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American Studies    by Louis Menand order for
American Studies
by Louis Menand
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003 (2002)
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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I enjoyed the preface of American Studies as much as the essays that followed. In it, the author talks of the American 'culture of modernity', and offers us exercises in historical criticism, which he explains as 'the business of putting things back into their contexts to see whether that makes a difference to the way we understand them'. He then goes on to remind us that 'Today is the only day we have'.

Essay topics include influential individuals - William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, T. S. Eliot, Richard Wright, James B. Conant, William S. Paley, Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael, Christopher Lasch, Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt, Laurie Anderson, Al Gore and Maya Lin - as well as magazines, in particular the New Yorker and Rolling Stone. Louis Menand excavates their past communications, and attempts to reconstruct for us, how all of these shaped American culture. The essays are occasionally dry and sometimes over my head, but also brilliant, insightful, and from a unique perspective. It's not a text to gulp down in one sitting, rather one to absorb in small sips with time in between for reflection.

Many of the author's comments are very relevant to events today. For example, in discussing Richard Wright, author of Native Son, Menand says 'The evil of modern society isn't that it creates racism, but that it creates conditions in which people who don't suffer from injustice seem incapable of caring very much about people who do.' Having stopped watching television a couple of years ago, I was amused and enlightened (in the essay on William S. Paley) by discussion of the network television struggle to offend no-one ... 'few things that are bland enough to pass the test of everyone's sensibility have much flavor left. It was like trying to reinvent milk.'

The author talks about Norman Mailer who was obscene in his time, but not any longer (we've all heard it all). I appreciated his comments on fears about fiction like American Psycho, which he sums up as the fear that people can't separate textual from real (i.e. don't know how to read), then reminds us that 'reading a book is not the cognitive equivalent of being hit over the head with a brick' but rather more like the process of writing a book, involving a 'continual assertion and withdrawal of assent' to the content. I must say I do enjoy the image of a book brick.

Imbedded in these historical analyses are brief histories of network television (William S. Paley); the rock music industry and the 60s counterculture (Rolling Stone); and the movies (Pauline Kael - who, according to Menand wrote with 'compositional dishevelment', but he also credits her with a 'liberation of art from a priori principles'). Other highlights include Christopher Lasch's Quarrel with Liberalism and support for populism, an interesting perspective on social trends; and Lust in Action which argues that Jerry Falwell and Larry Flynt were 'working opposite sides of the same street.'

I could go on but you should really buy or borrow the book and read its essays yourself; it's worth the effort, and will probably intrigue you into further investigation of these foundations (built of book bricks no doubt) of American culture today.

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