September 1989

Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies

University of lowa

Scanned, copy-edited, spell-checked, and tagged by Julie K. Rose, The University of Virginia, 11/13/95.

Linda K. Kerber is May Brodbeck Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of History, University of lowa. "Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies" was delivered on October 27, 1988 at the American Studies Association conference in Miami Beach.

THE KEYNOTE ADDRESS IS NOT A LONG TRADITION IN THE ASA; NOR HAS it always been given by the president. Even on those occasions when it is offered by presidents, the American Studies Association has not been content to leave them to their own devices. Presidents (I can reveal to you) get very strict instructions. We are reminded, for example, that most presidential addresses in most organizations are deadly dull. We are told that dullness often results from letting presidents speak about anything that pleases them. We are instructed not to speak about our own research in self-indulgent papers which, if submitted to the program committee, would never have been permitted on the program at all. Unlike the practice of other organizations, our president is to offer a keynote address, linked to the theme of the convention, and in that way constrained by the choices of the Program Committee. Our presidents are not free to be self-indulgent.

When, however, the 1988 Program Committee, chaired by Jane De Hart and Jose Limon, chose the theme of our convention "The Intersection of Race, Class, Gender, and Ethnicity in the Study of American Culture," they freed me to be selfindulgent. Indeed, I feel something like Susan B. Anthony on a December day in the mid1870s. She was on a speaking tour in lowa, and had come by train to Cedar Rapids, and then been taken by sleigh to Vinton, a small town several miles to the north where she had been invited to speak on temperance. To the large audience that packed the church where the meeting was held, she confessed that she had left her notes for the temperance speech back at her hotel in Cedar Rapids. If they would be patient, he could send the sleigh back to Cedar Rapids for the text, and, in a couple of hours, she would deliver what she had promised. "Or," she offered, "I could speak ex tempore on The Woman Question." So can I.

The theme frees me to be selfindulgent in other ways as well; to speak of the intersection of race, class, gender, and ethnicity in the study of American Culture is to speak, necessarily, of the transformation of the field in my own working lifetime. I date my introduction to American Studies not with my first formal American Studies course, but with the very first class I had on my very first day of college, for I was lucky enough to find myself in freshman English taught by John Kouwenhoven at Barnard College. My children have grown up in an academic family in an academic town, and for them, I fear, books are something academics produce like orthodontists produce straightened teeth and engineers bridges, but for me there was something magical in being in the presence of a person whose work actually appeared in print. And John Kouwenhoven, who had been for some years an editor of Harper's Magazine, not only took it for granted that good writing would of course be published, but was himself at the center of the definition of the field of American Studies in the 1950s. Only two months before I met him Harper's had run his dazzling—and now classic—essay, "What's 'American' About America?"1 His work has lasted. This year, the Johns Hopkins University Press published a new edition of the 1961 collection of his essays, The Beer Can By the Highway: Essays on What's 'American' About America, with a new introduction by Ralph Ellison. John Kouwenhoven is now eighty years old, and simple arithmetic is enough to establish that when I first encountered him in 1956 (when I, sixteen years old and just out of high school, thought he was a terribly elderly man), he was in fact fortyeight—which is, it turns put, exactly my age today. One does not need to be a student of kabbala to suspect that this concatenation of numbers is telling you something. I am going to take it as a signal to reflect on what has happened to American Studies in the years since I first encountered it; that is, to reflect on American Studies from my own vantage point. The published title of this talk gives my conclusion away, for what I have observed in the last thirty years is indeed the transformation of American Studies by considerations of diversity, particularly diversity of race and of gender. These considerations were not clearly articulated in the American Civilization Program and the texts I encountered 1956, but they certainly were there, had I only had the wit to see them.

Since I was a girl (and in the fifties we were decidedly girls), at a woman's college, The Woman Question was necessarily integral to the experiences I was about to have. And Ralph Ellison's willingness to write a foreword to the new edition of Kouenhoven's book is a signal that issues of race were also lurking in the background.


