Wednesday, October 20, 2004

“Paradigm Dramas” Part 2
Yesterday I was talking about Wise’s article on the paradigms of American Studies. We left off at Perry Miller’s “jungle epiphany.” By the time Miller decided to formalize his education and go to graduate school (rather than hang around in the Belgian Congo), he was invited to attend, unlike Parrington, and by this time, in the 1920s, Miller found a sympathetic audience to the kinds of ideas that Parrington had to fight to publish. At the University of Chicago, Miller was allowed to write about his passion and take courses according to his interest. So Miller mixed history and literature courses, focusing on early America, and that made him noteworthy because he combined the disciplines in such a way to form a concept of “the American Mind.”

During the 1930s, other American schools experienced this tension as well, but it was embodied most obviously in Miller’s work. Another way we see that this tension was played out was in literature departments. Wise says for “some decades prior to the thirties, momentum had been building to free the study of American literature from its role as an appendage to Anglo-Saxon literature, and instead to study it ‘on native grounds.’” Finally in the late 1920s and 1930s a few universities adopted an American literature curriculum, influenced at least partly by Parrington.

American Literature was founded in 1929, and four years later Yale opened a department of History, the Arts, and Letters. Through that department, A. Whitney Griswold’s dissertation, “The American Cult of Success,” is claimed (retrospectively, to be “the first American Studies, or American Studies-like, Ph.D. ever granted”). Shortly after, other schools followed: GWU and Harvard in 1936 (Harvard with Perry Miller and F.O. Matthiesen). The first person to earn the American Studies Ph.D. at Harvard was Henry Nash Smith. In 1937, U Penn. The field grew from there.

What was interesting to me in reading this part was first how young the field is. It rose and developed mostly during my mom’s lifetime, and wholly during my grandparents’ lifetime. Somehow I had assumed that it would have been as old as 1620…but of course when I realize that doesn’t make sense. Of course it would take many years for a country to exist before it could be studied, analyzed. Then, it was surprising to me that American Studies Ph.D. programs that I strongly considered—Brown, Maryland, Mason—only began offering the degree on a short time ago. When I researched American studies programs, I had no sense of that short historical sweep.

Anyway, Wise goes on to summarize what he calls “the intellectual history synthesis” up to that point.” This meant a collection of assumptions that guided scholars. First, “there is an ‘American Mind,’” meaning that all Americans share a common element. Even though it may be “complex and constructed of many different layers, it is in fact a single entity.”

Next, what “distinguishes the American Mind is its location in the ‘New’ World.” As a result, people in America are “hopeful, innocent, individualistic, pragmatic, idealistic.” America is a land of opportunity, whereas Europe is limited and corrupt.

Also, “the American Mind can theoretically be found in anyone American.” Most commonly, though, we can identify it in our “leading thinkers,” people like Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, etc. Thus, “early American Studies programs offered courses on the ‘Great Books,’” so that students could be introduced to “the American Mind.”

Further, the “American Mind” is seen throughout our history. We can follow its themes through Puritanism, Individualism, Progress, Pragmatism, Transcendentalism, Liberalism, and so on.

Finally, though studying “popular minds” like “Davy Crockett [and] Daniel Webster’s Buffalo Bill’ might be “academically legitimate,” “America is revealed most profoundly as ‘high’ culture.’”

According to Wise, “the decade and half following 1960—between Virgin Land at one end and Brooklyn Bridge at the other—has come to look like the ‘Golden Years’ of the movement.”

For the third paradigm drama, Wise chooses Robert Spiller’s seminar on American Cultural values of the twentieth century at the University of Pennsylvania in 1954. The paradigm signifies a change in that it is the first paradigm we see inside academia—which demonstrates that American studies has finally been legitimized enough that it’s not just a course here and there or a rouge scholar; now it’s institutionalized and represented in courses.

Not only did private funding make the course possible, but grants began to fund other scholarship during the 1950s as well. It was a “corporatization” of the discipline. But in the 1960s, the political climate was incredibly different. The result is what Wise calls “the ‘coming apart’ stage of American Studies.

The paradigm for this stage is “Culture Therapy 202,” which is the title of Robert Meredith’s Miami University Seminar in the late 1960s, a response to the tumultuous political currents of the times. He wrote a pamphlet as well called “Subverting Culture: The Radical as Teacher.”

