Monday, November 08, 2004

Elaine Tyler May’s 1995 Address
to the American Studies Association

May's speech about the organization’s “radical roots” is important because she debunks the misconception that the founders of the field were a bunch of stodgy old white men with conservative views. She approaches the misconception itself from a myth and symbol perspective, saying that the “creation myth” of the American Studies field is based on the Oedipal story, that those mythical 1960s graduate students had to kill off their “alleged fathers to create a new, oppositional scholarship” (179). May found out by attending a reunion of some of the 1940s and 1950s University of Minnesota American Studies scholars that the prevailing stereotypes about the field were wrong.

In fact, some of the founders were anarchists, communists, and radicals in ways we didn’t know about. As a result, May decided to organize her speech around the “powerful Marxist tradition” in American studies. It wasn’t “a typical Marxism,” but instead, “derived from three distinct schools […]: Karl Marx, Leo Marx, and Groucho Marx” (181). The first two are obvious, but she added the third because American studies people study fun things like sex and humor.

She said that the Karl Marx “school” described radical scholars of the 1930s and 1940s who were attentive to “the struggle between capital and labor” as well as “the tradition of politically engaged scholarship that motivated many in the field to pursue their craft” (182). These scholars were sensitive to “class divisions,” as well as “the ill effects of industrial class divisions.” Though they might not have said so publicly, they were political activists. May includes F.O. Matthiesen among the Marxists, admitting that his inclusion might be a surprise to those who wrote him off as someone who selected only white, protestant New England men to represent the American canon. In fact, though, Matthiesen was politically radical, and his interest in Moby Dick arose from his perception that the novel had anti-capitalist leanings (182).

May says it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that to be an American studies scholar at all at the time was a radical act, since universities viewed American literature as not worthy of study. So Matthiesen’s brave work, to use a cliché, put American literature on the map.

Other scholars of this era contributed to our knowledge in ways that don’t necessarily fit with the Oedipal myth we’ve subscribed to of late. I was especially interested to read about historian Mary Beard, who I knew nothing about. Her most “famous classic,” according to May, is the 1946 Women as Force in History. But in the 1930s she wrote Laughing Their Way: Women’s Humor in America. I don’t have that book on any bibliography—and it needs to be! Another writer of the time was C.L.R. James was a scholar from Trinidad, a black man who wrote about American culture, though his work was only recently published. Very interesting. May also mentions DuBois and Constance Rourke as writers from this period. All these people, she says, “understood culture not as something manufactured by elites, but as emanating from the people in the form of songs, jokes, stories, movies, and radio shows, catering to a diverse audience” (185). All this is against the assumption about the thinkers of this time.

About the “Consensus Critics of the 1950s,” or “Leo Marxism,” Mary says these are the myth and symbol scholars. She explains that one of the key influences on the thinking of the time was the cold war. The only safe critical stance for American Studies scholars was New Criticism, because discussing theory or texts in historical context ran the risk of inciting “the postwar frenzy of homophobia and anticommunism” (188). It was difficult for these left-leaning scholars—especially F.O. Matthiesen and Newton Arvin, both of whom were gay (188). May’s point is that avoiding the topics of gender, sexuality, and any sort of activism was a political and professional necessity. While they accepted “the consensus view,” they “identified the national cultural and political paralysis but saw no way out of it” (188). May goes on to argue about this group’s “myopia” and its inability to recognize its own creativity. I think that she was expecting an awful lot for people who had to protect their lives.

Finally, about the field since the 1960s, “Groucho Marxism.” This refers to “the recognition of popular culture as a major force in American life, a force created largely by marginalized Americans who used it not only to express, but also to create, resistance to the dominant culture” (189). I like the way she expressed that—I haven’t heard it said that way, in terms of the subversive part.

Anyway, May says that after the political upheaval of the 1960s, scholars started to pay more attention to the lives of people who had been marginalized before. So of course women, blacks, gays, and others began to be included. But also social class started to be a concern. Even the definition of culture changed “from a set of unifying myths, values, and beliefs to a contested terrain involving struggles over power” (191).

The newest challenge is “what holds American society together” (191). In other words, is there a common America that we all share? Is there such a thing as “national unity” (191)? There’s a tension between “cohesion” and “fragmentation” (191). So these questions are now guiding the discipline—rather than the ones of the original group.

Anyway, May ends with the argument that these new questions make the discipline even more important. People are afraid of the fragmentation. There’s great comfort in the conservatism of a single, definable unit we can call America. It’s alarming to people who grew up here—especially those my parents’ age (or ones who have lived all their lives in culturally homogenous places) to think that their America is no longer cohesive. We sound so cynical as teachers when we tell them that it was never cohesive.

No comments: