What might we call a field that, as Leo Marx writes, “subject[s] the historical record of the society and culture of the U.S. to a measured, critical assessment”? What is a field that uses intellectual history and as well as literary theory; engagement with politics and economics and popular culture and social theory and religion? Is it a mess or a revolution in scholarship that continues to renew it self. Should we call it American Studies? And have many of us at this blog been studying the machinations of this field because, in the end, we see within it the same elastic, ambiguous, and regenerative promise within it as its originators?
In 2005, the journal American Literary History, ran a discussion about the state of American Studies with three scholars representing, roughly, the three eras of the field. Leo Marx wrote the lead essay describing the history of American Studies in part because his training and career and spanned the life of the field. The second essay came from George Lipsitz, whose career began as Marx’s generation of scholars grappled with changes in academia wrought by the Vietnam War and the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Amy Kaplan contributed the third, entitled “A Call for a Truce,” in which she sought to acknowledge the general contributions of Marx and his colleagues while definitively putting to rest the idea that American Studies is in a state of crisis–or at least the kind of crisis the Marx intimated it might be in.
The exchange had the expected tempo of praise, criticism, and defense–each scholar defending their turf–roughly understood as the original concept of studying America in the singular, to contending with the great transformation of the 1970s that produced many programs with “studies” in their titles, to the present day with its spectrum of theories and peoples. But the issue that forced the most interesting dilemma for this small group was quite simply the name of the field they share; each scholar had to grapple with the “America” that they ostensibly study. Marx made this point most bluntly by recounting a story told to him by Richard Hoggart in 1957:
[Hoggart] recently had met a young Fulbright scholar who identified himself as a teacher of something called American studies. “And what is that?” Hoggart had asked. “An exciting new field of interdisciplinary teaching and research,” he was told. “But what is new about that?” “It combines the study of history and literature.” “In England we’ve been doing that for a long time,” Hoggart protested. “Yes,” said the eager Americanist, “but we look at American society as a whole–the entire culture, at all levels, high and low.” But Hoggart, who was about to publish his groundbreaking study of British working-class culture—The Uses of Literacy (1957)—remained unimpressed. After a moment, in a fit of exasperation, his informant blurted out: “But you don’t understand, I believe in America!”
“That was it!” Hoggart said to me. “Then I did understand.” It was unimaginable, he drily added, that a British scholar would ever be heard saying, “I believe in Britain.”
Marx added that this personal, almost devotional relationship to the subject of “America” was made more complicated by the fact that from the beginning American Studies did not seem to produce a recognizable theory. Marx could not recall any of his illustrious teachers–including F.O. Matthiessen, Perry Miller, Kenneth Murdock, Samuel Eliot Morrison, Ralph Barton Perry, Howard Mumford Jones, and Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.–discussing what made American Studies a unified field. It was, after all, proudly “interdisciplinary.” Marx pointed out that one of the first great books to appear from this emerging field, Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950) did not hint at an “ur” theory for the field in which it was blazing new trails.
In his essay, Lipsitz reminded Marx that the reaction, the turn in American Studies, that began in the 1970s and continues to the present day was not directed so much at an early generation of American Studies scholars, but at how ideological wars over the nation had to influence the epistemological debates about the term “America.”
The challenge that Marx extends to us comes at a crucial time. At this moment in history, the most powerful people influential institutions in our country are waging a calculated and comprehensive cultural campaign about the meaning of America. Disloyalty to their plans and programs becomes equated with disloyalty to the nation. This “America” is an America of white male propertied power, of imperial ambition, of collectivist coercion disguised as the defense of individual freedom. This America proves itself through patriarchal power and military might, not by keeping its political promises.
Lipsitz’s American Studies is a battle over the power to define the meaning of a country, or at least write about those who do battle against interests he identifies as having the power to dictate such debates.
Amy Kaplan essay worked in many registers at once. She defended the proliferation of studies that seem to fracture the “wholeness” of the original American Studies project while wondering if Marx has performed an important service by reminding scholars of their often unacknowledged common point of reference. Kaplan expertly parsed out the difference between “America” the cultural creation and the nation-state called by that name. And she took issue with Marx for failing to defend the young scholars in his field from attacks by those who essentialized critiques of America or the internationalization of American Studies as inherently anti-American. Yet in her conclusion, Kaplan asked a question that circled back the main point of Marx’s meditation on the significant ambiguity of American Studies.
Speaking of belief, I remain intrigued by Marx’s opening anecdote. Why was this scholar embarrassed to admit that he believed in America? Did his personal passion seem antithetical to good scholarship? Did he fear that his belief in a nation smacked of nationalism and seemed naïve to a European emerging from World War II? Marx argues that my generation won’t own up to its disillusionment as his wouldn’t completely acknowledge its belief. But disillusionment presupposes the loss of belief, and I wonder whether he’s onto something.
I am struck by the openly passionate endorsement of seeing American Studies as political project. I am not surprised that political commitments lead to scholarly careers, but in the end, perhaps the lack of a unified or “ur” theory that Marx identified in American Studies reflected not a nostalgia for a unified understanding or faith in America but a lament that, for the most part, American Studies had not gotten much farther than accepting or rejecting that faith. In the end, seeing America as something worth correcting doesn’t suggest what a “reformed” country would look like, but it does suggest communities engaged in the reforming. The passion for studying, critiquing, and grappling with the endlessly messy, fascinating, discouraging, oppressive thing that is America has been renewed in each generation of American Studies scholars. Yet the absence of an “ur” theory has not proven the end of studying America, as much as it has made it difficult to debate why scholars should be committed to that pursuit in the first place.