The Creation of an American Hero

During the 1930’s the American escaped the tragic mood of the Great Depression by reading comic strips. By 1935, almost 2000 comic strips were being published in newspapers all across the country. Comic strip creators were treated as celebrities and were able to earn good money for their work. Many young men attempted to break into the comic industry to earn money in lack of proper employment, including the two sons of Jewish immigrants, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. These two friends created the characRiceter Superman, an alien who immigrated to earth and possessed superpowers who protected the American people. They pitched their idea for five years before it was picked up to be the first issue of Action Comics.

Superman became popular almost instantly because he represented justice for the unemployed and prosperity for immigrants. The unemployed American responded to a man whose job was to protect the common man, especially during the 1930’s where the average American felt powerless to big business and a 25% unemployment rate. Immigrants also identified with Superman, as Superman had left his alien home of Krypton behind to assimilate into the ideal American man. Superman changing his name to Clark Kent and finding success in both his career and his mission to protect justice made him a symbol of the “American Dream,” or being able to come into America and find success no matter one’s previous history.

Two years after its release, Action Comic’s published Superman in the first ever full-length comic book devoted to a singular character. His success sparked a new industry of comic books. By 1940, over two-dozen firms were publishing comics of their own myriad of super-heroes, such as The Flash, The Human Torch, and Plastic Man. Superman created a new industry that returned United States citizen’s faith in the American Dream during a hard time in history, and has continued through the 2st century.  posted by Holly Rice

Dying for a Drink: A Hidden Prohibition Story

Cops in Detroit inspecting a secret brewery during Prohibition.

Cops in Detroit inspecting a secret brewery during Prohibition.

This fascinating piece on Slate.com tells the story of how the US Gov’t, knowing that many crime syndicates were re-distilling stolen industrial alcohol during Prohibition, turned to putting harsh poisons in the industrial stock. As a result, as many as 10,000 people actually died, including one man who passed away after this dramatic episode:

“It was Christmas Eve 1926, the streets aglitter with snow and lights, when the man afraid of Santa Claus stumbled into the emergency room at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. He was flushed, gasping with fear: Santa Claus, he kept telling the nurses, was just behind him, wielding a baseball bat. Before hospital staff realized how sick he was—the alcohol-induced hallucination was just a symptom—the man died.”

The chief medical examiner of NYC at the time, Charles Norris, often tried to bring publicity to what he called “our national experiment in extermination.” Norris pointed out the government’s poison project disproportionately affected the poor, “who cannot afford expensive protection and deal in low grade stuff,” as opposed to wealthy drinkers, who bought safer bootleg whiskies.

A Pox on the Past

How would you feel if government employees burst into your room while you were sleeping, forced injections on you, and took your sick babies away to a hospital against your will? On the other hand, how would you feel if you lived in a city filled with fellow citizens who refused to get vaccinated against smallpox, thereby putting you at risk? Historian Michael Willrich talks about his new book, Pox: An American History, in this episode of NPR’s talk show “Fresh Air,” and tells some startling stories about the early enforcement of vaccination laws during the smallpox epidemics of 1898-1904. In New York and Boston, immigrants who often associated state interference in their lives with the regimes they’d come to America to escape were forced to submit to vaccinations. In the South, black people were scapegoated for the spread of the pox:

“There was one episode in Middlesboro, Ky., where the police and a group of vaccinators went into this African-American section of town, rounded up people outside this home, handcuffed the men and women and vaccinated them at gunpoint,” says Willrich. “It’s a shocking scene and very much at odds with our daily-held notions of American liberty.”

Given the recent uptick in parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated for fear of autism (see journalist Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus for that story), Willrich’s book has a great deal of contemporary relevance; I’ll be picking it up at the earliest opportunity.

A Look Back at Feminism

 A women’s-liberation parade on Fifth Avenue, in New York, in August, 1971.  A women’s-liberation parade on Fifth Avenue, in New York, in August, 1971.

A women’s-liberation parade on Fifth Avenue, in New York, in August, 1971.

Two weeks ago, the New Yorker‘s Ariel Levy wrote this really funny, sad review of Gail Collins’ new book about American women in the past fifty years (When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present). The review was initially located behind a subscriber-only pay wall, but is now freely available.

