Walt Whitman and Blue Jeans

I’ve really enjoyed Levi’s recent ‘Go Forth’ ad campaign produced by the hotshot advertising firm of Wieden & Kennedy. I first saw one while watching a football game, and the entire room full of people gradually fell silent. That’s pretty impressive for a non-Super Bowl ad spot.

Beyond being visually arresting and creative, the campaign offers up a vision of America that (by mainstream Madison Avenue standards) is fresh and edgy. The basic set-up of the sixty-second commercials is flashing imagery of denim-clad youngsters moving frenetically. Sounds like a fairly typical clothing ad. Except that it includes footage of post-Katrina New Orleans and is set to a Walt Whitman poem – in one of the spots, (supposedly) the reading comes from a wax cylinder recording of Whitman himself. Put in comparison to a concurrently-running ad campaign by Wrangler that involves Brett Favre tossing a football to a George Thorogood soundtrack, and you really get a sense for just how different this campaign is:



The imagery isn’t super sophisticated – a neon AMERICA sign half-submerged in flood water opens and closes the “America” spot. Some people might feel that throwing in a kissing interracial couple (or a kissing gay couple in “OPioneers!”) is tokenizing. But Levi’s has managed to construct a divergent conception of what exactly is America, no small feat for a corporate ad campaign. The new commercials are oddly triumphant, but with a disquieting edge to them. Children are running through fields, but in this new world they’re doing so under a looming electrical grid. There is laughter and muscle-flexing and vibrancy, but it’s against a backdrop of chain-link fences or broken down buildings. Blue jeans have constituted an enduring symbol of rural, down-to-earth, industrial America, an image that Levi’s has helped to cultivate in its lengthy, 130+ year-old history.  The fact that the same company would now stake itself to such a contrasting campaign speaks volumes. Is Levi’s banking on a collective shift in the American psyche? That we are open to moving beyond a cornfields-and-cowboys idea of American denim? What exactly is the alternative vision they’re hoping the American consumer will identify with? I have no idea, and that’s part of what makes this campaign intriguing.

Naming the Crisis

How will future generations refer to the current financial crisis? When my grandchildren open up their history textbooks (assuming we still have such archaic things as textbooks, history classes, schools, or progeny), what will this event be called?  A seemingly simple, parlor-game question actually sparks far more interesting issues of historical memory and commemoration.

That the Great Depression is called “The Great Depression” speaks to its severity and trauma within our national psyche. Much like the unseen, shadow-lurking monster of a horror movie, it’s lack of specificity (time, place, duration) makes it that much scarier. Was the Panic of 1873 originally referred to with a similarly ominous lack of specificity, and only later refined to make room for the more recent, “Great” depression? Does popular memory only have room for a handful of superlative events? Most people no longer refer to World War I as the Great War (or the the even less-accurate-in-hindsight “War to End All Wars”), precisely because it was eclipsed by World War II. Suddenly, assigning the “Great” label to WWI would seem like a disservice to the massive tragedy of WWII. One hopes that today’s credit crisis does not reach the epic proportions to similarly displace the saga of the 1930’s as our nation’s new Great Depression.

At what point do events transcend from being a present reality to a past event? This is an ongoing question for historians, but one that aptly fits to any major current event. There are some events that have a sharp and declarative starting and ending points (think 9/11 or JFK’s assassination). These seem to move into the realm of the past with a great degree of ease. Although Americans lived in a state of fear for the days and weeks after 9/11, waiting for another terrorist attack, the day itself seemed to become a memorialized event rather quickly. On the other hand, a small minority might argue (particularly Bush apologists) that 9/11 was actually the commencement of an ongoing war on terror, and therefore is not even in our past.

Even clearly bounded events can become murky within popular memory. One historical study of such an event that I particularly liked was Alfred Young’s The Shoemaker and the Teaparty: Memory and the American Revolution, which uses the life and experience of one relatively minor player in the Boston Tea Party  to examine both the event itself and how it came to be commemorated. Young describes how the “Boston Tea Party” was not in fact called by this name until the 1830’s. Today it is one of the most well-known non-military events in popular American lore:

At the other end of the spectrum are those events that are not in fact events, but broader movements, transformations, or even eras. Naming these events proves just as problematic. “The Roaring Twenties” might have indeed been roaring, but has the name stuck primarily because of its contrast to the decades bracketing them? “The Gold Rush,” while colorful in every sense, uses a somewhat narrow term to describe a much broader movement of people. Some labels seem to come easier – “The Cold War” is about as widely-used and definitive as any other major era in American history. In comparison, we have yet to assign a commonly accepted moniker for the prosperous years of the 1990’s, beyond maybe the Clinton Years.

The question remains: what will the name become for the current financial crisis? Will it be “The Global Financial Crisis of 2008” (according to Wikipedia)? “The Global Credit Crisis”? “The Banking Collapse”? Hopefully not “Armageddon” or “The End of America”. Naming the crisis will depend largely on the future – its duration, severity, and scope. Regardless, it is probably too late to hope that it will pass into the historical annals of minor events too unimportant to name. For better or for worse, it marks a turning point in American history.

City of Memory

Hat tip to Tellhistory for their link to the City of Memory site. Constructed by City Lore, a cultural heritage non-profit, the site uses a map of New York City as a base layer over which is laid individual “stories” represented by dot markers. Clicking on a dot brings up a window with more information about that story, often including poems, images, audio, or video. Roughly half the stories were uploaded by the site’s curators, while the other half were uploaded by individual users. Some of the stories are physically linked on the map if they belong to a common theme. For example, there are six dots/stories in the Chinatown area, and each one brings up a different aspect of the area, narrated on video by a guide.

The entire site is very well-done. The design is crisp and professional, and the random sampling of stories I clicked on worked seamlessly. I also liked the separate tab within each story to see the site overlaid onto a more detailed Yahoo map. The very Web 2.0 feature of allowing useres to contribute stories follows the same vein of other projects such as CHNM‘s September 11 Digital Archives project, and I think is a phenomenal development for public history. Finally, the idea of using a map as a base layer for the project seems to work well, as it serves to geographically place these memories in a way that makes them more accessible.