Davis Address

The Politics of American Studies

By Allen F. Davis
Temple University
American Quarterly. John Hopkins University Press. 42.3 (1989): 353-374. Reprinted with permission.
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IN APRIL 1975 AT THE BICENTENNIAL WORLD REGIONAL CONFERENCE held in Salzburg, Austria an incident happened that startled all those present and underscored the political nature of American Studies. Scholars had gathered from most European countries, the United States, and Israel to discuss the impact of the United States and Europe on each other. The meetings were held at the Schloss Leopoldskron, an elegant eighteenth-century rococo palace, home of the Salzburg Seminar, but perhaps more famous for its role in the movie version of The Sound of Music. After the opening banquet, Gordon Wood of Brown University was in the middle of reading a carefully crafted paper on republicanism and the American place in the world, when Andrew Sinclair of Great Britain rose noisily from his chair to denounce Wood's "sad and terrible words" and to attack the American presence in Southeast Asia and in Europe. Then he stomped out of the hall. After a few moments of embarrassed and stunned silence, Wood finished his address. Sinclair's outburst (for which he apologized the next day) was related to the particular world situation in 1975 that found the United States at perhaps its lowest reputation at any point in the twentieth century, even among American Studies scholars.l At another conference in Washington the next year, Eqbal Ahmad of Pakistan denounced Henry Kissinger as a war criminal who ought to be tried for his crimes (to the discomfort of the State department officials who were present).2

At the Salzburg Conference, which was jointly sponsored by the Bicentennial Committee for International Conferences of Americanists (BCICA), an American Studies committee, the United States Information Agency (USIA), and the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the State Department (but paid for largely by grants from the latter two agencies), there was a considerable debate about the relationship between American Studies scholarship and American money and power. Some American scholars in previous years had refused to take USIA money to travel abroad, and many young European scholars were nervous about selling out to American cultural imperialism. Dennis Donoghue, now at New York University, then the President of the Irish American Studies Association, later wrote about the Salzburg Conference and the nature of American Studies.

You think you are talking about an American novel, but before you are well begun you find yourself reflecting on the exercise of power in the world. That doesn't happen when you talk about Ulysses. It is absurd to suggest that scholars should turn away from their academic interests lest they find themselves corrupted by American hospitality. But the relation between scholarship and money and power is an issue in American Studies where it is not an issue in, say Irish Studies, a pursuit in which worldly temptations are few.3

The relationship between politics, power, and American Studies is an issue dealt with every day by those who teach about the United States in another country. It is sometimes not as obvious for those who teach American Studies in the United States, but the relationship is always there and ought to be explicit. We are all influenced by our own times and by the politics of our generation; often we are challenged by events beyond our control. American Studies as a field has been especially influenced by events and movements, because it takes as its main task the making sense of the American experience, and because it has a special place and meaning outside the United States.

American Studies is rooted in the 1920s and 1930s, but developed its first real growth in a climate of nationalism and patriotism during World War II and the immediate post-war era.4 The war not only stimulated the study of and the defense of American values, it also altered the careers and forever influenced the world view of the academic generation that lived through the conflict. Some professors and graduate students served in the Armed Forces; a few were recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Norman Holmes Pearson, who later became chair of the American Studies department at Yale and president of the American Studies Association, was not only in OSS (the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency), but he was also the head of X-2, the counter intelligence branch of OSS in London. His experience made him a believer in an international approach to American Studies, but he also became a subject of some suspicion among younger scholars when the CIA fell out of fashion.5 Other scholars stayed at home during the war and taught in a growing number of interdisciplinary programs. Jay Hubbell of Duke University profited from the war in a more direct way. The United States Armed Forces Institute (USAFI) selected his book American Life in Literature for use in the Armed Services, and in one year he sold 50,000 copies to the government.6

American Studies scholars in Europe also profited in many ways from the cold war mentality, as Dennis Donoghue has pointed out. There were many landmarks in the development of American Studies in Europe, all of them related to American hospitality and influence: the founding of the Amerika Instituut at the University of Amsterdam in 1946, the Salzburg Seminar, begun the next year; the establishment of a chair at the University of Oslo in 1948, the University of Uppsala in the same year; and the founding of the European American Studies Association in 1954.7

It was not only in Europe, however, that the development of American Studies was influenced by the cold war climate. Beginning in 1949, the Carnegie Corporation made large grants to support the development of American Studies programs in a half dozen colleges and universities including Brown, Amherst, Minnesota, and the University of Pennsylvania. In 1950 the Coe Foundation gave a half-million dollar grant to Yale to support American Studies. Charles Seymour, the Yale president, explained that the "best safeguard against totalitarian developments in our society is an understanding of our own cultural heritage and an affirmative belief in the validity of our institutions of freedom, enterprise and individual liberty."8 A number of scholars worried about this uncritical patriotism and nationalism. Marvin Wachman, of Colgate University, writing in 1958, suggested that "teachers of American Studies need not be provincial in their interests and learning, norchauvinistic in their Americanism." He did admit that there were many who were both.9

