Cultural Locations:
Positioning American Studies in the Great Debate

by Alice Kessler-Harris
Rutgers University


American Quarterly Johns Hopkins University Press. 44.3 (1992): 299-313. Reprinted with permission.
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SINCE WE LAST MET, THE WORLD HAS SEEN MOMENTOUS CHANGES. The United States organized an international coalition to fight and win a war in the Persian Gulf. Apartheid in South Africa is in the process of crumbling. General Noriega has become an American prisoner. Communism is shattered; the evil empire of the Soviet Union has disintegrated. The cold war is no longer. At this speaking, Arabs are sitting down with Israelis. And we are engaged in a bitter debate over multiculturalism.

I could go on. Unemployment insurance, sexual harassment, national health care, abortion rights, family leave, civil rights, and a newly virulent conservatism are all burning issues of the moment. None of them has occupied our daily thoughts more than issues of multiculturalism. Now I confess to more than a bit of puzzlement over all this. We seem to have won the war against communism. American free enterprise is a clear victor in the struggle for what we once called the minds and hearts of the people. Yet somehow we have become enmeshed in a battle over the idea of America. What is at stake in this battle? How are we, as students of American Studies, to think about it?

The absence of a common enemy, you might say, makes room for internal dissent. So it seems no more than reasonable that the same year that witnessed the demise of what appeared to be a major threat to the United States should witness the escalation of a fiery internal controversy that has left none of us untouched. Who has not participated in debates over revising the curriculum to meet the changing needs of students with new demographic profiles? Who has not written and read reviews of the several books that indict campuses as hotbeds of political correctness? Who has not watched as "Firing Line," "Nightline,' "McNeil-Lehrer" and other television programs have each in turn provided a forum for debate? And who has not noted with pain or pleasure the emergence of an oppositional group in the form of Teachers for a Democratic Culture?

How should we respond as academics and particularly as students of the United States? How should we position ourselves? Let us look a little more closely at the debate and then see if we can't forge an American Studies position.

In its simplest form, multiculturalism acknowledges and attempts to incorporate into the curriculum and campus environment "the wide range of cultures that cohabit the U.S." It represents, as even its detractors acknowledge, "the discovery on the part of minority groups that they can play a part in molding the larger culture even as they are molded by it."1 The trouble, according to its critics, is that multiculturalism is rarely benign. Rather, critics fear that multicultural courses will displace traditional subjects, depriving students of what they call the heritage of western culture.

For the purposes of this argument, I want to separate that central issue from arguments about political correctness. Opponents of multiculturalism often argue that codes of conduct and attempts at curricular reform designed to promote tolerance, in practice, inhibit our capacity to speak our minds. They accuse advocates of diversity of imposing particular standards of behavior. But what is often called political correctness detracts from the issues surrounding multiculturalism. Lest we substitute one myth for another, we can and should decry excesses perpetrated in the name of that endeavor. We need only recall some of our earlier experiences as Marxists, feminists, and activists in the 1960s to remember how important it was to be allowed to speak our piece and to despair when we hear reports that in the name of multiculturalisms students try to restrict classroom speech or attempt to bar some speakers from campus, or resort to intimidating criticism.

Still most efforts to achieve a multicultural curriculum can hardly be defined as excessive behavior. Though no one would deny the existence of occasional harassment or alarming insinuations, the degree to which intimidation and coercion of the kind that can be defined as politically correct behavior actually exists on American campuses remains an open question. The American Council on Education, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching all agree that the problem of coercion from the politically correct is far less prevalent than the rising numbers of incidents of racial intolerance, homophobia, and sexism.2 So we puzzle about how the issue of multiculturalism got turned into "Left-wing McCarthyism" or "Fascism of the Left."

But the issue of political correctness may be something of a red herring. At the heart of the attack on multiculturalism lies a concern not for rights but for community. To its opponents the idea of what constitutes America seems to be at stake; the meaning conjured up when we think of our nation is threatened. That meaning is intimately tied to ideas about the nature of Western civilization and the particular humanistic values it is said to represent. Those values are constructed in opposition to a feared and unnamed enemy.3 Thus, what is at stake has two levels: one, a set of Western ideas on which the concept of America as it is defined in these United States is said to rest, and the other, the material set of relations that we see around us and that is in danger of disintegration. They emerge clearly in the language in which the discussion is formulated.

In the spring of 1991, Lee M. Bass gave 20 million dollars to Yale to fund a course of study in Western civilization. The New York Times article that announced the gift commented that this was "a field that t`or more than a decade has been under attack while many colleges and universities increased their emphasis on the study of people and cultures outside the Western tradition."4 A month later, George Will used the pages of Newsweek to rise in defense of Western civilization. The curriculum wars, he declared, were "related battles in a single war, a war of aggression against the Western political tradition and the ideas that animate it."5

The themes of aggression and war permeate the rhetoric. Speaking of the resistance to Carol Iannone's nomination to the national board of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Will wrote, "In this low-visibility, high intensity war, Lynne Cheney is secretary of domestic defense. The foreign adversaries her husband, Dick must keep at bay are less dangerous, in the long run, than the domestic forces with which she must deal."6

Conceiving of the battle of ideas as neither more nor less than war, those who protest multiculturalism construct powerful enemies against whom they urge resistance. A. M. Rosenthal, in an essay revealingly titled "Suicide on the Fourth" conflated Communists and Fascists with America's racial bigots and "their emotional cousins" who were members of the Left.7 Others have suggested that those who support a "common cultural ground" are at war against "tribalism" and that claims to ethnicity are at war with efforts to forge a common identity.8 Calling those in favor of multiculturalism "new segregationists," Rosenthal argued that they "were undermining the great act of political genius upon which this country rests. That is, of course, the concept that this nation was to be based on a variety of identities from which one new identity would spring."9

The war is defensive. It aims to prevent fragmentation and disintegration of something variously called identity or common cultural ground or cultural unity. As Rosenthal put it, the question is "whether this country is to be etched indelibly in the minds of young Americans simply as a strange collection of races and ethnic groups without real identity or purpose in common, or as a great creative action of nationhood in which the building of one became the purpose of many."10 And in the words of George Will, the forces of multiculturalism "are fighting against the conservation of the common culture that is the nation's social cement."11

At the core of protest, then, is the central importance of cultural unity. When a specially appointed committee of New York State educators recommended a dramatic revision of the social studies curriculum in the state's schools last year, the ensuing disagreements echoed arguments all over the nation. The New York Times devoted several pages to the controversy. The committee, it reported, had concluded "that the teaching of social studies as a single officially sanctioned story was inaccurate as to the facts of conflict in American history, and further that it was limiting for white students and students of color alike." This led critics to suggest that "the old orthodoxies glorifying developments like the Pilgrims' journey to Plymouth Rock or the westward migration might be replaced by a new orthodoxy that would be critical of them. A dissenting committee member commented dolefully that a focus on ethnicity "opens the way for the kind of ethnic strife that has divided ... nations where there is no consent on a common culture. The people of the United States will recognize," he added, "even if this committee does not, that every viable nation has to have a common culture to survive in peace." Under these circumstances it was hardly hyperbole for the Times to note that "the battle over the New York State social studies curriculum is fundamentally a battle over the idea of America."12

A battle over the idea of America? Yes, and one in which the issue is what constitutes "American" and in which fears of fragmentation and loss of identity have replaced the fears of secret enemies conjured up by the old FBI. Those who attack what they call a politically correct stance seem to be supporting the idea of America as something fixed and given, deriving from Western civilization, while those who resist attach themselves to an idea of America that is more fluid and susceptible to change. One side constructs democratic culture as a tradition to be defended, a flag to be protected; the other as an ongoing process whose meanings are diffuse and changing. One side fears fragmentation of cultural unity; the other derides unity as a myth and protests loss of identity. The issue is joined: how do we preserve cultural unity and still do justice to the multiplicity of American cultures? To accomplish this, we must redefine what we mean by identity.

These are not new issues for American Studies, but their entry into so broad a public sphere pushes us, as scholars (once again) into a posture of self-examination. The political debate calls on myths about a past that we, in the field of American Studies have helped to create and interpret, and then popularize among an unsuspecting public. The political battle that rages around us is partly of our making. We, as historians, as cultural critics, as intellectuals who shape image and self-image have (if you will forgive the metaphor) built the bombs being used in the battle we now seek to avoid.

And so, perhaps reluctantly, we must take on the task of asking how we construct ourselves as a nation. In the past, we have accessed this question through a variety of methods so versatile that Marshall Fishwick once argued that to ask for method in American Studies was to descend into rigidity and restriction.13 Norman Holmes Pearson put it another way. "American Studies," he said, "is what you make of it ... it has to do with your eyes and what you see and what you do with America."14 The eyes with which we have seen have desperately wanted to see unity. Our great heroes have been scholars such as David Riesman, David Potter, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Henry Nash Smith who have chosen to present images of a shared and stable identity Our eagerness to see through their eyes has shaped not only our field, but also the conception of America now in dispute.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, Lionel Trilling noted, "even the most disaffected intellectual must respond ... to the growing isolation of his country amid the hostility which is directed against it."15 The desire for unity inhibited any public critique of institutions that accepted the tempting funds offered by foundations like Carnegie and Rockefeller to develop American Studies programs with the explicit aim of shoring up national identity in the face of a perceived totalitarian threat. Institutions like Yale, Barnard, Brown, and the University of Wyoming benefited from grants-grants that only became controversial in the sixties and after.16 Then, the impact of funding sources on the shape of intellectual life generated a controversy that brought to consciousness an ongoing debate about the relationship between culture and politics. That debate is perhaps responsible for the relatively hospitable response of the American Studies Association to demands for political voice from those seeking cultural representation in that period.

For American Studies has another tradition that parallels the search for unity. In a much discussed presentation at the 1990 meetings of the association, Leo Marx argued that American Studies had a long heritage of efforts to deal with the complexity of cultural differences--a heritage that extended back to the 1930s when distinguished scholars such as F.O. Mathiessen challenged then-accepted universalisms. Past presidents Allen Davis and Linda Kerber, among others, have pointed to the recent efforts of the discipline of American Studies to pay attention to calls for opening the doors of intellectual inquiry. In her 1988 presidential address, Kerber traced the efforts of the American Studies Association to integrate diversity into its organizational structure and scholarly enterprise.17 I came into the association on the wings of that change. Just out of graduate school, I was invited to give a paper at the Washington convention in 1971. It took only a day to realize that my connections in the association would be with the radical caucus-- the group actively seeking to reconcile the style, form, and content of American Studies with new understandings of the world around them. With the women s movement in full throttle, I joined the efforts of women for greater representation on the council. Arguably the search for diversity has constituted the creative dynamic of American Studies for many years.

But in recent years efforts to look at the lives of people of color, of members of various ethnic groups, and of women have lost some of their legitimacy--some of the impetus they provided for a continuing dialogue over the meaning of culture. The difficulties are rooted in the efforts of scholars to reconcile our rich new knowledge about previously neglected groups with the challenges they offer to cherished notions (myths if you will) about the American past. In an earlier moment, we simply insisted on the importance of certain myths and defended them as legitimate efforts to construct a persuasive narrative around which to develop an estimable national identity. These myths were for many years taken for granted, either as real or as markers on the road to a democratic utopia. If the effort to describe the United States as homogeneous was unavailing, our predecessors could and did succeed in defining what they called the American Character. They constructed images of national identity with such concepts as individualism, pragmatism, optimism, ambition, idealism, and progress and attributed them variously to the influence of the frontier, affluence, and a classless and nonhierarchical society. The effort to put these together into a manageable whole resulted by the early twentieth century in a celebration of liberalism as the apotheosis of the democratic ideal. As Americans, we celebrated an aggressive individualism, nurtured by political democracy and producing economic prosperity as its much desired offspring.

