Tuesday, October 19, 2004

“Paradigm Dramas”
Gene Wise writes a surprisingly interesting account of the history of American Studies in his 1975 article. The title refers, of course, to Thomas Kuhn’s book. More specifically, though, Wise is saying that students of American History have asked “Who are we?” and “Where are we heading?” only to find that “American Studies has had little sense of its own history at all.” In fact, he says, just as the citizens of the U.S., the Americanists had been too busy until this time to “pause and reflect much on their own roots.” So in trying to organize a history of American Studies, Wise used an organizing principle of four paradigms that describe the “representative acts” that “crystallize possibilities…in each stage of the movement’s history.”

The notion of using these four paradigms at all is interesting, and its different enough that Wise must spend some time in his essay justifying his approach. Typically, he says, scholars manage “ideas in historical context,” in what he terms a “climate of opinion” mode of explanation. It’s probably the most familiar methodology to most of us. Wise defines it as the sort of narrative where “one need only catch the general tendencies of an age, then explain any particular idea simply by plugging it into the general category.” Wise observes the flaws in this method: that the resulting narratives are “flat and one-dimensional,” and “too deterministic.” This type of history is “too monolithic” and “rigidly hierarchical.” The result of this sort of description is the kind of problem we have in American literature class when we try to decide where enlightenment writing ends and where romanticism begins—or, as one student asked last time, whether Emerson knew he was writing romantic writing or transcendentalism.

So instead, Wise uses a different model to explain his views. He uses paradigms “as a sequence of dramatic acts—acts which play on wider cultural scenes….The drama metaphor suggests a dynamic image of ideas…” Wise also defines paradigm, which he notes has been said to have at least 21 separate meanings alone in Kuhn’s book! But he says “the commonest use” is “a consistent pattern of beliefs held by a person, a group, or a culture.”

Anyway, Wise says the first paradigm begins before the real genesis of the academic movement in American studies, saying “the figure who most fully embodies that act is Vernon Louis Parrington.” He calls Parrington the “Intellectual Founder of American Studies” because of his 1927 publication of Main Currents in American Thought. Wise says he “gave life to Emerson’s vision of “The American Scholar,” because he was “a passionate mind encountering a dynamic world, sans the mediating forms of convention.”

Briefly, Parrington didn’t have the traditional education. He graduated from Harvard undergrad but wasn’t accepted into the grad school. There was no such thing as an American studies program at the time. He finally wound up a professor of literature at the University of Washington and wrote his master work there (though Wise notes that had it been at present, he probably would have been denied tenure because he had so much trouble publishing the work).

But Parrington is representative of this early age—a pioneer really-because he did this preliminary work with no help, or in Wise’s words, he was “going it alone in his American intellectual journey. So those who came after have Parrington to thank.

The next paradigm is based on what Wise calls “Perry Miller’s ‘jungle epiphany’ in the heart of the Belgian Congo.” Miller dropped out of college and went on a world tour. When he was in Africa he found the urge to write about what he saw. According to Wise, he found, “the obsession to give order, explanation, to America’s experience.”

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