American Cultural Studies

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American Cultural Studies

When I first read 20th century American Literature in the sixties, in the context of the provincial north-west of England, I saw American culture as iconoclastic, offering an alternative and far more attractive sense of culture than that of my formal education. E.g. this well know poem by Williams fascinated me, because it broke all the rules, and yet seemed to have invented a new set of rules for itself. In its simplicity it took on Victorian aesthetic values, and questioned the principles of art:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten

the plums

that were in the icebox

and which

you were probably


for breakfast

Forgive me

they were delicious

so sweet

and so cold

Norton Anthology of American Literature. fourth edition. vol. 2. 1194

It appealed because it took a detail from a very ordinary life, and framed it with the blank spaces of the page. Williams told me through this poem that the normal can be the materials of art. Art isn’t something which happens to extraordinary people, but to you and me. The fundamental idea in this poem is that American art is egalitarian, not elitist, and can take place in any American town. In a way he was continuing the argument with Europe that American artists conducted throughout the long 19th century, and which you are familiar with from your work last year. Incidentally, one thing which makes this poem so "American", is the use of the word "icebox". Bill Bryson, in Made in America reminds us that the American language is very inventive, and often constructs words by making a new word from two familiar, monosyllabic words. This, he tells us, is a very useful tactic, in a nation made up of immigrants from many different countries and with many different mother tongues; and it is also a lucid way to deal with the shock of the new as technological inventions enter domestic space at an ever accelerating rate.

I started out with a rather simplistic sense that American culture represented the innovative, the new, the culturally radical in opposition to the conservatism and the more restrained formality of British culture. And it is true to say that I read American literature in ways which were blind to some of its implicit meanings, because certain types of critical discourses were not yet available to me with which to analyse and describe the relation between context and text. I’m not saying that I was wrong, but I was certainly naive.

Yet there are a number of accounts of American literature and culture, which offer coherent narratives or meta-narratives about American culture and its major themes which are still in circulation and still carry considerable authority. E.g. Leo Marx The Machine in the Garden, F. O. Matthiesson The American Renaissance, Henry Nash Smith The Virgin Land, R.W.B. Lewis The American Adam. How assured these titles sound; they suggest they have found the key to American literature and culture, which will unlock our understanding. Reading American literary texts through these cultural critiques has the great advantage of making life manageable. One has the illusion that there is a coherent discourse about American literature, that it all fits into the paradigm or conceptual pattern, and one only has to master it.

But now, due to the work of some highly energetic members of the ASA, such as Paul Lauter, new ways of reading American Literature and culture are being consolidated. They’ve been developing for some time, at least the last two decades, and I think they offer more exciting but also more challenging ways of approaching the texts we intend to study this year. To put it simply:

We need to read texts within their contexts

But we also need to "read" the contexts

Moreover, we need to "read" or critique critical discourses, which offer us readings of texts and contexts.

This is why I’ve included on the lecture handout a short list of highly recommended secondary reading, and I want to introduce aspects of the module to you today, by referring to some of the issues these texts discuss. What I want to do is to see how we might start to relate cultural contexts to specific readings of literary texts. All of these volumes should help you to situate the primary, literary texts within the context of other types of cultural "texts". They should also give you approaches for critiquing meta-narratives, which give us the illusion of coherence and certainty. They all address issues of American exceptionalism, e pluribus unum, American identity and national character, dominant myths of American identity; and start to question those myths and suggest that they arise from a cultural hegemony which is in itself dubious.