But this interpretation of our past was built on silences-- silences that were rudely shattered when in the 1960s the search for identity exacerbated differences among us and destroyed our faith in the union of individualism and democracy. The events of that decade (the civil rights movement, feminism, Vietnam, the search for authenticity, and the cry for participatory democracy) called the parameters of cultural homogeneity into question, pushing many American Studies practitioners into a critical stance and encouraging the development of new social and cultural theory that relied heavily on a revisionist history, women's studies, and a new consciousness of racial and ethnic divisions. By themselves, these concerns might have been temporary phenomena--we had, after all, absorbed immigrant groups for many years. But the shift to a new pluralism was accompanied by a simultaneous disavowal of notions of common identity, a fragmentation of any unified meaning to the word "American." The result was a search for the sources of individual and group identity in the lives of ethnics blacks, women, and poor and working-class people, as well as of elite businessmen and socially prominent reformers. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the simultaneous discovery of the nonpowerful and a refusal among many historians to fit the newly discovered into old myths about the past. The new narrative, they insisted, could not simply suggest that those who were different were "other." It had to incorporate some understanding of the dynamic effect of how differences among individuals and groups moved the historical process forward.

The twin rebellion against conceptions of common identity and the new pluralism proved to be crucial in the development of a relational stance. Black history, for example, which had not proved especially troublesome when it evoked the moral possibilities of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or Martin Luther King, became contentious when historians started to ask how it had shaped the white mind and the dominant economy. In that guise, it raised questions not only about a common vision, but about the role of domination in constructing economic and political democracy as well. It also called into question the plausibility of the liberal ideal of inevitable progress. The study of women, hardly a threat when it spoke to the accomplishments of great women like Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, or even Elizabeth Cady Stanton, created a backlash when it asked about how a gender system sustained racial and class divisions. From that standpoint, the study of women constituted an attack on the very definition of "American," identifying as masculine (rather than universal) metaphors that derived from such stalwarts as Whitman and Melville, and raising questions about the gendered content of individualism, self-reliance, pragmatism, and optimism. Conceptions of community, interdependence, piety, and nature changed their form and exerted greater influence as female concerns entered into definitions of American character. In this new environment, writing women and people of color into our understandings of culture required redefining "American" to incorporate multiple definitions of identity. One result, as Werner Sollors notes, is the disbelief with which conceptions of universalism are greeted when they enter into the discourse of cultural criticism--the scorn with which members of the American Studies community now see efforts at social generalization as merely a thin camouflage of power relations.18

The result, by the 1980s, was methodological ferment. The search for the particular yielded a fragmentation of subject that made a mockery of a single synthesis or interpretation of the American past. By the early 1980s, criticism of what later became known as multiculturalism had already begun, and calls for "synthesis" could be heard everywhere. Even social critics longed for the old history-a clear narrative line with a little literature or anthropology thrown in to help define culture. Alas, an easy synthesis was no longer possible. The search for the particular that had underlined and identified a fully pluralist America had repudiated old certainties of consensus, centrality, and truth without creating anything to replace them.

If some of us in American Studies have incorporated the disturbing results of this new knowledge, we have not yet conveyed it to the world. Somehow we need to argue that to construct a new identity does not mean to abandon the concept of American identity. Rather it should spur us to think about democratic culture as a continuing and unending process. The easiest way to illustrate this is with a personal example.

