[sixties-l] Un-American Studies (fwd)

From: Matthew J. Countryman (mcountry@umich.edu)
Date: Tue Jun 12 2001 - 13:51:09 EDT

  • Next message: sixties@lists.village.virginia.edu: "[sixties-l] Re: conscientious objectors (fwd)"

    60's legacies within academia

    > From the CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATIO, issue dated June 15, 2001
    > A Star of American Studies (or Is That 'Un-American Studies'?)
    > "Why this thing, in this way, at this time?" wonders Paul
    > Lauter. It is a favorite question of the former president of
    > the American Studies Association, and he repeats it, varying
    > the emphasis: "Why this thing, in this way, at this time?"
    > We are sitting in his apartment here with Te-hsing Shan, a
    > researcher from the Institute of European and American Studies
    > at the Academia Sinica, in Taiwan. He is holding a copy of Mr.
    > Lauter's new book, From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park:
    > Activism, Culture, and American Studies (Duke University
    > Press). I wonder if the Chinese scholar can detect the play of
    > identities in Mr. Lauter's accent: He sounds like a New
    > England gentleman from the Bronx.
    > At Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., where he is a professor
    > of literature, students sometimes laugh when they hear Mr.
    > Lauter use his trademark pedagogical catchphrase. Clearly he
    > is fond of it. "To me," he explains, "American studies is an
    > effort to get people to think about how they are being shaped
    > by a variety of forces that are operating in our society. It's
    > a way of stepping back from the culture enough to get your
    > bearings. That means learning to see things both in their
    > specific form and in their context." As the title of his book
    > may suggest, he takes that approach whether the topic is
    > Steven Spielberg's rampaging dinosaurs or Henry David
    > Thoreau's meditations.
    > For that matter, Mr. Lauter's favorite question could just as
    > well be turned on his own work: Why this book, in this field,
    > at this time?
    > A short answer would be that American studies has changed
    > profoundly in the past decade or so, and in part that's due to
    > the efforts of Mr. Lauter himself. Writing the book helped him
    > to get his bearings in the field by putting American studies
    > under scrutiny, just as he does other cultural productions.
    > In the old arrangement, as he says, students entering graduate
    > work as Americanists found "a hybrid where you learned a
    > little bit of literature, a little bit of history, and a
    > little bit of art." They also absorbed more than a little bit
    > of cold-war propaganda, he argues. The rapid growth of
    > American studies during the 1940's and 50's was fueled by
    > ready cash from government agencies intent on differentiating
    > national identity from the values embodied in totalitarian
    > societies, whether fascist or Communist.
    > In the aftermath of the cold war, however, Americanists have
    > faced a different set of questions. For example: How do racial
    > and national identity interact? Why should "American studies"
    > pertain only to the region north of the Rio Grande? A shift
    > toward cultural studies took place that makes sense in the era
    > of globalization, Mr. Lauter argues, when culture is our
    > best-selling commodity on the international market.
    > Meanwhile, academics in other countries pursue their own
    > research about the United States. That is one reason for
    > Te-hsing Shan's visit this afternoon. For Chinese
    > intellectuals interested in American culture, Mr. Lauter is
    > not simply a colleague; he is himself a phenomenon requiring
    > some investigation. A few years ago, Mr. Shan published an
    > account of the heated debates over The Heath Anthology of
    > American Literature -- a multicultural and feminist collection
    > that Mr. Lauter edited, and which has displaced the more
    > traditional Norton Anthology in many college classrooms. The
    > visiting Americanist questions Mr. Lauter in some depth about
    > the context of his latest book.
    > In a less scholarly effort to situate his discourse, I glance
    > around his apartment and notice a framed print from 1971 by
    > the New York Review of Books cartoonist David Levine. It shows
    > an Iwo Jima-like scene, but with the soldiers replaced by a
    > band of hippies, New Leftists, and Black Power militants; they
    > are struggling to raise not a flag but an enormous peace sign.
    > A realization hits me with the blunt force of the obvious:
    > When pundits complain about "tenured radicals," this is the
    > guy.
    > To be sure, not everybody welcomes the cultural-studies "turn"
    > that Mr. Lauter champions. "There has been some grumbling," he
    > says. "Not a lot, but there are always people who prefer the
    > old way of doing things. There was somebody who called my
    > approach 'Un-American Studies.' I guess I can live with that."
    > Several of the essays in Mr. Lauter's new book display a
    > pronounced autobiographical streak, framing questions about
    > scholarship and higher education by reflections on his own
    > relationships to academic life, as a student and as a teacher.
    > The chapter "Culture and Conformity in Wartime America: My
    > Junior High School Songbook" examines a very personal artifact
    > to define the role of schooling during World War II and
    > afterward. He and his classmates, mostly Jewish kids from
    > working- or lower-middle-class families in New York,
    > cheerfully sang a mixture of Protestant hymns and military
    > anthems during the war. It was the first step in a course of
    > cultural assimilation that Mr. Lauter sees as having continued
