U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The nexus of a field

I am happy to share a blogging day with Andy Seal, in part because we also share many an interest in the history of American studies.  This set of posts today is the first in something a series that we will continue in the future. My thanks to Andy!

Academic disciplines stand, at once, above and wholly within the tempers of their times.  We probably take this so much for granted that it rarely makes sense to point it out.  Take political science as an example.  Throughout the 1990s, the field moved decidedly toward its quantitative side as a result of both good work being done in crunching what we now call “big data” and to disengage from the polarizing punditry of political chatter during the heyday of the Culture Wars.  Did political science change fundamentally because of the political climate of the 1990s?  Not really, though its conference line-ups certainly did.  Should we blame the Culture Wars for this shift in conference complexion?  Again, not really, though the temper of the time played a role.

Andy Seal makes a serious and substantial point when he argues “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.”  Rather we would be better off concentrating on the history of the field of American studies than on the era in which that history unfolded to help us determine trends in the field’s scholarship.  It makes sense to remember that the field of American Studies persists within and at times in spite of the era in which its scholars work.

But what about the merging of politics and a field of study?  How should we consider the politics of researching and publishing in a field?  In her 1991 ASA presidential address, Alice Kessler-Harris returned the conversation to a question taken up by the first generation of American Study scholars, what is America?  In recounting the history of American Studies and the intersection of that history with the Culture Wars (something she claimed American Studies had helped foment) she acknowledged the inevitability of this question, observing that the “shift to a new pluralism was accompanied by a simultaneous disavowal of notions of common identity, a fragmentation of any unified meaning of the word ‘American.’”

It seems to me, that Kessler-Harris took up the thorny issue of a relationship between the politics of an era and the production of scholarship. She asked her colleagues to debate how to (not if they should) “position American Studies” in the “great debate” over America. That question had real implications for how the field would treat its practitioners and how those practitioners would relate to each other as they created the next generation of American Studies scholarship. In short, Kessler-Harris made clear that the politics of the day had some effect on the politics of scholarship.

In his notorious 2003 essay on “anti-American Studies” published in the New Republic, Alan Wolfe believed he had found the axis of disenchantment that made American Studies a political and ideological quagmire. He argued that as American Studies moved from “reading Hawthorne to venturing into gay Queens” the field gradually degraded the language through which scholars spoke to each other.  In the decade between Kessler-Harris’s address and Wolfe’s essay, the field had not merely failed to answer “what is America?” it had given up on the idea of America itself, Wolfe contended.  In order to overcome the exceptionalist connotations of the field’s name, contemporary American Studies scholars had reveled in the idea that America did not exist.

But even Wolfe had to acknowledge that his own position, call it anti-anti-American studies, failed to appreciate the vitality of the field and the interest it attracts from students around the world.  The reason for such consistent interest before, during, and after the Culture Wars is that American Studies, from its beginning, engaged a paradox that can animate academic thought like almost nothing else—it plays forthrightly at the nexus of the particular and the universal, it speaks to the individual’s experience (whether that person is Hawthorne or a gay male dancer in Queens) and places that experience in national and (often now) transnational context.

Frankly it is the reason I shifted in graduate school from diplomatic history to U.S. intellectual history.  My mentor, Charlie Alexander, wrote books on critics (check out Here the Country Lies) and baseball players (Ty Cobb), the space program and the age of Eisenhower. That heady mix of high and low, elite and folk, mass, popular and modern, made me think there was an endless list of subjects for books to write.  So, I share Andy’s sense of possibilities that exist within American Studies, while reserving some concern for the politics that shape those possibilities. At its best, American Studies is what Patricia Limerick declared in her 1996 presidential address: “Thanks heavens…for American studies,” she said, “the place of refuge for those who cannot find a home in the more conventional neighborhood, the sanctuary of displaced hearts and minds, the place were no one is fully at ease.  And here is the glory of the ASA: since no one feels fully at ease, no one has the right or the power to make anyone else feel less at ease.”  Let it be so.