II. Myth and Symbol School
The first clearly identifiable school of AS theory and method is generally referred to as the "myth and symbol" approach. These critics worked on the assumption that something like the essence of American culture could be culled by reading representative great individual works of the American imagination (though some moved out of the canon into popular texts). Myth and symbol scholars claimed to find certain recurring myths, symbols, and motifs in many of these works (the American Adam, the virgin land, the machine in the garden and so on). Important figures working in or around this approach include Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, John William Ward, and, in a revisionist mode, Annette Kolodny, Richard Slotkin, and Alan Tracthenberg. While rather reluctant to theorize their work, each of these authors has made at least one programmatic statement and others have tried more formally to codify, explain, and/or critique their methods and theoretical assumptions.
All citations in this bibliography are arranged chrono-topically, not alphabetically, to give a sense of theoretical developments emerging over time.
- Smith, H.N. "Can American Studies Develop a Method?" American Quarterly 9 (1957): 197-208, and, slightly revised in J. Kwiat and M. Turpie, eds. Studies in American Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1960.
- Generally regarded as the first important programmatic statement of the myth and symbol school, this essay argues for this approach as a meeting ground for history, literature and sociology but is based in humanist assumptions that tend to favor the first two terms in this triptych over the third. See also the preface to the second edition of Smith's classic work, Virgin Land, and his reassessment piece in the Bercovitch and Jehlen collection cited in Section I.
- Marks, Barry. "The Concept of Myth in Virgin Land." American Quarterly 15 (1963):71-76.
- Trachtenberg, Alan. "Myth, History, and Literature in Virgin Land."Prospects 3 (1977): 127-129.
- Both Trachtenberg and Marks (above) attempt to elicit the systematic method and theory behind what Smith claimed to have done more or less intuitively in Virgin Land.
- Attebery, Brian. "American Studies: A Not So Unscientific Method." American Quarterly 48 (June 1996): 316-43.
- Drawing on the correspondence between Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx, Attebery argues that a Dilthey-like hermeneutics underlay the putatively methodless method of Marx and some other myth and symbol scholars. Calls for AS scholars to recognize and embrace "a different kind of science, one in which interpretation and cross-disciplinary validation replace prediction and experimental verification."
- Kuklick, Bruce. "Myth and Symbol in American Studies." American Quarterly 24(1972): 435-450.
- An influential critique of the myth and symbol school for its alleged "philosophical idealism," "elitism," and lack of sociological grounding.
- Finseth, Ian. "PREFACE to the HyperText Version of Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth."
- Finseth offers an interesting seven stage typology of the uses of "myth" in Smith's book.
- Lenz, Guenther. "American Studies--Beyond the Crisis?: Recent Redefinitions and the Meaning of Theory, History, and Practical Criticism." Prospects7 (1982): 53-113.
- Lenz shows that critics of the myth and symbol school have failed to acknowledge the historicity, diversity, and complex practice of the school, instead giving reductive and reifying readings of the admittedly inadequate theoretical writings of the myth critics. He generalizes this notion to argue for a reading of AS theory that attends to the diverse practices of scholars rather than their programmatic statements in an effort to uncover the logics and epistemologies that have governed the field in various historical eras.
- Sklar, Robert. "The Problem of an American Studies 'Philosophy:' A Bibliography of New Directions." American Quarterly 27 (1975): 245-262.
- Important critique of the myth and symbol school, and a survey of then emerging work influenced by neo-marxism and centered around the concept of "ideology" as a more politically specific alternative to "myth."
- Slotkin, Richard. "Myth and the Production of History." Bercovitchand Jehlen, eds. Ideology and Classic American Literature. 70-90.
- Summarizes Slotkin's particular inflection of the myth approach as exemplified in his three-volume study of the frontier myth as imperialist rationale, Regeneration Through Violence (1973), The Fatal Environment (1985), and Gunfighter Nation (1996). The introduction to the former gives an earlier, more Jungian conception of his approach, and the introduction to the latter is a slightly different version of the essay cited here which moves towards a neo-marxist conception of "ideology" to replace "myth."
- Kolodny, Annette. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
- An important feminist, psychological rethinking of the American pastoral tradition and the virgin land myth that demonstrates the centrality of gender in shaping US myth/ideology.
- Bercovitch, Sacvan, and Myra Jehlen, eds., Ideology and Classic American Literature. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
- Contains reassessments of their work by important pioneers of myth and symbol theory and method, including Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Richard Slotkin, and Alan Trachtenberg, as well as essays by the next generation of scholars, including Houston Baker, Carolyn Porter, Donald Pease, Michael Gilmore, Jane Tompkins, Jonathan Arac, and Myra Jehlen, that exemplify work in the 1980s and 90s that blended feminist, neo-marxist and post-structuralist theories and methods.
- See also section I. On the Genealogy of American Studies, essays by Marx, Smith, Tracthenberg, Gunn and Slotkin.