    > (with ever greater intensity of ambition and promise of upward
    > mobility) throughout his education.
    > That trajectory led to graduate work in English at Yale
    > University in the 1950's, where he studied with, among other
    > luminaries, Cleanth Brooks, an eminent practitioner of the New
    > Criticism, which held that literary works should be read for
    > formal properties, divorced from their social and cultural
    > context. Mr. Lauter planned a dissertation that would move
    > from Emerson to Thoreau and culminate in a chapter on
    > Melville.
    > When he submitted the section on Emerson, his adviser told him
    > to consider the dissertation complete. By the late 1950's,
    > with his competence as a formal literary analyst certified by
    > a Ph.D., he was teaching at Dartmouth College. But Mr.
    > Lauter's interest in Thoreau soon went beyond scrutinizing the
    > metaphors in Walden. "I started to get involved in the
    > civil-rights movement," he recalls, "and it was Thoreau the
    > activist, the advocate of nonviolent direct action, who really
    > spoke to me. He was 'theorizing' the questions I was concerned
    > with, as people say nowadays."
    > In 1963, Mr. Lauter began a job as an organizer for the
    > American Friends Service Committee, a pacifist group. For the
    > next decade he moved frequently between academic positions and
    > full-time political activity.
    > The two commitments came together, he says, in the deeply
    > unnerving experience of traveling to the deep South to work in
    > the Freedom Schools, organized to train young civil-rights
    > workers. He began to recognize the limits of his literary
    > education, excellent though it had been. "Sure, I was ready to
    > teach a class about the Negro novelists," he says now. "After
    > all, I'd read all three of them."
    > He describes as a turning point one morning in Jackson, Miss.,
    > when his teenage students discussed Richard Wright's Native
    > Son. "As far as I could tell, none of them had ever read a
    > book before," Mr. Lauter says, "but they threw themselves into
    > this one. Of course, it wasn't a book I'd studied at Yale, and
    > I had to wonder why not. What else had I been missing?"
    > By 1968, he was pushing his colleagues to ask the same
    > question. At that year's convention of the Modern Language
    > Association, Mr. Lauter was part of a caucus that tried,
    > unsuccessfully, to pass a resolution calling for the group to
    > redirect money toward the publication of texts by neglected
    > black and female authors. Three caucus members were arrested
    > in a hotel-lobby fracas after they had put up posters bearing
    > a slogan from the Romantic poet and cultural revolutionary
    > William Blake: "The Tygers of Wrath are wiser than the Horses
    > of Instruction."
    > In 1971, Mr. Lauter and his then-wife, Florence Howe, started
    > the Feminist Press; four years later, he helped found the
    > journal Radical Teacher. But the culmination of the campaign
    > that started at the M.L.A. in 1968 came with his work in
    > organizing the Project on Reconstructing American Literature,
    > which held its first meeting at Yale in 1982. That resulted,
    > nine years later, in the Heath Anthology. While presenting
    > many of the authors whom Mr. Lauter had studied at the
    > beginning of his career, the Heath was designed to expand the
    > canon to include more women, writers from a greater variety of
    > ethnic backgrounds, and popular-cultural forms, like songs.
    > Dozens of colleagues at universities around the country
    > participated in the project, which is continuing. (A fourth
    > edition of the anthology is due out next year.)
    > The effort to reconfigure the American literary tradition
    > along multicultural lines drew fire, of course. One reviewer
    > dubbed it The Heath Travesty of American Literature. Critics
    > charged that the criteria for inclusion were more political
    > than aesthetic. Mr. Lauter does not completely disagree.
    > "Boundaries," he writes, "whether one is talking of
    > neighborhoods, nations, gender, or culture, are not light
    > abstractions but the stuff of battle."
    > But he also argues that the anthology -- like other recent
    > trends in American studies -- simply highlights qualities of
    > American life that have always existed: diversity and
    > multiplicity. There have been too many groups living alongside
    > each other -- with writers borrowing from one another's
    > traditions, yet addressing distinct communities of readers --
    > for American literature to be condensed into a narrow canon.
    > Understanding the history of American culture, he suggests,
    > involves learning a certain amount of comparative literature.
    > When Mr. Lauter discusses how he moved from New Criticism to
    > multiculturalism, a note of anger is sometimes audible in his
    > voice. "I still owe a lot to what I learned as a literary
    > scholar in the 1950's," he says. "It was careful training in
    > doing close reading of work from a closed canon, and I still
    > use those skills. At the same time, I've come to realize how
    > much English as a discipline was part of the postwar mission
    > of the university, which was, in effect, to recruit white
    > ethnics like me to the status of honorary white Anglo-Saxon
    > Protestants. That experience shaped me, for better or worse. I
    > feel trapped by it at times. It left me narrowly educated."
    > Mr. Lauter's ambivalence about the role of higher education in
    > his own development shapes his writing about American studies.
    > As he notes, the discipline's early practitioners -- a group
    > sometimes known as the "myth and symbol" school -- sought to
    > define those aspects of America that distinguished it from
