Copyright © 1996 The American Studies Association. All rights reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial purposes within a subscribed institution. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically outside of the subscribed institution, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the JHU Press.
American Quarterly 48.2 (1996) 179-200

"The Radical Roots of American Studies":
Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 9, 1995

Elaine Tyler May

One year ago, the American Studies Program at the University of Minnesota celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. We held a conference to commemorate the event; to reflect on how our department and the field had evolved over the last half century; and to bring together new and old friends, students, and colleagues. Before the conference, I had no idea how enlightening it would be for me. Up to that time, I thought I understood the basic parameters of American studies lore. I never questioned the prevailing "creation myth" that permeates current understandings of the history of American studies. As in many academic disciplines, it is a version of the common "Oedipal" story: killing off the alleged fathers to create a new, oppositional scholarship. Graduate students sharpen their sense of intellectual identity by attacking the myth and symbol school that pervaded American studies in the fifties.

According to this creation story, most of the myth and symbol scholars were White Protestant men who studied White Protestant men in an effort to understand American exceptionalism--leaving out everyone else. Presumably, the myth and symbol school, forged in the era of the cold war, was an effort to celebrate American exceptionalism and justify American dominance in the post-World War II world. Then, [End Page 179] when the politics of the 1960s transformed academia along with the rest of society, scholars in the field discovered women, workers, ethnic and racial diversity, and popular culture. It is a well-known story and one with much truth to it. But it is not the whole story, as I was to discover.

The creation myth fails to acknowledge the critical edge that characterized much of the scholarship of the postwar years. Even more significantly, it largely ignores the fact that the field was not born during the cold war era. It emerged in the 1930s, and it was practiced by a number of scholars outside as well as inside the academy whose concerns reflect many of the issues at the heart of American studies today. Indeed, at our fiftieth anniversary conference, I discovered that there is more common ground between the founding generation and the practitioners of today than we are generally taught to believe.

The first real surprise for me came at the reunion breakfast of the 1940s and 1950s generation. I expected to find a group that would conform to my stereotype of the era: a bunch of aging cold-warrior academics reminiscing about the good ol' days when everyone was involved in the worthy effort of discovering what made the United States a great nation. I was surprised to enter a room filled with lively men and women eagerly greeting each other with hugs, laughter, and warm camaraderie. The men, many wearing plaid flannel workshirts and well-worn caps, did not look the part of the stuffy academics I expected. The women, forceful and funny, were right at home with a group that, according to lore, would never have accepted them as full partners. They rose one by one and spoke of the early days at Minnesota and why they came.

They talked about the freedom they found in American studies to pursue scholarly projects that traditional disciplines scorned or dismissed. They talked about the excitement of doing interdisciplinary work at a time when the disciplines were defending their boundaries. They described American studies as a political oasis at a time when McCarthyism stifled dissent and many scholars with radical leanings lost their jobs. Several recounted stories of escaping the loyalty oaths required by universities in other states, arriving at Minnesota, and establishing Communist Party groups on campus. They remembered with fondness their late colleague Mulford Sibley, the mild-mannered anarchist who faced years of vicious red-baiting but never lost his sense of humor, his political passion, or his job. While I watched and listened [End Page 180] as these men and women described their political and academic radicalism, the picture in my mind of the "bad old days" began to shift. Humbled and awed by their high-spirited gathering, I went into the weekend conference sessions with a new curiosity about the history of the field.

The plenary session featured a discussion of "American Studies, Then and Now," including presentations by Leo Marx and George Lipsitz. At that session, I began to think about the continuities, as well as the changes, in the field over the last half-century. The more I listened, the more I was struck by the radical tradition that has prevailed in American studies. It began to occur to me that, from the beginning and into the present day, American studies has had a powerful Marxist tradition. But it is not a typical Marxism. Rather, it is a unique Marxist tradition forged in American studies itself, a synthesis derived from three distinct schools of Marxism: the schools of Karl Marx, Leo Marx, and Groucho Marx.

