Celebrating America

This week in North Philly Notes, we celebrate the Fourth of July with ten of Temple University Press’s “American” titles. These books look at colonial America,  American culture, and the American Dream, reflecting on our country, its past, present, and future.

COLONIAL AMERICA

Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Pastby Thomas A. Foster

Biographers, journalists, and satirists have long used the subject of sex to define the masculine character and political authority of America’s Founding Fathers. Tracing these commentaries on the Revolutionary Era’s major political figures in Sex and the Founding Fathers, Thomas Foster shows how continual attempts to reveal the true character of these men instead exposes much more about Americans and American culture than about the Founders themselves.

The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcoholby Eric Burns

In The Spirits of America, Burns relates that drinking was “the first national pastime,” and shows how it shaped American politics and culture from the earliest colonial days. He details the transformation of alcohol from virtue to vice and back again, how it was thought of as both scourge and medicine. He tells us how “the great American thirst” developed over the centuries, and how reform movements and laws (some of which, Burn s says, were “comic masterpieces of the legislator’s art”) sprang up to combat it. Burns brings back to life such vivid characters as Carrie Nation and other crusaders against drink. He informs us that, in the final analysis, Prohibition, the culmination of the reformers’ quest, had as much to do with politics and economics and geography as it did with spirituous beverage.

Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memoryby Roger C. Aden

In Upon the Ruins of Liberty, Roger Aden offers a compelling account that explores the development of the important historic site of the President’s House installation at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park, and the intersection of contemporary racial politics with history, space, and public memory. Aden constructs this engrossing tale by drawing on archival material and interviews with principal figures in the controversy—including historian Ed Lawler, site activist Michael Coard, and site designer Emanuel Kelly.

AMERICAN CULTURE

“I Hear America Singing”: Folk Music and National Identity by Rachel Clare Donaldson

In America, folk music—from African American spirituals to English ballads and protest songs—renders the imagined community more tangible and comprises a critical component of our diverse national heritage. In “I Hear America Singing,” Rachel Donaldson traces the vibrant history of the twentieth-century folk music revival from its origins in the 1930s through its end in the late 1960s. She investigates the relationship between the revival and concepts of nationalism, showing how key figures in the revival—including Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Moses Asch, and Ralph Rinzler—used songs to influence the ways in which Americans understood the values, the culture, and the people of their own nation.

Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memoryby Mike Wallace

This is a book about why history matters. It shows how popularized historical images and narratives deeply influence Americans’ understanding of their collective past. A leading public historian, Mike Wallace observes that we are a people who think of ourselves as having shed the past but also avid tourists who are on a “heritage binge,” flocking by the thousands to Ellis Island, Colonial Williamsburg, or the Vietnam Memorial. Wallace probes into the trivialization of history that pervades American culture as well as the struggles over public memory that provoke stormy controversy.

Red War on the Family: Sex, Gender, and Americanism in the First Red Scareby Erica J. Ryan

In the 1920s, cultural and political reactions to the Red Scare contributed to a marked shift in the way Americans thought about sexuality, womanhood, manhood, and family life. The Russian Revolution prompted anxious Americans who sensed a threat to social order to position heterosexuality, monogamy, and the family as bulwarks against radicalism.  In her probing and engaging book, Erica Ryan traces the roots of sexual modernism and the history of antiradicalism and antifeminism. Red War on the Family charts the ways Americanism both reinforced and was reinforced by these sexual and gender norms in the decades after World War I.

Framing the Audience: Art and the Politics of Culture in the United States, 1929-1945, by Isaorda Helfgott

Framing the Audience argues that efforts to expand the social basis of art became intertwined with—and helped shape—broader debates about national identity and the future of American political economy. Helfgott chronicles artists’ efforts to influence the conditions of artistic production and display. She highlights the influence of the Federal Art Project, the impact of the Museum of Modern Art as an institutional home for modernism in America and as an organizer of traveling exhibitions, and the efforts by LIFE and Fortune magazines to integrate art education into their visual record of modern life. In doing so, Helfgott makes critical observations about the changing relationship between art and the American public.

THE AMERICAN DREAM

The American Dream in the 21st Century, edited by Sandra L. Hanson and John K. White

The American Dream has long been a dominant theme in U.S. culture, one with enduring significance, but these are difficult times for dreamers. The editors of and contributors to The American Dream in the 21st Century examine the American Dream historically, socially, and economically and consider its intersection with politics, religion, race, gender, and generation. The conclusions presented in this short, readable volume provide both optimism for the faith that most Americans have in the possibility of achieving the American Dream and a realistic assessment of the cracks in the dream. The last presidential election offered hope, but the experts here warn about the need for better programs and policies that could make the dream a reality for a larger number of Americans.

