Born in the U.S.A.: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory ed. by Seth C. Bruggeman (review)
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Born in the U.S.A.: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory. Edited by Seth C. Bruggeman. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012. Pp. 269. $80.00 cloth; $26.95 paper)

As contributing author Zachary J. Lechner reminds us in Born in the U.S.A: Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory, “No one is a pure product of his or her youth” (p. 81). Yet the essays in Seth C. Bruggeman’s edited collection illustrate that Americans have long enshrined the birth homes of compatriots and, in doing so, have claimed an essential relationship between birthplace, belonging, [End Page 278] character, and nation. From presidents to bluegrass pioneers, subjects of birthplace commemoration are (especially now) wide-ranging; fittingly, scholars from diverse backgrounds—historians, anthropologists, education specialists, and literary experts—provide eleven case studies that spotlight the continued fascination of the public with origin stories, place, and purpose. Invoking the duty of public historians to pay close attention to the political undertones of public-memory work, Bruggeman set a task for contributors to “identify what is at stake and who is at play in the politics of remembering birth” (p. 5).

The essays very much succeed in capturing the stakes and claimants of birthplace commemoration. From documenting its golden age at the turn of the twentieth century to more recent attempts by communities to bring in tourist dollars, the authors collectively present a valuable addition to our understanding of the “shrinification” of the American landscape after the Civil War (p. 8). Chapters are divided loosely by theme, but because there is so much thematic cross-pollination, it was largely Bruggeman’s short introductions of each essay that alerted this reader to specific delineations. The first chapters broadly explore issues of authenticity in birth sites; the next section looks at case studies from the golden age of commemoration; these are followed by several chapters dedicated to the use of birthplace in heritage-tourism campaigns; and the collection is finally rounded out with essays that look to new directions in natal narratives.

Key themes connect the entire work, and those are worth mentioning in this short review. The nature of authenticity—and what the public defines as essential or authentic—surfaces in nearly all essays, whether in regards to the physical fabric of the birth site (Angela Phelps’s study of the John Muir home in Dunbar, Scotland, for example) or with regard to the dubious veracity or provenance of a birth home (as in the case of the Mark Twain). As Christine Arato asserts in her essay on the John F. Kennedy birthplace, the public often demands (and site managers willingly offer) a “performance” of authenticity within birth sites, making it difficult for the site to [End Page 279] offer a complex interpretation that goes beyond glorification of the individual (p. 68).

Almost all authors plumb the depths of the political, as Bruggeman suggests, so that each case study offers nuanced insight into the negotiation between demand, production, and receptivity of commemorative sites. Standout examples of this kind of elucidation (though all essays are engaging) are Zachary Lechner’s study of the Jimmy Carter Historic District in Plains, Georgia, and David Glassberg and Robert Paynter’s essay on the W. E. B. Du Bois birth site in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. In the case of Jimmy Carter, the complexities of commemorating a living person (and one who has had much say in the interpretation of his own life) makes for fascinating reading. Engrossing, too, is the story of Du Bois’s own attempts to rescue his boyhood home and the politics of (failed) attempts to honor a radical thinker at the height of the Cold War. The authors of both essays also offer ways that a broader social history of place and more complicated narratives of identity and adulthood can be woven into origins stories.

Looking ahead to the future of birthplace commemoration, Patricia West offers a concluding piece on historic homes and birth sites that raises the issue of the invisibility of true birth stories—rarely is the story of physical birth (or one about historical sexual norms and practices, I would add) presented to the...