The Student’s Handbook to American Culture: An A-Z Guide to the Social Identity/ies of the United States edited by Luca Ambrogiani –
Co-Authors: Giulia Belli (g.b.) Vittoria Berardi (v.b.), Tea Nadeena Blake (t.n.b.), Franco Bergoglio (f.b.), Alessandra Calanchi (a.c.), Arianna Lucia Caramia (a.l.c.), Maro Casanova (m.c.), Federica Ciaccio (f.c.), Caterina De Vitis (c.d.v.), Chiara Dragoni (c.d.), Silvia Franca (s.f.), Ilaria Giorgetti (i.g.), Silvia Marconi (si.m.), Sara Martarelli (sa.m.), Andrea Montanari (a.m.), Elisa Mosconi (e.m.), Valentina Mucchietto (v.m.), Nicola Narcisi (n.n.), Elisa Orsetti (e.o.), Giulia Radi (g.r.), Natascia Rosetti (n.r.), Elena Solazzi (e.s.), Giorgia Sottili (gi.s.), Gloria Stella (gl.s.), Salvatore Vento (s.v.).
- Titolo: The Student’s Handbook to American Culture
- Autore: edited by Luca Ambrogiani
- Lingua: English
- Formati: kindle, paperback
- Editore: Oakmond Publishing (2021)
- Generi: Saggistica
Ranging from the American Dream all the way down to Generation Z, The Student’s Handbook to American Culture introduces the reader to a curated selection of facts, notions, and ideas which have come to shape the self-image of society in today’s United States of America. The entries within cover several areas of interest: the foundational myths of the United States, key historical figures, popular music and entertainment, the government and its institutions. This guidebook is the result of a collaborative effort involving college-level students. As such, it is uniquely positioned to be a valuable resource for new learners.
Luca Ambrogiani is a Ph.D. Candidate in Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He has held teaching and tutoring positions at Lehman College and York College, both CUNY. His published essays deal with the intersection between crime fiction and the supernatural, and his dissertation project focuses on the emergence of alternative spiritualities through popular media: mass literature, cinema, and television. He has delivered conference papers on horror and crime fiction in Italy, in the United States, and in Poland.
Alessandra Calanchi is professor of Anglo-American Literature and Culture at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo (Italy). She has published books, ranging from Dismissing the Body. Strange Cases of Fictional Invisibility (1999) to American Movies Mon Amour (2019), and several essays dealing with Jewish-American literature, crime fiction, and soundscape studies. She has delivered papers in national and international conferences and co-directs two book-series (Rewind, Aras Edizioni, and Soundscapes, Galaad Edizioni). She is also a translator and the director of a Summer School in Cultural Studies at the University of Urbino.
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The Student’s Handbook to American Culture:
Ranging from the American Dream all the way to Generation Z, The Student’s Handbook to American Culture introduces the reader to a curated selection of facts, notions, and ideas which have gradually shaped the self-image of society in today’s United States of America. The entries within cover several areas of interest: the foundational myths of the United States, key historical figures, popular music and entertainment, the U.S. government, and other institutions affecting public life in the States.
This guidebook is not the only book in its genre. Many others exist, and more will certainly be published in the future. Yet, it is unique in that what you’re reading is the result of a collaborative effort involving a group of post-graduate students. Their names are listed in the following section. I would like to thank each of them for their enthusiasm—which, I am sure, will be transmitted to their readers. I also wish to thank Franco Bergoglio, who is not a student of mine but an accomplished scholar and a journalist, for accepting to contribute two entries about the history of music genres to this work.
Teaching the class on U.S. Culture at the Department of Sciences and Communication, Humanities, and International Studies of University of Urbino Carlo Bo (Italy) has been, once again, a wonderful experience. It is also an experience that, somehow, manages to renew itself with each passing year, and one that I am always thrilled to share with my students. I hope the results of this team effort will help other students, and all kinds of readers, not only to better understand this fascinating discipline, but also to look at other cultures with an inquiring spirit, full of curiosity—tempered with knowledge and critical skills—and an instinct to problematize the issues they might encounter in the course of their lives.
When I first set foot on American soil, back in September 2014, I thought I was prepared for the inevitable culture shock—as well as anyone can be, that is. I was not at all ready, however, for what I actually experienced: a sensation I can only describe as a very strange sort of familiarity. Even though I had flown over an entire ocean to get there, the cities I visited and the people I spoke with appeared to me as recognizable, close, almost mundane. It took me a while to elaborate that feeling, but now I can tell you that, to my eyes, the United States were exactly as I remembered them. And that’s the catch: I had never been in the country before, yet I had solid, distinct memories of it. How could that be?
