Anti-American Studies


The Futures of American Studies

edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman

(Duke University Press, 619 pp., $24.95)

The New American Studies

by John Carlos Rowe(University of Minnesota Press, 252 pp., $19.95)

Death of a Nation: American Culture and the End of Exceptionalism

by David W. Noble

(University of Minnesota Press, 260 pp., $19.95)


Foraging near the hut that he built with his own hands, cultivating
beans whose properties provided him with opportunities for
speculation, gazing into the depths of the local pond, Henry David
Thoreau seems to epitomize a long- standing American worship of
nature. And so he was read by generations of students, whose
teachers assigned Walden as an illustration of the intensity with
which America was seized in the nineteenth century by a
transcendental sensibility protesting the intrusion into pastoral
harmony of the forces of industrialization and urbanization.
Understood this way, Thoreau looks back to Jefferson and forward to
John Ford. Walden was revered as a text of regret, a lament for a
world soon to pass out of existence.

Then Leo Marx came along in 1964 and published The Machine in the
Garden, which questioned this view of Thoreau and, in so doing,
challenged the way Americans had understood themselves. Marx's
Thoreau was anything but a pastoralist. He was sometimes ambivalent
about the mechanization that he saw around him and sometimes
downright enthusiastic. "When I hear the iron horse make the hills
echo with his snort like thunder," he proclaimed, "shaking the
earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils
(what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the
new Mythology I don't know), it seems as if the earth had got a
race now worthy to inhabit it." Mechanization was not a false turn;
it was our fate, an "Atropos that never turns aside." Far from
symbolizing a withdrawal from the world, Thoreau's decision to
leave Concord for the woods re-engaged him with the busy clatter
that he had seemingly abandoned. Out there in nature, civilization
no longer seemed threatening. Documenting his expenses to the last
half-cent and providing a full record of his purposeful energy,
Thoreau discovered that the power unleashed by the machine is not
that different from the power required to transform the wilderness
into a productive garden.

For Marx, Thoreau's ambivalence toward nature was nothing less than
a leitmotif in American consciousness. Tracing his theme from
obscure colonial pamphleteers to twentieth-century classics such as
Faulkner's "The Bear," Marx tried to show how American writers--and
at least two American painters, George Innes and Charles
Sheeler--grappled with the desire to remain pure and uncorrupted
while still taking full advantage of what Henry Adams would call
"The Dynamo." None of our great artists ever reconciled the
contradiction, Marx concluded, because finally the question of what
kind of nation we were to become could only be answered
politically. Yet this does not mean that they were artistic
failures. On the contrary, Marx's extensive analysis of works such
as Moby-Dick and "Ethan Brand" provided a framework for
understanding Ahab's obsession and Brand's self-immolation. The
kiln into which Hawthorne's Brand throws himself, like the line
used to rein in the white whale, represents what Marx calls "the
attempt to know the nature of nature" as well as the inevitable
loss of mystery that accompanies our alienation from paradise.

The Machine in the Garden appeared during the golden age of an
academic discipline called "American studies." Founded by polymaths
such as Vernon K. Parrington, F. O. Matthiesen, Henry Nash Smith,
and Perry Miller, who scrupulously followed Emerson's injunction to
create an American scholarship, the field came to fruition with its
second generation of practitioners. Books such as Leo Marx's, as
well as John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom (1956), Marvin
Meyers's The Jacksonian Persuasion (1957), Russel Blaine Nye's The
Cultural Life of the New Nation (1960), Newton Arvin's Longfellow:
His Life and Work (1963), Ray Allen Billington's The Protestant
Crusade (1964), Daniel Boorstin's The Americans (1965), and Daniel
Aaron's Writers on the Left (1969), were widely read and discussed.
(All of these writers save Meyers and Arvin would serve a term as
president of the American Studies Association [ASA], which was
founded in 1951.) Their work would be supplemented by numerous
writers from allied academic disciplines, or from no academic
discipline at all, who contributed to the ways Americans understood
themselves during this period, including Richard Hofstadter, Henry
Steele Commager, Alfred Kazin, Daniel Bell, David Riesman, and
Seymour Martin Lipset. The 1950s and the 1960s were decades of
turmoil--McCarthyism, the Cold War, civil rights, the Port Huron
Statement-- but they were at the same time oddly stable decades in
which American thinkers tried to make sense of the society that
spawned them.

