Book Review—Some Conclusions About Introductions

what two new introductions to american studies & american cultural history can tell us about the fields.

X-posted from US Intellectual History Book Review.

  • Philip J. Deloria & Alexander I. Olson, American Studies: A User’s Guide
  • Eric Avila, American Cultural History: A Very Short Introduction

You have to love an academic book that contains its own original limerick. Discussing the concept of form, Philip Deloria and Alexander Olson attempt to write a sonnet, but abandon Petrarch for a sillier, but more effective, rhyme:

There’s a field of American study

Whose method can seem a bit nutty

But just shift your gears

As an idea coheres

And all will be clear that was muddy (191).

The poem is indicative of the cleverness found in American Studies: A User’s Guide, which is meant to be an introductory text to the interdisciplinary field.

By contrast, Eric Avila is less prankish and playful in American Cultural History: A Very Short Introduction, but his brief overview does include a riddle, in this case Ralph Ellison’s “riddle of the zoot,” in which the novelist sought to understand the World War II-era fashion of long, double-breasted blazers, baggy pants, and wide-brimmed hats with feathers adorned primarily by young, working-class men of Chicano, Filipino, and African-American descent in Los Angeles (82-83). Racially motivated riots resulted, in part, from the look, a reminder that supposedly innocuous aspects of culture can often lead to serious moments of social conflict. As with Deloria and Olson, Avila investigates cultural history as a perspective on the past full of puzzles that “can seem a bit nutty.” He portrays American cultural history as a story about how leisure and fun in the United States often nonetheless reveals quite sobering findings about the nation.

“Just shift your gears as an idea coheres,” Deloria and Olson contend, “and all will be clear that was muddy.” Introductory texts such as theirs and Avila’s book are worth examining as intellectual endeavors for a number of reasons. Of course, they are important for teaching. These are publications we might use to introduce students to our scholarly practices, concerns, modes of analysis, and our very sense of the world and how to analyze it. More crucially, because the goal of this “introduction to the field” genre is to reach new audiences, the books bring to the surface core aspects of their respective disciplines. Or “interdisciplines” as the case might have it, since both American Studies and American cultural history self-consciously partake of multiple tactics for the task of studying the United States and its culture in all its complexity.

American Studies: A User’s Guide and American Cultural History: A Very Short Introduction have much in common, but they also diverge in telling ways. American Studies is the more lively of the two texts, an adventurous and wide-ranging inquiry into a highly contested interdisciplinary endeavor. As its limerick suggests, it plays up method far more than content. The “method” of American Studies indeed “can seem a bit nutty” in this book. American Cultural History, by comparison, must necessarily be “very short.” Therefore, in straightforward and quick-paced prose, Avila concentrates on content rather than method. While Deloria and Olson navigate readers through questions of how knowledge itself arises in American Studies, using concepts such as “mixtapes” and “toolkits” to present a density of overlapping, sometimes contradictory, approaches and discoveries, Avila tells a unified historical narrative of culture in the United States. They roam. He plots a steady course. They emphasize methodological variety. He relays streamlined information. Deloria and Olson want readers to grasp the how of American Studies. Avila wishes for readers to learn more about the what of American cultural history.

Of course, at times the two books trade emphases, but their variations are, by and large, good examples of some of the persistent differences between American Studies and American cultural history. Despite many similarities—among them, their shared focus on representation, symbolic activity, semiotic readings of all sources as “texts,” the agency of everyday people, and efforts to recover more than just the legacy of elite Great Men—American Studies has largely abandoned any notion of American culture as a coherent entity. Cultural history, by comparison, continues to try to piece elements of the past together into a coherent national story. “American Studies,” one of Olson’s colleagues mused to him, “is not defined by what it chooses to include, but by what it refuses to exclude—which is pretty much everything” (3). In response to the nagging feeling that anything goes in American Studies, his and Deloria’s solution is “to summarize practices.” For their readers, these become “a way of consolidating your American Studies knowledge and then allowing and encouraging creativity, both within the familiar structures and sometimes in relation to the structures themselves” (3). Instead of “ironclad ‘rules’,” Deloria and Olson repeatedly return to this concept of “practices” (2). In their “user’s guide,” they both describe them abstractly and attempt to enact them through specific case studies.

