Seminar: Looking for a Modern Hercules: The Strongman Figure in American and Global Culture
Date: 30 October 2013 

SMLC Seminar

Looking for a Modern Hercules: The Strongman Figure in American and Global Culture

Dr. Simon J. Bronner

Wednesday, October 30, 2013
4:30 to 6:00 pm
Room 4.36, Run Run Shaw Tower, Centennial Campus HKU

The strongman has been a popular culture icon in America since the late nineteenth century when circus and theater performances of feats of strength captured the public imagination. The modern Hercules or Samsons as they were called responded to a crisis of masculinity brought on by fears of industrialism’s consequences. During the twentieth century, health and fitness crazes, sparked by more mythological references such as Charles Atlas who preached a gospel of strength, took hold in America. After the 1970s, in the wake of the women’s movement and Cold War, American media sponsored strongman contests, often with international contestants from Russia, intended to showcase American bodily, and political, power. Against this historical background, twenty-first century contests have globalized further with Asian participants, still poised against American standards of strength. In 2013, for example, the World’s Strongest Man contest was held for the first time in Sanya, China. In this presentation, I analyze the meanings of these contests as symbolic texts in relation to what is perceived in a new crisis of masculinity as a feminized, enervating world.

Prof. Bronner is the founding director of Penn State Harrisburg’s American Studies Doctoral Program and distinguished professor of American studies and folklore. He became editor of the Encyclopedia of American Studies in 2011 and has edited the journals Material Culture and Folklore Historian. He is an award winning teacher and researcher and the author of many books, including Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University (2012), Explaining Traditions: Folk Behavior in Modern Culture (2011), and Killing Tradition: Inside Hunting and Animal Rights Controversies (2008).

Poster: http://www.amstudy.hku.hk/news/images/20131030.pdf






Penn State Harrisburg, School of Humanities, invites applications for a tenure track position as Assistant or Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnic/Gender Studies.  The American Studies program offers the BA, MA and PhD and has an active public outreach component.  The successful candidate will have credentials in ethnicity, gender, race and sexuality.  Teaching assignments may include graduate seminars in Race and Ethnicity, Gender and Culture, Problems in American Studies and American Studies Theory and Method, and undergraduate courses in Ethnic America, African-American Experience, Women in American Society, American Masculinities, American Themes and Eras, and Introduction to American Studies.  Candidates should have college teaching experience, a promising research and publication agenda in American Studies, and a commitment to university service and outreach.  Experience with graduate instruction and advising in an American Studies program is desirable.  Ph.D. in American Studies preferred.  Degree must be in hand by the appointment date.  Please visit our website at http://www.hbg.psu.edu/hum/amst.


The review of applications will begin on October 14, 2013 and continue until the position is filled.  To be considered, please submit a cover letter explaining experience and match with this position, three letters of reference, evidence of teaching effectiveness (e.g. syllabi, course evaluations, peer observations), and a curriculum vitae to: American Studies Search Committee, c/o Mrs. Dorothy Guy, Director of Human Resources, Penn State Harrisburg, Box YAHOO-40338, 777 West Harrisburg Pike, Middletown, PA  17057-4898 or via email at

HBG-HR@LISTS.PSU.EDU.  Employment will require successful completion of background check(s) in accordance with University policies.  Penn State is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity, and the diversity of its workforce.

AMSTD Doctoral Candidate releases book on regional folklore

David J. Puglia

Congratulations to David J. Puglia, doctoral candidate in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg (and my advisee) on the publication of South Central Pennsylvania Legends and Lore with History Press.  The book offers a full history of the region, from the folkways of the Pennsylvania Dutch to the rocky relations between German and English settlers and local tribes. Puglia’s work reveals lore while exploring regional legends like that of the wizard of Cumberland County, the headless ghost that roams the back roads of Schuylkill County, the powwow practitioners of York County, and the Hummelstown hermit lingering in Indian Echo Caverns.

Puglia has worked with the Western Kentucky Folklife Archives, the National Park Service, and the Archives of Pennsylvania Folklife and Ethnography. His research interests include American legend and rumor and folklife ethnography.

