Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture
(1900 to present) we feature an interview, or a conversation,
with a preeminent scholar in the field of American popular culture
This fall 2003 edition, we are featuring Marshall Fishwick, Professor
of Interdisciplinary Studies and Director of both the American Studies
and Popular Culture programs at Virginia Tech. He is co-founder
of the Popular Culture Association and was honored with a lifetime
achievement award by the American Culture Association in 1998. As
a Fulbright Distinguished Professor, he has worked with scholars
and students in many countries and helped establish the American
Studies Research Center in Hyderabad, India, the largest Asian collection
of American books. In addition, he co-founded the journal International
Popular Culture, serves as Advisory Editor to the Journal
of American Culture and the Journal of Popular Culture,
and is a Senior Editor at Haworth Press.
Of course, he has also authored many books including American
Heroes: Myth and Reality, American Studies in Transition, Icons
in Popular Culture, An American Mosaic: Rethinking American Culture
History, Popular Culture: Cavespace to Cyberspace, and Go
and Catch a Falling Star.
This past summer we talked to Professor Fishwick about his latest
book Popular Culture in a New Age and other related matters.
Before we get to our conversation about Popular Culture in
a New Age, the focus of this interview, we want to ask
you about the formation of the Popular Culture Association. Talk
to us about founding the Popular Culture Association in the 1960s
with Ray B. Browne and Russell Nye. How did the idea first come
about? Why did you three think it was important?
In the 1960s, which was the age of revolution with the hippies
and everything turned upside down, one of the new enterprises of
academia was American Studies, which had enjoyed considerable expansion
after World War II. A number of people began Ph.D. programs in American
Studies. Among those were Ray Browne, Russ Nye, and I, and we found
that the academic establishment, the English and history departments,
were not very friendly. In fact, it’s still true today. Many English
departments do not accept popular culture studies. Even some American
Studies programs don’t. It’s not “traditional.”
We thought maybe we should do something to make popular culture
an entity in itself; it could be established in the university as
part of a program or a separate program which has been done in a
number of places. The outstanding example is Bowling Green State
University. We were traveling around, and we realized in 1967 that
we would be near or in Detroit for meetings. We met in Detroit,
and at that meeting we decided we would go ahead and found the Popular
Culture Association. At that moment, we had no enrollment and no
support, but we had a good idea. We grew in steps and stages, and
we decided we would have a journal: The Journal of Popular
Culture. Ray Browne was able to get some modest support from
Bowling Green where he taught. Most importantly, he got office space,
and he got permission to do the printing which was necessary.
The formal study of popular culture began to emerge in the late
1960s and early 1970s as a medium for the ideas that could not be
expressed in most of the academic programs. Since then, many popular
culture studies programs have been established. Now the interesting
thing is that American Studies is in some trouble because the field
has become very politicized and is controlled by people on the outer
fringe of their subjects. I believe popular culture studies has
taken the place of American Studies in many institutions. Of course,
there is still resistance from the “good old boys,” the old school,
art and sciences people who have held dominion since Plato. We don’t
wish to diminish their fields of study, but popular culture is the
new boy on the block.
You mentioned that American Studies has been politicized.
Yes, it has been dominated by the PC movement, race wars, and gender
wars. For example, at Yale, my alma mater, the gender issues are
so intense in that department that a lot of males refuse to deal
with it. We all agree that these issues are important, but they
aren’t the only ones. Also, it seems in some instances that American
Studies has entered into commercial alliances, for example, with
Washington; and as you know, no one gets money from Washington who
doesn’t go along with Washington’s ideas. We feel a scholar is not
a free agent who is paying dues to forces in various places.
Tom Wolfe wrote the Foreword in Popular Culture in a New
Age, and you mention him several times throughout the
text. Tell us about your relationship with your former student and
why he was a good choice to write the Foreword.
I was teaching at Washington and Lee University and met Tom Wolfe.
He was one of my students. Tom was a gifted writer and I recognized
that. He wrote a wonderful term paper for me in which he described
the place as a zoo full of zebras. From the first, he was a very
astute and interesting observer of America. At my behest, he went
to Yale for American Studies. I was able to help him get in. He’s
always said that I shaped him twice. Once at Washington and Lee
and once at Yale. We’ve been in close touch ever since. He’s been
kind enough to do Forewords for some of my books. I count him as
a personal friend.
