Letters

 Spring 2005, Vol. 13, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Recent Publications from Past Warren Center Visiting Fellows

The Warren Center is pleased to present profiles of two former William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellows’ recently published books. Both books were works-in-progress that formed the basis of the Fellows’ research during their tenure at the Warren Center. Many participants in the Warren Center Fellows Programs have said that the effects of conversations they shared with other Fellows lingered well beyond the end of their time at Vanderbilt. Letters wants to extend these positive effects to our readers by providing profiles of research that was enhanced by participation in a Warren Center Fellows Program.

Richard H. King, Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals, 1940-1970. Washington D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Pp. 416. ISBN 0-8018-8065-3, hb; ISBN 0-8018-8066-1, pb. $55.00; $24.95.

Richard H. King, professor of American intellectual history at the University of Nottingham, was the Visiting Fellow for the 2001/2002 Fellows Program, “Memory, Identity, and Political Action.” King also accepted an appointment as visiting professor in the history department at Vanderbilt in 2002/2003. In Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals, 1940-1970, King acknowledges his indebtedness to the Warren Center, both as the institution “responsible for much of the intellectual excitement at Vanderbilt” and as providing “a perfect place to work.” King cites numerous faculty and graduate students he encountered during his time at Vanderbilt as a vibrant “community of scholars and friends.”

Boldly declaring that “race is the modern West’s worst idea,” King opens Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals, 1940-1970 by stating that “race as a valid scientific idea” had been discredited in the intellectual community as early as the 1920s. Where King goes beyond current discussions of this discrediting is to produce an intellectual history of racism itself, one that begins at a moment “when the destructive implications of organizing a state around racist assumptions and the contradictions between supposed American commitment to equality and the existence of legal racial segregation became clear.” His project asks the question, “Why does thinking in terms of race remain such a compelling, even appealing, notion?” King begins with a discussion of post-World War II America and what he terms the “universalist vision,” a concept that promoted equality within and across racial difference, in which cultural and racial differences were elided. He moves to a consideration of “the Cold War context,” wherein “by the 1960s in the United States, universalism was increasingly challenged by cultural particularism,” a particularism characterized either by the belief that “cultural differences were attributed to actual racial differences” or the more predominant belief that “rejected racial differences as an explanation for group differences, but, at the same time, insisted that it was important to preserve them.” King identifies specific events as symptomatic of the movement towards a particularist view of race, including the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 and the 1967 Six-Day War. As King notes, he “sharpen[s] the contrast between universalism and particularism in order to provide a framework within which to understand the quite complex developments in thinking about racism and culture between, roughly, 1940 and the early 1970s in the trans-Atlantic world.” By doing so, King can make vividly clear one of his major claims: “When scientific racism was discredited and then replaced by a universalist view of humanity, the focus shifted from race to culture as a way of explaining group differences. But that in turn opened the way for the emergence of an ideology of cultural particularism in which culture was not just an explanatory principle but also a normative ideal. Thus, we have the emergence of an ideology of culture that challenged the very universalism that generated it.” King’s analysis of the implications of this shift in thought on “the arguments about race, racism, and culture,” attempts to “construct a map…of the ideological positions and intellectual influences in the period under scrutiny.” King weaves numerous intellectuals into his analysis, moving deftly among the works of Ralph Ellison, Jean-Paul Sartre, Richard Wright, Stanley Elkins, Hannah Arendt, and James Baldwin, to name but a few. Clarence E. Walker, in a review of King’s book, writes: “In his readings and critique of Arendt, Adorno, Horkheimer, Myrdal, Cox, Dubois, Frazier, Negritude, and the Black Arts movement King displays a dazzling range of erudition. No historian so far has drawn together an analysis of these diverse scholars and social movements and shown their interconnectedness and divergences.” Race, Culture, and the Intellectuals, 1940-1970 has implications that reach beyond its twentieth-century scope, urging readers to draw inferences from the intellectual history King has created and apply those insights to thinking about “the contemporary world of identity politics, multiculturalism, challenges to cultural canons and hierarchies, and cultural relativism.” As King notes, “The deletion of race from the discourse of, and about, ‘otherness’ has been a distinct gain. Whether its replacement by culture is what we need is another matter.”

Richard Grusin, Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’s National Parks. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. 232. 42 half-tones. ISBN 0-521-82649-7. £45.00.

Richard Grusin, professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at Wayne State University, was the Visiting Fellow for the 1999/2000 Fellows Program, “Constructions, Deconstructions, and Destructions of Nature.” Grusin graciously writes in his preface: “The book would never have been completed without the luxury of my time as a visiting fellow at the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, during the 1999-2000 academic year. Not only did that fellowship year provide me with the time and space to bring the manuscript to completion, but the intellectual stimulation and camaraderie of our seminar…provided me with an incalculable benefit.”

Cambridge University Press describes Culture, Technology, and the Creation of America’s National Parks as an “innovative study” that “investigates how the establishment of national parks participated in the production of American national identity after the Civil War. The creation of America’s national parks is usually seen as an uncomplicated act of environmental preservation. Grusin argues, instead, that parks must be understood as complex cultural technologies for the reproduction of nature as landscape art. He explores the origins of America’s three major parks—Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Grand Canyon—in relation to other forms of landscape representation in the late nineteenth century. He examines such forms as photography, painting, and mapping, plus a wide range of travel narratives, scientific and nature writing, and fiction. Grusin shows that while establishing a national park does involve preserving an area of land as a ‘natural’ rather than economic asset…it also transforms the landscape into a culturally constructed object called ‘nature’.”

Grusin’s work challenges earlier studies that posit “the story of a deployment of the ideology of nature’s intrinsic value to further the social, cultural, or political interests of a dominant race, class, gender, or institutional formation.” Grusin suggests that this type of “revisionist narrative…runs the risk of stripping nature of any particularity or specificity whatsoever—of transforming nature so completely into culture that the preservation of nature as a national park, for example, becomes indistinguishable from its transformation into a ranch or a mine or a private resort.” While acknowledging the gains that these earlier studies have made, Grusin suggests that if one grants the inseparability of nature and culture, then that concept must be interrogated with more rigor. Grusin theorizes his claims about the cultural construction of nature through the example of the national parks, suggesting that the each park is itself, “in terms of a particular place, location, or environment,” a technology “for the reproduction of nature.” Grusin’s work crosses disciplinary boundaries, and will be of interest to numerous fields, including environmental studies, cultural geography, literary studies, and history.

Letters Archive Index

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