Professor Peter C. Rollins
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 studies. This spring 2003
edition, we are featuring Professor Peter C. Rollins, Regents Professor
at Oklahoma State University, who was associate editor of the Journal
of Popular Culture and the Journal of American Culture,
first Vice-President then President for the Popular Culture Association,
and Director of Development for the Popular Culture Association/American
Culture Association. He has published myriad articles and books
including The Columbia University Press Companion to American
History and Film, Television Histories: Shaping Memory in
the Media Age, and Vietnam and Popular Culture. In addition
to being a prolific writer, Professor Rollins has also made many
films, including a three part series Television’s Vietnam
and Will Rogers’ 1920s: A Cowboy’s Guide to the Times which
won first place at the Oklahoma Film Festival, the Bronze Medallion
at the Himisfilm International Film Festival, the Bronze Hugo at
the Chicago Film Festival, the Chris Award at the Columbus Film
Festival, and the CINE Golden Eagle, the highest award for a documentary
film. Indeed, many of you have probably caught Will Rogers’ 1920s
on the Discovery channel or WTBS. Currently, Professor Rollins continues
his activities with the Film and History League, and he is editor-in-chief
of the league’s journal, Film and History.
This spring, we talked to Professor Rollins who, despite
several health concerns, endeavored not only to answer our questions
but to weave entertaining stories about his life into American history
while doing so. As you read on, we think you’ll be reminded that
all great scholars are, first, foremost, and after all, great storytellers.
When you were an undergraduate, you transferred from Dartmouth
to Harvard. Tell us about that decision.
My family has attended Dartmouth College since
the early years of the nineteenth century. Initially, the Rollins
clan came from New Hampshire and Dartmouth was not too far away.
The next stop for the college-bound Rollins men was Harvard Law
School where they prepared to be future Daniel Websters. The lovely
H.H. Richardson-designed chapel on the Dartmouth campus in Hanover,
New Hampshire, is the Rollins Chapel. In the 1920s, when my grandfather,
Daniel A. Rollins, drove his Cadillac North from Brookline, Massachusetts,
to Hanover, he would stop the automobile at a critical point near
the school and say to his family: "Now we are on the sacred
soil of Dartmouth College." That reverence was passed on to
us with great solemnity.
I grew up singing Dartmouth songs and visiting
the Hanover campus for football games during the fall season. My
brother, Philip, was a lead fullback on the football team, so we
had special reason for attending the games during that glorious
season in New England. There was no other choice for me and Dartmouth
was most agreeable, accepting me in the spring of my junior year
in high school under an "early admissions" program.
I loved the courses offered and I loved the library.
My music appreciation courses were particularly informative as was
my experience of singing in the Rollins Chapel Choir. Unfortunately,
the all-male atmosphere at the school fostered a locker room atmosphere:
I have nothing against locker room discussions and language, but
I do have objections to that style carrying over into every other
aspect of campus life—discussions in class, arguments in the dormitories,
even essays written in slang and accepted by professors. On one
occasion, I received a paper back from an anonymous grader in Dartmouth's
"Independent Reading Program" in which I was told to "take
pipe." This comment reflected an anti-intellectual dimension
to campus life—it was not the entire atmosphere, but it used up
a lot of oxygen.
The fraternity system was irritating. I remember
visiting a leading fraternity and picking up a freshman directory.
Each freshman's entry had markings by members of the group; one,
in particular, really disturbed me. A particularly brilliant freshman
from Chicago had the following written over his face: "a shit
head." This was a young man who was a concert pianist, delightful
humorist, and brilliant student. I was repelled.
Finally, the English Department at Dartmouth at
the time was deeply into a "New Criticism" approach to
literature and a number of the professors were fans of the Southern
Agrarians. Literature was studied for its Freudian technical literary
devices and Freudian symbols while the historical contexts for literature
were neglected. Looking back on the history of American literary
criticism, I can now understand that the department was part a broad
reaction against the work of V.L. Parrington and others who emphasized
context over the content of literature. The reaction makes sense
retrospectively, but did not make sense to me at the time.
In the meantime, I met a high school classmate—who
is now a Princeton professor of philosophy—who was enrolled in an
honors program at Harvard, a program called History and Literature.
This program combined literature classes with history and fine arts.
Mark was enthusiastic about the program and he certainly made a
life-changing impression on me. At the end of the sophomore year,
I applied to Harvard (and the History and Literature program) as
a junior and was accepted in that status without having to repeat
or add classes.
History and Literature was a program devised by
Barrett Wendell (1855-1921) to foster an interdisciplinary study
of literature, a real breakthrough at the time; indeed, the study
of American literature was quite an innovation as was Wendell's
ground-breaking book, American Literature (1900). Over time,
the honors program had been subdivided into British, American, and
European components and was a tutorial offering for the last two
years of college—with a comprehensive examination at the end of
the junior year to qualify for the senior experience and senior
essay. (Like others, mine is in the Widener Library catalog for
the world to inspect; it was quite controversial at the time and
caused quite a tempest in the Film & History teapot.)