Some scholars distinguish between an older popular culture or
folk culture and the new popular culture magnified one hundred fold
in the late nineteenth century and twentieth with such mass media
as radio, film, and television, yet you seem to see no line of demarcation
and see popular culture as popular culture—something that has always
existed. You cite the Greeks, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
People who think popular culture is a recent phenomenon forget
that the same problems which beset us beset the Greeks. Really,
the first great writers on popular culture were Plato, Socrates,
and Aristotle. They, like the Greek tragedians, were dealing with
the issues of the hoi polloi. If you go through every culture,
you’ll find that there is a very strong current of the same problems
we meet now: class, race, gender. These problems have always been
there, sometimes more overt, sometimes covert. I maintain, for example,
that the popular culture that came out of the Renaissance was witnessed
and recorded by Shakespeare. No one can read Shakespeare without
marveling at his understanding of the common people, what he called
the “mechanics,” like Wall and Peasblossom. We forget that great
writers have studied, understood, and written about popular culture.
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is pop culture. The great poets
of England were very much aware of it. In the twentieth century,
popular culture took a bad turn when it got into the hands of Hitler,
who used popular culture and the myth of the superior race and the
recreation of German mythology. Many people are using popular culture.
In fact, the very word populus, meaning the people, is the
root of the words “popular culture,” the culture of the people.
Cultus, which means to break the soil, to cultivate the soil,
to go underneath the soil, is what the cultivator or the farmer
does. If you put the people and the breaking of the soil together,
you always get the basic dilemma of humanity: to learn how people
live and how they react.
So you don’t see a distinction with the explosion of mass media
spreading popular culture faster? Everybody wants to buy rainbow
suspenders because Mork is wearing them on Mork & Mindy?
Mass media has changed the setting and given a whole new set of
questions, but when I watch television today, especially the ads,
I see the same issues in cultures of all ages. I see the glamorization
of females, the separation of the races, the great themes of human
nature. Mass media is a portion of popular culture, but only a portion.
Mass media has become so powerful we’ve lost the historical understanding
of pop culture. One of my goals is to teach that you have to understand
the whole history and not just the history of film and television
since the 1950s. I find that my students do little reading and a
lot of work on the computer online. Therefore, they are increasingly
poorly educated because they don’t go back beyond the life of their
father or mother.
Y2K is a metaphor for you.
The problem is that we are moving away from
human intelligence to machine intelligence. For example, my wife
is preparing a book. She came home this morning because her computer
was down--so she can’t work on the book. For centuries, people wrote
good books with pen and pencil, and it’s a shame that if your computer
is down, you’re out of the ball game. When you think of the consequences
of the viruses, it’s incredible that someone in Russia or Africa
can put a virus in your computer and stop it. We’ve got a very unreliable
substitute for the human brain and for the human hand. I’m a great
believer in the hand and mind over the machine.
You note in “Millennium Merrymaking” that Survivor
was the number one rated show. Later in “Sacred Symbols,” you state,
“That is what we are beginning to do, when films are ‘reel’ illusion
and real life is becoming more novel than fiction.” Could you relate
those comments to the new reality show craze?
I don’t think they are reality shows. There’s not much real about
them, They’re obviously dramatized for the audience. Reality shows
are another form of Disneyland. These people are performing on TV.
I don’t think you could go anywhere in the world and have people
call this reality. If you want to see reality, go to the war in
the Congo or go to the war in Iraq. That’s reality. That’s not what
you get on Survivor. It’s sentimental and it’s maudlin and
What isn’t vulgar?
Human thought that reflects humanity--first-rate thinking. My favorite
author is William Faulkner, popular and profound master of Southern
folklore. He knew precisely the people he was writing about—black
and white—how they operated, what they thought. He understood the
poor whites; he understood the masters. He extended this in his
novels; but he never left the sense that he belonged to the people.
You can’t confuse Faulkner with another writer. You certainly can
never take Faulkner out of the South because that was part of his
inheritance. It’s also very interesting that many major writers
of the twentieth century were from the South. Perhaps that has something
to do with the relationship between folklore and popular culture.
In Sacred Symbols, you argue, “Instead of being
on our knees, we find ourselves online. But is that not a new form
of worship?” Can you elaborate on that point?
Consider this: take many people in the working class, now the academic
class. They spend more time at their computer than they do any other
occupation in life. They spend more hours online than they do in
the library, more time at the computer than they do on vacation,
more time at the computer than they do at home. The computer has
the ability to reach out and grab you, surround you and almost ensnare
you. I see these people as being drawn into a net. Once you get
in it, it’s hard to get out. Do you know how many people who are
constantly on the computer have trouble with their wrists and with
their back? It takes a terrible toll on their body; but most of
all what it does is depersonalize people and make the computer the
master when it should be the slave. Recall Neil Postman’s Technopoly.