Looking back, one is struck by the absence of women among these
writers. With that significant exception, however, the founders of
American studies were a diverse group. Many were Jews whose
explorations into American literature and history were a way of
coming to terms with the decision taken by their parents and
grandparents to move to the new world. One of them, Franklin, was
African American, and another, Arvin, was gay and would suffer the
indignity of a vicesquad raid on his Northampton home. Far from
engaging in what C. Wright Mills would denounce as "the great
American celebration," these intellectuals were often dissenters
from the trends that they saw around them: Riesman and Marx were
critics of nuclear brinkmanship, and others, even those who would
become quite antagonistic to the New Left, could not abide Senator
McCarthy and never made a sharp shift to the political right. The
ambivalence that Leo Marx discovered in our national literature was
shared by all these writers who interpreted our culture and
contemplated our character: they appreciated America for its
invention and energy while deploring the excesses that our way of
life produced.


American studies still exists as an academic discipline. If
anything, it can be found in far more colleges and universities now
than during the 1960s, and it attracts significant numbers of
graduate students, and its practitioners publish innumerable books
and articles. Yet the third generation and the fourth generation of
scholars in the field not only reject the writers who gave life to
the discipline, they have also developed a hatred for America so
visceral that it makes one wonder why they bother studying America
at all.

According to Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman--he of Dartmouth, she
of Duke- -previous efforts to understand the United States
committed two unforgivable sins. One was "spatialization." Marx's
generation of scholars claimed that there existed an entity called
America, that is, an actual society with borders to which one
either did or did not belong, and they further claimed that the
land within these borders was somehow "exceptional" from other
societies around the world. In so doing, writes Janice Radway, also
of Duke, "the early consensus in the field tended to elide the idea
of America with the culture of the United States." The "imperial
gestures" that these assumptions produce are obvious to her: "they
unconsciously erased the fact that other nations, groups, and
territories had already staked their own quite distinctive claim to
the concept and name American." Each of my three children
discovered, usually around fourth grade, that Canada and the
societies of Latin America have a legitimate claim to be called
American; but Radway delivers the same point as a major idea.
(Similarly, Amy Kaplan, the president-elect of the ASA for 2003-
2004, has a chapter in the Pease and Wiegman volume in which she
"poses the question of how the ideology of separate spheres in
antebellum America contributed to creating an American empire by
imagining the nation as a home at a time when its geopolitical
borders were expanding rapidly through violent confrontations with
Indians, Mexicans, and European empires.")

The other sin of the earlier generation was "temporalization."
Scholars in American studies divided up the history of their
society into periods such that each constituted a progressive
advancement over the other. In so doing, they left the impression
that the United States no longer required radical reform, let alone
revolution, since continued progress in the future was assured. Yet
they also did the exact opposite simultaneously, imagining the
history of their society as timeless. "In proposing that every
moment of historical time constituted the occasion for the
potential repetition of the sacred time of the nation's founding,"
as Pease and Wiegman put it, "the national mythos supplied the
means of producing what Benedict Anderson has called the empty
homogenous time of the imagined national community."

A body of scholarship produced in this way, in the view of Pease and
Wiegman, is bound to be suspect. "American literature and American
history tended to homogenize the popular memory that they also
produced, and literature and history departments supplied the
institutional sites wherein the field of American studies
collaborated with the press, the university system, the publishing
industry, and other aspects of the cultural apparatus that managed
the symbolic field and policed the significance of such value-laden
terms as the nation and the people." Poor Leo Marx. He may have
thought of himself as a lover of literature, but it appears that he
was really a cop, and a corrupt cop at that.

Pease and Wiegman are actually among the more temperate and
jargon-free voices speaking on behalf of what John Carlos Rowe of
the University of California, Irvine, calls the "new" American
studies. Consider the views of William V. Spanos, founding editor
of a publication called boundary 2. It is one thing, he writes, to
call attention to "America's tenacious historical privileging of
the imperial metaphysic perspective as the agent of knowledge
production, that perspective, synchronous with the founding of the
idea and practices of Europe, which, in perceiving time from after
or above its disseminations, enables the spatialization of being
and subjugation or accommodation of the differences it disseminates
to the identical, self-present, and plenary (global/planetary)
whole." But things are worse even than that. For we must also
consider "America's obsessive and systematic refinement and
fulfillment of the panoptic logic of this old world perspective in
an indissolubly related relay of worldly imperial practices, the
intrinsic goal of which is not simply the domination of global
space but also of thinking itself. " From this perspective, writers
like Marx were not merely trying to police ideas, they were trying
to run them out of town.

