Boston Review
table of contents
new democracy forum
new fiction forum
rave reviews
writers’ guidelines
bookstore locator
literary links
RSS feed

Search the Web


Believing in America

An intellectual project and a national ideal

Leo Marx

I muse upon my country’s ills—
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time
On the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime
—Herman Melville, “Misgivings” (1860)

8 When I was teaching in England in 1957, Richard Hoggart, a founder of the British school of cultural criticism, told me about having met a young Fulbright scholar who identified himself as a teacher of something called “American studies.” “And what is that?” Hoggart asked. An exciting new field of interdisciplinary teaching and research, he was told. “But what is new about that?” It combines the study of history and literature. “In England we’ve been doing that for a long time,” Hoggart protested. “Yes,” said the eager Americanist, “but we look at American society as a whole—the entire culture, at all levels, high and low.” Hoggart, who was about to publish The Uses of Literacy, his groundbreaking study of British working-class culture, remained unimpressed. After a moment, in a fit of exasperation, his informant blurted out: “But you don’t understand, I believe in America!”

“That was it!” Hoggart said to me, “then I did understand.” It was unimaginable, he dryly added, that a British scholar would ever be heard saying, “I believe in Britain.”

The idea that this intensely personal, essentially political, morally ambiguous motive may have had a crucial role in shaping the American studies project immediately struck a chord with me. I unapologetically keep retelling Hoggart’s story because it points to the unacknowledged agenda of many founders of American studies—an agenda that has taken on new meaning at each stage of the project’s history—and to the roots of the Americanists’ chronic identity crisis.

Though I was not present at the creation of American studies, I arrived on the scene almost immediately afterward. In September 1937 I entered Harvard as a freshman—the same month, coincidentally, that Henry Nash Smith and Daniel Aaron took up residence as the first doctoral candidates in Harvard’s brand-new graduate program in the History of American Civilization. The beginning of their graduate studies often has been said to mark the beginning of interdisciplinary American studies as a field of teaching and research.1 During the next four years, while Smith and Aaron (whom I did not know at that time) were earning their doctorates, I took a bachelor’s degree in (American) History and Literature, a precursor of the new graduate program, taught largely by the same faculty—scholars interested in crossing the disciplinary boundaries between the study of American history and literature, society, and culture.

I enrolled as a candidate for the “Am Civ” doctoral degree after four years’ military service, and by the time I completed my graduate work in 1949 I had studied with most of the men—and they were all men—who had helped to shape the new program: F. O. Matthiessen, Perry Miller, Kenneth Murdock, Samuel Eliot Morison, Ralph Barton Perry, Howard Mumford Jones, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., and Benjamin Wright, as well as Henry Nash Smith, who was a visiting professor at Harvard during 1945–46. All of these scholars were my teachers or colleagues or both, several became close personal friends, and in those early years I was party to countless discussions of the new project.

From the vantage of the academy’s recent preoccupation with Theory, Harvard’s doctoral program in the History of American Civilization began life in a scandalously “untheorized” condition.2 It was introduced without fanfare, almost casually, as a strictly local experiment in interdisciplinary teaching and research. If a theory was implicit in this modest curricular innovation, it was a rationale for interdisciplinarity, the new project’s official mantra. But anyone who knew these sophisticated scholars also knew that they were not chiefly motivated by a passion for curricular innovation. In any case, I am not concerned here with the announced, quasi-official interdisciplinary agenda of American studies, but with the founders’ animating intellectual, moral, and political concerns.

That’s where Hoggart’s story comes in. When I first heard it in 1957 I assumed (as I no longer did, certainly, by 1977) that many Americanists—including me—still harbored a similar “belief” in America—however qualified. And back in the mid-1930s, members of the founding generation probably would have considered the point of Hoggart’s story too banal to mention. In those early years it was customary for Americanists—including several of my teachers—to invoke the egalitarian rhetoric of 1776 to convey the singular character of a republic founded on Enlightenment principles and institutions. Whereas most national identities derive from a people’s geographic or ethnolinguistic origins, they noted, the American identity was grounded in the universalist ideas and values of the Enlightenment. This nationalistic homily often featured Abraham Lincoln, the revered disciple of the revolutionary fathers who famously singled out—as the defining fact about America—that the young republic was dedicated to “a proposition,” a moral and political principle to which candidates for citizenship must swear allegiance, and in which all American citizens presumably “believe.”

