From the its origins as an academic field, American Studies has been self-critical—constantly questioning what comprises the idea of America. Such self-reflection enables American Studies to inspire, at once, broad, wide-ranging investigations of American life and experience while focusing public attention of the ideas and trends that unite and divide Americans.
It remains crucial, then, for American Studies to continue to grapple with its identity, because that struggle keeps alive the idea that America is more than a contested linguistic creation, it is an empirical thing desperately in need of interrogation. In other words, the core historical question raised by American Studies resides in our ability to find an intellectual place from which to study the myths that give rise to groups competing over constructions of America. Indeed, through the work of American Studies scholarship and the fracturing of American Studies into other programs, the power of myth did double duty—once for the dismemberment of national myths and another for myths that unite people into competing groups.
I think a productive way to study this existential crisis is to consider the intersection between myth and history, “a special meeting ground that frequently provides a key to the central tensions with in a culture,” Warren Susman observed in his 1964 essay History and American Intellectuals. It is here, he observed, “between the efforts of converting history to mythic ends and using history in its more traditionally ideological way, where much of the story will have to be told.” In short, let’s get over the paralyzing notion that American Studies is socially constructed and get on with Susman’s urging to use our field to overcome the “the mythic tragedy of our inability to solve our problems in any meaningful sense.” Let’s wrestle and perhaps even solve some problems.