For these radical critics of American studies, nobody's
revolutionary credentials are good enough. The revolt against the
American studies of the immediate postwar period was led by people
such as Paul Lauter, who teaches at Trinity College in Connecticut.
An unrepentant Marxist, Lauter believes in the class struggle and
wants to see professors of American studies join janitors, teaching
assistants, and other exploited workers in their confrontations
with academic administrators. Yet perhaps because he has a sense of
humor--he knows that he sounds "like an opera libretto by Leonid
Brezhnev," he writes at one point--Lauter comes in for substantial
criticism from fellow members of his discipline. John Carlos Rowe
finds that, for all his leftism, Lauter is "finally still
nationalist," which means insufficiently committed to postcolonial
criticism of the United States for its imperial pretensions.

Nor is Lauter truly committed to the task that American studies must
adopt in this den of white privilege and capitalist exploitation.
"Lauter's program for university reform consists only of a very
general set of guidelines," writes Eric Cheyfitz of the University
of Pennsylvania in disappointment. Lauter, along with other
advocates of class struggle within the university such as Cary
Nelson and Michael Brub, fails to realize that capitalism has
already destroyed the idea of university. Dismissing these
advocates of university- based class struggle as possessing "an
ideological relationship in which the privileged class, as in the
pastoral, dress up in the costumes of the dispossessed and perform
a play we call `multiculturalism,'" Cheyfitz would have American
studies join with Frantz Fanon and "move cultural capital out of
the closed circuit of the university" and into the hands of the poor
and oppressed.

Even those academics who consider themselves indelibly stained by
the original sin of the whiteness of their skin--a group I had once
considered about as left-wing as it is possible to be--are
insufficiently radical for the new American studies. In the view of
Noel Ignatiev, one of the founders of "whiteness studies," we have
to recognize that "the United States is an Afro- American country,"
which means that "the adoption of a white identity is the most
serious barrier to becoming fully American"; as Ignatiev once put
it, "the most subversive act I can imagine is treason to the white
race." But now Robyn Wiegman dismisses Ignatiev as just another
practitioner of American exceptionalism: his mistake is that he
"displaces the historical white subject as the national
citizen-subject for a narrative of national origins cast now as
black." So long as you believe in the existence of the United
States, even if your belief envisions a society in which the
descendants of slaves become masters of national identity, you are
contributing to the creating of a "resignified nation," which is
nearly as bad, it would seem, as the pre- signified nation that
already exists.; "Having twisted herself into corners from which
she cannot escape, Radway concludes rather lamely that we might as
well leave the term 'American studies' in place and urge everyone to
learn more languages."

Take this kind of thing far enough and before long you develop the
mentality of the purge, the humorless, relentless quest to check
the bona fides of everyone and in so doing to trust the bona fides
of no one. William Spanos sums up this spirit by detecting
counter-revolution not only in the scholars of Leo Marx's
generation, but also among the New Leftists who followed them. The
scholars of the new American studies may seem radical, he writes,
but their work "remains vestigially inscribed by the ideology of
American exceptionalism even as it criticizes it and tries to
transcend its confining parameters." I have never known anyone to
use the term "vestigially" in such a context who was not at heart a

Oddly, though, Spanos has a point. Enthusiasts for the new American
studies have clearly been influenced by the multiculturalism and
the identity politics that have marked American society since the
1960s. When they sought a home in academia, as radical political
movements always do, multicultural activists realized that all you
had to do was add your ethnic and racial identity to the word
"American" and you had created a new academic field. In this way,
proponents of Asian American studies or Native American studies or
any of the other myriad programs now found in higher education,
including even "whiteness studies," by giving the term "American"
equal billing with the name of the group seeking recognition, paid
homage to their society, as well as to its capacity to assimilate
many different kinds of experience. And this, in its way, is a
tribute to America. It is the tribute that the America-hating
Spanos eagerly sniffs out.

