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University of California Press
American Studies: A User's Guide / Edition 1

American Studies: A User's Guide / Edition 1

by Philip J. Deloria, Alexander I. OlsonPhilip J. Deloria
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American Studies has long been a home for adventurous students seeking to understand the culture and politics of the United States. This welcoming spirit has found appeal around the world, but at the heart of the field is an identity crisis. Nearly every effort to articulate an American Studies methodology has been rejected for fear of losing intellectual flexibility and freedom. But what if these fears are misplaced? Providing a fresh look at American Studies in practice, this book contends that a shared set of “rules” can offer a springboard to creativity. American Studies: A User’s Guide offers readers a critical introduction to the history and methods of the field as well as useful strategies for interpretation, curation, analysis, and theory.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520287730
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/22/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 523,261
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Philip J. Deloria is Professor of History at Harvard University. He is a former president of the American Studies Association.
Alexander I. Olson is Associate Professor in the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

Read an Excerpt


History and Historiography

YOU MIGHT WONDER why we're taking a detour into history. After all, we're calling this book a "user's guide," but a user's guide is something you can pull out, looking for help, when you are trying to do something in the here and now. History, on the other hand, offers stories about things that have already been done in the past. Why, then, is an entire section of this book — this user's guide — devoted to the (seemingly arcane) history of American Studies? We have four interconnected reasons. Two of these we'll discuss quickly, the third we'll develop into an extended example of how to navigate and utilize past scholarship. We'll circle back to the fourth (and most controversial) reason at the end of the chapter.

First, and at the simplest level, nobody wants to reinvent the wheel. Knowing the history of your field reduces the risk of wasting time writing something that's already been written. This is harder than it looks. Even if you spent your entire life doing nothing but reading books in American Studies, you'd only have time to read a fraction of a percent of what has been published. As of 2017, the OCLC WorldCat catalog of university libraries listed 66,312 entries for the keyword "American Studies." Books with the exact title of American Studies — no subtitle — have been written by Tremaine McDowell (1948), Harry Stessel (1975), Mark Merlis (1994), Louis Menand (2002), and Jim Dow (2011), not to mention journals of that title published by the Midcontinent American Studies Association, the Council for International Exchange of Scholars, the Institute of Social Sciences in Beijing, the German Association for American Studies, Seoul National University, and the University of Warsaw. You do, of course, have to weed out things like American Studies in Papyrology (a monograph series published by the American Society of Papyrologists) that aren't really relevant to the field. But you're still left with a lot of texts. And weeding out false hits is not easy. One might imagine, for example, an ethnographic study of papyrologists who live in the United States but devote their lives to studying ancient texts from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Such a project would fall squarely within the boundaries of American Studies, and it might eventually lead you to American Studies in Papyrology.

This hypothetical is not as far-fetched as it sounds — some of the earliest college and university programs in American Studies offered classes in things like forestry and botany, in addition to anthropology, economics, sociology, history, literature, music, and more. Anything related to American culture was fair game. On the other hand, students do not have unlimited room in their schedules, which meant the field was shaped, from the start, by struggles over what — and how — students should read. Some believed the purpose of American Studies was to encourage appreciation for democracy, free enterprise, and, at the University of Wyoming, "the American way" Others wanted to foster critical thinking about topics like nationalism, militarism, and capitalism, especially when the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed to be looming over American culture like a storm cloud. Over time, these differences morphed into struggles over whether students should focus on a small "canon" of American writers and artists (mostly white men, and many from a single decade — the 1850s), or whether offering classes in American Studies should mean building the curriculum around texts by and about women, immigrants, sailors, slaves, and other marginalized groups.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. There is a second reason to linger on the past of American Studies, and it has to do with method. Scholars in all fields, when embarking on a research project, are expected to identify their method or methods. History matters here, too, because it offers models for how scholars in the past have gone about their work. Imagine, for example, that you are a junior scientist applying for grant money to study lung cancer. You'll need to be able to answer some basic questions about your methods: How will you conduct the research? Why is your lab the best place to carry it out? And, perhaps most important: How does your study relate to past efforts to understand the disease? It might seem obvious that such research is a worthy cause — nobody in their right mind would oppose curing cancer — but the organization giving you money needs to know if your proposed research is credible. One way that credibility is established is by demonstrating your familiarity with the methods and findings of previous studies. This step is not merely opportunistic and individual; careful articulations of method help to build trust for a body of scholarship as a whole.