Both the American Studies Association and the American Quarterly which preceded it were organized in a climate of patriotism and consensus. Originated by Tremaine McDowell at the University of Minnesota in 1949, and edited by William Van O'Connor for the first two years, the journal was rescued from financial failure in 1951 by Robert Spiller and the University of Pennsylvania. There are two theories about the origin of the American Studies Association. Robert SpilleI always said that it emerged out of The Society of American Studies, a small group founded after World War II at the Franklin Inn Club in Philadelphia. Carl Bode maintains that it grew from a series of luncheon meetings at the Supreme Court Cafeteria in Washington. Both theories are probably correct. The American Studies Association was a product of the post-war climate that fostered the study of American culture and encouraged the formation of professional organizations, journals, and conferences. More significant than the conflicting myths about the place of origin were the different philosophies about the academic mission of the Association. Bode and a few others believed that it should reach beyond the university to all of those interested in studying American culture; while Spiller, the consummate academic entrepreneur, envisioned the Association as a thoroughly professional and scholarly organization, a way to win power and prestige within the academy. The actual organizational meeting was held at the Library of Congress, March 22, 1951, a meeting place that Bode found important not only "because this was our national library, but also because it symbolized the fact that the society was not to be a professors' club but something wider.10

In the end it was Spiller's professional philosophy that prevailed, especially after he obtained a grant for the Association in 1954 from the Carnegie Corporation "to strengthen its work in advancing programs in American Civilization in colleges and universities." But the two philosophies have always created a tension in American Studies. The need to be thoroughly professional often has led to an unfortunate quest for a single American Studies method, for a particular American Studies mission or theory that would set those trained in the field apart from others who tried to interpret American culture. Yet for all the attempts to professionalize there have been other efforts to reach out to a wider audience. The early issues of the American Quarterly contain essays by Lionel Trilling, Peter Viereck, Max Lerner, Margaret Mead, David Reisman, and others, often without footnotes. Significantly the Quarterly's first issue was devoted to the international dimension of American Studies. In 1961 when Congress established the Peace Corps, many American Studies scholars helped teach Peace Corps volunteers: an American Studies course was an important part of the training whether the volunteers were lab technicians, geologists, or math teachers. The failures and the "stresses and strains of American society" were discussed as well as the more positive aspects. I don't know of any attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of American Studies in Peace Corps training, but it is another indication of the willingness of American Studies scholars to reach out beyond the university when they have the opportunity.11

Surprisingly those who sought to make American Studies a professional field did not promote a national convention. The American Studies Association was modeled in part on the Association of College Teachers of English, and was a federation of regional chapters. The Association did encourage regional meetings and sponsored sessions at both the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association annual meetings, but more sessions were held at the MLA. In 1957 Merle Curti worried that there were not enough historians involved in American Studies; another historian remarked that "un- fortunately American belle-letters is too slender a reed to support the weight of American civilization."12 One-day regional conferences and sessions at other national meetings did not satisfy everyone, especially during the next organizing wave of the late 1960s . It is understandable, given the long-standing opposition of the national office to conventions, that the impetus came not from Philadelphia, but from the Mid-Continent chapter, one of the strongest of the regional groups.

The first convention was held in Kansas City in the fall of 1967. That was the year of urban riots in Newark and Detroit. There were nearly one-half million American troops in Vietnam, and some of the idealism of the early sixties had given way to bitter anti-war and anti-draft demonstrations. Yet there was still affluence in the academic world; jobs were plentiful and there was a mood of expansion. Looking back, it now seems obvious that the period from 1963 to about 1969 was an aberration, a small window of opportunity that closed quickly, but at the time that brief period of optimism seemed like the model for the future. The National Defense Education Act Provided such an abundance of fellowships that many of us worried we were sending graduate students out for their first jobs with no teaching experience. There was a flurry of academic organizing in the sixties. The National Endowment for the Humanities was authorized in 1965 and began giving grants in 1966. The Oral History Association was founded in 1967. The American Folklore Society began meeting on its own the same year. Richard Dorson, writing in 1967, summed up the feelings of many when he wrote: "The academic prospects for folklore and folklorists have reached their highest point ever in The United States." Substitute almost any field, and the sentiments would have been the same. The Western Literature Association, founded in 1965, began its own journal in 1967. The Journal of Social History began the same year, and the Journal of Popular Culture and the Journal of Interdisciplinary History the next. The Popular Culture Association was founded in 1969 during the second American Studies Convention. The first two American Studies national conventions were held at a time of academic optimism. They were part of the trend of expansion and definition of fields in the humanities and the social sciences.13

Affluence and organization were not the only characteristics of academia that defined the 1960s. The people who were young instructors or graduate students during those years do not often remember the prosperity; rather they recall their frustration with the university, even their rebellion against the university. I was teaching at the University of Missouri during those years. I recall a huge meeting one Sunday afternoon about 1965 when the vice president of the university announced to the crowd: "You talk about student rights; let me tell you, students have no rights." Within a very short time, however, most university administrators threw up their hands in despair and abandoned the concept of in loco parentis. Students freed from dress codes and dormitory rules began to rebel in other ways. Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and by news that filtered in from Berkeley and Columbia and Wisconsin, they began alternative newspapers, conducted sit-ins, teach-ins, and protest marches. Some faculty began to dress like students, even to act like students; others continued their old ways and became, in some cases, bitter and alienated. Some of us learned how to say "fuck" in the classroom (and you have no idea how difficult that was), and even more important we learned to use the first person and occasionally to reveal our own doubts and despair to our students. We became in many ways the students of our students, and we were often embarrassed and confused because the rules were changing all around us.14

The intellectual turmoil, the Civil Rights Movement, and the antiwar protests influenced American Studies, but so did the attack on the university. Some students even wondered why they were in graduate school. Writing in 1971 while a graduate student at Yale, Gene Leach captured some of the frustration of that period.