My first tutor was Michael Weinberg and, in our
first meeting, he told me he was putting me on an intensive program
for the comprehensives. I would take my classes in addition to
the tutorial, but would read 1000 pages per week for the tutorial—although
there were sometimes overlaps. Off we went through the Puritans,
the Jacksonians, the Social Darwinians, the Populists, and, on the
literary side, the Captivity Narratives, the satires of the Connecticut
Wits, the Federalist Papers, the great Romantics, etc. It was an
exciting and strenuous program enhanced by the famous Harvard "Reading
Period" during which a serious student could really turn out
substantive papers based on real research and thought. Along the
way, a few of my essays were read to sophomore classes as objects
for emulation and I wrote a few articles for a newspaper on another
campus—where another high school friend was the literary editor.
My nom de plume was "Smelfungus," the moniker bestowed
upon Smollet by Sterne—which I had encountered as the nom de
plume of Alan Heimert, the scholar who would become my mentor.
In any case, I was enormously busy and enormously happy with this
challenging life of the mind although, concurrently, I was a member
of the Rugby team.
For me the move from Dartmouth College to Harvard
University had been a wonderful and liberating experience. My father
was very disappointed with me and declined to speak to me for months
thereafter, although he did pay the bills without complaint. Looking
back, I admire his attitude; when I asked about applying for scholarships,
he told me that other people needed such support more than I did
and they should have the opportunity to avail themselves of it.
Good for Dad.
After you graduated, you were commissioned a lieutenant in
the Marines and did a tour of duty in Vietnam. Talk to us about
that experience and how it affected you professionally.
While an undergraduate, we were expected to be
ready for the draft or to join a ROTC program of some sort to prepare
for military service in the officer corps. Many chose the various
options, but the Marine Corps Platoon Leader Class was very attractive
to me because it demanded summer service and freed the officer candidates
to be academics during the school year—no military science classes,
no drills, etc. Furthermore, my father, Daniel G. Rollins, Sr.
had been a Marine Officer in World War II while my oldest brother,
Daniel G. Rollins, Jr. had been in the Marines during the Korean
conflict. They had both been proud of their service and that was
a tradition worth pursuing.
In April of my senior year in college, I turned
twenty one; upon graduating in June, I was sworn in as a Marine
officer by my father—who was a notary public and could administer
oaths. The ceremony was serendipitously located within twenty-five
yards of the site of the Boston Tea Party. Dad pinned on my Lieutenant's
bars to the shoulders of my white dress uniform and we went out
to lunch at the most expensive restaurant in Boston.
During previous summers—of 1960 and then of 1962—I
had attended six-week sessions of officer "boot camp"
in Quantico, Virginia. The officer system stressed physical endurance
and strength more than drill and discipline—although we had plenty
of the latter. Long marches along the rolling fire breaks of Virginia
were true tests of physical readiness, especially in the foetid
atmosphere of Virginia in summer. Young men allergic to bees learned
about them in the lush woods and lay on the side of the trail as
we hurried by, trying not to lose interval. Those with an intolerance
for heat collapsed on the trail and had to be carried in litters
to awaiting trucks; in some cases, serious victims of heat stroke
were tossed into plastic tubs of ice water to force their temperatures
down. One particularly grueling march saw 180 members of the company
depart from Camp Upsher and no more than sixty-five return on foot.
As one of those who returned, it was hard not to take pride in surviving
this ultimate Marine Corps test of strength, tenacity, and will.
Our drill sergeants seldom used physical intimidation, but that
option was always available and, sometimes, was employed. It was
the atmosphere of the locker room, alas, but the atmosphere was
appropriate for the mission since we were being trained to endure
more hardship than ordinary people and to function as leaders even
under the worst conditions. During these summers, I qualified as
a Sharpshooter with the M-1 rifle; later, I would score better with
the M-14 and the .45 caliber pistol, earning Expert badges in each
category. (As a left-handed shooter, I had trouble reloading the
M-1 during the rapid-fire portion of the qualifications.) Marksmanship
may seem like a minor detail to civilians, but is enormously important
to Marines, a real sign of excellence—for the obvious reason that
it is a real challenge to go through the qualifications and achieve
either the sharpshooter or expert badges. Again, the goal was grace
The Marine Corps stressed organization, leadership,
and service to others. We were rewarded—by the supervisors and
by our peers—for achievement and excellence. Most of us discovered
that really devoting oneself to a task led to excellence in most
cases. We also learned that errors on our part redounded to confusion,
disillusionment, or death to others. For example, calling in the
grid coordinates of the observer position rather than the position
of the target can yield explosive results. Not knowing that there
is a round in the chamber of your weapon can lead to irrevocable
tragedy among your friends as can excessive fear in combat. The
Marine Corps created an environment of intense pressure and physical
challenge in the training so that anything thereafter was a cake
walk. We were constantly reminded of the challenges of past generations
of Marines and their sacrifices—especially by the World War II and
Korean Veterans who constantly related personal anecdotes about
why we should not walk along the crest of hills, etc. An atmosphere
of destruction bred conscientiousness among those who sought to
lead. (And I am still glad I missed "the Coldest War,"
that war in Korea. How many dark evenings did we practice night
The Marines with whom I served in Vietnam have
all of my admiration and respect. Unlike their cinematic representations,
they were ordinary Americans who did extraordinary things for their
country in a moral and intelligent way. The Marines I served with
are still proud of their service to country and came back to lead
in business and academe. Of course, upon returning home, they found
a country confused about the values and mission of America—the beginnings
of a cultural struggle which persists until this day.
