ON THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS
Four papers delivered at the Seventh Biennial Convention
of the American Studies Association, Minneapolis,
September 27-30, 1979.
From "American Studies" to "American Culture Studies":
A Dialogue Across Generations.
Scanned, copy-edited, spell-checked, and tagged by Tuomi J. Forrest, The University of
American Studies takes a back seat to no one in the conceptual morass of its culture
theory. The most presslng need of the discipline for the past ten years has been to
vex itself more precisely on the role of culture in human experience.
--KAREN LYSTRA, "Who's Afraid of Clifford Geertz?"
Scholars and teachers in American Studies need to know that the semiotic
revolution is ours. A science of signs breathes new life into myth-symbol-image
interests of the old American Studies but in a way compatible with the interests and
requirements of the social sciences.
--JAY MECHLING, "Mind, Messages, and Madness: Gregory Bateson Makes a
Paradigm for American Culture Studies"
I have never thought, when approaching a historical problem from a perspective
which I imagine to be rather like that of a sociologist or of an anthropologist, that I
would therefore be able to answer my questions with greater definiteness and rigor.
For me the fundamental value of these perspectives is in their addition to the
speculative richchness of history. The more the historian learns from the social
sciences, the more variables he is likely to take account of, the more complex his
task becomes. The result may be that his conclusions become more tenuous and
tentative, but this is a result to be welcomed.... His task has not been simplified; it
has been enlarged. His work has not greater certainty, but greater range and depth.
--RICHARD HOFSTADTER "History and the Social Sciences"
THE SYMBOL-MYTH-IMAGE generation of American Studies scholars went to
school to giants, and in vital respects were giants themselves. They were tutored by
the likes of F. O. Matthiessen, Perry Miller, Ralph Henry Gabriel, Samuel Eliot
Morison, Arthur O. Lovejoy, Howard Mumford Jones, and they went on to create
such classics in the field as Virgin Land; The Savages of Amenca; Andrew
Jachson: Symbol for an Age; The American Adam; The Jacksonian Persuasion;
The Quest for Paradise; The Machine in the Garden.
But in culture studies as in culture, giants do not arise without connections. The
contemporary "giants" of the three essays to follow Peter Berger and Thomas
Luckmann. Gregory Bateson, Clifford Geertz differ in intellectual orientation and
discipline of origin from the scholarly mentors of the symbol-myth-image
generation. They differ also in their relationship to those writing about them. R.
Gordon Kelly, Jay Mechling, and Karen Lystra were not actually taught by the
scholars they discuss they are connected not personally but through the medium of
the published word. It may be instructive, then, in setting a scholarly context for the
essays that follow, to establish some continuities and contrasts between current and
past cultural imperatives in the field. (There is little need here to elucidate the essays
themselves; they speak eloquently in their own behalf )
A felt imperative of the symbol-myth-image generation, coming of intellectual age
as they did in the 1940s and 1950s, was to legitimize the scholarly study of
America. Although part of that battle had already been won by Americanist giants
who preceded them in the 1920s and 1930s, still it consumed much of their
scholarly agenda. They got help of course. An Amencan nation progressively
enmeshed in matters of world import, an American culture increasingly curious
about itself, an expanding academic enterprise that allowed new scholarly
perspectives and programs to be added alongside old ones rather than obligate them
to compete for scarce resources-- all these gave nourishment to activities of the
symbol- myth-image generation.
But if that wider cultural context may be a necessary cause of the flowering of
Amencan Studies scholarship in the 1940s and 1960s, it not a sufficient cause.
Here we must pay full tribute to the remarkable genius of individuals in the
symbol-myth-image generation. Members the current generation, myself included,
have on occasion noted shortcomings in their work, but our criticisms should be
put in perspective. Theirs was a heroic task, and they were equal to the heroic
demands the situation. We cannot fault the analytic brilliance and synthetic sweep of
their work or the freshness of their scholarly perspective. If their scholarship has
here and there been supplemented by more recent cultural perspectives, it has not
been replaced wholesale, and it should not be. For a time in the 1970s some were
prone to discount their work as a strategy to clear the way for fresh forms of
cultural inquiry. But these new forms are securely enough established now so that
we can take a more balanced view of our past. And that view should acknowledge
the considerable accomplishments of symboi-myth-image scholars, as well as
account for their limitations. Hence the current generation in Amencan Culture
Studies may stand "on the shoulders of giants" such as Berger and Luckmann,
Geertz, and Bateson, and also such past Americanists as Smith, Marx, Lewis, et
al. The new exemplars need not replace the old; rather they may supplement them.
But whether we call members of the symbol-myth-image generational giants,
geniuses, or faulted humans, their scholarship did have a setting and without that
supporting context the outcome of their work,indeed their work itself,might
have been different. The "heroic" situation the symbol-myth-image generation gave
them opportunities,in ideas obviously, but also in social structure not readily
available to those who followed.
In a revealing essay of 1957, Roy Harvey Pearce addresses this structural matter
directly. "If we are to have our discipline of American Studies," he affirms,
"research must come first and programs second." Many of the "giants" of that
generation were to heed Pearce's injunction. The were notable exceptions, of
course. A Carl Bode, a Robert Spiller, a Richard Dorson, a Robert Walker, a
Russel Nye, a John William Ward, E Anthony Garvan, a Stuart Gerry Brown, an
Alexander Kern, a Murray Murphey (who bridges the two generationss these
would be known for their institutional and programmatic activities, as well as for
their published scholarship. But a Henry Nash Smith, a Roy Harvey Pearce, an R.
W. B. Lewis, a Marvin Meyers, a Leo Marx,such intellectual titans of the
symbol-myth-image generatlon affected American Studies through the witness of
their published works, not through their institutional activities on behalf of the
national movement or through involvement in sustaining local programs. As I shall
explain in a moment, their inteIlectual prionties—research first, then programmatic
activities following along as they might—were to change for the generations to
The 1940s-50s generation were spared another cultural imperative
of subsequent generations. They were not obliged, at least not early in
their careers, to reflect critically on their own operating assumptions.
To be sure, symbol-myth-image scholars never functioned without intellectual
models; that is simply not possible, some humanistic sentiments
to the contrary. But in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s Americanists
felt no cultural imperative to make those models explicit. This was especially so
because their most basic models came from their own undergraduate and graduate
teachers; that influence was experienced in personal ways they felt no need to
rationalize (brief acknowledgments in book prefaces seemed enough at the time).
Hence symbol-myth-image scholars could be passionately reflexive
about Amencan culture but not about American Culture Studies. In Virgin Land, for
example, Henry Nash Smith wrote in persuasive detail about actual symbols,
myths, and images in Amencan cultural history, but only in passing did he reflect on
his core ordering terms: "I use the words to designate larger or smaller units of the
same kind of thing namely an intellectual construction that fuses concept and
emotion into an image."2 The same is true of Leo Marx. "A cultural symbol," he
wrote in The Machine in the Garden, "is an image that conveys a special meaning
(thought and feeling) to a large number of those who share the culture."3
In rare instances where symbol-myth-image scholars did pause to articulate their
own assumptions, they were clearly not at their best.Virgin Land is more coherent
and persuasive than Smith's 1957 article "Can 'American Studies' Develop a
Method?," and The Machine in the Garden is better researched and reasoned than
Marx's 1969 essay "American Studies: In Defense of an Unscientific Method."4
In more recent years much of what stayed implicit in 1940s and 1950s
scholarship has been made explicit. No one to my knowledge called that
work "symbol-myth-image" at the time; but in the last decade this retrospective label
haa acquired wide currency, and several articles and at least one book in the field
have taken apart the operating assumptions of that scholarship. Also, some
members of the generation themselves would wax more reflexive. Of late, Richard
Dorson, Kenneth Lynn, and Murray Murphey have written movingly on the
personal influence of their graduate-school mentors—particularly F. O.