As Campbell and Kean say:

America has to be interpreted or "read" as a complex, multifaceted text, like a novel or a film with a rich array of different characters and events, within which exist many voices telling various and different stories. And as with any such text, there are internal tensions, dramas and contradictions which contribute, indeed constitute what might be called its identity. (Campbell & Kean 1997, 20)

Similarly, I cannot give you a coherent account of 20th-century American Literature: the subject is full of "internal tensions, dramas and contradictions." I have tried to make it manageable by concentrating on narrative, i.e. novels and the poetry of William Carlos Williams; but this doesn’t mean that there is a meta-narrative to be spun from the dozen or so texts which form the core of the syllabus. On the contrary, they will offer you different and contradictory versions of America, and your sense of them will also be different, depending on which of the critical texts that we recommend you actually read, and indeed depending on which seminar group you are in. [In the past this has tended to cause anxiety, but it seems to me that you are a generation of students who have grown up within postmodernity, so it will probably bother you less than it bothers me whose intellectual formation was laid down in the late Sixties at the time of a distinctly Utopian counter-cultural revolution, when somewhat naively one believed that there were easy answers.

So what I am going to try to do in this lecture is map one figurative "course" through some of the books you will be studying, and suggest some major themes you will encounter along the way. Some of these themes can be seen as extensions or developments of themes and preoccupationsrelevant to 19th-century American literature. They include: the American Dream; Expatriate Americans in Europe (the International theme); constructions of masculinity; expression of ethnic identity; what was referred to in the 19th century as "the Woman Question"; issues to do with landscape and land use, whichcan also be addressed in relation to the notion of the "wilderness", the City or Metropolis; war and narratives of war; the importance of regions and the specificity and diversity of regional cultures; globalism; capitalism, technology and their impact on cultural production; and issues of whether there is such a thing as the American "character" which the majority of Americans can conform to and identity with. I want to start with that last, since I think I can mention a number of the texts which you will study near the beginning of the course in relation to it, and because I think in doing so I can also move the argument on to more specifically 20th century issues, such as cultural hybridity, and the way it affects for example, the development of a black vernacular into a literary language with a very rich range of available narrative strategies.

Consider for a moment Crevecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, (1782) where he poses the question: "What is an American?" and where he prempts the introduction in the ealy 20th century of the notion of the "melting pot" to describe the processes of assimilation and integration in colonial American society. Interestingly, the American national motto, e pluribus unum, is at source a culinary metaphor. It was chosen by the founding fathers at the same time as they were drafting the Declaration of Independence, and it comes from a Latin poem by Virgil which describes a recipe for a salad. A mixed salad – "from many (ingredients) one (dish)". It has been argued, by Nina Baym, for example, that aesthetic value in 19th century American literature is synonymous with a quality of "Americanness", and I think this preoccupation with "Americanness", with questioning "What is an American", what is exceptional about the American experience, continues through the twentieth century. I hope that by reading at least one or two of the texts on twentieth-century American culture, you will start the module with an appreciation that definitions of this term are contested in the cultural arena, and in a multiplicity of ways.

Take for example, Kenneth Thompson’s chapter on "Identity and Belief" in Culture. His essay provides a good introduction to these issues, by charting an historical overview of the twentieth century in terms of American ideology. He quotes Lipset:

The United States is organized around an ideology which includes a set of dogmas about the nature of a good society. Americanism, as different people have pointed out, is an ‘ism’ or ideology in the same way that communism or fascism or liberalism are isms ... That ideology can be subsumed under four words: anti-statism, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism. (Mitchell & Maidment 1994, 14)

You might want to question whether anything as complex as American ideology can be reduced to four words, and if so, whether these are the precise four words which you would choose. I might want to add idealism and utopianism to the list. But at least this gives us a starting point to consider some of the contradictions and tensions in United States literature and culture. Firstly: is it possible to maintain in a steady state a cultural hegemony that covers such a vast expanse of landmass, and seeks to embrace so many different peoples? And secondly, even if it is possible, is it desirable? One image which comes to mind which expresses this tension is the end of the film The Deer Hunter, where they all sit round and hesitantly at first join in singing Irving Berlin’s "God Bless America". Since "America" has been responsible for atrocities in Vietnam, which have traumatised members of this small town, immigrant community, the film’s ending can be read as a restatement of faith in America, whatever the cost, or as a sad and bitter elegy lamenting a generation’s disillusionment and inability to subscribe to patriotic emotion any more. Those who subscribe to e pluribus unum would hope that the meaning of the song would remain straightforward and unified; however the film’s representation of the breakdown of identity in the theatre of war, makes it impossible for its audience to hear it in quite the same spirit aswhen it was published in 1939. In passing a word of warning; we would invite you on the module to consider American literary texts in their cultural context, so that comparisons with film are acceptable. But do compare American literary texts with relevant American cultural productions.