Right then I thought: These three Marxisms might make an interesting frame for this address. Of course, nobody should take this frame too literally. It should never end up in anybody's prelims or anything like that. But it might give us a chance to think about the history of American studies in a new way. Above all, we should never forget that the field has always had a playful side. We tend to study fun things as well as serious things. Most of us who study popular culture, music, movies, or sexuality do so not because we hate the subject but because we love it. We have fun at our meetings, which tend to be held in interesting places with lots of lively events. So let us never take ourselves so seriously that we forget that playful tradition. And by the way, those of you who are into late-night reruns of Groucho Marx's TV show, "You Bet Your Life," just watch for the little duck that might drop down from the ceiling: "Say The Magic Word and you'll Win $100." Now I'll give you a hint. The magic word is not discourse. But it might be intercourse. (Well, some of us study texts and some of us study sex.)

Let us consider these three schools of Marxism that make up the American studies tradition. Again, I do not mean to suggest that these three individuals literally define three distinct schools of thought in American studies. Rather, I use them to represent three distinct eras in the history of the field--all of them grounded in a radical critique of American society. Using these three strands of "Marxism" that have blended together in the work of American studies scholars, I propose [End Page 181] that we revise our prevailing creation myth. It is a task that calls for a new look at the works that are often considered as part of the "canon." We tend to forget that the American studies canon has always been a loose canon. With canon bashing the rage in so many fields of late, it is time that we bash our own canon, too, to see what's really in there and to add a few more voices to the canon fodder.

"Karl Marxism": The Roots of Radicalism in the 1930s and 1940s

The Karl Marx school represents not simply attention to the struggle between capital and labor, but rather the tradition of politically engaged scholarship that motivated many in the field to pursue their craft. This scholarship was grounded in a recognition of the ill effects of industrial capitalism and a profound sensitivity to class divisions within the United States. In the 1930s and 1940s, academic as well as political radicalism defined the essence of American studies scholarship. Many of the early practitioners were what we might call "public intellectuals." That is, they were involved in the politics and social movements of their day, supporters of the New Deal, or activists on the left who identified with a socialist tradition. Some of these names are accepted as part of the American studies canon--others are not but should be.

For example, F. O. Matthiessen, author of The American Renaissance, is often cast as one of those responsible for establishing a literary canon limited to White male Protestants of the New England tradition. Often overlooked is the radicalism of Matthiessen's life and work. Matthiessen, a committed socialist, worked inside and outside the academy to understand and improve the lives of American workers. His fascination with Melville's Moby-Dick stemmed from his reading of the Pequod as America writ small, with its ethnic and racial diversity, its obsessive capitalist tyranny, and the inability of the oppressed crew to rebel. Like other reformers and intellectuals of the pre-World War II years, he considered industrial capitalism to be hostile to democracy. Carrying that vision into politics, Matthiessen supported the radical labor movement, and after World War II he became a major critic of the cold war.

Practitioners in the emerging field were academic mavericks who challenged the status quo and expanded the boundaries of study in both method and content. One of their first tasks was to explore the uniqueness of American culture at a time when intellectual elites [End Page 182] considered the United States to be simply an extension of Europe, and an inferior extension at that. In literature, at a time when most English departments virtually ignored American literature, considering it beneath the standards of literary merit set by authors of classic British texts, these scholars set about the task of retrieving American literature from the margins of academic consideration. Matthiessen's American Renaissance established the legitimacy of American literature within the academy. And later when the New Critics of the postwar years began to focus their analysis on the text alone, these researchers insisted on grounding their analysis of literature in history and cultural change. Nor did they simply concentrate on the world of elites. Indeed, Matthiessen saw that American novelists such as Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne were inspired by the popular arts of a diverse people.

Like their literary colleagues, historians interested in the study of American society and culture found that traditional approaches to history were equally confining. During the twenties and thirties, most historians rarely looked at social or cultural developments; they focused on politics, government, and wars. Yet historians such as Charles and Mary Beard examined the democratic spirit of the American people in opposition to both European aristocracy and American monopoly capital. Charles Beard saw this spirit unfolding not just in work, but also in literature, music, art, and popular culture. Mary Beard understood the centrality of women as makers of history. Her writings in the 1930s include such works as America Through Women's Eyes and Laughing Their Way: Women's Humor in America. In 1946 she wrote her most famous classic, Women as Force in History.

