British Association for American Studies


Book Review: American Energy Cinema, ed. by Robert Lifset, Raechel Lutz, and Sarah Stanford-McIntyre 

Book Review: American Energy Cinema, ed. by Robert Lifset, Raechel Lutz, and Sarah Stanford-McIntyre 

West Virginia University Press, $29.99.

The essays in American Energy Cinema set out to show how popular film can be an enlightening primary source for historians who are interested in how Americans have thought about and interpreted the role of energy in their lives and the life of the nation. The premise of the volume is inherently exciting and feels like uncharted territory – gather together a group of historians whose work has not necessarily considered film before, give each contributor the task of writing about a single example, and relay valuable insights that were gained through multiple rewatches and careful research around the background of each production.

You might initially be concerned that taking a ‘Pick a Movie’ approach to editing could result in a dizzyingly structured volume that is unable to form any consistent narratives about cultural history, but this ends up being a considerable strength. The chapters, which are arranged in sections addressing the themes of disaster, nature, the West, morality and the state, are reliably engaging as reflections on films as products of the societies in which they were made, and impress as highly personalised examples of historical practice emerging in response to a new brief. American Energy Cinema, the most recent publication from WVU Press’ Energy and Societies book series, differentiates itself as the inaugural cultural history of energy with film as its primary source. Its contribution to the energy humanities is substantial, pointing towards an entirely new area of study. For the general reader, the essays are a reminder that energy questions have stimulated powerful drama through screenwriting and that narrative film can deliver much needed human perspective to pressing environmental issues.

Figure 1

To start the debate, contributors focus in on Hollywood’s familiar fascination with narratives of disaster, and the opening set of essays complement the relatively established literature on eco-disaster film. Rather than sticking closely to the problem of on-screen depictions of disasters, which has been an approach that books like Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann’s Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the Edge have previously demonstrated. Two papers in this section are particularly valuable in reflecting on how filmmakers have declined to position their work in relation to energy questions off screen [i]. Tyler Priest’s essay on Deepwater Horizon (2016) and Kate Brown’s analysis of the HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019) both foreground examples of the ambivalent relationships that disaster films have had with the environmental implications of the catastrophes they are structured around: a problem condensed in creator and writer Craig Mazin’s assertion that the latter ‘was not an anti-nuclear polemic … anyone who thinks the point of this is that nuclear power is bad, they’ve just missed it’ [ii]. Mazin’s insistence that his project be seen, alternatively, as ‘pro-human’ follows the same argument that Deepwater Horizon’s director Peter Berg communicated during press interviews in anticipation of the project. Speaking with the New Orleans Times-Picayune alongside producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, he remarked that:

‘I want to make a film about people … Everybody knows that there was a horrible environmental disaster. Everybody knows that a lot of animals were killed. But what people don’t know is 11 men were killed and many more were injured and there were some real heroes on that rig. That was a very compelling human story – and that’s the story we all want to tell’ [iii].

This book doesn’t propose that energy cinema is a coherent genre. The topic is too encompassing to bracket in this way and the following thematic sections instead deftly thread together the rich and recurring ideas that have shaped American films about energy during the twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries. The impression that is conveyed is a persistent sense of film’s capacity to vividly reflect the personal, as the above quotes suggest, whilst typically pushing aside the contextual and the structural. The most powerful films are rich in texture but, for this very reason, often narrow in scope. James R. Allison III underscores this blessing, or alternatively curse, in his assessment of Matewan (1987), John Sayles’ enthralling account of miner-company conflict in southern West Virginia. Allison conveys the process whereby networked institutions, in this case the Stone Mountain Coal Company and the United Mine Workers of America, are ‘transformed into a collection of personal relationships’ that play out within the limited spatial context of the company town [iv]. Papers across numerous sections combine to articulate a convincing critique of Hollywood’s recurring tendency to pit hard-scabble individuals against the representatives of far-reaching commercial interests, promoting the democratisation of energy access, particularly through the oil industry, rather than fundamentally questioning the legitimacy of extractive practices.

