7/18/2014 Peter Durantine

Prize-Winning Scholar Reflects on Writing and Teaching About American Culture

  • Franklin & Marshall College Professor David Schuyler earned the Herbert H. Lehman Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in New York from the New York Academy of History at Columbia University for his 2012 book Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820-1909. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

For 35 years, Professor David Schuyler has challenged his Franklin & Marshall College students to view the subjects of culture and history from multiple perspectives.

He takes that same approach as a researcher and writer, a scholarly method that has earned Schuyler the Herbert H. Lehman Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in New York from the New York Academy of History at Columbia University, his alma mater. The honor recognizes Schuyler's 2012 book Sanctified Landscape: Writers, Artists, and the Hudson River Valley, 1820-1909, and is the third prize the volume has won.

Named for the governor who served the Empire State in the 1930s and early 1940s, the award aligns with the New York Academy’s mission to "promote and honor outstanding historical research and writing." The academy's director, Kenneth Jackson, presented the award this spring at a dinner at Manhattan's Century Club.  

"It's especially touching because he was co-director of my dissertation and has been a close friend for many years," Schuyler said of Jackson. "It was great to share that moment with him."

Schuyler, F&M's Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and American Studies and a founding trustee of the academy, is a native of the Hudson Valley city of Newburgh, N.Y. He grew up on tales of the subjects of his book: Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, writer Washington Irving, and landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing.

  • The medal given to recipients of the Herbert H. Lehman Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in New York. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

"Many have written of these figures, but Mr. Schuyler brings them to life in engaging ways and with fresh insights," reads the Lehman Prize citation. "He never loses sight of the fact that these artists and writers not only rendered the Hudson River Valley for generations of Americans but also shaped their perception of it."

Schuyler remains committed to the Empire State's most prominent river region, serving on preservation boards as well as on the Hudson River Valley Review editorial board.

In a recurring feature called "Three Questions," Schuyler discusses the valley's significance to the United States, why landscape histories matter, and the evolution of teaching and learning in F&M's American Studies program.

Why is the Hudson Valley an important place in American history and culture?

It's important for many reasons. It was a key to the American Revolution. The British in 1777 tried to capture the Hudson Valley to separate New England from the rest of the colonies in rebellion. And the Hudson Valley is a place that helped establish a sense of national identity. It was in the Hudson Valley that the first building in the United States was preserved for its historic significance, Washington's Headquarters in Newburgh. The Hudson River became, in many ways, synonymous with the beginnings of American national identity.

At the same time, in the second quarter of the 19th century, the Hudson River Valley became home to the first American school of art, landscape painting, the so-called Hudson River School. The Hudson River School painters established the Hudson as the iconic American landscape, and in so doing, artists and writers sanctified the valley through its history and through its scenery. Thomas Cole, the first painter of the Hudson River School, painted the American landscape as he saw it -- in some ways, as he wanted it to be -- not necessarily as it was. But Cole really was the first to establish landscape painting as the American tradition in the fine arts.

One of the things that I argue is that Cole saw social change and economic development as having a negative impact on the American landscape. He used his pencil and his pen, in his “Essay on American Scenery” (1835), to try to wake Americans up to the fact that we needed to preserve, protect and appreciate the beauty of the American landscape.

Why are landscape, or urban, histories so important now?

At the time Thomas Cole was working in the 1830s and 40s, and as Hudson River School artists such as Asher Durand and Frederic Church painted in the ensuing years, they were living through the fastest rate of urban growth in American history. It's also a time when steam-powered industrial technology takes off, so these are the forces leading to environmental change. Cole and his fellow Hudson River School painters were at the forefront of trying to convince Americans that the landscape was sacred in its own right.

How has teaching the humanities and American Studies changed in the years since you began at F&M in 1979?

When I first started teaching, I was the sole person in American studies, then we brought Louise Stevenson on, and our focus was on 19th-century American culture. Since then, we've hired Carla Willard to teach African-American studies; we've hired Alison Kibler to teach women's and gender studies, and Dennis Deslippe to teach ethnicity. So the curriculum has changed dramatically.

So has what we teach in our courses. If you look at my “Introduction to American Studies” syllabus today and you look at what I was doing 10 years ago, you would say, “Wow, this doesn't even look like the same course.” We've incorporated a lot more race, class, gender, and ethnicity into the curriculum, and we've moved it forward well into the 20th century. Alison, in particular, has really built an international basis for teaching American studies.

What we tell our students is that American Studies offers multiple perspectives on the development of the United States. What they see and what they learn in our classes is not the same as they would learn in a history textbook. We teach our students to read carefully, to think clearly and critically, and to write effectively. That's our goal, and we do so by bringing to bear multiple perspectives on the American past, and present. That's the key to what we do.  

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