I. Genealogy of American Studies

II. Myth and Symbol

III. Interpretive Social Science Theory

IV. Marxisms

V. Poststructuralist & Postmodern Theories

VI. Gender, Race, Sexuality & Dis/ability

VII. Historical Theories & Methods

VIII. Literary Theories & Methods

IX. (British) Cultural Studies

X. Postcolonial & Transnational Theories

XI. Theorizing Interdisciplinarity (forthcoming)

Comments? Corrections? Suggestions?


II. Myth and Symbol School

The first clearly identifiable school of AS theory and method is generally referred to as the "myth and symbol" approach. These critics worked on the assumption that something like the essence of American culture could be culled by reading representative great individual works of the American imagination (though some moved out of the canon into popular texts). Myth and symbol scholars claimed to find certain recurring myths, symbols, and motifs in many of these works (i.e., the American Adam, the virgin land, the machine in the garden). Important figures working in or around this approach include Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, John William Ward, and, in a revisionist mode, Annette Kolodny, Richard Slotkin, and Alan Tracthenberg. While rather reluctant to theorize their work, each of these authors has made at least one programmatic statement and others have tried more formally to codify, explain, and/or critique their methods and theoretical assumptions.

  • Smith, H.N. "Can American Studies Develop a Method?" American Quarterly 9 (1957): 197-208, and, slightly revised in J. Kwiat & M. Turpie, eds., Studies in American Culture Minneapolis: Univ. Minnesota, 1960. Generally regarded as the first important programmatic statement of the myth and symbol school, this esssay argues for this approach as a meeting ground for history, literature and sociology but is based in humanist assumptions that tend to favor the first two terms in this triptych over the third. See also the preface to the second edition of Smith's classic work, Virgin Land, and his reassessment piece in the Bercovitch and Jehlen collection cited in Section I.

  • Marks, Barry. "The Concept of Myth in Virgin Land," American Quarterly15 (1963): 71-76 .

  • Trachtenberg, Alan. "Myth, History, and Literature in Virgin Land," Prospects3 (1977): 127-129. Both Trachtenberg and Marks (above) attempt to elicit the systematic method and theory behind what Smith claimed to have done more or less intuitively in Virgin Land.

  • Attebery, Brian. "American Studies: A Not So Unscientific Method," American Quarterly 48 (June 1996): 316-43. Drawing on the correspondence between Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx, Attebery argues that a Dilthey-like hermeneutics underlay the putatively methodless method of Marx and some other myth and symbol scholars. Calls for American studies scholars to recognize and embrace "a different kind of science, one in which interpretation and cross-discplinary validation replace prediction and experimential verification."

  • Kuklick, Bruce. "Myth and Symbol in American Studies," American Quarterly 24 (1972): 435-450. An influential critique of the myth and symbol school for its alleged "philosophical idealism," "elitism," and lack of sociological grounding.

  • Finseth, Ian. "PREFACE to the HyperText Version of Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth." Finseth offers an interesting seven stage typology of the uses of "myth" in Smith's book.

  • Lenz, Guenther. "American Studies--Beyond the Crisis?: Recent Redefinitions and the Meaning of Theory, History, and Practical Criticism," Prospects 7 (1982): 53-113. Lenz shows that critics of the myth and symbol school have failed to acknowledge the historicity, diversity, and complex practice of the school, instead giving reductive and reifying readings of the admittedly inadequate theoretical writings of the myth critics. He generalizes this notion to argue for a reading of AS theory that attends to the diverse practices of scholars rather than their programmatic statements in an effort to uncover the logics and epistemologies that have governed the field in various historical eras.

  • Sklar, Robert. "The Problem of an American Studies 'Philosophy': A Bibilography of New Directions," American Quarterly 27 (1975): 245-262. Important critique of the myth and symbol school, and a survey of then emerging work influenced by neo-marxism and centered around the concept of "ideology" as a more politically specific alternative to "myth."

  • Slotkin, Richard. "Myth and the Production of History," in Bercovitch and Jehlen, eds. Ideology and Classic American Literature pp. 70-90. Summarizes Slotkin's particular inflection of the myth approach as exemplified in his three-volume study of the frontier myth as imperialist rationale, Regeneration Through Violence (1973), The Fatal Environment (1985), and Gunfighter Nation (1996). The introduction to the former gives an earlier, more Jungian conception of his approach, and the introduction to the latter is a slightly different version of the essay cited here which moves towards a neo-marxist conception of "ideology" to replace "myth."

  • Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience in American Life and Letters.Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1975. An important feminist, psychological rethinking of the American pastoral tradition and the virgin land myth that demonstrates the centrality of gender in shaping US myth/ideology.

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan and Myra Jehlen, eds. See Section I, essays by Marx, Smith, Tracthenberg, and Slotkin.

  • Gunn, Giles. See Section I.

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