Writing American Studies

Introduction. By Simon J. Bronner (Chair and Distinguished Professor of American Studies, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, and Editor-in-Chief, Encyclopedia of American Studies online)

1.  On Writing American Studies. By Richard P. Horwitz (Professor Emeritus of American Studies, University of Iowa, USA)

2.  Writing American Studies? By Deborah Madsen (Professor of American Studies and Director of the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Geneva, Switzerland)

3.  Writing American Studies: A Personal Perspective. By Richard Slotkin (Richard S. Olin Professor of English and American Studies Emeritus, Wesleyan University, USA)


By Simon J. Bronner (Chair and Distinguished Professor of American Studies, Pennsylvania State University, Harrisburg, and Editor-in-Chief, Encyclopedia of American Studies online)

Having previously featured forums on the teaching and learning of American Studies, I move discussion of the practice of American Studies to its products in the form of articles, books, and essays. Increasingly, publishers use the label “American Studies” to identify the content of publications and that raises the question of whether this label derives from the background of the writer, his or her departmental or institutional affiliation, or a distinctive rhetoric. General readers in addition to students and colleagues might recognize the subjects of American Studies inquiry to be literature, music, film, folklore, or historical events, and legitimately ask, if anything, characterizes the style and approach of writing in this inquiry as American Studies.  In this forum, three prominent writers working in, as well as with, American Studies reflect on their productivity and the trends of the field apparent on the bookshelf. 

Richard P. Horwitz has been writing on American Studies since 1973 when as a doctoral student in American Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, he contributed an article on architecture and culture (“The Meaning of the Lowell Boardinghouse” to the flagship journal of the American Studies Association, American Quarterly. He has written for journals outside of American Studies in regional history, technology, and folklife, but the bulk of his publication list is squarely in American Studies, including books such as Anthropology Toward History (1978), The Strip: An American Place (1984),  and Hog Ties (1998). He has also evaluated others’ writing on American Studies as editor of Exporting America: Essays on American Studies Abroad (1993) and The American Studies Anthology (2001).

Deborah Madsen’s background is indeed global and leans more toward literary subjects than Horwitz’s fusion of history, geography, folklife, and anthropology. She completed undergraduate and master’s degrees in English at the University of Adelaide in South Australia, before completing her doctorate at the University of Sussex in England. She was director of American Studies at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom before coming to the University of Geneva to as professor of American literature and culture.  She is the author of a series of books addressing the rhetoric of American national belonging and has been particularly involved in Native American histories and literatures of resistance. She supervises dissertations on a variety of American Studies subjects ranging from poststructuralist critical theory to Chinese diaspora and African American literatures.  She also comments on American Studies writing as an editorial board member of theEncyclopedia of American Studies. Her book titles include American Exceptionalism (1998),Allegory in America (1996), Feminist Theory and Literary Practice (2000, Chinese edition 2006), and Understanding Gerald Vizenor (2009). She has contributed several essays to American Studies journals, including the Journal of American StudiesAmerican Studies, and Southern Review. She has been President of the Swiss Association for North American Studies (SANAS), is on the Editorial Advisory Committee of PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association of America).

Richard Slotkin is distinctive among the writers featured in this forum because he has written novels in addition to historical studies. He is the Richard S. Olin Professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and is singled out by Madsen in her essay as a model of American Studies writing. His education was in American Studies as a product of the Ph.D. program at Brown University, one of the oldest doctoral programs in American Studies in the world. In addition to being elected to the prestigious Academy of Arts and Sciences, he has been honored by the American Studies Association with its Mary C. Turpie Award for teaching and program building. HisRegeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860(1973) is considered a landmark work of American Studies along with his subsequent volumes The Fatal Environment (1985) and Gunfighter Nation (1992) about the myth of the frontier in the nineteenth and twentieth century, respectively.  He has also written award-winning books on the Civil War and World War I, including his most recent title The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution (2012).

In the writing of these important figures, we see more than a mixing of disciplinary approaches. They self-consciously produce essays as contributions to American Studies and I have asked them to comment on their backgrounds, influences, strategies, analyses, and approaches that color their writing.

