subjects’ individual agency in the historical periods in which they exist. Humanities might provide a “softer chair,” offering material that general audiences find easier to digest, but using a humanities methodology such as biography can yield potentially significant results.

Sparrow noted his own struggles with such questions, particularly with respect to writing about one specific person whose historical period is only a few decades in the past. His biography owed much to his political science background and grounding scholarship, but it additionally owed thanks to the Scowcroft family, Scowcroft’s colleagues, and Scowcroft himself, all of whom provided interviews. Working with a subject who primarily operated behind the scenes could prove difficult for Sparrow’s research, and his work was further complicated by being first–Scowcroft had not yet had a biography written about him, making Sparrow’s task both more flexible and more linear, or prosaic.

Participants praised Sparrow’s writing style, noting how approachable the chapters they read from the biography are. Many also noted the structures that emerged from Scowcroft’s story, highlighting Sparrow’s work to both uncover the person and the larger system and bureaucracy in which he participated. As seminar participants discussed, biography operates as a means of individualizing history, preserving subjects’ agency while also uncovering facts about the systems in which they participate, or in which they find themselves caught.

Biography might have the added possibility of describing the ways individuals move or are moved through their historical period, providing readers the experience of what a historical period might feel like, rather than what it has wrought. Biography–and narratives in general–might be chronicles of these waves of agency and passivity within an individual life, mirroring, perhaps, the scholar’s own impulse to write. The seminar concluded with the firm affirmation that participants were eager to read more of Sparrow’s biography to find out just what happened next.