During my service years between 1963 and 1966,
I laid out a reading program for myself with the notion that I would
be going back to Harvard for the History of American Civilization
Program there, a graduate extension of the History and Literature
Program—indeed, with many of the same professors. My project was
to read about eras and to expose myself to books that I would not
study in graduate school; the resulting list led me to Asian and
European history; economics and philosophy; and various schools
of psychology. As the proud owner of The Great Books of the
Western World, a series very popular in the 1960s (and a replacement
of The Harvard Classics), I went from volume to volume.
Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations; Karl Marx's Capital;
Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were on the
list and I had time to savor them for their details and, surprisingly,
their literary style. I even read all kinds of good books by William
James (along with Jonathan Edwards, the greatest mind America has
produced) and Sigmund Freud; in later years, I have found much
amusement in reading Freudian interpretations of literature and
film and comparing their awkward results with the concepts of Freud
In any case, the reading program paid unanticipated
benefits. I took the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in history for
the afternoon session and must have done very well because I was
offered NDEA Title IV fellowships by Harvard and Chicago; my application
reached Berkeley too late to be considered for such largesse. Knowing
the library and the professors made the Harvard choice pretty obvious
to me, and the financial package combining the fellowship, teaching
fees as tutor in the History and Literature Program, plus the G.I.
Bill made graduate school a pretty cushy situation.
Tell us about the ideological climate at Harvard.
Graduate school at Harvard during the late 1960s
and early 1970s was a fascinating experience. Despite what is said
about "Harvard Hates America" and other aspersions, it
can be said without equivocation that the professors I encountered
at Harvard were actually interested and concerned about THE PAST.
They had respect for the past and tried to make us understand the
difficulties of understanding the past on its own terms. For this
reason, they did not try to infuse current political prejudices
and ideologies into our study of the History of American Civilization.
Ideologues may have existed elsewhere on campus and many certainly
arrived later, but people like Perry Miller, Alan Heimert, Kenneth
S. Lynn, Donald Fleming, Conrad Wright, and Joel Porte were genuinely
interested in an interpretation of the past which did justice to
the concerns and interests of the past. So often, today,
the contrasting approach either projects current "methodological
models" on past materials or berates the past for not being
as well-informed and sophisticated as we think we are. Really serious
people today are interested in Theory. As one of the Harvard professors
told me at an American Studies Association meeting years ago, the
interest in theory "absolves them of doing research."
Later, Ray Browne, Founder of the Popular Culture Association, would
tell me that "theory is the hiding place for scoundrels."
In any case, the generation of teachers and models available to
me were not politicians or ideologues manque, but real scholars
passionately committed to the life of the mind. The role could
not have been more exciting and I have been living it ever since.
During your time in graduate school, you also
attended your first meeting of the American Studies Association
and Popular Culture Association. How did those early years contribute
to your professional interests, your professional identity?
As a graduate student, I attended my first professional
meeting in Toledo, Ohio. It was a biennial gathering of the American
Studies Association and the focus was Popular Culture. I was excited
by the event and by the experience of traveling through time and
space in America on an academic mission. The papers were challenging
and some of the sessions strange—due to the unwillingness of people
to talk—but overall, I was impressed by the approach to popular
culture exemplified by so many papers. The very next year, I discovered
that some of the professors in attendance—Ray Browne, Russel Nye,
Tom Towers, Marshall Fishwick—had decided to create an organization
devoted to such studies; the first meeting of the Popular Culture
Association was held the very next year in Toledo and it was at
this meeting that I delivered my very first popular culture paper
on the television series "Victory at Sea."