Matthiessen, but also Perry Miller, Kenneth Murdock, Samuel Eliot Morison.
Howard Mumford Jones, and Bernard De Voto. And a notable scholarly conference
held at Hobart College in 1975 stimulated Leo Marx and Henry Nash Smith to
reflect back on their own graduate-school experiences at Harvard in the
1930s and 1940s.5
Which brings us up to our own time and to preoccupations of the
current scholarly generation. Clearly this generation of American-culture
scholars have inherited different imperatives from their symbol-mythimage
predecessors. That is partly because, as the title of the American Studies
Association convention session where these essays were first presented shows,
present day scholars are indeed "standing on the shoulders of giants." Because
earlier generations did their work so well and extraacademic forces have cooperated
too, we need not worry today about establishing the scholarly legitimacy of
But we have plenty of other things to worry about. In this sense we lack the
economy of intellectual focua of the heroic generation; their injunction was to create
exemplary Americanist scholarship, and that they did. Such an injunction is still
with us, of course; but it must compete now with a multitude of other cultural and
This issue of contrasting generational imperatives wss sharpened by an early
commentator on these essays by Kelly, Mehling, and Lystra. He thought they had
their prionties wrong. Instead of discussing theoretically the ideas of Berger and
Luckmann, Bateson, and Geertz, he said they should be out doing their own
cultural studies actually testing those ideas. Although there is a certain pragmatic
appeal to that kind of judegment, an appeal especially resonant in Amencan culture,
and although such cultural testing studies are, of course, being done anyway ( by,
among others, Kelly, Mechling, and Lystra), it nonetheless fails to acknowledge
some of the more vexing cultural imperatives confronted by current American
scholars and scholarship.
It is no coincidence that other culture-studies fields manifest the same "reflexive"
tendency that influences Amencan Studies today. Indeed, in such disciplines as
sociology and anthropology the reflexive movement came on the scene earlier than
in Amencan Studies and has amassed more scholarly legitimacy in the field; one
thinks of C Wright Mills, Rogert Nisbet, Alvin Goulder, Robert Friedrichs, and
Nicholas Mullins in sociology, Marvin Harris, George Stocking (who holds an
American Studies doctorate, by the way), Anthony F. C. Wallace, Dell Hymes,
David Kaplan. and Robert Manners in anthropology. Events of the last two decades
especially have stripped off many of the coverings shrouding culture and social
structure in people's lives, revealing naked power and influence not felt so acutely,
or perhaps seen so clearly, by earlier generations of Americanists. Such events have
rendered more visible, and therefore more problematic, our elementary arenas for
analysis in the field—culture and social structure.
The impact inside and outside academe have been similar: The new situation has
offered opportunities for greater understanding, and it has simultaneously set us in
intellectual crisis. For much that could be taken for granted before, say, 1960 in
Amencan cultural understandings cannot be assumed any longer. And the further
taken-for-granted assumption that Amencan cultural history need be set in the
context only of Western Europe has been rendered problematic too. All this is now
widely understood, of course; but its implications, at least in American
Studies, have been compreheneded more readily in substantive terms than in
strategies and priorities for scholarship.
It is no longer sufficient simply to take given cultural assumptions-- in the past
largely implicit and drawn mostly from the humanities and go out to “do
scholarship in the field. Because past Americanist assumptions have fallen short in
vital ways and because so many competing cultural theories (from the social
sciences as well as the humanities) are available to us now, it is necessary to do
considerable reflexive work in culture theory in advance of, beside, above,
underneath, and behind research in one's pnmary cultural materials Just as a
carpenter must know his tools before setting out on a job, so must the student of
culture 7 What, above all, the contemporary “reflexive" movement in scholarship
means is that the same premise that Amencan Culture Studies hitherto has applied to
the world outside must now be aimed at itself too--that we are beter off being
critically aware of our shaping beliefs and socializing influences than remaining
ignorant of them.