1.  On Writing American Studies

By Richard P. Horwitz (Professor Emeritus of American Studies, University of Iowa, USA)

Thousands of writers have been cranking out term papers, exams, syllabi, theses, articles, and books “in American Studies” for decades in many places.  They have produced a heap of verbiage about a staggering array of subjects.  But their way of writing American Studies - the rhetoric, principles of composition, lingo and style - has been more limited, maybe enough to peg or parody.  Even in resisting the temptation, I think it is fair to say that “American studies people” have usually addressed their subject in the manner that dominates print in the “regular discipline” that supposedly owns it (e.g., English when the subject is a novel; History when it is the causes of the Civil War, Political Science when it is an election, Sociology when it is demographics, Economics when it is money, and so on) .

In fact, such propriety is often required.  How do you expect to earn a degree, get a job, or get published if you do not write as “the experts” do?  Instructors, examiners, colleagues, deans, and editors insist that to be “publishable” or “count” our prose must dress appropriately, in thoroughly scholarly garb (harrumph!) according to conventions in one of those “regular” departments with a corner on “General Education Requirements.” 

Whatever else it does, the prose should exude enough “seriousness” to maintain distance from anything on Facebook or a conversation that might be overheard in Whole Foods or Dunkin’ Donuts.  For a half-century, for example, most of the articles published in American Quarterly could just as easily have appeared in the PMLA or Journal of American History(I’ll ever remember a rejection letter from the AQ, asserting, with undeconstructed confidence, “Scholarly articles are not written in the first person.”).

That standard has, no doubt, served a lot of people well, but I have long wished that American Studies writing were different.  Scratch that:  I mean, better.  American Studies pages could be more welcoming or stirring for people to read, even without academic articles of faith, at least closer to The New Yorker or Mother Jones than PMLA.  I have done my best (well, such as it was at the time) to write better. 

Here I just want to recommend a resource or two that I have found useful in trying to improve, if not the field, at least my own writing for it.  Some of those resources are, no doubt, common fare.  It obviously helps to read a lot of all sorts of things, and it helps to do know what you’re writing about from many angles.  In American Studies, I would hope that those angles would be distinctly varied, better outlandish than boring.  That is among the reasons that I so cheer on Americanists who flutter as far as possible from disciplinary nests.

Generally, though for me, most gains in writing have come in practicing it as a craft, more like welding or weaving than flying.  Support for this sleeves-rolled-up approach to wordsmithery (versus, say, “self-expression,” “problematizing,” or “theorizing”) came most to me in K-12 lessons that I gather are now laughably out-of-style.  Believe it or not, I still find great value in “rules” of grammar and vocabulary that I learned in foreign-language classes and in diagramming sentences back before Drivers Ed. 

The “rules” can actually be liberating, help in generating ever more varied ways of voicing a cockamamie hunch.  As in: 

*  Couldn’t that sentence be simpler?  
*  Try changing it from passive to active voice or a transitive structure; 
*  If a noun or a verb seems to need a modifier, how about finding one that doesn’t?  
*  Maybe that independent clause would work better as a sentence of its own? 

And so on.

If you can get past the old-fart scent of this advice, I’d urge you to just try it and see.  Writing can become something like doodling, cobbling words, sentences, paragraphs together to see where they lead.  It becomes not so much a way of expressing a formed thought as letting wordplay form it for you.  Splashing in the verbal stream that happens to flow by can make a hunch more buoyant, simpler or more complex, more obviously worth saying or better left unsaid. 

The greatest improvement seems to come in aiming to write as someone else, maybe best someone who is apt to disagree with “the real me” or who poses a mystery.  I benefited from a bit of early, formal training in this pursuit through studies of Observational Cinema, Literary Journalism, their analogues and its forbearers.  I well recall, too, a workshop in something like “How to Forge Historical Documents” that I took with John Caughey at Penn more than forty years ago. 

The most practical help, I think, came and still comes through routine grunt work in ethnographic fieldwork.  In particular, even when I had the help of a research assistant (thank you!), I have insisted on sitting down with a playback machine and a word processor, perfecting word-for-word full transcriptions of interviews and ordinary speech recorded in the field.  The process itself can be terribly tedious, but it forces a writer literally to write as someone else.  It is not just a matter of getting in the right frame of mind but actually committing it to writing. 