At this point, I must stand aside and comment on
contemporary events. While in graduate school, I lived in my hometown
of Brookline, Massachusetts, and commuted three times a week to
Cambridge for lectures, seminars, and tutorial sessions. Most often,
I traveled by the "streetcar" system of above surface
and subsurface transportation which I had grown to love as a choir
boy at Trinity Church at Copley Square during my youth. I have
always felt at home on mass transit and use it whenever I can without
fear and without incident—even in foreign countries where it is
occasionally necessary to slap the hand of a pickpocket. In any
case, on the MBTA, I had time to read the New York Times
from cover to cover and the reports from Vietnam disturbed me greatly.
They had little or no relationship with my experience there and
the work of David Halberstam was particularly disturbing. He had
an axe to grind about the war and every "news" article
was shaped by his agenda. I was most disturbed by the disconnect
between what I had seen and experienced and what the New York
Times and the networks were reporting—especially CBS. Fellow
students often questioned me about the war and always walked away
unhappy with the answers they received, answers which did not conform
to the media reports they had seen and believed. The climax of
this problem was reached when a Vice President of a college told
me, during one of my first job interviews, "We don't want your
kind around here." When questioned about his meaning, he said
"You know, baby killers. We don't want your kind around here."
For the first few months after this experience, I was angry but
have since understood that this misguided intellectual was really
my best friend: he launched me on a study of media and popular
culture which continues into the present.
My study of "Victory at Sea" became a
launch pad for scholarly investigations. At the very time when
I was beginning this work, a small journal entitled Film &
History was being created by John E. O'Connor and Martin Jackson.
I met these two pioneers at a New Orleans meeting of the American
Historical Association where I was asked to critique an historical
compilation film by a Dutch filmmaker. Their encouragement led
me to further studies and the die was cast for a lifetime of scholarly
investigation into the impact of film and television on American
In addition, the Popular Culture Association provided
a forum for my work on "Victory at Sea," on Will Rogers,
and on the Vietnam War—not to mention Accuracy in Media. At various
points, I served as Area Chair for Film and was responsible for
the creation of the Areas on Vietnam and Accuracy in Media. Alas,
I later became estranged from the Vietnam Area after four years
due to its mirror reflection of the media version of the war. The
historical studies were recapitulating journalistic reports—the
second time, to my mind, as farce.
In the early 1980s, I served as President of the
PCA and was the national Program Chair for the organization, especially
at the Wichita meeting—where we had the greatest attendance of any
gathering up to that time. Many people think that the study of
popular culture translates into approval of it; quite the contrary,
it is the duty of scholars to identify the deleterious impact of
some examples of the popular arts and to take what I call the hygienic
approach. On the other hand, there is much that is entertaining,
insightful, and beautiful in the popular arts, and we are foolish
to turn up our noses at these virtues of games, films, buildings,
and music. We need to value both Bach and Basie, not one over the
During the 1970s, I founded the Southwest Popular
Culture Association and the organization has grown into an annual
gathering of 700-1000 people per year. I am particularly proud
to have helped to create such areas of study as Motorcycle Culture,
Food and Culture, Popular Religion. While not a devotee of any
of them, I applaud those who investigate the meaning of what ordinary
human beings do and take pleasure from. Such studies have clearly
been in the tradition of Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land,
John William Ward's Jackson: Symbol for an Age, two works
which carry weight among "high culture" scholars, but
should point to the need to study history and culture from the bottom
up. I am eternally grateful for all that Ray Browne and others
did to encourage the work of people like me and I have tried to
nurture young scholars coming along in their spirit—not always successfully,
but always ardently.
You have been at Oklahoma State University (OSU) for your
entire career. Many academics bounce around. Obviously, you found
a nice fit right away.
When I visited the Oklahoma State University campus
in the spring of 1972, I was responding to a call for an American
Studies specialist. Clinton Keeler (Ph.D. in American Studies,
U of Minnesota) was the head of the department, and he wanted some
interdisciplinary emphasis in the curriculum; in addition, what
was called The Will Rogers Project was in need of someone with literary
training to add that dimension to the effort. As it turns out, the
university had been funded by the state legislature to reprint the
entire writings of Will Rogers, and we did so, eventually, achieving
a total of 22 volumes—all of them authenticated, annotated, and
interpreted. This effort constituted half of the job and every
day was a joy.
The Will Rogers Project taught us about middle
America and its frontier heritage. Will Rogers was a brilliant
man who modeled himself after Huckleberry Finn and then set out
to explain a changing American to itself during the first three
decades of the twentieth century, from the perspective of a rural
naif. In addition to the volumes of the writings, my popular culture
interests forced me to look at the films as I was reading the daily
articles, weeklies, and special assignment works of the Oklahoma
savant. Along the way, I produced a book about Rogers and a film
which won a broad spectrum of awards—to include a CINE Golden Eagle,
the highest award for a non-theatrical documentary.