The young Americanist’s reluctant admission to Hoggart that his scholarly subject also is an article of deep personal conviction thus identifies a motive, at once psychological and ideological, that arguably has played a vital if largely overlooked role in the history of the American studies project. I can think of no better demonstration of the persistence of this conviction than its capacity to elucidate what surely was the most important chapter in that (roughly) 65-year history. I refer to the Great Divide in the conception and practice of American studies that suddenly emerged, like a fissure opened by an earthquake, in the aftermath of the political upheaval of the Vietnam era.

*  *  *

Every Americanist no doubt has his or her own version of the Great Divide. For purposes of argument, therefore, I will sketch what I regard as the currently received—or in any case a widely shared—conception of that critical episode. It goes something like this. American studies “BD” (Before the Divide) was an essentially holistic, affirmative, nationalistic project primarily aimed at identifying and documenting the distinctive features of the culture and society chiefly created by white European settlers in the territory now constituting the United States. The project was inaugurated on the eve of World War II (and the subsequent Cold War) at just the right moment to provide the prospective superpower with such valuable cultural resources as, for example, a major national literature.

The literary scholars in American studies in the BD era initiated a new “myth and symbol” school of historically oriented criticism, named after the method used by Henry Nash Smith in the first substantial work of American studies scholarship, Virgin Land: The American West as Myth and Symbol (1950). The “myth and symbol” scholars helped to establish a new canon of “classic” American literature consisting almost exclusively of the work of dead white Protestant males. The canon helped to enforce “an imaginary homogeneity,” which proposed “that every moment of historical time constituted the occasion for the potential repetition of the sacred time of the nation’s founding . . .” The historians working in BD American studies had a similar mindset. They embraced the holistic assumptions of the “consensus” school of scholarship then favored by the leading “guild” historians. Like the myth-and-symbolists, the consensus historians tried to establish the shared, cohering, homogenizing character of American society and culture.

Taken together, adherents of these two scholarly persuasions constituted a powerful, ideologically driven interest group. In one of the first and most influential essays about the history of American studies, Gene Wise argued that their chief aim was to make credible the illusion that American culture is best understood as an essentially seamless whole. They posited the existence of a single, dominant “American mind” and of a society and culture so nearly homogeneous as to be free of significant sociocultural conflict.3

Then came the Sixties. A large and (briefly) effective dissident Movement suddenly emerged in response to a shocking sequence of disruptive events: the militant struggle of African Americans to obtain their civil rights; the assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; and, above all, the Vietnam War. The crisis culminated in the costly, humiliating defeat of America’s invading army. Before the end of that ill-considered, unjust, unpopular war, however, opposition to it had become, in the words of one astute British observer, Godfrey Hodgson, “the organizing principle around which all the doubts and disillusionments of the years of crisis since 1963, and all the deeper discontents hidden under the glossy surface of the confident years [the post–World War II consensus] coalesced into one great rebellion.” Within the United States the international Sixties rebellion was mounted by a loose coalition of the disaffected—“students, pacifists, draft resisters, black militants, Mexican farm workers, welfare mothers, frustrated suburban housewives, reservation Indians, penetentiary inmates, hippies from the California beaches and the Western wilderness, and bored workers on General Motors assembly lines”—Americans who felt victimized by the “power structure” or “military industrial complex.” All of these angry, frustrated groups briefly came together in that unwieldy, intermittently unified, dissident coalition known as “The Movement.”

For a fleeting moment in 1968, it looked as if the dissidents might succeed in initiating fundamental changes in the American system. But the American army’s final escape from Vietnam, and the more or less simultaneous exposure of Richard Nixon’s criminal Watergate conspiracy, helped to bring the most severe crisis of American political legitimacy since the Civil War to a dramatic if inconclusive climax. By 1976 the war was over, Nixon had resigned, the spirited radical Movement had disintegrated, and the fundamental structure of wealth and power in America remained largely unchanged.

