Today we are pleased to bring back a favorite feature here at AMS::ATX—-5 Questions! Today’s interview introduces you to Dr. James H. Cox, AMS affiliate faculty member in English and author of the forthcoming book, The Red Land to the South: American Indian Writers and Indigenous Mexico.
What has been your favorite project to work on and why?
My most recent project was on American Indian writers who traveled to Mexico and wrote about it and its indigenous population. This was an exciting project because I was thinking about comparative indigeneities, about the way indigeneity is experienced in the United States and Mexico, and how it’s experienced when people are crossing the border as well. I enjoyed it because I was writing about a time period in American Indian writing that has been largely neglected by literature scholars, and overlooked by historians, too. This period falls between the progressive and civil rights eras – it looks like an empty four decades, but the period is actually full of manuscripts and published works that only a few people have studied in depth. The genre diversity within the project is fun as well – I worked with detective novels, worked with plays, which I had never done before, and nonfiction. I was going outside of the more conventional literary genres, reading biographies and memoirs and histories by Native authors.
Additionally, I’ve just started a new project that I’m really stoked about. One of the writers in the American Indians in Mexico project is Lynn Riggs, a Cherokee dramatist who published between 15-20 plays, a book of cowboy songs, and a book of poetry during his life. He wrote about 10 other plays that went unproduced and unpublished. In 1931, he also made an experimental film with a director named James Hughes and with guidance from several fairly well known cinematographers from Hollywood, including Henwar Rodakiewicz. It is a 15 minute film of a day in Santa Fe. When the film was complete, he showed it first to the literary crowd–Alice Corbin Henderson, Spud Johnson–in Santa Fe at that time. It’s a silent movie, and he interspersed it with a poem of his called “Santo Domingo Corn Dance.” There are two dominant images in the film. One is of a huge cross outside a church in Santa Fe, and then there’s a dance by local indigenous people. So I’m going to Santa Fe and the New Mexico historical archives. In particular, I want to know who the dancers are. If the dance in the film is actually the corn dance, then Riggs violated a prohibition against filming it. I suspect it wasn’t, but, if so, I’d like to know how and why Riggs staged it the way he did for the film. I’m also interested in his multicultural conception of Santa Fe at the time: there are Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Anglos, interspersed throughout the entire film; and I’m interested in the images too of the cross and the corn dance and how he’s playing with both of them to convey a sense of the religious identity of this place.
How do you see your work fitting into larger conversations in the academy or contemporary society?
Obviously I find it very easy to talk to people in American Studies and history, and people with interdisciplinary backgrounds in Native American and indigenous studies. My work is also political in the way I’m interested in foregrounding native voices and native material culture. In that regard, it connects directly to public issues such as the debate over Elizabeth Warren’s ancestry. The Chief of the Cherokee Nation just protested Scott Brown’s staff mocking Warren by doing the tomahawk chop and war whoops and that sort of thing. So when I see something like that, it’s directly related to my work and I’ll talk about that in class. It comes down to issues of representation, but representation as it is deeply entangled in public policy and as it shapes the lives of Native people.
What projects, people, and /or things have inspired your work?
The fiction writers that I read are the first inspiration. When I was a graduate student and I read Sherman Alexie and Thomas King for the first time; I thought it was the most compelling and provocative literature I had ever read. It had a sense of urgency that I liked, a sense of urgency that showed how much storytelling and literature matter in our lives. King’s novel Green Grass Running Water is just a brilliant piece of writing – an extraordinary work, a classic of literature in English. In terms of scholarship – you know, I think that I’m inspired by people who do what I want to do better than I could ever do it – particularly literature scholars who work really well with history and culture more broadly speaking. Recent books that come to mind like this are Phillip Round’s Removable Type, which is a study of early American Indian print culture, or Lisa Brooks’ The Common Pot, which is a study of early American Indian writing in the northeast – both of those are two scholars who, because I’m a literature scholar and the text matters to me a little more than everything else, I admire the way that they combine their analyses of texts with discussions of really broad and deep contexts.
Also when I was a graduate student, New Historicism was a new and influential critical practice. It approached texts as objects that circulate throughout a culture in all kinds of fascinating and wonderful ways, a culture that also informs their production and consumption – that was really influential. I remember the most significant critical collection for me as a graduate student was Aram Veeser’s The New Historicism. I never approached books as a critic as if they were isolated from the real world — from economics and race and sexuality and so on — so the approach agreed with me.
What is your background as a scholar and how does this background inform and motivate your current teaching and research?
I always knew this is what I wanted to do. I always thought of myself as someone who studied literature – maybe not a lit scholar but someone who studied literature. My training is primarily in American and British literature and both American and European history – that’s the basis. Even as a graduate student, I didn’t limit myself to one period or one genre or one century. I spent much of my time in the Renaissance, and I took classes in Greek mythology and the history of Western literary criticism and so on. I had classic liberal arts training. So as a Master’s student I was very much a generalist, and I applied to grad school as a Renaissance scholar. It didn’t take me long to decide that wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do.
I hope that I’m one of the last people who wanted to study native literature but had to do it without ever taking a class in it. I had one independent study with a professor at Nebraska, but otherwise, there was a lot of self-training and working with my peers in the graduate program who wanted to do the same thing. We sought people out and asked them what to read, and we went to conferences, and every time a scholar was quoted we wrote her name down, and then we went home and read her book. We did that for years. Eventually that’s what I decided to do. And even after I graduated the training continued – I was probably 6 or 7 years out when I thought I finally could call myself a Native Americanist. I had refrained from doing so because I just didn’t think that I knew enough. But by that point I had enough guidance from mentors, I’d read enough books, went to conferences that focused on Native literature, and I thought, okay, I can speak comfortably in this field now.
What projects would you like to work on in the future?
Well, I’m thinking about a project on American Indian-published periodicals since they reached a broader audience than most of the literary works that I study. They have a kind of political and historical immediacy that I’m interested in – I’m talking about weeklies and monthlies. This summer I spent a week at the Native Press Archives at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and read the National Indian Youth Council’s Americans Before Columbus, for one example. I’ve read some of Rupert Costo’s San Francisco-based Indian Historical Society journal the Indian Historian as well. And Akwesasne Notes, which in its original form was produced by somebody on the Mohawk reservation sitting in his house stapling articles about political events into a new publication – he would staple them all together and then send them out to subscribers. Eventually they hired their own writers and were able to put together their own publication with original writing, but to me it’s an almost heroic endeavor for somebody who felt so strongly about people knowing what was happening at the time.
But I’d also like to take my training in Native American and indigenous studies and look at celebrated non-Native authors such as Philip Roth and Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway. Roth, for example, is thinking about the status of immigrant Jewish families in The Plot Against America at a time during which federal Indian policy was about to swing back towards assimilation after a brief period of reform. In that novel he imagines an alternative history of removal and relocation for Jewish families immediately prior to an actual period of relocation for Native people. Tennessee Williams incorporates native characters into some of his plays in very strange ways, and I hope to work with a colleague on an article about that.
As far as teaching goes, I just started a Hemingway course, which I taught for the first time this summer. I grew up reading Hemingway, so it has been fun to return to him. I would very much like to do a graduate course in native American and Mexican American indigeneity to expand the scope of what I teach and build from what I’m already doing in my research.
If you could describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say?
American Studies is the Antiques Roadshow of the liberal arts.