Free Time: The Forgotten American Dream, by Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt

Has the “American Dream” become an unrealistic utopian fantasy, or have we simply forgotten what we are working for? In his topical book, Free Time, Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt examines the way that progress, once defined as more of the good things in life as well as more free time to enjoy them, has come to be understood only as economic growth and more work, forevermore. Hunnicutt provides an incisive intellectual, cultural, and political history of the original “American Dream” from the colonial days to the present. Taking his cue from Walt Whitman’s “higher progress,” he follows the traces of that dream, cataloging the myriad voices that prepared for and lived in an opening “realm of freedom.” Free Time reminds Americans of the forgotten, best part of the “American Dream”—that more and more of our lives might be lived freely, with an enriching family life, with more time to enjoy nature, friendship, and the adventures of the mind and of the spirit.

Tensions in the American Dream: Rhetoric, Reverie, or Realityby Melanie E. L. Bush and Roderick D. Bush

Could the promise of upward mobility have a dark side? In Tensions in the American Dream, Melanie and Roderick Bush ask, “How does a ‘nation of immigrants’ pledge inclusion yet marginalize so many citizens on the basis of race, class, and gender?” The authors consider the origins and development of the U.S. nation and empire; the founding principles of belonging, nationalism, and exceptionalism; and the lived reality of these principles. Tensions in the American Dream also addresses the relevancy of nation to empire in the context of the historical world capitalist system. The authors ask, “Is the American Dream a reality questioned only by those unwilling or unable to achieve it? What is the ‘good life,’ and how is it particularly ‘American’?”

 

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A Passion Reignited

This week in North Philly Notes, Bill Double, author of Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation, writes about his passion for Hires Root Beer. 

Whether a frosty mug at a Stewarts’ drive-in or the brain-clearing rush of herbal effervescence from a freshly opened bottle of Hires at home, I grew up with a yen for root beer. Fortunately, this habit proved nonaddictive. As I moved on, the drink faded into a pleasant memory, occasionally relived but hardly a compulsion.

Neither did this early craving influence my decision to chronicle the life of Charles Elmer Hires, who turned a humble homemade root beer into an iconic national brand.  Hires was an intrepid entrepreneur and an authentic American success story. His life and times would have fascinated me as much had he instead concocted a new ginger ale, pet food or soap powder.

Charles E. Hires_smNonetheless, researching Charles E. Hires and the Drink that Wowed a Nation reawakened my latent root beer thirst.  I ordered an eight-pack of modern-day Hires from Amazon (of all places) and began to sample other brands.  Root beer seemed to be less prevalent today and certainly less promoted in the popular media. Was the spicy, woodsy flavor enjoyed by millions during Charles Hires’ heyday fading from the public’s palate? My findings suggested otherwise.

I discovered a thriving root beer subculture, a legion of fiercely loyal aficionados who shared my taste and interest in the brew. An array of websites, Facebook pages and blogs are devoted to discussing, dissecting and exalting root beer. Some sites, it is true, are mounted by commercial bottlers eager to pitch their wares. But others are clearly labors of love maintained by dedicated root beer buffs. Among these: Root Beer Review (“Root beer reviews by root beer lovers.”); The Root-Beer Blog (“Root Beer is a goodness, government is not and freedom and liberty are worth having and so is a good Root Beer!”), the Stark Raving (Root Beer) Blog! and the Association of Root Beer Enthusiasts.

Eric’s Gourmet Root Beer Site, perhaps the most comprehensive, presents histories of the vintage brands, industry news, reviews of new craft root beers and reader comments.

After perusing the painstaking instructions offered root beer homebrewers on other websites, I decided to join their ranks.  I purchased a three-ounce bottle of Zatarain’s Root Beer Extract, a product quite similar to Hires’ original, and followed his 1880 instructions closely.  To my surprise, my first attempt yielded a dozen bottles of root beer that were both delicious and nicely carbonated.

I also found that the craft beer movement, instrumental in improving the quality of real beer in America, had spawned dozens of craft root beers. Brands include Virgil’s, Maine, Boylan, Fitz’s, Dominion, Saranac and Sprecher. The online Root Beer Store offers details on these brews and many others.  They are available at venues ranging from soda pop stores to Trader Joe’s and even some old-style taprooms.

This proliferation of craft brewers would not have displeased Charles Hires, provided they used natural ingredients and did not infringe on his trademark. However, another modern trend – alcoholic root beer – would surely have evoked his ire. One such brew, aptly dubbed Not Your Father’s Root Beer, boasts an alcohol content over 5 percent.  While all fermented root beers contain a trace of alcohol, temperance advocate Hires was forced to battle a WCTU boycott that falsely contended the level in his drink was alarmingly high.

Meanwhile, “Big Soda” continues to woo root beer fanciers with traditional offerings – Barqs, Dads, Mug, Hanks and Frosty. Dr. Pepper Snapple alone produces four root beer brands – A&W, IBC, Stewarts and Hires. Regrettably, Hires ranks lowest in the company’s promotional pecking order.

In conclusion, I am pleased to report that the drink Charles Hires perfected and so successfully promoted over a century ago is at no risk of becoming a relic. While failing to attain the popularity of Coke or Pepsi, its unique flavor still delights and inspires a discerning minority. Indeed, root beer’s longevity reminds me of jazz music, another of my long-time passions. Neither root beer nor jazz has quite managed to achieve mainstream respectability in the modern era. Yet both tenaciously continue to endure, evolve and reward those receptive to their charms.

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