Posted: December 19, 2007
In April 1980, history professor Daniel Czitrom was en route to his Wall Street job as a management trainee at Morgan Stanley when he opened a letter from the American Historical Association telling him that he had just won its First Books Award for the manuscript that would become the groundbreaking study Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan, which was published in 1982. Now, 25 years, two Chinese translations, and one Spanish version later, Czitrom's book is the subject of a critical forum in the journal Critical Studies in Media Communication. And the history department has scheduled a colloquium on the book to be held on February 6 at 4:15 pm in the Cassani Room of Shattuck Hall, featuring commentary by Eleanor Townsley, associate professor of sociology and gender studies.
Czitrom's book grew out of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and it has been credited with establishing a new historical paradigm for the study of the media. An intellectual history of modern communications, Media and the American Mindexplores the development of three key communications technologies in the United States---the telegraph, movies, and radio--as well as the history of critical approaches to understanding mass communication. The evolution and eventual mass usage of these three technologies share, Czitrom argues, a number of key elements: all three were developed originally by individual entrepreneurs, artists, and/or hobbyists exploring the possibilities of new technologies; all three were seen as having the potential to bring tremendous benefit to humankind by fostering unfettered freedom of communication; and, all three soon fell under corporate control, a development that shaped twentieth-century U.S. culture and history, through, as one example, the explosion of mass entertainment and advertising brought about by the spread of radio broadcasting.
The critical forum underscores the importance of Czitrom's historical approach to understanding media. Sue Curry Jansen, professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College, writes in her essay, "History Matters," that when Czitrom's book first appeared the field of media studies, long dominated by a behavioral science approach, "was indifferent to historical inquiry." According to Jansen, Czitrom's "deeply sourced studies of the history and reception of the telegraph, motion pictures, and radio demonstrate that the distinction between communication and culture eroded steadily during the twentieth century, supporting his thesis that, 'Modern media have become integral to both the conception and reality of culture, especially popular culture.' That is, media have become significant constituents of the American mind. In some sectors of contemporary life such as electoral politics, consumerism, performances of gender identities, sports and leisure, they have become definitive constituents."
In his essay "Reflections on a Well-Worn Book," Peter Simonson, professor of communication at University of Colorado, lauds Media and the American Mind's long staying power as a work of history. Czitrom, he notes, "blended intellectual with social, cultural, and economic history; he kept his eyes on both details and big picture, both past realities and current concerns; and he wrote beautifully, in readily accessible prose that gives one actual pleasure to read."
Divided in two parts, Czitrom's book not only tackles the intertwining of media development and American history, it explores the changing efforts by social theorists to comprehend the impact of modern media. Czitrom traces the high hopes of Progressive-era thinkers such as John Dewey that new media would serve as a solvent for social ills, to the domination, from 1930 to 1960, of behaviorist theorists, to the emergence of radical media theorists in the 1960s and 70's, such as Marshall McLuhan, who saw, in Czitrom's words, "the formal characteristics of communications media as the prime mover behind the historical process, social organizations, and changing sensory awareness."
Since the 1982 publication of his first book, Czitrom has continued to write about mass media and popular culture, American cultural and political history, and the history of New York City. Czitrom's new book, Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York(with Bonnie Yochelson), will be published in February 2008 by the New Press. Supported by a Collaborative Research Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the book offers the first in-depth study of Riis's pioneering documentary photography, as well as a critical reevaluation of Riis's career as a social reformer and journalist.
Czitrom was awarded a 2005-2006 faculty fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for his current book project, Mysteries of the City: Politics, Culture, and New York's Underworld in Turn-of-the-Century America. The book examines the origins, revelations, and legacies of the explosive 1894 Lexow Committee inquiry into the New York Police Department. This sensational investigation revealed how the struggle to control the city's underworld shaped both metropolitan politics and New York's increasingly uneasy relationship to the nation. The story illuminates a cluster of related themes: the persistent anti-urbanism in American culture; the contested meanings of police power; the bipartisan reality of machine politics; the genesis of muckraking and Progressivism; and the origins of the welfare state.