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'?)
> By SCOTT McLEMEE
> "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
> 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
> 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
> "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
> "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
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