Letters Archive
Spring 1994, Vol. 2, No. 2
  • Constructing American Studies
  • Charting the Humanities
  • Team-Teaching: "Political Trials and Trial Narratives"
  • Constructing American Studies

    The 1993/94 Fellows Program at the Center for the Humanities is dedicated to "American Studies: Past, Present, and Future," and is directed by Lewis Perry, director of Vanderbilt's American Studies Program and Andrew Jackson Professor of History. The seminar was recently the occasion for a visit by Paul Lauter, Allan K. and Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Literature at Trinity College, general editor of the influential Heath Anthology of American Literature, and the current president of the American Studies Association. During his visit, he discussed the origin and character of American Studies with Warren Center Fellow Cecelia Tichi, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English at Vanderbilt and recent past president of the American Studies Association. The American Studies Association will hold its 1994 national meeting in Nashville.

    LAUTER: When I was at Yale in the 1950s, American literature was regarded as something you did because you couldn't do British literature.

    TICHI: There is still some of that in literature departments. And where it comes out is not in open department meetings, but behind closed office doors when the scholar in some field of British literature says to the bright undergraduate, "Surely you're one of us, you want to work in the real tradition, you wouldn't want to demean yourself to work in that colloquial, crude, upstart American literature."

    LAUTER: It was very funny at Yale in the 1950s. The reputation of American Studies was that it was at best a marginal operation. They would do it for undergraduates because it was easy, or at least that is the way it was viewed. I became the first teaching assistant for Charles Feidelson, who, the second year I was at Yale, took over the big American literature lecture course. Feidelson had just published Symbolism and American Literature, which was a significant departure from anything that had been done before. That gave the study of "American Literature," or at least that strategy for approaching it, some weight for the first time.
    For me, and I think for other people as well, the turmoil of 1968 brought out the question of how we were going to change what was important to do. And I don't mean whether or not the M.L.A. was to pass a motion against the Vietnam War-big deal. But what are you going to do in class? Who are important writers? We didn't even have the terms in which to think about these questions! For instance, people didn't use the term "canon."

    TICHI: Finding the language to express what has been suppressed is a crucial issue. I say this in part as someone who had to study Emerson, who talks to young American men. I felt that I was somehow fundamentally deficient as a scholar of American culture because I couldn't talk about Emerson without feeling sort of second hand. What I didn't realize at the time was that Emerson excluded women from his address, that he defined legitimate participants in American culture solely in these gendered terms. "Let him not skulk...like an interloper in the world which exists for him," he said, talking about young American men. So the issue of finding the terminology for what you intuitively understand is a crucial matter. As long as groups are denied the vocabulary in which to express their position vis-a-vis themselves and others in other groups, then they are silenced, then they are the invisible. Developing a lexicon which could give adequate expression to a new movement was a profound, pivotal issue. With out that language, this movement could not proceed. You couldn't just get to "canon" and "multiculturalism." How do you get space for yourself and legitimate your position as speaker when you have been denied that place? How did you get it?

    LAUTER: It just wasn’t thought about that way, and the terminology wasn't used. What you are saying is absolutely true: if you don't have the language in which to talk about it, you're constantly struggling to try even to think what you're talking about.

    TICHI: You were encouraged to think that it was self-evident or manifestly true that certain writers were the "Great Writers." Part of that is the ideology of post World War II U.S. politics in which the war came out on our side. We were self-evidently the dominant democratic power and all our pantheon of writers would ratify that position. There is a book on that called Creating Faulkner's Reputation, which is about him being positioned as the resident U.S. genius in those years. In fact, the Vanderbilt Agrarians contributed to the edification of Faulkner who previously had been regarded as a kind of degenerate version of Edgar Allen Poe.

    LAUTER: I did a paper on the creation of Melville's reputation at the American Literature Association about a year and a half ago. It was a paper about the way in which in the 1920s Melville's reputation had moved from being this obscure figure on the periphery of literature to being for a lot of critics the most important figure among American novelists. When I was finished, an official of the Melville Society got up in an utter rage because I was somehow demeaning Melville, which is not at all what I was doing. In fact, I said very carefully that I really love Melville and think a great deal of him, but it's interesting how his reputation was constructed.

    TICHI: People experience iconoclasm and it's outrageous to them. They really don't want to hear about social forces that operate to valorize or devalue certain kinds of texts. Were you surprised by it?

    LAUTER: I was taken aback by it. Even though I had written into the paper a paragraph of apology to say "what you're not hearing is another attack on Melville from somewhere on the left. That's not what I'm doing," he absolutely did not hear this. In fact, it's sort of interesting. An argument I recently had with Stanley Fish has to do directly with this. He was arguing for disciplinary boundaries. He said, in effect, that if you do literary study it has to do with aesthetics, and don't mistake this for doing politics. If you think you're doing politics by doing literary study and changing what it is you teach and things of that sort, you're really not doing politics. Politics is a different thing, history is a different thing. So Fish talked about patrolling the boundaries. As I told him, I'm perfectly willing to grant these disciplinary boundaries. I just don't find it very interesting, because the question to me concerns the objects of study and methods of study within a discipline: what accounts for whether or not you study Stephen Crane or Charles Chesnutt? What accounts for whether you look for questions of ambiguity and irony and all of the new critical vocabulary, or if you look at "change the joke and slip the yoke," or call and response, or signifying, those kinds of things out of African-American experience and culture? How do those things change? What produces this change in your discipline, in our discipline? That after all is politics.
    It was the civil rights movement that really put on the agenda the question as to whether we were really going to look at people like Chesnutt, Hurston, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison in the early 1970s, or Alice Walker. Not to the exclusion of Crane, but in addition to him, or maybe finally you do a course that doesn't include Crane or Henry James or whatever. That is a political question. Politics can't come in the front door because we have our disciplinary boundaries, so now it comes in the window and makes your discipline different. And by the same token, you say you want to isolate your discipline from the practice of politics. So now you're closing the back door. But your discipline is pouring out the window into the political world around. Those are the interesting questions to me, and those are historically identifiable processes.
    The first session on the canon at the M.L.A. was hilarious. I know: I organized it. In 1973, we put on a session called "Building Proletarian Cannon [sic]." I think it was the first time anybody had used the word in and we weren’t using it in a very self-conscious way. It seemed like a iusseful term and it got picked up. When you think about it, it really was a political movement and the people involved in the politics really had to ask themselves, "What does this imply for the work that I actually do?" This was going on in all disciplines. It's going on in American Studies.

    TICHI: In some ways, the American Studies Association, though much smaller than the M.L.A., was its mirror image. It was headed up and really run by a school of criticism called "Myth and Symbol" made up of historians and teachers of American literature, mostly from the northeast with a gesture toward Berkeley now and them, and a nod toward the University of Chicago. The organization was sort of sealed off and very hostile to women.

    LETTERS: Does the rise of American Studies, if there is one, express what you would see as an overall change in the political landscape?

    TICHI: I think that we have to remember that there never is a clean break with the past. At any given time, there are those who envision changes that are not yet in place, there are those who are coping with the conflicts who are in the past, and there are people who are wedded to convictions that they formed very early on. There are people who just don't want to read any more or open up their positions to challenge, and so they are dismissive in terms like "there's nothing new here," or "this represents a degradation or a trivialization." So I think at any point there are "old guard" people, there are some "middle of the roaders," and there are some people who are leading in new directions. When you were talking about the word canon and the session that began to legitimate it, I was reminded of a big session that began to legitimate it, I was of a gig session at the M.L.A. four years ago in which Emory Elliott talked about the canon. Most of the people in the room were feeling that they were considering a forefront, vanguard issue at that moment, and you are saying that this issue was introduced in 1973! We are twenty years over the line, and there were people in 1988 or 1989 thinking of themselves as on the cutting edge because they were in that room,. That is an important lesson in the calendar of intellectual process.

    LAUTER: It's very slow. You have to be patient and have long range expectations. I think what is happening in American Studies is fascinating. It's growing all that fast in terms of the development of programs on individual campuses, and that is something I really want to look at. On the other hand, it is growing very rapidly overseas, and that has its upside and its downside. There is one superpower now and everybody wants to know about it.

    TICHI: That is right. I hadn't taken in the reason for this development.

    LAUTER: But in addition to this, people are becoming dissatisfied with the traditional division of the disciplines. Boundaries are becoming more inhibiting.

    TICHI: At our own campus, I see graduate students having to involve themselves in two or three disciplines just to write dissertations. I don't know if this will lead to porous boundaries or if those who want to reaffirm the boundaries will become stronger. In any case the subversion of disciplinary lines is well under way.
    Contributing to the erosion of these boundaries are the Feminist Press and the Heath Anthology, both of which you helped initiate. These projects are almost like paradigms. They pushed historical change, and you ran the risk of being made into an object of ridicule had they failed. There is a risk in seeking backing for projects which are ahead of their time and did they manage to get off the ground?