Many of these writers focused their study of the democratic spirit of America on Anglo-Saxon elites. Yet if we broaden our view of the founders of American studies to include public intellectuals of the time who worked outside the academy, it is possible to uncover the roots of another side of the American studies tradition, one created by keen social observers who had their sights fixed on the vernacular expressions and political beliefs of women and minorities. In this world, scholars such as Constance Rourke, Carey McWilliams, W. E. B. Du Bois, Wilber Cash, and C. L. R. James developed insightful critiques of American institutions as well as race and gender relations.

These scholars did not explicitly identify themselves with the American studies movement. During these early years, the field was [End Page 183] quite loosely defined, and there were no clear boundaries that determined who was "in" and who was "out." Actually, those loose boundaries have continued, even in later years when the field became institutionalized, up to the present day. So if we look back from today's vantage point, we should not limit our vision exclusively to those scholars who defined themselves within the field of American studies. Rather, we should consider who was actually doing American studies as we know it. Who were the interdisciplinary scholars trying to understand American society in all its complexity, with a recognition that culture is a central force in history? If we do that, we can open up our canon and add some important thinkers who belong in the American studies tradition--whether or not they knew it at the time.

C. L. R. James, for example, was a Black intellectual from Trinidad. Working within a Marxist tradition (Karl Marx, that is), he wrote a manuscript that has only recently been published called American Civilization. In this study, which included examinations of mainline American literature, the popular arts, and the cultural expressions of women and African Americans, James was both critical and optimistic about American society and culture. Disillusioned by Stalinism and socialism in Europe, he saw that in the forties the common people in the United States, particularly women, Blacks, workers, and ethnic minorities, shared a common American trait that made the United States the focal point of his radical hopes.

Working in what he described as the tradition of de Tocqueville, James identified as uniquely American the tremendous energy of the common people to build and create associations (what current scholars would call a civic sphere) in order to realize the potential of a democratic society. Although that democratic promise had not been achieved, James believed that the working class in America, which included women and minorities, might still prevail over the nation's corporate elites and flawed institutions. Moreover, anticipating later work in American studies, James departed from the New York social critics and the Frankfurt School sociologists who saw the popular arts as a culturally conservative force, or merely a form of escape. In contrast, James saw that jazz, radio, gangster films, comic books, and soap operas were popular arenas wherein audiences and artists criticized established institutions and dreamed of alternatives to an organized society that repressed and denied the promise of democracy. Because he recognized the popular arts as expressions of resistance to [End Page 184] established institutions, he also belongs in the "Groucho Marx" school, appropriately named for a radical social critic of the 1930s who well understood the oppositional potential of popular culture.

Similar themes informed the work of Constance Rourke, Carey McWilliams, and W. E. B. DuBois, three other public intellectuals who wrote classic American studies texts in the thirties. During the crises of the Depression and World War II, Constance Rourke wrote American Humor, a book that looked at tall tales and folk culture for the roots of the national culture. And whereas Charles Beard saw Americanism emerging from Anglo-Saxons, Rourke, like James, saw that the nation's art and literature also emerged from the interchange among a diverse people. Carey McWilliams, another public intellectual who was a progressive journalist, who wrote powerful antiracist tracts in the 1940s. His many books included Prejudice: Japanese-Americans, Symbol of Racial Intolerance, and Diversity Within National Unity. In his widely read classic, North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States, he examined the importance of Mexican American history and the mixing of peoples in the Southwest, in contrast to the prevailing scholarly focus on Euro-American New England.

Along similar lines, W. E. B. Du Bois, first in The Souls of Black Folks and later during the thirties in Black Reconstruction, looked to the popular arts and literature of Black Americans for both an understanding of the impact of racism on Blacks and for alternative cultural and political resources to combat oppression. These writers understood culture not as something manufactured by elites, but as emanating from the people in the form of songs, jokes, stories, movies, and radio shows catering to a diverse audience. They also realized that class was a defining feature of American life. Writers like Du Bois, Matthiessen, McWilliams, James, and Rourke--along with many others writing at the time who also belong in the American studies canon--wove into their work a deep hostility to corporate capitalism, which they saw as thwarting the promise of American democracy.