When Irving Berlin wrote "God Bless America" it could be seen as the culminative expression of a policy of cultural assimilation and Americanization. In the early part of the twentieth century, the response to waves of immigration was to adopt a policy of assimilation and Americanization, which depended on the school system for example to instil a sense of patriotism around the flag, as symbol of the American nation; and which was closely linked to the use of American English as a unifying factor. One of the issues that Willa Cather’s My Ántonia addresses is precisely this debate about the value of immigrant cultures and the importance of permitting them space to survive in a multicultural America. In this respect Cather went against the grain of mainstream opinion, since her novel celebrates the diversity of immigrant cultures and languages.

So if we want to conceptualize it, we might imagine a centre, which promotes values associated with White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, and which tries somewhat like a vortex to pull other cultural groups towards it. Those who remain outside this centre, this cultural hegemony, are thus marginalized and seen as of lesser value. Some of our choices of texts on the module might seem to subscribe to a notion of American culture, as dominated by a preponderance of great white males. After all, we could have studied Anzia Yezierska, and perhaps begun our investigation of America in the twentieth century in the immigrant ghetto. We could have gone on to read Tillie Olsen’s poignant account of poverty in the 1930s, Yonnondio. If I had to defend my choice on anything more than pragmatic grounds i.e. availability and price of the text, I would argue that we need to know what the dominant version of the culture looks like, or else we will have no idea what it is others have difficulty with, or wish to diverge from, or simply cannot identify with. And so, for example, we need to consider why Gatsby’s version of the American Dream is so seductive, so compelling, and has such a powerful hold on the imagination of so many readers.

The Great Gatsby as a novel about The American Dream, about the state of culture in the 1920s. It looks at the literally "self-made man". So the novel can be seen as an investigation of the American Dream, when that is equated with material wealth rather than spiritual fulfilment; and certainly one of the characteristics of American Society is to tend to merge the two.

What is wrong with that, is to suggest a conceptual framework of the centre and the edges, as if there were one centre. The mixed salad is often tossed and each time results in a different arrangement of the ingredients. The Great Gatsby is also a novel about the mid-west. So in the theatre of New York it plays out some mid-western or "westering" myths. And we should remind ourselves to what extent American culture has mythologized the west.

E pluribus unum:

As Campbell & Kean remind us:

The ethnic mix of America is complex, consisting of indigenous peoples as well as voluntary and involuntary immigrants around whom revolve questions of religion, allegiance and national pride. (Campbell & Kean 1997, 44)

The melting pot metaphor might suggest that they will all be rendered down to an indistinguishable goo; at least the mixed salad metaphor allows for difference and multiplicity within the nation. But it is more complicated than that, because if you are not W.A.S.P., if your ancestors were sold into slavery by fellow Africans from a neighbouring, but not very neighbourly tribe, if you were transported to the New World involuntarily, in short, if you are an African-American, what does that hyphenated appellation signify? Well, it can mean, as Thompson suggests, that migrants "had to learn to inhabit at least two identities, to speak two cultural languages, to translate and negotiate between them, without giving themselves totally to one or the other". It can also mean, as the title of a recent study of Chinese-American women’s writing suggests, that the members of immigrant communities feel as if they were situated "between worlds", in a liminal space. Other writers, for example Mukharjee, prefer not to be identified as Asian/Indian-American, and question why the single term American cannot be used inclusively. Equally, within African-American culture there are wide divergences about cultural identity which affect religious and political affiliations as well. Especially as white readers, we should remain sensitive to a range of cultural differences, and, I would argue, we should avoid essentializing race. Scott Fitzgerald parodies white supremacist arguments on race near the start of The Great Gatsby. The satire is clearly enunciated, since Tom’s intellectual capacity struggles with and possibly confuses the ideas of Lothrop Stoddard and Henry Herbert Goddard.

