I. Genealogy of American Studies

II. Myth and Symbol

III. Interpretive Social Science Theory

IV. Marxisms

V. Poststructuralist & Postmodern Theories

VI. Gender, Race, Sexuality & Dis/ability

VII. Historical Theories & Methods

VIII. Literary Theories & Methods

IX. (British) Cultural Studies

X. Postcolonial & Transnational Theories

XI. Theorizing Interdisciplinarity (forthcoming)

Comments? Corrections? Suggestions?


I. On the Genealogy of American Studies

This historical overview section lists books and articles that trace the rise of American Studies (henceforth AS) as a discipline or interdiscipline, in terms of its theoretical concerns and/or its institutional contexts. Recent theory has reminded us that origin stories are powerful determining forces, and thus these (and my) tales of the growth and development of the discipline should be read both for what they say and for what they may leave out, read both for their truths and their partialities.

  • Wise, Gene, ed. "Some Voices in and Around American Studies." American Quarterly 31 (1979): 338-406. As part of a special section of the 1979 bibliographic issue of American Quarterly entitled "The American Studies Movement: A Thirty Year Retrospective," fourteen scholars reflect on the history, and future of American Studies, including reflections on theory and method from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

  • ---. "'Paradigm Dramas' in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History." American Quarterly 31 (1979): 293-337. Wise traces the rise of American Studies from its mythic origins with Vernon Parrington in mid-west exile and Perry Miller in "darkest Africa," up to the late 1970s. He identifies a series of major "paradigm moments" in the development of the field, shaped by an interplay of social change and changes in theory. The essay is stronger on institutional history than on analyzing theoretical tendencies, but is suggestive regarding the latter area as well. His footnotes, especially the first two, provide a guide to further reading on the history of AS.

  • Susman, Warren. Culture as History. NY: Pantheon, 1984. A number of Susman's pieces on American intellectual and cultural history illuminate the development of AS, but his essay on "The Culture of the Thirties" is particularly important. While only tangentially treating AS, Susman's observation that the anthropological notion of "culture" became an obsessive concern of Americans during the depression crisis is very suggestive vis-a-vis the rise of the AS movement. But for a critique of Susman's exaggeration of the conservatism of the thirties, see below Michael Denning, "American Culture and Socialist Theory."

  • Bercovitch, Sacvan, and Myra Jehlen, eds., Ideology and Classic American Literature. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Contains reassessments of their work by important pioneers of AS theory and method including Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Richard Slotkin, and Alan Trachtenberg, as well as essays by a younger generation of scholars, including Houston Baker, Carolyn Porter, Donald Pease, Michael Gilmore, Jane Tompkins, Jonathan Arac, and Myra Jehlen, that exemplify work in the 1980s that blended feminist, neo-marxist and post-structuralist theories and methods.

  • Reising, Russell. The Unusable Past: Theory and the Study of American Literature. NY: Methuen, 1986. Offers a history and critique of major theories of an American literary and cultural tradition, from Perry Miller to Sacvan Bercovitch, including such figures of importance to AS as Leo Marx, F.O. Matthiessen, D.H. Lawrence, and R.W.B. Lewis.

  • Cowan, Michael. "Boundary as Center: Inventing an American Studies Culture." Prospects12 (1987): 1-20. Cowan's "state of the discipline" address as outgoing ASA president is a seriously playful account of major turning points in AS, treating AS scholars as a culture, and pointing out some of the contradictions of being an established anti-disciplinary, anti-establishmentarian discipline.

  • Kerber, Linda. "Diversity and the Transformation of American Studies." American Quarterly 41 (1989): 415-431. Also delivered as a president's address to the ASA (Miami 1988), this piece is a lively, nuanced defense of diversity in America and in AS. Told via a narrative about the changes in AS scholarship Kerber has noted during her lifetime, this speech is aimed at countering conservative calls during the Reagan era for what she sees as a narrowly monocultural and largely uncritical vision of our past and future. It is also aimed at putting questions of power, which Kerber sees as deflected by more abstract discussions of cultural "difference," at the center of AS scholarship and debate.

  • Davis, Allen F. "The Politics of America Studies." American Quarterly 42 (1990): 353-374. Another "presidential address" to the ASA (Toronto, 1989), this piece uses a story about a struggle for power within the ASA during the late 1960s and early 70s (between radicals and more traditionalist forces) to characterize the complex relations between the ASA as organization, the interdiscipline as a whole, and the wider forces of change and constancy in the society.

  • Gunn, Giles. "American Studies as Cultural Criticism, " in The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism of Culture. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987. A thoughtful, brief history of AS that attempts to show the polemical nature of the myth and symbol school, and how recent work by Clifford Geertz, Alan Trachtenberg and others has extended and clarified without really superseding the work of the myth and symbol school.

  • Berkhofer, Robert F. "A New Context for a New American Studies?" American Quarterly 41 (1989) 588-613. A sophisticated survey of how recent developments in social and intellectual history, and literary and cultural theory, are reshaping AS, with special reference to how relations between "texts" and "contexts" are constructed by various theoretical postures.

  • Lipsitz, George. "Listening to Learn, Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies." American Quarterly 42 (1990): 615-636. A brilliantly lucid introduction to the key tools recent European cultural theory has to offer AS; sorts the useful from the merely pretentious among post-structuralists, neo-marxists, semioticians, etc. and relates their work to developments in scholarship about popular culture in the US.

  • Lauter, Paul. "'Versions of Nashville, Visions of American Studies': Presidential Address to the ASA. October 27, 1994." American Quarterly 47.2 (June 1995): 185-203. President Lauter uses Nashville, with its range of resonances moving from the conservative Southern agragrian literary critics to Civil Rights workers of the Nashville movement, as the backdrop for a plea for a more publicly engaged version of American Studies, one deeply involved in political struggle at all levels.

  • Porter, Carolyn. "'What We Know that We Don't Know': Remapping American Literary Studies." American Literary History 6.3 (1994):467-526. While focused on the construction of the "field imaginary" of "American literature," this essay is directly relevant to those seeking an American Studies that displaces exceptionalism and re-places the U.S. in larger transnational flow of cultural exchanges.

  • Kaplan, Amy. "'Left Alone with America': The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture," in Cultures of United States Imperialism. Edited by Kaplan and Donald Pease. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993. Beginning with a re-reading of Perry Miller's errand into the heart of darkness, Kaplan succinctly and brilliantly lays out the ways in which American culture studies have avoided the fact of the United States empire. She demonstrates how that evasion has impoverished our understanding of not only U.S. imperialism but also of the interacting force of empire on our domestic cultural productions.

  • Desmond, Jane, and Virginia Domínquez. "Resituating American Studies in a Critical Internationalism." American Quarterly 48 (September 1996):475-90. Strong, lucid argument for a rethinking of American Studies institutionally and intellectually in relation to other "area studies" in order to better locate the field in the larger terrain of a self-critical trans- and inter-nationalism that undercuts American exceptionalism.

  • Denning, Michael. "American Culture and Socialist Theory," in Denning, The Cultural Front. London: Verso, 1996: 423-62. Locates part of the origins of American studies in the cultural struggle of the Popular Front social movement of the 30s and 40s, and rethinks American cultural studies in light of a radical revision of this "age of the CIO."

  • Maddox, Lucy, ed. Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1999. Collects many of the key essays cited above, with updating commentaries by AS scholars. Also includes some important pieces not referenced here.

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