Bronner Receives Graduate Teaching Award

Graduate Dean Peter Idowu with Awardee Professor Simon Bronner

Dr. Simon Bronner (right) and Dr. Peter Idowu, assistant dean for graduate studies (left), at the NAGS award ceremony

Dr. Simon Bronner, Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore at Penn State Harrisburg, received the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools (NAGS) Graduate Faculty Teaching Award, “designed to identify excellence and creativity in curriculum development and implementation and graduate education at the master’s and doctoral levels,”  at the organization’s annual meeting, April 12 in New Brunswick, NJ.

 Dr. Bronner’s award is for doctoral level teaching. He has previously been honored for his teaching and program development with the Mary Turpie Prize from the American Studies Association, and the Penn State Harrisburg Provost’s Teaching Award and James Jordan Award for Teaching Excellence.

Chair of the American studies program, Bronner is director of the doctoral program in American studies and and graduate certificate in heritage and museum practice. He teaches a wide range of classes at the graduate and undergraduate levels on topics including: American studies theory and method, popular culture and folklife, culture and aging, Jewish studies, public heritage, and consumer culture.

Bronner, of Harrisburg, is the author or editor of more than 30 books on folklore, the formation of American history and culture, and Jewish studies. He has been invited to speak on his research and to consult other American studies programs across the United States and abroad.

NAGS is one of four regional affiliates of the Council of Graduate Schools. Founded in 1975, it draws membership from eleven states, the District of Columbia, and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec.


The following essay went “live” in the Encyclopedia of American Studies online on August 17, 2012, and is reproduced here with permission. Cite as:

Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), s.v. “American Studies: A Discipline” (by Simon J. Bronner), http://eas-ref.press.jhu.edu/view?aid=809 (accessed August 17, 2012).

Beginning in the 1970s with the rise of a generation of professionals trained in American studies departments and holding American studies degrees, research publications appeared that referred to American studies as a paradigm-driven discipline, and consequently, researchers as Americanists or American studies scholars rather than historians or sociologists. These Americanist labels were at odds with a prevalent organizing “matrix” principle of American studies program formation involving multidepartmental, and therefore multidisciplinary involvement, particularly with literature and history. The “matrix” principle was based upon the notion of American studies as a location for progressive research, a form of area studies, allowing in its flexible domain multiple ways of viewing the same subject–the United States or the Americas–and forging integrated approaches that could be called inter- or transdisciplinary. An alternative view is that American studies is counterdisciplinary because it is problem centered in a reform project of the bureaucratic university and works to break down departmental walls. Nonetheless, the number of departments and independent programs grew to the end of the twentieth century, often with the justification that American studies had its own theories, methods, practices, legacies, and pedagogies that set it apart from other units with disciplinary claims in the university curriculum. As American studies in higher education became a dominant designation for inquiry into the society and culture of the United States, the plural “studies” in the title implied multiple perspectives, although the rendering of “Studies” as a capitalized singular noun suggested that American studies existed as a bounded unit.

By 2008, the departmental or “independent” program model for American studies was the primary curricular structure in American higher education, according to a survey conducted by the American Studies Association (ASA). The report published in the ASA’s newsletter noted that a sign of change to the matrix model, and consequently for the perception of American studies as an educational field, was the replacement of the joint faculty appointment of American studies scholars in another department, or discipline, with the exclusive designation of American studies. The implication was that American studies stood on its own among the different disciplines represented in the university. The report also examined American studies departmental descriptions and found that departments tended to refer to themselves as disciplinary units constituting goals other than forming a mix of multiple perspectives from other disciplines or being embedded within an overarching discipline. In some cases the plural “studies” was replaced with the singular “American Culture,” “American Civilization,” or “American Society” to indicate the focus of disciplinary inquiry. A compromise position was that American studies is an “interdiscipline,” a distinctive hybrid or offspring study that has grown to form its own character between parent disciplines. The assumption in the concept of “interdiscipline” is that the genus of literature and history is still discernible whereas advocates for a discipline of American studies claim emergent methods, purposes, and theories that do not owe to other disciplines.

The argument for a discipline of American studies is that disciplines can be emergent rather than a preexisting pantheon of fields. The label of a discipline implies an independent existence in an organizational unit such as an association or department that constitutes a power base. It also connotes a rigor and background that requires training within that unit. Advocates for conceptualizing American studies as a discipline point out that the rise of the American studies department in the university landscape, a longstanding ASA amid learned societies, and centers, foundations, and institutes devoted to American studies bear out the disciplinary power base of American studies. Other hallmarks of a discipline that relate to American studies include the formation of its own paradigms, theories, concepts, themes, pedagogies, practices, and methods (e.g., democratization, Americanization, nationalism, frontier, transnationalism, consumerism, cultural hegemony, exceptionalism, massification, multiculturalism, empire, colonialism, futurism), or distinctive applications (e.g., myth-symbol, rhetorical analysis, ethnography, cultural criticism, socioanalysis), a distinctive intellectual history with figures identified as American studies scholars (e.g., Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Alan Trachtenberg), a separate bibliography and historiography including foundational texts and standard textbooks and reference works such as Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline (1998), Encyclopedia of American Studies (2001), and American Studies: An Annotated Bibliography (1986), and a community of discourse through journals, book series, listservs, meetings, and institutions bearing the American studies label and implying measures of American studies practice and worth.

Perhaps most important is the idea that American studies practitioners have a sense of their own identity and are aware of the field’s boundaries and characteristics. Toward that end, many departmental descriptions suggested an intellectual purpose for American studies as a discipline to displace the formerly heralded mechanical process of mixing disciplines at the core of American studies work. They frequently mentioned stylistic, organizational tendencies such as an integrative view of “seeing things whole,” “examining the big picture,” or thinking thematically and critically; orientation toward addressing problems, patterns, and issues of American society in “intersectional ways” or “multiple dimensions,” including a variety of nontraditional evidence in visual and material culture; considering the influence, often overlapping, of local, regional, national, and global contexts, particularly in the production of folk and popular expressive cultural forms; an applied project as sociocultural criticism to reform America or convey intellectual perspectives to a wider public and professions in a variety of institutions (e.g., museums and heritage organizations, government, community and cultural agencies, K-12 education, medical, business and legal professions); and a bridge (or the frequently used metaphor of “crossroads”) between, and comparative project of, humanities and social sciences, and sometimes science and technology, focused on a crucial, and complex, geopolitical area of the world.

Paralleling summaries of history as the study of the past and sociology as the analysis of society, many conceptualizations of American studies in a disciplinary perspective emphasize the interpretation of American experience in its totality or the ideas of America at home and abroad. Jay Mechling, Robert Merideth, and David Wilson, faculty members in the Department of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, for example, drew attention in 1973 to coalescing paradigms of American studies in an essay for American Quarterly (the flagship journal of the ASA) by declaring that the academic task of a disciplinary American studies is the analysis of culture with particular attention to American expressive forms and characteristically American “cultural scenes.” Murray Murphey at the University of Pennsylvania echoed this view in an article titled “American Civilization as a Discipline” for American Studies (journal of the Mid-America American Studies Association) in 1999 and underscored an historical element in his definition of American studies covering “American culture, past and present” to separate American studies from anthropology’s cultural concern. Whereas past-focused historians reportedly often are hesitant to predict the future based upon their research, American studies scholars frequently commented on trends and projections. To the objection that slicing off America from the world narrows American studies inquiry, Murphey and others cautioned that the study of American culture is properly a cross-cultural or comparative enterprise. He wrote that American studies provides “a particular case, or set of cases, viewed as instances or components of general cultural processes and systems.” American studies in this view involves inductive research toward the purpose of making generalizable and testable statements. Claiming that American studies deserves disciplinary identification because in its mature state it offers more intellectual coherence than designations of English and history, Murphey proclaimed that “Where the relevant approaches have in common an empirical orientation to the subject and share an understanding of what constitutes explanation, evidence, theory, and confirmation, they can and should be combined into a single more general discipline that can yield a holistic and consistent model of the subject.”