Will Rogers' 1920s launched me as a maker
of historical films and my Television's Vietnam: The Real
Story (SONY, 1985) and Television's Vietnam: The Impact
of Media (SONY, 1986) were shown on PBS and then re-run on WTBS
by Ted Turner. These films gave me an opportunity to have my say
about the disparity between media reports and the realities of Vietnam;
many people contributed to their excellence—too many to mention
Department heads at OSU were very supportive in
my projects, and I am ever grateful for the faith shown in my work
by Clinton Keeler, Gordon Weaver, Jack Crane, Jack Campbell, Edward
Walkiewicz, Jeffrey Walker, and Carol Moder. I am not sure what
it means, but I should point out that my oldest brother, Dan, worked
for the FAA as an electrical engineer for over thirty years and
my brother, Philip, the Dartmouth fullback, served as an elected
official in Massachusetts for over thirty years. It looks as though
there is a reluctance in my family to play the market—hopefully
because we have been doing our best to excel where we were.
In 1989, you earned a Regents Professorship
at OSU—the first the English department ever had.
This topic is hard to address from "inside"
the role. Jack Crane proposed this honorific designation to the
personnel committee, and it passed the recommendation along up the
chain. The Regents Professorship is reconsidered every three years,
and I have earned the confidence of the university each time. Unlike
other schools, OSU does not include a salary increment or special
travel assistance to its Regents Professors in the humanities; we
are asked to bask in the honorific glory of the role, itself.
You were Associate Editor of the Journal of Popular Culture
and the Journal of American Culture and succeeded John O’Connor
as Editor-in-Chief of Film & History: An Interdisciplinary
Journal of Film and Television Studies. What have you learned
and what have you contributed through your experiences as an editor?
Ray Browne founded The Journal of Popular Culture
and the Journal of American Culture to provide outlets for
scholarship in these two areas of study and these journals have
flourished over the years under Ray's leadership and the daily contributions
of Mrs. Pat Browne. It was my pleasure to work with them on these
projects in the capacity as Associate Editor and as someone who
tried to diversify the book review writing to as many members as
possible. The former is edited, today, by Gary Hoppenstand of Michigan
State University and the latter is edited by Kathy Merlock Jackson
of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk, Virginia. I wish them
well in their ventures.
Most of my time in the last seven years has been
devoted to editing Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal
of Film and Television Studies (www.filmandhistory.org).
Founded by John O'Connor and Martin Jackson, this publication was
the very first to take an interest in my media writing and the reinforcement
had the predictable effect of encouraging me to go forward in the
field. John O'Connor set a good example by organizing seminars
at the Museum of Modern Art (with Dan Leab) and mounting panels
at the annual meetings of the American Historical Association.
John edited collections of essays by people who participated in
such events and turned out two pioneering books entitled American
History/American Film and American History/American Television,
both of which are out of print, but are now available on the Film
& History CD-ROMS with a word-searchable feature. (See web
site for details on the CD-ROM Annuals.) John was—and is— a great
friend who loved to fish, to have a beer on occasion, and to tell
stories about the many filmmakers he had met in his capacity as
editor; in addition, he was always willing to share his experiences
in the joy of scholarship.
My goal has been to emulate John's qualities and
activities in my capacity as Editor-in-Chief for Film & History.
We have had panels at the AHA meetings—some covered by C-SPAN, to
include sessions with film critic Michael Medved, cultural analyst
Garry Wills, and filmmaker Ken Burns. (After awhile, I developed
an outfit for C-SPAN appearances, a dark jacket and trouser combination
humorously dubbed "the C-SPAN suit." ) In any case, our
sessions have attracted much attention. At the NYC meeting of AHA
a few years back, we organized a panel discussing Oliver Stone's
Nixon; the panel included Oliver Stone, George McGovern,
and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Some 1200 people attended this televised
event and a second ballroom was opened up with sound piped in from
the session. In these events, Film & History was ably
assisted by Robert Toplin, a member of the Editorial Board and a
leading scholar in the field. In 2000, we conducted our own conference
in California with the topic of "The American Presidency in
Film, TV, and History"; the event was well-attended and spawned
two major anthologies edited by Rollins and O'Connor: The West
Wing: The American Presidency as Television Drama and a second
effort on a broader topic, Hollywood's White House: The American
Presidency in Film and History. Both books appear in late spring
of 2003, and we are delighted by the content, look, and feel of
the volumes. In the fall of 2002, we conducted our second biennial
conference in Kansas City with the topic of "The American West(s)
in Film, TV, and History." This conference has produced a
year's worth of articles for the journal and a book is taking shape.
Our next meeting occurs at the Dolce Center near the Dallas/Fort
Worth airport and will be devoted to "War in Film, TV, and
History." This fall 2004 meeting has attracted a lot of attention,
and we anticipate all kinds of wonderful presentations, discussions,
and resulting publications.