Standing at the window-slits in the upper stacks of Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, American Studies graduate students can see beyond the New Haven ghetto that begins only two blocks away. In fact, they are encouraged to see beyond the ghetto, but not so far as Vietnam, or the un-Yale-like places where, if they are fortunate, they will end up working when they get their degrees. The American Studies program invites them instead to gaze at an academic middle landscape where the word "problems" refers to intellectual conundrums.... Graduate students learn unspoken rules of decorum about where to look and when to look away. They are urged to pour over the catalogue listings of course offerings, but not the sections about how the program is run.... Graduate study, American Studies included, is dominated by the same ethic of competition, the same technicalization and professionalization of moral issues, the same drive to specialize, and rationalize, the same zeal for efficiency and smooth procedure, the same essentially managerial outlook that prevails in big business, foundations, and government.15

Leach and some of his fellow American Studies graduate students at Yale began their own alternative course on contemporary America and ran it without faculty guidance. They didn't transform Yale, but they did change themselves. Some dropped out of the university, but others persisted.

Even before Leach and his fellow students began attacking the stodginess of Yale, students and teachers in other places were trying to make connections between their study of American culture and what they saw going on in American society. As early as the spring of 1966, at a joint meeting of the Michigan and Ohio-Indiana chapters of the American Studies Association (ASA), held at Wayne State University, a group of scholars from a variety of fields met to discuss the "Protest Movements of Our Time." Robert Sklar from the University of Michigan, who had received his Ph.D. from Harvard the year before, gave a lecture entitled "American Studies as a Form of Dissent." There were art exhibits, films, poems, and a real sense that American Studies could learn from the New Left, the student movement, and the Civil Rights Movement. Betty Chmaj of Wayne State, who had received the first Ph.D. in American Studies granted by the University of Michigan, edited some of the papers from the conference and produced a mimeographed booklet called "The Protest Papers." It was probably the first of many mimeographed, alternative publications in American Studies which owed something to The Whole Earth Catalogue, and more to the alternative press of the counter culture.16

Some of those from Michigan, including Chmaj and Sklar, played a role in the formation of the Radical Caucus of the ASA. It all began in Toledo at the second ASA national convention in the fall of 1969. I was not there but have tried to recreate what happened at the convention by consulting the surviving documents and by talking to a number of people who were in attendance. The world had changed in the two years since the first ASA convention in 1967. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in 1968, and American cities exploded in riot. The war in Vietnam had become so divisive that even the editor-in-chief of Time Inc. announced that for the first time in our lives the country had lost a working consensus "as to what we think America means." The country watched in 1968 as Chicago police beat up young protestors, and even a staid and conservative organization like the American Historical Association voted to protest Mayor Daley's action by moving their convention from Chicago to New York. 1969 was the year of Woodstock and the time when the left splintered and the Weathermen were organized. The National Guard occupied the campus of the University of Wisconsin, and bombs exploded in the ROTC headquarters at Columbia.17

The radicals within American Studies were not Weathermen nor bomb throwers; they merely wanted to transfer some of the movement for freedom and equality they witnessed all around them to their teaching and learning. Some of those who were at Toledo would take part two weeks later in the biggest demonstration Washington had ever seenş the Vietnam moratorium rally. A few denounced the United States as a "repressive, dehumanizing, technocratic, imperialistic society," but others were not sure, and many were simply curious. The radicals were led by Sklar, Chmaj, and Bob Merideth, a young professor from Miami University in Ohio; Nancy Bannister and Bob Scarola, graduate students first at Indiana University then at Case-Western Reserve, also played important roles. The group gathered in the French Room on the third floor of the Commodore Perry Hotel where a sign announced "New University Conference," but by the meeting's end the group was calling themselves "The Radical Caucus." Arthur Dudden, the Executive Secretary of ASA, remembers that there were really two conventions going on in Toledo, the regular convention and the informal one run by the radical caucus. He also remembers Carl Bode, the first president of ASA, moving quietly back and forth between the two groups in his suede jacket trying to prevent a permanent split. Everyone recalls excitement, commitment, occasional anger, and groups sitting on the floor engaged in intense conversation.18

The ASA Council, meeting during the convention, invited two members of the Radical Caucus to speak to them. Bob Merideth and Michael Rockland of Douglass College appeared at the Council meeting and made a series of demands, with Merideth as the spokesman. American Quarterly, he argued, should be transformed into "a vital vanguard journal"; graduate students should be added immmediately to the editorial board and to the council; and the ASA should provide fellowships for black scholars who would spend brief periods on several campuses fellowships for graduate students who would move from one university to another, and support for Third World scholars critical of the United States. He also urged that ASA hold a plenary session to vote support for the Vietnam moratorium. Despite the tone and arrogance of Merideth's demands, the Council (chaired by Vice President Walker because Daniel Boorstin had given his presidential address and left town) took the Radical Caucus seriously.

The ASA Council rejected the resolution on the Vietnam moratorium and dismissed the call for traveling fellowships, but the next year voted to help subsidize the Radical Caucus publication, Connections, and to expand the council to include one student and one member of the Radical Caucus. There was a storm of protest from the membership. "Giving the Radical Caucus an automatic seat (because of the force of its protests...) is especially outrageous," one scholar wrote. "I must confess that I find the logic behind this decision to subsidize the publication of a journal of a specific ideological persuasion to be incomprehensible," another announced. Several people resigned from ASA in protest, including Daniel Boorstin.19

The officers of the association, who themselves felt some ambivalence about their actions, had a difficult time explaining the special dynamics of the situation to those who were not present. In the end, however, the sympathetic hearing extended to the Radical Caucus prevented the division that occurred in other professional organizations. At the American Historical Association convention in 1969, Staughton Lynd and Eugene Genovese engaged in a shouting match at the business meeting and wrestled for control of the microphone as they vied for the chance to represent the radicals. Ultimately, all the radical proposals lost. The Radical Caucus of the Modern Language Association had more success; they actually elected a vice president and passed a series of resolutions, but in the process split the organization into two camps.20

The word "radical," in the context of 1969, troubled many people in the American Studies Association. When Gene Leach was elected as the representative of the Radical Caucus to the Council, however, he proved to be reasonable, mature, and anything but a bomb thrower, and the issue subsided. Leach and Lois Rudnick, the other graduate student elected, took the representation of students and their concerns as their primary mission. They were so effective that they prepared the way for a great many other students elected to the council, and today it is assumed that students should play a role in all Council decisions. The Radical Caucus renamed itself in 1971, "The Community of Scholars Concerned About America" (a typical sixties title), but to most people they remained the Radical Caucus. It was a shifting group, but Lawrence Chisolm of SUNY, Buffalo, Gene Wise, Case Western Reserve, and Alice Kessler-Harris of Hofstra, in addition to the others, played key roles. Over the next years, they had a large impact on the field of American Studies on their own campuses and nationally through their journals, Connections and Connections II. They raised issues about teaching and learning and about the politics of the association.

The Radical Caucus challenged the way things had been done in the American Studies Association. They ran candidates for president and vice president in 1971, 1973, and 1975, and managed to elect two of their members vice president. They altered the way presidents were selected, insisting on the nomination of at least two candidates and a vote of the entire membership: in the past one nominee had been selected by a small group of insiders, then elected by the council.21

The issue of the role of women in the Association was more controversial than that of electing radicals and students to the Council. In 1969 Betty Chmaj was the only woman on a council of twenty-seven. This reflected not only the attitude of the national office in Philadelphia and the status of women in universities, but also the practice of the regional chapters in every part of the country, for in 1969 most of the council members were elected by the chapters. Chmaj almost singlehandedly forced ASA to face the "woman question." It was not easy Many of the men who called themselves radical did not think the issue of discrimination against women in the Association was a concern of high priority, and the ASA, like all professional associations of this period, had its share of male chauvinists and womanizers. One could say of Radical American Studies what Rayna Rapp said of her male colleagues at the University of Michigan: "They had all this empathy for the Vietnamese, and for black Americans, but they didn't have much empathy for the women in their lives; not the women they slept with, not the women they shared office space with, not the women they fought at demonstrations with."22 Still, enough people (both male and female) followed Chmaj's lead so that the Executive Council of the ASA meeting in Washington in December 1969 passed a resolution: "that the American Studies Association formally states its opposition to discrimination against women in admissions, grants, awarding of degrees, faculty employment, salary and conditions of employment and consideration for promotion, and that it undertake to receive, solicit and publicize information relating to specific instances of such discrimination." In 1971, Robert Walker, as president, appointed a Committee on the Status of Women, which was chaired by Chmaj, and the Council voted to help subsidize a book, American Women and American Studies, which she edited. The next year the Council approved a series of resolutions on the status of women, based in part on those passed by the Modern Language Association, but more comprehensive than those of most organizations at that time. Indeed, the ASA's resolutions on women became the model for many other academic organizations.23

Passing resolutions was one thing, but making real changes was something else again. The program committee for the 1971 convention contained no women, the editorial board approved for the American Quarterly in 1972 contained no women, and a conference on American Studies held in Florida the same year had no women participants. When I became Executive Secretary in 1972, I conducted a special election to select three temporary women representatives to the Council as an interim measure until women could be elected through regular channels. Several members of the association resigned in protest, charging reverse discrimination. Eventually women took their place on committees and on the Council, but just as significant, the study of women became an important influence on American Studies as a field. To look at American culture through the eyes of women was to question and revise many aspects of the American character and the American consensus.

Black studies was another matter. There were very few Afro- American members of ASA, although John Hope Franklin, the leading historian of the American black experience, had been president of the Association in 1967. Some of the Radical Caucus agenda included the need for a black perspective, and several Afro- American scholars had appeared on regional programs; but there were no Afro-Americans among the small group that gathered at Toledo to talk into the night about transforming American society and organizing a radical American Studies community. The minutes of the 1969 Council meeting mention a discussion of "the potential relationship between American Studies and black studies," but the implication was that American Studies had something to teach black scholars. In 1969, however, when feelings of black power and black separatism were very prevalent, few black scholars wanted to be instructed. The 1971 program did have one session on black studies with Letitia Brown and Mary Berry participating. For all the rhetoric of cooperation and the efforts of Arthur Dudden, Robert Corrigan, and others to reach out to black scholars, the Association of Negro Life and History met in the same cities and at the same time as ASA in 1971 and 1973 with little cooperation between the two groups.

The 1971 convention, held in Washington, was the first American Studies convention sponsored by the American Studies Association and planned from the national office (the 1967 and 1969 conventions had been run by regional chapters). With Robert Sklar (who had been elected vice president of ASA) as program chair, the conference broke new ground with sessions on black studies, women's studies, ethnic studies, popular culture, museums, and comparative studies. There was also a panel discussion on "American Values and the Indo-China War" that included Howard Zinn and Robert Jay LIfton. Lewis Mumford was one of the several participants from outside the university. The 1971 convention was a key even in broadening the interpretation of American Studies. It was also the first convention where ASA ran a job placement service and an insured day care center. The Executive Secretary Arthur Dudden, a full time professor of History of Bryn Mawr who ran the ASA office on a part-time basis, had to learn quickly how to deal with the complex task of managing a national convention.