A third reason: you need to be able to explain the significance — the "so what?" — of your work by connecting it to a larger conversation. Some of your explanation will revolve around understanding, explaining, and applying methods. But another way to establish the "so what?" of your work is to situate it in relation to the historiography or genealogy of your field. These might be unfamiliar terms, so let's linger on them for a moment. Historiography is based on the Greek roots "historia" (narrative, history) and "graphia" (writing). Genealogy is based on the Greek root "genos" (gene, offspring, race) together with the suffix "-logy" (study of), which comes from the Greek "logos" (word).

Historiography = "historia" (history) + "graphia" (writing) = writing about history

Genealogy = "genos" (gene) + "-logy" (study of) = the study of genetic origins

We will get to genealogy a little later, but let's start with historiography. Like "method" and "methodology," it is easy to get "history" and "historiography" mixed up. These are not synonyms. History, as James Harvey Robinson put it in 1912, is "the vague and comprehensive science of past human affairs." It includes everything that has happened in the past, all the way down to "this morning's newspaper." Historiography, by contrast, refers to the study of what people have written about history.

In American Studies, historiography refers to the history of scholarship in the field of American Studies. But it is more than just a matter of surveying individual texts; the key is figuring out how they come together to create scholarly conversations, and how those conversations have changed over time. Paying attention to historiography can help you plan your research by establishing a road map of the places other scholars have gone — both to avoid getting lost in trivia, and to make sure you locate the most interesting questions and landmarks. We think that this particular reason for studying historiography is so important that we'd like to give you an extended example of how it works.


Imagine that you are about to start a project on plantation households in the U. S. South. How do you go about investigating the relevant historiography? An online search can be useful for getting a sense of the lay of the land, but — as we've seen — such searches are sometimes better for quantity than quality. The best approach might be to ask for suggestions from someone who has seriously studied this topic already. Historiographical curation is a social activity, even if it's not always recognized as such. What you're looking for are the most vibrant conversations about your topic, which is why an experienced guide is invaluable. You could also try to find a published bibliography on your topic, or search for book reviews in a database like JSTOR or Project MUSE. Yet another route is to find one well-respected book on your topic, and then check its introduction and footnotes for additional sources. Usually the introduction will explicitly refer to other sources that you can add to your list, which can help you start mapping out your topic's historiography.

Together, these methods should leave you with a short list of books to find at the library. We're going to focus on books for a couple of reasons. A book — as opposed to an article, blog, website, etc. — offers a long-form argument. Because of its length, a book is able to tackle a big and important "so what?" question, one that can only be answered through multiple subquestions and sub-subquestions. Done well, a book pulls together years of research into a coherent narrative whole that readers can digest within a few days. For this reason, the book remains the gold standard in American Studies research. We do not want to slight other forms — they all have important functions — but, despite predictions of its demise, a good book remains the goal for many American Studies scholars. For your topic, the initial list of books might look something like this:

Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008).

Tiya Miles, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

These books are what scholars call monographs, or studies of a single specialized subject as opposed to a broad survey like a textbook. To break that down:

Monograph = "mono" (one) + "graphia" (writing) = book about one thing

You might be thinking, "If these are all credible books on my topic, why should I read all four instead of just one of them?" Without a doubt, each of these books is extremely valuable on its own. But they are far from redundant, and in fact the areas where they differ can provide some of the best clues about how your voice might fit in. Think of it like joining a group of unfamiliar people at a party. It's almost always a good idea to listen and pay attention before trying to steer the conversation in a new direction. Is somebody in the middle of telling a story? Are they debating something? How do they know each other? Are they old friends or just getting to know one another? What is the atmosphere of the conversation? Similarly when working in American Studies, paying attention to historiography provides useful information that can help you decide whether and how to join a particular scholarly conversation.

