MyAmericanFuture

MyAmericanFuture
MyAmericanFuture

Monday, January 9, 2012

January 9, 2012: Mentors

[This week I’ll be blogging about fellow American Studiers, colleagues and friends who exemplify the best kinds of scholarly engagement with our national histories, stories, and identities. That’s in addition to other folks about whom you’ve already heard in this space, a list which would include Caroline Rody, Karl Jacoby, Christopher Cappozzola, Mike Branch, Heidi Kim, Kevin Levin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rob Velella, Steve Railton, my web guru Graham Beckwith, and many more. This is the first in the series.]
My two central graduate school advisors and mentors model two very distinct but equally important and inspiring American Studies approaches.
While my graduate work and PhD were in English (as is my principal faculty position at Fitchburg State University), I nonetheless likewise received extensive training in American Studies scholarship throughout that time, thanks to the two Temple University English professors with whom I was fortunate enough to work most fully: Carolyn Karcher (pronounced “car-share”) and Miles Orvell. It’s difficult for me to write about either or both of them without turning the piece into a pure and very heartfelt tribute, but I’ll try here to stay focused on what I learned about American Studies from these two great scholars (and will note that I tried to highlight, briefly but I hope clearly, everything else I learned from them in the Acknowledgments to my first book).
Karcher’s American Studies scholarship has consistently been grounded in close and text-based analyses of the literary works and careers of 19th-century American writers: Herman Melville, Lydia Maria Child, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and Albion Tourgée, to name only the four on whom she has focused at the greatest length. Yet what Karcher has succeeded in doing, without simplifying her close readings of those authors and texts in the slightest, is to situate her analyses in fully realized and in fact equally complex historical, cultural, and interdisciplinary contexts, revealing in the process as much about America itself as about her specific focal points. Perhaps the clearest (if far from the only) illustration of such American Studies revelations is her The First Woman in the Republic, which entirely lives up to both parts of its self-description as A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child; the book’s portrait of Child’s life and writings is exhaustive and always specific, yet by the time a reader reaches its conclusion he or she has learned a great deal about literally dozens of significant historical and cultural moments, issues, questions, and narratives from across much of the 19th century.

Orvell’s American Studies scholarship has consistently sought to engage with some of the broadest and most defining American ideas and questions: concepts of reality, authenticity, and imitation in American culture and life; the history and practice of American photography; technology and its impacts on the visual arts and culture; popular images and narratives of Main Street. Yet what Orvell has succeeded in doing, without eliding or missing the broad and communal meanings of his subjects in the slightest, is to connect his analyses to nuanced and compelling close readings of individual artists and texts, making clear in the process the specific valences and stakes of his central ideas. A particularly clear illustration of that multi-level American Stuff methodology is the Encyclopedia of American Studies, which Orvell helped create and for which he served as general editor for many years; the EAS is amazingly comprehensive in its range of subjects and disciplines (I helped find pictures for articles on skateboarding, temperance, and the Revolutionary War and wrote ones on Poe, Thoreau, Wright, and Ellison, for example), yet each individual article pays close and convincing analytical attention to specific texts, figures, and details.

Two very distinct scholars and careers, each plenty influential and inspiring, together exemplifying the breadth and depth of what American Studies can be. Next models tomorrow,

Ben

PS. Any American Studiers you’d like to nominate? Remember, Guest Posts always welcome!

1/9 Memory Day nominee: Joan Baez, the folk singer-songwriter who has been an iconic presence on the American cultural landscape since Woodstock, who has done important activist work on behalf of civil and gay rights, anti-war and anti-poverty efforts, and the environment (among many other issues), and who continues to release powerful new music in the 21st century.

No comments:

Post a Comment