The essays that follow, by R Gordon Kelly, Jay Mechling, and Karen Lystra, are
grounded in that premise. Among other purposes, they aim to contribute to a body
of critical theory for American Culture Studies that will enlarge and refine the
analytic tools available to workers in the field. In each case they have chosen
exemplars from outside academic American Studies—from sociology, from
anthropology, and from wherever one may locate Gregory Bateson—and have tried
indicating what among their insights is most valuable to students of American
culture. Heeding the reflexive imperative, Kelly, Mechling, and Lystra have not
made the task of doing Amencan Culture Studies easier, but their intent, in the
words of Richard Hofstadter, is to offer us "greater range and depth."8
Other imperatives of the current generation are more social structural than cultural
Most basic of these is the institutional imperative. lf, as I have suggested, it is not
enough today simply to go out and do Americanist scholarship, it is also not
enough to heed Roy Harvey Pearce's 1950s call to do research first and let programs
in the field follow along naturally 9 The programs are here now, and they are
maintained and energized not just by individual exemplars of scholarship; they are
sustained also through the labors of involved people who must balance incessant
programmatic demands in today's overadministered university with their own
personal aims to engage in culture-studies scholarship
If the symbol-myth-image generation of Americanists were obliged to confront
skeptical academic Eur0peanists, they were not, in many cases because they were
teaching in such wealthy private institutions as Harvard, Yale, Amherst,
Princeton, obligated to deal with harassed deans ordered to cut their budgets
across the board by, say, 10 percent and who are tempted to resort to crude
numerical equations to rationalize their burden; to cope with state-mandated
formulas requiring that every class meet a minimum enrollment or be summarily
dropped; to handle another state-mandated ukase that team-taught seminars are an
academic luxury that cannot be supported by precious funds; to manage a state-
dictated teaching load of four courses each semester by every university faculty
member, because anything less would be seen as unproductive; to cope with
beleguered members of traditional departments in a constricting university setting
who may feel, rightly or wrongly, that every resource made available for
interdisciplinary programs like American Studies is stolen away from them; to
respond to a rampaging budget office and state bureaucracy that demand to know,
year in and year out into what category this peclliar creature "American Studies~ fits
and, in painstaking detail, what that creature can do to justify it existence
academically and financially
Such demands are not wholly unique to current times, but of late they have
escalated in velocity (and, sometimes, ferocity), particularly in public institutions.
Anyone functioning in an academic unit nowadays is obliged to contend with these
kind of demands, and in Amencan Studies especiaily they stimulate a critical
reflexiveness on purpose and function that is not an intellectual luxury so much as
an institutional necessity. People in Amencan Studies today are more self-conscious
about their discipline not wholly by choice but because current forces in academe
dictate they had better be. That too sets off imperatives of the current generation
from those in the symbol-myth-image years. Earlier Americanists could afford to be
lesa anxious about articulating an autonomous and self-conscious "discipline of
American Studies" because department lines (especially between literature, history,
and Amencan Studies) were more fluid then and because an expanding institutional
base in academe could, in effect, let a hundred flowers bloom without close and
continuing justification of each one.
But if there are intellectual and structural discontinuities between the
symbol-myth-image era and our own--and I have purposely accented differences
here to set a context for the essays that follow—we should not forget the
continuities. Reflexiveness, a turn toward the social sciences (particularly
anthropology, sociology, and psychology), consideration of the cultures of
everyday life, focus on the functioning of social institutions, increased concern for
nonmajority and nonWestern peoples—all these distinguish tendencies in the
present from our past in American Studies. But basic intellectual habits in the
movement have been sustained over the generations--most notably, Geertztian
"thick descriptions" of cultural artifacts and cultural forces, focus on culture itself
and the forms an genres it inhabits, emphasis on the historicity of life, concern for
intellectual connections between disparate levels of experience.
