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American Studies Scholarship - An Overview

American exceptionalism and American myths can be examined more specifically in regard to their national, subnational, and transnational contexts and frames of reference, which correspond with the three major phases in the history of the discipline of American studies and the concomitant transformations of its research practices and modes of thought.

Whereas various early individual works from Alexis de Tocqueville’s aforementioned Democracy in America to Vernon Parrington’s three-volume Main Currents in American Thought (1927-30) have been discussed as the first pieces of American studies scholarship, the discipline really only took institutional shape and developed in more formalized ways from the late 1930s onwards. During its inception period from the late 1930s to the 1950s, scholars of the so- called Myth and Symbol School looked for and identified myths and symbols that allegedly attested to the specificity or even uniqueness of the US, and thus sought to affirm American exceptionality. The name of this loosely connected school of thought derives from the subtitle of Henry Nash Smith’s seminal study Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950); Smith, the first scholar to receive his PhD in the field of American studies (in 1940 from Harvard University), defined his approach in the following way:

I use the words [‘myth’ and ‘symbol’] to designate larger or smaller units of the same kind of thing, namely an intellectual construction that fuses concept and emotion into an image. The myths and symbols with which I deal have the further characteristic of being collective representations rather than the work of a single mind. I do not mean to raise the question whether such products of the imagination accurately reflect empirical fact. They exist on a different plane. But as I have tried to show, they sometimes exert a decided influence on practical affairs. (Virgin Land vii)

Smith sees the ‘Virgin Land’ as one prominent symbol that is embedded in resonant mythic narratives about European encounters with North America, such as the frontier myth and the agrarian myth, readily conceding that myths (and the corresponding symbols) may be seen as fiction and thus may contain some degree of wishful thinking or even falseness. Alongside Smith, other influential Myth and Symbol scholars like R.W.B. Lewis and Perry Miller similarly investigated the nature of the American experience and its historical protagonists. Lewis suggests the image of the ‘American Adam’ in order to characterize the prototypical ‘new world’ settler as a figure of origin and an emblem of ‘new world’ beginnings:

[T]he American myth saw life and history as just beginning. [...] The new habits to be engendered on the new American scene were suggested by the image of a radically new personality, the hero of a new adventure: an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling [...]. It was not surprising, in a Bible-reading generation, that the new hero [...] was most easily identified with Adam before the Fall. (American Adam 4)

Perry Miller’s American genealogical narrative is similarly steeped in religious discourse; he puts the Puritans’ “errand into the wilderness” (cf. his book of the same title), a God-willed quest for a utopian community, at the center of the early American experience and therefore also at the center of American studies. 17th-century Puritan theology is thus seen as having had a lasting impact on the cultural imaginary of the nation. Miller shares with Sacvan Bercovitch, another prominent scholar of Puritanism, the sense that “the Puritan origins of the American self” (cf. Bercovitch’s book of the same title) have guided the formation of the US nation-state through the “capacity for self-creation that Puritan theology attributes to believers” (Madsen, American Exceptionalism 13).