Figure 2

Following this thread, the text commendably ties together a rich picture of competition for resources and grassroots justice, from settings as varied as the nineteenth century Pennsylvania oil rush (High, Wide and Handsome, 1937), the coalfields of West Virginia (Matewan, 1987), a thirties Tennessee Valley facing social disruption as a result of government land acquisitions for hydropower dams (Wild River, 1960), and a closer to present day recession-hit West Texas (Hell or High Water, 2016). The discussion feels particularly urgent when it is able to touch on how films like Hell or High Water have returned in recent years to the story of how oil supports the economic liberation of insecure white Americans. Mark Boxell’s careful dismantling of the film’s premise, detailing the environmental and corporate realities of Texas around the time of the script’s development, is a gripping read.

The essays in this volume, its editors suggest, set out both to use cinema as a ‘window into American popular understandings of energy’ and to analyse the implications of connections and dependencies between Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington, and the fossil fuel industry. While American Energy Cinema certainly gestures in the latter, materialist, direction, sections that interrogate the sponsorship of film by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey in the 1940s and the use of the oil depletion allowance for tax advantage among the Hollywood wealthy are outliers. Rather, the book’s main contribution is as an enjoyable and accessible venue for historians and scholars to examine how major energy questions have been captured by the popular imagination and reflected the fundamental concerns of American producers and audiences. Individual contributors walk a careful line in negotiating the inherent fun of film and the seriousness of the issues and, as intended, deliver a great resource for engaging readers in far reaching discussions around the cultural implications of energy through history.

End Notes:

[i] Murray, Robert L. and Joseph K. Heumann. Ecology and Popular Film: Cinema on the Edge (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009).

[ii] Adams, Sam. ‘The Creator of Chernobyl on Viewers Taking Away the Wrong Lessons’, Slate, 3 June 2019. < https://slate.com/culture/2019/06/chernobyl-finale-hbo-miniseries-craig-mazin-interview.html>

[iii] Scott, Mike. ‘Deepwater Horizon’ director Peter Berg aims for authenticity in what he describes as a tale of heroism’, The Times-Picayune, 28 March 2015. <https://www.nola.com/entertainment_life/movies_tv/deepwater-horizon-director-peter-berg-aims-for-authenticity-in-what-he-describes-as-a-tale/article_5b8bcfdc-8881-5697-b1dd-d94febe9fde4.html

[iv] Allison, James R., III. ‘Revisiting Matewan (1987): Upending the Appalachian “Western” and Broadening an Old Labor Tale’, in American Energy Cinema, ed. Robert Lifset, Raechel Lutz and Sarah Stanford-McIntyre (Morgantown: West Virginia Press, 2023), pp. 238-254, 245.  


Figure 1. Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, Macondo Prospect, Gulf of Mexico. 20 April 2010 (Wikimedia Commons).

Figure 2. Theatrical release one-sheet poster for the 1960 film Wild River (Wikimedia Commons).

The Transatlantic Studies Association 2023 Annual Conference Panel Review: Transatlantic Memorialisation and Heritage

Reviewed by: Charles Miller

Plymouth Hoe, a public space overlooking Plymouth Sound, Charles Miller, July 2023.

It was fitting that the 2023 Transatlantic Studies Association should choose Plymouth, that historical gateway to the Atlantic, for its conference venue. And it felt right that its opening panel on ‘Transatlantic Memorialisation and Heritage’ should be dominated by discussion of the 2020 commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower from the city. Two of the four panellists, Kathryn Gray from the University of Plymouth and Jo Loosemore, a BBC radio producer, were the academic leaders of this commemoration.

While transatlanticism by definition implies a multinational perspective, there is an appetite today to go the extra nautical mile to be inclusive. So these anniversary events involved not just Plymouth but also Leiden in the Netherlands, where some of the Mayflower’s passengers had been living to escape persecution in England and Cape Cod, to which the Mayflower sailed. And crucially, for the first time Jo emphasised, there were original contributions from representatives of the Wampanoag nation, whose ancestors met and helped the Mayflower settlers, saving them from starvation.

Plymouth’s Gothic Revival Guild Hall, constructed in 1874, Charles Miller, July 2023.

Kathryn said that in planning the celebration, they had worked to turn these separate elements into ‘a single story […] a narrative that everyone felt involved with’. It was an ambitious goal locally because, as Jo remembered with a wry smile, the only artefacts Plymouth council could offer them for their exhibition were those specially created for celebrations of the Mayflower’s previous anniversaries, including, unhelpfully, a collection of mugs, plates, beer mats, and tea towels from the 350th anniversary in 1970. The reason why there was not more ‘stuff’, as Jo described it, was because the city only first commemorated the Mayflower’s sailing in 1873, with the building of the Guildhall.

