Featured Guest:
M. Thomas Inge

Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture, we publish an interview, or a conversation, with an outstanding scholar in American Studies. This issue we are featuring Professor M. Thomas Inge, the Robert Emory Blackwell Professor of Humanities at Randolph-Macon College.

Professor Inge is an authority on Southern literature and popular culture, especially comics. He has authored or edited over fifty books including the Handbook of American Popular Culture, the Greenwood Guide to American Popular Culture, Comics as Culture, Perspectives on American Culture: Essays on Humor, Literature, and the Popular Arts, Anything Can Happen in a Comic Strip, The American Comic Book, Comics in the Classroom, Great American Comics, and Charles M. Schulz: Conversations.

Professor Inge helped found the American Humor Studies Association and is currently serving as editor for Studies in American Humor.

You got your Ph.D. at Vanderbilt.

When I arrived at Vanderbilt in 1959, I had read little American literature, and I had no idea that the university had been the site of a major chapter in Southern and American literature.  It was indeed the last days of the Fugitive and the Agrarian legacies, and I soon became aware of this as I took courses with Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and Walter Sullivan, and met or heard lectures by Allan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Andrew Lytle, and the remaining living members of those movements.  Most were kind and thoughtful people, and even though I was at the opposite end of the political spectrum on nearly all issues, I simply talked with them about literature rather than current events. I was fascinated with agrarianism as an idea and co-authored with a colleague two books about Donald Davidson and edited a textbook on Agrarianism in American Literature.  From Davidson’s course on folklore and the ballad, I learned that popular culture could be a more revealing reflector of society than traditional literature.

Who was your mentor during that time?

My mentor was Randall Stewart, the Hawthorne biographer and editor, then recently returned from Brown University to chair the English Department.  He introduced me to George Washington Harris and his tales of Sut Lovingood, and from that engagement came an M.A. thesis, a Ph.D. dissertation, five books, and more than a dozen articles which have made a place for Harris in American literary history. This also opened up the world of humor which would lead to my involvement in establishing the American Humor Studies Association and a lifelong interest in teaching and writing about that most elusive of questions: what makes us laugh?  All of this led as well to an interest in Southern literature and culture and that most Southern of all writers, William Faulkner. But perhaps the pivotal moment came when a visiting writer, an aging but still beautiful and flirtatious Katherine Anne Porter, seductively looked me in the eye and then wrote in my copy of The Leaning Tower and Other Stories, quoting St. Augustine, “It doth make a difference whence cometh a man’s joy.”  It was the literary life for me.

Talk to us more about the “opening up of the world of humor” for you – you are renowned for your scholarly work in the comic arts.  

In high school, I had wanted to be a cartoonist, but I soon discovered that while I might make a competent one, I would never be a Walt Kelly, a Will Eisner, or a Milton Caniff. Most of the important things I had learned about life were from comic books and comic strips, and while I set aside my ambition to draw, I never gave up my love of the form. After finishing my doctorate in English in 1964, my first job out was at Michigan State University in the Department of American Thought and Language, an interdisciplinary program.  I quickly found myself reading more about American history, philosophy, economics, culture, and society than I had ever wanted to know.  It became clear, however, that I was soon equipped to begin to make sense out of my fascination over the comics and to understand the powerful appeal of film and popular culture in general. While I was at Michigan State, I was befriended by Russel Nye, who was then writing his groundbreaking study of popular culture The Unembarrassed Muse, and through him I became involved in the development of the popular culture movement.  I would still rather draw and often say that I am a failed cartoonist who became a professor because I couldn’t do any better.

You were the Resident Scholar in American Studies for the United States Information Service.

That was a dream job come true.  I had already had three senior Fulbright lecturer grants to teach in Salamanca, Spain; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Moscow, then the Soviet Union.  I greatly enjoyed teaching abroad, so when I was offered the opportunity to become the Resident Scholar in American Studies at the U. S. Information Agency (not the CIA please note), now a part of the Department of State, I was set to go. My job was to do diplomatic work on behalf of encouraging students and teachers in other countries to study American history, literature, and culture. To study us is better to understand us I believed and still do. During the two years I held the position, I traveled and lectured in some twenty countries in Europe, Asia, and South America. One never knows what good diplomatic works does, but my efforts did lead to the development of some libraries, the assigning of some Fulbright lecturers, and the production of some exhibitions, as well as a large network of academic friends.  I also edited a few textbooks that were used abroad for many years and received at least one citation for a successful project in Moscow. Whatever good I accomplished, however, I fear has been dismantled by the total collapse of American diplomacy and good will during the present administration.  

Tell us about your experiences with the Handbook of American Popular Culture and the Greenwood Guide to American Popular Culture.

As the field of popular culture expanded almost overnight, and because it was brand new and had no methodology or theory to back it up, a lot of careless and superficial work was being turned out.  One of the reasons for that was the lack of factual data and bibliographic material to support it.  So I set out to provide some of that data and establish some publishing sites for sound and dependable scholarship.  The first Handbook of American Popular Culture, was meant to be just that, a “handbook,” but it soon expanded into a three volume reference work, and then a four-volume revision, and finally the current four-volume Greenwood Guide to American Popular Culture, all well reviewed and pretty much accepted by the library and reference community as a standard work.  Some feel it helped establish the parameters of the field of study, and it received an award from the American Library Association. A part of this program too was the beginning of a series of reference books and bio-bibliographies of figures in popular culture for Greenwood Press, and a series of studies in popular culture with the University Press of Mississippi. All of this activity has been intended to help establish the legitimacy of popular culture in the academy.

You’re most well known within the world of popular culture studies for your work on comics culminating in such books as The American Comic Book, Comics in the Classroom, Comics as Culture, Great American Comics, and Anything Can Happen in a Comic Strip. What do you see as your primary contributions to comics scholarship?

My intention has been to make it clear that the comic strips, comic books, and now graphic novels have always been as significant and important to our culture as all of the other arts, and that they contribute no less to the welfare and happiness of society than do film, painting, literature, drama, or music.  Through my efforts and those of others, the comics are now an accepted field of study and teaching.

What more needs to be done in comics studies?

Lots of reprint editions of the classic comic strips, sound biographies of major artists, and scholarly studies and critical appreciations of  figures, trends, and movements in  comics history – all of which I am pleased to say are appearing on a regular basis from the university presses and commercial publishers.

And lastly, what are you working on now?

More projects than I can live to finish.  I recently published an illustrated biography of William Faulkner (Overlook Press), completed editorial work on The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 9: Literature (University of North Carolina Press), and am co-editing with Ed Piacentino a new anthology of humor of the Old South for the University of Missouri Press.  I am working on a study of the process of adaptation in the films of Walt Disney, an examination of relations between the comics and American literature, and a book about the influence of William Faulkner on world literature, among other things. I continue to edit the American Critical Archives series for Cambridge University Press and two series for the University Press of Mississippi – “Conversations with Comic Artists” and critical studies of “Great Comic Artists.” I have finished three years in a four-year stint as editor of the journal, Studies in American Humor, and I am curating an exhibition for the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond to open next spring on “Poe in the Comics.”  More importantly, I enjoy my teaching more than ever before and have no interest in retiring.  

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