For Avila, by contrast, it is not the mode of analysis that matters as much as the actual experiences in the American past. These define cultural history. In his book, unlike in Deloria and Olson’s, content trumps method. “If economic history is the history of wealth and its distribution,” he writes, “if political history is the history of governments and state formation; if military history is the history of armies and war; if environmental history is the history of human interactions with nature; cultural history is, quite simply, the history of stories, their origins, transmission, and significance in time” (1-2). American cultural history’s “interdisciplinary approach,” Avila proposes, “has borrowed insights and methods from other fields, including anthropology, literature, art and architectural history, media and communications studies, linguistics, and philosophy,” but in the end, the key intervention it has made has to do with expanding the “definition of what constitutes historical evidence.” By looking past official historical sources, he believes, “American cultural historians excavated the lost voices of American history, the values, beliefs, and attitudes of people on the margins, whose cultural expressions had been salvaged from obscurity” (2). Behind the riddle of the zoot, for Avila, are the people whose American stories matter as much as, if not more than, any politicians rise to office or CEO’s success in business.

Avila would have his readers believe that American cultural history is “simple” in this way, and over the course of six chapters, he distills what he admits is in actuality a radically diverse tale to a chronological story which, if not exactly a progress narrative, does have the air of a brisk, orderly march forward through time. So goes the introductory text, especially the “very short” one. We begin with the colonial era, which Avila portrays as marked not only by “political struggles over sovereignty and jurisdiction” between indigenous peoples and various European colonialists, or “economic competition over resources and wealth,” but also “cultural contests between clashing sets of meanings, values, and beliefs” (12). Playing Indian (something Philip Deloria has studied in depth) at the Boston Tea Party serves as an example of culture mattering right alongside politics, economics, and military struggle in the colonial era. So too does the emerge of a subaltern African-American culture despite the oppressive rise of slavery in the so-called New World. Chapter two tracks the emergence of mass culture and politics in the early Republic of the nineteenth century, with PT Barnum, Frederick Douglass, minstrel shows, the penny press, James Fenimore Cooper, and Harriet Beecher Stowe making appearances. Chapter three concentrates on the US after the Civil War, with the growth of the city at the center of the tale, indicative of Avila’s own expertise in urban history (one nice thing about this “short introduction” is also that the West Coast and Latinx histories appear more often due to Avila’s own scholarly interests). Chapter four takes us into the new mass culture of the twentieth century, beginning with the riot of festive (often racist) culture at the 1893 Chicago World’s Colombian Exposition’s Midway Plaisance and continuing with Coney Island, the development of the Hollywood film industry, and jazz. Chapter five shifts to the decades after World War II, as Cold War anti-communist containment oddly accompanied suburban expansion and American abundance met up with dissatisfaction and, ultimately, outright rebellion. Chapter six concludes with the “world wide web” of recent American culture, from the development of more overt and self-conscious social commentary in film and television during the 1970s through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and up to the appearance of the commercialized Internet in the 1990s. “At the outset of the Information Age,” Avila writes, concluding his story with a return to his overarching argument about the persistence of a coherent national narrative, “the symbolic word of American culture continues to unite diverse and disparate segments of the population.” Yet he admits that in the United States, culture “remains a battleground, fraught with the very tensions and conflicts that define the nation’s history and identity” (126).

The sense of America as a contested place with a “fraught” past is, in many ways, the starting point for Deloria and Olson’s “user’s guide” to American Studies. “We should once again remind ourselves,” they already write midway through the introduction, “that there is no single culture of the United States, no such thing as a distinct ‘American mind’ or ‘American character.’ Rather, there are multiple cultures—each transforming, each overlapping, each struggling and fighting and sharing with one another” (15). While Avila adopts an authoritative historical voice to stake his claim that an overarching story of the American cultural past exists, Deloria and Olson strike a more informal tone to argue that the center does not hold in American cultural life. Sometimes the friendliness gets a touch overbearing. We probably do not need to know about their failures at acoustic songwriting, even if this information serves as a nice metaphor to evoke some of the methodological strategies a newcomer can turn to for American Studies (1-3). Nor do we need photographs of personal pets, even if they do help to explain a “network of meaning” (6-7). And we might not need to end with a chapter that unfurls the material culture and institutional history of industrial toilet paper dispensers (“Dispenser: A Case Study”). These gimmicks work fine, but sometimes they get to be a bit much. Fortunately, the rest of American Studies: A User’s Guide does far more than offer adolescent, occasionally amusing bathroom humor and witty gags. This is a fun book that overwhelmingly proves quite dedicated to serious intellectual inquiry even when it goes for the cute way in to a topic or theme.