Still, once the intellectual energy passes to these "subaltern"
movements, as all of these writers hope will happen soon, the
question remains of what should happen to the original American
studies out of which they grew. For Pease and Wiegman, American
studies, owing to its neo-colonial drive to obliterate all
potentially competing ethnic and racial cultures, has little choice
but to suppress the insurgencies led by women, gays, and people of
color. "American studies became the Other against which cutting
edge scholarship was to be defined," they write, "and national
identity movements and anti-imperial discourses became the Other
the field excluded to effect coherence." While the first half of
the comment is true--nobody doubts that adherents to the new
identity politics scorned the generations that preceded them--the
second half of it is way off the mark. The academic discipline
called American studies, at most colleges and universities in the
United States, has enthusiastically welcomed identity politics into
its ranks, to put it mildly.

In contrast to the era that spawned Leo Marx and his colleagues, the
ASA now routinely elects women and members of racial minorities to
its presidency. Of the fourteen presidents chosen since 1990, ten
have been women, and of the four men, one is Latino and one Asian
American. (The only two white males elected during this period were
Paul Lauter and Michael Frisch.) To talk about the exclusion of
minority voices and dissenting voices from the discipline, Pease
and Wiegman must ignore the contents of their own book: the chapter
by Janice Radway stems from her presidential address to the ASA,
and in her musings she builds on the analysis of her predecessor,
Mary Helen Washington.

Among those presidents, certainly, can be found individuals who love
their country for its inventiveness and its diversity, and in turn
love American studies for its innovative character. In her
presidential address to the ASA in 1996, Patricia Nelson Limerick
took great joy in the free-form nature of her discipline. "Thank
heavens, then," she enthused, "for American studies: the place of
refuge for those who cannot find a home in the more conventional
neighborhood, the sanctuary of displaced hearts and minds, the place
where no one is fully at ease. And here is the glory of the ASA:
since no one feels fully at ease, no one has the right or the power
to make anyone else feel less at ease.... The joy of American
studies is precisely in its lack of firm limits and borders." But
no such pride in anything associated with America is permitted
among the contributors to the Pease and Wiegman volume. Russ
Castronovo of the University of Miami accuses Limerick of offering
"an entrenched narrative of national administration." Her crime, it
seems, is to present a point of view that "hinges on a rhetoric of
interpellation that accepts the nation as the ultimate collective
arena for citizenship."

If we discard the idea of an American nation, as Castronovo and
other contributors to this volume want us to do, there certainly
cannot be any such thing as American studies. "In order to promote
work that would further re- conceptualize the American as always
relationally defined and therefore as intricately dependent on
`others' that are used both materially and conceptually to mark its
boundaries," Radway asks, "would it make sense to think about
renaming the association as an institution devoted to a different
form of knowledge production, to alternative epistemologies, to the
investigation of a different object?" This, it turns out, is not a
simple question to answer, for once she starts finding imperialism
in one place, Radway sees it everywhere. We in the United States,
after all, expropriated the name America from the Latin Americans,
but they, or at least their elites, were Europeans who aimed "to
name geographically dispersed lands that they themselves had
imperially expropriated for their own use from indigenous peoples
who named the locales they occupied in their own, diverse, and
distinct languages." Radway is dissatisfied with all proposed names
for the field: even "inter-American studies," which suggests
equality between all the components of what is now called the
Americas, strikes her as insufficient because it leaves out
Singapore and India. "What is to be done?" she asks, echoing you
know who. The answer is: not all that much. Having twisted herself
into corners from which she cannot escape, Radway concludes rather
lamely that we might as well leave the term "American studies" in
place and urge everyone to learn more languages.

Retaining the name "American studies" does not mean keeping the
approach that long made it distinctive. If we keep it, we must tame
it. For one thing, American studies can take a secondary role to
those who study America's constituent groups. The field, writes
John Carlos Rowe, cannot be allowed "to compete in adversarial ways
with other disciplines and methods that complement our own work,"
and he provides a list of more than twenty such disciplines ranging
from women's studies and folklore to Dutch and Korean. It also might
be permissible to use the term, Rowe continues, if we modify it
slightly by calling it "U.S. studies" or "North American studies,"
so long as we include Canada in the latter. And we cannot allow
American studies to find themes in our literature and culture that
tell us who we are, as previous scholars had hoped; its more proper
role, Radway instructs, is "to complicate and fracture the very
idea of an American nation, culture, and subject."