It soon became evident, though, that the crisis had radically and irrevocably transformed the American studies project. The cultural wing of the dissident Movement—in many respects it marked a reemergence of the adversary culture of the 1840s4—had been based in the academy, and its adherents included many, probably most, of the younger American studies faculty members and their students. For them the collapse of the Movement was profoundly disappointing; more important, the manifest fracturing of the larger culture into a host of relatively small, incipiently rebellious subgroups presented the younger (AD) Americanists with what they saw as a compelling “reality check” on the dominant, blinkered, self-interested and—as now became evident—false assumptions of American studies BD. During the ’60s, moreover, a host of intellectually exciting, radically revisionary, postmodern critical theories—largely of transatlantic origin—had been enthusiastically adopted by American practitioners of the human sciences. With the help of the analytic tools provided by these refined critical theories—structuralist and poststructuralist—a cohort of AD scholars demonstrated that for decades their BD precursors had managed to ignore—in keeping with their nationalistic, patriarchal, racialist, hegemonic “master narrative”—the sharp differences of gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexual preference that divided Americans into distinct groups. Each of these subdivisions of the national population represented a partially distinct, long-suppressed set of socioeconomic interests and cultural identities. And when, during the fractious ’60s, each group had for a time reasserted its true identity, it proved in many cases to be as strong—if not stronger—than the identity they ostensibly shared with most Americans.

Beginning in the late 1970s the misguided assumptions, methods, and goals of American studies BD were energetically exposed, repudiated, and largely supplanted by a radically different set of AD assumptions, methods, and goals. The literary canon was opened to hitherto ignored or excluded cohorts of writers—women, Native Americans, African Americans, immigrant ethnics, gays and lesbians, et al. At the same time, the ideas, meanings, values, universal concepts, and privileged narratives associated with BD literary scholarship and criticism were denounced and repudiated. Similarly, historians of an AD multiculturalist persuasion now turned their attention to concrete particulars—to the precise, close-up, empirical, often quasi-ethnographic study of the beliefs and behavior of clearly defined, relatively small, even face-to-face local groups with shared identities.

In place of the overblown, abstracted, nationalistic concerns of BD American studies, the AD regime undertook the serious empirical investigation of the often microscale oppositional identity politics generated by the barriers of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexual preference. Whereas the BD Americanists liked to think of the society and culture of the United States as a seamless whole, their AD successors argued that the nation already had reached a late stage in an inexorable process of cultural fragmentation. It had become far more important, therefore, to study the dividing than the cohering forces at work in America. A further implication was that Americanists no longer considered the United States as a whole—the nation-state, the government, national institutions generally—a worthy subject of teaching and research.

So much for the currently received view of the Great Divide. I have presented something of a caricature, but that of course is my point. To my mind, most accounts of the BD project routinely advanced by AD scholars are caricatures.5 But I don’t mean to imply that the AD critique of the first generation and its work was unjustified. In our concern with the distinctiveness of American culture and society, we BD Americanists persistently overlooked salient differences of gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, and—though to a lesser extent—race and class. The turn toward difference was long overdue, and it obviously has had many salutary consequences. What requires explanation, however, is the extreme, dichotomizing character of the turn as proposed by the AD revisionists. They were proposing a perfectly reasonable, progressive shift of focus. Why did they suggest that it entailed a complete repudiation of the original American studies project? It was as if the Vietnam crisis had presented them with an either/or choice between wholly incompatible scholarly objectives: either they took as the object of their teaching and research American society and culture as a whole, or they refocused on its gendered, racial, ethnic, and class subdivisions. Moreover, how are we to account for the revisionists’ accusatory, often angry dismissals of their misguided precursors?

A plausible explanation lies, I believe, in the animating idea of the American studies project.

*  *  *

The American studies project was conceived in the politically charged atmosphere of the 1930s. Harvard announced its new doctoral program in 1936, just three years after Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler came to power. The advanced industrial societies were all in the grip of the Great Depression. Large segments of their economies were shut down. About one quarter of the American workforce was unemployed. The capitalist system was economically dysfunctional and morally bankrupt. Fascism was on the rise. In 1936, with the help of Germany and Italy, the Franco-led insurrection against Spain’s new democratic government set off a civil war widely regarded as a prologue to a worldwide conflict.