And this indicates (if we need any indication) that generational imperatives, the
momentum of institutions, and functional social roles do not wholly detcrrnine
people's cultural and scholarly responses; they merely shape them. Such larger
imperatives may encourage or constrain expression of certain ideas or set limits on
their influence they do not finally create or finally the ideas themselves. Culture and
social structure it must be said, powerfully affect people; they do not wholly dictate
how they can respond. Many Americanists today, for example, are unaffected by
the reflexive movement in culture-studies scholarship, and some think it irrelevant
and misguided. Similarly, not everyone in past symbol-myth-image years was as
removed from contemporary reflexiveness as, say, the seminal Amencan Studies
writers of that generation.
Hence a writer like the cultural histonan Richard Hofstatder may in retrospect be
instructive for us. Although he is not formally identified as an American Studies
scholar (he did once serve on the American Quarterly editorial board), his works
have frequently been read in Amencan Studies classrooms; they characterstically
employ symbols, myths, and images to explain American cultural history; and his
scholarly social situation parallels that of other Amencanists of his generation, such
as Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, and Marvin Meyers.
Yet in contrast to others of his generation, Richard Hofstadter was intensely
reflexive in his scholarship. His 1956 essay "History and the Social Sciences," for
example, explicitly reaches toward the disciplines of sociology and psychology for
tools for cultural analysis; it also articulates a selfconscious strategy for crossing
disciplinary borders, and, like the writings of Kelly, Mechling, and Lystra, it
details cultural insights and intellectual tools drawn from his own scholarly
exemplars (in his case Arthur 0. Lovejoy, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Mannheim).
Further, Hofstadter's 1968 volume The Progressive Historian is, I believe, the
finest reflexive work ever written in Amencan Culture Studies. It is reflexive on
Hofstadter's own life and work, on his experiences in the university classroom,
and on experiences and values of his scholarly generation. But it is reflexive most
of all in the intellectual homage it pays to previous scholarship in the field.
Countering a history profession that tends to define scholarship as work in only
“primary" historical documents, Richard Hofstadter focused the most thoroughly
researched and closely reasoned study in his distinguished career on sources that
are normally relegated to "secondary" stature,the writings of other American
Although he largely dissented from the exemplar works of Turner, Beard, and
Parrington, he dissented not by cursory rejection but through detailed, systematic
analysis of their ideas and cultural influence. Richard Hofstadter's
witness affirming that disciplined scholarship is not only work in the field but
also critical dialogue on tools for inquiry--provides a model reflexive context for the
"On the Shoulders of Giants" essays that follow.
1. 'American Studies as a Discipline"College English, no. 18 (January 1957), p.
2. Virgin Land :The American West as Symbol and Myth , 2nd ed. (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), p.xi
3. The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America: (New
York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1964), p.4.
4. There re exceptions to this judgement. R W. B. Lewis prologue to The
American Adam --"Tne Myth and the Dialogue"is an extraordinarly penetrating
foray into explicit culture theory, and Marvin Meyers also wrote reflexively on what
he called a cultural "persuasion" in The Jacksonian Persuasion. Here we can fault
not Lewis or Meyers but, rather the poor state of scholary criticism in American
Culture Studies; for the potentially valuable contributiions of Lewis and Meyers to
cuiture theory have rarely been discussed or built on in subsesquent scholarly
forums. In the case of Lewis especially, that is too bad. For his dialogue theory of
culture, replete with its multiple "voices" and "parties," might have helped us cope
with our recent expereences of pluralism in America, and his sense that a culture
should be understood not by what it is but what it argues about could have cut
through much conceptual confusion in the recent debate over "modernization"
among American cultural historians.
5. Richard Dorson, The Birth of AmericanStudies (Bloomington: Indiana Univ.
Press, 1978); Kenneth Lynn, F. O. Matthiessen,American Scholar, Winter 1976
W- 86 93; Murray Murphey, "American Civilization in Retrospect," American
Quarterly, 31, No. 3 (Bibliography Issue, 1979), W. 402-6; John Lydenberg, ed.