I want to turn for a moment to an author who is not represented on the module, namely Zora Neale Hurston. In her writing, we find a certain playfulness about racial identity. On emight conclude from a partial reading of her work that like a number of ethnic Americans Hurston does essentialize her race, as a rhetorical strategy to position herself in cultural politics. If you look at a piece called "How it Feels to be Colored Me" that can also be found in the Norton Anthology of American Literature you will find that she moves through a number of different ways of describing her racialized identity. Read out of context, parts of the piece sound as if the answer to the Tom Buchanons of New York is a simplistic version of tropical black exoticism – rather like Josephine Baker’s banana-skirt dance. However if you read on you will find a contradictory statement: "At certain times I have no race. I am me." And if you read the whole article, you will see that Hurston playfully moves between different positions as regards racial identity, to suggest that you cannot essentialize race; the relationship between race and identity is far more fluid that either the arguments of white supremacy or black power would have us believe. Hurston indicates that it is in flux, that it depends on one’s situation, what cultural space one is in, and in relation to what and whom. Her final paragraph is the most whimsical, but possibly also the most serious attempt to define racial politics: "But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless." (Norton Anthology, vol. 2, 1427) We might now conclude that her work deconstructs the very idea of racial identity here, by undermining the certainties of ethnic identity and instead performing a series of sophisticated and knowing Harlem identities.

From all this one might decide that the post-modern emphasis on the performance of identity, whether ethnic identity or gender identity, is actually a strategy which was employed in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 30s. Certainly Hurston’s article runs through the gamut of possible positions as regards race and proclaims that it is possible to be all of these at one time or another. She combines a sense of playful performativeness about her ethnic identities and at the same time she reasserts a faith in American individualism as being a solution available to blacks in Harlem in the 1920s & 30s. She also says, "I am not tragically colored." This is a reference to the 19th century literary figure of the tragic mulatto/a. [And she revisits this figure in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. It is a highly influential novel of the Harlem Renaissance, and certainly employs a number of strategies, which we could ascribe to African American culture, and which have affected later African-American authors. In particular her use of narrative voice, which merges American-English and some of the characteristics of black vernacular speech.]

Henry Louis Gates describes this as "Signifyin’" – a verb which you will notice a lot in blues lyrics as well as in African-American literary texts. It has a complex of functions, one of which is to play upon previous contexts of a word or phrase, in order to elicit double meanings, which may or may not be evident to the audience. One can link this to the "double-consciousness" or "double-bind" of the African-American experience; which put simply is that state of seeing yourself through another’s perceptions, because socially you are placed as the "other" in relation to a dominant class. Campbell and Kean remind us that the concept originated with W. E. Du Bois’s "famous definition of ‘double consciousness’ for the African-American, ‘always looking at the world through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that look on in amused contempt and pity’ (q.v. Campbell & Kean 1997, 80) This could be see as the core definition of African-American experience that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, portrays so vividly. [Frantz Fanon’s famous post-colonial text, Black Skin / White Masks (1968) might also offer you a way of reading texts by African-American authors in the latter part of the 20th century.]

Hurston’s novel doesn’t feature on this module, partly because it is taught elsewhere on the degree course. However, you might want to compare two novels we will study this term, and think about the different ways they represent issues of racial identity. Faulkner’s Light in August raises the question that Toni Morrison has raised recently in relation to her latest novel, Paradise; namely: how do you define racial identity? What constitutes it? In Light in August the central protagonist, Joe Christmas, has a highly negative self-image, because he has been led to believe that he may be a "nigger", or bear the taint of "nigger" blood. Yet Faulkner shows that there is very little proof of this. His behaviour is occasioned far more by the power exercised over him by Southern cultural myths about racial identity, than by any actual trace of an African genetic component in his DNA. Toni Morrison wrote her Masters dissertation on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and I think it will be interesting to look at why she should choose to write about these two authors, and what lines of influence we can see emerging in her writing. Certainly, Faulkner is interested in experimenting with narrative to allow multiple perspectives, a polyphony of points of view. This of course relativizes each and every point of view and thus invites us the reader to form our own judgements, rather than accept a monological authority. I think that in Beloved Morrison borrowed from Faulkner, although it may or may not have been conscious, the trope of the travelling pregnant woman, who gives birth on her journey. So a Southern white male author (and himself a Nobel prize winner) could well be said to have influenced the novel that made Morrison the first African-American woman recipient of the Nobel prize for Literature.

