Introduction to American Studies

AMST 210, Fall 2014, Spring 2016

Popular culture provides an essential lens for understanding the American experience. Many facets of American history and culture can be perceived in national spectacle and everyday entertainment. Beginning with folklore and early print sources, this course locates the roots of national culture. Considering stage traditions like minstrelsy and vaudeville, we will interrogate racial mimicry and stereotype. Early on in the semester, Mark Twain’s satiric novel, Pudd’nhead Wilson, examines racial crossing as the quintessential American plot twist. Blackface looms large as America’s most popular amusement for nearly a century, but it is essential also to look at the innovative, politically charged, and deeply human forms of expression, like jazz and the blues, that challenge restrictive notions of black subjectivity. Later hybrid forms emerge from precisely this contested landscape; rock & roll is among the most significant and recognizable signs of American culture. We explore black protest music from Billy Holiday and Duke Ellington to Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone to consider the evolution of the Civil Rights struggle.

Our course also investigates constructions of ethnic identity, gender, and sexuality in Hollywood cinema. Genre fiction, like Westerns and detective stories, and forms like the comic book blur the distinction between high and low culture. Our primary text, With Amusement For All, traces the emergence of the American middle-class as the broader historical narrative behind the growth of popular forms from the nineteenth century to the present. Ashby poses a dialectic relationship between the “main tent,” which represents dominant cultural values and norms, and the edgier sideshows where the mainstream looks for new, more thrilling forms of entertainment. Supplementing Ashby’s interpretation with films, readings, and music that offer more multifaceted, pluralist counter-narratives reveals the profound contradictions of American entertainment culture—it can be politically charged and easily commodified, simultaneously liberating and oppressive. Using the central concepts and interdisciplinary methodologies of American Studies this course traces the effect of mass media on US culture from 1830 to the present.

LeRoy Ashby, With Amusement For All: A History of American Popular Culture since 1830
Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

Popular Culture3