"Leo Marxism": Consensus Critics of the 1950s

The Leo Marx school represents the myth and symbol scholarship that emerged in the cold war era. After World War II, the political and intellectual tradition that nourished the founders of American studies in [End Page 185] the thirties began to wane. Although the critical edge remained central to the postwar scholars' understanding of American myths and symbols, the field was not immune to the influence of the cold war. In sharp contrast to the political élan that permeated the New Deal years, cold war politics identified Americanism and democracy with capitalism and established institutions. As the United States became more involved in international affairs, and its official "enemy" promoted the destruction of capitalism, contemporary policy makers and many intellectuals described the United States as a "classless" utopia grounded in a consensus ideology that held the nation together and set it apart from others. Unlike the 1930s, when the prevailing political sentiments reflected a deep suspicion of the captains of industry, cold war ideology celebrated the successful capitalist as representing the best of American society.

These postwar years witnessed profound changes in American studies. It was the era of institution building, when the fledgling interdisciplinary enterprise fully came of age. The field became more widely visible, and growing numbers of scholars began to identify with it. In universities at home and abroad, American studies took hold. Regional associations and a national professional association emerged, fed by grants from public and private funding agencies. The growth of the field reflected an increased interest in comprehending the beliefs and values that informed this nation, which was suddenly thrust into world leadership.

One of the first institutions that emerged to address American studies in an international context was the Salzburg Seminar, founded in 1947 by a group of graduate students and faculty at Harvard University. Although internationalization, along with attention to diversity, are often considered to be recent trends, the Salzburg Seminar was an early and major effort in those directions. It was an attempt to bring together intellectuals from previously adversarial countries to study, learn, and exchange ideas. Located in a castle in Salzburg that had been used as Nazi headquarters during the war, the seminar was the first institutional effort to extend American studies beyond the borders of the country and to engage international scholars in the study of the United States.

The first faculty to assemble there included F. O. Matthiessen and Margaret Mead, and the participants included men and women from several countries. In his 1948 book, From the Heart of Europe, Matthiessen wrote a detailed account of that first Salzburg Seminar, in [End Page 186] which he expressed his opposition to the cold war, his commitment to European and American socialism, and his intense interactions with academic and nonacademic thinkers who were present. His account also describes the explicit efforts made to include women and people of color not only as participants, but as faculty of the seminar. And this was in 1947. The Salzburg Seminar remains a thriving institution today, still promoting many of its original goals.

But not all the efforts at institution building were the same, either politically or academically. Some funding sources supported American studies in an effort to promote a view of American exceptionalism consistent with cold war aims. These foundations and governmental agencies poured money into programs at universities as well as institutions like the Salzburg Seminar. Some of these efforts were successful in dulling the critical edge of the field. But in most places, American studies offered a "free space" of sorts for rogue scholars of various stripes to come together. This was true at home as well as abroad.

During these years of institutionalization, the central themes of scholarship in American studies began to shift. Perhaps the most important cause of that shift was the cold war. No institution in American life and no academic area was immune to the power of the cold war ideology and the anticommunist hysteria that came with it. Women and men in many occupations lost their jobs for even a mere hint of leftist political activity. Within the humanities, the safest position was to join the New Critics and examine art forms in their "pure" form without regard to their historical context. In the social sciences, with the exception of a few bold social critics like C. Wright Mills or David Reisman, beliefs and values dropped out of the agenda as more politically neutral forms of quantitative analysis came to the fore.

Within American studies, the cold war also had an impact, but the field remained a much more open arena wherein dissident scholars could find a comfortable intellectual as well as institutional home. Grounded in the study of culture, students of American studies did not need to apologize for studying beliefs and values. And although most of the myth and symbol scholars accepted the existence of a national consensus, they remained profoundly critical of it. The University of Minnesota was not the only institution where American studies provided a home for radical scholars like Mulford Sibley who, in spite of [End Page 187] the wrath of local red-baiters and a viciously hostile press, managed to hold onto his job and remain a beloved and respected figure for over three decades. Similar situations emerged elsewhere. At Smith College, for example, the Committee on Discrimination in Giving, in an effort to root out communist sympathizers, sent a letter to alumni asking that they not contribute to the college until it had addressed the problem of its subversive faculty. Not surprisingly, their list of targeted faculty included several in American studies. But they, too, survived the purge effort.