I was, of course, only recalling the images (and the narratives) that I had received for most of my life, through my exposition to Western media, entertainment, literature, and popular culture in general. These memories are not fabricated ones: they are genuine, and even though they are most definitely not to be confused with the real lived experience of a foreign culture, they are powerful indeed. When I later visited the Statue of Liberty in NYC, in true tourist-like fashion, I could not help but recall one of my favorite toys from when I was still a kid, a diorama of that same statue (though with a cool, post-apocalyptic twist, probably to make it more endearing to children).
The point of this long anecdote is to acknowledge the fact that I am not alone: those who live in that part of the world which has historically being aligned with the West—a definition that we like to pretend passé, but is as relevant as ever in today’s geopolitics—share a similar knowledge-by-proxy of the United States, one they have matured along the years and that carries with itself a long list of assumptions, expectations, and even prejudices. Sometimes, what popular culture has taught us about the United States is even accurate—and to a surprisingly detailed degree! And yet, what I learned in my years there is that the projected image of the U.S. is never the entire thing. The culture shock I thought I would experience came, slowly but surely, as I learned of the many facets of American individualism, from modern-day views on gun possession rights to the prevalent (negative) stance on socialized healthcare, not to mention the degree of political partisanship and division that has characterized that society for the better part of the last two decades.
Despite the historical closeness tying the U.S. to the Old World (and vice-versa), radical differences in public opinion and private worldviews are undoubtedly there. While most readers probably know about them, I believe that the cultural implications are only rarely understood to their whole extent. This is the reason I was so excited to be an editor for this Student’s Handbook to American Culture, a collection of entries on American history, culture, music, literature, entertainment, and society. This book is the result of a collaborative effort: the work of post-graduate students giving their perspective on various aspects of American life. One of the strengths of this handbook lies precisely in the diversity of backgrounds, views, and approaches that went into its writing, a happy consequence of being able to count on 26 dedicated authors. As per the content itself, the Handbook is constituted by 77 entries arranged in alphabetical order, from Abraham Lincoln to Zoomer. Since we did not mean to put together a jumbled word cloud, the choice of the terms for this small dictionary was far from random, and even though one might be tempted to consider the book a simple time-saver—after all, due diligence on all subjects has already been conducted by the authors—it really is more than the sum of its parts: it is a guide to what is current and relevant in today’s discourse. Thus, the Handbook touches upon issues such as race relations, civil rights (ranging from the LGBTQ+ rights movement to a commentary on the prison system and the death penalty), gun rights activism, and the consequences of rampant economic neoliberalism. The entries within are ultimately meant to be used as a set of coordinates that the reader can follow to navigate the specifics of U.S. culture, from its historical roots in pre-revolution (and even pre-Columbian) America to its most visionary projections into the future, like the exploration of Mars.
Because of the variety of subjects and authors, some effort has been made to maintain a consistent angle across the entries. This is given away by the subtitle of the book, An A-Z Guide to the Social Identity/ies of the United States. The focus of this work is on the representation, and especially the self-representation, of the socially constructed American identity—one that has been projected to the rest of the world through grand narratives since the birth of mass media and mass entertainment. And yet, speaking of identity, in the singular, has perhaps never been as inappropriate as it is today. For some years now, American society has been forcefully revealing the plurality of voices which has always constituted it, and it has been doing so without sparing itself any of the ensuing struggles. The matrix of American identities is a complex one, now a very far call from the monolithic image of the middle-class family popularized and exported by advertising in the 1950s and ‘60s. All attempts at mapping it out—including this one—must deal with such a complexity, and I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to the authors, and to Alessandra Calanchi, for making this attempt possible.
All online sources were last accessed in October 2021.
Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, was the 16th president of the United States, from 1861 to his death in 1865. President Lincoln is known for championing the ideals and the integrity of the Union during the American Civil War, for his essential role in the emancipation of slaves in the U.S., and for being an uncompromising supporter of democracy and self-government. An institution in American political iconography and popular imagination, today his heritage is celebrated at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and his sculpted portrait appears on the impressive Mount Rushmore National Memorial—along with that of three other model presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt. There are many reasons behind Lincoln’s persistent fame in the United States, ranging from historic policymaking to his engaging biography and the tragic circumstances of his death, as he was assassinated on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor and Confederate sympathizer.
Before emerging as a political leader for the Republican party, Lincoln went through several jobs: railsplitter, floatboatman, blacksmith, storekeeper, postmaster and military captain during the Black Hawk War (1832). Of humble origins, he received very little formal education, and having finally decided to become a legislator he passed the bar examination in 1836. The self-taught Lincoln worked in Illinois as a prairie lawyer for more than 20 years before he became a prominent figure in national politics: this happened in 1858, when Lincoln (a member of the Republican party since 1856) ran a losing campaign to the Senate which, nevertheless, gained him some notoriety thanks to his stern opposition to slavery, which he regarded as a monstrous injustice. This fame opened him a path to the presidential election of 1860, and even though he received no votes from the Deep South, the geographical distribution of his voters was such that the electoral college was strongly skewed in his favor.
The victory of Abraham Lincoln was one of the factors that precipitated the Civil War: before his inaugural speech, the state of South Carolina had already declared its withdrawal from the Union. At first, the U.S. Congress tried to placate Southern states by proposing amendments to the Constitution that guaranteed slavery to those states where it already existed, but President Lincoln was irremovable in his opposition, which led to the secession of six more states. The seven states thus formed the Confederate States of America, and it only took a relatively minor conflict over two military positions (Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens) to cause the outbreak of the Civil War. The war was still raging when, on January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued a historic decree: the Emancipation Proclamation. This decree was certainly more symbolic than practical in that it brought freedom to less than 200.000 slaves; however, it still managed to shift the world’s opinion towards the Union’s cause. Soon thereafter, President Lincoln applied himself to the approval of the Thirteenth Amendment, which gave slavery its final blow. In 1864, because of his popularity among Union soldiers and successful management of war strategy, Lincoln was reelected with a large popular majority.
The war effectively ended on April 9, 1865, with the surrender of Confederate General Lee to Union General Grant after the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Lincoln’s leadership had been an important factor in the Union victory, but in the last months of the conflict his policies addressing the losing states were becoming harsher. On April 14, political dissident John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln inside of Ford’s Theatre in Washington. The fact that Lincoln died on a Good Friday left a deep impression over the popular imagination, with parallels being drawn between the former president and Jesus Christ. This certainly contributed to the mythicization of Abraham Lincoln, who went on to become an American legend: a self-made man and a moral visionary.
Over the course of the twentieth century, the tide of public opinion has regularly shifted: in the 1920s, the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. marked one of the highest points of his popularity, a reputation that remained stable during the years of the Great Depression. In more recent years, some scholars have rejected Lincoln’s role as the Great Emancipator, noting that as he worked for the liberation of slaves, Lincoln apparently still opposed social equality. Political conservatives maintain a high opinion of this president, except for neo-Confederates and other nostalgic parties. Still, images of this president remain a constant feature of everyday life, with his portrait appearing on postage stamps and $5 bills. Lincoln’s life has also been the subject of innumerable movies, theater productions, reenactments, songs (more than a thousand, in fact), and poems—Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! (1865) was written upon his death. In recent times, Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of an acclaimed movie, Lincoln (2012), by Academy Award winner director Steven Spielberg. Pop culture has not shied away from his figure, either, with interesting, if somewhat questionable efforts such as the film Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2010) and apparitions in animated series (Adventure Time), video games (BioShock Infinite), and YouTube videos (Epic Rap Battles of History: Mitt Romney vs. Barack Obama, Chuck Norris vs. Lincoln, etc.).
References: Published Media
Angle, Paul M., A Shelf of Lincoln Books: A Critical, Selective Bibliography of Lincolniana, Rutgers University Press, 1972.
Bishop, Jim, The Day Lincoln Was Shot, Harper, 1955.
Fehrenbacher, Don E., Lincoln in Text and Context, Stanford University Press, 1987.
Lewis, Lloyd, The Assassination of Lincoln: History and Myth, MJF Books, 1994.
Oates, Stephen B., Abraham Lincoln, the Man Behind the Myths, Harper & Row, 1984.
Abraham Lincoln, Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica Group, 11 Apr 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Abraham-Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln, History.com, A&E Television Networks, 11 Feb 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/us-presidents/abraham-lincoln.
Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica Group, 6 May 2021, https://www.britannica.com/event/assassination-of-Abraham-Lincoln.
Assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Library of Congress, The Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/collections/abraham-lincoln-papers/articles-and-essays/assassination-of-president-abraham-lincoln.
LINCOLN, Abraham, History, Art & Archives, United States House of Representatives, https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/16982.
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, The Abraham Lincoln Association, Abraham Lincoln Association, 11 Sep 2008, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/l/lincoln.
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