May 26, 2009

"What makes a photo of something in America 'Americana'?"

That's something I twittered yesterday, after reading Michael Hasenstab's comment: "Thanks for posting the beautiful Americana photos on Memorial Day weekend."

I'm getting some answers over there. BXGD/Jason (the commenter) says:
Basically anything that would make a young person want to go live in a city.
Rschrim says:
If they're from the NY Times, guys drinking wearing elephant masks is Americana, ie. Redneck. I'd say that's their slant.
I don't think that's what Michael H is about. But it does remind me of a recent controversy — wish I could find it easily — where the NYT used a photograph of some awful-looking people to illustrate a story about rural Americans.

Anyway, what do you think: What kind of photographs are "Americana"? Why were mine (if they were)? Is it that you can see I have an outsider's perspective and am somehow looking down on people? Did I somehow project the attitude that was attributed to Barack Obama when he spoke of Americans who get bitter and cling to guns and religion?


MadisonMan said...

Americana is something that is handmade, and you buy it in a small store off a two-lane road that is lined with trees. As you get out of your car, the cicadas are whirring, and the heat is coming up in waves off the buckling blacktop of the parking lot.

Lem Former Twitter Aficionado said...

This is what I think of when somebody says “Americana”?
Check this out .

It's dam charming, it's what it is.

El Presidente said...

Anything from a lower socio-economic status is either Americana or trash.

Meade said...

I've never observed you looking down on anyone.

The real deal.

Michael Haz said...

By 'Americana' I meant photos of ordinary America and Americans, typically found in small towns and rural areas, usually (but not always) found in the center of the country.

I can't explain why, but the photos you posted tug at the heart. For me, they say "that's part of me. I've been there. I know those folks and I know how hard they work".

Jennifer said...

I gave you a flippant answer on Twitter.

But, I think it boils down to whether or not something represents that essence of America. Which is why all the sparkly red, white and blue in the world is never called Americana. But, weather worn, hometown prideful, often nostalgic and generally simple (in a good way!) images often are.

AllenS said...

Americana to me means people in America who work with their hands and don't worry about getting dirty. It's also the buildings and bridges that they make and maintain. The workers and their handmade creations. Obama is not Americana.

Michael Haz said...


By the way, Althouse, thanks for a weekend of absolutely wonderful blogging. Top notch!


MadisonMan said...

Lem, those men are all wearing shorts.

bearbee said...

Americana? Baseball, Twin Towers, Rocky Balboa wearing red, white and blue trunks, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Civil Rights Freedom riders, FDR The only Thing We have to Fear is Fear Itself., small towns with porches showing the American Flag, Hooverville, Arlington Cemetery, Jackson Pollack, Norman Rockwell 4 Freedoms, McDonalds, rocky road ice cream, Duke Ellington, the Liberty Bell......... in a capsule The American Experience (courtesy PBS)

re: lawn mower precision parade, carbon footprints?

Peter Hoh said...

Does it look like Norman Rockwell might have painted it? Then it's Americana.

Wince said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Hoh said...

Don't confuse flag-themed kitsch with Americana.

Christy said...

Funny, I looked at your pics over the weekend and said to my sister, "I really like the Althouse blog, but she really doesn't like Middle America very much."

I found them patronizing and offensive, a carefully edited vision. Is that stretch of highway really so bleak and nasty?

Wince said...

Americana is the appreciation of people in the benign, everyday pursuit of the American Dream, however remote their destination -- or likelihood of arrival -- is from your own ideal.

traditionalguy said...

Americana seems to be the products of a free people to be and express themselves without fear of an aristocracy going out of its way to punishing them for it. That quiet confidence was developed and shared in Fundamentalist Churches which were the only educational resource in America for 300 years. I read a comment by Paddy O yesterday that used the phrase, "like a unitarian in a pentacostal world..." to describe a person trying to be post Americana in their cultural viewpoints. Anyway,Americana culture obviously was not derived from a European belief in Emperial rule by elites, be they Royal Families or their Pope. Although we do defer sometimes to our Judges and Attorneys like the Aristocrat's role.It is our very own God given experience, and it is in no way inferior to European culture, E.g. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck.

kjbe said...

Americana is community pride, simplicity (again, in a good way), and a big dose of local flavor.

You’ve tried to capture the flavor of a region. People and buildings get chewed up, spit out and forgotten all the time. I don’t see either’s view as condescending, just reality.

ricpic said...

Americana is a working class native stock thing. Which leaves out a lot of Americana. For example: a New York Jew eating bagels and lox while perusing his NY Times on a Sunday morning is not Americana although it's the Americana I grew up with. Same for a crowd of Puerto Ricans eating chuchifritos on the sidewalk in front of a bodega on a hot summer night in Spanish Harlem. Not Americana. It's unfair I tellya, unfair!

Penny said...

Americana = a slice of American life

ricpic said...

