Biographical Statement for James W. Cook

I have taught U.S. history and American Studies at the University of Michigan since 2001. Before that, I spent three years as an Assistant Professor at Butler University in Indianapolis. And before that, my family bounced around a lot: first between California, New York, and Boston, and then to a rust belt town roughly an hour west of Ann Arbor. This last move taught me quite a bit about the long decline of the U.S. auto industry, the complexities of race and class, and above all, the human costs of global capitalism.

Following high school, I moved east to Princeton, which proved to be a somewhat difficult fit (especially during the Reagan years). Still, I was fortunate in my teachers, who introduced me to the “new cultural history” at an early moment in the field’s development. As an undergraduate, I wandered into a series of remarkable courses taught by Robert Darnton, Natalie Zemon Davis, Philip Nord, Anthony Grafton, Michael Jennings, and Daniel Rodgers: courses that suggested entirely new ways of thinking about the philosophy and practice of history. Following a year in Berlin on a Fulbright Fellowship, I worked in the bowels of an ad agency and decided to become an Americanist, in large part, because I wanted to pursue topics more closely related to my 22-year-old passions (from punk rock and college radio to African American modernism). These passions led me to Berkeley for my Ph.D., and there, too, I was very fortunate in my teachers. From my dissertation advisor, Lawrence Levine, I learned to think seriously about historical empathy, the long arcs of the U.S. culture wars, and this elusive thing we call “the popular.” With Waldo Martin and Leon Litwack, I developed a deeper understanding of the African American freedom struggle and taught my first classes in the field. From Margaretta Lovell and Wanda Corn, I learned to think seriously about images and objects. And from Martin Jay, I absorbed a whole host of new conceptual ideas, from the varieties of Neo-Marxism to the history of vision and visuality.

In many respects, my work over the past twenty years is the product of this eclectic background. Roughly speaking, it has fallen into six principal areas:

  • the history of the modern culture industries
  • the interrelation of culture and capitalism
  • African American art, ideas, and politics
  • the history of visuality
  • the struggles around globalization
  • the history of cultural history (i.e., the evolution of the field)

My publications include The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (2001); The Colossal P.T. Barnum Reader (2005); and The Cultural Turn in U.S. History: Past, Present & Future (2008). I have also published articles in the American Historical Review, the Journal of American History, American Quarterly, Common-Place, and Raritan (links to some of these articles are available for download through this website). At present, I am finishing a very large book (to be published by W.W. Norton & Co) on the first waves of African-American artists, writers, and activists to strategize their careers in global markets, roughly 1730 to 1930. I am also working on a collection of conceptual essays, The New Materialism: Between Culture and Economy in U.S. Historiography, to be published by the University of Chicago Press.

At Michigan, I have won prizes for my teaching, including a University Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award (in 2004) and a LSA Excellence in Education Award (in 2005). My current course offerings include:

  • The History of U.S. Mass Culture from Minstrelsy through Hip Hop (History 369)
  • New York Modern: The Cultures of the Great Metropolis (History 365)
  • Black Cultural Traffic: A Global History (History 328)
  • The Civil War Era in U.S. History (History 280)
  • The Politics of Slavery & Anti-Slavery (History 197)
  • Graduate Seminar in U.S. Cultural History (History 686)
  • The Literatures of U.S. History (History 611)

In addition, I have the privilege of facilitating a wonderfully vibrant dissertation group in U.S. cultural & intellectual history, as well as a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop entitled “The New Materialisms Working Group.” For additional information about studying U.S. cultural and intellectual history at Michigan, please contact me directly: jwcook@umich.edu