What I have discovered as an editor have been the
following lessons: not enough people subscribe to journals and,
if they subscribe, they often do not read them; scholars should
demand the same attention to detail and word choice that they ask
of their students; it is often the case that a novice in the field
will do a better job—and in a more reasonable time frame—than a
leading scholar. Most of these lessons are negative. On the positive
side, it is delightful to deal with people who are excited about
what they do, and it is a joy to see a publication result that reflects
the work of the scholars, the editor, the associate editor, and
the printer. When everyone is working together, there is cumulative
value to the result. What I have discovered for myself is that
long hours of work can be rewarding and a positive experience if
they are for a good cause; in addition, it is great to see a job
come to a fruitful conclusion with each word hitting the proverbial
target. There must be some link back to the Marine Corps experience:
people working as a team can accomplish great results; concentration
and dedication to achieving a mission can overcome the lethargy
and indifference that characterize much of the world. Finally,
we need to follow the example of good leaders and we also need to
set a good example for others; we need to learn how to be mentored
and then to mentor others when our time arrives to carry out that
So The West Wing and Hollywood’s White
House will be available any day now?
Within the last few weeks, I have received preview
copies of The West Wing and Hollywood's White House.
They are little gems of lasting value that represent the work of
many. I am proud to be associated with them and rewarded for all
the time we expended to get the contents polished and ready for
a sophisticated audience. There is a humorous anecdote to explain
the joys of this activity. Back in 1989, we came out with Hollywood
as Historian (UP of Kentucky and revised in 1998). One of the
essayists wrote at least eight (8) drafts of his article; by the
time it was accepted, he would not talk to me and was, apparently,
an enemy for life. A year or so later and then, again, after five
years, he admitted that he had never written anything which had
received so much attention and praise. The praise rightfully goes
to him for the wisdom and research, but there was a crowded tension
with the editor that brought the best out of him. I treasure the
memory of the swing back this way and hope that it will be true
for the recent contributors to the journal and to our anthologies.
Unlike most academics who only write books, you have made
seven historical films: Film as Art: Frank Capra and the Art
of Editing (1996), The Great Victory of World War II: Oklahoma's
Veterans Remember (1995), Television's Vietnam: The Battle
of Khe Sanh (1992), Dignity and Dependence: New Ways of Escaping
from Poverty (1987), Television's Vietnam: The Impact of
Media (1985), Television's Vietnam: The Real Story (1984),
Will Rogers' 1920s: A Cowboy's Guide to the Times (1976).
Why did you decide to go into filmmaking?
When I was just jumping into film and history scholarship,
I attended an AHA meeting in New York City where John O'Connor and
Martin Jackson (here they are, again) were chairing a Film &
History session on "The Historian as Filmmaker" with
Patrick Griffin as the speaker. Patrick Griffin and Richard Raack
had produced a rough cut of a compilation film entitled Goodbye
Billy: America Goes to War, 1917-1918 (Cadre Films, 1971), a
wonderful and suggestive experiment in which the historians involved
actually made the film and employed film language to get
their message across. The basic thrust of the presentation was
that historians should stop relying on audiovisualists to make historical
productions because the typical filmmaker does not have the feel
for the archival materials or the respect for facts—as opposed to
impact—which is part of the training of academics. Later, in essays
for The History Teacher and Film & History, Griffin
and Raack spelled out an aesthetic and a methodology for filmmaking
by students of culture. These principles have not received the
attention they deserve.
It would be difficult for me to have been more
impressed by what I heard. At the end of the session, I went up
and introduced myself to the organizers and to the speaker. Griffin,
in a model for mentors, communicated with me about his project,
his goals for filmmaking, and mailed me extensive bibliographical
hints and xerox copies of his work. He really set me on a course
toward writing essays with a cinematic pen. Once at Oklahoma State
University and immersed in the extensive documents of image and
sound related to Will Rogers, I asked Griffin and Raack to work
with me on a film about the Oklahoma satirist. They agreed and,
with the help of the National Endowment for the Humanities and released
time from Oklahoma State, I was on my way. The resulting film,
Will Rogers' 1920s purposely restricted itself to the early
period of Rogers' work—with the idea of picking up the Great Depression
role in a sequel. Using recordings from the Will Rogers Memorial,
along with still materials, as well as interviews with members of
his family and those who worked with him in Hollywood, we created
an historical compilation film which won a CINE Golden Eagle, the
highest award for non-theatrical films, as well as a number of lesser
awards—all of them valued, of course. The film sold widely and
we paid back to the NEH every penny it provided for us to make the
film. We also purchased audiovisual materials for the university
with the remaining profits.
The work with Griffin and Raack set me on the filmmaking
course and I have been lucky enough to make subsequent projects.