The National American Studies Faculty (NASF) was also organized in 1971. The NASF, modeled after the National Humanities Faculty, was the brainchild of Robert Walker and was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. John Hague of Stetson University was appointed director. The idea of the faculty was to organize the membership of ASA into teams of unpaid consultants "in ways which would enable a better understanding of the American past to illuminate the needs and opportunities of the present." Consultants worked with high schools and community and four-year colleges, sponsored conferences, and ran institutes to encourage cooperations among institutions. Most important of all, they tried to relate the world of scholarship to the community. Some of the National Faculty projects were traditional (helping colleges restructure their curriculum, for example), but many were innovative and unusual. National Faculty volunteers consulted with DARE, Inc., an alternative school for boys expelled from the public schools in Boston, worked with an inner city neighborhood in Denver, and sponsored a four-week institute in Columbia, South Carolina designed to help high school teachers incorporate Afro-American, Native American, Chicano, and Women's literature into the high school curriculum. The National Faculty worked with Bethune- Cookman College in Florida and Rust College in Mississippi, were a team of scholars met with a variety of faculty members to demonstrate how black literature and culture could be incorporated into a number of courses. Not all projects were successful, but the concept of reaching out from the university to the community was important. In the end, those who served as consultants probably learned more than those they tried to teach, and a few had their lives and careers transformed. One of the most innovative of the National Faculty projects was the museum programs, which enabled two teams of American Studies experts to work with community museums in small cities in various parts of the country. They helped redesign exhibitions to interpret the story of local communities in the context of American culture. Joanna Zangrando, a member of one of the teams, recalls presenting a plan to the Lion's Club in Lima, Ohio in a room where she was the only woman present. She remembers working with Mennonite women in a Kansas town on a quilt exhibit. She also remembers the long, lonely trips from one small city to another.25

One of the most valuable things that John Hague did as director of NASF was to reach out to the young dissident scholars in the Radical Caucus. He used them as consultants, invited them to conferences, and in many ways provided the forum for a dialogue between those who called themselves radicals and those more traditional or established (over time the lines between the groups became very difficult to draw). It was this dialogue that helped revitalize American Studies in the early 1970s and prevented the divisions and despair that infested many other academic groups during these years. Perhaps the most important place where such dialogue took place was the Kirkland College conference of August 1972.

The Kirkland Summer Institute has already entered American Studies folklore. There are stories of all-night bridge games, of skinny dipping in the reservoir, of intense workshops and long discussions about teaching and learning and social relevance, and of utopian dreams about an American Studies Center and a radical American Studies community. The Kirkland Institute began as a dream of Nancy Bannister and Bob Scarola and a few others in the Radical Caucus; a dream related to the counter-culture impulse to form a community and to get to the heart of the matter by getting away from it all. John Hague, as the director of the American Studies Faculty, made the dream a reality by finding the money to help subsidize the venture, and Doris Friedensohn found the place.26 Doris was teaching at Kirkland College, a small liberal arts institution in Clinton, New York, in 1971 when the president of the college handed her the issue of Connections that included Gene Leach's essay on Yale. Fascinated by what she read, she invited the Institute to Kirkland.27

The advertisements for the Institute announced four days of "problem-stating, problem-solving workshops." Thirty-nine people attended. They came from many different parts of the country, from diverse backgrounds, and they represented almost as many political positions. Ranging in age from the early twenties to perhaps sixty, they came for different reasons, some sent by their universities, others on a more personal quest. Some wanted to restructure the university and change society. "Wouldn't it be great," one person wrote, "if American Studies could or would become a 'truly subversive' experience for its students, unfitting them for careers rather than disciplining them toward careers." "Wouldn't it be great," another wrote, "if American Studies could cut through the problems of student-teacher roles and create a sense of learning rather than teaching." Workshops were organized around such problems as "Contract Teaching and Learning," "Student Centered Culture Studies," and "American Studies Beyond the University."28

I had just become the Executive Secretary of the American Studies Association, and several people suggested that it might be useful if I attended: perhaps I could bridge the gulf between the Radical Caucus and the national office, and at the same time perhaps I could find out what the Radical Caucus was all about. I went expecting to be an observer, but I was quickly told that there would be no observers, that I had to be a participant.29

The discussions were often intense and sometimes personal; occasionally they resembled group therapy. Nancy Bannister had written, in one of her early calls for action, that American Studies should "provide people with the opportunity to learn about the process of solving personal and social problems," and Bob Merideth often switched from talking about culture studies to arguing the importance of Gestalt Therapy. The search was personal as well as political. Yet the diverse mixture of people gathered at Kirkland became a group--not all agreeing, some being turned off by the talk of personal problems, others rejecting theories borrowed from Thomas Kuhn, Kenneth Burke, and Herbert Marcuse--that came away after four days with a greater respect for the quest that everyone shared, on one level or another, of finding a way to make American Studies work in the classroom and in a world that seemed in 1972 to have gone mad.

By 1972 the time of academic expansion was over, and the New York Times was writing of a "Ph.D. glut." The young people at Kirkland and everywhere wondered if they would ever get a tenured position in a university. At the same time some debated whether they wanted to teach in a university (which seemed part of a corrupt culture) even if they could. Much of the talk at Kirkland, in retrospect, seems utopian, idealistic, and impractical. One group, for example, dreamed of establishing an American Studies Center that would publish books, create broadcasts and films, train teachers,. consult with museums, conduct workshops, and help influence policy on the national level.

