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Photo of John Cawelti in a trenchcoat and fedora, like a 1950s private investigator.Solving the Case of the Professor Who Loved Popular Literature

by Debbie J. Gibson

Books line opposing walls of Professor John Cawelti's office on the 12th floor of the Patterson Office Tower. On the sagging time-warped shelves, classics are crowded in with literary criticism and paperbacks. William Faulkner keeps company with Virginia Woolf, Goethe's Faust is wedged between James Joyce and Ralph Ellison, a dog-eared Dante threatens to slip from the top shelf. Photographs, artwork and awards decorate the remaining wall space. In the back of the room are the academic tools of today's scholar—a computer and personal printer.

This is precisely the kind of office you might expect an accomplished English professor and author to inhabit. Scattered among the hundreds of books are more than a few written by the professor himself, and their subject matter is not at all what you would expect.

Cawelti is an expert in what is now known as popular literature. The 70-year-old teacher has spent a lifetime deriving intriguing insights from mysteries, westerns, and horror stories. For years, however, Cawelti's specialty was not an obvious choice. When he began his work, popular literature was considered "sub-literature," of little serious concern, suitable only as entertainment for the masses.

This was particularly true in 1960 when Cawelti received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. Forty years ago Cawelti was all set to follow in his predecessors' footsteps, scrutinizing the works of recognized literary greats and passing this knowledge along to future scholars.

The young professor did just that in fact, beginning his career as an instructor in humanities teaching literature, art, music appreciation, and "Great Books" courses at the University of Chicago. In his spare time, though, Cawelti read for relaxation and found he was more likely to pick up a mystery than a Shakespearean play or Victorian novel. His "downtime" reading habits, like a slow burning fuse, seemed to be moving him toward some quietly explosive realization, and a series of "accidents" would turn that realization into a life-long pursuit.

"In graduate school, I had taken a course in what was then called American Civilization and would now be called American Studies," Cawelti recalls. "The course was a combination of literature and history, so I was already interested in the idea of the cultural significance of literature."

This idea was reflected in Cawelti's first book, Apostles of the Self-Made Man, published in 1968. It examined the changing concept of success in America, particularly the ongoing struggle between conflicting benchmarks of success—financial wealth and power versus self-fulfillment.

"I remember very vividly the hours I spent as a child listening to 'The Lone Ranger' show on the radio three times a week from station WXYZ in Detroit. Though I've long since forgotten what happened on any particular program, I have never forgotten the vigorous clarity of the form itself."—John Cawelti

"I traced the pattern of ideas about success," Cawelti says. "I started in the late 18th century with Benjamin Franklin's ideas and continued into then contemporary works such as The Power of Positive Thinking. My main concern was not the works themselves but how the ideas in those works evolved."

About that time, Cawelti happened upon an essay by a sociologist at the University of Chicago that further whetted his interest in the intersection of popular literature and cultural significance.

"I ran across an essay by a colleague about westerns," Cawelti recalls. "It was the first work I had seen dealing with westerns and society. I thought it was an oversimplification, but it got me thinking."

Cawelti was slowly realizing the importance of popular literature in modern life, and he admits that the seeds of this interest had been sown years before. "I remember very vividly the hours I spent as a child listening to 'The Lone Ranger' show on the radio three times a week from station WXYZ in Detroit," Cawelti says. "Though I've long since forgotten what happened on any particular program, I have never forgotten the vigorous clarity of the form itself."

This genre became the subject of Cawelti's first book, titled The Six-Gun Mystique. This book has been in print since it appeared in 1970 and has gone through two major revisions. The most recent version appeared last year as The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel.

Photo of the cover of Cawelti's book "The Six-gun Mystique Sequel""To my great surprise at the time, my work was greeted with interest and support by my colleagues at the University of Chicago," he says. "I expected them to look down their noses at me, particularly the older professors, but they didn't." The value of what he was doing was further verified when he was invited to the summer home of his colleague Ronald Crane, one of the founders of the Chicago School of Criticism and a distinguished scholar of 18th-century literature.

