U.S. Intellectual History Blog

American Studies and the Culture Wars

From 1998-1999, Janice Radway served as the president of the American Studies Association. In her presidential address, titled “What’s in a Name?” she asked the most direct and potentially destabilizing question a scholar in her position could ask: does what we do, and what we want to do, correspond with the name under which we are doing it?

Because of the radicalness of that question, many observers heard Radway asking not, “Are we studying US culture and society? Or is there something larger, more sinuous, less centripetal that we have in common?” but rather, “How soon can we dump the old-fashioned, celebratory, proudly exceptionalist work that founded the field? When can we wash our hands of our elders?”

It is clear that a Culture Wars frame explains a number of things about speeches like Radway’s 1998 address, or about exchanges like this mesmerizing melee between Frederick Crews and Donald Pease in, respectively, the New York Review of Books and boundary 2 over the spate of revisionist works about the American Renaissance published in the 1980s. But, as I tried to say a few months back, I don’t think a Culture Wars reading of the ‘80s/’90s interactions between the “New Americanists” and their predecessors is going to tell us everything, or even many of the most important things about the development of American Studies as a field over the past 30 years or so.

Radway is, in fact, a perfect case in point. For not only was she a president of the ASA, but so was her dissertation advisor, Russel B. Nye. Nye was an early and important figure in the field, just the ninth to hold the ASA presidency, serving from 1965-1966.[1] He was a prolific writer whose fields of interest and expertise were, shall we say, non-contiguous. I first found him through a 1959 study he wrote on “Midwestern Progressive Politics”—a book written explicitly as a rejoinder to Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform. (Hofstadter, to his credit, gave the book a very positive review in the New York Times.) But he also wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the historian George Bancroft, an inexcusably neglected but ground-breaking history of US popular culture (The Unembarrassed Muse, 1970), and histories of abolitionism, of culture in the early republic, and of nineteenth century American oddballs.

But it was probably Nye’s work on popular culture studies which made the greatest impact, as he was a co-founder of the Popular Culture Association, and his long and distinguished career as a graduate advisor at Michigan State University meant he had a great deal of influence over the choices and interests of a large number of talented and energetic young scholars.

One such was Janice Radway. Radway’s two books, Reading the Romance (1984) and A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire (1997), are among my favorites in American Studies, so I’ve read their acknowledgments rather closely. (Okay, I read all acknowledgments rather closely—don’t we all?) Nye is given a great deal of credit in both books, and even comes up in the body of the text as an obvious inspiration for Radway’s choices of what to study and how to approach the consumers of popular culture—with respect and interest, but also with detachment. But the fullest account of Radway’s relation to Nye and to his work is in this (really enjoyable) minnesota review interview.[2]

But my point is a little more diffuse than the straightforward one that many “New Americanists” had extremely positive and proudly formative relationships with their “old-school” advisors. Instead, what I think we can take away from this little case study is the common way both scholars went about challenging the traditional boundaries of American Studies as a field, and of “America” as an object of study.

Radway’s question, “What’s in a name?” and her discomfort at the boundary-setting work of a field called “American,” can be regarded as just one small skirmish in the Culture Wars, or it can be recognized as an influential nudge toward the transnational turn, a critical presaging of a vital and by now quite mainstream scholarly trend. Radway understood quite well that few US historians or literary critics really thought there were no transnational forces actively shaping US culture and society, but she recognized that these forces were being bracketed in the name of a commitment to a nationally-defined object of study.

Nye similarly knew in his work on popular culture that few historians or literary critics—even in American Studies—would outright deny the complete separation of high culture from popular culture in US society, but he also understood that Americanists in particular had developed many tools for setting this knowledge of these influences to one side, almost studied, but ultimately left behind. Both Radway and Nye asked, why were these forces always almost included in standard accounts—intimated, perhaps, but left alone?

One of Nye’s books is a rather amorphous study of “American civilization” called This Almost Chosen People. While the name belongs to a sort of half-throated nationalist exceptionalism, it can also, I think, be a name for the kind of subjects that practitioners of American Studies have always taken up—the people and stories that are neither in the ash-heap of history nor its penthouse, that are neither canonical nor wholly forgotten, but just kind of passed over. The best American Studies scholarship, I think, locates a position just outside the “approved” topics, forcing us to re-think what is chosen and what is “almost chosen” about our settled narratives, who got cut in the last couple rounds of edits.

That characterization, I recognize, cuts squarely across many people’s ideas about who chooses to do American Studies: I think it’s fair to say that the stereotype of the field is that it is full of trendy and self-consciously cutting-edge topics, and that scholars gravitate to it because of its radical politics as much as anything else.

But I disagree. When someone looks at an ASA conference program and thinks, this is all faddish, or all politically correct, what they’re really doing is misrecognizing how close to the mainstream the recent focuses of American Studies scholarship really are: the current “trendy” subjects of American Studies—queer people of color, sex work, undocumented peoples, people with disabilities—are today’s “almost chosen people,” the people and stories that are still getting left out of the grand narratives but whose pressure on those narratives is felt more and more. Our interest in these people and their stories is not mere fashionableness any more than was Radway’s troubling of the term “American” or Nye’s insistence on the importance of popular culture. No, it’s not faddishness, it’s anticipation.

[1] Both Nye and Radway have spent most of their careers in literature departments, rather than American Studies or American Civilization programs; yet it was the ASA that elected them presidents, that has looked to them as leaders and examples. And I think that rather plain fact suggests a strong continuity across these two generations, a consistency in the way that the field draws in certain kinds of scholars that continues through today.

[2] This influence and inspiration was by no means unusual for Nye; while doing some research on him for this post, I must have run across a dozen or more encomia from former students praising his dedication and kindness as an advisor and pedagogue and his passion and erudition as a researcher and writer. Nye was a scholar who was both important enough for a Festschrift and beloved enough that people were overjoyed to contribute.