When the computer says to do this or that, you do it. In other words—I
am your master. I think this is a new form of slavery. It’s also
a new form of one-upmanship. The computer is always one up, and
you’re always one down. That is very dangerous. More and more people
are beginning to realize it. Some scholars have begun to talk about
technopoly, I don’t think anyone would fault technology, but technopoly
comes into affect when the machine controls the people. That may
not be here, but it seems to me it’s coming. When you watched the
war in Iraq, if people took the wrong turn because the computer
told them to, they were captured or killed. Bombs were dropped.
If you hit the wrong house, you don’t kill Saddam Hussein. You kill
his neighbors. A complete dependence on technology leads to technopoly.
A number of writers are beginning to understand this. A strong wave
of “anti-mechanism” thought is developing in the academic world.
There’s also the constant upgrade requirement.
Your technology goes out of date and you have to invest in more
equipment. It’s extremely expensive.
It’s expensive and what do you get when you upgrade? Do you really
get anything different? Your machine goes a little bit faster. It’s
like this so-called smart road between Blacksburg and Roanoke. They’ve
been building a smart road full of ciphers and such. It tells you
how fast you’re going, what the weather’s like, and all the county
goodies, but it’s only saves minutes on a trip to Roanoke. For those
minutes, we’re spending millions of dollars. Now ask yourself, “Is
it worth it? Is it really worth it? Is it a smart road or is it
a gigantic waste of money?” At this time, we are hugely in need
of money for the national debt, to pay for the sheriff, to pay for
school. All these things we need, and we’re putting funds into technopoly.
I think that’s a very dangerous trend.
You name Walt Disney as popular culture’s
Man of the Century—that’s quite a venerable position. Tell us about
Walt Disney is an interesting character. As you know, he was in
World War I as an ambulance driver. He was never particularly well-educated.
He was from a Midwest farm, and he invented Mickey Mouse on a train
going to Kansas City. His wife wanted to name him Mortimer Mouse,
but he chose Mickey Mouse. He had a genius for glamorizing and recreating
the kind of childhood world he knew, which was the all-American
home: patriotic, mainly white, largely sentimental. He made up these
wonderful characters beginning with Mickey Mouse, who’s really a
marvelous character. He’s become a dominant figure around the world.
I guess he’s the best known animal ever created. What Disney did
was to gamble a great deal on animation which was very crude when
he began. If you see his first production, Tugboat Willie,
the figures jerk when they move and so forth. You can hardly see
them. But when you see Snow White, whether or not you like
the story, it’s beautifully animated. Disney improved the whole
art of visual communication from the naïve point it was in when
he was out of the war in 1918 or 1920. In about fifty years, he
revolutionized how we look at the world and especially how we think
about America. We call this the Disneyfication of America. He was
very important in World War II because he did training films for
the Army and Navy and so forth. In effect, he taught soldiers how
to do things because he knew how to animate. He knew how to explain
things very well. He was a genius, although very limited in some
ways. He was very biased against hippies and gays and lesbians and
You mention Harry Potter in “Surprise Attacks.”
We presume the record-making sales of J.K.Rowling’s fifth book Harry
Potter and the Order of the Phoenix don’t surprise you.
No, they don’t. She’s like Walt Disney. She enjoys popularity.
She doesn’t pretend to have any great intellectual insight. She
simply has a keen eye for the obvious and realizes that young people
are fascinated by fictional young people. Harry Potter is Everyman.
Harry Potter is Mickey Mouse in English clothes. I relate her to
Disney and to Mr. Rogers, “Come into my neighborhood.” There’s a
certain type of person who’s able to catch the interior moods of
young people, and older people too. They do it without cluttering
it up with ideology. It’s not capitalism, it’s not existentialism,
it’s not subtle, it’s just a good story, well told, that wins in
the long run. It’s a good story people are telling a hundred years
after it’s made up. It’s not all these harangues and all these political
movements. It’s not about Bush vs Gore or what we’re going to do
about abortion. Those things are important, but they get solved
or they don’t get solved, and we move on. Good stories are what
we need. They are the top row of understanding. They have a certain
You were clearly impacted by Marshall
McLuhan; in “The Electric Shocker” you even deliver a kind of eulogy.
Tell us about his impact on your work.
What he understood was the media would control
the news. I read the other day that eighty percent of the people
get their news from the television, only a small percentage read
the newspaper, and fewer listen to the radio. McLuhan came up with
a wonderful catch phrase: “The medium is the message.” That’s one
of the great insights of the twentieth century. The media control
the message, and by controlling the message they control the people.
He was also able to write in a very amusing manner. He had a great
sense of humor. He was a punster. His Ph.D. dissertation was a series
of puns on James Joyce. He had a fine mind and great insight. He
influenced a number of scholars and writers—a truly original character.
Interestingly enough, he’s fading now. Everybody agrees with him.
We all know the medium is the message, so his idea is not novel
You devote a chapter to “Black Popular
Culture.” Tell us about the decision not to use your zoom lens on
Asian or Hispanic American cultures.
Asian and Hispanic cultures have emerged recently in terms of their
impact on American pop culture. When I was doing my early writing
and publishing, in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, who was looking at those
other cultures? All that has changed now. I’m trying to “zoom in”
on them in my current work.
I taught for six years at Lincoln University, a pioneer black university.
I’ve always been disappointed that white scholars have never been
accepted by some black intellectuals. The Jesse Jackson attitude
and the Al Sharpton attitude implies that the Caucasians can’t understand
the blacks. They may be right. It may be hard for a person who grew
up with the ultimate freedom and money to go to good universities
to understand what life meant to people whose mothers and fathers
were cooks or laborers who never got a shot at a good education.
But all this has changed.
Talk to us about what you call the “media
Arnold Toynbee may be important to a small group of people, the
intellectual élite, the people who are writing history. But he may
not have the effect of a great storyteller. He doesn’t grab public
attention like Harry Potter. We have some very bright people who
are coming along, who are first rate. Most of them go to television,
on Washington Week or CBS news and so forth. I think the
private intellectual, the one that dominated a generation ago, is
not finding a niche in American life the way he once did. Universities
have become “popular” orientated. They get their superstars and
pay them enormous salaries. Even the universities are becoming part
of the media directed world. A man like Howard Mumford Jones is
seldom heard of anymore even though he was a first rate figure;
we can name some others like Eric Susman, who had enormous range
and was highly popular among the historians, or Charles Beard, hugely
important, who defined the entire labor movement. A lot of these
people get lost because we’re in an age in which the élite intellectual
is not so important. The people who are important are Michael Jackson,
Michael Jordan, Tiger, Madonna, and two tennis players, Serena and
One of the great swings in popular culture has been toward athletics.
Do you realize that everybody who plays basketball who is a “star”
is a millionaire? And the best pitcher for the New York Yankees
gets a thousand dollars for every pitch he makes, not every game
he wins? The pendulum is swinging away from the mind to the muscle.
The muscle is taking the place of the mind. That scares me a lot--
especially since my muscles are growing old.
You make an argument in “Global Village—Utopia
Revisited” that rather than a global village we concentrate on a
The term “global village" was invented
by Marshall McLuhan. He was the first to popularize the notion that
we could be everywhere at once. If we try to be everywhere at once,
in the Congo, in Iraq, in North Korea, we make a mess of things.
Globalism won’t succeed because it can’t correct the prejudices,
the misunderstandings, and especially the class warfare. Globalism
will disappear; instead we’ll have regionalism. Regions will be
very strong. A European region will extend from England down to
Italy. An Asian region will be very strong with a few countries
dominating. The whole world will not come along with this idea of
a global village. I don’t think we’re going to make any real progress
with much of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia unfortunately. I
wish we could, but I think the global idea is a utopian dream. Most
utopias look better on paper than they do when you get there.
More than a government push toward globalism,
is it really more of a corporate force? Is it the international
corporations looking for markets that want to reach their tentacles
into Africa and other places?
I think that’s true. The people who stand to
make the great money and achievement out of the global village are,
for example, bankers and the traders in the stock market. We see
what happens when the corporation moves in. Take Nike, the tennis
shoe people. They’re becoming very suspect. They make shoes in South
America or wherever for five or six dollars a pair and sell them
in America for a hundred dollars. The point is the people who do
the real work don’t get the money. The corporation takes the lion’s
share. The scandals of companies like Enron and World Com will be
an important moment in our history. They prove that smart executives
can become millionaires and produce nothing. That’s what happens
when a corporation runs amuck. The collapse of our economy and especially
our stock market in 2001 shows us that the system is flawed. The
stock market is global and look what we got. Three years of depression.
Is popular culture all polluting? All
negative? On page 41, for example, you say, “Our folk heritage has
been cheapened.” The chapter “Style,” as a second example, seems
sarcastic and mocking toward fads, trends, style changes.
