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

by Lisa Guernsey


1. Leo Marx, "American Studies--A Defense of an Unscientific Method," New Literary History (October 1969); Robert Spiller, "Unity and Diversity in the Study of American Culture: The American Studies Association in Perspective," AQ (December 1973); Robert Scarola, "American Studies: Struggles in the DMZ," Connections (1973); Robert Merz and Michael Marsden, "American Culture Studies: A Discipline in Search of Itself," Journal of Popular Culture (Fall 1975); and Robert Sklar, "The Problem of an American Studies `Philosophy': A Bibliography of New Directions," AQ (August 1975). For even more articles of this type, see Gene Wise's bibliographic calendar that follows his informative essay, "`Paradigm Dramas' in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement," AQ (Summer 1979): 411-447.

2. Presidential addresses over the past decade cannot help but address the question of what American Studies is or should be. See "Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies" (1988), "The Politics of American Studies," (1989), "Working the Levees: Building them Up or Knocking Them Down?" (1990), "Cultural Locations: Positioning American Studies in the Great Debate," (1991), "Whose America? Whose Studies?" (1992) and "Loose Change," (1993), each of which are available in the September issue of the following year of the American Quarterly. Also see Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr. "A New Context for a New American Studies?" AQ 41.4: 588-613.

3. While exclamations of "crisis" exist in numerous sources, once specific example can be found in Jeffrey Louis Decker's essay, "Disassembling the Machine in the Garden: Antihumanism and the Critique of American Studies," in which he asks, "What has produced the so-called `crisis' in American Studies methodology over the past 20 years?" (New Literary History, 23 (1992): 281-317.)

4. Clark Kerr, "Postscript--1982," The Uses of the University, Third Edition, (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982): 171. Excerpted from a table of data synthesized from various studies illustrating the changes in enrollments for women, racial minorities and low-income students.

5. Ibid.

6. The American Quarterly published several essays related to Women's Studies in the 1970s. For related articles, see Annette Baxter, "Women's Studies and American Studies: The Uses of the Interdisciplinary," AQ 26.4 (1974): 433-39 and Donna Gerstenberger and Carolyn Allen, "Women's Studies/American Studies, 1970-1975," AQ 29.3 (1977): 263-279.

7. Evidence for the early acceptance of minority scholarship comes from Charles Basset's 1975 survey of American Studies programs showing that 46 percent of American Studies programs in the United States feature "black culture," while 37 percent feature "women in America." (Charles Bassett, "Undergraduate and Graduate American Studies Programs in the United States: A Survey," AQ 27.3 (1975): 306-330). A quick skim over the titles of essays in the American Quarterly throughout the 1960s offers substantial proof as well--slavery, discrimination and women's rights are common themes. As Linda K. Kerber noted in her 1988 presidential address, "Even in the 1950s and '60s," American Studies and the American Quarterly were "apparently hospitable" to African Americans and women. (Linda K. Kerber, "Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies," AQ 41.3 (1989): 419)

8. Gene Wise on page 307 of "`Paradigm Dramas' in American Studies" (AQ 31.3 (1979): 293-337) lists several other books that articulated the myth-symbol "paradigm in full form," including five works printed before Smith's Virgin Land: V.L. Parrington's Main Currents (1927-30), Perry Miller's Orthodoxy in Massachusetts (1933) and The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939), F.O. Matthiessen's American Renaissance (1941) and Ralph Barton Perry's Puritanism and Democracy (1944).

9. Regarding the cries of crisis, Linda K. Kerber provides one example. In her 1988 presidential address, Kerber noted that American Studies has been a "field in `crisis'" ever since she can remember. (Kerber, 419). Regarding new paradigms, Jay Mechling, Robert Merideth and David Wilson call for a "transition to maturity" where a new paradigm--or perhaps even the first paradigm--can be discerned. ("American Culture Studies: The Discipline and the Curriculum," AQ 25.4 (1973): 364-389.)