One of the targeted American studies scholars at Smith was Newton Arvin, who also happened to be gay, as was F. O. Matthiessen. In the postwar frenzy of homophobia and anticommunism, which of course were deeply intertwined during the cold war years, these leftist gay scholars found respite in the relative tolerance of the American studies community.

Contrary to the common view, most of the myth and symbol practitioners were not writing a celebratory scholarship. In fact, in the work of scholars of the frontier like Henry Nash Smith and Leo Marx, the agrarian myth is cast in an extremely negative light. As Leo Marx wrote in The Machine in the Garden, "in public discourse, at least, this [pastoral] ideal has appeared with increasing frequency in the service of a reactionary or false ideology, thereby helping to mask the real problems of an industrial civilization" (7). These scholars realized that the myth of the west and other national symbols could be used to foster oppression and inhibit effective political activism.

For all their criticism, these scholars exhibited traits that were more consistent with the postwar age of anxiety than the prewar age of activism. For them, American culture was grounded in an Anglo-Saxon tradition. Although they criticized that tradition, they could not see beyond it. They failed to recognize any other sources of American social, cultural, and political life. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, workers, gays, lesbians--all were largely invisible to them. Because they accepted the consensus view that the United States was a homogeneous, classless society dominated by White Protestant men, they could not see the potential for an alternative democratic nation. As a result, they identified the national cultural and political paralysis but saw no way out of it.

What was really wrong with the myth and symbol school was its myopia. Because these scholars defined American culture as grounded [End Page 188] in White male Protestant Anglo-Saxon traditions that were reactionary, nostalgic, stifling, and antidemocratic, they were unable to recognize the creativity and activism emanating from groups excluded from that tradition--groups in which the potential for democratic change was very much alive. Scholars in the myth and symbol school did not recognize this potential, and thus their vision was a despairing and hopeless one. Sadly, the cold war had chilled the activist fervor of the prewar years; even the social criticism of the myth and symbol scholars pointed to a dead end. Ultimately, American studies as it was practiced in the 1950s was doomed to collapse; once the consensus was shattered it had nowhere left to go.

"Groucho Marxism": American Studies Since the 1960s

The "Groucho Marx" school, harking back to the 1930s, represents the recognition of popular culture as a major force in American life, a force created largely by marginalized Americans who used it not only to express, but also to create, resistance to the dominant culture. This fundamental belief in the power of the popular, emanating from groups that were outside the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant mainstream, provided the necessary foundation for a scholarly and political awakening that led to a new way of understanding American culture.

The 1960s marked the beginning of this third major phase in American studies scholarship. Confronted with the breakdown of the consensus and the major social and political transformations of that decade, American studies scholars saw that American society was far more complex and divided than the myth and symbol writers realized. They now turned their attention to that complexity. As in the past, the shift in the field mirrored the political change in the nation as a whole.

Caught up in the upheavals that began in the 1960s, researchers from many disciplines turned their attention to the lives, experiences, and cultural expressions of those peoples whose histories had been virtually invisible in the scholarship of the immediate postwar years: women, racial and ethnic minorities, workers, gays, and lesbians. At the same time, they turned to subject matter that traditional disciplines rarely took seriously, but earlier American studies practitioners did: popular culture, now expanded to include film, television, and music.

It was in this context that scholarship concerned with race, class, and gender began to reemerge. Feminism had a widespread impact on [End Page 189] American studies. As an interdisciplinary field, American studies drew scholars looking for new ways to understand a complex world that did not fit the confines of traditional disciplines. Not surprisingly, feminist scholars gravitated to this interdisciplinary community. As feminists began to transform the scholarship, women appeared in greater numbers at national meetings and worked to create a more democratic and inclusive environment within the American Studies Association itself.

At the same time, American studies also became a central location for the study of American ethnic and racial minorities. Initially, much of this work centered on the experiences and cultural expressions of one or another particular ethnic group. As the field became increasingly complex and sophisticated, theories of race emerged at the center of much of the new research. Innovators in the field developed theories to explain both the power of whiteness in American society and the ability of people of color to resist that power. As agents of their own fate, communities of color created music, oral traditions, literature, humor, and ultimately political movements to preserve their own distinct cultures and achieve their rightful place in American society. (The fall 1995 issue of American Quarterly provides powerful evidence for the impact of this new scholarship on the field.)

