History Descending a Staircase: American Historians and American Culture - Chronicle.com:
Who was Marcel Duchamp, and why did his painting "Nude Descending a Staircase" provoke so much outrage at the Armory Show in 1913? What does George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" have to do with both the Jewish and African-American experience in the United States? Why was Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises so influential for modern fiction and journalism? How did Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, and Billy Wilder, among many other émigré film directors, bring European cinematic styles and ideas to Hollywood? Why was Marlon Brando's performance as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire so revolutionary on stage and ultimately in the movies?
If you are an undergraduate or a graduate student taking a course in 20th-century American history, you are unlikely to find the answers to those questions. They won't even be posed. Nor will the names or the works of the artists, composers, novelists, filmmakers, and actors appear in the lectures or in the books assigned on the reading list. The vast majority of American historians no longer regard American culture — whether high culture or mainstream popular culture — as an essential area of study. The much-vaunted cultural turn in the humanities has run its course in one of the first disciplines it influenced.