The difficulty that these writers experience in naming their field
stems from the difficulty they have in naming anything. There is a
finality about naming; once a phenomenon has been named, it takes
on a form that distinguishes it from other phenomena whose names
are different. But this relatively simple act of finalization is
alien to many of the practitioners of the new American studies. For
all their political dogmatism, they are reluctant to be pinned down
on whether terms such as nation, culture, literature, citizenship,
and gender have specific meanings.

A particularly sad example of this refusal to put boundaries around
concepts is provided by Jos Esteban Muoz's essay in the Pease and
Wiegman book--and the term in question is one that ought to be
crucial to anyone who identifies with the political left. The term
is "exploitation." Muoz is describing a gay bar in Jackson Heights,
Queens called the Magic Touch. (How American studies moved from
reading Hawthorne to venturing into gay Queens is another good
story.) During the show, judges, chosen randomly, pick out the most
attractive dancers, who have stripped down to their G-strings.
Money, in the form of tips, is thrown around as mostly older men
buy the sexual favors of mostly younger dancers. This kind of
prostitution has the whiff of oppression, and Muoz quotes an
anthropologist friend of his to the effect that it is. But Muoz
himself will make no such firm declaration. "From another
perspective," he writes,

we can see this as something else, another formation: this economy
of hustler/john is an alternative economy where flesh, pleasure,
and money meet under outlaw circumstances. This economy eschews the
standardized routines in which hetero-normative late capitalism
mandates networking relations of sex for money. This economy
represents a selling of sex for money that does not conform to the
corporate American sex trade on display for us via media
advertising culture and older institutions like heterosexual

Not only does Muoz resist naming prostitution for the exploitative
relationship that it is, he also conflates it with heterosexual
marriage, a conceit that allows him to normalize sex trade in a gay
bar without perhaps realizing that, in so doing, he acknowledges
that conventional marriage is still the gold standard against which
all other kinds of sexual relationships must be compared.

Intention substitutes for conclusion when academics are reluctant to
define anything definitively. The essays in Pease and Wiegman's
book follow a convention widely used in the humanities these days.
"I want to call attention, " begins one of Radway's paragraphs
dealing with the interaction between work in American studies and
that found in many subaltern disciplines. "I want to suggest,"
starts the very next paragraph, claiming that the new work
constitutes a fundamental challenge to the old. One after another of
the contributors to the Pease and Wiegman volume adopt this way of
making their argument; even Muoz's claims about the normality of
prostitution begin this way. This is scholarship as trial balloon:
the writer who adopts this convention signals to the reader that
what is about to follow is a highly contentious point that lacks
sufficient documentation to be proved. To "call attention" and to
"suggest" is not to establish or to demonstrate. Postmodernism
influences the new American studies as much as identity politics,
and postmodernism encourages a lazy, catch-as-catch-can approach to
the study of whatever it touches, as if studying something means
acknowledging that a real world does exist that can be studied--a
lethal concession for postmodernism which destroys its controlling
fantasy that reality is subordinate to its interpretations.

For this reason, only a few of the contributors to The Futures of
American Studies actually engage specific texts. One who does is
Nancy Bentley of the University of Pennsylvania. Like Muoz, she
does so to make the point that heterosexual marriage is not what it
seems, but at least she discusses an actual historical
situation--Mormonism--and the literature to which its practice of
polygamy gave rise. Filled with the usual trappings of contemporary
scholarship in the humanities--"Mormons were refused the status of
white people, " she writes of a religion that excluded African
Americans from its priesthood-- she nonetheless introduces her
readers to Maria Ward's The Mormon Wife (1855) and Mary Hudson's
Esther the Gentile (1880), popular novels that exposed the
exploitation of women subject to plural marriage. To be sure,
Bentley does not introduce them for that purpose; her aim is to
suggest that if Mormon wives consented to plural marriage, then we
ought to question the consent implicit in conventional marriage.
Still, hers is one of the few chapters in the Pease and Wiegman
volume in which the reader can learn something new.

"As American Studies reconceives its intellectual project as the
study of the many different societies of the western hemisphere and
of the influences of the different border zones that constitute
this large region, such as the Pacific Rim and the African and
European Atlantics, it will become a genuinely 'postnationalist'
discipline whose comparativist methods will overlap and thus
benefit from the work of other comparativists." So writes John
Carlos Rowe. Once upon a time, American studies existed to
re-discover a literature and a culture capable of rivaling Europe
in the power of its artistic imagination. For the writers of Leo
Marx's generation, this discovery liberated intellectuals from the
Babbittry of those politicians and journalists who claimed that the
greatness of America lay solely in its capacity to produce consumer
goods. Now, we are told, the answer to the question of what makes
America great is that nothing makes it great.

The reason that America is not great is that America, strictly
speaking, does not exist. Revealing America as non-existent is
supposed to ease the task of those oppressed groups that are
struggling to overcome its hegemony. It does not occur to these
revolutionaries that the groups they hope will conquer America
cannot do so if there is no America to conquer. Let the nation die,
and all who aspire to its perfection die with it.; "Noble's coterie
of white male Jewish writers had a choice: they could join with the
project of bourgeois nationalism and win acceptance by their social
superiors, or they could reject it in favor of the insurgencies led
by people of color. Their tragedy is that they opted for the


Death of a Nation is in fact the title of David W. Noble's
contribution to the future of American studies, and Noble is in
many ways the most appropriate person to write it. Born in 1925 on
a farm near Princeton, Noble experienced the fall of his family
into poverty during the Great Depression, only to have his life
turn around after he joined the Army in 1943. After serving in
Europe, he returned home to enter Princeton as an undergraduate and
went on to Wisconsin for his doctorate, where his fellow graduate
students included the future historians William Appleman Williams
and John Higham. (Noble's first published article, which had
originated as an undergraduate paper, was called "The New Republic
and the Idea of Progress, 1914- 1920," a subject that was suggested
to him by the Princeton historian Eric Goldman.) A precocious
scholar, he joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota in
1952 and has been teaching there ever since.

In his early years at Minnesota, Noble was a colleague of Henry Nash
Smith and Leo Marx, men who, in his view, "discovered a nostalgic,
even elegiac scholarship committed to preserving the memory of the
period 1830-1850, when, for them, there had existed briefly an
autonomous and natural, national culture. " (In fact, The Machine
in the Garden devoted considerable space to The Great Gatsby, a
novel that appeared a long time after the Missouri Compromise.)
Unlike them, Noble "could not write elegies for Emerson and his
generation of male Anglo-American artists and intellectuals."
Marx's panoply of great writers created no timeless art, Nobel
insists; their greatness, such as it was, lay only in the fact that
they gave expression to what he repeatedly calls "bourgeois
nationalism." Marx and Smith, searching for an America that does
not exist, "did not try to evoke the ugliness, the corruption, the
falsity of capitalism." Noble would have nothing to do with writers
who "emphasized the beauty, the goodness, and the truth of the
national landscape." America was not some virgin territory filled
with innocence, he came to believe. It was an imagined community,
an artifact, that came into existence only by destroying truly
innocent people like the Native American tribes. "These doubts,"
Noble writes, "later caused me to distance myself from my
colleagues in American studies at the University of Minnesota."

Noble did not distance himself from Minnesota's American studies
program for long. More radical graduate students began to show up
at the university, and, like Noble, they were unwilling "to worship
at Emerson's tomb." Noble claims to have witnessed the "sadness"
and the "pain" of Smith and Marx as students spurned them and their
ideas, but he shows few regrets of his own, noting with cold
dispassion that Smith "took a position elsewhere, where he would not
have such an intense relationship with graduate students," and
commenting with barely hidden academic snobbery that Marx "left to
teach undergraduates at Amherst." Noble makes clear that Smith and
Marx were simply out of touch with the newly emerging scholarship:
they "did not want to think about what the relationship of American
studies would be to the new world of 1946, when one could no longer
imagine an isolated national culture."

Nobody could accuse Noble of being out of touch. He is a
generation-skipper, not an uncommon phenomenon in academia.
Although trained in the classic version of American studies that
inspired so much of the "exceptionalist" literature, he broke with
his contemporaries to join the new radicalism that was emerging in
the field. His book blessedly lacks the heavy-handed jargon with
which younger scholars have afflicted the field (although it shares
with them their inane forms of leftist politics). And Noble can
occasionally be interesting: he alone, of all these writers, seems
to have a taste for music and acknowledges the existence of figures
such as Edward MacDowell and Charles Ives, if only to accuse them
of their dependency on a European musical tradition. (The gay
composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes and the African American William
Grant were just as dependent on European musical forms, identity
politics or not, but Noble never mentions them.) Still, Noble adds
little to what younger colleagues say in such anthologies as The
Futures of American Studies. His book is noteworthy not for what it
says--it is rambling and repetitive--but for what it reveals about
a man ferociously eager to join the chorus of denunciation, even if
those being denounced are people very much like himself.