10. Bruce Kuklick, "Myth and Symbol in American Studies," AQ 24.4 (1972): 437.

11. Ibid, 450.

12. Gathered from a personal telephone interview with Jay Mechling of the University of California at Davis on June 29, 1995.

13. This summary of postmodern thought on humanism was synthesized from several theoretical texts, including Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Trans. by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, foreword by Fredric Jameson. France: Les Editions de Minuit, 1979; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.); Linda Hutcheon, Politics and Postmodernism. (London: Routledge, 1989) and Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity (trans. and intro. by Jon R. Snyder. Italy: Garzanti Editore s.p.a., 1985; Baltimore: Polity Press and Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988) which includes a chapter entitled "The Crisis of Humanism," pp. 31-47.  In addition, several of these thoughts were framed within a seminar course on postmodern theory taught by Professor Rita Felski at the University of Virginia.

14. Lyotard, xxiv.

15. See, for example, Kerber, 423.

16. See also Decker's essay in which he takes an antihumanistic reading of what he calls the "humanistic problematic" of American Studies. In addition, see Guenter H. Lenz, "`Ethnographies': American Culture Studies and Postmodern Anthropology," Prospects, 16 (1991): 1-30, which provides an lucid description of the effects of postmodernism on American Studies in its first pages.

17. Jay Mechling, Robert Merideth and David Wilson, "American Culture Studies: The Discipline and the Curriculum," AQ 25.4 (1973): 364.

18. Ibid, 371. Mechling et al refer to "stuff" on pages 380 and 387 as well. In the latter reference, "stuff" refers to some of the more concrete analysis that traditional history and literature professors commonly teach, such as the seven causes of the Civil War or an analysis of Moby Dick.

19. Ibid, 367.

20. Wise, 328.

21. For the past six months, several scholars who participate in the H-AMSTDY newsgroup have debated the direction of American Studies in both broad and more specific terms. For reviews of some of the conversations, access the internet and at the system prompt enter gopher gopher.uic.edu. Then go to submenu Researcher/History/H-Net/H-Amstdy.

22. Gene Wise, "`Paradigm Dramas' in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement," AQ 31.3 (1979): 293-337.

23. Wise, 304.  See also, Cathy Davidson, "`Loose Change': Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, November 4, 1993," in the 1994 volume of the American Quarterly, page 127 in which she writes that the ASA was founded "partly as a refuge for historicist literary critics professionally marginalized by the academy of New Criticism."  

24. Wise, 312.

25. ASA President-Elect Elaine Tyler May's yet-unpublished 1995 presidential address, in fact, will explore the effects of the radical roots of American Studies, according to ASA Executive Director John Stephens.

26. Frederick Crews, "Whose American Renaissance?" The New York Review of Books, 35.16 (October 27, 1988): 68.

27. Crews, 74. Crews writes, "Mathiessen thought he was forwarding the Popular Front program of international cultural pluralism, but his post-war successors found they could turn his book to nationalistic ends with no difficulty at all."

28. These questions and many others have been actively considered by American Studies scholars on the H-AMSTDY newsgroup. Several of the debates are accessible via the internet: type gopher gopher.uic.edu at the system prompt and then go to submenu Researcher/History/H-Net/H-AMSTDY.

29. For an extensive look at the history of politics in the American Studies Association, see Allen F. Davis's 1989 presidential address, "The Politics of American Studies" (AQ 42.3 (1989): 353-374.)

30. Taken from the "American Studies Programs in the United States: A Quantitative Survey," in the American Quarterly's summer issues, volumes 22 through 32. Charles Bassett of Colby College directed and analyzed the data in the early 1970s through 1974, at which point John Hague, director of the National American Studies Faculty, took over the task until 1978. 1978's survey was compiled by James R. Nesteby, also of the NASF, and then in 1979 the American Quarterly opted to publish the survey on a biannual basis. In 1980, Vera Bessi, a research assistant for the American Studies Association, took over the role.

Please note the data quoted by no means represents a scientific count. Sample sizes, methods of inquiry and definitions of American Studies programs varied throughout the years. For the most part, an American Studies program was defined as a program independent of or within a traditional department that offered some means of interdisciplinary scholarship. Undergraduate degree programs were defined as those which offered a bachelors of arts degree specifically labeled American Studies.

31. In 1970, Basset's survey listed 210 undergraduate degree programs. By 1980, that number had escalated to 271.

32. Interdisciplinary programs began to gain respect and attention in the 1960s and 1970s. For more information on the growth of interdisciplinary departments, see the AAHE-ERIC higher education report no.9, "Interdisciplinarity: The Mutable Paradigm," by William Mayville.

33. D. Melissa Hilbish, "Institutional Research: The Structure and Administration of American Studies Programs," American Studies Newsletter, (March 1994): 1.

34. This brief history was compiled from Davis, 365-367 and Mechling, 364.

35. Charles W. Bassett, "Undergraduate and Graduate American Studies Programs in the United States: A Survey," AQ 27.3: 321.

36. Ibid, 321.

37. In 1969, for example, only four of the 33 essays (not including reviews, of which one was written by a woman) published that year appear to have been written by women.

38. This brief summary of the ASA's Radical Caucus was gathered from page 313 of Gene Wise's "`Paradigm Dramas'" and pages 361-363 of Allen F. Davis's "The Politics of American Studies."

39. Robert H. Walker, "Report from the President," AQ 23.2 (1971): 260.

40. Walker, "Report from the President," AQ 24.1 (1972): 116.

41. Walker, "Report from the President," AQ 23.2 (1971): 260.

42. The above history was condensed from personal interviews with several American Studies Association members, including ASA Executive Director John Stephens.

43. Personal telephone interview with Robert Fogarty, former member of the bibliography committee and current editor of the Antioch Review, July 13, 1995.

44. The history detailed above was culled from interviews with several former and current members of the American Studies Association who were close to the event.

45. "Report of the Committee on Bibliographical Needs of the American Studies Association," within the "Editorial Statement," AQ 25.3 (1973): 259.

46. Ibid, 260.

47. Excerpted from a personal telephone interview with Jay Mechling on June 29, 1995.

48. Robert Sklar, "The Problem of American Studies `Philosophy': A Bibliography of New Directions," AQ 27.3 (1975): 245-260.  

49. Each of these topics was covered in at least one (and sometimes more than one) essay in the bibliography issue of the American Quarterly from 1975 to1986, volumes 27 to 38.

50. The American Quarterly was not, however, the first to attempt to collect essays under one theme. New Literary History, founded and still edited by Ralph Cohen of the University of Virginia, launched its first issue in 1969 with the ambition to shape each issue around one area of debate or scholarly inquiry.

51. From private correspondence with committee members in June and July 1995.

52. Excerpted from a personal telephone interview with Robert Fogarty, editor of the Antioch Review, July 13, 1995.

53. Some committee members with whom I conducted interviews or corresponded by electronic mail noted that the bibliography issues were widely read. Hard data on the percentage of American Studies scholars actually reading the American Quarterly in general does not exist since subscription rates simply mirror the number of individuals and groups in the American Studies Association. Every member of the ASA, in other words, received the American Quarterly; whether they actually read the journal with varying attention throughout the 1970s may be impossible to know.

54. Electronic mail correspondence with Werner Sollors, chairman of the committee from 1984 to 1986, June 1995.

55. Excerpted from written correspondence with Michael Marsden dated June 28, 1995 and an electronic mail message from Werner Sollors on June 22, 1995.

56. Electronic mail correspondence with John Stephens, June 26, 1995.

57. Wise, 329.

58. One specific reference can be found in Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, (London: Routledge, 1989): 1. She writes, "Postmodernism in general terms takes the form of self-conscious, self-contradiction, self-undermining statement."

59. Davidson, 137.

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