In the 1950s there was an inchoate but pervasive sense that American Civilization was an exciting place to be. Buoyed by my professors' sense that we were striking out in fresh directions, I had no idea that the merger of American history and American literature programs actually reached back to the 1930s, when the first American Civilization courses were offered at Yale, George Washington, Harvard, Pennsylvania, and Smith. I did not discover until my junior year that the term "Civilization" was largely a defensive one, a term that had buttressed American literary scholars against Anglophiles and Francophiles in the academy. "Why," Robert Spiller remembered asking in the 1920s, "should we have a history that the British think of as a dark chapter in the story of the British Empire; . . . [a] literature that is a debasement of a noble AngloSaxon heritage?"2 The program I entered did not feel at all defensive to me. It set before us an intriguing mix of projects—projects which I can now see were typically American Studies projects in their experimentation, their impatience with disciplinary boundaries—involving not only poetry and prose but architecture and art history, technology and design, Freud and Krazy Kat. A practical side soon became clear; at a time when virtually every other major was organized in a lockstep series of courses and requirements, American Civilization offered students enormous freedom to construct their own curricula. Nowadays as area studies, global studies, AfricanAmerican studies, and other programs flourish, it is important to remember that it was the American Civilization programs of the 1940s and 1950s which first surrendered to undergraduates substantial power for innovation in the planning of a personal academic career. To read now the 1950 American Council of Learned Societies national review of American Studies programs is to be reminded of how unusual was the wideranging freedom they afforded for interdisciplinary work in the academy. The report said: "American Studies have helped extend the horizons of independent disciplines by opening new fields—folklore, American art, and American music are cases in point—relatively neglected hitherto by specialists.... American Studies are potentially capable of a twofold synthesis: (1) a synthesis of disciplines— history, literature, philosophy, the fine arts other than literature, sociology, social psychology, political science, economics, geography, or any other pertinent subject; (2) a synthesis of past and present.... [In a context in which] the humanities more frequently drawing upon history and the social sciences upon the contemporaneous." American Studies had the potential to encourage the humanities to connect to the present (the word "relevant" would wait for the 1960s) and to give the social sciences a sense of their own history.3

If the original defensiveness of the 1930s had slipped out of American Civilization, however, another variant of defensiveness had slipped in. Innocent that I was, I could not tell that one of the reasons that American civilization was perceived as the exciting place to be in the 1950s was that here was a lot of money going into it. The money coming to Barnard, Princeton, and other institutions was from the Rockefeller and other foundations to establish and sustain the programs. I did not then understand myself to be living in a postwar, cold war world, where American Civilization was one of the ways of making a defensive claim for Our Side against theirs. This sensibility had developed readily enough out of wartime realities. In the (British) Journal of American Studies not very long ago, Marcus Cunliffe wrote movingly of how, after the war, it had been natural for European intellectuals of his generation to turn toward America:

. . . my exact generation . . . took it as axiomatic that Britain, the Commonwealth and Russia could not have won the war without the United States. We knew how vast and omnipresent the American contribution had been . . . We had driven in American vehicles and fired American guns. I had seen Flying Fortresses spiral into formation at dawn over East Anglia, and come back in midafternoon from their daylight raids singly, sometimes in dire trouble, barely able to clear the hedgerows. I had seen the American dead in Normandy.... Cheered by the Marshall Plan ... we did not agonize over the apportionment of blame for the onset of the Cold War . . . We were therefore, for the most part, ready to accept the tenets of ''consensus" scholarship in the 1950s, according to which the wartime arsenal of democracy had . . . continued its transition from "innocence'' to mature "responsibility.''4

American mobilization against fascism had intellectual as well as military dimensions; a flood of books written during the war dealt in one way or another with the relationship between democracy and American culture. In the efforts reinforce national will, Philip Gleason has written, "World War II . . . gave great prominence to the ideological dimension of American identity . . . and forged a link between the democratic ideology and the idea of culture it became central to the American Studies approach."5 The postwar curriculum would lean heavily on books published during the war which highlighted—some explicitly, some implicitly—the contrast between the democratic society that defended the free world, and the Nazi threat: Ralph H. Gabriel's The Course of American Democratic Thought (1940); F.O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance (1941); Merle Curti's Growth of American Thought (1943); Alice Felt Tyler's Freedom's Ferment (1945) Reinhold Niebhur's The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (1944); and Constance Rourke's The Roots of American Culture (1942).6

A cold war agenda also underlay much of the American Civilization curriculum, and it involved the strident validation of American exceptionalism. The organizing analytical question of the 1950s was "What's American about America?" Its answer, brilliantly framed by John Kouwenhoven, stressed interchangeable and endlessly extendable modular structures, as were found in an infinitely amendable Constitution, an expandable grid town plan, the poetic forms of Walt Whitman (as contrasted to the sonnet) or the musical forms of jazz (as compared to the sonata). To approach American culture in this way, however, was necessarily to drain it of political content or political responsibility. To search for American culture in processes that had shape but not closure was necessarily not to search for power, for hierarchy or for structure.7

To understand American culture this way was congruent with an insistence that America was a classless society characterized by a high degree of consensus and a low level of conflict.8 The search for a distinctively American "national character" led down what we can now see were many blind alleys, and tainted otherwise generous spirits with chauvinism. This agenda was invisible to me, and had I been told that there was a connection between that agenda and the willingness of foundations to support the growth of this field, I would not have understood.


In the nostalgic mood in which I anticipated this evening, I settled down to read an assortment of chronicles and analyses of the American Studies movement in America. (There have been many of these, because American Studies has been a "field in crisis" at least since I have known it; a field in permanent redefinition of its subject and itself.) In accounts of the 1950s the point is invariably made that the field I entered was marked by one classic text: Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land published in 1950.9

From that point there develops the description of the Myth and Symbol school, marked especially by R. W. B. Lewis's American Adam (1955), John William Ward's Andrew Jackson: Symbol for An Age (1955), and Leo Marx's Machine in the Garden (1964). These titles reappear over and over, like a mantra, and those who in our own time wring their hands in despair about the condition of American Studies are likely to mourn the demise of the Myth and Symbol school and the passing of the days when it was possible to "know" of what American Studies consisted.

