top of page

Philip J. Deloria and Alexander I. Olson. American Studies: A User's Guide. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2017

Deloria and Olson provide a history of American Studies as an academic discipline and instruct the reader how to write American Studies. In their history, they note how American Studies was one of the first interdisciplinary areas of inquiry, emerging in the 1930s out of crossing between history, literature, anthropology, and many other disciplines (19). During the surge in cultural nationalism that accompanied World War I, it became a truism that American literature was underrepresented in the university curriculum, "and many saw this absence as a national embarrassment” (86). Van Wyck Brooks, for instance, in “On Creating a Usable Past” (1918) urged for literary criticism to produce American high culture and create an American literary canon. But from an institutional perspective, at least, it appears that complaints about the supposedly missing American literary curriculum were not grounded in reality. The more potent line of attack on literature departments was methodological, and this is where American Studies made its most significant contributions and how it arose. Scholars like Vernon Parrington felt that turn-of-the-century literature departments were ensnared in esoteric methods such as ‘philology’ (tracing words and texts back to classical sources) at the cost of the very things that made literature relevant to every day life. So Yale and Harvard created “straddle programs” where were founded on the premise that literature was about more than words and sentences” (85-87).

Another “truism” that Deloria and Olson debunk is the claim that American Studies is an imperialistic and colonialist arm of the United States government. In the 1950s, when many American Studies programs were being established in universities and the American Studies Association was formed, number of academics received grants from government and non-profit organizations such as the Carnegie Corporation. The ultra-nationalist Coe Foundation and their establishment of Wyoming’s American Studies program as “a state-sponsored academic export to a range of actual and potential U.S. client states.”

Indeed, a number of early texts which Deloria and Olson constitute part of the “ American Studies Mixtape” try to champion American exceptionalism and the singular American character. Some Americanists, such as Frederick Jackson Turner, in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893) believed there was something in America’s location, history, and possibility that made Americans different from other peoples. Figuring out the various somethings that made Americans Americans offered American Studies its earliest impetus and it is one that takes us back to the Eighteenth Century (13). Using anthropological methods, Alexis de Tocqueville attempted to discern the American character in Democracy in America (1835-1840) while giving scant attention to racism and enslavement. However, Deloria and Olson remark that American Studies programs such as Wyoming’s were the exception rather than the rule.

American Studies, as a discipline, looked different depending on where you were studying and the American Studies Association was highly decentralized then. Joseph Jones, at the University of Texas proposed in 1957, “I don’t care which books” students read, “as long as they created a list and learned to criticize them” (45). This meant that the inclusion of Geology in Barnard’s American Studies curriculum was no fluke. American studies in its early iterations was not only interdepartmental but interdivisional – bringing together the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences (89).

This institutional decentralization permeated American Studies scholarship, due to its focus on spatial differences within the United States. Mark Twain realized that there was no national culture as early as 1869 in Innocents Abroad and a whole host of American Studies scholarship followed suit. One of the most important efforts to problematize such national character interpretations came from regionalists who rejected New England as a model for the nation, and turned instead to folk cultures. A spatial orientation has proven powerful and productive as scholars have sought to place terms such as local, regional, national, borderlands, transnational, and global in analytical relation to one another” (70). Recognizing the challenges of a strictly regional frame, scholars have developed a rich vocabulary for mapping American culture in spatial terms. Such concepts include diaspora, which allows scholars to understand culture as a set of practices – exchanging letters, reading newspaper – rather than a form of belonging rooted in place. Others have utilized the term borderlands to describe interstitial regions characterized by cultural and linguistic hybridity. In American Indian studies, by contrast, removal often seems a more accurate description of diaspora movement, and rootedness in space a still powerful concept (68).

In rejecting “New England,” scholars turned to studying vernacular cultures. In their definition “the vernacular involves a recognition – and a rejection – of the hierarchies of high and low culture, formal and informal speech, but writing. It does so in favor of an investigation of the ordinary, shared, common expression of the everyday lives of non-elites. It is therefore difficult to locate in canonical work or elite archives” (48). W.E.B. DuBois, more or less writing Souls of Black Folk at the same time as Turner (1903), argued that the United States was full of internal complexities and transitional and international contexts. The possibility of a unique American “character” has given away to the complex relations among social groups and the ways these take shape not simply in terms of culture, but across a whole range of possibilities” (16).

