“That’s where it all started,” begins Steven Watts, pointing to the bust on his bookshelf. “I was born and grew up in Springfield, Illinois, in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln.” Inspired at such a young age, the MU professor of history pursued his interest in American history. Concerned with the emergence of capitalist culture, Watts’ early research explored ideas about profit, success, and “the shaping of Victorian culture in the 19th century.” About 15 years ago, however, Watts became more interested in modern American history and eventually completed a series of biographies on issues related to consumer capitalism in a culture obsessed with self-fulfillment, entertainment, and leisure.
The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for the visual extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. “I love thinking about what photography means to people. Having grown up with very few photographs in my household, I’ve always been drawn to them,” she admits. It was no surprise, therefore, that West stumbled upon her first book project while scrounging through the bargain bin of an antique store: “I came across all of these old Kodak ads from the turn of the century, and I thought they were amazing. The images were just breathtakingly beautiful. The captions were unlike those we see now in ads. They were much more elaborate, much more descriptive. They addressed the consumer in very interesting, clever ways, and I just fell in love with them.” And at that serendipitous moment, the idea for Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000) was conceived.
A uniquely American art form, jazz grew out of many musical developments around the turn of the last century. What most sets jazz apart from other kinds of music is its complex improvisational content. Percussionist Lloyd Warden suggests that, if done right, jazz can express emotions better than the spoken word. “When you hear Charlie Parker play the alto saxophone or hear Ella Fitzgerald sing,” he explains, “the emotions are condensed and presented in a way that is a lot more accurate than just a conversation, reading a book, or watching a movie.”
“Most people look at Disney as merely a kind of entertainer, as the creator of children’s entertainment,” Watts notes. “What I found really interesting about Disney is that his creations were connected to some very serious historical issues and the American experience.” Likewise, he discovered that the theme park “connects to broader issues and developments as well. In this very creative way,” says Watts, “Disney spun this picture of happiness that was connected to the American way of life and material plenty.”
Watts’ most recent research resulted in a biography of Hugh Hefner—Mr Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream (2008). “Hefner has been a very significant historical figure in American popular culture.” At the front edge of the sexual revolution in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Hefner signified liberation—sexual and otherwise. “In that sense,” explains Watts, “in the 1980s and ‘90s, Hefner became a kind of foil for the Reagan administration; the Meese Commission on pornography went after him very strongly. He became the bogeyman in the age of Reagan.”
Originally specializing in American cultural and intellectual history, Steven Watts’ first books addressed aspects of the American republic in the late 18th and early 19th century. He later became more interested in modern American history and began a series of biographies on issues related to consumer capitalism in a culture obsessed with self-fulfillment, entertainment, and leisure.
Alex Barker wears several different hats. As an anthropological archaeologist, Barker’s research and fieldwork resolves around the Bronze Age of Europe and the late prehistoric period of the American southeast, digging for and studying evidence for social change. Barker also serves as the director of MU’s Museum of Art and Archaeology.
West also works in the field of Victorian Studies, yet even in this regard her work still revolves around visual culture. Recently West researched how Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations was serialized in the American magazine Harper’s Weekly from 1860-1861. Specifically interested in some of the trans-Atlantic issues involved, West considered how an American audience might have read the novel differently from a British audience and how an American illustrator drew decidedly American scenes for the British story. West argues that scholars need to pay more attention “to the places where novels were originally serialized…to look at how the stories were illustrated by different artists, and pay serious attention to those artists as collaborators on the work of the fiction.”
The fact that Nancy M. West finds herself focusing so heavily on the visual in her research and teaching may at first seem to be “a sort of a curious thing,” but for the associate professor of English this fascination for photographs, and especially snapshots, extends all the way back to a childhood devoid of photographs. Traveling to Rochester, New York, home of the George Eastman House, West spent a week digging through boxes of advertisements (both published and unpublished) and documents ranging in date from 1888 to 1932. Her research eventually resulted in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (2000), an interdisciplinary study that examines the advertising campaigns of the Eastman Kodak Company and reveals certain key fascinations in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century American culture.