If you ask me where I come from, I'll tell you that I was born in England during World War II of refugee parents who were Hungarian-speaking, Czech citizens. We (my brothers and I) grew up speaking first Hungarian, then German--the language of the refugee community. Finally, we were sent to school to learn English--an event that happened shortly before we all moved to Wales where I lived until we emigrated to the United States. By then I was a teenager. How do I construct myself? It depends on the circumstance. Neither Hungarian nor Czech, neither English nor Welsh, I claim identities as my sense of otherness requires. I suppose that makes me a certain kind of American. For I fully understand the advantages of my other persona--after all, the transformation from an immigrant outsider in Britain to a British émigré in America brought with it instant privilege and insider status that transcended and covered up other disadvantages.19

That story is filled with silences. Listen to how loudly they scream a contradictory tale that undermines the urbane and cosmopolitan image I want to construct for you. My father, whom I like to imagine was no ordinary worker, nevertheless worked with his hands all his life. My mother, who died when she was barely forty, left three children to be defended from the good intentions of the British state authorities. Imagine now the refugee father with his tattered English trying to hang on to what was left of his family. I reconstruct myself as orphan child, desperately shamed by a parental heritage from which I could not wait to distance myself; I am revealed as a grammar school product who bore the weight of many exceptionalisms in a country unified by a language and culture I thought I would never fully possess. The saga of emigration becomes an escape that parallels those of my immigrant forebears. It is the transformation from undifferentiated alien to ethnic identity, from state protection to visible poverty, ultimately from unwanted outsider to the constructed self you see before you.

Like the process of construction on a personal level, creating a national image requires us to make conscious and unconscious decisions about what to include and exclude. It asks of us a negotiation between our efforts to retain the particular sense of self that links us to a special tradition and the efforts of such cultural forces as schools and the mass media to impose a sense of commonality that threatens to reduce each of us to what we share. Guenter Lenz puts it this way:

Obviously, any culture in some political sense is `unified' from the top down, and in any culture a utopian desire toward unity and wholeness ... is at works but it is only through processes of self-reflection, self-differentiation alternative visions and expressive forms, discontinuity and displacements that a culture continually reconstitutes `itself` as always contested and emergent.20

When we construct ourselves, we do so out of a sense of what makes us distinctive. Those of us who are immigrants, African American Latin, gay or lesbian, or any combination of these and a dozen other identities have no difficulty seeing in ourselves the otherness out of which we construct the persona that faces the world and limits or expands our vision. As powerful as these perspectives are in shaping a sense of well-being or grievance, they provide us with only partial visions-visions that each of us daily reconciles with the larger culture.

Our insistence on a multicultural curriculum, on a multicultural view of American experience, grows out of the clarity with which we see the pitfalls of adopting an image of anything as complex as America as a unified enterprise "Who cuts the border?" asks Hortense Spillers in the introduction to a new collection of essays "Who has the right to claim America? she asks angrily. America has been constructed out of

a dizzying concoction of writing and reportage, lying and `signifying,' jokes, `tall tales,' and transgenerational nightmare, all conflated under the banner of Our Lord ... [it exemplifies] for all intents and purposes the oldest game of trompe de l'oeil, the perhaps-mistaken-glance-of-the-eye, that certain European `powers' carried out regarding indigenous Americans.

America, she suggests was " `made up' in the gaze of Europe ... as much a `discovery' on the retinal surface as it was the appropriation of land and historical subjects."21

Nearly thirty years ago, John Kouwenhoven asked us to think about how common our common culture was, as he put it, to "determine the limits of our community of experienced particulars."22 When we have heeded his warning, we have been able to separate the need for synthesis that shapes ideas to tell a story in a particular way and is therefore inherently political from the realities of everyday belief and inspiration that rely on lived experience and are therefore cultural. We have been able to see the differences between essentially political patterns within which we reside and daily experiences that we continually create The result is less fragmentation than it is a richer view of culture as the double effect of the given and the self-generated. The perspective draws on the deeply rooted ambiguity that has allowed American Studies practitioners to see the relational ways in which a culture operates--to observe the frictions and tensions that serve both to name particular experiences and to trace the products of social consensus in ways that continually reformulate the mechanism by which a unified culture is constituted.

