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

by Lisa Guernsey


Despite their discontinuation, the bibliography issues in the 1970s opened channels of access and interdisciplinary communication that were sorely needed within the movement as a whole. Looking back on those issues, placing them in the context of the 1970s and its currents of change, proves how much they have to tell about where--and how--the movement was reconsidering itself. As Gene Wise wrote as early as 1979,

More than any other single forum, the bibliographical issues have stimulated critical self-consciousness in the movement; they have also given substance and direction to that self- consciousness.57

In effect, the bibliography issues supplied the tool for introspection that the American Studies movement needed at a time when method, inclusiveness, direction and objectivity were simultaneously being questioned. Reading through the bibliography issues, in fact, feels a bit like watching the American Studies movement watch itself. Serving as a mirror to the shifts of the 1970s, the bibliography issues reflected movements of change in two ways. American Studies could look at itself in this mirror and glimpse its own movements, note its changes, and witness its shifts. But it could also see, on its very face, the need for self-reflection and the hunger on the part of its members for a longer, deeper, more fulfilling look at where the movement might be going and how to get there.

Self-consciousness has often been considered one of the tell-tale symptoms of postmodern thought,58 and the American Studies movement in the 1970s exhibits itself as a prime case example. Looking in at itself--with an everpresent understanding for the need for context and an unshakable tendency toward radicalization--the American Studies movement exemplifies how intellectual thought and all its interchanging parts (political, psychological and sociological) can move within a postmodern space. For those who have felt the tremor of change for decades, instability may be, after all, a settling notion. Maybe asking a version of Henry Nash Smith's 1957 question, "Does American Studies Have a Method?", will always be the best approach, irrespective of an answer.

In 1993, then-President Cathy Davidson posted an ideal of what she called "loose change" within the association:  "inconsistent, multivalent, uneven, unstable, [and] indeterminate."59 Maybe, in fact, indeterminacy is the ideal the American Studies movement has been striving for since its first startling, exciting, unsettling and self-demanding look in the mirror. The fact that Henry Nash Smith's question has reverberated through the movement for so long proves the sustainability of the question itself--and the impossibility, and perhaps irrelevance, of settling on an answer. And, if the rapid growth, the influx of diversity, and the creative publications that shook the movement are any indication, the 1970s stand as the decade in which the American Studies movement first realized the power behind constant self-questioning and its accompanying inclination toward change, and fully understood the myriad, even contradictory ways, to use them to its strongest advantage.

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