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Feeling good

Michael Rogin, 11 January 1990

The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream 
by Studs Terkel.
Hamish Hamilton, 439 pp., £15.95, February 1989, 0 241 12667 3
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More than Bread: Ethnography of a Soup Kitchen 
by Irene Glasser.
University of Alabama Press, 180 pp., $22.95, November 1988, 0 8173 0397 9
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... Ronald Reagan left office more popular than any departing President since the end of World War Two. The same month Americans interviewed in a telephone poll achieved on a happiness scale the highest score in decades. Reagan’s popularity and American self-satisfaction have not risen together because of any general improvement in the standard of living: the rich are richer than they were a decade ago, the poor are poorer, and the average American stands about the same ...

Sucking up

Michael Rogin, 12 May 1994

Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War 
by John MacArthur.
California, 274 pp., £10, January 1994, 0 520 08398 9
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Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Baghdad – 35 Years in the World’s War Zones 
by Peter Arnett.
Bloomsbury, 463 pp., £17.99, March 1994, 0 7475 1680 4
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... The United States has been gripped by a campaign to drive violence from television. Some blame violent images for violent acts; others insist that the images themselves do violence. Senators bemoan television brutality, a national debate on the pros and cons of censorship takes centre stage for a time – displaced by other violent attention-getters like Lorena and John Wayne Bobbitt, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, Singapore’s caning sentence to punish an American teenager, the ‘three strikes and you’re out’ Congressional proposal to jail for life those convicted of three violent crimes (a category that includes any drug-related offence and the use of imitation guns) – but nothing will change ...

Washed White

Michael Rogin, 10 June 1993

The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America 
by Sacvan Bercovitch.
Routledge, 424 pp., £40, November 1992, 9780415900140
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Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America 
by Garry Wills.
Simon and Schuster, 315 pp., £17.99, April 1993, 0 671 76956 1
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... In a time of mass unemployment, budget deficits, infrastructure decay and economic decline, of ethnic cleansing, mass rape, communal violence and racial polarisation, Garry Wills and Sacvan Bercovitch proclaim the power of language to transform the world. Against one current fashion, both reject punning and the play of the socially detached signifier: they embed American words in American history ...

Talking More, Lassooing Less

Michael Rogin, 19 June 1997

American Original: A Life of Will Rogers 
by Ray Robinson.
Oxford, 288 pp., $30, January 1997, 0 19 508693 7
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... Will Rogers died in 1935 the most loved man in America. Ray Robinson, who was 14 years old, remembers the news reaching his summer camp by radio and spreading like wildfire from bungalow to bungalow. No death since Abraham Lincoln’s (the kidnapping and killing of the Lindbergh child aside) had moved the country so much. Motion picture theatres around the country darkened their screens in honour of a top Hollywood star ...

Crowing

Michael Rogin, 5 September 1996

Imagineering Atlanta 
by Charles Rutheiser.
Verso, 324 pp., £44.95, July 1996, 1 85984 800 1
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... was sung to open the games. Only Americans – Dennis Mitchell after winning a 100-metres heat and Michael Johnson after taking the 200-metre gold – puffed out their chests and pulled their jerseys to display the national emblem. Only Americans accused an Irish swimmer of using drugs when she won the Olympic gold. Only an eliminated American boxer, Fernando ...

Hogshit and Chickenshit

Michael Rogin, 1 August 1996

Washington Babylon 
by Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein.
Verso, 316 pp., £31.95, May 1996, 1 85984 092 2
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... William Jefferson (‘Bill’) Clinton is not the man from Hope for nothing. And the major story in the American media this election year recounts his resurrection from the politically dead. Indeed, Clinton’s rise is matched in American history only by the equally spectacular fall of George (‘Desert Storm’) Bush, the collapse that put the Arkansas Governor in the White House in the first place ...

California Noir

Michael Rogin: Destroying Los Angeles, 19 August 1999

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster 
by Mike Davis.
Picador, 484 pp., £18.99, June 1999, 9780330372190
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... what he himself so brilliantly labels the ‘nervous breakdown of American exceptionalism’. Like Michael Bernstein in Foregone Conclusions, Ethington and Waldie counterpose the ‘prosaics of the quotidian’ to ‘apocalyptic history’. In Davis’s vision, by contrast, the apocalyptic is built into the quotidian. Progressive optimists, Davis wrote at the ...

How Dirty Harry beat the Ringo Kid

Michael Rogin, 9 May 1996

John Wayne: American 
by Randy Roberts and James Olson.
Free Press, 738 pp., £17.99, March 1996, 0 02 923837 4
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... the question (asked by a black reporter at the first debate with George Bush) that would cost Michael Dukakis – an opponent of the death penalty – the 1988 Presidential election, John Wayne once said of Ethan Edwards: ‘he was no villain ... The Indians fucked his wife. What would you have done?’ Confusing the niece with the wife and rape ...