These developments stimulated a renewed interest in social class as a force in American society. Although not as widely examined as race and gender, class issues have once again become central to American studies scholarship. Some of the most exciting new work in this area grounds class dynamics in cultural and economic developments that transcend national boundaries. This large body of scholarship represents the intellectual vitality unleashed by the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. However, for all their successes, these insurgencies did not achieve the promise of a democratic society with full equality for all citizens. The national momentum for change seemed to wane by the 1980s. As the Reagan era began, the time-worn images of a mythical America seemed to captivate the nation once again, feeding a retreat from political engagement. Politicians on the right were somehow able to revitalize a new type of consensus politics that could contain and marginalize oppositional social movements. The widespread suspicion of the rich and sympathy for the poor that characterized much of middle-class politics in the 1930s shifted to become a deep hostility toward the poor and tacit admiration of the rich. It was this new political reality that prompted many American studies scholars [End Page 190] to examine the nature of cultural hegemony--how it is sustained and how it might be resisted.

All of these investigations did not merely add new dimensions to the study of American culture. They shattered the notion that culture or even America itself is a unified entity. Scholars redefined culture from a set of unifying myths, values, and beliefs to a contested terrain involving struggles over power.

The latest challenge facing American studies practitioners is to discover what holds American society together. Where is the common ground or shared tradition that can provide the foundation for a realization of democratic values? Is Americanism nothing more than belief in a false national unity? Is it possible to envision a nonnationalist American studies that can examine the sources of cohesion in American life, as well as the sources of fragmentation?

These questions plague not only our scholarship but our national life. As scholars of American society and culture, we are ideally positioned to engage in the most pressing political debates of the day. We can turn to our scholarly advantage the fact that American studies has always been a field deeply embedded in the political world. We can address issues such as affirmative action, welfare reform, reproductive rights, and racial strife not simply with our opinions, but with our research skills and expertise. We can bring to these controversies our passion as scholars and activists and add to the knowledge and understanding required for citizens to make rational, informed decisions.

This kind of publicly engaged scholarship is essential, because there are so many widespread misperceptions that prevail in the nation today. The Washington Post, on October 8, 1995, published an article entitled "A Distorted Image of Minorities: Poll Suggests that What Whites Think They See May Affect Beliefs." This article reported on a 1992 national survey that asked people of all racial backgrounds what they know about basic demographic facts. One question asked: What percentage of the United States population is White? Whites answered, on average, 49.9 percent. Blacks answered, on average, 45.5 percent. The two other groups surveyed, identified as Asians and Hispanics, gave similar answers. The correct answer: 74 percent. This survey indicates that most Americans think that Whites, who comprise three-fourths of the population, are actually in the minority.

Another question asked: What percentage of the United States population is Black? All four groups surveyed estimated the percentage [End Page 191] of Blacks as 24 or 25 percent. In fact, Blacks comprise about 12 percent of the population. Most Americans estimated that the Black population is twice as large as it actually is. Similarly, all groups overestimated the percentage of each racial minority to approximately the same extent. These results suggest that as a nation, we do not even know who we are.

Equally distorted were the responses to questions concerning socioeconomic conditions. Respondents were asked whether the average Black person is faring better, worse, or the same as the average White person in six categories: income, jobs, housing, education, job security, and access to health care. Most Whites surveyed--that is, the majority of the majority group in this country--answered incorrectly, "with most saying that the average black is faring as well or better than the average white in such specific areas as jobs, education, and health care." The majority of all racial minorities surveyed, however, answered correctly that Black people in America are worse off than Whites in these areas.

These responses had profound implications in terms of political beliefs. The Post reported that of the 22 percent of Whites surveyed who gave correct answers to five or more questions, only one-third favored cuts in food stamp spending, compared to two-thirds of the least informed. Similarly, two-thirds of the well-informed respondents were willing to pay more in taxes to help low-income families, compared to only one-third of the least informed. And fewer than half of well-informed Whites oppose affirmative action, compared to two-thirds of the least informed. In short, what people know about social reality has a profound impact on their political beliefs and the policies they support. These recent data suggest that most Americans are seriously uninformed about each other, and this lack of basic knowledge inhibits citizens from formulating adequate policy responses that address the realities of American life.

