Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary

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At College-on-the-Hill, all department heads wear academic robes; the full-length, black, sleeveless tunics are puckered at the shoulders. Gladney likes the flourish the robes create when he makes the simple gesture of looking at his watch.

The Hitler department does not have its own building but is located in Centenary Hall; it shares the brick building with the popular culture department, known officially as
“American environments.” The staff of that department is composed primarily of New York transplants: “smart, thuggish, movie-mad, trivia-crazed.” They spend their time here studying the popular culture, things like bubble-gum wrappers and jingles for detergent.

The head of this department is Alfonse Stompanato, a big, glowering man whose prewar soda pop collection is on display in the building. Every teacher in his department is male, rumpled, and shaggy haired. They emit an aura of “pervasive bitterness, suspicion, and intrigue.” Murray Jay Siskind, a former sports writer, is an exception. He is a visiting lecturer on “living icons” and has invited Gladney to lunch today.

Although Siskind likes it here in the small town of Blacksmith and understands that studying movies and even comic books is necessary to study the culture, he is embarrassed that there are full professors in his department whose only reading material is cereal boxes.

He prefers this small-town setting to the heat and entanglements of the city. Everything there is connected to heat and generates even more of it; the heat is palpable and oppressive. He lives in an old boarding house near the insane asylum and is quite comfortable with his rather eccentric fellow boarders. He is happy here and likes being able to avoid complicated relationships with women.

Gladney established a wonderful Hitler program on campus and has made it what he wants it to be. Anyone in the region who mentions the name of Hitler also mentions Gladney in some way as being the unquestioned source of knowledge about the former dictator. College-on-the-Hill has attained international recognition because of the Hitler studies, which is a great achievement. Now Siskind wants to do the same thing with Elvis.

Several days later, Siskind and Gladney drive twenty-two miles to a tourist attraction known as “The Most Photographed Barn in America.” They pass five signs on the way there, and there are forty cars and a tour bus in the parking lot when they arrive.

People with cameras, tripods, telephoto lenses, and other sophisticated equipment are on a little elevated hill so they can get the best picture. The two men watch from a distance and note that the barn has gotten lost in the tourism.

Siskind notices that no one is here to capture an image but to maintain one, and being here is a kind of “spiritual surrender.” Their presence is an unspoken agreement to become part of the “collective perception.” Like all tourism, this is a nearly religious experience. No one can say what the barn was like before because now it is seen only through the aura of signs and pictures. 

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