Now, there is much that is simplistic about this memory, not least that these books, while having some elements in common, are also quite different from one another. Some of them are too recent to have figured in my college curriculum, but the other day I hunted up my Junior Readings book reviews, written every other week for Annette Baxter, and discovered that we didn't read a single one of the Great Texts that are now understood to have shaped the conversation of American Studies in those days. We read Henry Adams and Henry James, Tocqueville and Denis Brogan, Parrington and Reinhold Niebuhr. We read a wide range of books that were located in other fields— anthropology, historical geography, religion, art history.

To look into issues of the American Quarterly published while I was in college is to encounter an apparently hospitable academic world. The first issue of volume 8 for 1956 started off with Wilson Record's "Negro Intellectuals and Negro Movements in Historical Perspective" and Carl Degler's classic essay "Charlotte Perkins Gilman on the Theory and Practice of Feminism." Neither was the least bit showy, apologetic, or tokenish; the authors get right to the substantive business before them. In the alleged heyday of Myth and Symbol school the American Quarterly was hospitable to issues of diversity. The 1956 volume also included Louis Ruchames on "Jim Crow Railroads in Massachusetts," and Nils Enkvist on English opinions of slavery; Joseph Satterwhite on the fiction in Godey's Lady's Book, Edward Saveth on "The Heroines of Henry Adams", and Robert Bremner on children of poverty.

To look back at even earlier issues of American Quarterly is to see consistent, though mild by our standards today, hospitality to diversity, especially to women as contributors and as subjects; occasionally to feminism itself. Contributors to the early volumes included Louise Bogan, May Brodbeck, and Margaret Mead. There was also a welcome afforded to diversity, even kookiness, of topic; David Riesman on the meaning of popular music for the young; Riesman and Reuel Denny on football.10 At a time when the design of academic journals was pretty grim, American Quarterly occasionally ran black and white photographs and even, in the first issue of volume 4, a color plate.

American Quarterly and the field of American Studies did much better by diversity by gender and in popular culture than it did for issues of race and class.11 This is true even though Brown v. Board of Education was only a few years old and the Civil Rights movement in some of its most intense years. And the worst of it may have been not so much that its orientation was so white and middleclass, but that it was so naively unaware of its own biases. Innocent that I was, I subliminally perceived the American Studies community to be a hospitable one. An occasional woman's name appeared on the roster of the National Council, and both Council and Editorial Board were sprinkled with Jewish—or Jewish sounding, I had no way of telling—names: Riesman, Schiffman, Hofstadter, what I now know was an awfully young— and surely iconoclastic—Warren Susman. I could not know then what Louis Rubin, Jr. revealed in the Quarterly in 1967: that his interview for the job of Executive Secretary of the ASA in May, 1954 would take place in the Cosmos Club.12 No one even hinted to me or my female classmates in American Civilization that the academic world was not going to welcome us with open arms, although history majors headed for graduate schools were treated to elliptical and puzzling warnings which tried—without quite naming the beasts of racism, antiSemitism, antifeminism, elitism—to warn them of what they were getting into.


The pages of American Quarterly and the curricula of the 1950s make it plain that American Civilization programs were not transformed by the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s. But the field was ready to be transformed by the cultural explosion of the 1960s, and in some ways (like it or not) positioned to be vulnerable to that explosion. In comparison to other academic disciplines, American Studies was a little less threatened by new demands for relevance; therefore, it could be less defensive and more welcoming. It is the marginal person, Georg Simmel long ago taught, who can see a society plain, and American Studies scholars, marginal as we were, were positioned as was perhaps no other part of the academy to see American culture plain in the explosive years of the 1960s . Students who in the 1960s criticized the defensive inwardlooking posture of traditional departments were saying nothing that American Studies ourselves had not been saying for years. American Studies structural and bureaucratic models were in place in the academy when black activists sought to develop Black Studies departments and programs; some Black Studies Programs began in collegial linkage to American Studies Programs .

American Studies was quicker to welcome feminists. One of the very first courses in the new wave of women's history was taught in Barnard's American Civilization Program by Annette Kar Baxter in 1966.13 In the early 1970s, when it still required a major battle—with department chairs, curricular committees and deans—to introduce a single semester course in women's history or women's literature, some American Studies departments and programs were energetically requiring Black Studies and Women's Studies courses of their students, maintaining that it was impossible to understand American culture until one had at least begun to deal with these dimensions of it. (This is a position, by the way, which counterpart departments have yet to take. It is still quite easy to get a degree in history with no attention at all to women's history or black history; just announce that you are concentrating on diplomacy—despite all the female winners of the Nobel Peace Prize—or on Puritanism—despite the deeply embedded suspicion of women as witches in the Puritan world view.)