In those years many students were drawn to the Left. As an undergraduate I was active in the Harvard branch of the left-wing American Student Union and the editor of its magazine, the Harvard Progressive. For a year or so I also attended meetings of the Young Communist League. At that time, in fact, student and faculty intellectuals who were not anti-capitalist and anti-fascist probably were in a minority. The tenor of 1930s Left discourse, as I remember it, is captured by this 1935 manifesto, signed by many prominent, mainstream, artists and writers.

The capitalist system crumbles so rapidly before our eyes that . . . today hundreds of poets, novelists, dramatists, critics and short story writers recognize the necessity of personally helping to accelerate the destruction of capitalism and the establishment of a workers government.6

Virtually all of the scholars involved in founding American studies at Harvard were of a liberal or outright Left persuasion. This meant being anti-capitalist or at least highly critical of the capitalist system. Indeed, the least radical among them—members of the old-line English and history departments like Howard Mumford Jones, Kenneth Murdock, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.—as well as graduate students and young instructors like Daniel Aaron, Edmund Morgan, and Henry Nash Smith were left-tending New Dealers. Granville Hicks was a Communist, and to his credit, Daniel Boorstin, my sophomore-year tutor, later the Librarian of Congress, warned me that he was a member of the Communist Party; my teacher and friend, F. O. Matthiessen, was an active socialist but also a Christian, neither a Marxist nor a Christian socialist (labels he rejected but that are still attached to him). Perry Miller—my junior- and senior-year tutor and Ph.D. thesis supervisor—was sympathetic with the neo-Calvinist left viewpoint of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr; he too was a committed New Dealer. So were Tremaine McDowell of Minnesota as well as George Rogers Taylor and Colston Warne of Amherst College—post–World War II founders of their respective American studies programs in which I subsequently taught. My retrospective impression is that the view of the United States held by most of the founding generation of American studies scholars embodied much of the Left’s radical skepticism—not to say hostility—toward the capitalist system.

Yet latter-day critics of the original American studies project who espoused the “New American Studies” and the “new historicism” of the 1980s—I am thinking particularly of Philip Fisher and Walter Benn Michaels—miss the point, I think, when they dismiss the outlook of the BD Americanists as chronically “oppositional,” by which they seem to mean insufficiently appreciative of the creative entrepreneurial energies released by “free market” capitalism. As Michael Denning convincingly argues, today’s stock image of the “red decade” is an untrustworthy product of the Cold War. In his well-documented redescription of the “Cultural Front,” the Left social movement of the 1930s was not under a Stalinist thumb. On the contrary, the Popular Front political culture was an amalgam of democratic electoral politics, international anti-fascist solidarity, and a campaign against the repression of African Americans and labor unions.7 That certainly is the way I experienced it. When AD scholars describe the original American studies project as chronically, single-mindedly “oppositional, “ they overlook the extent to which it also fostered a remarkably positive, even celebratory view of American culture. They ignore the fact that adherents of the 1930s Left invariably yoked their critique of capitalism to a passionate reaffirmation of the egalitarian Enlightenment principles of the American Revolution. It was another instance of what Eric J. Sundquist describes as the “doubleness’’ inherent in the abolitionist critique of a society that condoned slavery, and in fact it typified the outlook of most dissident groups in the antebellum adversary culture.8

That intermittently dormant culture reawakened in the 1930s, and many Americanists whom I knew renounced capitalism on the grounds that its inequities violated core principles of American democracy. Even the most radical anarchists and revolutionaries of the era invoked those national ideals. One heard tales of union organizers and Wobblies getting themselves arrested by reading the Declaration of Independence on street corners. In 1939, when I heard Earl Browder, chairman of the Communist Party, USA, address a large crowd in the Boston Garden, he stood beneath a huge banner that read “COMMUNISM IS TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICANISM.” The pre–World War II decade also was marked by an unusually energetic burst of nationalistic expression in the arts. Patriotic themes are a conspicuous presence in the middlebrow and popular music, painting, and literature of the 1930s, as well as in the writing of popular theorists like Sidney Hook and Max Eastman, who effected what Denning describes as an Americanization of Marxism. Adherents of the cultural front in that period were more committed—and, oddly enough—more hopefully committed—to the tradition of radical egalitarianism than Americans have been at any other time of my life. That commitment has been described as an expression of fervent cultural nationalism, but we didn’t see it that way. In our 1930s lexicon, nationalism was a reactionary habit of mind, a seedbed of xenophobia and fascism. Our Left was internationalist. Our heroes were the American volunteers fighting fascism in Spain under the banner of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Our Left was committed, or so we believed, to the universal, egalitarian values of the Enlightenment represented by Jefferson, Paine, and Lincoln.