Furthermore, I have always insisted on verifying that speakers themselves approve my “direct quotations,” which are necessarily, in fact, not only brutally excerpted but also heavily edited from those raw transcripts.  I am pleased to report that, after having followed this protocol for more than thirty years with hundreds of people, not one person has ever claimed, “I didn’t” or “I wouldn’t say such a thing,” even though I know that they literally didn’t.  In other words, they successfully taught me to write in a voice that truly belonged to them.  I had to pass their test, and it is one that I urge others to take in improving the way they represent their subjects.  Among my highest hopes for better ways of writing American Studies is that other voices have a better chance of shining through.

Note:  for some background on this ethnographic approach to writing American Studies, seeJust Stories of Ethnographic Authority, in When They Read What We Write: The Politics of Ethnography, ed. Caroline B. Brettell (Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1993), pp. 31-43. 

2.  Writing American Studies?

By Deborah L. Madsen (Professor of American Studies and Director of the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Geneva, Switzerland)

The question of this forum leads directly to at least two issues of disciplinary methodology: that of the writing and of the project. What is an American Studies project - distinct from interventions that address “America” but within the domain of a sibling discipline (literary studies, history, media studies, sociology, anthropology, and the like)? And, given the embeddedness of American Studies within the academy, what are the implications of the genre of academic writing for the discipline? These are key questions for us as scholars and teachers. We are judged largely by the quality of our published writings; we inevitably teach clarity of thought and expression while we teach the content of our courses. I will now drop the “royal we” because the thoughts that follow arise from my atypical position as a British-educated Australian expatriate working in American Studies in francophone Switzerland.

The international context in which I work has made me acutely aware of the generic nature of the academic essay in English, as it cuts across cultural lines to instantiate a shared mode of scholarly communication. This style, represented in the most prestigious journals and books published by the A-list presses, is characterized by qualities of originality (the presentation of a “finding”), rationality (internal and disciplinary coherence), impersonality (intellectual impartiality), contextuality (location within an intellectual tradition), and seriousness. Not only the tone but also the structure of the essay is shaped by generic convention that dictates a beginning with the statement of the problem or question, then the thesis statement or argument, and description of scholarly method; the substantive middle of the essay that develops by stages the evidential argumentation; concluding with a return to the thesis statement and review of the evidence that has been presented. This is the Anglo-American protocol, which dominates expectations of the academic essay, but it raises the issue of how convention works in other cultural contexts, e.g. the Frenchdissertation: an extended meditation on an issue, concluding with the primary motivating point or argument. A colleague at Geneva memorably described the dissertation as an academic strip-tease, where all is revealed only at the very end. The Anglo-American assumption that all should be exposed at the outset is quite foreign in this academic culture. This has nothing to do with language competence and everything to do with the discipline of academic writing. I spend a lot of my time “unteaching” the dissertation and I recall a series of memorable discussions with the late American Studies Association president Emory Elliott about teaching thesis-driven academic writing in a range of cultural contexts. Such cultural difference complicates recent efforts to “transnationalize” writing practices within American Studies.

These generic conventions can make an American Studies essay academic but they do not distinguish American Studies as a distinct discipline. An inevitable and important departure from convention is the inherently political nature of American Studies; our subject arises historically from studies of the nation-state and its global impacts. Without this “American” element no writing can be labeled “American Studies.” Further, as an instance of “Area Studies” American Studies is interdisciplinary and distinct from interventions concerning America in disciplines such as History, Political Studies, Literature, each with its own distinctive methodology. For me, American Studies is a paradoxically defined interdisciplinary discipline, where a number of disciplinary practices converge in the concept of America. At the center of this inter/disciplinary-specific methodology is the nature of the research question, the problem that motivates and unifies the writing while demanding exploration from multiple disciplinary perspectives. In my work, that question is: why is American exceptionalism such an enduring cultural narrative? This leads to the analysis of U.S. self-representation in many kinds of documents (historical, political, legal) and media (written, visual, digital) especially those that engage issues of migration, indigeneity, and national self-fashioning. I cannot escape the requirement of interdisciplinarity when I choose to pose a question such as this. Unsurprisingly then, it is Richard Slotkin’s writing that for me stands as the stellar example of American Studies scholarship: for the elegance of his prose, the powerful effectiveness of his arguments, and the sophistication of his interdisciplinary methodology.

