Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.Posted: May 28, 2011
Listen: this was supposed to be so much better.
It was supposed to involve Max, my seven-year-old French Water Dog, or “Barbet.” (Those are his eyes, above. Who’s a good boy?) The idea was to travel the country—Max, Klim, and I—visiting every presidential birthplace and photographing the dog in front of each one, possibly clad in period clothing.
All in one fell swoop.
We would make this a Tumblr, of course—Pictures of a Dog at Presidential Birthplaces, or something—and from there we would secure a coffee table book deal and make millions (read: hundreds) and possibly end up on The Today Show (read: YouTube). (I have great experience with frivolous coffee table book deals. Just last semester I submitted a reenact photo pairing to Young Me Now Me, expecting to find it on their site. They replied with other plans: they want us for the book. We’re famous!)
This idea emerged somewhere between an abandoned Coolidge Farm hilltop picnic table and home. Here’s a drunk self-shot we took atop the Coolidge Farm hill. (We were not actually drunk. We were simply experiencing what Edward O. Wilson terms “biophilia,” or something like it.)
We visited the Calvin Coolidge birthplace in Plymouth, Vermont (population: 555), in the dead of winter, when it was not even open. It was secluded and wintry and beautiful, and one of the most memorable visits of my adult life, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. That’s where this project was born. Here are some photos from that trip, December, 2010:
We nixed the dog idea. Lots of things freak out my dog—cars, people, himself, other dogs, other dogs with people, other people in cars. Mostly, it’s best that he stay home.
With Max gone, my project was newly academicized. I applied for an Olin Fellowship—seeking travel funds to visit presidential birthplaces, interview employees and residents, take photos, write about it all summer, nbd. Spoiler alert: I got it. In closing, I offer an excerpt from my Olin application, and a Michael Jackson video. Dig it.
My project explores the notion that presidential birthplaces are more than mere passive markers of historical trivia—that they can, and do, provide rich insight into the ways in which small, otherwise ordinary towns and communities proudly (or, in some cases, reluctantly) insert themselves into the fabric of American political history. My project, then, becomes a way of charting—through descriptive prose, through anecdotes, through quotes and images and varying means of historical reflection—the interconnected qualities linking these otherwise wildly disparate cities and hamlets across America. Drawing on anthropological lessons from Marc Augé’s notion of “places” versus “non-places” as well as Tim Cresswell’s Place: A Short Introduction, I strive to illuminate the thin line between commodification and preservation that makes these sites compelling. Why does (or should) a site of pre-presidential childhood decades (or centuries) ago retain a pull in the present? How does this fascination manifest itself—in historical preservation, in commercialization, in overt expressions of pride and national belonging?