    > other societies: the absence of a landed aristocracy, the
    > presence of a frontier, the deep sense that the American self
    > was always in the process of being tested and reborn amid
    > change. The canon of great 19th-century American writers --
    > most of them WASP males from New England -- offered a basic
    > reference point for the field.
    > But the quest of scholarly Americanists to define a
    > distinctive national identity, Mr. Lauter argues, created a
    > kind of feedback loop of academic authority. Despite his own
    > interest in the work of Melville, he thinks the author's
    > canonization is a case in point. From Walden Pond to Jurassic
    > Park includes a paper on how early-20th-century scholars
    > retrieved the author of Moby-Dick from obscurity and rendered
    > him a certified classic figure.
    > That was not simply a matter of rediscovering his novels, Mr.
    > Lauter says. Rather, Melville's rise reflects a decades-long
    > process in which cultural authority -- the ability to define
    > what counts as legitimate or important -- underwent a profound
    > realignment.
    > "Certain networks, like those represented by women's literary
    > clubs and by magazines directed at what came to be called
    > 'genteel' audiences, lost influence," he writes, "whereas
    > certain others, including decisively the academic world,
    > gained in power." Until the 1920's, Moby-Dick had been
    > regarded as an adventure story, albeit one with many puzzling
    > digressions. It was not the sort of novel discussed by
    > literary ladies. Academic critics who championed the author
    > did not promote just his reputation, but their own authority
    > as interpreters. "Melville comes to be seen not as a
    > transparently approachable chronicler of sea tales," as Mr.
    > Lauter puts it, "but as a densely allusive composer whose most
    > precious treasures would be yielded up, as with other
    > modernist texts, only to learned initiates."
    > Today, of course, the university community resembles the
    > multiethnic crew in Moby-Dick more closely than it does the
    > whaling ship's elite officers, who are white, male, and
    > wealthy. That transformation is at the core of the version of
    > American studies that Mr. Lauter sees emerging -- or rather,
    > the version that he advocates, since the essays in From Walden
    > Pond to Jurassic Park are often position papers. "I think
    > American studies can most usefully be understood not as a
    > discipline that, from a remote and academic standpoint,
    > surveys a particular historical and cultural territory," he
    > writes, "but as a framework within which people engage in
    > those most significant of intellectual ventures, changing or
    > policing the society in which they live."
    > While reflecting important trends in American studies that
    > have become prominent over the past decade or so, Mr. Lauter's
    > perspective is by no means uncontested within the field.
    > According to Barry Shank, an associate professor of
    > comparative studies at Ohio State University, the
    > cultural-studies approach has met resistance from at least one
    > quarter.
    > "There are scholars who are committed to presenting a grand
    > narrative of American history," says Mr. Shank, who is
    > book-review editor for the American Studies Association's
    > journal, American Quarterly. "One reason they don't like the
    > newer American studies is methodological. The new stuff is not
    > what they would recognize as 'rigorous.' And they especially
    > don't like the fragmentation that comes from questioning the
    > unified nature of the American story.
    > "The major issue here is the question of whether there is one
    > narrative of progress or multiple stories, some of which
    > contest mightily the whole notion of progress. It's a
    > conflicted and contested battle over the meaning of being
    > American. Something like the Heath Anthology presents American
    > literary history through multiple stories of multiple literary
    > traditions. Actually, I think that's what's important about
    > it. But it goes against the grain of American studies as it
    > used to be practiced."
    > Meanwhile, Mr. Lauter believes that the cultural-studies turn
    > may deepen. The former New Critic tends to focus on literary
    > texts, like the work of the poet Amy Lowell and the
    > African-American novelist Charles Chestnutt. Last year, Mr.
    > Lauter published another anthology, Language, Class, and
    > Literature (Longman), co-edited with his wife, Ann Fitzgerald,
    > an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History.
    > But he thinks that younger Americanists may yet go beyond what
    > he calls "the close and often clever readings of unusual
    > 'texts'" like advertisements, contracts, and legislation. The
    > future of American studies, he writes, may come from outside
    > the field's traditional interdisciplinary mix.
    > "It may well be that anthropologists who focus their work on
    > the United States will be among the more active claimants for
    > room in the American-studies tent," he writes. And he would
    > not be surprised if the researcher offering some definitive
    > new insight into the question of what it means to be an
    > American turned out to speak English as a second language.
    -- Alan Wald, Director, Program in American Culture, University of
    Mailing address: 2402 Mason Hall, 419 South State St., Ann Arbor, Mi.
    48109-1027. Office address: Room 2409A Mason Hall. Office phone:
    734-763-1460 (9:00 am-4:30); 734-647-2102 (after hours). Home phone:
    e-mail: awald@umich.edu. Faxes can be received at AC office:

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Wed Jun 13 2001 - 19:42:12 EDT