    LAUTER: With the Feminist Press, there was a national M.L.A. meeting in 1969, a year after the women in the organization demanded equal representation. Only two of that group of women ran for office again, while all the men did. It was clear from this that male "heavies" could get re-elected, while women who would become heavies were rejected. At the time, then, we thought about developing a press. We went back to Baltimore and asked if people would be interested in a press devoted to feminist issues. On return from vacation, we found our mailbox stuffed with responses and some money. We soon convened a meeting and one thing led to another. We began with children's books and some biographies. Then we did reprints, beginning with Life in the Iron Mills.

    TICHI: These reprints were very important. Life in the Iron Mills was written by the mother of a swashbuckling journalist. She was struggling with the way in which those with any sort of talent at all were being stifled. This novel was therefore one by which one could teach about democracy in the U.S., not from the point of view of doctrinaire marxism, but symbolically, to realize dimensions of class bias. The new edition from Feminist Press was very powerful. That and Yellow Wallpaper, a psychodrama of a woman oppressed in the name of expertise. Here were texts which were not available in our canon, texts which made a tremendous difference in our coursework.

    LAUTER: The problem was this: having texts available was hard enough, and as times got financially tighter, it was difficult to get people to buy them. So we thought, "What if we put those texts into an anthology?" There was already an early anthology of odd western literature texts, but that was it.

    TICHI: But any new anthology is typically only allowed to deviate in its content by fifteen percent from all other anthologies. That means that only 15 of every 100 pages can be made up of new material. Heath is such an amazing anthology because it did something completely different from anything that had come before it.

    LAUTER: Then in 1977 or 1978 we began to think about getting a project together to try to rethink the teaching of American literature called "Reconstructing American Literature."

    TICHI: Construction is a crucial word. We were in a time when standards of literary excellence were entirely unchallenged. The notion that a syllabus is a kind of construction just wasn't available, and the assumption was we had an organically whole language or literature that the critic was to decipher. But this formulation is itself rife with construction. So this notion of the construction of a syllabus was not recognized or understood. You can't devise an alternative pro gram until you realize that the present one is a construction. You must give someone a place to stand in order to point this out. Major things had to happen in order to provide this place.

    LAUTER: One major thing was the denaturalization of this notion of organic form. We had to point out that human beings were creating syllabi, and there is nothing natural about it.
    Anyway, we got the idea that we could change things, so we began to gather syllabi. We sent letters to the entire American literary profession, and we even conducted an institute on the issue, an institute which was transformative in every way. It turned out to be a high powered group, both participating and speaking. We eventually produced the book Reconstructing American Literature.

    TICHI: This was a time when people trained in New Criticism were experiencing diminishing returns, people fighting over smaller and smaller issues. The idea of a lifetime of faithfulness to an approach that was less and less rewarding was bleak. There was a sense across the country of "is this all?"

    LAUTER: For the Heath Anthology, our group was insistent on bringing together people with established reputations (white men), and cutting-edge folks (Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates, for example). I had done some research on anthologies and found that no nonwhite and very few women had ever been on an editorial board. So we talked about it and for our editorial board selected people from the institute and elsewhere who reflected the politics of the essays. But it was more than symbolism and tokenism, particularly since everyone was in networks. Blacks knew each other, Latinos, etc. We asked all sorts of people to edit their own works, with success. It was quite an interesting experience.

    TICHI: And as is well known, the Heath Anthology has changed the course of literary study in America. No other anthology is halving the impact that book has had. How did you get yourself into a position to know how to do these things?

    LAUTER: I went to Indiana to the school of Letters in 1953 to do a master's degree in literary criticism, which was a strange event since I didn't know very much about anything.

    TICHI: At that time, literary criticism was a kind of vanguard thing to do, in the sense that a lot of people were still doing more "literary history" in the old school way. New Criticism was still somewhat controversial.