Although there is no substitute for reading books, start to finish, you can start looking for clues right away, before even cracking open any of the books. Lay them out on the table side by side and examine the covers (figures 3-6). What do you notice? The first thing that might jump out at you is that each of the four covers depicts houses. But there are also some subtle differences between these images that offer clues about what you'll find in the books. For example, both Gordon-Reed and Miles depict specific identifiable houses: Monticello, former home of Thomas Jefferson, and a Cherokee plantation house in Georgia now called the Chief Vann House State Historic Site. Both homes are large, distant, and protected by trees in pastoral settings. By contrast, McCurry's cover depicts a ramshackle home with chipped paint and uneven siding superimposed on a map. This helps illustrate what is meant by the term "yeoman households." The pluralization of McCurry's title — "masters" of small "worlds" — also signals that the book is about a pattern of relations across multiple households in the region, rather than a specific one. By contrast the subtitles of both Gordon-Reed ("An American Family") and Miles ("A Cherokee Plantation Story") make it clear that they are utilizing a case study method. But covers can also deceive. As we read, we learn that the Diamond Hill plantation, with its large population of enslaved people, was in operation for many years before the Vann House was constructed, thereby complicating our first impressions.

Glymph's cover is even more ambiguous. The phrase "out of the house of bondage" alludes to Exodus, signaling that the book deals with the aftermath of chattel slavery, but the subtitle does not point to a specific location, and instead hints at a focus on change over time ("transformation"). The cover art depicts a large house on the left alongside several outbuildings. The landscape is austere, with faint trees and an open field surrounding the row of structures. The crops in the foreground are easy to miss and divided from the field by a line that runs parallel to the forest in the background. As with the other covers, the sky is washed out, and all four books have roughly the same color scheme of earth tones — tan, pale blue, green, black, and a touch of brick red. Flipping over the book identifies the illustration as "Julianton Plantation, ca. 1800," in Georgia. Will this turn out to be a case study as well? It appears more likely that the image was chosen to create an atmosphere, or perhaps to suggest the multiplicity of living environments within the plantation household.

We haven't even started reading, and already we can surmise that the books represent different methods: case study, broad pattern, and transformation over time. Other clues can be found by flipping over to the blurbs of praise from reviewers on the back of the books. To start with Out of the House of Bondage, one calls it "a sweeping reinterpretation" that combines "the tools of an economic and social historian." Another blurb notes that it "demolishes the idea that some form of gender solidarity trumped race and class in plantation households." These can already get us thinking about the historiographical context. First, it suggests that Glymph is challenging books that portray white and black women as allies against patriarchal oppression. Second, it positions the book within economic and social history, suggesting a concern with structures rather than culture alone. Turning to Masters of Small Worlds, published thirteen years earlier, one reviewer asserts that it demonstrates "the centrality of gender as a category for understanding American political thought." A second blurb calls it "a pioneering beginning to the inclusion of gender in political history." By now you can make an educated guess, or hypothesis, that Masters of Small Worlds might be one of the books that Glymph challenges, with McCurry seemingly pointing to gender as the main avenue of power in plantation life, and Glymph seemingly pointing to race.

Let's see how this hypothesis plays out. Ultimately you would do this by reading both books, cover to cover. What you'd find is that McCurry and Glymph do offer differing interpretations of how power operated in plantation households, but close examination of their arguments, sources, and methods shows the conflict to be much more nuanced than a divide over whether gender or race is more important. As her subtitle suggests, McCurry is interested in the political culture of the antebellum South Carolina low country, and specifically the place of the yeomanry, or small-scale farmers, in a region dominated by large planters. She argues that democratic bonds among white men, rich and poor, revolved around "the virtually unlimited right of an independent man to mastery over his own household and the property that lay within its boundaries" (6). Both marriage and slavery, McCurry argues, were based on this polyvalent metaphor of the family that was echoed in both religion and politics. Instead of creating solidarity between white mistresses and enslaved women, the equating of marriage and slavery was a rhetorical strategy that preachers and politicians used "to endow slavery with the legitimacy of the family" (214). Glymph, on the other hand, is less interested in cultural representations of the plantation household than the "flesh-and-blood practices" that made it, above all, a workplace where mistresses exerted brutal violence against domestic slaves. This experience of tyranny shaped the types of freedom sought out by black women after emancipation and, as a result, left its traces in the social life of the new postbellum household economy.


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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Object of American Studies


1 • History and Historiography
2 • Four American Studies Mixtapes
3 • An Institutional History of American Studies (Or, What’s the Matter with Mixtapes?)


4 • Methods and Methodology
5 • Texts: An Interpretive Toolkit
6 • Archives: A Curatorial Toolkit
7 • Genres and Formations: An Analytical Toolkit
8 • Power: A Th eoretical Toolkit


9 • A Few Thoughts on Ideas and Arguments
10 • Dispenser: A Case Study


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