Political Activism and the Academic Conscience: Tht Harvard Experience 1936-41
(Geneva. N.Y.: Hobart and William Smith College, 1977)
ó. Kelly, for example, has drawn on Berger and Luckmann his book on
nineteenth-century children's socialization literature; Mechling is employing
Bateson's ideas in his forthcoming ethnographic-historical study of the Boy Scouts
of America; and Lystra is using those of Geertz in her ongoing cultural study of
nineteentb century American love correspondence_.
Several others in and around American Studies are also doing (or have done)
application studies using these exemplars. For Berger and Luckmann these include
Lonna Malmaheimer's analysis of New England funeral sermons . Kay Mussell's
study of sex roles in nineteenth-century women's novels, John Wilson's inquiry
into historical functions of "public religion" in American culture, Mechling's work
on regionalism and Sacramento Valley studies, and Mechling and Merline
Williams's use of the university classroom as a laboratory for witnessing the “social
construction of reality." For Bateson they include the forthcoming ethnography by
Malmsheimer et ai. of regional responses to the Three Mile Island situation, as weil
as Malmsheimer's photographic-historical portrait of tbe Carlisle Indian School.
For Geertz they include Sandra Sizer's analysis of the rhetonc of nineteenth-century
gospel hymns, John Wilson's previously mentioned study of “public religion” in
America, and several of tbe historical essays in John Hingham and Paul Conklin's
anthology New Dlrections in Amerlcan Intelectual History.
7. Looking at the cultural tools advanced by Bener and Luckmann, Bateson, and
Geertz. it is interesting to note points of convergence among the three, also areas
where perhaps they need to be supplemented by other tools for inquiry. All three
look for pattern and form in human experience; they would concur with Mechling
that "the subject matter of Amergean Studies is not objects ond events but
relationships" (italics in original). All focus not on things or actions in human
esperience but on transactions; they employ dialectical models that witness culture
in dialogue with what is around it—social structure, biology, nature. All focus not
on particular cultures but on the human species as culture-bearing animals. All
affirm that culture is not merely subjective, "in the mind," but takes eternal,
objective form in public arenas and social institutions. (This point is clearest in
Geertz and in Berger and Luckmann.) And all do not simply analyze human culture
but are reflexive about it; they aim to make their culture theories explicit.
Having acknowledged what they do say, it is important to note what they leave out,
too. There are, it must be said, gaps in their modes of cultural analysis; if they
illuminate some areas of human esperience, they only dimly light or leave in the
dark other areas. Berger and Luckmann, Bateson, and Geertz are obviously more
concerned with external social-structural matters than were previous sym-
bol-myth-image Americanists. Still, many areas of power and of political
functioning, the influence of class, race, and gender, and the impact not only of
culture but of subculture and of cultural pluralit y are not brightly illuminated by
them. Similarly, they tell us little ofregional variations natural or cultural—in the
way people behave, or of how number and proportion can be used as tools to
understand social populations. And, finally, they are best when attempting syn-
chronic connections among things cultural but, when compared to prior Ameri-
canists, are relatively weak on historical dimensions of human esperience.
As Lystra remarks in her critique of Geertz, however, to note shortcomings is not
to lament that these scholars failed to do everything. It is only to caution that their
perspectives must on occasion be supplemented by those of otheremplars in the
8. Richard Hofstadter, "History and the Social Sciences," in Fritz Stern, ed., The
Varieties of History (New York: New American Library, 1956),p.364.
9. Fortunately several in the 1940-50s generation did not follow Pearce's priorities
either and instead labored heroically to create local programs in the field and build
the national movement. Theirs is an untold story in the institutional history of
American Studies. The classic "Walker Report" of 1958 outlines many of these
institutional undertakings; when Pershing Vartanian's booklength history of the
movement is published, the wider cultural meanings of these activities should get a
10. Hostadter, "History and the Social Sciences," pp. 359-70.