Overall, an evocative American primal scene is constructed by the first group of American studies scholars as they imagine the ‘American Adam’ in the ‘Virgin Land’ on an ‘Errand into the Wilderness’ (cf. Pease, “New Americanists”). The early phase of this new field of study is often referred to as “the American Studies movement” (cf. Marx, “Thoughts”), indicating a critical stance toward traditional disciplinary configurations that had been dominant in the English departments of many American universities, which seemed to imply some sort of political agenda. As the US felt increasingly pressured to explain (and advertise) itself to the world beyond its borders, the scholars of the Myth and Symbol School both identified and created powerful images for a national imaginary. It is no coincidence that American studies programs and projects received major funding after the end of World War II and throughout the 1950s, and became quite a corporate enterprise (cf. Wise, “‘Paradigm Dramas’” 181). In the wake of the ‘Cold War,’ ‘America’ was imagined in American studies in somewhat essentialist terms as a largely unified and homogenous entity. All of the Myth and Symbol scholars would probably have agreed that there is something like the “American mind” that can be studied in the intellectual history of the United States (ibid. 179). Furthermore, the exceptionality claimed for the object of study, i.e. the USA, was also claimed for the new discipline of American studies that sought to investigate the US “as a whole” rather than in distinct disciplinary pockets. When Henry Nash Smith asked, “can American studies develop a method?” (cf. his essay of the same title), he answered his question to the effect that he saw the “scholarship” of “American culture, past and present” (ibid. 207) carried out not so much within the framework of a particular methodology or theoretical approach but in the form of an interdisciplinary venture centering on a common subject, i.e. America. From the beginning, many scholars envisioned American studies as “an arena for disciplinary encounter and staging ground for fresh topical pursuits” (Bailis, “Social Sciences” 203). Myth and Symbol scholarship invoked American studies as the new ideal of scholarly and disciplinary coherence, yet by emphasizing the unity and uniqueness of American society, it often lacked a sufficient analytical distance from the object under investigation and scrutiny (cf. Claviez, Grenzfalle 209). Since the Myth and Symbol scholars did not thoroughly reflect their own positionality, their ideological presuppositions to a certain degree predetermined their findings, and their scholarly endeavors mainly produced an affirmation (rather than any precise definition or critique) of those American myths, symbols, and images on which the field imaginary of American studies relied so strongly.

In the mid-1960s, the Myth and Symbol scholarship of the first American studies cohort was challenged by many critics who began to question the unequivocal nature and the political implications of the American myths allegedly uncovered and categorized by the preceding generation of scholars. In the wake of the social protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s, among them the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the anti-war movement, many critics proposed alternative genealogies of America and American identity formation that cast American history in a more critical light and contested the ‘innocence’ of the American Adam cultivating his ‘garden’ in the ‘wilderness.’ The dominant version of American beginnings, which had been privileging certain groups while marginalizing or entirely leaving out others, was no longer accepted as representative of the American experience. What about the American ‘Eve’? Or, more broadly, what about the experiences of women and non-white people in the United States, past and present? What about Native American removal from the ‘wilderness’ and slavery’s role in cultivating the ‘garden’? The representatives of the so-called Critical Myth and Symbol School, the second important group in the history of American studies, examined aspects such as violence, racism, sexism, and genocide as foundational for American culture. Whereas the symbols and myths carved out in the first phase of American studies were often not entirely debunked, they were now interpreted differently and seen in a much more critical light. This reorientation produced less flattering accounts of the making of America than the narratives produced by the Myth and Symbol School, which now appeared as idealized and romanticized accounts of the evolution of a white patriarchal America. Take, for instance, Henry Nash Smith’s prominent symbol of the Virgin Land: Annette Kolodny in The Lay of the Land reinterprets this image’s gendered symbolism as a metaphor of rape and patriarchal exploitation, and Richard Slotkin, another leading protagonist of the Critical Myth and Symbol School, more generally explicates violence (rather than innocence) as the foundational American experience (cf. chapter 6).

While the Critical Myth and Symbol School was also concerned with grasping the specificity and particularity of the United States, it was not concerned with affirming the superiority of American culture and society but with critiquing the ideology of American exceptionalism; its critical reevaluation of US founding texts and myths led to a transformation of American studies research and practice as it addressed the national project from subnational perspectives and thus brought to light that the notion of a homogeneous nation and a single ‘American’ history was the product of a hegemonic master narrative that excluded the perspectives and histories of internal others. This revisionism coincided with the articulation of a ‘negative’ US exceptionalism and the development of new fields within and alongside American studies such as black studies, women’s studies, popular culture studies, Native American studies, ethnic studies, and labor studies, to name only a few. These new fields addressed and tackled cultural and social hierarchies (i.e., asymmetrical power relations between men and women, whites and non-whites, as well as economically privileged and economically disadvantaged Americans) that were deeply inscribed in Myth and Symbol scholarship. This counter-hegemonic scholarship valorized the particular over the universalized American experience by addressing issues of identity below the level of the nation. In the process of deconstructing hierarchies, distinctions between high culture and low (or popular) culture have also been called into question, and the study of popular culture has become a center?piece of American studies scholarship (cf. Cawelti, Adventure; Tompkins, Sensational Designs).