The center was never organized and after a few years the National American Studies Faculty lost its funding and disappeared. The 1970s proved a time of crisis for many who had taken part in the Radical Caucus. One committed suicide, one went insane, two left the university and joined the Farm in Tennessee, the largest of the nation's communes. Others deserted American Studies for other fields, but some remained committed scholars and teachers in a world that had changed, often struggling in universities and colleges where budget crises precluded even dreaming of transforming the university and the world.

Yet the Radical Caucus and Kirkland had their impact. The dream of the Kirkland Institute to alter the nature of the 1973 ASA convention to be held in San Francisco did come true; some of the spirit and informality of Kirkland was brought to that conference. A committee headed by David Whisnant and Nancy Bannister organized more than twenty workshops on topics as diverse as "Film and Video," Indian Studies, "Contract Teaching," "The Uses of Autobiography," and "Ecology and Environmental Studies." The workshop format, which contrasted with the more formal and traditional sessions, helped to transform the San Francisco convention.30 Further, twenty-eight percent of the participants were women. This compared with fifteen percent on the 1971 program. To put it in perspective, the AHA meeting in San Francisco just two months later had only six percent women participants.31 Something else happened at San Francisco. With Alice Kessler-Harris, Carol Smith-Rosenberg, Warren Susman and others on a program committee chaired by James Stone, cultural history, the study of material culture and social history--with its emphasis on gender, ethnicity, race and class--became dominant in the association and displaced the emphasis on American exceptionalism and an American consensus.

As one looks at American Studies today it is difficult to single out the thread of influence that started with the Radical Caucus and the Kirkland Institute. One theme that does run through much of the literature (always mimeographed) is a concern for teaching and a search for new methods and ways to engage students in a changing world. Books such as Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Deschooling Society, and Growing Up Absurd are frequently mentioned. In addition to skinny dipping, Kirkland was a place for swapping syllabi and discussing non-traditional learning. Another theme that runs through the literature of the Radical Caucus is the connection of the personal with teaching and learnlng. Connections (the Radical Caucus publication) is filled with letters, personal statements and taped interviews: the use of the first person became accepted on many levels in the sixties, from the New Journallsm (pioneered by Tom Wolfe with his Yale Ph.D. in American Studies), to more informal testimonials and autobiographical accounts.32 Many people were fascinated with the tape recorder, which next to the mimeograph machine, symbolized much of the counter culture activity of the sixties and seventies. None were more intrigued with the tape recorder than Jay Mechling, Robert Merideth, and David Wilson who all taught in the American Studies Department at California-Davis. Mechling, who had studied at Stetson under John Hague converted to another kind of American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania where he had just finished his Ph.D. when he attended the Kirkland Institute. Over a period of months in 1974-75 these three talked into a tape recorder about their lives, loves, frustrations, and also about their research in culture studies. They edited the result into a book called Morning Work: a Trialogue that sums up much of the hope, optimism, naivete, and self satisfaction of the Radical Caucus.33

There are many important legacies from the Radical Caucus. Perhaps the most important was the democratization of the American Studies Association; but also significant was the challenge to make the study of American culture more diverse and inclusive and the insistence that the personal and the political be connected to the process of teaching and learning. Yet the attempt of a few radical scholars, most notably Robert Merideth and Gene Wise, to devise a theory of American Studies largely failed. Just as the search for one American Studies method and the attempt to define the American character had failed in the 1950s so the search for one theory did not succeed in reorienting the field in the 1970s. On one level at least, the search for a single theory was an attempt to make the field legitimate, and it ignored many who were not true believers, who had not had the proper conversion experience.34

As I look at the programs for recent American Studies conventions and as I read, or attempt to read, many of the current books and articles in the field, I am dismayed to discover that a great many young scholars (and some not so young) are once again seeking the one true approach. Many seem seduced by deconstructionism, the new historicism, or by another version of post-modern literary theory.35 We all need theories to approach our work, and debating theoretical approaches can be intellectually stimulating, but our main task should not be to write about theory, but to write a narrative, to tell a story, and to explain American culture to as wide an audience as possible. Too often those converted to theory drop names, invent words or write in convoluted sentences, making their articles unintelligible to all but a few insiders. It is not just those studying literary texts who fall prey to excessive specialization and unreadable language. It was important in the early seventies to write about the diversity of American culture--to study race, gender, class, and ethnicity--but now some of the work in social history has become so narrow, so focused on small topics, and in some cases so technical and statistical, that it also has lost its audience.

In a time when some proclaim the "Closing of the American Mind," or the "End of History," we cannot allow Fukiyama and Bloom to be the only ones who explain American culture, or the place of the United States in the world. As American Studies scholars we have a responsibility to write text books, help construct museum exhibits, produce films, define new methods of teaching, as well as to do careful, original research. We also have a responsibility and an opportunity to write readable prose, to define "the governing narrative," and to help all Americans make sense of their world at the end of the twentieth century.36 This does not mean finding a new unity, a new consensus. In telling the story of the American people, we must describe the diversity, the conflict, the racism, and the despair. As American Studies becomes more internationalized, we have an opportunity to look at the American experience from outside as well as from within. We especially need to address the problem of the meaning of American culture in a post-cold-war world. It will not be an easy task, but we should not hide behind our little studies, our careful deconstruction of texts, our over concern with footnotes, and our preoccupation with charts and graphs. As the last forty years has demonstrated, we cannot avoid politics, but we should be receptive to many approaches and theories. We can build on the early heritage of American Studies, and on the best of the Radical Caucus and the National American Studies Faculty. By interpreting American culture for a wide audience, we can have an influence. We can make a difference.