Meredith was different from his predecessors because he “was not satisfied merely to discover what American culture is.” That would be so obvious to his students that it would “corrupt” them. Instead, he saw his role as assuming an adversarial “role against the culture…[to] save himself from the culture’s poison tentacles, and […] save others too.” Ultimately, his “only humane option […] is to serve as a cultural radical.” Hence the title of the course, Culture Therapy.

Meredith even went so far as to discourage colleagues from publishing. He thought the work of subverting the culture was so important that scholarship was a waste of time. The result was “newly-academized experiences” that “imposed massive strain on the old intellectual history synthesis.” From that point forward, no one could honestly assume that “America is an integrated whole: division and conflict, not consensus, seemed to characterize the culture.”

Another important here is that the shift also moved us away from the “privileged position of elite ideas as a window into the culture.” Instead, the most powerful images were the riots and assassinations. The “airy myths and symbols” didn’t seem to matter as much. American Studies students instead studied “material artifacts like houses or bridges or buildings.” The tangible, it was felt, better represented America.

So since the sixties, American cultural studies have focused more on subcultural studies and almost no one trying “to integrate the whole culture.” So, Wise says, “American Studies has never recovered from the earthquake-like jolts of the sixties.” Others might blame it on America itself, saying that we’re not as “new and innocent, as idealistic, as pragmatic” as we once were.

Wise admits that “American Studies is no longer working on the frontiers of scholarship. “ Surely in the 1950s and early 1960s, “symbol-myth-image scholarship came uniquely out of an American Studies perspective, and it influenced scholars in traditional disciplines too, particularly in intellectual history and literary history.” But that part of American Studies history is over. Since then, he says, American Studies has become a “parasite field” because it is “living off the creations of others but not creating much on our own, nor contributing much to any field outside ourselves.” Further to complicate matters, Wise says that the ties between American Studies and traditional disciplines like American Literature became less secure—for one American Literature no longer needed American Studies to legitimize it as a discipline.

Another interesting factor that has caused American Studies to lose its focus has been that the “richest works giving us intellectual bearing on our experience today are being written by journalists” like Tom Wolfe or David Halberstam. Furthermore, viewers see important cultural issues in TV Shows like Lou Grant or Maude or All in the Family. So, as Wise says, “None of the cultural criticism coming today from film, television, radio, music, magazines, or newspapers owes anything at all to academic American Studies.” So that’s important. An even more disturbing point he makes is that, “If we borrow mightily from them in our courses and our scholarship on the contemporary, they have little reason to look at us in turn. In this sense too, we are relegated to a parasite role.”

Nonetheless, Wise thinks “American Studies has never been stronger and healthier.” New programs were launched in the 1970s and the NEH funded the National American Studies Faculty (which later, like all good things, stopped being funded).

So there isn’t really a paradigmatic representation for that last era Wise talks about. As he states it, the field “lacks a single synthesis with the influence, say of the old symbol-myth-image explanation.” There isn’t “a single holistic ‘American Culture,’ expressed in ‘The American Mind,’ to a more discriminating consciousness that contemporary cultures function on several different levels and in several different ways.” Wise lists many cultures, with different viewpoints, like the popular culture, women, Blacks, youth, aged, Hispanics, Indians, material culture, culture of poverty, regionalism, academe, professionalism, etc.

Wise talks about important scholarship that came from U Penn, including the new ethnography which he says has had a “substantial” effect on the discipline. Before ethnography mixed with American Studies, the “Americanists tended to view social scientists with some humanistic disdain.” But the ethnographic view allows more humanistic views into the discipline. Sociology and anthropology also came into play.

More recently, Wise says, American Studies has taken a “reflexive temper in scholarship and teaching.” Does that mean a tendency to look back at oneself? He says it is what “impelled people to continue asking, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Where are we heading?’” But the sea change in the discipline caused the reflexivity and that has to be a good thing.

A note on the notes: In one place, Wise admits that choosing Parrington isn’t the definitive answer to the “Intellectual Founder of American Studies.” Some, he says, would nominate de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1840), or Moses Coit Tyler’s A History of American Literature 1607-1865 (1878), or Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), or Van Wyck Brook’s America’s Coming of Age (1915), or Lewis Mumford’s The Golden Day (1925). Later works that might be suggested would be Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), Smith’s Virgin Land (1950). I wrote in the margin that it would be a good paper topic to argue which one would make the best intellectual founder (ho hum).

Also in the notes is a discussion of the “coterminous” development of popular culture studies within American Studies. Wise notes also that a split finally occurred that caused the popular culture people to leave and form their own association; thus the PCAS/ACAS. Interesting!

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