The questioning of universalism has led to an exciting search for a common vocabulary It encourages us to enter into a conversation about whether there is still a "we" at the heart of American culture and to wonder how that "we" is constituted. It requires us to reconstruct the disembodied voice-sometimes known as "the American people"- under whose rubric we are all subsumed in a way that will simultaneously provide a more inclusive framework and take a standpoint that distinguishes our perspective from that of an earlier and narrower notion of the American persona It creates the possibility that "we" can unify around the search for a democratic culture, instead of finding ourselves incorporated into a set of tropes such as individualism and equality from which many feel excluded. Tom Bender illustrated how that had been done by Lionel Trilling who moved from a radical "we" to one that represented an intellectual middle class and in the process extended the reach of his audience by thousands of people.23 Though Trilling remained caught in a narrow world of narrow definitions, the process enables us to see how he reconstructed himself.

But if the old universalisms have gone, can we find a "we" that experiences culture in shared ways, that encompasses some sense of` common identity? Surely that is our task. We can be helped to it by drawing some lessons from postmodernism and particularly from feminist theory Sandra Harding reminds us that knowledge is socially situated and that claims to knowledge of dominant groups are conditioned by their desire to preserve power.24 In turn, these claims produce the institutional support systems that validate them. Asking whose claim to knowledge we are validating reminds us of what we lose when we are exclusive--reminds us that the answer depends on a fuller vision that incorporates all of our lives, and urges us to operate from an intellectual position that takes such a stand.

Speaking of the uses of theory for black feminist academics, Patricia Hill Collins has noted that while black women possess a unique standpoint that produces "certain commonalities of perception," individual differences result in diverse experiences of common themes.25 The outsider/within status produces a creative tension that enables women of color to see the limits of the insider's knowledge and attempt to redefine it. Barbara Johnson warns us of the fragility of such identities: the insider, she suggests, becomes an outsider the minute she steps out of the inside.26 To some extent, every student of American Studies participates in the profoundly political process of determining a stance from which to see. Collins's advice is not dissimilar from that of John Fairbank, who, in his presidential address to the American Historical Association, asked historians to look at America from the outside and see how it changed our conception of ourselves "What image have we of our self-image?" Fairbank asked. "What do we think we are doing in the world?"27

If the fight for multiculturalism is a request for inclusion, if the heart of American Studies is the pursuit of what constitutes democratic culture, then we need to see the struggle over multiculturalism as a tug of war over who gets to create the public culture. For too long that culture has been the province of a narrow sector of society--its universals shaped our sense of the world, turning each of us into a problematic other. But the effort to alter a static and unitary notion of America has persisted for too long to be denied. Just as I construct myself in relation to my audience, just as American Studies constructs itself in relation to the politics of time and place, so America will reconstruct itself both in response to our multiple identities and in response to our efforts as scholars to describe it.

In that sense, we are all "other." The particular standpoints from which we operate may be differently revealing, but they all participate in the construction of the self (collective and individual) that will become the "other" of the next generation. Our project can be neither a false universalism, nor the reification of pieces of the culture at the expense of the whole. Rather we need to explore how people become part of, not separate from, that unified whole called America. As students and scholars of American Studies, we are called on to engage in, to facilitate, the conversation that occurs in the public marketplace by ensuring the perpetuation of a processual notion of America.

Far from undermining the search for unity, identity, and purpose, the multicultural enterprise has the potential to strengthen it. It provides a way of seeing relationally that is consistent with the early founders of American Studies as well as with its more recent protagonists. If it redefines identity from a fixed category to a search for a democratic culture, if it refuses to acknowledge a stable meaning or precise unchanging definition of America, multiculturalism nevertheless opens the possibility of conceiving democratic culture as a process in whose transformation we are all invited to participate.


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


NOTES

I. Fred Siegel, "The Cult of Multiculturalism," The New Republic, 18 Feb. 1991.

2. Huntly Collins, "Study: Few 'Politically Correct' Disputes," Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 July 1991, 3A.

3. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., for example, describes the ideas at the core of the Western traditions as "not Asian, nor African, nor Middle-Eastern ideas, except by adoption." See The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society (New York, 1992), 127.

4. Anthony dePalma, "Another Bass Gives Yale $20 Million," New York Times, Apr. 1991, A20.

5. George F. Will, "Curdled Politics on Campus," Newsweek, 6 May 1991, 72.

6. George F. Will, "Literary Politics," Newsweek, 22 Apr. 1991, 72.

7. A.M. Rosenthal, "Suicide on the Fourth," New York Times, 5 July 1991, A21.

8. William A. Henry III, "Upside Down in the Groves of Academe," Time, 1 Apr 1991, 69, offers some examples. See also Paul Berman, ed., Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses (New York, 1992).

9. Rosenthal, "Suicide on the Fourth," A21. This is an argument with which Arthur Schlesinger concurs. See The Disuniting of America, ch.5.

10. Rosenthal, "Suicide on the Fourth," A21.

11. Will, "Literary Politics," 72.

12. Joseph Berger, "Arguing About America," New York Times. 21 June 1991 Al, B4.

13. Marshall Fishwick, "American Studies: Bird in Hand." International Educational and Cultural Exchange (Winter 1968): 7.

14. In Josephine Manin Ober, "History of the American Studies Association." Master`s thesis, Bryn Mawr College, 1971, 23. Thanks to Arthur Dudden for obtaining a copy of this for me.

15. Lionel Trilling, "Our Country and our Culture." Partisan Review 3 (Autumn 1952): 319.

16. Ibid., 31.

17. Allen F. Davis, "The Politics of American Studies," American Quarterly 42 (Sept. 1990): 353-74; Linda K. Kerber, "Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies," American Quarterly 41 (Sept. 1989): 415-31.

18. Werner Sollors, "Of Mules and Mares in a Land of Difference; or Quadrupeds All?" American Quarterly 42 (June 1990): 181.

19. Several people asked me after the talk why I had omitted Jewishness as one of my identities. Perhaps the answer is that my parents' strong secular beliefs left little room for religious identity. Mine emerged, as a child, in powerful but sporadic moments and was not developed until after we emigrated. I have been struck in reading Susan Groag Bell`s Between Worlds: In Czechoslovakia, England and America (New York, 1991), by her similar stance with regard to assuming identities.

20. Guenter H. Lenz, "`Ethnographies': American Culture Studies and Postmodern Anthropology," Prospects 16 (1991): 22.

21. Hortense J. Spillers, "Who Cuts the Border?: Some Readings on `American,' " in Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text, ed. Spillers (New York and London, 1991), 4-5.

22. John Kouwenhoven, "American Studies: Words or Things?" in American Studies in Transition. ed. Marshall W. Fishwick (Boston, 1964), 23.

23. Thomas Bender, "Lionel Trilling and American Culture." American Quarterly 42 (June 1990): 324-47.

24. Sandra Harding, Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?: Thinking From Women's Lives (Ithaca, 1991), 119.

25. Patricia Hill Collins, "Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought," Social Problems 33 (Oct./Dec. 1986): 16.

26. Barbara Johnson, A World of Difference (Baltimore 1987), 173.

27. John K. Fairbank, "Assignment for the '70's," The American Historical Review 74 (Feb. 1969): 863.

This paper is a slightly revised version of my presidential address to the American Studies Association Meetings, Baltimore, MD, October 31, 1991. My deepest appreciation to Martha Banta, Arthur Dudden, Dee Garrison, and Robert Zangrando for leading me helpful material. And thanks to Doris Friedensohn and Bert Silverman for help in framing the issues.


Alice Kessler-Harris is a Professor of History at Rutgers University. Her most recent work is A Woman's Wage: Historical Meanings and Social Consequences (Lexington, Ky., 1990).