Toni Morrison is often seen as the self-evident successor to Zora Neale Hurston, who I mentioned earlier. Toni Morrison claims only to have read a short story by her, until critics and reviewers started to make the comparison. So one has to be very careful about assuming influences, between writers. One could, however, make a general comparison between Hurston and Morrison; in that Morrison investigates the legacy of the "double consciousness", and in her writing, one major project is to "revision" suppressed histories or herstories. So that one of her tasks is to rediscover the history of slave experiences, which was becoming a taboo subject in upwardly mobile African-American families. Signifyin’ allowed people to speak the unspeakable, and Toni Morrison in her fiction also articulates the stories that have been passed on (I believe there is a pun intended here). Campbell and Kean connect this with contemporary rap artists, quoting rapper Melle Mel’s remark: "Rap music makes up for its lack of melody with its sense of reminder. It’s linked somewhere into a legacy that has been overlooked, forgotten, or just pushed to the side amongst the glut of everything else" (q.v. Campbell & Kean 1997, 92) [Rap is also discussed in Chapter 6, "The American City". And I would want to emphasise the possibility of finding a "usable past" in the city, which could otherwise be seen or "read" as a text, which resists interpretation, and certainly does not yield up a unitary significance.]

Faulkner is also fascinated by suppressed histories, in his case the shameful legacy of the American South after the Civil War. Clearly Faulkner writes about a specific region, the American South – indeed the American potter, Grace Merchant, herself a southerner, has remarked that to her elderly female relatives there is nothing remarkable about Faulkner’s literary style, that’s just the way people express their views in the South anyway. And Faulkner is the influence that can be proven.

That’s not the only reason Faulkner features on this module. He stands there, not just as a Southern writer, but also as a modernist author. One definition of modernism might be that it reflects a world in which the loss of an old, stable order is lamented, and in which only fragments of the past remain; but that the modernist author still believes that a new and more complex order can be constructed our of the dislocations and discontinuities of the past. If that is true of modernism in general, it is particularly true of a modernist writing about the experience of the American South.

While I am tracing putative influence, I might also mention Louis Erdrich here. Again, we could have started the module with a Native-American author such as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, or with Black Elk Speaks for example. I shall have much more to say about Native American literature and culture when I lecture on Erdrich later this term, but again I want to suggest her as another example of cultural hybridity, in that she combines the narrative techniques of a European tradition – yet at the same time she encompasses a Native American sense of story-telling, which is that a story can be retold on numerous occasions, and never be quite the same. The quality of story telling derives from an oral tradition, where there were vast opuses of story cycles, from which a different combination of tales might be chosen by the story teller on any given occasion. Another quality to Erdrich’s work is related to this also, namely that we look in vain for one major plot and then subsidiary plots. In her work there is not one stable centre, but a polyphonic or multivocal text, where differing voices and differing accounts intersect in constantly evolving patterns. As such she will provide an optimist note on which to end the course. Since in her work nothing and nobody is central and thus nothing nor nobody can be marginalized. Everyone’s perspective is relative and potentially equally valid. I would suggest that you read the opening chapter of Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984 / 1994), and then read the opening chapter of a more recent novel by her, Tales of Burning Love (1996). Think about the differences and similarities. In particular consider how much "point of view" or narrative focalizer can alter the author / thrid person narrator's perspective on the same events.