Levy uses Collins’ book to argue that the popular narrative about the feminist movement (feminists are angry, “feminazi”, man-haters) has eclipsed and overcome the actual accomplishments, or failures, of the movement itself. The most interesting historical revelation I found:

“In 1971, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Walter Mondale, came up with legislation that would have established both early-education programs and after-school care across the country. Tuition would be on a sliding scale based on a family’s income bracket, and the program would be available to everyone but participation was required of no one. Both houses of Congress passed the bill.

Nobody remembers this, because, later that year, President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, declaring that it ‘would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing’ and undermine ‘the family-centered approach.’ He meant ‘the traditional-family-centered approach,’ which requires women to forsake every ambition apart from motherhood.”

I didn’t know that!

PS This article also has the most exceedingly clever title: “Lift and Separate.” Get it?

The Great Sickness

By the year 1918, America was ready for peace. The Great War in Europe was finally coming to a close, and more than a hundred thousand American lives had already been claimed in trench warfare there. However, something much deadlier than war was about to afflict the American people – epidemic. In the winter of 1918, an unusually large number of people began dying from influenza. It started in a small town in Kansas, where over five hundred people had suddenly fallen ill. The disease then spread rapidly all over the world, from North America to Europe and even to Far East Asia. It had a large mortality rate, killing about 15% of its victims and over 50 million worldwide.Unlike previous diseases, the flu affected the young and healthy just as much as it did the weak and elderly. manciniAt the peak of the influenza pandemic, about a quarter of Americans were diagnosed with the sickness. The American Red Cross issued face masks for people to wear in an attempt to prevent infection. Ordinances were put in place to prohibit the gathering of many people in one place. In an effort to raise morale during the final months of war, the government limited public press concerning the spread of the flu, as did the leaders of many other countries involved in the war. Since Spain was a neutral nation and had no such censorships, the disease became known as the Spanish influenza. By the pandemic’s end in 1920, almost 675,000 Americans had died from influenza – almost six times as many killed during combat in the war.2 Though the United States succeeded in ending a war that was killing its people, the main source of death during the Great War era ended up being a factor beyond its control. Posted by Laura Mancini

Young Teddy in the Wilds

teddy-roosevelt2Those looking for a preview of some of the themes we’ll talk about in Unit 2 might be interested in reading this excerpt of Douglas Brinkley’s recent book on Teddy Roosevelt, The Wilderness Warrior. (Here is a link to the NY Times excerpt.) Roosevelt’s administration (1901-1909) took dramatic action to preserve national parks, setting a precedent for the twentieth-century efforts to set aside public lands. But this chapter is about Teddy’s early years, in which he loved nature so much that, Brinkley reports, he once saw a picture of a fox in a book and called it “the face of God.” That’s way before he saved that Teddy bear. This excerpt shows how Teddy, born the year before Darwin published On the Origin of Species, grew up along with acceptance of the theory of evolution, developing the appreciation for nature that he carried into the Oval Office. As TR himself would have said, Bully!

The Widening Income Gap

Money mon-ay. Image by Tracy O on flickr.

Money mon-ay. Image by Tracy O on flickr.

Just in time for Labor Day, Slate writer Timothy Noah launched a new series called The Great Divergence, which attempts to explain what he calls “the most profound change in American society in your lifetime”: the growing gap between the people who have a lot of money, and the people who have less. Noah points out that in 1915, 1 percent of the American people had 18% of the nation’s wealth—a fact, he adds, that disturbed sociologists studying income distribution, and was partially responsible for the institution of an income tax, to keep angry socialists from gaining too much traction with the poorer masses. Meanwhile, in our day and age, the top 1% has 24% of our total income, and nobody’s too concerned (well, except Noah). Noah writes:

All my life I’ve heard Latin America described as a failed society (or collection of failed societies) because of its grotesque maldistribution of wealth. Peasants in rags beg for food outside the high walls of opulent villas, and so on. But according to the Central Intelligence Agency (whose patriotism I hesitate to question), income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador.

Most interestingly, when it comes to the themes of this course, in the coming parts of this series Noah’s going to explore possible historical rationales for this change. Could this have happened because of “race, gender, the computer revolution, immigration, trade, government policies, the decline of labor, compensation policies on Wall Street and in executive suites, [or] education”? My guess regarding the answer? A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Stay tuned.