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,
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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
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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
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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
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.
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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
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
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