The first section of American Studies explores a series of overlapping “mixtapes” for the field and emphasizes the importance of historiography and disciplinary genealogy.  The point is less the particular value of each constellation of readings, although each would provide the basis for a wonderful unit in an American Studies (or cultural history) course and some could even anchor the entire syllabus for a semester. Instead, Deloria and Olson seek to model at the disciplinary “meta” level how one puts together a sequence of related readings. “Curating a mixtape,” they note, “is not just about finding songs that work well together, but also about setting up contrasts and juxtapositions to keep the listener engaged” (43). They present a “Plantation Household” mixtape, an Old School American Studies one, a “Vernacular” mixtape, an “American Problems” list, an “Anthropological” mixtape, one focused on “American Spaces,” and another concentrating on “Transnational” American Studies. There are still more, including a “Mixtape of Mixtapes” consisting of edited collections since 1940 that have attempted to sum up the state of American Studies since its inception. Each mixtape could form the core of a separate book on American Studies, but Deloria and Olson do a masterful job presenting a brief hearing of each one as a particular set of conceptual choices that brings up the volume on certain themes while drowning out others. Their guide is about the method after all, as their limerick announced, and while the content is in the mix, the tape is played primarily to demonstrate the multiple modes one can take to play the many songs of American Studies inquiry.

At the center of their book, Deloria and Olson shift into a chapter that itself could have constituted an entire project and publication. “An Institutional History of American Studies (Or, What’s the Matter with the Mixtapes?)” takes us deep into the history of the American Studies Association, the main organization for the field, using its archives at the Library of Congress. The chapter is a model of archival inquiry. It reveals how methods themselves have a past. Even while we must employ a method of some sort to access history, no method arrives to us itself untouched by historical forces. The institutional story of American Studies serves as a kind of “checkpoint,” as Deloria and Olson put it, that both allows American Studies to exist as a field and constrains its reach and logic. Intriguingly, the field’s history is usually understood as an academic manifestation of Cold War American exceptionalism, an attempt to identify, celebrate, and justify the ideology of US supremacy, but in Deloria and Olson’s telling, which employs the archival approach of reading sources closely, the archives debunk that assumption. Instead, the institutional story of American Studies contains no simple tale of centralized overlords and marginalized rebels; rather it is a saga of competing interests all striving to articulate diverse conceptualizations of American culture under the pressure of limited resources and tentative support for their efforts (94-99). What becomes clear is that those earlier American Studies scholars sure could have used a book such as American Studies: A User’s Guide to aid them in their cause!

Despite its institutional travails, American Studies has survived. And despite the challenges it has faced precisely because of its multitudinous methodological dimensions, the field continues to be robustly diverse—and just as contentious as ever. To make sense of all that methodology, the second half of American Studies takes up the many issues of method itself. Inviting the reader to become a Sherlock Holmes carefully examining the mysteries and clues of American cultures, Deloria and Olson attend to four key concepts: Texts, Archives, Genres and Formations. They arrive, finally, at Power as an end point of cultural analysis. Their conceptual foci are brought together in a table of terms that appears not once, but, by my count, six times in the book (124, 157, 185, 206, 248, 268). It consists of Methods, Objects, and Actions. These include triplets such as Interpretation, Text, and Perception or Generalization, Power, and Connection. As Deloria and Olson explain each methodological concept in detail, we get glimpses of some of the most robust and influential ideas in American Studies currently, such as “settler colonialism.” Deloria and Olson expertly explain where the concept first appeared (in indigenous and Native American Studies) and then how it circulated as a potent theoretical explanation of larger cultural frameworks both in and beyond the United States (239-240). Here we get not only method itself, flatly and statically presented, but also the origins of methods, and a sense of how the methods have migrated across topics, areas, and perspectives.

Despite the danger of being a bit too flippant, who could not admire a book that, to explain the concept of “formation,” turns to the Beyoncé song by that very name? In the many dimensions of “Formation” the song, we learn about “formations,” the American Studies concept (211). There are numerous other melodies, harmonies, and rhythms played artfully in this book, which strives to give a hearing to the full song of American Studies rather than declare one aspect of the field supreme. It seeks, after all, to be a “user’s guide,” Deloria and Olson remind us at the end of their book, not an “owner’s manual” (296).

Whether questioning, hesitant, multifaceted, and sometimes too whimsical for its own good, as in Deloria and Olson’s American Studies: A User’s Guide, or confident, authoritative, and sometimes too simple and unified, as in Avila’s American Cultural Studies: A Very Short Introduction, these two books remind us that you have to start somewhere in thinking about culture. Both ultimately land on the key theme of power. “It is the relationship between culture and power that bears emphasis,” Avila argues (6). “Most texts,” Deloria and Olson similarly conclude, “when read deeply…will often demonstrate complex negotiations among would-be dominations and wistful resistances” (147-148). Power is the end of culture, these books suggest.

Or is it? “Culture, like war, is politics by other means,” Avila contends (5). But maybe he has the logic backward. Maybe politics, like war, is culture by other means. If so, these starter books, a user’s guide and a very short introduction, spark the quest, and keep the flames burning, on the effort to understand the larger term of culture in all its American glory and trauma.

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