Jo and Kathryn’s years of intense working together made for an easy, flowing presentation between them, almost a double act, although not formally presented as such. But their contributions were only half of this panel’s wide-ranging exploration of how transatlantic events are remembered. The other two panellists each had different subjects which, whether through accident or design, complemented aspects of the Mayflower discussion in interesting ways.

Sam Edwards of Loughborough University talked about ‘Memory Diplomacy and Transatlantic Relations’. And no, there is not a missing comma in the title: memory diplomacy, he explained, is the use of commemorating historical events for diplomatic purposes, or at least, with diplomatic implications. Sam’s interest was in how unofficial actors, ‘veterans, vicars, and villains’ as he put it, contributed to memorialisation alongside official state events or, as with the Mayflower, events backed by local officials or politicians. Studying the commemoration of the two world wars, for instance, he noted how church and women’s groups decided to create their own events, quite independent of any official involvement. A recent paper of Sam’s investigates connections between the tricentennial of the Mayflower’s voyage and Anglo-American relations after the First World War by looking at the creation of a monument near Hull in 1925, on the site from which the Mayflower supposedly sailed for Holland.[1] This enterprise, by the Anglo-American Society of Hull, had all the characteristics discussed in the panel, being an opportunity for locals, led by a wealthy fruit trader, to draw attention to their area, nationally and internationally, whilst negotiating the politics of the day, particularly in this case, around Anglo-American naval tensions.

The final member of the panel, Dan Maudlin of the University of Plymouth, teaches an MA course in Heritage. He began with a brave confession to make at the opening of a Transatlantic Studies Association conference: there was no mention of ‘transatlantic’ in his course. But that was not the end of the story. Dan studies the built environment and, ahead of the conference, had conducted a quick survey of listed buildings in Plymouth. He found that 60 out of 100 were involved in transatlantic business. In fact, he concluded, transatlanticism ‘completely suffused’ the city’s historic buildings. Making another connection with the Mayflower celebrations and its instigators’ interest in how the sailing had been commemorated on previous anniversaries, he emphasised that ‘heritage is not history’, later defining it simply as ‘applied history’. The study of how memorialisation changes over the years emerged as a common theme between all four panellists.

Plymouth’s Mayflower Street, Charles Miller, July 2023.

Questions from the audience led to further details about Jo and Kathryn’s work on the Mayflower anniversary. Jo explained that a focus of the council’s interest was its ambition to attract half a million visitors to Plymouth. The timing could hardly have been worse: the COVID-19 pandemic scuppered the council’s hopeful vision of a city teeming with American tourists. Jo remembered ruefully, ‘500,000 people did not come to Plymouth in 2020’. The two were admirably frank about more basic problems they were up against: Kathryn admitted that Plymouth actually ‘had very little to do with’ the Mayflower and Jo talked about the lack of information at the heart of their project, referring to the Mayflower ‘about which we know zilch’.

The highlight of their work was their dealings with representatives from Native American communities. The Arts Council commissioned scholars and artists from the Wampanoag nation to create a new wampum belt, made from beads carved from small shells and historically used as a memory aid or to mark diplomatic occasions. This new example of a traditional and intricate work of spiritual significance arrived in Britain in August 2020 and was exhibited in a touring exhibition as part of the Mayflower anniversary commemoration.

After the panel – and outside the attractive, modern Plymouth University venue where it was held – it was hard not to regret the absence of those tourist dollars to contribute to the prosperity of the city. It had an inescapably down-at-heel atmosphere, especially on a rainy day. The trees which the local council had cut down, to the consternation of locals and, thanks to national media coverage, much of the rest of the country, were still stuck in the middle of the main shopping street, piled up like casualties of a battle. ‘Mayflower Street’ led down to the ubiquitous, grungy multi-storey car park, contrasting sadly with the glossy picture on its wall of a sun-soaked Plymouth being promoted as ‘Britain’s Ocean City’.

