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  • Ad Hoc American Studies:Michigan and the Hidden History of a Movement
  • Alexander I. Olson (bio) and Frank Kelderman (bio)

In 1977, K. Anne Teitsworth, a doctoral student in American Culture at the University of Michigan, submitted her dissertation on the literary scholar Howard Mumford Jones and his critical writings.1 In the manuscript, Teitsworth situated Jones’s understanding of culture and literature within a larger genealogy of American humanist thought. By focusing on Jones’s published writings, however, Teitsworth ignored his work as an educator and administrator. She never mentioned that, while at Michigan in the 1930s, Jones had played a central role in starting the very program in which Teitsworth was enrolled. In an added twist, the preface reveals that her topic was suggested by Joe Lee Davis, the director of American Culture at Michigan, yet the dissertation itself offers little indication that Davis (or Teitsworth’s committee) ever pushed her to think about its connection to the field of American studies in any way, let alone Jones’s role in it.2 As we shall see, this curious gap speaks volumes about American studies as it evolved at universities like Michigan that were relatively marginal to the historiography of the early years of the field but which housed a significant majority of programs.3

If Howard Mumford Jones appears at all in genealogies of American studies, it is through his connection to Harvard University’s American Civilization Program, which largely focused on bridging the fields of U.S. history and literature. Through the work of faculty like Jones, Perry Miller, and F.O. Matthiessen, [End Page 107] and their students Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx, Harvard’s model came to dominate genealogies of American studies. At Michigan, however, Jones was involved with another iteration of the movement—the American Culture Program—marked by short-term, collaborative projects geared toward public engagement. As a partnership between Jones and faculty from economics, sociology, political science, and other disciplines, Michigan’s original curriculum complicates the notion that American studies was simply a way to bridge history and literature. Instead, Michigan’s program gave students the tools for examining American culture from multiple disciplinary vantage points. Its grounding in the social sciences underscores the broad appeal of new ideas about culture that were being developed in fields like anthropology and sociology during the 1920s and 1930s.4 Among those inspired by the movement was Joe Lee Davis, Teitsworth’s mentor, who styled himself “an American Studies man” and called it “a new and revolutionary generalism, removing the old walls built by specialists and chauvinists.”5

By the 1970s, this entire early history of the program had been forgotten. For decades thereafter, the program’s internal reports and marketing materials listed 1952 as its founding date without confirming this in the archives, thereby failing to recognize the program’s roots in the 1930s.6 Teitsworth’s omission was therefore part of a larger erasure that raises several questions. How did the American Culture Program forget its own history so quickly? What does this hidden history say about the broader institutional struggles of American studies during these years? And how might a recovery of these early years help us make sense of the backlash against American studies activism today? To be sure, some of the reasons for this genesis amnesia are prosaic. As director in the 1950s, Joe Lee Davis was notorious for disorganization and failed to preserve many documents. According to longtime program manager Linda Eggert, Davis ran the program “out of his office out of a file drawer. I don’t know if those documents ever were put in the Bentley [Library]. I don’t even know if they survived.”7 In the absence of record keeping and institutional memory, Davis’s colleagues at Michigan gradually came to see the American Culture Program as his creation.

More importantly, however, Teitsworth’s dissertation was written at a moment in which the field had begun to eschew its intellectual roots. In an influential critique of the field in 1972, Bruce Kuklick argued that a preoccupation with “myths” and “symbols” characterized early work in American studies, which in his view relied on a...


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pp. 107-131
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