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Born in the U.S.A.

Birth, Commemoration, and American Public Memory

edited by Seth Bruggeman

Publication Year: 2012

Scores of birthplace monuments and historic childhood homes dot the American landscape. These special places, many dating to the early years of the last century, have enshrined nativity alongside patriotism and valor among the key pillars of the nation’s popular historical imagination. The essays in this volume suggest that the way Americans have celebrated famous births reflects evolving expectations of citizenship as well as a willingness to edit the past when those hopes go unfulfilled. The contributors also demonstrate that the reinvention of origin myths at birthplace monuments still factors in American political culture and the search for meaning in an ever-shifting global order. Beyond asking why it is that Americans care about birthplaces and how they choose which ones to commemorate, Born in the U.S.A. offers insights from historians, curators, interpretive specialists, and others whose experience speaks directly to the challenges of managing historical sites. Each essay points to new ways of telling old stories at these mainstays of American memory. The case of the modern house museum receives special attention in a provocative concluding essay by Patricia West. In addition to West and the editor, contributors include Christine Arato, Dan Currie, Keith A. Erekson, David Glassberg, Anna Thompson Hajdik, Zachary J. Lechner, Paul Lewis, Hilary Iris Lowe, Cynthia Miller, Laura Lawfer Orr, Robert Paynter, Angela Phelps, and Paul Reber.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Public History in Historical Perspective

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Every edited collection relies for its success on the countless lifelines that buoy each of its contributors, and so I reserve these acknowledgments for those folks who helped our shared enterprise along. First thanks on that account go to Brian Horrigan of the Minnesota Historical Society ...

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Introduction: Locating the Birthplace in American Public Memory

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pp. 1-26

Does it matter where we are born? Does “the accent of one’s birthplace,” as the early modern pundit François de La Rochefoucauld put it, “[persist] in the mind and heart as much as in one’s speech?” Or does our obsession with origins amount to a fool’s quest? ...

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1. Remembering John Muir, the Trans-Atlantic “Father” of Wilderness Conservation

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pp. 27-48

John Muir’s lifelong adventure began in 1838 in the town of Dunbar on the windswept east coast of Scotland and ended seventy-six years later and five thousand miles away in California. A love of the outdoors nurtured in the land of his birth blossomed with his experiences in America, ...

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2. This House Holds Many Memories: Constructions of a Presidential Birthplace at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site

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pp. 49-72

In September 1960, in his address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy acknowledged the need to tackle the “so-called religious issue,” which had until that moment overshadowed his presidential campaign. ...

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3. Commemorating Jimmy Carter and Southern Rural Life in Plains, Georgia

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pp. 73-94

One of the defining characteristics of any historical birthplace is the connection between person and place, particularly the notion that one must know where an individual comes from in order to understand him or her. This is certainly the message in Plains, Georgia (population 776), the birthplace and current home of President Jimmy Carter ...

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4. Authenticity and Interpretation at Mark Twain’s Birthplace Cabins

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pp. 95-112

Samuel Clemens’s birthplace in Florida, Missouri, has changed a great deal since he was born there in 1835. In the intervening years, Clemens—or, more accurately, “Mark Twain,” his nom de plume—has become a household name. ...

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5. Stratford Hall: A Memorial to Robert E. Lee?

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pp. 113-130

Stratford Hall is a historic home set on 1,900 acres in Westmoreland County on Virginia’s Northern Neck Peninsula. Constructed circa 1738 by Thomas and Hannah Lee, it was home to four generations of the Lee family. These four generations included many well-known figures who shaped American history. ...

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6. Memories, Monuments, and Mormonism: The Birthplace of Joseph Smith in Vermont

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pp. 131-152

A large stone on the side of a hill near South Royalton, Vermont, bears a plaque with these words: “Around this hearthstone and its glowing fireplace, two days before Christmas 1805, the Smith family washed, dressed and cuddled the future organizer of ‘God’s Kingdom Restored.’ ” ...

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7. Rosine, Kentucky: Birthplace of Bill Monroe and American Bluegrass Music

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pp. 153-174

The commemoration of Bill Monroe’s birthplace in Rosine, Kentucky (population 41), began with a single nail that, once driven, reshaped the life of an entire town. The May 26, 2001, nail-driving ceremony marked the beginning of a restoration project, but it also drew together the people, places, and memories of the town ...

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8. “Right Here in Mason City”: Meredith Willson and Musical Memory in the American Midwest

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pp. 175-196

Iowans marveled at reports of a record-breaking fourteen-pound baby born in Mason City on May 18, 1902.1 That big baby, otherwise known as Meredith Willson, never stopped grabbing headlines. Grown to be a talented musician and entertainer, the adult Willson penned popular songs, film scores, books, and most notably, several Broadway shows. ...

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9. Paulsdale: Adapting Alice Paul’s Birthplace for a New Generation of Leaders

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pp. 197-216

A charming historic home sits quietly atop six-and-a-half acres in a suburban New Jersey neighborhood thirteen miles outside Philadelphia. Inside, however, it is anything but quiet. Twenty-five eighth-grade girls squeal with delight as they scramble to free themselves from a “human knot.” ...

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10. The Raven in the Frog Pond: Edgar Allan Poe and the City of Boston

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pp. 217-240

One of the best-kept secrets in Boston’s literary history concerns the most influential writer qua writer ever born here: Edgar Allan Poe. And the secret is this: he was born here! Over the 200 years leading up to the bicentennial of Poe’s birth on January 19, 2009, his connections to other East Coast cities ...

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11. Du Bois in Great Barrington: The Promises and Pitfalls of a Boyhood Historic Site

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pp. 241-258

Two places on the international historical landscape have been set aside to commemorate the remarkable life of W. E. B. Du Bois. One is the W. E. B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture in Accra, Ghana, an impressive burial site and research center built by the Republic of Ghana at the house and compound where Du Bois last resided. ...

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Conclusion: Of Babies and Bathwater—Birthplace “Shrines” and the Future of the Historic House Museum

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pp. 259-266

I write the concluding essay of this volume at a time when the viability of the historic house museum is in doubt. So it is with great concern that I approach the question of what the nature of the birthplace site can tell us about the meaning and future of the house museum. ...

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About the Contributors

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pp. 267-270

Christine Arato is the chief historian and National Historic Landmarks program manager for the Southeast Region of the National Park Service. She is currently at work on planning and documentation projects for the Blue Ridge Parkway, Natchez National Historical Park, and a new park area that will interpret Reconstruction. ...


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pp. 271-283

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613762097
E-ISBN-10: 1613762097
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499379
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499377

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 12 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Public History in Historical Perspective

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Historic sites -- United States.
  • Birthplaces -- United States.
  • Collective memory -- United States.
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