Mon Pays

Michael Rogin: Josephine Baker, 22 February 2001

The Josephine Baker Story 
by Ean Wood.
Sanctuary, 327 pp., £16.99, September 2000, 1 86074 286 6
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Negrophilia: Avant-Garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s 
by Petrine Archer-Straw.
Thames and Hudson, 200 pp., £14.95, September 2000, 0 500 28135 1
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... Travelling to Paris recently, I was surprised to see advertisements for ‘Joséphine Baker, Music-hall et paillettes’, an exhibition at the Espace Drouot-Montaigne commemorating the 75th anniversary of her electrifying Paris debut and the 25th anniversary of her death. With its pictures of Baker costumed and nude (and often both at the same time), with some fantastic outfits she actually wore and film of her dancing on stage, with snapshots of her among friends and admirers, the show recaptures the self-knowingly playful acrobatics and the heart-stopping clothed elegance of this unthreatening sexual being, a femme vitale but not fatale ...

Burning Witches

Michael Rogin, 4 September 1997

Raymond Chandler: A Biography 
by Tom Hiney.
Chatto, 310 pp., £16.99, May 1997, 0 7011 6310 0
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Raymond Chandler Speaking 
edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Kathrine Sorley Walker.
California, 288 pp., £10.95, May 1997, 0 520 20835 8
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... In 1955, the Daily Express conducted a poll to discover the most popular celebrities according to highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow tastes. Raymond Chandler and Marilyn Monroe were, as Chandler put it. ‘the only ones that made all three brows’. Chandler shattered cultural barriers with Philip Marlowe, private investigator, immortalised on the screen by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep, mortalised by Dick Powell and Robert Montgomery during Chandler’s lifetime, and afterwards by Elliot Gould, Robert Mitchum and James Garner ...

Unmistakable

Michael Rogin, 20 August 1998

Celebrity Caricature in America 
by Wendy Wick Reaves.
Yale, 320 pp., £29.95, April 1998, 0 300 07463 8
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... The stocking cap, solid black on top and red-ribbed across the tube, an eye popping out at the face end. Red outline for ear, forked red line for mouth, blue-grey near-rectangle vertically placed for shoulder. These lines and shapes precipitate a face, itself un-outlined, from out of white space, the unmistakable head of Harpo Marx. Turn a few more pages of Wendy Wick Reaves’s spectacular book Celebrity Caricature in America, the catalogue for an exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington DC until 23 August, and you will also learn unmistakably to recognise the artist, Miguel Covarrubias ...

Magician behind Bars

Michael Rogin: David Mamet in a Cul de Sac, 2 July 1998

The Old Religion 
by David Mamet.
Faber, 194 pp., £9.99, May 1998, 0 571 19260 2
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... On 15 August 1915, a band of 25 men, among them the leading citizens of Marietta, Georgia, kidnapped Leo Frank from the Milledgeville Prison Farm, tied a rope around his neck and lynched him. Frank, the Jewish manager of an Atlanta pencil factory owned by his uncle, had been convicted of the perverted sexual abuse and murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, who worked at the factory ...

The Ugly Revolution

Michael Rogin: Martin Luther King Jr, 10 May 2001

I May Not Get there with You: The True Martin Luther King Jr 
by Michael Eric Dyson.
Free Press, 404 pp., £15.99, May 2000, 0 684 86776 1
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The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. IV: Symbol of the Movement January 1957-December 1958 
edited by Clayborne Carson et al.
California, 637 pp., £31.50, May 2000, 0 520 22231 8
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... Lincoln and King transformed these figures in national memory from trouble-makers into healers, as Michael Eric Dyson puts it in I May Not Get there with You, an attempt to bring King back to political life. But while Lincoln turned in his last months from racial justice to national reconciliation, King had been moving in the opposite direction at the ...

Ronbo

Michael Rogin, 13 October 1988

Guts and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Oliver North 
by Ben Bradlee.
Grafton, 572 pp., £14.95, September 1988, 0 246 13364 3
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For the Record: From Wall Street to Washington 
by Donald Regan.
Hutchinson, 397 pp., £16.95, June 1988, 0 09 173622 6
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... were the doubles of the President they served. ‘I am bringing you a playmate your own age,’ Michael Deaver is supposed to have said when he informed the President that his Secretary of the Treasury, Regan, and his Chief of Staff, Jim Baker, were trading places. Struck at their very first meeting by the similarity in their names, Reagan had told Regan a ...

Christian v. Cannibal

Michael Rogin: Norman Mailer and American history, 1 April 1999

The American Century 
by Harold Evans.
Cape, 710 pp., £40, November 1998, 0 224 05217 9
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The Time of Our Time 
by Norman Mailer.
Little, Brown, 1286 pp., £25, September 1998, 0 316 64571 0
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... Presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964. The American Century details J. Edgar Hoover’s personal and the FBI’s institutional linking of white supremacist and anti-Communist hysterias, to which America’s national police devoted far ...

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