I spoke by email with with Patrick W. Shannon, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Education, at Penn State, about his 2011 book Reading Wide Awake: Politics, Pedagogies, & Possibilities (New York, NY: Teachers College Press). I am grateful for and glad to share his in depth responses to my questions, starting with my final question which he answered first.
CORRIGAN: Is there anything else you’d like to share about reading, teaching, or Reading Wide Awake that I haven’t asked you?
SHANNON: I’ll start here. Reading Wide Awake examines reading as flexible practices of personal and social agency necessary for the continuous remaking of ourselves and democracy in and across changing times and contexts. By telling stories of my reading social objects (including printed texts) in everyday life, I invite readers to awaken to the ways these ‘texts’ work for and against their interests and the promises of democracy. By analyzing my reading experiences critically, I demonstrate how to take up these practices and why they are vital to acting in and on the world. I hope I wrote with some intelligence and humor.
This short book is organized according to paraphrased questions that people asked me across the first forty of my now fifty years as an educator: Why read? What is text? How do texts work? Where is meaning? Isn’t reading out of date? Can reading like this get me in trouble? Do regular people read like this? Fifteen years prior to this book, I offered a different structure in text, lies & videotape, a book about whose stories get told in and out of school. That text began with a reading of my junior high principal enforcing “school integrity” with a ping pong ball down my pant leg and a wooden paddle on my backside. My (our) reading practices are always in-the-making, and I’m only five years away from the next installment!
CORRIGAN: In Reading Wide Awake, you seem to use the words “read” and “reading” loosely and expansively—to mean not just looking at written texts but more broadly seeing, recognizing, understanding, or thinking about the world. I’m wondering, how do you define “reading” and why use the word “reading” instead of something broader like “thinking”?
SHANNON: Originally, my choice of the term reading was purely tactical. If seeing, recognizing, understanding, thinking, assessing, and acting in and about the world through the production of social things can be separated from the term reading, then they can be excluded from school curricula. If they are inseparable moments of reading, then they remain basic skills (See Herb Kohl’s pre-TikTok Basic Skills – 1982). My route to this realization maps my development as a critically pragmatic reader with a sociological imagination. That is, the choice stemmed from reading personal experiences (my problem?) and eventually recognizing that they are actually social issues produced and maintained through the texts of powerful discourses in and out of schools (K-20).
By the early 1970s when I was a history graduate student, Americans had been lied to about the Bay of Pigs, Tet Offensive, and bombing of Cambodia; two Kennedys, Malcolm X, Salvador Allende, Fred Hampton and Martin Luther King assassinations; the “collapse” of Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers; and the Angela Davis and the Chicago 7 trials. Official and mainstream representations of these events across time and media led to Richard Nixon being elected and re-elected with an agenda to win the cold war militarily and to bring law and order back to American streets. I lost faith in the path I had chosen at the end of college to become a historian of societal outsiders, which I believed would help more people to develop their “sociological imaginations” (C. Wright Mills), overcoming the “repressive tolerance of a one-dimensional society” (Herbert Marcuse), and thus, freeing their minds to rationally pursue the truth (J. S. Mill). Although certainly necessary, more historically accurate information (reconstructed history books) about the neglected in society no longer seemed adequate. Rather I thought what would be vital, but lacking, was the habitual practice of accessing, interpreting, assessing, and acting upon daily information, artifacts, and events to secure the original promises of liberal democracy. To me, that practice was the act of reading which could be extended and spread through public schooling. I joined the Teacher Corp and set my sights on the first R.
Despite the economic, racial, cultural, and religious diversity among the families of my first class of kindergarten students, the school district supplied me with the DISTAR Language and Reading program and required me to “teach reading” by following the scripts in its teacher’s manual for a specified amount of time daily. The authors of DISTAR assumed that my students had little or no prior experience with reading, phonological or syntactic command of English, or interest in learning to read or in the world around them. They argued their approach was scientifically based. Lessons consisted of small groups articulating phonemes in unison with me. When those articulations were “mastered”, I was to point to manipulated letter symbols arranged randomly on a page in the teacher’s manual and groups were to produce the corresponding sounds (pretending that English has one-to-one letter to sound correspondence). When mastered, I was to point to a symbol to elicit the assigned sound from all, and then, run my finger to another symbol to “make a syllable or blend” as students slurred the first with second phoneme. Eventually, we all graduated to words, phrases, short sentences, and sentence strings (called stories).