In short, at the end of the 1960s, when officially the Association was agonizing—there was actually a special issue of American Quarterly devoted to the problem—about where to go from here, we were actually going very far.14 In 1972, a farreaching series of twentytwo resolutions were drafted under the leadership of Betty Chmaj and approved by Council. These resolutions, by which the ASA Women's Committee was made a permanent one, remain a resonant agenda for action.15 By these resolutions, the ASA committed itself to an equitable transformation both of the field and of its own professional structure. We should appreciate how deeply complex and radical those commitments which the ASA made then were. The Resolutions demanded equal treatment of men and women in recruitment, in admission as graduate students, in the awarding of grants and fellowships, in hiring, pay, and promotion. The ASA undertook, as an organization, to commit itself to monitor representation of women in its own offices, on the editorial board of the American Quarterly, on its committees and programs, and it has made good on this promise. By 1979, the American Quarterly editorial board chaired by Murray Murphey of the University of Pennsylvania, was fifty percent women; women serve in official capacities throughout the organization. Furthermore, it was quickly understood to be the common sense of the matter that goals of equitable representation originally expressed in terms of gender also carry for race; there have long been explicit instructions to the Nominating, Executive, and Program Committees on this point.

The ASA was radical in addressing problems women faced if they were to undertake professional careers at all. The Resolutions of 1972 required the end of antinepotism policies; they addressed issues of day care, of pregnancy leave and parental leave for men as well as for women, of the need for options in the pace of career tracks. These are issues which universities are only now beginning to place on their agendas.

Substantively, working in direct development from what had been implicit back in the 1950s, American Studies programs and publications offered themselves as the natural locus for feminist scholarship. I do not believe it is an accident that the classic articles which revitalized feminist scholarship in the 1960s were written by people who thought of themselves as American Studies scholars and often appeared in American Studies journals; I think here particularly of David Potter's "American Women and the National Character," Barbara Welter's "Cult of True Womanhood," and Gerda Lerner's "The Lady and the Mill Girl."16 More recently the scholarship of Carroll SmithRosenberg, Nina Baym, Annette Kolodny, John Mack Faragher, Janice Radway— all central to feminist studies—has found its natural home in the American Studies community and publications.

American Studies was similarly positioned to be substantively comfortable with the insistence of the sixties and seventies on the importance of race and the insistence of the eighties on the importance of ethnicity. It might be argued that it was our interest in popular culture which saved American Studies, and has been for us the way into worlds previously unsuspected. Thus although the field had been slow to understand how essential the study of race relations and of the black experience is to be an authentic understanding of American culture, it certainly had long understood that jazz was the most important indigenous American music form. American Studies scholars readily understood that slaves' song and slaves' dance were not merely charming artifacts but cried out for serious academic attention, evaluation, and deconstruction. Charles T. Davis and others led the way for a revitalized appreciation of nineteenthcentury slave autobiographies and WPA slave narratives at a time when most historians had dismissed them as hopelessly tainted by the intervention of white interviewers.17 Nor, in the seventies and eighties did we have to belabor the understanding that America is ethnically diverse, for even in the days when that perception didn't appear clearly in our reading lists it was already implicit that anyone who studied football, the Katzenjamer Kids, and the jitterbug would sooner or later be forced to study ethnicity.

At the intersection of race and ethnicity, however, we walk onto quicksand. It is no secret that at least since the late 1960s, the valorization—even romanticization—of ethnicity has been energized in part as a backlash against black people's claims for equity and for power. "Nobody here but us ethnics" has been a parochial slogan used to mask real issues of race and power. Ethnicity itself is as much a social construction as is race, class, and gender; my student whose mother is Chippewa and father German considers herself to have the freedom to choose her ethnicity, and glories in varying her selection to suit the occasion. Yes, we must study diversity, but we do it to understand how diversity has been constructed in a nation of immigrants who come not only from Europe but also from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. We study ethnicity, l hope, so that we can move toward, in David Hollinger's words, a cosmopolitanism that is both "a more complete human experience and a more [comprehensive] understanding of that experience.18

As for the Myth and Symbol school, which so many of our students, alas— in the nature of The Young—now fashionably claim is passé, l would suggest that we remain deeply in debt to it. Many of those books were beautifully written; and even though they often ignored issues of race, class and gender, as Auden said of Paul Claudel, God will pardon their faults "for writing well ."19