All polluting or negative? Absolutely not. I think you have to
add a factor in here that is painful and rather tragic. Namely,
one generation outgrows the last. As you get older, you move from
one age to the other. Shakespeare said it best with his seven ages
of man. If you came from the time I did, a great entertainer would
be Katherine Hepburn or Fred Astaire or John Wayne. If you’re raised
on that and then you look at what you get today—of course, it’s
so different that it’s hard to make the transition. I can remember
hearing my parents talk about their heroes who were English actors
of the 1890s and 1900s. Here we get the culture lag as we move from
one generation to another. I also think many people who make a lot
of money and make a splash are not always talented. They’re just
loud. They wiggle and squiggle and scream. To me that’s not art.
I understand why in many cases Europeans cannot believe the things
we give the golden prizes to. By the way, notice how quickly the
idols change. Where’s Madonna or Michael Jackson now, you know?
That’s why we had this huge outpouring of emotion for Katherine
Hepburn and Bob Hope in 2003 when they died. They excelled for fifty
years; very few do. Time is the factor here. Here today, gone tomorrow.
With my class, I like to use the wonderful line from an old movie:
“I will never forget old what’s his name.”
You use Milne’s Winnie the Pooh as one of your
closing images. Tell us about Pooh and Tigger and popular culture.
Winnie the Pooh has a very strong folklore background—animals that
can talk and know wise things and illuminate life. What Winnie
the Pooh is saying with Tigger is that you have to prepare for
change and you have to bounce back and adapt to the new. I admire
that, but sometimes the bounce goes out and you can’t bounce back.
Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, like Mickey Mouse, won’t die because
they’ve got the folklore background.
As you reflect upon Popular Culture in a New Age in
the wake of September 11th, the war in Afghanistan, and
the war in Iraq, do any revelations or connections come to mind?
You only reference these events briefly in “A Different World.”
We’re all going to be waiting to see the impact of these events,
because they’re very recent in terms of human history; but my feeling
is that they will have enormous and traumatic effects. There are
only two events in American history that rival these events in terms
of shock value. One was, of course, the Civil War, which was a terrible
thing in which over 600,000 people died. The other was the American
Revolution itself. 9-11 changed our whole outlook. It moved us from
an era in which we were protected by two oceans, by our great wealth,
and by our understanding that we were leading the world. We did
not realize that we were so vulnerable that a smart person like
Bin Laden might be able to undo us with our own planes, with our
own weapons. The feat of hitting New York’s twin towers, our two
tallest buildings, sent a shock wave through our country that I
think we’ll never get over. 9-11, as we read it, will be one of
the three or four pivotal moments that woke America up. We found
out that all the things we believed in were under attack, and we
don’t know yet whether or not we can defend them. Just last night
on television, a senator was saying how unprepared we still are
in the event of an attack. If terrorism gets worse, 9-11 might become
the dominant image of the twentieth century.
In this latest book, you truly try to
change the universe. You send out such calls to action as “We must
learn from the past, live in the present, and help shape the future”;
“We must work hard to find both mission and meaning in our tumultuous
time—look for and welcome new views of who we are and who we want
to be”; “They recall Dr. King’s credo that none of us is free until
each of us is free—white, black, brown, red, and yellow; rich and
poor; Protestant, Catholic, gentile, Jew, and Muslim; gay and straight.
This dream, and those who choose to follow it, represents the crowning
achievement and hope of twenty-first-century black popular culture.”
You’re not just an academic, you’re a scholar activist bent on saving
the world. Tell us about that impulse, that calling.
I’m glad I met you because people don’t notice that. Most scholars
are content with studying the way the world is and reporting it
in their books. I come from a family which has produced missionaries,
adventurers, and people going around the world. I still have this
notion that I can change things, that I can make it a better world.
The older you get the more you realize that you’re not going to
change it much. I think scholar activist is a good term, and I am
involved in a lot of movements and organizations I think are good.
Unfortunately, they’re not ones that younger colleagues are a part
of. “I grow old. I grow old. I shall wear my trousers rolled.” I
still think of T.S. Eliot as a great poet, and many of my students
have never heard of him. I’ve had Fulbight grants and traveled the
world at least thirty times, but I don’t think I’ve changed things
much. I hope we can.
I want to close with one of my favorite couplets from English literature,
“Life is a jest and all things show it. I thought so once and now
I know it.” If you can laugh, things aren’t so fearful. If there’s
a will, there’s a way.