In the twenty-first century, formulations of “transnationalism” or “globalism” include the role or idea of America in the world and extend American studies to rhetorical and cultural uses of America and Americans in international settings. Another paradigmatic move is to diversify the awareness of culture with an American studies project devoted to uncovering the plurality of American society, particularly the ramifications on American identity or identities of social constructions (and their intersection) such as race, ethnicity, religion, community, class, gender, age, region, sexual orientation, disability, and physicality, or the representation and framing of performances and practices in situated everyday and ceremonial lives, landscapes, groups, and settings. Related enterprises in a disciplinary view are to devote American studies to foundational ideas such as citizenship, democracy, individualism, freedom, and mobility. A summative statement of disciplinary practice is that American studies identifies and interprets themes, patterns, trends, behaviors, traditions, and ideas that characterize the United States as a nation, an experience, a rhetoric, and peoples–past, present, and future, at home and abroad (or in counterconceptualizations transcending borders), and in thought and action. In short, as a disciplinary as well as intellectual enterprise, American studies is uniquely constructed to seek an understanding of Americanness.

Simon J. Bronner


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Bronner, Simon J., The ASA Survey of Departments and Programs: Findings and Projections, American Studies Association Newsletter 31, no. 1 (March 2008):11-19.

Bronner, Simon J., ed., Beyond Interdisciplinarity: The New Goals of American Studies Programs, American Studies Association Newsletter 28, no. 1 (March 2005):1-17.

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Dorson, Richard M., The American Studies Type, American Quarterly 31 (1979):368-71.

Fluck, Winfried, Donald E. Pease, and John Carlos Rowe, eds., Re-Framing the Transnational Turn in American Studies (Dartmouth College Press 2011).

Horwitz, Richard P., The American Studies Anthology (Rowman & Littlefield 2001).

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Doctoral Students Win Folklore Society Awards

Two Penn State Harrisburg American Studies doctoral students received awards from the American Folklore Society Oct. 15 at the society’s annual conference in Bloomington, Ind.

Spencer L. Green, of Provo, Utah, received the William Wells Newell Prize for his paper, “Disastrous Alternatives: Boy Scout Disaster Stories and Legends and Imagining the Natural World.” During the conference, Green presented his paper, which was published in the “Children’s Folklore Review.” Green is the second consecutive Penn State Harrisburg student to win the prize, an international competition run annually since 1980.

Amy K. Milligan, of Manheim, Pa., won the Raphael Patai Prize in Jewish Folklore and Ethnologyfor her essay, “Wearing Many Hats: Head-Covering Practices of Orthodox Jewish Women.” As a result of the prize, her essay will be published in the “Jewish Cultural Studies” series by Littman Library of Jewish Civilization in Oxford, England. Milligan is one of two recipients of this year’s endowed award, also an international competition.

Based at Ohio State University, the American Folklore Society is an international association of people who study folklore and seek to broaden its understanding. More than 700 folklorists attend its annual meeting to exchange ideas and to recognize outstanding work.

See http://harrisburg.psu.edu/news/doctoral-students-win-folklore-society-awards

Explaining Traditions and Revisioning Ritual Published

Distinguished Professor of American Studies and Folklore Simon Bronner recently completed two books exploring current developments and philosophies of traditions: “Explaining Traditions: Folk Behavior in Modern Culture,” which he wrote, and “Revisioning Ritual: Jewish Traditions in Transition,” which he edited.

Published by University Press of Kentucky, “Explaining Traditions” discusses why we hold onto tradition, even in an age of mass media. Investigating modern issues, including the appeal of football and the psychology of the Internet, the book asserts the importance of tradition in everyday life.

“[Explaining Traditions] is a landmark study that is distinguished by both its thorough scholarship and its breadth of vision,” said William Ferris, former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Published by Littman (Oxford, England), “Revisioning Ritual” examines how a changing society has led to new religious traditions – especially in Judaism – arising out of the need for belonging in the community. The series of articles, which has been nominated for the National Jewish Book Award, examines a range of rituals – liturgies, holidays, life-cycle events, and political rallies.