Scholarly Study of Elvis Has Academia All Shook Up : Learning: Pop culture icons are becoming course topics. Critics say focus belongs on Shakespeare, not soap operas.


The King was dead--on that, at least, the scholars seemed to agree. But there was consensus about little else.

Was the blue-eyed, hip-swiveling crooner more rooted in gospel or country? Was the poor boy from Tupelo consciously turning the world on its head when he strummed his guitar and twitched his leg--or just doing what felt good at the time? Were his 31 feature films mere schlock or veiled political commentary?

These were among many questions considered last month at the University of Mississippi’s first International Conference on Elvis Presley, an unusual gathering that was intended, said one of its organizers, to leave more traditional scholars “all shook up.”


For this was no ordinary gathering of eggheads. In addition to the usual fare--scholarly papers, read aloud--the conference, formally titled “In Search of Elvis: Music, Race, Religion, Art, Performance,” offered the testimony of Elvis impersonators, Elvis-inspired artists, Elvis collectors and Elvis’ relatives.

Over six days and nights, as scholars probed Elvis’ impact on civil rights and the sexual revolution, there was plenty of room left for levity. El Vez, the Mexican Elvis, sang “You Ain’t Nothing but a Chihuahua.” Gene Smith, Elvis’ cousin, told about a pie fight they once had at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

And often, there was meaning in the minutiae. When one scholar exhibited a vial of Elvis’ sweat (“Let his perspiration be an inspiration,” the label read), he proved a point about the power of mass marketing. When another compared Elvis to Jesus, nobody argued--after all, who else in history attracted so many more fans after death than in life?


Taken as a whole, the conference was the latest salvo in a national battle about the nature of scholarship. On campuses nationwide, as humanities professors have begun to teach about everything from soap operas to Tupperware, the very definition of a liberal arts education is up for debate.

Should American popular culture--long the fodder of sociologists--now be included in the teaching of literature, history or art? Those who say yes argue that such a change signals a “democratization” of knowledge, a welcome departure from elitist traditions. But those who say no--and there are many--lament that higher education is becoming hopelessly trivialized.

Hilton Kramer, editor of the neoconservative magazine the New Criterion, has called the increasing presence of popular culture in the classroom a “spirit-destroying menace to the life of the mind itself.”


“Students arrive on college campuses already besotted with the trash of popular culture,” he wrote in one essay, “and it must now be one of the goals of a sound liberal education to wean them away from it.”

John M. Ellis, a founding member of the Assn. of Literary Scholars and Critics, a Southern California-based professional society formed in opposition to what it deems faddish scholarship, agrees.

“The academic world seems to have lost completely any ability to distinguish between foolish pedantry and material with serious content,” said Ellis, a professor of German literature at UC Santa Cruz. “If we start filling our curricula with Elvis, then there will be less time for writers like Shakespeare. . . . Some phenomena are more important than others.”

But how to judge importance? And who gets to decide?


When Bill Ferris, one of the organizers of the Elvis conference, first became director of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture in 1979, several people told him that the term Southern culture was an oxymoron.

That didn’t stop Ferris, a native Mississippian who as a folklore professor at Yale University had made a documentary about a farmer who taught his pigs to pray. Ferris joined with his new colleagues at Ole Miss to create a unique degree program in Southern studies.

They instituted the world’s largest blues music archives. They took advantage of their location in Oxford, the tiny Mississippi town that author William Faulkner called home, to create an annual Faulkner conference that draws scholars from all over the world. They compiled a 1,643-page “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” with entries on everything from good ol’ boys to Goo Goo Clusters, that won widespread acclaim.


A conference on Elvis, who died 18 years ago, seemed like the next logical step, Ferris said--another bold attempt to stretch the traditional boundaries of what it matters to know. But as he and English professor Vernon Chadwick began planning the conference, they encountered skepticism right in their own back yard.

The mayor of Oxford, John Leslie, vetoed the City Council’s decision to provide $7,000 in civic funding to the conference. “It’s just not a very academic thing,” he was quoted as saying.


In time, the council overruled Leslie and the funding was restored. But the mayor’s assessment of what some were beginning to call Elvisian scholarship would soon be echoed by critics across the country.

“They said, ‘What are you gonna do? Sit around and examine the lyrics to “Blue Suede Shoes”?’ ” Chadwick said of the naysayers, a group he calls “the scholar police.” “The whole subject of the Elvis conference exposed prejudices deep-seated in higher education.”

Chadwick, who last year taught a course that compares Melville’s Polynesian novels to Elvis’ Hawaiian movies, contends that the conference was particularly upsetting to traditional scholars because Elvis was a redneck: rural, Southern and dirt poor.

“To come to an Elvis conference would be to not only declare an academic interest in Elvis but to also become associated with the working class, perhaps illiterate, socially gauche,” he said. “Academic interest is not necessarily objective and neutral, but is class- and race-based.”

If his fellow scholars could only get over their snootiness, Chadwick said, they would see that Elvis is not only worthy of study, but is a window through which to view the works of other great artists more clearly.

“Melville is a symbol of American high culture and his novel ‘Moby Dick’ is considered the classic work of American literature. But he benefited from being paired with Elvis Presley because my students actually took an interest in him for the first time,” Chadwick said, referring to his class, which students nicknamed “Melvis.”



Peter Nazareth, too, was looking for relevance. On Day 4 of the conference, the professor of English and African American world studies at the University of Iowa stood at a podium in front of a huge painting of Elvis’ face and cocked his ear toward a throbbing loudspeaker.

“You ain’t nothing but a hound dog,” came the accusing voice, right on cue. “Cryin’ all the time.”

Already, Nazareth had explained to the 100 or so people in the audience that he believed Elvis had infused his songs and movies with double meanings--probably, Nazareth suggested, because Elvis was a twin (his brother Jesse was stillborn).


By decoding Elvis’ hidden messages, Nazareth said he had discovered that the 1968 film “Stay Away, Joe,” in which Elvis plays an American Indian, was really a screed against the Vietnam War. The same tools of deconstruction, when applied to “Hound Dog,” yielded surprising results.

“Elvis is singing about a hound dog--a bloodhound--that pursues the escaped slave on behalf of the master,” Nazareth announced triumphantly as Elvis’ voice trailed off behind him. “Elvis applied all kinds of cunning strategies. You have to read between the lines.”

As he compared Elvis’ work to Daffy Duck cartoons in one breath and to Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo” in the next, Nazareth was a reminder of the biggest obstacle faced by the Elvis conference and by much of popular culture scholarship: It can be so easy to mock.


Even before the conference took place, the media got laughs simply by listing titles of upcoming lectures: “Rednecks,” or “A Hound Dog to the Manor Born.” And yet, to hear some of those speakers was to consider Elvis in a whole new light: as a humble country boy whose love for black music did as much to change 1950s America as the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

Even today, Elvis continues to make a mark, according to Mark Gottdiener, a sociology professor at State University of New York at Buffalo. In his lecture, “Elvis as Sign System,” Gottdiener asserted that Elvis is the most impersonated person on Earth, in part because his look is so recognizable it is easy to copy.

“By donning wig, glasses, jacket and guitar, the sacred Presley objects, if you will, any man, child, woman can become Elvis and command the power of the Presley presence,” said Gottdiener, who admitted to being particularly taken with Elvis’ hair.

“Most Americans could recognize it floating alone on a river, lying on the road [or] flying through the air,” he said. “We would instantly say, ‘Oh, there goes an Elvis wig over the falls,’ or ‘There’s an Elvis wig road kill,’ or ‘Look out, some aliens are flying an Elvis wig.’ ”

“For good or ill,” concluded Tulane University history professor Bill Malone, who delivered a paper on Elvis’ links to country music, “Elvis had a greater impact on the world than William Faulkner.”

Some conference participants admitted that the study of popular subjects at times deserves derision. When faced with a scholarly treatise on the complexities of the song “Fernando” by the rock group Abba, to cite one actual example--well, maybe folks can’t be faulted for rolling their eyes.


But to dismiss such inquiry entirely is a mistake, said UC San Diego ethnic studies professor George Lipsitz.

“Anything can be done badly,” said Lipsitz, who has studied the significance of graffiti and hip-hop music. “We could find many stupid books on Plato. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on Plato.”

There are many routes to intelligence, said Lipsitz, who believes that to help students learn to think, teachers must use whatever means necessary.

“The best popular culture study covers the same topics that Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ covers. They just do it in a different way,” said Lipsitz. “If you’re serious, you’ll get to the same level of inquiry.”

This argument--that it’s not what you study but how you study it--has its roots in a larger debate about the literary canon--a list of authors, most of them dead, white European males--who many in academia believe are essential reading.

For years, scholars have fought over who should and shouldn’t have a place in the canon. Literary critic Harold Bloom, a Yale University humanities professor, even wrote a book about it, “The Western Canon,” in which he rails against the inclusion of such writers as poet Maya Angelou and novelist Alice Walker.


“We are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards . . . in the name of social justice,” Bloom said.

But instead of fighting to win Elvis a spot on the great list of Things Worth Knowing, many Elvis scholars challenge the idea of the canon altogether. Moreover, they reject the idea that books are the only texts worth scrutinizing.

“You can study the Elvis dance performance as a bodily text, or the Elvis costume as a text,” said Chadwick. “You can study the semiotics of Elvis impersonation.”

This stuff tends to drive traditional scholars crazy. Those who will never subscribe to what one calls the “Bob-Dylan-is-just-as-good-as-Keats school” believe that if you cannot say some things are more important to know than others, education suffers because there is no common frame of reference.

But Cheryl Lester, a professor of English and American studies at the University of Kansas, said scholars would do well to brace themselves for more.

“They didn’t know how bad things were going to get,” she said happily as she rode the conference’s bus tour of Elvis’ birthplace. “They just thought they had to worry about the canon. They didn’t realize . . . that pretty soon we were going to be saying, ‘Forget about the dead white guy problem. It’s not books anymore, guys.’ ”


Elvis 101

More than 100 scholars and fans recently gathered at the University of Mississippi for the first International Conference on Elvis Presley. Here is a sampling of what they had to say:


* “Elvis. . . remained to a remarkable extent what he was raised to be: a polite and humble gospel-singing Southern boy, who loved his mama, greasy food, and hanging out with the boys. As we say in the South, he didn’t get above his raising--which is why so many of us who never met him feel as if we’ve known him all our lives.”


Professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

* “Elvis, whose music embodied black rhythms, exuded both spirituality and sexuality. Because he carried this phenomenon into the white world--particularly white teen-agers--he thereby contributed to the sexual revolution. . . . He wasn’t the catalyst for it, but he was certainly a part of it.”


Professor of American studies at the University of Richmond

“He is bigger than a person. He represents a whole cultural practice. In the name of Elvis, tons of money is being made and spent, people’s identities are invested. He’s established a vocabulary that’s still alive. . . .”


Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Kansas

* “Elvis really has become a part of the human psyche. . . . I don’t know of any better doorway or entry point into as many issues that are crucial to the study of culture and the modern world than Elvis Presley. He’s something of a cosmic intersection on the information superhighway. Almost all roads lead to or through Elvis.”


Assistant professor of English at the University of Mississippi

* “Elvis Presley is really a lightning rod for all sorts of educational questions. He is part of a bigger picture that basically says to us that in the classroom we have never really confronted ourselves as Southerners or as Americans. Until we look in the mirror and see the worlds that make us up--and Elvis is a significant part of that--we have not done our jobs as educators.”


Director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and professor of anthropology at the University of Mississippi

* “You say, ‘Why do you have to study Disneyland?’ Well, how about the fact that Disneyland and Disney World are probably the most visited sites in the history of the human race? Why study Elvis? Well, why is it that Elvis is the most impersonated person in the human race? Why study any of these things? Well, the numbers warrant it. Something’s going on.


Professor and chair of sociology at the State University of New York in Buffalo