I don't mean that Puerto Ricans eat their chuchifritos on the sidewalk. I mean they're standing on the sidewalk whilst they eat their chuchifritos. Whew!

Penny said...

As peter hoh, suggests...
"Does it look like Norman Rockwell might have painted it? Then it's Americana."

I happen to have a Norman Rockewell 2009 calendar. Here are the themes:

* Children sledding
* Pastry chef reading diet book
* Young adults dressing for a date
* Old People playing checkers
* Man fishing in the rain
* Kids getting out of school
* Kids playing golf
* Kids swinging
* Soldier telling stories
* Cheerleaders and football players
* Young sailor and his miss
* Union Station with Xmas Travelers

bearbee said...

traditionalguy said...
... and it is in no way inferior to European culture, E.g. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck..


Anonymous said...

I grew up in Columbus, Indiana. Approximate population: 45,000. For much of my childhood, what I saw when I looked through my sliding-glass rear door was a corn field. I've now lived and worked in Los Angeles for about 15 years. Silicon Valley for about 5 before that.

So I don't know about anyone else, but I can identify Americana very easily: if it makes me cry when I look at it, it's Americana. cf. John Mellenkamp's "Ain't That America" video. Or, for me, his "Crumbling Walls" video, but only because I was about 100 feet away when it was being shot at the Indiana University auditorium...

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Is it that you can see I have an outsider's perspective and am somehow looking down on people

Yes, you do have an outsider's perspective, but I don't feel that you are looking down on people.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to actually see what we take for granted in our daily lives. I can tell that you appreciate the sights and the artistic serendipity of Americana: for example in the flood damaged building. Most local people probably just see a building that is old, painted multiple colors and flood damaged and that they see everyday. Your photo shows us something else.

I disagree with ricpic in that all ethnic groups are part of Americana. I see it locally every Sunday when the Hispanic women, who are dressed to the nines, after church go to the grocery store with their young families, socilizing with each other...ooohing and aaahing over each other's babies. I see the hopeful future of Americana in their work ethic, faith and pride in family. The face of it is different from place to place and from time to time.

Americana is the appreciation of people in the benign, everyday pursuit of the American Dream, however remote their destination -- or likelihood of arrival -- is from your own ideal.


An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Americana is what you can only see in America, because it was produced by the American culture.

It can have European, African, South/Central American or Asian roots or overtones, but has an American flare.

ricpic, I think both of your scenerios are Americana, because both groups are practicing an old tradition, but in a revised way.

Americana is mostly small town, because most of us are small town.

Hell, even Brooklyn is a small town in a lot of ways.

XWL said...

Folks at Union Station, Los Angeles going, arriving, waiting, all shapes, sizes, and shades included, that's my definition of Americana.

Beth said...

Like porn, I know it when I see it. And it isn't just rural or small-town: America's urban, too, and we have been for generations. In big cities, neighborhoods have their own character and that contributes to Americana - as the Redneck just said, Brooklyn's a small town in a lot of ways.

When I stop coming home from the grocery store to line up with a bunch of other folks after work at Hansen's SnoBliz stand, that's Americana. Eating crawfish by the lake is Americana. Driving through crawfish paddies out in rural Louisiana is Americana, too.

jaed said...

a recent controversy — wish I could find it easily — where the NYT used a photograph of some awful-looking people to illustrate a story about rural Americans.

Were you thinking of these Althousian expressions of annoyance? Not about rural Americans per se but about opposition to illegal immigration.

kentuckyliz said...

I live in Appalachia and it offends my eyeballs and sensibility to travel and see the McMansion corporate cookie cutter gated community neighborhoods in wealthy suburbs.

Some of the buildings in the pix were built by the people who lived in them, with superb materials and craftsmanship, that will long outlast the fashionable McMansions.

The people here are resourceful and conserve what they have. Long term subsistence living and sometime poverty and Depression era habits. Once you know the culture and how it lives and thrives, including its positive aspects, you see things with different eyes.

So I'm an outsider, but I came here with a sense of gratitude for being here, which grows ever deeper over time. I'm not trying to save anyone, like the typical outsiders who come here. I'm happy to be in a beautiful place with really kind-hearted people who never met a stranger and who would give you their last provisions from the pantry even if that left them short. As I face the possibility of a fourth cancer, (how absurd!), there's people coming out of the woodwork to offer help, prayers, food, anything I need. I don't live near my family, but my people here are gathering round like an Amish barn-raising to get me through.

I used to be embarrassed about my sentimentality for Americana, but I'm unabashed about it. I have shed the self consciousness, a remnant of my proper English mother who put on airs, like Hyacinth Bucket. My airs done floated away.

kentuckyliz said...

For some great contemporary Americana music, I'd like to highly recommend Carla Gover (individual project, more traditional) and the duo she later formed with her hubby, Zoe Speaks. If you ever get a chance to see them live, you must go.

Amazing talent. God sprinkled an extra measure of music talent in these parts.