From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park

Activism, Culture, and American Studies

From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 304 Illustrations: 25 photographs Published: April 2001

Author: Paul Lauter

American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

Paul Lauter, an icon of American Studies who has been a primary agent in its transformation and its chief ambassador abroad, offers a wide-ranging collection of essays that demonstrate and reflect on this important and often highly politicized discipline. While American Studies was formerly seen as a wholly subsidiary academic program that loosely combined the study of American history, literature, and art, From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park reveals the evolution of an independent, highly interdisciplinary program with distinctive subjects, methods, and goals that are much different than the traditional academic departments that nurtured it.
With anecdote peppered discussions ranging from specific literary texts and movies to the future of higher education and the efficacy of unions, From Walden Pond to Jurassic Park entertains even as it offers a twenty-first century account of how and why Americanists at home and abroad now do what they do. Drawing on his forty-five years of teaching and research as well as his experience as a political activist and a cultural radical, Lauter shows how a multifaceted increase in the United States’ global dominion has infused a particular political urgency into American Studies. With its military and economic influence, its cultural and linguistic reach, the United States is—for better or for worse—too formidable and potent not to be understood clearly and critically.


“[A] must-read collection . . . . Lauter’s collection shows us how, as he puts it, ‘doing American studies is a kind of political act.’ . . . . Lauter has been both a tireless ambassador for and loyal critic of American studies. . . . One of the most striking aspects of these essays is their own negotiation of, on the one hand, an emphasis of the power of ‘the drift to unadorned greed and superficial moralism’ in contemporary American life and, on the other, a celebration of the politics of hopefulness. . . . Lauter’s own essays in this collection constitute an often-eloquent insistence on those values.” — Michael Cowan , American Studies

“[W]orthwhile reading for students of American studies and anyone interested in the human sciences. . . .[Lauter] adroitly embraces the complex intricacies of American culture and its impact on how we think, act, purchase goods, view films, vote for elected officials, understand race and sex and ourselves individually and as part of a collective, all within the discipline of American studies.” — Bernard Demczuk, American Studies International

“American studies has changed profoundly in the past decade or so, and in part that’s due to the efforts of Mr. Lauter himself. . . . For [foreign scholars], Mr. Lauter is not simply a colleague; he is himself a phenomenon requiring some investigation.” — Scott McLemee , Chronicle of Higher Education

“Lauter has been described as an American-studies icon, a major agent in transforming the field, ‘its chief ambassador abroad.’ This intriguing record of his career as cultural-political activist is part manifesto, part tribute to an array of expressive forms from high literary art to pop culture trivia, from mainstream writers to examples of ethnicity, diversity, otherness . . . . Heartily recommended . . . .” — S. I. Bellman , Choice

"[A]s a self-proclaimed political activist and cultural radical with an agenda, Paul Lauter provides a refreshing change from the popular political neutrality of modernist and post-modernist perspectives. As a historian, I was particularly pleased with the way he has carefully placed his subjects and his own analysis of them into an historical context, following his adopted injunction to 'Always historicize' (22)." — Robert Mikkelsen , American Studies in Scandinavia

"[E]legant and imaginative. . . . [A] powerful, persuasive, and especially in this historical moment, essential collection." — Karen L. Kilcup, American Quarterly

"[T]he autobiographical moments in many of the pieces lend richness and context to Lauter's arguments. . . . [T]he finest moments in this volume [reveal] a practical sense of some of the things that scholarship can do to make our America a better place." — Thomas M. Allen , Women's Studies

"Lauter’s style is equally accessible to a broader interested public . . . . [B]ecause each essay challenges or qualifies traditional definitions of canon, scholarship, discipline, and professional conduct, the book makes a nice little historical artifact, one that can be used contemporaneously as well as later to be looked back upon as a chronicle and marker of a specific point in time as American Studies goes with the flow of both superficial fads and with the serious an concerned consideration of what research and intellectual activity should, or can, be." — David Sonenschein , Journal of the American Studies Association of Texas

“A rich and multifaceted assessment of the field. By interspersing chapters that focus in great detail on a single aspect of American Studies with broader chapters that help contextualize his arguments, Lauter has provided readers with a remarkably thorough, exciting, and satisfying work.” — Emory Elliott, University of California, Riverside

“Every page of this book gives evidence of an academic life spent in and for American Studies. Lauter covers a wide range of topics between the politics of cultural and literary texts and the politics in and beyond the classroom. In a sense, it offers the story of a lifetime—his own and that of his generation.” — Heinz Ickstadt, Freie Universität Berlin

“Paul Lauter, who has been a leading figure in the movement to expand the canon of American literature, is ideally placed to tell the story of American Studies. This book is news.” — Cathy N. Davidson, Former President, American Studies Association


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Paul Lauter is Allan K. and Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Literature at Trinity College in Connecticut and the General Editor of The Health Anthology of American Literature. His previous books include Canons and Contexts.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Part I: Practicing American Studies

1. Reconfiguring Academic Disciplines: The Emergence of American Studies

2. American Studies, American Politics, and the Reinvention of Class

3. Versions of Nashville, Visions of American Studies

4. Culture and Conformity in Wartime America: My Junior High School Songbook

5. Dinosaur Culture: From Mansfield Park to Jurassic Park

Part II: American Studies in a Racialized World

6. American Studies and Ethnic Studies at the Borderlands Crossroads

7. Of Chodors and Capital

8. Fiction as Politics: The Novels of Charles Chesnutt

Part III: Revisiting the Canon: The Question of Modernism

9. Reflecting On The Heath Anthology of American Literature

10. Melville Climbs the Canon

11. And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, May I Present Miss Amy Lowell

12. Cold War Culture and the Construction of Modernism

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2671-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2676-2
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