Noble heaps scorn upon white male Protestants whenever he comes upon
them. To his mind, the one thing that Emerson, Thoreau, Melville,
Hawthorne, Whitman, Twain, Henry James, and Faulkner have in common
is their ethnicity. (Terms such as "Protestant," "Catholic," and
"Jewish" never refer to religious faith in his usage, only to
national origins.) How odd it seems to Noble, therefore, that so
many of the literary critics and the historians who called attention
to their genius were Jewish. What gives? Well, white male Jews had
at least two reasons for wanting to preserve and protect a
Protestant literary canon. The more innocent explanation, says
Noble, is that doing so would help them to overcome their
disappointment with Marxism, although there is nothing particularly
Jewish in that. The more sinister--if not downright
ugly--explanation is that worshipping at the altar of Protestant
creativity would enable Jewish scholars to "mask the revolutionary
changes in national identity taking place in the 1940s."

That shift in identity, in Noble's view, was caused by the fact that
America during that decade was changing from "Anglo-Protestant" to
"pluralist." Jumping around from decade to decade, as he frequently
does, Noble points out that "beginning in the 1950s, Congress began
to lift restrictions on Chinese immigration. The Immigration Act of
1964 made it possible for people of color to become citizens, and
the country began to experience large-scale immigration from Asia
and Latin America." But "many male Jews, the first group of unclear
outsiders (after the south male Anglo-Protestant New Critics) to
become part of the academic establishment," wanted only to
"obscure" the new pluralistic America coming into being. That is
why so many of them "became the leaders of the consensus school of
historical interpretation that was challenging the conflict school
of the 1930s." Citing Lionel Trilling, Richard Hofstadter (who was
half-Jewish on his father's side), Daniel Boorstin, Daniel Bell, and
Louis Hartz, he writes that "these men wanted to believe that the
tradition of nationalism in the United States did not share a
commitment to racial exclusiveness with Nazi Germany." Noble's
coterie of white male Jewish writers had a choice: they could join
with the project of bourgeois nationalism and win acceptance by
their social superiors, or they could reject it in favor of the
insurgencies led by people of color. Their tragedy is that they
opted for the former.

Everything about this explanation is wrong. The Immigration Act was
passed in 1965, not in 1964. Before its passage, all kinds of
people of color had become citizens, including African Americans
and Asian Americans. The 1965 act did not target immigrants from
any one place; it abolished national quotas, emphasized skills, and
encouraged the re-unification of families. But the most serious
problem with Noble's speculation is not that he gets his facts
wrong; it is that his thoroughly reductionist sociology of
knowledge insults the motives of all those Jewish scholars of
America who not only had perfectly good reasons to admire the
United States, but who also welcomed the new pluralistic America
that was coming into being.

Notice Noble's formulation of the comparison with Nazi Germany. He
does not say that the United States in fact refrained from
exterminating its non- Protestants, nor does he add that American
lives were sacrificed to end the Nazi slaughter, both points reason
enough for American Jews to love their country. All he says is that
these Jewish scholars simply wanted to believe that America was
better than Nazi Germany, as if it were an open question as to
whether it was. At the same time, Noble's reading of what Jewish
scholars of America had to say about pluralism in the 1940s and the
1950s is the exact opposite of the truth. The consensus that
so-called consensus historians defended was not a vision of
Protestant America, it was a vision of the melting pot. Jewish
scholars such as Arnold Rose and Milton Gordon were in the
forefront of defining, and defending, this new American pluralism.
(Rose, as Noble well ought to know, also taught at Minnesota,
worked on Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, shared the liberal
anti-communism of his state's increasingly prominent politicians
such as Hubert Humphrey, and, with his wife, published America
Divided: Minority Group Relations in the United States in 1948.)
Where Noble sees only the "power used by a dominant male Anglo-
Protestant culture to protect its cultural virginity against the
agency of all the groups in the United States who were imagined as
outside the fraternity of citizens in the 1830s," the Jewish
scholars attracted to the study of America saw a society and a
literature too filled with paradox and promise to be so
single-minded in its determination.

