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

by Lisa Guernsey


The full drama of the intellectual debates of the American Studies movement cannot be entirely appreciated without some inkling of the political and institutional history of the American Studies Association (the "learned society" of the field), and its official journal, the American Quarterly. The 1970s brought its share of dramatic change to these two institutions as well. The theoretical and methodological changes instigated by the growing diversity of the Academy and its students caused several institutional tremors, including the establishment of several new programs, a shift to a more representative and equitable association, and the creation, via a new American Studies committee, of a more reader-oriented journal.

1. Unavoidable Politics

First, however, the connection between the movement's intellectual changes in the 1970s and its political and institutional shifts must be placed within the context of a larger American Studies ancestry. From the beginning, American Studies sprang from various political agendas which are, of course, inextricably tied to and often motivated by intellectual ones. The inner politics of starting a new department or academic field, for example, cannot be ignored. Gene Wise, in "`Paradigm Dramas' in American Studies," notes the institutional and departmental struggles that are inevitable results of unsettling change.22  The very first American Studies scholars shook the frame of academic order by rebelling against Anglo-centric departments of history and literature and boldly endeavoring to free themselves and the study of America from their marginalized positions.23 Once accepted and allowed to take form within the institution, however, the vanguard was no longer vanguard. Or, as Wise writes,

 ... many saw American Studies not as a vanguard movement of the frontiers of scholarship--the movement's prior image--but as an overly timid and elitist white male Protestant enterprise which tended to reinforce the dominant culture rather than critically analyzing it.24

The cycles of radicalization that have always shaped the American Studies movement also forever serve to topple it, forcing departments and scholars through painful yet creative episodes of change.25

Outside the walls of offices and institutions, political agendas behind the American Studies movement cannot be overlooked either. As critic Frederick Crews would argue, intellectual study can never be completely divorced from ideology.25  Since the inception of American Studies, its founding fathers have been criticized for carrying with them a political agenda they themselves may not have clearly realized. Vernon Louis Parrington and his 1927 Main Currents in American Thought emerged from the Progressive Era with a nativist and progressivist approach championing the virile Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, an approach which today might be derided as conjuring ideal fathers of an idealized America. F.O. Matthiessen's 1941 book, The American Renaissance, has been retrospectively labeled as a prime example of Cold War ideology and "liberal consensus," a subtle thumping of the chest during a time when many Americans were eager to trumpet their democratic pluralism over rigid totalitarianism.27 And today, cries of distress over what some call ideologically-driven scholarship reverberate throughout the movement. Debates today rage over the role and place of politically-loaded academic quests. Can Queer Theory, for example, be taken as objective inquiry? When does opening up the canon to once-marginalized groups bleed into blatant advocacy of liberal agendas? And what, many ask today, is so wrong with acknowledging, probing and exploring the existence of these political agendas in the first place?28 Whatever one's stand in the quagmire of ideological academia today, it becomes exceedingly clear that politics played, and continues to play, a critical role in shaping the American Studies movement.29

Continue to chapter two, part two, Agents of Change

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