All materials were black print on off white newsprint with no illustrations. To ensure that parents participated in these reading instructions, students were to bring home half-sheet “student copies” of the stories to demonstrate their mastery of reading. Standardization through teacher and student fidelity to the program assumptions and scripts were presented as the keys to success in reading, in school, and in life. There were no expected discussions of the meaning of the program’s texts or the practices encouraged in or outside of the classroom. When the students finished the last DISTAR lessons, they and I began the daily lessons supplied in commercially prepared reading materials, (called basals), following more loosely scripted lessons as we worked our way through anthologies, workbooks, worksheets, and criterion reference tests across grades 1 through 6. This defined learning “to read at school.”
Because the remainder of the kindergarten curriculum was not prescribed except by name of subjects, the students and I had time to discuss their lives outside of school, their interests, habits, family traditions, ideas about how the world works, media use (TV and radio)….Later, I came to recognize these discussions as examples of what William James meant by “pluralism:” there will always be different perspectives and interpretations of any idea, event or artifact – all work in some situations and none are superior in all. We used these talks and their surroundings to read their worlds to consider how people use symbols to make meaning and get things done. While emphasizing the “why” of reading, we engaged in the “how”, attending to salient features (color, size, position) in images and things and studying phonics by recognizing and using Sylvia Ashton Warner’s Key Words techniques (Zoo), examples from Septima Clark’s and Beatrice Robinson’s Freedom Schools (“What’s a good a word? Amendment”), local store signs (Red and White), and learning to recognize everyone’s printed name (from Abby to Zimbalist) posted on their cubbies and supply boxes. To varying degrees, all participated in what Allan Luke and Peter Freebody would later call the four-resource model of reading – code cracking, meaning making, determine use and effects of genre, and social analyses – without any of us knowing these labels.
I found willing confederates among the music, art, and gym teachers to help us study how sounds, images, and bodies can be used symbolically to represent our intentions to mean. We called this “reading”, and because I lived in the neighborhood and looped with many of these students through the primary grades (K-3), I had time to demonstrate how this reading blended with their family members’ reading outside of school. By our third year together, we had convinced our building administrator that DISTAR was not appropriate for our community; unfortunately, my fellow teachers chose to replace DISTAR with a single K-6 set of commercial reading materials (with significant amounts of promised free components and staff development promised by their publishers) for reading instruction at our school. That “other stuff” that we employed daily as reading, while not necessarily harmful, was considered “beside the point”. Those practices, you see, were not essentials in an elementary school curriculum…
I finished my four-year commitment to shepherd those students and families through the primary grades and enrolled at the University of Minnesota (then famous for its reading research program) to try to understand how my colleagues’ decision could make sense. The best outcome of that move was that I read my first-day schedule incorrectly, went to the wrong office, and met Kathleen (I’m married to Kathleen). Another outcome was that I began to develop an understanding of reading at school. My first course – History of Research on Reading – assigned titles such as The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading (Huey, 1908), Reading as Reasoning (Thorndike, 1917), Remembering (Barlett 1932), Literature as Exploration (Rosenblatt, 1933)….These texts and my peers’ discussion of them taught me that my interpretation of reading was not wrong or beside the point because reading was information processing, not ever mastered or easily transferred among situations or tasks, colored by cultural attitudes and personal habits, and involved emotions as well as reason.
Buoyed with those insights, I used the intellectual tools I brought with me to class (Marxism/critical theory) and began to develop new ones (pragmatism – old, new, American and French – Richard Bernstein) to understand my experiences with past colleagues (and continued experiences in and around reading education over 40 years). Marxism directed me toward analyses of the social relations embedded in those commercially prepared basals. Critical theory honed my attention to how power was/is used in reading education (in at least the U. S.). The pragmatists pointed toward the language school personnel use to represent and reflect upon their interests and experiences while teaching reading, and then, to follow the consequences of their acting on those reflections. I concluded initially that three hegemonic discourses (science, business, and the state) speak through school personnel’s words and actions (Broken Promises, 1988). I’ve tracked the consequences of those discourses over time (e.g., Reading Against Democracy, 2007; Closer Readings of the Common Core, 2013; and Reading Poverty in America, 2014).*
You can read current consequences of the continued power of those three discourses in the recent struggles over the definitions of reading and reading instruction as it played out in the New York Times this spring – insisting reading is a psychological, not a set of social, cultural, and historical practices; treating reading instruction as a market and reading as human capital, not creative, contextualized, human endeavors; and mandating guidelines for schools and teachers to overcome social and economic inequalities, not social problems in need of collective democratic solutions.
