A Movement in the Mirror:
American Studies in the 1970s

by Lisa Guernsey


3. The Bibliography Issues

The most powerful vehicle for change in the journal turned out to be the seemingly innocuous bibliography issue, a summer supplement to the regular four issues of the American Quarterly. In fact, a look at the bibliography issues and their founding may provide the most insightful mirror yet of what the American Studies movement was experiencing in the 1970s. Prior to the American Quarterly editorship of Murray Murphey, a key player in the campaign to strengthen the University of Pennsylvania's American Studies program, the bibliography issues included brief synopses of articles and books that reached into American Studies scholarship as well as a survey of programs and lists of dissertations. When Murphey took the helm in 1970 he realized two things: the bibliography issue was the most expensive issue, and, as far as he could see, it was not worth much to its members.

Translating those realizations into an improved journal was not as easy as Murphey anticipated, however.  Politics, personalities and individual opinions have always driven the American Studies movement alongside its intellectual endeavors, and the year 1970 would be no different. Murphey first called for an end to the current bibliography issues, a move that the then-current ASA bibliographer, Donald Koster, understandably resisted. In place of the old bibliography issues, Murphey asked for a review issue that brought to the membership useful essays evaluating and explaining new trends in the field. In the end, Murphey received what he asked for, though tender relations among Murphey, Koster, the ASA and the American Quarterly ensued for several years as a result.44

By the August 1973 issue, Murphey announced the changes he envisioned respecting book reviewing and bibliography. By the next issue, a committee had been formed to evaluate the bibliographic needs of the American Studies Association and published its report, recommending that

Because of the increasing diversity of the bibliographical media and the quantity of relevant material to be considered, that the position of bibliographer be replaced by an American Studies Standing Committee on Bibliographical Needs and Policies.45

In addition, the committee urged that the issues supply "better research tools," including, as Murphey suggested, "[c]ommissioned topical review essays which include surveys of books, articles and other media."46  One important editorial change was noted as well: the content of the bibliography issues would not be dictated by the American Quarterly editorial staff, but instead by the standing committee comprised of ASA members. In a reversal of policy, the editorial control of this one annual issue of the American Quarterly would be wholly out of the hands of the University of Pennsylvania.

In addition to the significance of the institutional groundings of the bibliography issues, however, stands their intellectual contribution. The bibliography issues came to be known as "access" issues, opening doors onto new areas of scholarship and providing much-needed surveys of available methodological approaches. Jay Mechling, whose 1973 UC-Davis article had already publicly endorsed change in American Studies scholarship and who had just recently finished his graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania (yet another indicator of the University of Pennsylvania's dominant role), was chosen to chair the first bibliography committee. As Mechling remembers it, with the new currents of diversity complicating the American Studies movement, scholars badly needed a map of the disciplines surrounding them. Thinking of the movement visually, Mechling saw scholars standing in the middle of a number of different approaches to cultural study: "There are literary approaches, sociological approaches, quantitative approaches, anthropological approaches, etcetera," Mechling explains today. "Scholars need to be able to gaze out onto all of them and see what is useful."47  Being interdisciplinary, Mechling adds, does not mean that you need to learn the exact details of every discipline or master the specialized language; you simply need to grasp the main ideas coursing through them.

Deciding to map these main ideas, the bibliography committee began to seek essays from the top scholars in specialized fields, and the content of the bibliography issues soon reflected the change. An essay on the social sciences in American Studies headlined the first issue in 1974, followed by a review of the use of quantitative theory in American Studies, writings on the theory and teaching of American Studies, an essay on the role of material culture studies and a piece on the use of film. A year later, the bibliography issue carried Robert Sklar's essay, "The Problem of American Studies `Philosophy'," a self-reflexive look that turned out to be one of several essays throughout the decade in which the movement looked in the mirror and studied itself.48

1975's issue also offered a status report on American Indian Studies and commentary on the use of oral testimony within scholarship. In the next 10 years, the bibliography issues would span the range of American Studies scholarship, highlighting the advantages of psychoanalytic theory; the importance of American folklore; the study of biographies; the entrance of women's studies; the use of photographs; American Studies' expansion into community colleges; the fundamentals of structuralism; the contributions of Afro-American theater, art and fiction; the significance of mass media; the complexities of studying ethnicity; the importance of exploring everyday life; the study of the city and suburbs; the theories of marxism; and a probing look at race relations.49

In addition to these "maps" of various fields, the bibliography issues sometimes focused on specific themes and brought research from different areas together under one umbrella. In 1979 (in addition to Wise's popular "Paradigm Dramas" essay), the bibliography issue examined "Religion in America," while the 1984 issue centered on Americans at War. Although it may be impossible to chart cause-and-effect, the publication of theme issues seemed to gain respect within the American Quarterly as a whole after the bibliography issues tested the waters.50  Theme issues began to appear in the pages of the regular journal: special issues on "Death in America" (1974), "Reassessing Twentieth-Century Documents" (1977), "Women and Religion" (1978), "Film and American Studies" (1979) and "American Culture and the American Frontier" (1981) seemed to follow, quite similarly, the path laid by the bibliography issues. Before the dawn of the bibliography issues, material within the American Quarterly was often considered to lack focus.51  Now, with the publication of five special issues within eight years, the journal seems to have been repositioning itself on a more responsive track.

Some veterans of the American Quarterly's editorial board still consider the bibliography issues to be of trivial importance to the American Studies Association or to the advancement of American Studies, and even some former members of the bibliography committee downplay its role, but just as charting the appearance of "special issues" indicates change, the comments of several committee members point to some vital contributions of the bibliography committee, particularly in the 1970s. For the members themselves, serving on the committee was an invigorating, pleasurable experience. "We had quite lively discussions about these issues," remembers Robert Fogarty. "The committee was comprised of a broad range of people all engaged with their field."52  Those receiving the issues seemed to appreciate them too: readership began to climb.53 The committee (which became a sub-committee after 1979) received a flurry of fan mail.54  Michael Marsden, now Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northern Michigan University, remembers the special thematic issues and bibliography issues as his favorite elements of the journal in the 1970s, while Harvard professor Werner Sollors notes that with the establishment of the bibliography issues the way the readers felt about the American Quarterly changed for the better.55

Into the 1980s, the bibliography issues continued to publish substantial and apparently useful essays appreciated by their readers. But in 1986 the bibliography issues were abruptly discontinued. Sollors, chairman of the then sub-committee on bibliography, remains relatively puzzled as to why the issues were halted, questioning whether money, internal politics, discontent with content--or all three--stopped the presses. Executive Director John Stephens provides the American Studies Association's answer: the bibliography issues were "merged" into the regular issues of the American Quarterly for financial reasons. The University of Pennsylvania's Dean of Arts and Sciences hoped to reduce the "rather generous subsidy" it allocated to the journal and opted to stop distributing a fifth issue. At roughly the same time, the American Studies Association was able to take control of the American Quarterly, finally shedding itself of the once-desperately needed but always uncomfortable control of the University of Pennsylvania. The association decided at that time to continue with its usual four issues under Johns Hopkins University Press management, which Stephens says was "in retrospect in the best interest of the publication and the association."56

Continue to Conclusion

Return to Table of Contents