    LAUTER: It was very controversial. After Indiana I went to Yale for the doctorate. One of my classmates had been a conscientious objector right after the Korean War and had served his alternative service as a teacher in a girls reformatory outside of Philadelphia. He was a serious pacifist. We got hired at Dartmouth, and he proceeded to do things as he had always done, which was to do things like post a flyer which said "Men of Draft Age: You may be a conscientious objector to war." A very innocent flyer in a lot of ways, but it got torn down periodically. All of this sort of got me involved politically.
    At the time, the politics of one thing and the politics of another were never really far apart, so if you were interested in pacifism, you were interested in the development of the civil rights movement. There were just so many ways in which these movements would hang together. Through the civil rights movement, I became acquainted with other disciplines, history and geography and so forth.
    It's hard to describe how influential the civil rights movement was on the people who participated in it. It was a very shaping experience, intellectually and culturally. In the first place, if you were white you got deeply involved in a world very different from the segregated world you were used to. And in the second place, it was a whole culture. It involved song, it involved ideas, it involved ways of interacting, ways of looking at the world which were very challenging, which were quilt different from my previous experiences. For instance, in the summer of 1964, I went to Mississippi as part of the Mississippi summer project and taught in Freedom Schools. At one point I taught Native Son to a very mixed age group of black kids in Jackson. It was a wonderful class. I didn't know very much about black literature or culture, but teaching Wright to kids for whom this literature was such a part of their lives really forced me to rethink what I was doing and what teaching was like.
    In the spring of 1965 I was teaching a big contemporary literature class of hundreds of students. I didn't do anything out of the ordinary until we got to Ellison. A guest lecturer, a Smith graduate who was the director of the Freedom Schools at the time, suggested we break the class up into small groups and have them talk about invisibility. Some of the students went along with it, but other students got enraged and stamped out. Some people came back and shouted, "My parents are paying all this money and here you are not teaching us!" It was a scandal.

    TICHI: What was so threatening to them?

    LAUTER: It utterly defeated their expectations. The irony of all of this is, just to leap forward 25 years or more, I went to talk at a high school around the Hartford area six or seven years ago. One of the people there came up to me when I arrived, and she said to me, "I've owed you an apology for 25 years." She was in that class, and she said, "You know, it took a few years, but eventually it began to get clear to me what was going on when you were talking about invisibility, yours from us and we from you, and other people's." I have actually met three people who were in that class. It was a crystallizing moment for everybody.

    TICHI: Did you know at the time that you had cracked open something culturally profound?

    LAUTER: I was trying to understand what the implications were of beginning to look at other works that I had never considered, not that Ellison was one of those exactly, but other things which were sort of on the horizon. I was asking questions like "how do you change your course? How do you change what you do, how you teach?" We're talking about democratization, about sharing power, things of that sort, '60s educational reform. It really forces you to think about things very differently, but it takes a while to translate that into your teaching practice, much less your daily life.
    At the same time, I was an activist. I got busted with a couple of students from Smith during the Selma to Montgomery march. The county jail was my introduction to Alabama hospitality. There were about five of us, and the whites were put on one side in a very large room, sort of like E. E. Cumming's Enormous Room. Everybody had been in there from one to six days, as this had been going on day after day. They all had mattresses and there weren't any more. So we complained and the jailer came along, unlocked the door and conducted us across the hall to another such room, smaller, filled with black men who had been arrested for more or less the same things. There were extra mattresses in there, and he said, "Take a mattress and go back." So each one of us took a mattress and dutifully went back. Only after we went back and the door had closed did we ask, "What did we do that for? Why didn't we just stay there?" But we were so involved and complicit in the practice of segregation in this instance that none of us thought about it. We were back into segregating jails in a movement designed to desegregate the world. It was really those kinds of things that forced changes in my awareness, which really opened the possibility of looking at work that I had never been taught in school and never had read.

    TICHI: You have been describing a sort of recurrent pattern in which your reading, your teaching, your collegial relationships, all forced you at recurrent points almost to a crisis of understanding of culture, literature, and political life. There is a kind of volitional subjection of the safe to the kind of conflict that forces change. Because the people who were there would know exactly how a person might take safe shelter in the consensus or majority thinking of that time. But you refused; those shelters or places of respite weren't valid and therefore weren't viable for you.

    LAUTER: You do something but you're not quite clear what that entails, what it's getting you into. Once you're into it, it's very hard to go back. Like the class about Ellison. I had no idea when I started teaching that people would get so incensed, that other people would react to that. And what was wonderful about the time was that in the process of one thing leading to another, it wouldn't lead you into trouble, but would lead you into all sorts of wonderful possibilities.

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