But the Myth and Symbol writers served us well for another reason. At a time when New Critics reigned in English departments, insisting on separating text from context, "art" from the world, the Myth and Symbol writers the definition of what qualified as art, and devoted to the imagery of "secondrate" literature the attention which the New Critics reserved for "high" art. Long before deconstructionist literary criticism destabilized our understanding of what makes up a text and insisted on the instability of narratives, Myth and Symbol scholars were already engaged in a similar task. Although they did not have structuralist linguistics to help them, they would not have been startled at the claim that language is, as we would now put it, a system ". . . through which meaning is constructed and cultural practices organized and by which, accordingly, people represent and understand their world...." They were the new historicists of their day, restive with the narrow definitions of literary history and theory which they had inherited, and groping for an understanding of literary texts which was inseparable from the discursive context in which they had been created.20 American Studies writers of the Myth and Symbol school struggled to decode the processes by which social meaning is constructed, and to widen the definition of what constitutes a text. John William Ward's Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age destabilized the historical project. For Ward, Jackson needed to be understood not only as the subject of a undimensional historical narrative of his own making but also as a social construction made by others; Andrew Jackson: Symbol for an Age is composed of multiple narratives. Long before postmodernists insisted that texts need not be words on paper, Alan Trachtenberg's Brooklyn Bridge found a way to treat the poem that Hart Crane had made of the Bridge and the poem that John Roebling had engineered between the covers of the same book, and in the process set an example of how the scholarly critic could reconcile the symbolic, the technological, and the historical into a text that retained multiple perspectives even as it gathered us in to a powerful unitary narrative. Although they did not share poststructuralist skepticism about the determinancy of meaning, American Studies scholars were early to widen the definition of what constitutes a text, and to understand that Emerson's essays must share the shelves with Our Nig and Campbell's soup cans.


Thus far I have been upbeat, and some of you must be writhing in your seats mumbling that you've elected Pollyanna to be your President. There is no denying that we in American Studies raised expectations that we did not fulfill; that we have not figured out how to fulfill. Those failures undergird much of the anxiety we feel these days as we respond to queries about the continued viability of American Studies. There are always sharks hunting for a little blood on the academic waters. Deans are always seeking to save money, journalists are always looking for a little dissension, and, more seriously, every year we are required to explain to prospective graduate students why we will serve their intellectual purposes better than traditional disciplines when those very disciplines have adopted much that once made us special. Everywhere there are folks who would like us to fold up our tents and declare victory. The traditional departments have learned from our example; they now require students to take "outside" fields; they are not shocked when history students want to read thirdrate fiction or literature students want to study crime. The book that won the John Hope Franklin Prize this year for the best book in American Studies, for example, also won the Merle Curti Prize for the best book in social history.

But our relationship with traditional disciplines is a dynamic and a continuing one. We are out on the margins, and on the margins there are great risks and also great potential. Traditional disciplines are uneasy with what we do until we have done it; then they claim it was obvious all along—whether the subjects be pirates, science fiction movies, or the relation between religious revivalism and combat stress. We are positioned well to move toward issues that by their nature do not settle well into traditional disciplines: black culture, aging, the construction of personal appearance. American Studies has not yet learned all it has to learn from those who were once marginal to it and are now at its center.

When I offered a preliminary version of this talk at the American Studies Research Center in Hyderabad, India, colleagues there reminded me that American Studies has been interdisciplinary only (or virtually only) in the humanities. They looked at the Program for this weekend and said where are the economists? where are the political scientists? where are the psychologists? (I said we had anthropologists, but they were not satisfied.) In the days when American Civilization promised to discern the national character, it welcomed social psychologists to the task; we've given up the quest for national character as too simplistic, but we certainly didn't have to give up the social psychology.

To look at John Kouwenhoven's work, or Alan Trachtenberg's, or more recently, William Goetzmann's, moreover, is to be reminded that there was another part of American Studies' early interdisciplinary promise: to integrate technology, engineering, physics, and biology with the humanities. One of the earliest great texts in our field began with the question of how barbed wire was connected to democracy.21 Tufts University is now pioneering in exploring the interconnection of science, technology, and American culture. To travel abroad, especially to the Third World, is to be instructed in the science and technology are located in vastly different ways in different societies. Yet we have only the foggiest of notions about the ways in which American scientific development has been culturally distinctive. We used to be able to say, with David Potter, that the key was prosperity, but that answer is clearly far too simplistic in the face of alternate modes of successful technological development elsewhere, notably in Japan. Unsophisticated as we are in our comprehension of the intersection of technology with issues of class, gender, race, and religion, we find ourselves naively unprepared to find the same technology used to different effect in different cultures.

In the aftermath of World War II and in recognition of the power of the liberal tradition in America, European scholars were driven to understand what the Dutch called "Amerikanistics," and they sent the most adventurous of their younger generation to study American culture: Marcus Cunliffe and Malcolm Bradbury, Willi Paul Adams and Rob Kroes. Americans were happy to teach but felt relatively little need to learn. But now that we—notably in the Vietnam War—have recklessly squandered that liberal tradition, such that one Presidential candidate can demean it and the other fail to come effectively to its defense, we can no longer afford a selfindulgent provincialism. We must seek an understanding of American culture that is rooted in an authentically international perspective.

