Posted by Kate Cavanaugh
"I'd like to meet that guy, Greg," said Professor Gregory Pfitzer of the American Studies Department as he took the podium to deliver the 57th Edwin M. Moseley Faculty Research Lecture last Wednesday, Feb. 26. Professor Pfitzer is "that guy Greg," but he modestly sidestepped the flattering introduction given by Dean Breslin by joking that the complimentary speech was meant for someone else. Breslin quoted other faculty members who lauded Pfitzer as an "erudite scholar" and "a yes man in a world full of people ready to say no."
Each year, the Skidmore faculty chooses one of its members to deliver the Moseley lecture on his or her scholarly and creative work. Why then, did Pfitzer's lecture titled, "The Unpopularity of Popular History: A Scholar's Pursuit of Non-Scholarly Things," focus on the theme of unpopularity?
Over the course of his academic career, Pfitzer has found himself drawn to new and less canonical approaches to the past, including a scholarly examination of popular culture and history. To be called a " popular historian" at Harvard, where Pfitzer earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization was, in Pfitzer's estimation, like being called "yellow" in the Old West. Prioritizing "popular" history over the enduring mainstream narrative was, well, unpopular.
Pfitzer followed his bliss anyway, and his scholarship attests to the fact that significant cultural and historical nuance can be understood through an examination of popular American forms. Though Pfitzer has written four books on a range of topics within the field of cultural history, his talk on Wednesday focused mainly on contrasting the production of mid-19th century pictorial history projects.
He began by explaining that in the 18th century, pictures were thought to detract from "the triumph of the word." In the 19th century, however, pictures began to make their way into works of history, increasing in prominence and influence until people grew uneasy about the "tyranny of the pictorial" and the "myths of nationhood" perpetuated. Pfitzer closely examined the depictions of several historical scenes in John Frost's Pictorial History of the United States (1844) and Jesse Spencer's History of the United States (1858) in order to understand the dynamics between writers, illustrators and publishers and how those dynamics influenced the larger relationship between words and images in American historical texts over time. Pfitzer demonstrated how representational choices have since shaped the collective memory of important historical events.
One example that Pfitzer discussed was the famous picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware River painted by Emanuel Leutze.
in 1851. There are historical accounts which position Washington at the rear of the boat for the actual crossing and dispel the myth that there were icebergs in the river. Yet the iconic image of Leutze's painting (with Washington at the front of the boat and icebergs all around) was drawn, engraved and reprinted in Spencer's History of the United States. The heroic image became popular enough to "crowd out other competing conceptions of the event, either visual or literary."
The parallels that Pfitzer drew between 19th century skepticism of the overuse of pictorial narrative and modern-day apprehension surrounding the overuse of popular social media outlets and the emphasis on visual literacy undoubtedly resonated with the audience at the lecture.
Pfitzer was grateful for the opportunity to pause at the twenty-five year mark in his career and assess what he has done so far. He was delighted to share his work with his colleagues and to have his two children and his wife in attendance.
One of his primary goals for the lecture series, though, is to reach the students. "When you study popular culture in your classes, it's not just 'fadish.'" Pfitzer said. He sees himself as an academic who uses academic tools in order to "deconstruct nonscholarly things." He believes that the constant fluctuations in popular culture often make it a "better barometer" for particular historical moments, and he believes that popular forms-Disney, rap music, images, or his mother-in-law's thoughts on American history-are material worth studying. Professor Pfitzer sees his scholarship not as a scandalous deviation from the norms of academia, but as a work of public history. "It's exciting to think that we can each be our own historian," Pfitzer said.