The close affinity of many founding Americanists with the ideology of the 1930s cultural front gave the project a distinctive tenor. It helped to mark off our loosely defined, untheorised way of doing history—and we should not forget that American studies is an essentially historical enterprise—from the enterprise of professionally trained “guild” historians who are members of history departments and the American Historical Association. The singularity of American studies as a non-discipline—to be interdisciplinary meant forfeiting the status and the prerogatives of the traditional disciplines—was vital to its initial academic identity. It meant that its founders did not believe they were training students to think of themselves, as historians did, as proud bearers of a scholarly legacy that extends back to Herodotus and Thucydides. But if the identity of the historians in large measure derived from that age-old form—history writing—what defined the identity of the new interdisciplinary Americanists? The short answer is that we chiefly associated it with our subject matter, not our mode of expression: American studies was about America.

Our literary precursors were an odd lot of gifted men—and a few women—who happened to make America their subject. Most of them were untrained, unaffiliated, unspecialized writers whose common trait was a fascination with the idea of America. Like the academic founders of American studies, they were interested in this unusual society and culture as a whole. The otherwise uncategorizable cohort included foreign observers of American life, including novelists, public servants (Tocqueville, Dickens, the Trollopes, Matthew Arnold, Lord Bryce, and D. H. Lawrence); self-appointed men and women of letters, deviant professors, independent scholars, public intellectuals, and wide-ranging journalists and poets (Thorstein Veblen, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, Constance Rourke, V. L. Parrington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Charles and Mary Beard, Lewis Mumford, Edmund Wilson, William Carlos Williams, F. O. Matthiessen). Many of these writers worked in the shadowy borderland between Academia, Bohemia, and Grub Street. Most lacked academic credentials and WASP respectability. None tried to write in the spirit of dispassionate analysis or quasi-scientific “objectivity” then in favor with academic humanists and social scientists. Indeed, their patent lack of a specialized method underscored the contrast between their work and that of the guild historians, many of whom were still captivated by the fading dream of making historical research as “hard” a science as chemistry or physics.9 Far from writing in a detached, “objective” mode, our precursors wrote out of a sense of complex personal engagement with their subject. Then, too, some of the Americans among them belonged to groups—women, African Americans, ethnic immigrants—then largely unrepresented and unwelcome on university faculties. As a result, much of this body of writing on America combined harsh criticism with anxious affection for the world’s first and largest experiment in multicultural democracy.

Thus the discourse of American studies had been inflected from the beginning by the doctrinal “doubleness” of the adversary culture. That culture evolved to serve the ideological needs of virtually all of the nation’s dissident social movements including, for example, the transcendentalist, feminist, and abolitionist movements of the antebellum era; the populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s; the pre–World War I progressive movement and—in the case at hand—the left-labor, anti-fascist movements (and cultural front) of the 1930s; and, to come full circle, the dissident Movement of the Vietnam era. To mobilize opposition to slavery, egregious forms of capitalist exploitation and injustice, and unjust wars, leaders of these dissident movements affirmed their provisional belief in the idea of America. It was a compelling means of exposing the discrepancy between a real and an ideal America or, as Melville put it on the eve of the Civil War, between the world’s foulest crime and man’s fairest hope.

*  *  *

To account for the profundity of the Great Divide it is helpful to keep in mind the deep disillusionment with their own country that many Americanists almost certainly experienced during the Vietnam era. I say “almost certainly” because they almost never acknowledged it. Still, it is plausible to assume that scholars who choose to devote their professional lives to studying their own country are likely to have felt a strong emotional attraction to the subject. And I know from personal experience that the Vietnam crisis was a time of disillusionment for Americanists. It led many of them—including quite a few of my students and colleagues—to become antiwar activists and to deny the political legitimacy of the American government. It led me to reverse my attitude toward service in the American armed forces. when I joined the navy in 1941, the idea that I was enlisting in a necessary war against fascism made it relatively easy for me to overcome my earlier pacifist inclinations. By the late 1960s, when both my sons were eligible for the draft, I was repelled by the prospect that they or I might be compelled to fight in the abhorrent Vietnam War. In the years preceding the Great Divide, in short, many practitioners of American studies lost much of their “belief” in America.