"When I walked into Crane's summer home, I saw that he had a wall covered with bookshelves, like in his apartment in Chicago," says Cawelti. "But the bookcases of his summer home were not filled with the leather-bound classics found in the Chicago apartment. Instead, they held westerns and detective stories.

"I began to realize then that people were really interested in these forms of literature," Cawelti says. "I began to see them as artistic creations in their own right and wanted to know what makes them good."

Perhaps more importantly, he also found that these forms of literature provide insight into cultural trends. Westerns, for example, deal with the relationship between the characters and the land.

"Our images of America and what it means to be an American are complicated," Cawelti says. "We see these feelings refracted in the western. They reflect our ambivalence about the conquest of the frontier, and, therefore, tend to include a nostalgic look back to what we believe was a simpler era."

Westerns also deal with the clash of cultures, and our discomfort with how this is handled in the western has made it harder for us to see them in their original form, according to Cawelti. The result is two-fold. First, westerns have become much less important than they once were, and, secondly, new westerns are now more likely to be an art form rather than works of popular culture. Cawelti cites the movie "Dances with Wolves" and the Clint Eastwood film "Unforgiven" as examples.

Mysteries, on the other hand, are a replacement for religious myths and can be traced back historically to the Bible. "They deal with transgression and punishment," he says. "These modern stories also offer faith in our power of reason, that there is always a rational explanation and that humans are capable of finding out what it is. They are a dramatization of the scientific method."

Horror stories focus on our attempt to deal with monstrosities, according to Cawelti. "These stories convince us that we are able to overcome even the worst evils and horrors that we might encounter," he says. "They say that human beings will prevail over evil."

One form of popular literature Cawelti has not tried to deal with is the romance novel, but it is not because he thinks the genre is less important. "My daughter is a great lover of the romance novel," he says. "They are very important. More than 50 percent of the books now published are romances."

Mystery, horror, detective novel or western, through all the years of scholarship, Cawelti says his respect for popular literature has increased.

John Cawelti believes that the lines between "serious" and "popular" literature will become more complex. "That can already be seen in the works of writers like Paul Auster, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo."

"I see these works as tremendously important because so many people read them and are influenced by them," he says. "They are not only important as entertainment and relaxation but because they are modern myths. They are reflective of the way in which we see the world and the way in which people want to see the world."

The years have also changed the status of these works in the academic world. Popular culture is now firmly established as a mainstream discipline. In fact, Cawelti was honored as a founding scholar by the Popular Culture Association in 1993 and received an outstanding service award for his contributions to popular culture in 1996.

Young scholars around the world have also taken up the cause, pursuing their particular interests in the cultural implications of modern works. A recent two-page e-mail Cawelti received attests to that fact.

"My name is Martin Weidinger and I am a student of political science and English & American Studies at the University of Vienna/Austria," it begins. "My main reason for writing is to tell you how brilliant I found The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel. I just got my university degree by writing my thesis about gender roles in westerns and the relevance of the image of the man as it is created by the frontier myth in 20th-century American politics and society. The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel offers new perspectives and is miles away from just summarizing already-published books or retelling the contents of the same westerns over and over."

In May, Cawelti will retire from the University of Kentucky, but he will not leave his life's work entirely to young scholars such as Weidinger. He plans to work on an edition of essays for the Bowling Green Popular Press as well as complete a long-term project dealing with images of the South and the West in post-World War II America.

"I have no doubt that popular literature will continue to flourish and to evolve in reaction to changes in our lives," Cawelti says. "I would predict that the lines between traditional genres like the horror story, detective story, romance, and science fiction will progressively blur and that new genres which consist of mixes of these established forms will arise." He cites the example of the popular series "The X-Files," which clearly crosses the line between science fiction, the detective story and the thriller.

"I also would expect that the lines between 'serious' and 'popular' literature will become more complex. That can already be seen in the works of writers like Paul Auster, Thomas Pynchon, and Don DeLillo. I believe that new versions of the traditional genres will continue to be written. In many ways, traditional popular genres are the mythology of our times."