For example, the New York Times reported that the COVID pandemic resulted in a “reading crisis” across the country as systematic reading lessons moved online render the lessons to be parents’ responsibility (Jonathan Wolfe). Reflecting on his struggles with learning to read at school, the new mayor of New York City mandated that city teachers be “trained” to use phonics-based commercial reading programs to teach reading in order to overcome the crisis (Lola Fadulu). Ten days later, a Times reporter described how Columbia University professor Lucy Calkins “retreated” from meaning centered lesson to a more sound oriented position in her commercial materials (which occupies one quarter of the US market for reading education) (Dana Goldstein).
And the beat (down) goes on… Emily Hanford, Elizabeth Harris and Alexandra Alter, Jeremy C. Young and Jonathan Friedman, Peter Coy.
*I address a history of counter-discourses in The Struggle to Continue, 1990; Progressive Reading Instruction in America, 2017.
CORRIGAN: Throughout the middle chapters of the book you discuss reading specific types of social texts (like NPR and Google Maps), and you also present a more general theory of reading (regarding sociological competence, sociological imagination, pluralism, etc.). In other words, these chapters take up the somewhat traditional matters related to reading: texts, ideas, the life of the mind. But all of that appears bookended with two case studies from “real life,” a less traditional concern for reading: one case is about the fate of a canyon wilderness area and the other is about a dying town being revitalized and the questions are about what to do and what is being done in each situation that affects real lives of real people and environments. Through this bookending, the reading life gets anchored in the life of action—even activism—such that reading is not just about thinking and feeling but also about doing. Can you elaborate on that?
SHANNON: Bear with me…I find it not useful to consider ideas separately from actions because we must experiment to adapt to continuously changing physical and social environments. That need to adapt, to experiment, induces our ideas; not the other way around. Wide-awake reading is an array adaptation practices – ways for Americans to enhance our “self-evident” right to participate as peers with all others in the making of democratic social life. Perhaps, that is what could be meant by reading as activism – wide awake readers refuse to cede that right to others and exercise ‘intelligent action.’ I didn’t make this up – see quotes below – listed in chronological order, not the order of my ‘discovery’ of these authors (Marx, Foucault, Dewey, Emerson).
Emerson: Circles 1841
In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. No love can be bound by oath or covenant to secure it against a higher love. No truth so sublime but it may be trivial to-morrow in the light of new thoughts. People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.
I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle anything as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.
Marx: Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, 1888
The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
Dewey: Democracy and Education (1916)
We can definitely foresee results only as we make careful scrutiny of present conditions, and the importance of the outcome supplies the motive for observations. The more adequate our observations, the more varied is the scene of conditions and obstructions that presents itself, and the more numerous are the alternatives between which choice may be made. In turn, the more numerous the recognized possibilities of the situation, or alternatives of action, the more meaning does the chosen activity possess, and the more flexibly controllable it is.
Foucault: “On the Genealogy of Ethics’ (1983)
My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism. I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine which is the main danger.
Human agency begins in the deep and critical reading of the present conditions in our attempts to adapt to continuously changing environments. Marx directs Emerson’s experimenters to collective action within their historical contexts, and toward equality; Dewey engages experimenters in intelligent actions to address social problems to move closer to the realization of the promises of democracy; and Foucault warns experimenters that consequences of all alternatives are dangerous, at least to some group(s), regardless of experimenters’ aims. He rejects cynicism and passivity, setting individual and collective daily agendas to decide and act on the main dangers.