Of course, almost none of us would have put it that way, nor would we have admitted to ever having held such a belief. In my experience, Americanists have always been careful to avoid mentioning their own feelings about their subject. Recall the reluctance of the witness in the Hoggart anecdote to utter those telltale words. It is also striking that in the reams of argument that the ardent AD revisionists put forward in support of the post-Divide turn toward difference, they never to my knowledge admit that a change in their own attitude toward the United States had anything to do with their renunciation of the original project. But here, as often, the avoidance betrays the motive being avoided. Consider what their proposed revision of the American studies agenda entailed. Although they derided as fraudulent the presumed commitment of the American republic to the political program of the Enlightenment, they nonetheless reaffirmed their own commitment to the egalitarian principle at its core. But they did not renounce that vital principle, they relocated it. They disconnected Lincoln’s proposition from the idea of America and reattached it to the aspirations of those subordinate groups of Americans—women, African Americans, the working class—oppressed, victimized, or excluded by an irremediably corrupt nation. This was the only significant exception to their all but total repudiation of the original American studies project. I think it represents that quotient of disappointed idealism, its effect intensified by suppression or denial, that helps to explain the extremity of the Great Divide. Among the radical ideas of the revisionists, none more compellingly bears out this hypothesis than their conviction that the United States as a whole no longer is a worthy subject of teaching and research.

As I write, some three decades after the opening of the Great Divide, that paradoxical notion has been embraced by an energetic cohort of vocal, theoretically inclined, ultra-Left Americanists. In 1999 Janice Radway, in her inaugural address as the incoming president of the American Studies Association, recommended that the organization delete the word “American” from its name. Deploying a thesis developed by postcolonial, postnational critical theorists, she argued that the founding generation had mistakenly “elided” the culture of the United States with the idea of America. The fact is, however, that American studies always has been and still is—for all practical purposes—“United States studies.” This helps to explain the radical revisionists’ intense hostility toward their allegedly nationalistic precursors. This internecine ideological split was called to public attention recently by sociologist Alan Wolfe in a New Republic review of three new books by revisionist scholars, provocatively entitled “Anti-American Studies.” Since one of the books, The Futures of American Studies, is an anthology of essays by many of today’s leading Americanists, Wolfe’s response is based on a reasonably representative sample of current thinking in the field. He concludes that many of these scholars, in particular those who write in the unintelligible jargon of critical theory, have “developed a hatred for America so visceral that it makes one wonder why they bother studying America at all.”

I take the radical Americanists’ apparent hatred of the United States as an indirect tribute to—a muted requiem for—the doctrine of “doubleness”—of foul crime and fair hope—at the heart of the original, animating idea. Had the first generation explicitly formulated that idea, and had their successors been guided by it, the history of American studies might have been significantly different. An amplified version of the theory would have encouraged a continuing respect for the intellectual and moral complexity it embodies, and for scholarly practices designed to apply that complexity in a continuing analysis of social and cultural change. (Is it entirely far-fetched to suppose that if that theory had been instituted, women’s studies and African American studies programs might have been initiated, at least, under the auspices of American studies?) But I am afraid it is too late, at least so far as the agenda of the present cohort of radical Americanists is concerned. They apparently have given up hope for the cause of democracy in this United States. (One of the books Alan Wolfe reviews, David Noble’s Death of a Nation, explicitly argues the case for that necrophobic approach to the subject.10) If the views of this cohort are representative, the immediate prospects for mainstream American studies, in the United States at least, are gloomy. And when we consider the nation’s current plutocratic and imperial trajectory, the prospects grow even more dim.

And yet, having said all this, I remind myself that there are many Americanists—both at home and (especially) overseas—who have not wholly rejected the view of the United States and its brief history implicit in the animating idea of American studies. It closely resembles the view that Abraham Lincoln arrived at in the course of the slavery crisis, and which he succinctly defined at Gettysburg in 1863. There he begins with that cardinal principle to which, he argues, the founders had dedicated the new nation. But the word he chose was proposition, with all its tacit provisionality—its hypothetical tenor. The United States is a republic dedicated by its founders, he writes, “to the proposition that all men are created equal.” A commitment to the ideal of equality is the starting point, or ruling premise, of the republican experiment. By equality Lincoln meant—or, rather, has come to be understood as having meant—equality of opportunity, fairness, and equal protection of the law for all men, women, and children. But he did not stop there. Having named the crucial principle, he went on to describe the way the principle might be—was, as he saw it, even then being—translated into practice. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” he said, “testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” [My emphasis.]

There are strong affinities between Lincoln’s proposal for the continued testing of the viability of democratic principles and the practice of American studies implicit in the original 1930s project. But most practitioners of American studies, like Richard Hoggart’s interlocutor, seem reluctant to acknowledge their commitment to that democratic experiment. In the wake of the Great Divide many scholars who had participated in the dissident Movement wrote off the national experiment in democracy as a lost cause. A thorough canvass of the reasons for their bleak view would require another lengthy essay. But the extent of the nation’s departure from its original principles is, in the final analysis, beside the point. If, as I have tried to suggest, American studies began with the aim of subjecting the historical record of the society and culture of the United States to a measured, critical assessment—as measured, that is, by the nation’s own profession of values and purposes—this is no time to abandon that aim. In 2003, the reasons for Americanists to aggressively carry it forward are more compelling than ever. <

Leo Marx, author of The Machine in the Garden, is professor of American cultural history (emeritus) and Senior Lecturer in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT.


1 This is not to suggest that Harvard’s program was the first in the nation. Several other universities, including George Washington, Yale, Pennsylvania, and Western Reserve, were initiating similar programs at roughly the same time. See Gene Wise, “Paradigm Dramas in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement,” American Quarterly 31:3 (1979): 311, 311n.

2 By 1958 the attitude toward theory had changed markedly, and the journal American Quarterly began the annnual publication of an annotated list of “Writings on the Theory and Practice of American Studies.”

3 Gene Wise, “Paradigm Dramas in American Studies.” Wise describes the work of the “Myth and Symbol” scholars as “corporate undertakings” and asserts that “few political conspiracies have ever been so tightly interwoven.” Indeed, he suggests that the conspiracy involved the collusion of scholars with large corporations (through the acceptance of foundation grants), a charge endorsed by Donald Pease and Robin Wiegman in 2002. Wise’s viewpoint dominated the special 30-year retrospective issue of the association’s official journal in 1979, and it remains a primary source for the history of American studies in 2002. See, e.g., Donald E. Pease and Robin Wiegman, eds., The Futures of American Studies (Duke University Press, 2002), 1–42.

4 That link was made apparent, for example, by Mario Savio, a leader of the student rebellion on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, in the widely publicized speech in which he called upon the students—in a trope borrowed from Henry Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience—to “throw their bodies on the machine and make it stop.”

5 In the recent (December 2002) issue of the official publication of the American Studies Association, for example, a writer asserts that the aim of the first generation of American studies scholars was to “prove the homogeneous, stable, uniform, and universally shared concept of America.” See Eniko Bollobas, “Dangerous Liaisons: Politics and Epistemology in Post–Cold War American Studies,” American Quarterly 54:4 (December 2002): 565.

6 Henry Hart, ed., American Writers Congress (New York: International Publisher, 1935), 10.

7 Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (Verso, 1996); ‘The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies,” American Quarterly 38 (1986): 356–80.

8 For a succinct summary of this patriotic “doubleness” in the pre–Civil War era see Eric J. Sundquist, “Slavery, Revolution, and the American Renaissance,” in Walter Benn Michaels and Donald E. Pease, eds., The American Renaissance Reconsidered (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 1–33.

9 See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

10 David W. Noble, Death of a Nation: American Culture and the End of Exceptionalism (University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

Copyright Boston Review, 1993–2006. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission.

 | home | new democracy forum | fiction, film, poetry | archives | masthead | subscribe |