We are educators. We need to educate. And we have a very long way to go if our goal is to add to the knowledge and understanding required for citizens to make rational, informed decisions.

In addition, we can help to get beyond the sound bites, hysteria, paranoia, and hate mongering that often pass for political debate. As interdisciplinary scholars, we can transcend the particularistic jargons that permeate our various fields of study to engage in truly public discussions with a wide range of people inside and outside the academy. [End Page 192]

It is at this juncture that we can look for some guidance and inspiration to those public intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s who grappled with the same questions. We need not carry the entire burden--nor should we smugly congratulate ourselves--for inventing a multicultural vision. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. But there is definitely a need to redesign it to fit American society as it is today. Earlier scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois and C. L. R. James provide some important building blocks. They understood the importance of forging alliances across class, ethnic, racial, and gender lines. James, from Trinidad, had a hemispheric perspective that placed the study of American culture in a wider global context. He and Du Bois both placed race at the center of America's problems as well as its promise.

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of W. E. B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in America, the first major work to challenge the "redemption" version of Reconstruction. Du Bois portrayed Reconstruction as a heroic effort to create a democratic political order based on interracial cooperation. He also saw the effort as part of a prolonged struggle between labor and capital. He well understood the intersections of race and class and the importance of finding ways for various groups of people to come together, transcending their particular interests in order to find a common ground.

This is also the sixtieth anniversary of another classic of 1935, A Night At The Opera, one of the Marx brothers' funniest madcap satires. The film does not have the racial consciousness of Du Bois's great book, nor does it point toward the promise of a new political and social order, which Du Bois saw at work in Reconstruction. But it does celebrate the vitality of a multiethnic working class where talent, virtue, and love reside in contrast to a vapid, corrupt, lifeless, and dishonest upper class. Exposing the pretensions of the elite, the film attacks the false distinctions between high and low culture, scorns the crass power of money, and shatters gender roles. The lovable androgenous Harpo displays his irreverence for everything sacred, along with his formidable musical talent, to delight the folk and torment the authorities. He displays his bisexual exuberance by hugging and kissing virtually every man and woman within reach. He personifies the idea that sexuality is continually made and remade. Literally voiceless, he is the voice of everyone, communicating clearly and powerfully without speaking any words.

In contrast, Groucho is all words, and he plays with them endlessly. [End Page 193] But he well understood the dangers of jargon. In one of the most famous scenes of the movie, Chico and Groucho try to decipher a contract that will presumably allow them each to pursue their self-interest in a legal partnership. Although they know they both stand to gain if they forge this partnership, the jargon stands in their way:

'Let's see . . . The Party of the First Part shall be known in this contract as the Party of the First Part.' . . . No, that's no good.
'The Party of the Second Part shall be known in this contract as the Party of the Second Part' . . . no, I don't like that . . .
'The Party of the Third Part . . .
. . . .
'The Party of the Eighth Part . . .

In the end they found common ground by a mutual recognition that they would do better together than either would alone.

University of Minnesota

Acknowledgements: I am indebted to Lary May for his many contributions to this paper, from its initial conceptualization to his bibliographic suggestions and many ideas and insights along the way. An early version of this paper was presented at the University of Maryland, College Park. I am grateful to all those who attended for their questions, suggestions, and feedback. I also wish to thank Gary Gerstle, Elizabeth Lunbeck, Riv-Ellen Prell, and Sara Evans for their help and comments.

Elaine Tyler May is Professor of American Studies and History, and Chair of the American Studies Program, at the University of Minnesota; and President of the American Studies Association. She is the author of Barren in the Promised Land: Childless Americans and the Pursuit of Happiness, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, Pushing the Limits: American Women, 1940-1961, and Great Expectations: Marriage and Divorce in Post-Victorian America.

Selected Bibliography

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso 1983.

Andrews, William. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Anzaldua, Gloria. Borderlands = La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Bailey, Beth. From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

______. The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii. With David Farber. New York: Free Press, 1992.

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