Related to this international agenda is our need for a more precise understanding of American political culture. We are now making plans to celebrate the Bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. During the last Bicentennial celebration—of the Constitution of 1787—Judge Shirley Abrahamson of the Wisconsin State Supreme Court observed to me that she was often asked to present prizes in essay contests on the Constitution. What people of all ages wrote about, she said, was not the Constitution of 1787—separation of powers, federalism—but, invariably, the Bill of Rights and the Civil War amendments. My own most vivid college classroom memory is of Henry Steele Commager, pacing back and forth, thundering, "There are things the government may not do!" If we really understood not only what led to the drafting of these texts, but what is essential to the creation and the maintenance of the political culture that sustains them, perhaps we could be of more use internationally.

Structurally the ASA has begun to facilitate this by our affiliations with overseas associations for American Studies, notably in Britain, Brazil, Japan, and Germany. We continue to seek more fruitful integration of international scholars in ASA meetings and of United States scholars in meetings abroad. These new relationships are an occasion for enlarging the range of our discourse. I look forward to the day when every American Studies scholar will have at least some academic experience abroad (ranging from a conference or institute to a Fulbright year), and we have nurtured a new generation of scholars with a more precisely nuanced and authentically cosmopolitan perspective on American culture

* * *

Finally, we have not fulfilled our initial promise to move from work that was multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, to a conceptualization that was truly integrated. "In the 1950s we thought," an older member of our discipline observed wistfully, "that by the 1980s American Studies would be fully staffed by people who had taken their degrees in American Studies." Perhaps that time will come; perhaps it will not. If it does not, we need not mourn. Embedded in the original wish was, I suspect, a hunger for simplicity, for such complete integration of our work that the nature, the essence, of American culture would be at last understood. Embedded in that wish was an ahistorical dream; the dream of a master narrative, a new and stable canon, such as, once upon a time, we thought Tocqueville and Emerson, Henry James and Henry Nash Smith had provided. But although Americanists studied American culture for years, it was still! left to AfricanAmerican scholars to discern the strength of the slave community, and it was left for feminists to discern the extent to which domestic violence has been embedded in our culture. The process is a familiar one to historiographers—as different generations teach the classic texts, different aspects of them will resonate. In teaching the classic texts it is of course likely that they will be revised, undermined, and subverted; indeed it can be said that we teach the canon in order to subvert it.

Allan Bloom and his colleagues have blamed feminists and black scholaractivists for destabilizing the academy in the last generation—the generation, that is, which I have been reviewing tonight. Americans love opinionated books, and Bloom's has sold a lot of copies. But for an author who claims to be dedicated to the precise and the nuanced, there is hardly any nuance here. Bloom is entitled to his own memories of Black Power at Cornell, but he is not entitled to claim of Black Studies programs that "what was serious in them did not interest the students, and the rest was unprofitable hokum."22 A whole generation of black scholars and professionals, empowered by the Civil Rights movement and by a transformed and more inclusive curriculum in the academy, contradicts that point.

Nor is Bloom entitled to claim that "the latest enemy of the vitality of classic texts is feminism."23 He offers no direct evidence for this claim; my own view is that feminists have been as likely to debate as to denounce. Feminists have discerned, for example, that The Odyssey has been understood as a great male adventure—the paradigm narrative in which the lone male pits himself against adversity. This involves a superficial reading of the last chapters, when Odysseus returns not only to murder the suitors who have invaded his home, but also to force the serving women to wipe up the dismembered bodies of their lovers, and then in turn to be strangled themselves. Thus, urged by Odysseus, Telemachos "took a hawser which had seen service on a bluebowed ship, made one end fast to a high column in the portico, threw the other over the roundhouse, and pulled it taut at such a level as would keep their feet from touching earth. And then, like doves or longwinged thrushes caught in a net across the thicket where they came to roost, and meeting death where they had only looked for sleep, the women held their heads out in a row, and a noose was cast round each one's neck to catch them in the most miserable way. For a little while their feet kicked , but not for very long."24

The Bacchae by Euripedes, has been understood as a struggle between Dionysius and Pentheus, ignoring the fact that The Bacchae is also, and most basically about women's challenge to male authority. It is about violence; it bout destruction. Its tragedy is the mother who is tricked into murdering own son and then doomed to wander the earth, accompanied only by that knowledge .

Rousseau has been taught for what he wrote about the Social Contract, for need for wholeness and consensus in society. Allan Bloom once translated Emile, but amid his recent attacks on feminists for overstating their complaints about male dominations he fails to recognize that Emile claims his freedom at the expense of Sophie (whose entire duty, Emile observes, is "to oblige to do us service, to gain our love and esteem ..."). 25 Rousseau is honored without mentioning that he abandoned his own children.