3.  Writing American Studies: A Personal Perspective

by Richard Slotkin (Richard S. Olin Professor of English and American Studies Emeritus, Wesleyan University, USA)

American Studies is about what it means to be “American.” It is a field that exists to interrogate the character and ideological content of American nationality; to ask of any and all aspects of our culture, society, polity - how does this relate to the American nation-state, its power, its laws, its ideology, its history, its programs, its course of action? What I have loved about working in the field is that what brings its practitioners into conversation is their shared interest in the problem of American nationality, and their willingness to engage with any and all materials (paintings, movies, literature, polemics, advertising, etc.) so long as these relate to the matter of America. Whatever the field has contributed to the theory of interdisciplinary study has been the by-product of this free-wheeling, inclusive practice.

American Studies aggrandizes American culture by making it the object of intense and detailed study. At the same time, it has always had a critical, even an antagonistic relation to the national culture it explores. Every culture hides its arbitrary preferences and special pleading by “naturalizing” them. To analyze the culture is to expose the cover-up.

The value of our work is also personal, for ourselves and for our students. Our task is to analyze the culture of which we ourselves are part, to see through the given terms of the culture in which we are both educated and unconsciously immersed. So to explain how and why I write American Studies, I must begin with the personal.

I was born in 1942, second generation Jewish-American. Our household was steeped in the lefty patriotism of the war years. Lincoln and FDR were the twin icons of our household, and I blended them in my mind, as if my father’s war was somehow continuous with Lincoln’s. The idea of being American was very important to me, and I connected by watching western movies and reading about the Civil War.

In 1951 my family drove south to Florida, stopping at Gettysburg to pay homage to Lincoln—stopping also at racially segregated hotels and restaurants, riding on buses divided by a racial Mason-Dixon. At a Virginia park I went to pee in a “Colored” bathroom, not knowing what that designation signified. A furious black man yelled at me to get the hell out - he was probably (and justifiably) frightened by what might come of my being there. The white lady receptionist snarled something to the effect that “you people think you can come down here and do as you please.” I was humiliated and I was angry, didn’t understand what I had done to make grown-ups yell at me in public. My parents explained, and I got more upset. The whole system, as they described it, seemed crazy and cruel. Why would Americans do such things? Why would grown-ups do them? Didn’t “we” win the Civil War? There was something seriously wrong, something hateful, in the America I was in love with. I needed to study out just what had gone wrong and what I ought to do about it.

In 1959, as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, I learned there was an academic field called “American Studies,” where I could pursue that question through every period and form of human action or expression. I was fortunate to have John Hope Franklin as a mentor - to learn an African-American perspective on US history in 1961, when academic history was all Dead White Men. At the same time, my (future) wife, Iris, introduced me to the work of James Baldwin, and the psychodynamics of American racism.

My time in graduate school (Brown) coincided with the crisis of the civil rights movement and the start of the Vietnam War (1963-66). Racial issues were marginal in our courses, and most of the older faculty were complacent in their bigotries about Jews and Negroes. The work of Henry Nash Smith (Virgin Land) and the dominant “myth-symbol school” of American Studies had established the idea that continuities in literary symbolism could illuminate themes in American culture. But in their wish to discover (actually reify) a unitary concept of “American character,” the myth-symbolists soft-pedalled or ignored the racial antagonism that marked our history. Smith’s seminal work, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, pays little attention to the violence through which the Frontier was conquered and settled, or to the role of slavery in settling the West.

Albert Van Nostrand’s course in Colonial Literature suggested a way of engaging the questions that most concerned me. Van Nostrand and Thomas Adams (head of the John Carter Brown Library) identified several distinct genres of colonial publication (e.g. the “discovery narrative,” the “artillery sermon,” etc.). Our term projects were to trace development over time within one or more of these genres. I chose the “Indian Captivity” and the “Indian War Narrative,” because they seemed to present the original scene of America’s self-creation, in which White Europeans Christians confront Non-white Native Americans - and have to choose between accommodating and destroying/displacing the Natives. Moreover, there was a powerful resemblance between the narrative tropes of these two genres and the formulas of popular fiction and film - from Fenimore Cooper to the Western Movie. So the colonial material also suggested a theory of genre, and its relation to myth, that would be central to my later work.