CORRIGAN: In Reading Wide Awake, you connect reading to an embrace of such values as democracy, dissensus, difference, pluralism. The idea is that reading can enable and motivate readers to genuinely dialogue with those who are different and who hold different values, beliefs, opinions. But Reading Wide Awake came out in 2011, a few years before what appeared to me to be a remarkable intensification of conflict, fake news, and bad faith arguments in the United States—the Trump era. Has your hope for the possibilities of collaboration, dissensus, and dialogue changed since?
SHANNON: My short answer is “no.” If anything, the last decade has made me more committed to those values, and I thank you for considering that “reading wide awake” could serve as a tool in the on-going “real utopian project” of the making of democracy for these times. Many share your interpretation (although they vary in readings of the problem): Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Michael D. Shear, Sarah Vowell, Max Fisher.
Liberal democracy is not a thing or a template to be applied; rather, it is a method for identifying and solving the common problems of securing the rights of life and pursuit of happiness for all, across time and contexts. According to John Dewey, “The democratic faith in equality is the faith that each individual shall have the chance and opportunity to contribute whatever he is capable of contributing, and that the value of his contribution be decided by its place and function in the organized total of similar contributions: —not on the basis of prior status of any kind whatever.”
For the individual, democracy means having a share in directing the activities of the group – participatory parity; for the group, democracy demands the development and maintenance of social arrangements enabling the liberation of the potentials of each individual member. Those are unmet promises made in the second sentence of The Declaration of Independence. Democratic patriots are keepers of that faith, acting to ensure that this country lives up to those principles within and across its borders. I am a patriot.
Other patriots and I read the texts and contexts to name, resist, dismantle barriers to democratic possibilities and to develop and maintain social arrangements which would enable greater participatory party among all groups and individuals. Even among patriots, however, conflict is likely because we begin our searches for just social arrangements from differing historical positions, and therefore, while we share at least a rhetorical goal, our interests and strategies will differ necessarily. Chantel Mouffe (2018) argues “in a democratic polity, conflict and confrontation, far from being a sign of imperfection, indicate that democracy is alive and inhabited by pluralism.” What we patriots need then are ways to keep that agonism from becoming antagonism. Many imply that it might already be too late for dissensus – a process of identifying differences and locating these differences in relation to each other, leading to collective explanations of how people differ, where their differences come from, and whether they can live and work together with these differences. However, unless individuals and groups have given up entirely on democratic faith, I believe dissensus is possible and necessary to build coalitions among disparate groups to continue the search for and reality of democratic social arrangements.
If we engage in real utopian projects for liberal democracy within pluralistic societies, then patriots must engage in practices of dissensus to support others and ourselves as we sort through our repertoires of social discourses to find points of, at least temporary, agreement. Dissensus affords the possibility(ies) for coalitions to form around specific goals and strategies to act intelligently toward the promises of democracy. As Eric Olin Wright (2010) explained, these projects are utopian because we are thinking about alternatives that embody our deepest aspirations for a just society, and each is real because we continue to experiment with and deliberate within our associated ways of living as we struggle toward the just (and flexible) social arrangements across contexts and time. Reading wide awake can alert us to the ways power works through the “texts” of our lives, enabling us patriots to tame the harm caused by barriers to participatory parity, to erode those barriers through our actions, and to experiment toward just social arrangements. Keep the democratic faith!
CORRIGAN: Since you are on one hand a college professor and on the other hand a scholar who studies K12 education and a teacher who teaches (future) K12 teachers, it seems you have an unique view into both worlds: education in college and education before college. Traditionally and unfortunately, there has been, at least in my experience, little exchange of pedagogy across that line. But I think there are things we could learn from some cross pollination. So in that spirit, I’m curious if you might comment on what commonalities and what differences you see between what we ought to be teaching about reading before college compared to in college.
SHANNON: Most texts I encounter are institutionally produced to teach me who I am, what I should know, value, and do. Unfortunately for me, but certainly by design, they are intended to position me as a consumer, not a producer. Government, business, media news and entertainment, church, science, sports, and other institutions teach me not only to consume goods and services, but also, to swallow expert opinion, idealized representations of the past, and the spectacle of celebrity and success, as if their texts were representations of the way things are and should be. I am to receive from others and not create for myself and contribute with others; I am free to choose among, but not to determine, alternatives. These institutional texts leave little space for me to think outside their intended parameters or to imagine what they left unstated. Their intentions are not my personal problems alone; they are social issues affecting many if not all. These texts, most texts, intend to teach us that civic life is complex and boring, we’re not smart enough to understand or change it, and therefore, we should seek only comfort and security for ourselves and family. These lessons are dangerous for our individual and collective identities and agencies, and I believe, main dangers for the health of our pluralistic democracy.
Except for middle school/junior high, I’ve taught at every level from preschool to doctoral study. (I am afraid of tweens and early adolescents for reasons obvious to anyone who has personal knowledge of this age group.) Reading the texts of my teaching experiences tells me that schools participate in limiting the potential power of reading through decisions surrounding the social arrangements of school curricula and pedagogy. From my first encounter with official reading instruction as a teacher (and a student in the 50s) to the assigned reading list for the History of Reading Research which began my focused study of reading, to my assignment to teach a course on reading and teaching to 300 or more students each semester, schooling has undersold readings’ personal, social, and civic potential. The result, I fear, is that school teaches our students that they are consumers of social life, and not active, equal participants in its continuous making. So my comment to preK-25 teachers about reading is a question (an on-going inquiry really). How can we tame and erode the intentions behind school texts in order to disrupt the production of ‘sleepy’ readers, to develop the social arrangements of our classes, engaging all our students in reading wide awake; and to encourage participatory parity in the making of pluralistic democracies in and out of school?
My recommendation is to trust our students, to see them as interesting and interested, to arrange our courses and readings to enable participatory parity across the differences they bring to class, to seek real reasons for them to engage in dissensus, and to act on their new knowledge and convictions through the discourses we represent.
I’ll share one effort to address this question. During the decade before I retired, I worked with others to reorganize our university’s K-12 reading specialist certification coursework. We sought to add secondary discourses to our students’ repertoires so that they could choose to critique, tame, and erode the typical specialist habitus. Specialists are assigned officially to support students at any grade level who have been labeled as struggling to learn to read and write at school. By law and tradition, these public-school programs are typically organized around assumptions that during their cognitive development of the reading process to date, strugglers have failed to learn one or more code-breaking skills and/or mechanical strategies for extracting meaning from passages – that is their cognitive development of the reading process is incomplete for the demands of their schooling. Specialists are to repair these failures by diagnosing and remediating these problems, bringing students to mastery through scientifically-based reading instruction, and then, to send repaired students back to regular classes able to complete reading assignments. Often, specialists are taught to focus primarily on the how to read and to devote less or little attention to: why read; how texts work; why and how struggling students should assess texts’ intentions; or how struggling students make sense of (all types of) texts outside of school. If these typical reading specialist assumptions, practices, and absences brought the desired consequences, then perhaps, all these explicit and implicit lessons would be warranted. However, beyond the immediate contexts of those lessons, desired outcomes have been scarce – even by their gold standard measure, annual reading test scores. *
Our efforts were complicated by the accreditation processes legally and professionally required for all specialized certification courses. We could not just “do as we pleased.” We proposed our changes as a design experiment with the expected outcome of specialists with competence and imagination. We were approved with “some” concern from the state and some accolades from the profession. Our graduates would be competent (all would pass the state certification licensing exam for reading specialists and be recommended by practicing specialists based on a practicum experience) and imaginative (able to design and act upon social arrangements for learning to read that are not yet, but could be, if specialist focused on the roles for reading in the development of self and democracy). Our assumption for the experiment was that if the specialist could see themselves as reading agents – participants as peers with all others in the decisions of reading programs – they could demonstrate that agency for their students and negotiate/develop social arrangements in their classroom that immersed their students in participatory parity of its social life.