The clear message of the panel had been that the memorialisation of historical events was changeable and transitory, telling us more about the time when the event is remembered than the event itself. How will the 450th or 500th anniversaries of the Mayflower be celebrated? Let’s hope Plymouth earns a little more from it next time. Whatever happens, it will no doubt make good material for another Transatlantic Studies Association discussion.

A sign advertising Plymouth as Britain’s ‘Ocean City’, Charles Miller, July 2023.

Felled trees on Armada Way, Charles Miller, July 2023.

[1] S. Edwards, ‘Towards a local history of interwar Anglo-American relations: Commemorating the Pilgrim Fathers on the Humber, c.1918-1925’, Britain and the World, 15:2 (2022), pp.142-167.

Special Series CFP: “Pedagogies of Resistance, Pedagogies of Hope: Redefining American Studies”

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”   

– Paulo Freire

U.S. Studies Online (USSO) is thrilled to announce our latest special series, Pedagogies of Resistance, Pedagogies of Hope: Redefining American Studies, in collaboration with BAAS Early Career Representative, Dr Siân Round.

The studying and teaching of American Studies is a pursuit in constant evolution: informed by the global research landscape, digital advances, and complex systems of social, political, and cultural change. As we increasingly debate how our discipline can anticipate and respond to these developments, we as American Studies researchers and practitioners are required to reflect on our individual and collective shaping of the field: How do we increase the reach of American Studies? How do we reconcile our dual roles as educators and students? And what is our vision for the future of the discipline?

U.S. Studies Online are seeking submissions from a wide range of disciplines that address the exchange of knowledge within American Studies. We welcome submissions from anyone whose work engages with America, and we are especially keen to hear from postgraduates, early career academics, and independent researchers.

Submissions should be 800-1200 words. We invite responses that engage with the theme openly and imaginatively. We are particularly interested in receiving:

  • Research articles
  • Photo and video essays
  • Short stories and poetry
  • Creative non-fiction
  • Political and cultural commentary

Interpretations of the theme could include, but are by no means limited to:

  • Creative approaches to the study and teaching of American Studies
  • Cultivating equality, diversity, and inclusion in teaching and learning environments
  • Considerations of methodology and self-reflexive practices
  • Interdisciplinary perspectives and approaches
  • Digital innovations and tools
  • Collaborative practices within and beyond academia
  • Knowledge exchange, outreach, and impact

Please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words and a biography of no more than 100 words to usso@baas.ac.uk by Friday 24th November.

Get in touch via email or Twitter with any questions. 

We look forward to reading your proposals!

The USSO Editorial Team

Robyn Shooter, Frances Rowbottom, Molly Becker, Tom Cryer, Aija Oksman, Sam Thozer

BAAS Early Career Representative

Dr Siân Round

Book Review: American Mirror: The United States and Brazil in the Age of Emancipation by Roberto Saba

Princeton University Press, £30.

Despite our training in matters of context, causality, and contingency, historians still love to drop a ‘did you know’. For historians of the nineteenth century United States, one of our favourite ‘did you knows’ is that after the end of the Civil War thousands of American Confederates moved south to Brazil, where slavery remained legal. Southward migration, they hoped, would allow them to recreate the working conditions and economic prosperity of antebellum South. While their project ultimately failed, the descendants of these Confederados, who mostly settled in western São Paulo, continue to celebrate this history through monuments, re-enactments and by regularly flying the Stars and Bars.[i]

One of the many accomplishments of Roberto Saba’s American Mirror is that it reveals the deeper processes that undergirded the failure of the Confederados. By the time this Reconstruction-era migration took place, Brazil’s economic and political elite had repeatedly rejected the overtures of Southern planters, instead casting their lot with the ascendant capitalist class of the north-eastern United States. A long process of courtship, exchange and comparison helped make up their mind. As Saba elegantly writes, it was thanks to the increasing influence of this cohort and the free labour economic order that they advocated that ’the Southern proslavery utopia died twice: in the battlefields of North America and in the jungles the of Brazil’ (143).