The “vernacular” can quickly feed into the “activism” strand. The American Studies activist strange was mostly comprised of Gilded Era authors, represents a strand of scholarship that more directly addressed social and political issues (53). Examples include Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion, (1922) which we have already read in Stewart Ewen. Lippmann argued that failures of democracy were not simply rooted in false information, but could also be explained through the psychology of news consumption. It was indisputable, in his view, that ‘under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and that in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.’ The system, as he saw it, was rigged in terms of economic interests, with a cultural apparatus of fiction and misinformations that prevented effective democratic governance. His resignation to the necessity of supposedly disinterested technocrats to handle specialized policy decisions was echoed by several other progressives” (58). Ironically, although Lippman began as a muckraking journalist, as Ewen notes, he eventually joined the “conservative search for order” and helped create Woodrow Wilson’s Committee for Public Education.

Method: 1) Interpreting texts; 2) creating an archive of texts; 3) sorting our archive into genres by discovering similarities and differences amongst texts within the archive; 4) formations, contextualizing our genres; and applying them to theory to make generalizable arguments that explain the significance of our study to other examples. In particular, we’ll trace American Studies theoretical interests that have focused on four interconnected areas: theories of subjectivity that seek to understand the constitutive relationship between human subjects and social institutions; theories of identify that examine the public faces of ascription, performance, and resistance on the part of individuals; theories of the state, which try to explain the ways that political institutions –nations, states, and empires–organize the lives of their members and influence people across the globe; and theories of the market, grounded in the economic structures that shape societies, but equally interested in the complicated place of culture in relation to those structures” (125).

“The New Criticism,” was largely driven by conservatives who were skeptical of the progressive political orientation of writers like Parrington who were looking at social milieu. Its hallmark methodological dogmatism explicitly rejected everything outside the ‘text itself.’ The methods they chose was called “close reading.” If New Criticism and close reading demanded tightly focused attention on the text itself, another group of theorists moved interpretive analysis in a parallel direction by proclaiming the ‘death of the author’. These critics argued that an author’s intent did not matter nearly as much as a reader’s response. If you take this argument serious, you can see again how, from this slightly different perspective the text itself came to hold primary importance, with the actual author much less important (130).

Clifford Geertz argued culture is is a web of meaningful texts and “anything” that is produced in a creative relation involving human beings becomes such a text” (131). His concept of Thick description mirrors close reading of the New Criticism, but apply a rich cultural context to understanding the text” (134). In the archives section, the authors encourage us to look skeptically on archives such as the WPA Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narratives which employed writers and preserved the testimony of former slaves, but also romanticized the Old South (164).

But ultimately I don’t think Deloria and Olson discuss the struggles over “method” that seem to have plagued American Studies. Leo Marx “A Defense of Unscientific Method” (1969) which argues that American culture can be read as a common language comprised of myths and symbols, obtainable, in part, by reading elite and popular American literature. These myths and symbols were "collective representations rather than the work of a single mind" (p. xi). Henry Nash Smith American culture can be read as a common language comprised of myths and symbols, obtainable, in part, by reading elite and popular American literature. These myths and symbols were "collective representations rather than the work of a single mind" (p. xi). Bruce Kucklick’s “Myth and Symbol in American Studies” (1971) criticizes Marx and Henry Nash Smith because it lacks substantial empirical data. even if certain myths and symbols could be proven, it would not necessarily prove that yesteryear's texts speak for today. Kuklick countered the notion that myths necessarily maintain a continuous meaning over time and space. Also, while some kinds of myths and symbols might be based on facts of experience, others might simply be a product of fantasy. Many of the particular problems, Kuklick argues, stem from a “crude Cartesian” dualism that ends in a circular logic of “myth” and “symbols’” self-verification and self-signification: “Facts and images both become states of consciousness… [yet] they have no immediate way of determining which states of consciousness are ‘imaginative,’ or ‘fantastic’ or ‘distorted’ or even ‘value laden’ for there is no standard to which the varying states of consciousness may be referred” (74), In the later portion of his essay, he gives a focussed criticism of Leo Marx’s “American Studies: Defense of an Unscientific Method,” identifying Marx’s terms of defense as further extensions of unsubstantiated claims regarding the ability to define a literary work’s “inherent” value as well as to identify a periods “consciousness” as universally evident in all its people(s).

bottom of page