This is getting long and you’re probably now sorry you asked. I’ll be brief. We tripled our teaching workloads to develop three discourses for reading specialists: cognitive, socio-cultural, and political – creating three identity kits of how to speak, think, value and act accordingly across issues of pluralism, policy, scientific warrants, curriculum, and pedagogy. We arranged students in groups of at least three, encouraging the members to deliberate over meanings and likely consequences of their readings of the social things of reading specialists (e.g., cultural differences of experiences, ability grouping, technical reports, time scheduling, state mandates, book chapters, room arrangements, journal articles, pedagogical strategies, tests and assessment procedures, parents/guardians…). Whole class discussions became purposeful exercises of dissensus – always with obligation to move forward toward our state obligation to enter schools to demonstrate reading specialist competence (equipped with multiple discourses with which to read the intentions behind existing school texts), and then, to use our individual and collective imaginations to design, construct, and implement the social arrangements we thought most likely to support our first through eighth grade struggling students as wide-awake readers. From the first course to the tenth, university instructors and school supervisors worked to communicate to each cohort of university students that we expected them to be successful and we were there to support them.
Early in our efforts to remake the reading specialist courses, the students and the instructors decided that a museum was most likely to enable us to develop social arrangements that would afford struggling students the opportunity and support to develop wide awake reading. (There are ten museums on campus of various sizes and budgets.) Each university student cohort began its courses with severe doubts that such students were capable to produce exhibits individually and a museum collectively based solely on their readings and actions. Before the final imagination practicum, we worked collectively to develop our students’ language to discuss, if not believe, that a museum was possible. Doubling down on the university instructors’ belief that our (now) Teachers and their Curators could and would indeed engage actively in the inquiries and production, we scheduled a grand opening for the museum on the last day of practicum.
Following John Dewey’s (1938) notion that the realization of any ideal must be based on experience, Teachers organized practicums’ social arrangements to reduce, if not eliminate, barriers to each Curator’s participation as a peer in the design, construction, and presentation of multimodal museum exhibits on a central topic (e.g., habitats, transportation, weather). Prior to the practicum, neither Teachers nor Curators were experts concerning museums or the central topic, although each brought differing amounts of experience with each. They would learn both together. Teachers provided support for Curators as they read to become experts on the topic (“What do you know about . . . ? How do you know that? What would you like to learn about? Would you like help with that?”), and then, write and with the assistance of a resident community artist create multimodal texts to represent their new knowledge for the expected visitors to the museum (“What caught your interest in the museum we visited? How was it interesting? What would you like to write and show about your new knowledge? Would you like help with that?”).
Scores of family members, university personnel, and former participants visited the two-hour museum opening each year. We never had to defend our goals and methods to visitors, parents or Curators because our practice-based events (process and product) trumped the evidence-based practices that Curators (and their parents/guardians) experienced at school. Although the thick school folders that accompany Curators label them as autistic, behind, ELL, learning disabled, dyslexic, or ADHD, every Curator demonstrated her/his/their literate competence by producing and presenting (proudly) an exhibit situated prominently within the museum (two university classrooms and a connecting hallway). And every Teacher showed some signs of reading wide awake. Here’s an excerpt of Teacher Joshua’s final report on Curator Tim.
What does Tim need? It depends:
If you read his folder….
If you watch him during independent reading,…
If you sit next to him and listen to him read a book you picked for him….
But if you work with him on his model train, then….
The first three “ifs” suggest that Tim can’t read well enough to engage in inquiry, and therefore, he needs preliminary skill lessons before you start. The last one shows you that you don’t know Tim or his capabilities unless you let him participate (2014).
* Despite a century of reading research and billions of dollars invested annually in reading education, students from low income families (Carnoy & Rothstein, 2013)— confounded by race (Vigor, 2011), immigrant status (Swartz & Stiefel, 2011) and segregated location (Burdkick-Will et al., 2011)—continue to “struggle” with school literacy. Although some schools have made modest improvements (Rowan, 2011), the overall income achievement gap has increased by 40% since the Reagan Administration (Reardon, 2011).
CORRIGAN: You stress in Reading Wide Awake that you’re still learning how to read. So what have you learned since writing this book?
SHANNON: In 2017, Penn State offered the ARod-deal to all employees of a certain age and length of employment. We had lived in the Happy Valley since 1990. I qualified, took the year’s salary to not come back (the NY Yankees offered this deal to Alex Rodriguez to induce his retirement), and began to write an operetta entitled ‘Bourne in the USA’ (while trying vainly to read ‘flow offense’ during noon basketball games). I’m working on a third draft, learning how to read many genres of musical theater in front of and behind the curtain as well as popular music at the turn of the 19th century and symbols of American social, economic, intellectual, and political history between the depression of ’93 and the end of WWI. It continues to be a thrilling, and humbling experience. When I admit to others what I’m doing “these days”, they often ask: “How are you prepared?” “Who’s Bourne?” “Why now?” “What will Bruce say?”
I have played in a garage band since 1966 (The Root Beer Beaver), appeared in several musicals as a high school student (portraying a sailor in the South Pacific, a Jet, and Conrad Birdie), and maintained a dozen or so pages of decades-old notes on Randolph Bourne. I have formal training in neither music nor theater. When Kathleen and I visit theaters now, we are becoming “wide awake” to ways in which all involved work collectively to produce that play on that “stage” in these times to teach the audience who we are, what we should know and value, and what we should do. In State College, NYC and the Twin Cities, these lessons have changed our theatering experiences, making us attentive differently than my pre-Bourne afternoons and evenings.
I declare that I’m a playwright in the making who is sampling the melodies from popular songs of Bourne’s times, rewriting lyrics to “teach” audiences Bourne’s democracy faith, and drawing images of staging for each scene, both acts, and the whole play. This is shorthand for the new ways I’m reading: new technologies, musical notation, emotional effects of auditory, physical, and visual symbols, historical presentism, lyricism across time, and technical, kinesthetic, physical, and aesthetic practices and objects of musical theater. Keeps me busy.
I picked Bourne as a subject because his life offers remarkable examples of reading wide awake and the challenges of patriotism. Bourne was a social critic and essayist who died in 1918 at the age of 32. I “discovered” Bourne (and began my notes) while reading about John Dewey and the counter-hegemonic discourse of progressive education (unassigned, but necessary texts for that first course in the UMN doctoral program). Bourne was Dewey’s student at Columbia University and wrote two books on education (and another concerning youth culture). I reconnected with Bourne when I read Jeremy McCarter’s 2017 New Yorker piece “The Critic Who Refuted Trump’s World View, in 1916.” McCarter called Bourne, the “Anti-Trump” for Bourne’s essay “Trans-National America” (published in The Atlantic Monthly). Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen devoted three pages to that essay in her 2021 book American Intellectual History: A Very Short Introduction (Thomas Jefferson gets two pages and Dewey none in the 130 pages of prose). Between 1911 and 1918, Bourne wrote over 1400 essays that were published in regional and national magazines (e.g., Columbia Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, The Masses, The Dial, Seven Arts).
In its current form, the operetta has two acts. I’ve structured the first around Bourne’s writing of his first national publication “The Handicapped by One of Their Own” (The Atlantic Monthly, 1914). The attending physician misused forceps during Bourne’s birth, changing the shape of his head and altering his breathing, voice, and hearing. At four, Bourne contracted spinal tuberculosis, which over three years curved his spine and limited his gate and height. The Atlantic publisher asked Bourne to write an autobiographical piece to explain his life “struggles.” That essay is often cited as a founding manifesto of the disability rights movement in America. It ends: “Do not take the world too seriously, nor let too many social conventions oppress you. Keep sweet your sense of humor, and above all do not let any morbid feelings of inferiority creep into your soul.”
Floyd Dell’s obituary for Bourne (1919) frames the second act, highlighting Bourne’s participation in the bohemian culture of Greenwich Village, his “Trans-National America” argument for cosmopolitanism over melting pot assimilation to adopted Anglo Saxon cultural expectations, and his vanguard leadership of the anti-war movement (See Twilight of Idols, 1917). In the latter, Bourne explained that Americans couldn’t “make the world safe for democracy” by suppressing it at home or through military force abroad. Bourne’s positions proved unpopular with business and the state, and Bourne died of the Spanish Flu penniless and sleeping on his fiancee’s divan. As Dell (1919) explained:
“There are few avenues of expression for protest, however sane and far-seeing, against the mood of a nation in arms; and one by one, most of these were closed to him as he went on speaking out his thought. It is one of the more subtly tragic aspects of his death, a misfortune not only to a fecund mind that needed free utterance, but to a country which is nearly starved for thought, that he should in these last years have been doomed to silence.”
Oh, and I anticipate Springsteen and E Street will play the opening bars of the overture…