A Movement in the Mirror:
American Studies in the 1970s

by Lisa Guernsey


1. The New Diversity of 1970s

The 1970s may be plagued by images of polyester pants and strobe-light disco, but it also stands as a decade of radical social change. Fresh from the civil rights victories of the 1960s, African-Americans, and women especially, were making enormous inroads in improving their educational and professional status. Enrollment of undergraduate women increased from 38 percent in 1960 to 51 percent in 1979, while enrollment of graduate women jumped from 29 percent to nearly 50 percent in 1978.4 Undergraduate enrollment for racial and ethnic minorities doubled from 6.6 percent in 1960 to 13.0 percent in the late 1970s.5 While several improvements in the proportions of female and black faculty and minority graduate students remained to be seen, the 1970s unquestionably brought a drastic change in the complexion of campuses across the country. This new diversity would inevitably lead to changes in curriculum--and the American Studies movement was hardly immune to its effects. In fact, most American Studies insiders claim that the American Studies movement was one of the first to welcome and work with the influx of diversity. Women's Studies, many argue, was welcomed first by American Studies scholars,6 and even before the grip of the Civil Rights movement, American Studies scholars were tackling issues of slavery, immigration and women's suffrage in American Quarterly articles and in class syllabi.7

What emerged in the 1970s, however, was not only a new accommodation for once-ignored social groups and their histories, but a sudden acknowledgement of the limits of the historical, interdisciplinary and literary theories that had (intentionally or not) marginalized or disregarded minority perceptions. In American Studies, this acknowledgement took hold within the debate over method. For more than 20 years, the American Studies movement precipitated and crystalized a picture of American culture through its generally accepted "myth-symbol" approach to cultural products. By scrutinizing the way Americans absorbed and reacted to American myths, icons or figures, such as Andrew Jackson or the Wild West, American Studies scholars could extrapolate a composite of the "American Mind" or the "American Imagination," thereby issuing often insightful explanations of why Americans behaved as they do today and did in the past.  Henry Nash Smith's book, Virgin Land (1948), is universally celebrated as the touchstone work of this approach.8  As a journey into the political and literary minds of Americans ranging from Thomas Jefferson to dime-store novelist Erastus Beadle, Smith's book reveals the myths that stimulated Americans' attraction for the West and explains how stories of the West reverberated throughout the nineteenth century.

Virgin Land provided a stimulating, interdisciplinary model for a scholarly approach to studying the United States--and its example greatly advanced the American Studies movement intellectually--but by the 1960s and '70s, new students of American Studies began to see the myth-symbol approach as lacking the complexity that truly marked the "American Experience." In fact, as the diversity of the United States began to be recognized finally throughout academia, one had to ask, Is it really possible anymore to delineate one, true American Experience? The question quaked across the movement, while the ugly realities of the Vietnam War caused many academics--American Studies scholars included--to question to what degree America should be celebrated in the first place. Shifts in the intellectual, institutional and political bases of American Studies brought cries of "crisis" by some, "new paradigm" by others.9  An article by Bruce Kuklick printed in the American Quarterly in 1972 entitled, "Myth and Symbol in American Studies," signaled the extent of the method's collapse. "I must conclude," Kuklick writes, "that the humanists suppose what I shall call a crude Cartesian view of mind," a view that assumes that essential reason (or even truth) can be distilled from an analysis of human behavior.10 Within his essay, Kuklick readily admits that his conclusions are "mainly negative," and declares without hesitation that "humanist scholarship in American Studies illustrates a set of classic errors."11 To even attempt to get at the essence of "America," it seemed by then, would undoubtedly fail. Kuklick's strike hit low, but it may have been anti-climatic. Even by 1972, American Studies veterans say, myth-symbol searches for "the" American mind were already as good as dead.12

Continue to chapter one, part two, The Postmodern Stroke

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