Americanists also have "Great Narratives" that are in need of destabilizing. mention only two: First, the discovery of America is celebrated as a great triumph a grand opening of Virgin Land and of prosperity; scanting the long established fact that before Ferdinand and Isabella commissioned Columbus until they had first to triumph over the last Muslim in Europe. Sending Columbus was part of a great victory celebration which also included the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, so that Columbus himself was delayed five days getting out of Cadiz because the refugee ships were in the way, as Samuel Eliot Morison made clear years ago, he could see weeping Jewish women and children on board; or that his brother, Don Diego Colon actually hunted Indians like animals in the New World because he wasn't sure what they were.26 Second, thanks to Kenneth Lynn, we now know Ralph Waldo Emerson did not resign his ministry and issue his great call "SelfReliance" until his first wife had died and he was safely in possession substantial inheritance—though he did not mention money in his essay.27 These stories too are integral to the great traditions of Western Civilization American culture. I do not tell them tonight to deride them, but to give them the respect they deserve. In her recent report on "The Humanities in America," Lynn Chaney assumes that her task is to criticize "the view that humanities texts are nothing more than elaborate political rationalizations." is not our view. These texts are among the ways in which considerations race gender, ethnicity, and class have shaped what we are and what we ourselves to be. Those who deplore the reconstruction of the canon of historic texts in which we are engaged do not understand that each generation's selected list of great books is itself a historical artifact, part of the way each generation teaches itself what it needs to know. It is the complexity of these stories that we need to appreciate. Feminists have for years been conducting an important Great Books course, and when Allan Bloom and William Bennett open their planned institute and settle down actually to read the classics they may be surprised at what they find.

We have celebrated the speed with which we have discovered diversity of race, class, gender, and ethnicity. But for all the skepticism, irony, and critical stance on which we pride ourselves, we have remained too much a part of the complacency and status quo we deplore. Freed from the defensive constraints of cold war ideology, empowered by our new sensitivity to the distinctions of race, class, and gender, we are ready to begin to understand difference as a series of relationships of power, involving domination and subordination, and to use our understanding of the power relations to reconceptualize both our interpretation and our teaching of American culture.


I am grateful for the good counsel of Lois Banner, Jane De Han, David Hollinger, Richard Kerber, Alice KesslerHarris, Mark Krupnick, Stow Persons, Janice Radway, Dorothy Ross, Amy Swerdlow, Ronald Walters, and the community of the American Studies Research Center in Hyderabad India.