My reading of these texts was also affected by the rising War in Vietnam; specifically the resemblance between the ideology and even the tactics of colonial Indian fighters (Benjamin Church, Robert Rogers) and the counterinsurgency program of Kennedy’s “New Frontier.” So I had reason to think that by engaging colonial culture I was starting on a project (the Myth of the Frontier) that would ultimately explain the present. 
The project of my dissertation, which became Regeneration Through Violence (1973), was to re-tell the history of American settlement - and of the transformation of that history into literature and myth—with race and violence at the center. That required not only a new interpretation of traditional sources, but the bringing-forward of sources neglected by Smith - especially the “pre-literary” narratives and personal histories of the colonial period. The project also required a better theory of myth, focused on generic narrative structures (rather than surface symbolism), and attentive to the social and political function of mythic tropes.

As a professor at Wesleyan University (after 1966) I was able to realize the advantages of working in American Studies. Instead of being locked into my original Colonial specialization, I was encouraged to range through the nineteenth into the twentieth Century. My goal had always been to show how the colonial “Myth of the Frontier” became the dominant strain in the US national myth, and between 1980 and 1992 I did the research and writing for Fatal Environment (1985) and Gunfighter Nation (1992). I had to sharpen and substantially revise my understanding of how and why cultures (both tribal and modern or national) construct mythologies, and how myth-making relates to the development of national ideology. The works of Clifford Geertz, Marshall Sahlins, David Apter, Northrop Frye, and Benedict Anderson were most useful to me. I also had to incorporate the work of the New Social Historians (especially Herbert Gutman), to understand the social and economic base that the myth-makers were trying to rationalize. When I came to the twentieth century I also had develop some expertise in film history, in which I was guided by my colleague Jeanine Basinger.

The open and flexible curriculum of American Studies allowed me to link my teaching to my scholarship as it developed and changed. My writing was also helped by the necessity of framing my ideas for highly intelligent undergraduates. They taught me that clarity of expression and argument were more effective than the use of highly technical language, not only in making my ideas understandable, but in making them usable by students in their own interpretive work.

Wesleyan also encouraged my writing of historical fiction, an exercise that helped me to be a better writer and a better historian. Historians often understand more about the stories they tell than can be proved according to the rules of the discipline. When I reach the limit of what I can say as a historian, I turn to fiction. The Civil War material I couldn’t work into Fatal Environment became The Crater. I played with ideas about the relation of early film to folklore in The Return of Henry Starr while I was researching Gunfighter Nation. But Abe, a novel about Lincoln’s youth, was something else: an attempt to work with the primary material of American myth, and make it new. At its best, a novel can be a thought-experiment for testing one’s version of “history as lived.” There is no better mental exercise for training historians to appreciate the difference of the past, the contingent nature of historical experience, and the rooted subjectivity of all historical actors.

The novels also improved my academic writing by demanding exact and evocative description, and language accessible to non-academic audience. I think there is no concept necessary to the study of culture that cannot be explained in language an interested and reasonably well-read person can understand.

In my recent work I have tried to blend aspects of my fiction writing - attention to subjectivity in the narrative unfolding of historical experience - with the kind of analysis I did in my Myth of the Frontier trilogy. For these projects I was attracted to military history, because in war the society, the culture, and the lives of individual subjects are directly engaged by and for the power of the nation-state. In Lost Battalions (2005) I dealt with a crisis in the concept of American nationality - the shift from the “White Republic” to the ideal of a multi-ethnic/racial nation - through the experience of two military units representing the cultures of two minority groups, African-Americans (369th Infantry) and Jewish and Italian immigrants (308th Infantry). I tried something similar in two books on the Civil War: No Quarter (2009), which used the war’s worst racial massacre to illuminate the centrality of race in the shaping of the war and its politics; and Long Road to Antietam (2012) which traced the development of the Emancipation Proclamation through a dialogue and conflict between the civil and military powers.

The nation-state remains the predominant form of world political organization; nationalism still shapes events, even in the “post-national” realm of the European Union; and the nation is the largest political formation that is even half-way accountable to a public electorate. As American Studies embraces ethnic, post-colonial and transnational studies, it is still our responsibility to address the problematics of American nationality, and the history that gives an “American” slant to our practice of capitalism, our multi-culturalism, our wars, our social violence, our partisan ideologies, our ideas of justice.