What is interesting about Erdrich, is that although I am suggesting that the narrative strategies in her novels come from a Chippewa cultural inheritance, she has also been compared to William Faulkner. She has done for an area of North Dakota, what Faulkner did for an area of the Mississipean deep south he named Yoknapatawpha County. The similarity does not end with this strategy of exploring the inhabitants of a very specific locale, nor with the inventiveness of asymmetrical, polyvocal narrative forms. Both authors share a concern for questions of history, memory, family inheritance, and perhaps above all the changing relationship human civilization has to the land it inhabits.

I could also compare the text by Faulkner with White Noise, in order to elicit some of the differences between modernist and postmodernist writing. In American postmodern fiction we find a world of signs which no longer signify, or to put it another way, symbols that may be simultaneously empty of meaning and the bearers of multiple and contradictory meanings; and both protagonist / narrator and the reader are unable to determine, what if any is the true meaning. For there is no true meaning, there is nothing behind it all: it is just a play of surfaces, which is contemporary American life. One witty example of this in White Noise is the famous historic monument, which people can drive up to. At it they find a sign-post showing them the best place to take the photograph from. The "real" experience is missed out of the loop, from sign to photo. The surface representation takes the place of the "actual" building, even when you drive up to visit it. Thus, in DeLillo’s narrative one major question is: is the past "usable" or "unusable", can we know history and learn from it, or is what the historian teaches just an absurd game with no application to the present moment.

So I started out suggesting that one way of reading 20th-century American literature is to see it as a series of answers or attempts to answer the question, what is an American, or what is America? And I suggested initially that we might use Kenneth Thompson’s essay on American ideology in the 20th century, in which he describes America as a nation as being characterized as utopian and moral. Arguably, postmodernism denies agency to the individual, so it appears to contradict one of the major points of American ideology: namely individualism. Yet, at the same time as post-modernism texts abound, I think we can also see a number of texts, which could be accused of relative philosophical naiveté, but of political optimism. Post-modernism is an important trend in late 20th century culture, but so is constructionism, which strikes me as a related but more optimistic cultural and philosophical concept.

For a number of writers, at the margins, it remains important to believe in the possibility of individual, human agency; which is after all what the American Dream has always been about one way and another. Cormac McCarthy, who we will read later this term, writes about the "border" experience. In All the Pretty Horses, he revisits and reworks the great defining myth of American cultural identity, the cow boy. Many writers about the American west make the point that the (imaginary) landscape of the west becomes the location where the great myths of national identity are played out. McCarthy takes the classic Western scenario and many characteristic features of western fiction, and puts it through an existentialist / postmodernist sieve. Taken together with texts like The Bell Jar, The Crying of Lot 49 and White Noise, All the Pretty Horses offers a necessary corrective to the buoyant optimism, which characterises one version of American ideology.

I cannot hope to cover adequately all the texts you will study, but I think one can start to see that connections can be made, and patterns do emerge, will emerge, once you read and interpret these texts in the context of American cultural history, but also in comparison with one another. I don’t want to invoke all the other 20th-century American texts that some of you might have already read, or will find yourselves reading this year. But please do not think that your reading should be restricted to just the set texts we shall lecture on.

One thing I would urge you all to do is make sure that your knowledge of American geography and 20th-century history is adequate to the texts we shall be studying. Study accessible history books such as Inventing America, look at maps of the USA and study photographs of its different landscapes and cityscapes. But also, bring too it all your literary critical skills that you have developed over the past two years. this is the module where interpretation of literary texts intersects with intelligent commentary on cultural contexts. So work on both aspects throughout the year.

Helen M Dennis


Highly Recommended Background Reading:

Neil Campbell & Alasdair Kean. American Cultural Studies. Routledge, 1997, second revised edition 2006.

The United States in the Twentieth Century: Culture. Eds. Jeremy Mitchell & Richard Maidment. Hodder & Stoughton / Open University Press, 1994, second revised 2000.

Peter N. Carroll & David W. Noble. The Free and the Unfree. Penguin Books, 1977.

Richard Ruland & Malcolm Bradbury. From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature. Penguin Books, 1991.

Introduction to American Studies. Eds. Malcolm Bradbury and Howard Temperley. 3rd edition. Longman, 1998.

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