It’s a loaded word. It’s geography as well as terra firma; it’s history, memory, aspirations, a destination—a physical place as well as a repository of dreams and beliefs that tug at people from all over the world.
But when we at CHF say America, what do we mean?
As you have probably noticed, we are approaching a presidential election. In fact, it will occur right during our festival. Early November, after all, is our time of the year. But it happens to include the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, i.e. the date that, in 1845, became the official federal Election Day. Tuesday was chosen to give folks a workday to travel to the polls, Sunday being a day of worship after all. And now, like so many other aspects of our lives, it’s simply tradition.
The CHF has its traditions, too, of course, including the date of our fall festival. And we weren’t going to abandon ours either!
So there we were, beginning to contemplate a festival in the middle of a presidential election. Why pretend that what will be going on all around us isn’t happening? At the same time, we had no intention – none! – to contribute to the shrillness that passes for present-day political discourse. What was needed, in fact, was a counterweight.
So this is how we at CHF think of our role this fall: the presidential election is the time when we are enjoined to discuss the past, present, and future of our country. Sadly, the spectacle that passes for politics these days falls pretty short of that goal (this is not about blaming one party or the other – it’s simply a fact). And that gave us our mission: we would make this year’s CHF the forum for the kinds of sophisticated and respectful conversations about America that so many of us long to see in the public arena.
At the same time, we realized that there was no reason to limit the conversation to the United States. America, after all, is a global entity whose local concerns have transnational implications. In fact, we started thinking about America in hemispheric terms, counterposing various “new” worlds to their “old” correlates.
America, in this sense, is ideal and reality, a local brand with global meaning. Or, perhaps better, it is multiple ideals and different realities, admired and loved by some, feared and loathed by others.
The 2012 festival will explore the many meanings of America, both at home and abroad. We will debate the great American novel and celebrate jazz and the American song book, shine a spotlight on our country’s visual artists and honor the American philosophical tradition. And we will look at America from abroad, tracing the history of its meanings from Columbus to Kafka and locating its place in the world today. We will think about the Americas and the West. And we will contemplate our country’s ever-increasing diversity in the context of America’s history of immigration.
Our ultimate goal is to bring to Chicago the best that has been thought and said about our grand hemispheric experiment. We’ll do this, as we always do, through an array of talks, discussions, and performances, in October in Evanston and Hyde Park, and in November in and around Chicago’s downtown