This is a transnational study that retains a focus on the nation-state. The ‘mirror’ of the title at times functioned as a window in an alternative reality, showing Americans what the end of slavery might have looked like if had have happened following a long process of pressure, negotiation and accommodation rather than abolition as a result of a Civil War. This gradualism had a notable effect on the impact of emancipation in Brazil. As Steve Hahn noted in his 1990 American Historical Review article ‘Class and State in Postemancipation Societies’, unlike the Southern aristocracy of the United States, the landed class, or fazeindeiros, in Brazil ‘retained their property, control over labor, and local prerogatives’ after slavery was abolished there in 1888.[ii] However, whereas Hahn and others have demonstrated the power of comparison in illuminating the afterlives of slavery, Saba enriches our understanding by showing that contact between Brazilian and American ‘reformers’ (a category that here incorporates entrepreneurs, traders and factory managers as well as educators and publishers) shaped the development of capitalism in both countries in the half century between 1840 and 1890.

As well as demonstrating the consequences of this exchange on both sides of equator, the scope of the book captures the complexity of a developing national economy. Chapters pivot from country to country, city to farmland, and from intellectuals to politicians to landowners, though we hear disappointingly little about the experience or perspectives of enslaved peoples.

The book is split into two parts. The first, ‘A New World Unchained’ recounts how American and Brazilian capitalists found common interest in the years up to and including the Civil War. Chapter 2, which focuses on the investments of American entrepreneurs in infrastructure projects in Rio de Janeiro and finds that Yankee efficiency eventually trumped British arrogance when it came to courting the support of Brazilian powerbrokers, is especially impressive. The second part, ‘the World Free Labor Made’, shows how abolition in Brazil was negotiated through constant reference to the United States. Brazilians witnessed the growth of American agro-industrial capitalism from near and afar, leading them to advocate a kind of proto-development theory whereby Brazil would reach maturity by following the methods of their American neighbours. Mechanization would increase production and allow for the concentration of wealth in the hands of landowners, and the labour supply could be supplemented with a steady flow of immigrant workers from Europe. This created the conditions for the end of slavery but also foreclosed the possibility of a truly liberatory emancipation.

This is a deftly written and reasoned book. As noted in the introduction, the author sees American Mirror making three interventions in the existing literature. First, that the Brazilian embrace of free labour came in part because of the unviability of the proslavery vision of national development; second, that the belief among reformers that support for antislavery was crucial to the development of capitalism disrupts a recent tendency among historians to focus solely on those who saw emancipation as a gateway to a more egalitarian society; third, that American interests in Brazil were a formative and heretofore unappreciated influence on the United States ascent to global power in the decades before 1898.  

The first argument is made clearly and compellingly. Saba compares different American prescriptions for Brazilian national development in the decades preceding the Civil War. The assumption that a joint interest in slavery would be enough to link the interests of Brazilian and American planters (what Matthew Karp has imagined as a ‘Vast Southern Empire’) was no match for the promises of increased efficiency and innovation made by conservative modernizers.[iii] The assurance that emancipation would unleash economic growth while keeping intact the hierarchies that had legitimated the slave system ultimately convinced influential coffee planters that moving away from slavery would enable them to maximize profit and entrench their own political standing.

Arguments two or three are advanced through subtle shifts in emphasis rather than direct intervention. We learn that powerful Brazilians grew to support abolition for economic rather than moral reasons but hear very little about what this might do for our understanding of the relationship between abolition and a wider world of reform. It therefore misses the opportunity to connect the development of post-emancipation discourses on liberty and human rights with the formation of an economic order founded on free labour. Similarly, while the depth of analysis makes this story worth the attention of any scholar of American foreign relations, the author’s suggestions for this might mean for our broader understanding of American global power are regrettably brief.

These elisions may leave readers searching for more direct engagement with the author’s interlocutors, but the richness of the material more than makes up for the occasional pulled punch. Saba has both recovered the cross-continental dialogue that underwrote emancipation in the Americas and recentred the built-in limitations of the free labour system that replaced slavery on the continent. In so doing, he has rescued this important episode in the history Brazilian-US relations from the enormous condescension of the ‘did you know’.

End Notes:

[i] Associated Press, “Deep, Deep South: Brazilians Proudly Celebrate Their Confederate Ancestry,” The Guardian, 27 April, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/27/brazilians-celebrate-confederate-ancestry-deep-south.

[ii] Steven Hahn, “Class and State in Postemancipation Societies: Southern Planters in Comparative Perspective,” The American Historical Review 95, no. 1 (1990): 88.

[iii] Matthew Karp, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017).