By emphasizing the heterogeneity of American society and by focusing on power asymmetries in the field of representation, the Critical Myth and Symbol School aimed at a more inclusive narration and representation of America and at a recognition of its multicultural legacy, privileging the heterogeneity of American society over any one-dimensional view of America ‘as a whole’ as the object of study; the American studies scholarship of this second phase thus was pluralistic rather than holistic in perspective and shattered conventional notions of ‘Americanness’ in the course of several decades. As this new cohort of American studies scholars (among them Leslie Fiedler, Alan Trachtenberg as well as the aforementioned Annette Kolodny and Richard Slotkin) became more prominent, scholars such as Henry Nash Smith felt obliged to revise their Myth and Symbol narratives:

I proposed to use the terms “myth” and “symbol” to designate “larger or smaller units of the same kind of thing [...].” I might have avoided some misunderstandings of what I was about if I had introduced the term “ideology” at this point by adding that the intellectual constructions under consideration could not be sharply categorized but should be thought of as occupying positions along a spectrum extending from myth at one end, characterized by the dominance of image and emotion, to ideology at the other end, characterized by emphasis on concepts, on abstract ideas. (“Symbol” 22)

An institutionalization of these new perspectives occurred in the reformulation of university degree programs and with the so-called canon debates of the 1980s. These often fierce debates (also referred to as ‘culture wars’) saw an at times dramatic confrontation between those who fought to preserve a supposedly universal “Western Canon” (cf. Bloom’s book of the same title) and those who aimed at diversifying the narratives of America by substituting the universalist US master narrative (grand recit) with a plurality of ‘small’ narratives (petites histoires) and proposed to canonize texts (especially by women and minorities) that so far had not been canonical. Works such as Paul Lauter’s Reconstructing American Literature (1983), Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs (1986), Henry Louis Gates’s Loose Canons (1992), and A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and Jerry W. Ward’s Redefining American Literary History (1990) are exemplary publications on the ‘new’ canon which include formerly excluded or marginalized voices that express a particular, subnational (or subaltern) view instead of claiming to be representative of the nation as a whole. While ‘weak’ versions of multi- culturalism merely advocate adding ‘new’ texts to school curricula and college reading lists, ‘strong’ versions advocate more pivotal revisions concerning cultural legacies and the canon:

“Multicultural” is not a category of American writing - it is a definition of all American writing. [...] The concept of “mainstream” culture and “minority” cultures is the narrow view. Redefining the mainstream is the theme, the message, and the mission of [our project].” (Strads, Trueblood, and Wong, “Introduction” xi-xii)

As the national consensus around the idea of ‘America’ was either reformulated in more inclusive terms or questioned as a coercive concept in and of itself, subnational and multicultural approaches from the 1960s through the 1980s were strengthened; however, new constraints and limitations of the field of American studies became apparent in the process. While the Critical Myth and Symbol School successfully created sensibilities for inner-American differences and power dynamics and directed scholarly attention to the multicultural dimension of American national genesis and cultural production, it did not thoroughly question the framework of the nation as the basic conceptual category of scholarship and thus remained bound to the logic of national exceptionalism (cf. Tally, “Post-American Literature”).

It is only in the third phase of American studies scholarship from the 1990s to the present after a paradigm shift or ‘turn’ carried by the representatives of the so-called New Americanists that the field began to pursue a transnational perspective in much of its work. Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease’s seminal Cultures of United States Imperialism (1993) clearly marked the transition from a subnational to a transnational perspective, as the essays in this volume place the USA in a wider context of postcolonial theory and postcolonial studies. The US as empire has become the object of many scholarly endeavors that no longer regard the US as a “self-contained nation” (Bender, Nation 3) and see continental expansion as the result of imperial rather than domestic politics. Thus, the New Americanists of the 1980s and 1990s (Amy Kaplan, Donald Pease, John Carlos Rowe, and Robyn Wiegman, among others) have fundamentally scrutinized and questioned the paradigm of American exceptionalism and its foundational role for the discipline of American studies by drawing on the work of “scholars whose concept of the nation and of citizenship has questioned dominant American myths rather than canonized them” (Rowe et al., “Introduction” 3). The New Americanists’ agenda for American studies aims “to transform the traditionally nationalist concerns of the field to address the several ways in which ‘America’ signifies in the new global [...] circumstances” (ibid. 3). Viewing the US as “a multicultural nation in a globalized world” (Bender, Nation 6) also necessitates

