Scanned Article


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 Virginia, 11/13/95.

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 follow.

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 studying America.

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 scholarly imperatives.

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 historians.

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.

NOTES 1. 'American Studies as a Discipline"College English, no. 18 (January 1957), p. 179 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 field.

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 hearing.

10. Hostadter, "History and the Social Sciences," pp. 359-70.