  1. John Kouwenhoven. ''What's 'American' About America?" Harper's Magazine, July 1956.
  2. Robert F. Spiller. "Unity and Diversity in the Study of American Culture: The American Studies Association in Perspective," American Quarterly 25 (Dec. 1973): 612.
  3. Richard H. Shryock, et al., "A Statement by the Committee on American Civilization of the American Council of Learned Societies,'' American Quarterly 2 (Fall 1950): 287.
  4. Marcus Cunliffe, "Backward Glances," Journal of American Studies 14 (l980): 8687; see also Malcolm Bradbury, "How I Invented America," ibid.: 114 35.
  5. Philip Gleason, "World War II and the Development of American Studies,'' American Quarterly 36 (1984): 344.
  6. Gleason, 35052. A substantial amount of attention has recently been given by literary critics to the implications of the confluence of the creation of the contemporary literary canon with the cold war: see Jonathan Arac, "F. O. Matthiessen: Authorizing an American Renaissance," in Walter Benn Michaels and Donald E. Pease, eds., The American Renaissance Reconsidered: Selected Papers From the English Institute, /982-83 (Baltimore, 1985), 90112; Donald E. Pease, "Moby Dick and the Cold War," ibid.: 11354; William E. Cain, F. O. Matthiessen and the Politics of Criticism (Madison, 1988), ch. 4, "Criticism and the Cold War."
  7. Jesse Lemisch made this point more than a decade ago: "Those who wrote on the subject [of the national character] expressed themselves with confidence and largely uncritically . . . To describe a national character generally meant to assume uniqueness and a high degree of unity, consensus, classlessness, lack of conflict. The portrait of the national character thus drawn defined evidence of disunity, conflict, class as of secondary importance, if indeed it was acknowledged that there was such evidence.... This ideology was institutionalized in the new field of American Studies, which thought of itself as a 'movement' and added to the college curriculum courses rich in ideological content." Jesse Lemisch, On Active Service in War and Peace: Politics and Ideology in the American Historical Profession (Toronto, 1975), 90. See also Richard H. Pells, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s and 1950s (New York, 1985 ), 1 47. For an example, see Daniel Boorstin The Genius of American an Politics (Chicago, 1953), 14: ". . . we have no philosophy which can be exported . . . American democracy is unique. It possesses a 'genius' all its own . . . the peculiar strengths of American life have saved from the European preoccupation with political dogmas and have left us inept and uninterested in political theory."
  8. The American Studies Program at Yale, organized in 1949, was heralded by Yale University President Charles Seymour as a way in which "the Communist threat [could] . . . be met vigorously and in a positive sense." "Seymour Cites Program to Combat Red Threat," New Haven Register, Feb. 22, 1949; quoted in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, 1988), 38182. On Karl Mannheim's warning that the denial of ideology is the gambit of the powerful, see Novick, 301ff. See also 28184. In 1975 Jesse Lemisch urged that more study be done of the financing of American Studies: see Lemisch, 175.
  9. See for example, Gene Wise, " 'Paradigm Dramas' In American Studies: A Cultural and Constitutional History of the Movement," American Quarterly 31 (1981): 305, which makes the argument that Smith's 1940 dissertation, on which his book was based, was the first Ph.D. awarded in Harvard's program in the History of American Civilization.
  10. My own teacher, Annette Kar Baxter, made her reputation by the first serious explorations of Henry Miller as a serious writer of fiction and of Elvis Presley as an important aspect of popular culture. These were not in the American Quarterly; the first was a book; the latter an essay in Harper's.
  11. As Richard Yarborough demonstrated in "Minority Scholars and American Studies," Annual Meeting, American Studies Association, New York, 1988.
  12. Louis Rubin, Jr., "Spiller, of 'Spiller et a/. ,' '' American Quarterly 19 ( 1967): 299302.
  13. Gerda Lerner taught an earlier one at the New School in 1961-62, but it was not repeated or embedded in any department or program. Yet as late as 1970, of the 168 American Studies programs, only six were headed by women. American Quarterly 22 (1970): 41826.
  14. See the lucid essay by Robert Sklar, ''American Studies and the Realities of America," American Quarterly 12 (1970): 596-605; in which Sklar makes the point that American Studies traditionally not only merged literature and history, but had focused on what he called "high cultural history . . [which] asserted the primacy of mind as the central factor in culture, and the autonomy of the individual work of art." But in the face of the civil rights movement and war in Vietnam, ''social and political problems began to place greater and greater demands on the time of American Studies scholars'' (599).
  15. American Quarterly 24 (Oct.. 1972): 550-54. Betty Chmaj's memoir of the passage of the resolutions appears in Betty Chmaj, Image, Myth, and Beyond: American Women and American Families, vol. 2 (Pittsburgh, 1973) ch. 3. "American Women and American."
  16. David Potter, ''American Women and the American Character," in History and American Society: Essays of David M. Potter, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York, 1973), 277-303. Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,'' American Quarterly 18 (1966); Gerda Lerner, "The Lady and the Mill Girl: Changes in the Status of Women in the Era of Jackson," Midcontinent American Studies Journal 10 (1969): 5-15.
  17. Charles T. Davis, Black is the Color of the Cosmos: Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942-1981, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York, 1982), esp. 83-120.
  18. ''The 'cosmopolitanism' to which I refer is the desire to transcend the limitations of any small particularisms in order to achieve a more complete human experience and a more complete understanding of that experience. The ideal is decidedly counter to the eradication of cultural references, but counter also to their preservation in parochial form. Rather, particular cultures and subcultures are viewed as repositories for insights and experiences that can be drawn upon interests of a more comprehensive outlook on the world. " David Hollinger, In the American Science: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ideas (Bloomington, 1985), 59. For a thoughtful review of early studies of ethnicity, see Stow Persons, Ethnic Studies at Chicago, 1935-45. (Urbana 1987).
  19. W. H. Auden, "In Memory of W, B. Yeats," Collected Shorter Poems 1930-1944 (London), 66. This verse is omitted in subsequent collections of Auden's poetry; the reasons are unclear.
  20. Joan W. Scott, "Deconstructing EqualityVersusDifference: Or, The Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism,"Feminist Studies 14 (1988): 3435. I am indebted here to Lois recent formulations; see "American Studies in the 1980s: Another Renaissance" (Paper delivered at the UCLA Conference on Defining American Studies, 23 April 1989).
  21. Walter P. Webb, The Great Plains (Boston, 1931).
  22. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York, 1987), 95.
  23. Bloom, 65.
  24. Homer, Odyssey (New York, 1946), 339-40. The maids have been insolent; they have given welcome to the enemies of the master of the house, and one of them has revealed the secret of Penelope's unwinding her weaving at night. No one in the epic questions Odysseus's right, as master of the house, to command their death, or Telemachos's right, as Odysseus's son, to define himself as betrayed by the women and to prescribe for them a particularly cruel death. Their bodies and their honor belong to the patriarch and his heir. Gerda Lemer has called attention to this chapter in The Creation of Patriarchy (New York, 1986), 9798.
  25. JeanJacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education, ed. Allan Bloom (New York, 1979), see especially Bloom's comments on pp. 2325. Bloom links feminism to ''the bourgeoisification of the world"; he does not question Rousseau's definition as "natural" a long list of behaviors for which a strong case can be made that they are learned, and indeed he characterizes Rousseau's as an "analysis . . . unrivaled in its breadth and precision" (24).
  26. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus, (Boston, 1942), 1:194.
  27. Kenneth S. Lynn, The AirLine To Seattle: Studies in Literary and Historical Writing About America (Chicago, 1983), 3032.

Scanned and converted by Julie K. Rose on 9/20/95.
Original material,
American Quarterly, Volume 41, Number 3, September 1989, pages 415-431.