“globalizing American studies,” as Brian T. Edwards and Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar suggest in their essay collection of the same title; nationalism here is cast as parochialism, and exceptionalism as an outdated field imaginary, provoking the questions whether “American Studies [can] exist after American exceptionalism” at all (Pease, “American Studies” 47), and whether “all American studies scholarship [is] [...] propaganda” (Castronovo and Gillman, “Introduction” 1). According to Pease, the field of American studies needs to be “grounded in a comparativist model of imperial state exceptionalisms” (“American Studies” 80) and, as Srinivas Aravamudan states, has to continue its close examination of the “relationship between the state and the discipline” (“Rogue States” 17). The turn to a relational framework of analysis along the lines of Jane Desmond and Virginia Dominguez’s “cosmopolitanism” and “critical internationalism” that operates with “a non-US-centric comparativism” (“Resituating” 286) seems as important as the “engagement with Postcolonial studies” (Rowe et al., “Introduction” 7) and the use of a New Historicist methodology that has also contributed to the field’s reconfiguration (cf. Michaels and Pease, American Renaissance). The interdisciplinarity of the field of American studies (or ‘critical US studies’) thus is being reinforced in the work of the New Americanists on a new theoretical basis.

In a similar vein, Shelley Fisher-Fishkin’s address to the American Studies Association held on November 12, 2004 (cf. “Crossroads”) focuses on an impressive range of transnationally oriented scholarly activities by herself and others, including transatlantic, transpacific, and hemispheric American studies scholarship, as well as border studies. Characteristic of this new transnational critical focus are publications such as Radway et al.’s 2009 reader American Studies: An Anthology, which includes in its first section entries on “nation” as well as “empire” and “diaspora.” There is also a new turn to non-English languages and multilingualism (cf. Sollors, Multilingual America; Shell and Sollors, Multilingual Anthology), as transnational American studies cannot be conducted and practiced with English-only sources.

The transnational American studies approach is diachronic, going back as far as the 15th century, as well as synchronic; through the lens of a transnational perspective, American beginnings (just like any other national beginnings) appear as more accidental and contingent, more chaotic and “messy” (cf. Schueller and Watts) than is suggested by historical and mythic narratives which assert their purposefulness, coherence, and telos. The transnationality of well-known cultural, political, social, and literary phenomena has in the past often been relegated to the margins; transnational American studies moves it to the center by analyz?ing the US from a comparative angle as “a nation among nations” (cf. Bender’s book of the same title).

To summarize: each of the following chapters addresses the three phases of American studies scholarship in terms of the national, subnational, and transnational approaches and perspectives they have generated; in the first phase, the so-called Myth and Symbol School focused on national themes and symbols; in the second phase, the so-called Critical Myth and Symbol School focused on subnational perspectives and groups that had been ignored in the first phase; and in the third phase, the so-called New Americanists questioned the nation as framework on the basis of a postnational or transnational and possibly post- exceptionalist agenda, and articulated a critique of the American empire.

However, I am not suggesting that every single piece of American studies scholarship and criticism can be subsumed under these three perspectives and in this exact chronological order. There is certainly a considerable amount of overlap, just as there are other frameworks that can be used to describe and to chronologize American studies scholarship. It also needs to be acknowledged that there is a strong connection between subnational and transnational approaches. Lisa Lowe’s scholarship on Asian American history refers to “the international within the national” (cf. her article of the same title) and is emblematic of attempts to study the subnational and transnational in conjunction, as they are but two sides of the same coin: while the subnational approach frames ethnic immigrant groups within the national discursive field, the transnational does so with reference to the global; similarly, diasporic cultures can be examined as part of both subnational and transnational spheres. Yet, a national mythology is still affirmed in many current visions of the US in the face of a perceived fragmentation of traditional collectivities, and some versions of the transnational endeavor still lapse into constructing a US-centered universe.

 
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