U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What’s the State of American Studies?

USA_nightWhat 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.

10 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fascinating and thought provoking piece. It’s interesting that you’ve blogged about this, because I can’t help but think about the debates among Southern Studies scholars, best seen in the recent book “Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Cultural Studies”. For the author, Jon Smith, the question is where does Southern, and American, Studies go when the American South is becoming a far more diverse place than it’s ever been before?

    As for what you’ve raised here in regards to American Studies, I think your piece shows it not to be in crisis. Instead, it’s just a very diverse field that, at its best, can open up a wide range of analysis and critique of different forms of “America” as an idea.

  2. Back in the 1980s, Michael Denning argued that American Studies was defined by the (ur?) absence of one particular theory: Marxism (“’The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies.” American Quarterly 38.3 (1986)….pdf here)

  3. 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.

    Now it’s the other way around–to “believe” in America is to forfeit one’s claim to objectivity, a “disloyalty” to the prevailing sentiment of the academy at, as Richard Jeni put it, The Fidel Castro Building for the Continuing Study of Why America Sucks.

    Now, certainly the absolute of “my country right or wrong” is an unacceptable sycophancy, but I think one might dare to give it a comparative endorsement–I dunno, The Tocqueville Center for Why America Sucks Less Than Most Other Places.

    Or not, things being what they are.

  4. Thanks for these reflections, Ray. I’m finally getting around to reading Kaplan’s Anarchy of Empire (thanks to K. Perez for reminding me of this book). Could we say that the “integrity” or maybe continuity of AS comes from its interrogation of, not America, but American exceptionalism?

  5. Thanks for the typically considered and interesting comments. My too subtle point in introducing this topic is to suggest that the stuff we often discuss here seems relevant to understanding both the arc of American Studies as a field and the epistemological debate that never seems to be focus of American Studies itself. It seems to me that a significant difference between Marx and younger generations of American Studies scholars is the strength of the pull of present day events on scholarship. Judging just from the essays I cite above, Lipsitz and Kaplan (but especially Lipsitz) see American Studies as field that must respond to contemporary trends as a part of the field’s mission–there is a strong sense of obligation to take up issues of justice or inequality or, as Lipsitz has done, neo-liberalism as a matter of necessity. I don’t know if by doing this American Studies as a field shifts towards social science and away from the historical/literary roots at it origins.

    Thanks for the Denning citation, Ben. Marx praises Denning and perhaps that essay gets at the relationship between the creators of American Studies and their own grappling with radicalism of the 1930s and 1940s–many were self-proclaimed admirers of Niebuhr, and his conflicted relationship with Marxism is well-known.

  6. Robert, do you scholars in Southern Studies take issue with the field of American Studies? I wonder this because my colleague in Copenhagen, Martyn Bone, has straddles both American Studies (he is a dept with that name) and New Southern Studies which is brazenly transnational and, as you say, post-Southern! In other words, did all the other studies programs develop in relation to, or opposition to, or in place of American Studies?

  7. That’s an excellent question. I think more Southern Studies scholars today find themselves straddling that same line. Primarily because, well, it makes a lot of sense. And of course there’s the whole “Southern Exceptionalism” question that constantly pops up. While it drives Southern Studies and Southern historians crazy, it’s one that we can’t quite escape.

  8. Ray, this is a fascinating post. I am not super familiar with the history of American Studies, but its difficulties seem to be similar to those faced by area studies programs. Lacking a theoretical or methodological foundation left interdisciplinary area studies proponents open to criticism from those – particularly in the “hard” social sciences like economics and political science – that area studies could not synthesize their data into workable, convincing arguments. Though area studies has continued to exist since the 1980s when these attacks began, it has suffered under the new rationalized university system which undervalues interdisciplinary study. Do you find these same troubles in American Studies? Do you see American Studies gradually being eroded into traditional humanistic and social scientific disciplines?

    Also, we have talked at length on this blog about how history does and ought to speak to current events. Though there remain some traditional American historians who scoff at this engagement as presentism, there seems to be wide acceptance that good historical scholarship speaks to contemporary problems and events. It seems like history’s expansion into current events would erode the value of American Studies. Are proponents of American Studies threatened by this expansion? Do they welcome it? Do you think that it imperils the viability of American Studies in the long term?

  9. Ray, I’ve been thinking about your post in relation to the Cook article.

    I wonder if the identity crisis of American studies may be due to its early success as a field. With its scope of inquiry including literature, art, popular culture and entertainment, mass communications, etc., American studies took the “cultural turn” before there was such a thing. What was innovative about American studies is now expected of history departments and perhaps even literature departments.

    I noticed that several of “the kids” mentioned by Cook in his essay graduated from American studies programs, and such folks don’t always end up as professors in American studies programs. They may work in traditional disciplines, or they may work in other interdisciplinary programs. In my own interdisciplinary program at UTDallas, I’ve had a few profs who graduated from American studies programs. But if you were to ask them what they “do,” or what they “are” professionally, they would say that they are historians. And they would be right.

    However, recognizing that American Studies programs have acted as a kind of leaven within the historical profession is small consolation if it’s becoming more and more difficult to get undergrads and grad students into the pipeline. The future of American Studies as a field or a major may be more fraught, given the increasingly problematic and sometimes untenable geographic demarcations of the field that are now being reworked — but as a set of approaches, I think it’s in good shape.

  10. The ASA Presidential Address this year by Matthew Frye Jacobson takes on many of these issues, but also adds a solidly concrete reading of the difficulty of American Studies as a field trying to maintain coherence. Jacobson notes that there have recently been two primary schools of ‘doing’ American Studies–paths which have maybe been clarified by the transnational turn but which (if I can interject my own reading) have also always been there, in some fashion.

    One is simply the study of US power–political, military, economic, or cultural. The other has actually been quite influenced by marxism–although it is certainly not always Marxist–and today focuses on neoliberalism (in the past, I think this path has been much more convoluted and not so easily identifiable).

    In this latter path, the US has a starring role, but the two foci are basically pointing in different directions. Jacobson’s exhortation is to try to find better ways of thinking about these two paths or foci in the same projects, and in the same seminars. I, personally, could not agree more–both as a reading of the current state of things, and as a way ahead for the field.

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