Return to thesis, A Movement in the Mirror: American Studies in the 1970s


A version of this paper was presented as the Presidential Address at the American Studies Association's annual meeting, 2 November 1989. I want to thank the following people for sharing their memories, and in some cases their files, with me and for commenting on an early draft of this essay: Betty Chmaj. Arthur P. Dudden, Doris Friedensohn, John Hague, Alice Kessler-Harris, Gene Leach, Jay Mechling, Robert Sklar, Robert H. Walker, and Joanna Zangrando. Many of these people disagree about what happened and its meaning, and most reject at least a part of my interpretation. This is not intended to be a complete history of the American Studies movement, but only some personal observations on various aspects of the recent past.

1 . Dennis Donoghue, "Thoughts After Salzburg," Times Literary Supplement ( June 1975), 658; Dennis Donoghue, Reading America: Essays on American Literature (Berkeley, 1987), 3. My memory of the incident differs slightly from Donoghue's, particularly in the language used by Sinclair.

2. Conference on "The United States in the World," held at the Smithsonian Institution, Sept. 1975. Ahmad's paper used American revisionist scholarship to denounce American foreign policy. See Eqbal Ahmad, "Political Culture and Foreign Policy: Notes on American Interventions in the Third World," in Allen F. Davis, ed. For Better or Worse: The American Influence in the World (Westport, 1981 ), I 19-44.

3. Donoghue, Reading America, 4. BCICA stood for Bicentennial Committee for International Conferences of Americanists and was chaired by Robin W. Winks of Yale University. In addition to the meeting in Salzburg, Austria, the committee organized meetings in Fujinomiya, Japan; Shiraz, Iran; San Antonio, Texas, and Abidjan Ivory Coast. See Robin W. Winks, "The Study of America Abroad on the Occasion of the Bicentennial," in Robin W. Winks, ed., Other Voices, Other Views: An International Collection of Essays From the Bicentennial (Westport, Conn., 1978), 3-15.

4. Philip Gleason, "World War II and the Development of American Studies,;' American Quarterly 36 (Bibliography 1984): 343-58.

5. Robin W. Winks, Cloak and Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961 (New York, 1987), 247-321.

6. Kermit Vanderbilt, American Literature and The Academy: The Roots, Growth and Maturity of a Profession (Philadelphia, 1986), 460-98.

7. Robert H. Walker, American Studies Abroad (Westport, Conn.. 1975), Sigmund Skard, Trans-Atlantic: Memoirs of a Norwegian Americanist (Oslo, Norway, 1978).

8. Josephine Martin Ober, "History of the American Studies Association" (unpublished Masters thesis, Bryn Mawr College, 1971), 16 ff; Seymour quote, New York Times (19 May 1950), 29; Annual Report of the Carnegie Corporation of New York 1954. The Coe Foundation also subsidized American Studies Programs at Stanford Harding, and Wyoming.

9. Arthur E. Bestor, Jr., "The Study of American Civilization: Jingoism or Scholarship?" William and Mary Quarterly 9 (Jan. 1952): 3-9; Marvin Wachman, "Chauvinism and American Studies," American Studies (May 1958): 3-4.

10. Carl Bode, "The Start of the ASA," unpublished essay, 1960, ASA MSS, Library of Congress, published in somewhat different form in American Quarterly 31 (Bibliography 1979): 345-54. Form letter from Robert Spiller, Scully Bradley, Roy F. Nichols, Richard H. Shrylock to -----, 20 Nov. 1945, ASA MSS, Library of Congress, Conversations with Robert Spiller, 1971-78.

11. Robert W. Iverson, "American Studies in the Peace Corps," American Studies, (July 1962): 1-3.

12 Amencan Studies: Problems, Promises and Possibilities (Austin, 1958), 30. Various early surveys suggest that there were always more historians than literary scholars, but in the 1950s the literary scholars often took a leadership role; William Hesseltine, "Some Observations on American Studies Programs Abroad," 1963, ASA MSS, Library of Congress.

13. Dorson quote, Annual Report of the American Folklore Society (March 1967), 2. Charles T. Morrissey, "Arrowhead and Arden House in Context: The Oral History Association and the Ethos of Formation in 1966-67," unpublished essay. Ray B. Browne, Against Academia: The History of the Popular Culture Association, American Culture Association and Popular Culture Movement, 1967-1988 (Bowling Green, 1989).

14. For the transformation of the universities, see Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (New York, 1977); Godfrey Hodgson, America in Our Time: From World War 11 to Nixon, What Happened and Why (New York, 1976); Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York, 1987).

15. Gene Leach, "Yale: Trimming the Ivy," Connections (Fall 1971), no pages; Leach, "Radical American Studies: A Movement and a Moment," unpublished paper, New England American Studies Association, April 1982. 16. Betty Chmaj with James McEvoy, "The Protest Papers," mimeographed, 1966; Chmaj to Allen F. Davis, 11 July 1989.

17. Hodgson, America, Our Times, 364; Gitlin, The Sixties, 285ff. 18 Chmaj to Davis, 11 July 1989; conversation with Arthur P. Dudden, 16 Sept. 1989, Ray Browne to Members of ASA Advisory and Host Committees, 17 Sept. 1969, Robert Merideth to Members of Executive Council, ASA, 3 Nov. 1969; Michael McGiffert to Ex-Council ASA, 16 Dec. 1969 (all correspondence in possession of Chmaj). The New University Conference was a radical scholarly organization based in the mid-west to which some American Studies scholars belonged. Another more academic rebellion also took place at the Toledo convention when Ray B. Browne used his position as program chair to denounce ASA as elitist and to form the Popular Culture Association.