There was a kind of anti-Semitism around Princeton in the years when
Noble grew up that worked assiduously to keep Jews out of day
schools, country clubs, and the university itself. Noble would have
nothing to do with it. He chose to work with Princeton's first
Jewish professor, and a good part of the Protestant exclusivity
that he rejects stems from its hostility toward Jews and Catholics.
Still, Noble is clearly made uncomfortable by the Jewish love for
America's Emersonian high culture. His detour into ethnic
motivations for scholarship leaves a bad taste. How could these
Jewish scholars not join him in his disgust with America, he is
implicitly asking? Shouldn't they have known better? Shouldn't they
have known what he, who shares "the racial heritage of North
European Protestants," knows all too well, which is that the
American dream is a nightmare of spoilage and exploitation?

Right-wing anti-Semites often attack Jews for failing to appreciate
America. Is it all that different to single them out for loving it?
Fortunately for Noble, Jews were not America's only minority group.
In contrast to the exclusionary patriotism of the earlier
generations of WASPs, Noble would "celebrate ... the agency of
those who were previously seen as un-American." The scholars who
speak on behalf of women, African Americans, Native Americans, or
Asian Americans--or so Noble believes--do not have the Jewish
hang-up about America. (Many of the new Americanists whom he
celebrates are in fact Jewish, but they are women and therefore
acceptable to him.) Here, among the crowd that makes up the
anthology assembled by Pease and Wiegman, Noble feels at home. With
them he can finally shed himself of his white male identity. The
dream of his lifetime is being realized. The nation that he cannot
abide is expiring, and he has lived long enough to provide its


Although one would never know it from books like these,
old-fashioned American studies is actually doing pretty well in
America, even if it is under- represented at the American Studies
Association. In theory, of course, it should not matter where good
studies of America are done, so long as they are done. But in
practice matters are not so simple. Critics of the old American
studies are right about one thing: the field was created in the
early years of the Cold War, and American foreign policymakers took
an interest in what its practitioners had to say. That
international aspect of American studies still exists; programs in
Germany, Japan, India, Austria, Italy, and Great Britain are
devoted to the study of the United States, and through its
Fulbright program and its Study of the U.S. Branch, the State
Department sends American scholars abroad and brings foreign
scholars to the United States.

For all their attacks on American imperialism, students of the new
American studies are actually rather quiet about this side of their
discipline, perhaps because of the opportunities for foreign travel
it makes available to them. When they go abroad to denounce America
to foreign students, these scholars practice a kind of imperialism
in reverse, informing young idealists abroad that the America they
tend to admire is actually a fiction, and a detestable place. The
results can be rather comic. One of the contributors to the Pease
and Wiegman book, Dana Heller of Old Dominion University, describes
her efforts to offer a Marxist interpretation of Death of a
Salesman to students at Moscow State University. Fortunately for
American diplomacy, her students could have cared less; they were
much more impressed by an episode of The Simpsons that parodied one
of Willy Loman's speeches.

This anecdote suggests that even if America-haters come to speak for
America at colleges and universities around the world, students at
those institutions will have enough sense to ignore them. But it
also raises an interesting question of responsibility. Academics
like to pride themselves on the notion that academic freedom means
an absence of restraint in the topics that they choose to study and
the methods with which they choose to study them. But all freedoms
hinge on responsibilities, and people who choose to make the study
of America central to their lives cannot avoid the fact that,
spatialization or not, their country actually exists, and its
actions are of consequence. Now, assuming responsibility hardly
means engaging in a mindless celebration of America; the founders
of the field never did that, and their books would now be worthless
if they had been merely patriotic. Assuming responsibility means
possessing both a curiosity about the society that they seek to
understand and a capacity to convey both its possibilities and its
pitfalls. Neither of those qualities is much in evidence among the
bitter rejectionists who have filled the vacuum left by the
retirement or the passing of Leo Marx's generation of scholars. It
is a credit to our freedom that we have avoided turning American
studies over to a propaganda arm of government and that we allow
those who appreciate their society so little to speak in its name.
If only they themselves could rise above their own propaganda, and
muster just a smidgen of gratitude in return.

By Alan Wolfe

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