- Cultural Studies
Ceaseless effort has yielded little consensus on culture’s place in historical inquiry. Culture offers historians a reservoir of data in the form of films, novels, and paintings. The data can matter for what it is—a film, say, that seamlessly captures a historical theme or moment. It can matter for the influence this film has. The data of culture can matter for the signification encoded within cultural artifacts. It can matter, finally, for what it evokes: the film that launches a scholar’s flight of interpretive fancy. A famous example would be Birth of a Nation, which expertly conveys the atmosphere of 1915, the year the film came out. Its aesthetic could not be the aesthetic of 1895 or of 1935. The film left its imprint on the history of race relations, confirming if not creating the prejudices of Woodrow Wilson (for one). The meaning implicated in its plot has long fascinated historians. Birth of a Nation cast its stark light on Reconstruction and Jim Crow America as well as on the yearning, circa 1915, to enter a new era in race relations. Progress was a mood that could no longer be defined by D. W. Griffiths’ terrible film. Thus, from a single film, historians have spun many elaborate arguments. Films like this harbor empirical evidence and something not empirical at all: they become evidence by being read into the historical record. An ancient scholarly genre, cultural history has origins stretching beyond the twentieth century to Jacob Burckhardt and, millennia back, to Herodotus. In the kaleidoscopic present, disparities of technique are the norm and cultural history a phrase in search of a framework.
Two monographs, both published in 2012, assess a similar area of cultural history without resembling one another at all in style or approach. Burton Peretti’s The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image reconstructs the bridges between Hollywood and Washington, between the great film [End Page 694] studios and the White House, between leading men of the movies and the men who have led the country on cinema, television, and computer screens. Peretti’s method is refreshingly direct, his evidence derived from an empirically knowable world. Even the presidential image of Peretti’s subtitle, an obvious intangible, is a thing of sorts in his handling of it. Its history has a demonstrable valence with Franklin D. Roosevelt, another with John F. Kennedy, and yet another with Ronald Reagan. Bounded by his evidence, Peretti advances claims about culture for which there is definite proof. The same cannot be said for Michael Szalay’s Hip Figures: A Literary History of the Democratic Party. Szalay is a professor of English and Peretti a professor of history, a significant distinction. More telling, though, is Szalay’s method, his belief in a kingdom of interpretation in which the scholar is sovereign. In the kingdom of cultural studies, evidence is a humble servant, a bystander almost, dazzled by the royal procession of argument. Interpretation is structured to suit argument, and the truth of analytical claims lies in their contribution to the larger argument. Cultural-studies scholars enjoy a latitude that no natural or social scientist would have in a peer-reviewed article or academic book. Hip Figures illustrates the perils of such latitude.
Peretti’s narrative runs in a satisfying arc from FDR to George W. Bush. In the beginning was “the deceptiveness of the theater so long regarded as a disreputable part of American culture” (p. 113). Puritan leaders were unlikely to associate themselves publicly with actors and actresses, still less to see political purpose in doing so. Nor were the Founders prone to mingle the world of politics with the milieu of the theater. By 1900, the divide between politics and theater was weakening: in the North, an alliance “grew up in New...