On a book that reminds me how excitingly far I still have to go.
From the names for the degrees—Master of Arts, Doctor of Philosophy—to the purpose of the PhD dissertation (and its accompanying oral “defense”), and certainly through the last few decades’ evolving emphasis on hyper-specialization within academia, the demonstrated purpose of grad school (at least in English and the humanities; this may be less true for the sciences) would seem to be to achieve a significant level of mastery over one’s particular subject and focus. There’s obviously good reason for that, especially since graduate students are professors in training and it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a professor to have some significant mastery of his or her field (particularly in an era when students and their families are paying so much to be educated by those professors). But at the same time, this perspective on grad school can make it seem like the key to being a successful scholar is to have all the answers, to know just how you would analyze any given text or event or question, to never admit that you don’t know or are still trying to figure out what to make of something.
If I were ever tempted to feel that way—although of course I’m far too humble, not to mention talented and good-looking, to do so—I had the good fortune during grad school to encounter plenty of correctives, in the form of works that left me at a loss and forced me to recognize how much American Studying is a lifelong learning kind of pursuit. At the top of that list would have to be Nathanael West’s novella The Day of the Locust (1939), a work that within its 150 pages manages to be a bildungsroman about a young arrival to Los Angeles, a funny and biting satire of Hollywood, a gritty socially realistic novel of the Depression, a psychological study of gender and sex, and an apocalyptic cautionary tale in which religion, celebrity, popular culture, and violence yield the titular plague—among other things. In the conclusion to my weekly analytical post about the novel in the grad class where I first encountered it, I was simply left reciting the eternal question, voiced so eloquently by Marvin Gaye and slightly less eloquently by the Four Non-Blondes: “What’s going on?” Can’t say I have any more definitive of an answer today than I did then.
Does that mean I should have failed my defense, been laughed out of grad school, am now outing myself as the phoniest American Studier this side of David Barton? I don’t think so. First of all, I’m not giving up on analyzing West’s novel—quite the opposite, I’m excited to keep figuring out what I want to say about it, and in particular to get the chance at some point to teach it and participate in some communal such analyses. Second, and more broadly and importantly still, the day I pretend like I’ve got this whole American Studying thing figured out will be the day you all should reach through your computers and slap some sense into me, Cher in Moonstruck style. Both American Studies and public American Studies scholarship are, it seems to me, not about having all the answers—they’re about learning as much as we can to be sure, from our sources and our texts and our histories but also from each other; and then about continuing to ask the questions that allow us all to keep learning, to build a communal perspective on our national identity and history, culture and community, that are as complex and evolving as America itself. Works like West’s have helped me to do that for sure, and I’m very appreciative.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So last chance ahead of that post—thoughts? Books that shaped you?
8/31 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two hugely impressive and inspiring 19th century Americans, Ely Parker and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.