During the academic year of 1977, I spent two semesters at the National
Humanities Institute at Yale University, an NEH-funded operation
under the supervision of a renaissance man, the famous Maynard Mack.
Mack had a record that was marked by a passion to share Shakespeare
with ordinary people, to include high school audiences. To this
end, he had made films that I had used in my classes; his compilation
on Hamlet is particularly valuable and featured the Yale
University Players to illustrate key points made in the presentation.
One of Mack's goals was to encourage humanists to use media; in
addition, he urged us to bring our message to audiences around New
England. As part of the NHI program, I gave multiple presentations
in Maine, Massachusetts, New York City, and Connecticut as well
as at national meetings of PCA/ACA. In part as a reward for a good-faith
effort, Mack promised to help us obtain funding for a project I
had in mind: a study of the Tet offensive of 1968 as a test case
for media misreporting during the Vietnam war.
David Culbert of Louisiana State U and C. Townsend
Ludington, III ("Lud"), were involved in the research
and interview process. Ludington found a way to fund an ambitious
conference on the Tet Offensive at the University of North Carolina.
Despite an unseasonable spring snow storm, leading journalists (Peter
Braestrup, Charles Mohr), military and diplomatic figures (General
C. Westmoreland, Douglas Pike), and television producers (Robert
Northshield of NBC) along with eminent scholars on the subject (among
them Lawrence Lichty) attended this meeting where panels and talks
were conducted; after major sessions, Culbert and I interviewed
the participants, getting the essence of their message on film with
the help of a hard-working film crew from OSU. With funding from
the Rockefeller Foundation, we went on to purchase large quantities
of footage from the U.S. Marine Corps and the National Archives.
We conducted further interviews and had camera coverage of combat
art by Marines, subjective records of life in the combat zone preserved
in the U.S. Marine Corps Museum in Washington, DC. A year later,
Culbert traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma where we rented a news studio
and he served as an excellent on-camera narrator for the film with
an urban skyline behind him as we used the devices of television
news to critique television news. When completed, the film was
entitled Television's Vietnam: The Impact of Visual Images
(1983) and lasted a "short" two and a half hours. The
goal of the film was to compare/contrast news reports from Vietnam
with memories of soldiers, marines, and diplomats. For me, it was
an opportunity to critique the misleading reports of the 1960s and
1970s while paying homage to the fine Marines who served their country
and its flag.
Not much attention was paid to our production until
a copy was rented from the OSU AV Center by someone who pirated
a copy and sent it to Reed Irvine at Accuracy in Media in Washington,
DC. Irvine and his staff, especially Bernie Yoh, loved the production
and shared their enthusiasm with me. Concurrently, PBS (through
WGBH, Boston) had produced a thirteen-part series entitled Vietnam:
A Television History (1983) and this series had stirred up phone
calls from veterans and émigrés angry about the distortions of the
series—especially the white washing of Communist leaders such as
Ho Chi Minh and the denigration of the American fighting man. Many
who called Irvine (correctly) predicted that the series would be
purchased by school systems after the broadcast run; indeed, the
series had three broadcasts (i.e. thirteen programs shown three
times) and then became very popular in the classroom. During the
very first call, I told Irvine that what was needed was a two-part
series: the first show would be devoted to a comparison/contrast
of the series with the historical truth of experienced people from
Vietnam; the second show could get into the issues addressed by
my two and a half hour work. In preparation for the effort, AIM
announced a two-day conference at a downtown Washington hotel and
started to search for funding.
The conference, like the one organized by Townsend
Ludington ("Lud") for the earlier project, brought to
our door diplomats, boat people, veterans, and government figures.
After public sessions, these figures came upstairs to our cameras
and shared their views in more personalized interviews. Afterward,
I traveled to various points of the nation to collect needed archival
materials. In a generous offer, the President of ABC gave us free
access (costs only) to his archive, a major contribution to our
efforts. (He had given PBS access on the same basis and felt duty-bound
to do the same for us.) The resulting programs, each an hour in
length, became very controversial even in the production stage;
for example, when the Chairman of the NEH gave us thirty-five thousand
from his discretionary fund, and then PBS offered to show the programs,
a number of television critics took umbrage and attacked Bruce Christensen,
President of PBS, for "caving in to political pressure."
Until muzzled by the President of WGBH, the producer of the PBS
series did everything possible to feed these fires of discontent.
In 1985, the first program, entitled Television's Vietnam: The
Real Story, was aired and received a lot of critical attention.
