Featured Guest:
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 under pressure.

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 attacks!)

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 himself.

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 society.

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 other.

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 here.

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 role.

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 UP, 1991).

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 immense basilica.

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 prey.

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

© 2003 Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture