Introductory reading

The best way to prepare for an American Studies degree is to read as widely and diversely as possible, to watch US films, to keep an eye open for news items and documentaries dealing with North America, to explore reputable online sites, and participate in cultural activities with an American slant.

Below are some suggestions that will help you expand your awareness of the scope of American Studies before you begin your degree. These are only preliminary suggestions, so do feel free to explore US history, literature, politics and visual culture beyond this list.

Background reading: introductory

Reading one or two of the following general texts would provide a very useful introduction to the subject of American Studies: 

  • Howard Temperley and Christopher Bigsby (eds.), A New Introduction to American Studies (Pearson Education Limited) 
  • Hugh Brogan, The Penguin History of the USA (Penguin)
  • Mick Gidley (ed.), Modern American Culture (Longman)
  • John Belton, American Cinema/American Culture (McGraw-Hill)
  • Eric Foner, Give me Liberty: An American History (Norton)

Background reading: advanced

These texts are not necessarily more difficult than those in the above list, but they each specialise in a particular area (literature, cultural studies, film, social history and intellectual history respectively):

  • Malcolm Bradbury, Modern American Fiction (Oxford)
  • Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler, Keywords for American Cultural Studies (NYU Press)
  • Neil Campbell and Alastair Kean, American Cultural Studies (Routledge)
  • John Hill and Pamela Gibson (eds.), American Cinema and Hollywood (Oxford)
  • William Chafe, The Unfinished Journey (Oxford)
  • Douglas Tallack, Twentieth-Century America (Longman)

Literature

We suggest you read at least two of the following texts, some of which you will encounter directly on the American Studies degree at Leicester, but all of which offer strong indications of the themes of American literature. The first three texts are seen as foundational (or 'canonical') in terms of American Studies, while the following three reflect the diversity of more recent American writing. 

  • F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (Penguin)
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (Penguin)
  • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Penguin)
  • Don Delillo, Libra (Penguin)
  • Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (Picador)
  • Contemporary American Poetry (Penguin)

History

The first two texts below are narrative histories, providing a comprehensive overview. The following four focus on particular themes in American history that appear throughout the American Studies degree at Leicester: women's history, ethnicity, social history and foreign policy. 

  • George Tindall and David Shi, America: A Narrative History (Norton)
  • Paul Boyer et al., The Enduring Vision (Houghton Mifflin)
  • Sara Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America (Free Press)
  • Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (HarperCollins)
  • Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (Longman)
  • Walter LaFeber, The American Age: US Foreign Policy at Home and Abroad, 1750 to the present (Norton)

Politics

The following suggestions provide a useful introduction to the key structures, themes and issues in American politics. The last two texts in particular draw out the complexities and controversies of the American political system.

  • David McKay, American Politics and Society (Blackwell)
  • Robert McKeever and Philip Davies, Politics USA (Longman)
  • Robert Singh, Governing America (Oxford)
  • Thomas Dye, Politics in America (Pearson)
  • Gillian Peele, Developments in American Politics (Oxford)
  • David McKay, Controversies in American Politics and Society (Blackwell)

Film

The following films are historically significant for placing Hollywood within an American Studies context.

  • Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939)
  • Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
  • Rebel without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
  • Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese, 1973)
  • Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
  • Forrest Gump (Robert Zemeckis, 1994)

Cultural activities 

These activities will give you a taster of some of the wider cultural events that feed into an American Studies degree, some of which may involve travel, but all are both enjoyable and educational if you have the time:

  • Read the US news in the International section of a daily broadsheet, or read The New York Times' website
  • Watch a television documentary on an American theme
  • Read an issue of The New Yorker  or New York Review of Books
  • Watch a theatrical production of a Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller play
  • Listen to some jazz music (e.g. Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald)
  • Spend some time looking at American paintings (e.g. at the Tate Modern in London)
  • Watch a film musical (e.g. Show Boat, West Side Story or The Wizard of Oz)
  • Go to a silent film with music (e.g. at the British Film Institute in London, the Phoenix cinema in Leicester or the Broadway cinema in Nottingham)