Tom Shales of the Washington Post had little good to say
about the show, but the New York Times review by John Corry
was quite positive. In 1986, Television's Vietnam: The Impact
of Media aired and later was picked up by Ted Turner for WTBS
where it was broadcast on three occasions. That our on-camera narrator
was Charlton Heston attracted further attention to the programs;
he was a joy to work with and, like a true professional, was very
solicitous to my goals as the director of the programs. (He often
asked me to call him "Chuck," to which I answered "You
bet, Mr. Heston.") Both programs were picked up by SONY Video
and BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO was given an exclusive sales agreement. A
number of articles have been written by me on the production and
reception of these programs and can be found in my Vietnam in
Popular Culture (Haworth Press, 2004), a collection of my scholarly
work on Vietnam, but also a source for the scripts of both programs.
Unless something dramatic happens in the next few
years, the Vietnam programs will stand as my most important work
as a filmmaker. It would be hard for me to over-stress the joy
in having delivered my message in such a way to so many people and
with all of the right production values. Anyone using the PBS series
in the classroom should introduce our programs for discussion purposes.
There are even essays available on how to do so, including a thoughtful
one by Tom Slater in chapter fourteen of Inventing Vietnam: The
War in Film and Television (editor Michael Anderegg. Temple
Not only are you very productive in your research life, you
have also been known as an excellent teacher and mentor. Tell us
about your relationship with your students.
I do not like to hear people talk about their teaching
skills; the information is always self-serving.
It is always my goal to improve the language sensitivities
of undergraduates: I require that every student show me a copy of
the Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (eleventh edition) or an equivalent;
every class in film begins with training in film language. Students
are urged to rewrite exams for two extra points, etc.
I have had good graduate students and "bad"
graduate students. My most important goal has been to get them
to professional meetings, get them published, and—as a result—get
them jobs. We have an excellent track record in the employment
stage; after they obtain their first job, they must build a career.
I will help them, but they must be diligent and productive and deserve
the collegial support.
Some scholars are still skeptical about the study of American popular
culture as a serious discipline. Why do you think that is so and
why would you disagree?
From the earliest days of study in the History
and Literature program at Harvard University, I was told that I
should be interested in both "high culture" and "low
culture." I internalized that lesson in 1961 and have been
guided by it ever since. For reasons having to do with an inherent
snobbery by some academics, there is the false belief that the study
of popular culture is the same as an endorsement of it. While leaders
like my mentor Ray Browne seem to say as much from time to time,
it has always been my belief that we study culture—high or low—to
understand the human spirit. As far back as Mozart, even "high
culture" artists have realized the potential of popular forms
and have reveled in the use of popular language, music, and folklore
in their work; true scholars can do no less.
Coming close to home, I am a great believer in
the virtues of such studies as Perry Miller's The Puritan Mind
(two volumes), but one of the most exciting books in my early days
was J.W. Ward's Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age (1962),
a study which looked at popular music, cartoons, and political rhetoric
to define the meaning of a major figure in the early age of democracy.
Yet A.M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s Age of Jackson offers another
layer of insight into the times, one which includes the works of
"high culture." We should tap all available sources to
understand an era. My undergraduate honors essay was on Orestes
Brownson, a high culture figure and my dissertation was on Benjamin
Whorf, a linguist. Incidentally, while visiting the Notre Dame University
campus for a Vietnam-related conference in 1988, I had the opportunity
to pray over Brownson’s burial stone in the crypt chapel of the
I have nothing against high culture and am pretty
much a cultural snob in my private tastes. This element stems,
in part, from singing professionally in the Trinity Church choir
for four years as a child while attending the Boston Symphony regularly
with my father who, although a lawyer, had aspired to be a composer
in the impressionist style and to study style with Nadia Boulanger
in Paris. (The Great Depression got in the way.) These are personal
prejudices and choices which I can easily separate from my studies
as a scholar interested in American culture—with particular interest
in media and the impact of film and television on history.
What projects are you working on right now?
As of 2003, I am sixty-one years of age and not
in the best health. My left hip was replaced three years ago.
I experienced a heart attack two years ago and have changed my lifestyle,
to include my work habits. I exercise for forty-five to sixty minutes
per day, sleep for one hour each day, and try to make up the lost
time by working into the evening. Of course, I worked all day prior
to these catastrophes, but have decided to become my own project—sort
of like the challenge at the rifle range in the Marine Corps. I
find consolation and peace in my religious faith—a faith rekindled
by a wonderful Episcopal church out here in the Keystone Lake area
just west of Tulsa. My study overlooks eight miles of lake; during
the winter months, eagles glide by along the shore in search of
While I thought I was dying in the Stillwater Medical Center, I
made a list of priorities for the future. At the top of the list
were our cat and Susan Rollins, my very special wife. Down the
list was Film & History and Film and History League events.
I drew a line and chose to drop all below the line—which meant the
PCA/ACA activities and editorial tasks, leadership roles in veterans
organizations, and various editorial boards and honorific titles.
These moves may be selfish, but they are prudent and I have assumed
the role of "Mr. Moderation" and remind people daily about
the various activities not permitted to the new, Moderate Me.
Back to Top