On Thursday, April 24, many students, faculty members, and community members gathered in the Powell Family Cinema within the Center for Film Studies for the inaugural lecture in the Annual Richard Slotkin American Studies Lecture Series. Professor of American Studies and English Emeritus Richard Slotkin spoke on “Thinking Mythologically: ‘Black Hawk Down,’ ‘Platoon,’ and the War of Choice in Iraq.”
Prior to his retirement in 2008, Slotkin was a professor in the English department and helped establish the American Studies and the Film Studies programs at the University. As a faculty member, Slotkin taught students the necessity of comprehensive research to fully understand historical processes, stressing that this demand means more than just determining “contexts” for “texts.”
He also won the Mary C. Turpie Award of the American Studies Association for his contributions to teaching and program building and was the first professor at the University to twice win Wesleyan’s Binswanger Teaching Award, a prize for excellence in teaching.
“Richard Slotkin not only founded the American Studies Department, he made it internationally famous as a cutting-edge center for cultural analysis,” said Chair of American Studies and Professor of American Studies and English Joel Pfister. “He retired in 2008 and is as creative, prolific, and engaging as ever…. His American Studies classes [have taught students] how America ‘ticks’ as a hegemonic system. American Studies was founded not only as a field but a ‘movement’ in the 1930s and advocated ‘critical responsibility’ in scholarship and teaching…. At the same time, his writing and teaching have underscored the critical value of formal analysis, especially genre analysis.”
Slotkin’s classic American Studies histories include, “Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860,” “The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800–1890,” “Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in the Twentieth Century,” and “Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality.” In addition, he has written several novels, including “The Crater: A Novel of the Civil War,” “The Return of Henry Starr,” and “Abe: A Novel of Young Lincoln.”
“His extraordinary achievements inspired the faculty’s decision to name an annual lecture series in his honor,” Pfister said. “Slotkin’s lecture, like his books, was magisterial and riveting. He demonstrated why he was the first faculty member to win the Binswanger Award for Excellence in Teaching twice.”
Slotkin has also been asked to appear on television to discuss his opinions on American gun culture and its contradictions, appearing on programs such as Bill Moyers’ PBS show as well as the History channel.
In his lecture, Slotkin emphasized how Americans have “genre-d” themselves as the good guys, whereas the groups we desire to conquer are considered the bad guys. He explained that Americans do this in an attempt to feel guilt-free about killing the enemies.
“We all use genres and are used by genres and we must be conscious of this,” Pfister said. “Genres can be life-giving or fatal and in the films Slotkin studies, the ‘frontierizing’…of people branded the enemy can make Americans, themselves a racially and ethnically diverse group, feel good–guilt-free–about killing them. American myths, for instance, the ‘frontier’ myths Slotkin studies, can turn Americans into weapons and rationalize economic and military genocide.”
Slotkin spoke of this issue during his lecture.
“When we identify as a nation, we join…a national community…or a fictive ethnicity,” he said.
Slotkin also discussed the function of national myths with relation to his work. His books have addressed why myths are crucial to deconstruct.
“The function of a national myth is to promote imaginative resolutions that promote crises in history,” Slotkin said. “Every use of a myth is a test of its validity. Myths evolve and accumulate…. American myths continue to agitate unresolved questions of nature verses civilization, civil equality, and racial exclusion.”
Pfister added that Slotkin’s American Studies knowledge helped to sharpen the American Studies department’s critical teeth by demystifying the ways in which national myths reproduce America’s systemic contradictions.
Catherine Green ’17, a prospective Film and American Studies major, discussed how important Slotkin’s lecture was to her.
“He played such an important role in giving Wesleyan the gift of the American Studies and Film Departments, and years later, students are continuing to take full advantage of that vision,” Green said. “It meant a lot to me to actually see the man behind so much of my curriculum.”
Andrew Postman ’15, an American Studies major, agreed with Green’s view.
“Slotkin’s lecture is a great example of how American studies is necessarily interdisciplinary and relevant,” Postman said. “He’s an academic celebrity, and rightfully regarded as such. His founding of the American Studies Department in his mid 20’s is crazy inspiring.”
This lecture was filmed and will be available for viewing on the American Studies Department website.
“[The lecture was filmed] so that students and faculty can continue to draw inspiration from it,” Pfister said. “I have heard few lectures in my life that have accomplished such historical sweep.”
Green added onto Pfister’s point.
“It was fascinating to watch him weave together fields of academia with pop culture, as he explored the social and political significance of the war film,” Green said. “Sitting there listening to him, I really began to feel like a student in his old lecture classes, and it left me hoping he’d return.”