Why American Studies

From the its origins as an academic field, American Studies has been self-critical—constantly questioning what comprises the idea that is 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 in desperate 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 gave rise to groups competing over constructions of America. Indeed, through the work of American Studies scholarship and the fracturing of American Studies into other studies programs, the power of myth did double duty—once for the dismemberment of national myths and another time for the myth that united once marginalized people into coherent groups.

I think a productive course for studying what is, at once, a practical as well as existential crisis, might be to see the field of American Studies from distant shores, both metaphorically as well as literally.  To accomplish this, though, would also mean considering the intersection between myth and history, “a special meeting ground,” Warren Susman observed in his 1964 essay, “History and American Intellectuals, that “frequently provides a key to the central tensions with in a culture.” 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 in all its ideological glory to overcome the “the mythic tragedy of our inability to solve our problems in any meaningful sense.”