19. Minutes of ASA Council Meeting, 28 Dec. 1970; Letter to ASA Members, 23 April 1971- Brooke Hindle to Arthur Dudden, 26 May 1971; August Meier to Arthur Dudden, 19 May 1971; Daniel Boorstin to Arthur Dudden, 12 May 1971, (ASA MSS, Library of Congress).

20. Minutes of Executive Council Meeting, 31 Oct. 1969, Toledo, Ohio, ASA MSS, LC. On the turmoil within the American Historical Association, see Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question ' and the American Historical Profession (New York, 1988), 434ff. On the Modern Language Association, see Edward E. Ericson, Jr., Radicals in the University (Stanford, 1975).

21. The best place to follow the impact of The Radical Caucus is in the Council Minutes and in the publications Connections and Connections 11, which unfortunately have not found their way into most libraries. Also see an occasional article like Robert Sklar's, "American Studies and the Realities of America," American Quarterly 22 (Summer 1970): 598-605. Significantly this article was not published in a regular issue of the Quarterly but in the bibliography issue, sponsored by the Association.

22. Betty Chmaj to ASA Executive Council, 3 Nov. 1969; Robert Walker to Arthur Dudden, 15 Sept. 1971, (ASA MSS, Library of Congress). For Rapp quote see Ronald Fraser, et al., 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (New York, 1988), 301.

23. Also serving on the committee were Blanch Gelfant, Lillian Schlissel, Lois Rudnick, Carlene Bagnell Blanchard and Robert Merideth. See "Resolutions on the Status of Women," American Quarterly 24 (Oct. 1972): 550-54; Chmaj to Arthur P. Dudden, 4 Sept. 1972, Allen F. Davis to Alma Payne, 3 Oct. 1972, ASA MSS, Library of Congress.

24. ASA Council Minutes, 28 Dec. 1970; Convention Program 1971, ASA MSS Library of Congress.

25. National American Studies Faculty Reports to the Council 1972-1976, in possession of John Hague, also ASA MSS, Library of Congress. John Hague to Allen F. Davis, 10 July 1989; Conversation, Joanna Zangrando, 29 Sept. 1989.

26. Conversation with Doris Friedensohn, 30 Sept. 1989; Nancy Bannister to Bob Merideth and Jay Mechling, 2 Aug. 1972 (in possession of Jay Mechling); Bannister to all, 25 Sept. 1972.

27. "Announcing American Studies Institute on Programs and Teaching, Kirkland College, Clinton, NY, Aug. 23-27, 1972" (in possession of Jay Mechling). Memories of Kirkland are confused because there was another smaller conference held there in the summer of 1973.

28. Connections, 2: 2, "Report on the American Studies Summer Institute."

29. Participating in my first workshop at Kirkland, I began to work out a strategy to use family history in the classroom, a strategy that later became a book. Jim Watts and Allen F. Davis, Generations: Your Family in Modern American History (New York, 1974), 3d edition, 1983.

30. Program: "Fourth Biennial Convention of the American Studies Association Oct. 18-20, 1973"; David E. Whisnant, "Proposal for an Alternative Culture Festival at the American Studies Association Meeting," ASA MSS, Library of Congress. The alternative culture festival was scaled down, but twenty-one workshops were held.

31. Percentages are based on an analysis of the three published programs.

32. Paul Goodman, Growing up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized System (New York, 1960); Ivan D. Illich, Deschooling Society (New York, 1971), Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (New York 1969). For the new journalism and the use of the first person in the 1960s see Dickstein Gates of Eden.

33. Jay Mechling, Robert Merideth, and David Wilson, Morning Work: A Trialogue on Issues of Knowledge and Freedom in Doing American Studies (Salinas, California, 1979).

34. The debate over, and search for, an American Studies method and paradigm, or definition, can be followed in: Henry Nash Smith, "Can 'American Studies' Develop a Method?" American Quarterly 9 (Summer 1957): 197-208; Robert E. Spiller, "Unity and Diversity in the Study of American Culture: The American Studies Association in Perspective," American Quarterly 25 (Dec. 1973): 611-18, Cecil F. Tate, The Search for a Method in American Studies (Minneapolis, 1973); Mechling, Merideth Wilson, "American Culture Studies: The Discipline and the Curriculum," American Quarterly 25 (Oct. 1973): 364 89; Gene Wise, "'Paradigm Dramas' in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement," American Quarterly 31 (Summer 1979): 293-337; Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., "A New Context for a New American Studies?" American Quarterly 41 (Dec. 1989): 588~13.

35. For the uninitiated, good places to begin to understand what all the fuss is about are Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis, 1983); H. Aram Veeser, ed., The New Historicism (New York, 1989); John E. Toews, "Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience," American Historical Review 93 (Oct. 1987): 879-907.

36. Two recent pleas for a narrative synthesis are Thomas Bender, "Wholes and Parts. The Need for Synthesis in American History," Journal of American History, 73 (June 1986): 120-36, and Alan Dawley, "A Preface to Synthesis," Labor History 29 (Summer 1988): 363-77. We could all emulate Marcus Rediker's richly textured interdisciplinary narrative, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Sea- men, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World 170~1750 (New York, 1987). He writes in his preface: "In reconstructing the social and cultural life of the early eighteenth-century common seamen, I have sought both to tell a story and to write a history" (9). Another model for American Studies might be Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (New York, 1987).