What is American Studies? In 1957, literary scholar Henry Nash Smith described the field as “the study of American culture, past and present, as a whole,” and defined culture as “the way in which subjective experience is organized.” The Reed catalog from 1968–69 specified that the American Studies senior “will apply the tools of his [sic] discipline to an examination of some problem in the study of American culture.”
There has never been a single method, theory, or problematic of American Studies, only key definitional questions. What was or is “American”? How might scholars delineate national, regional, and local cultures, subcultures, and communities, or even find the shifting borders of America? What kinds of texts or evidence are representative of which “American” cultures: high or elite cultural texts (paintings, sculpture, literature, drama), popular or folk cultural artifacts (ballads, quilts, folktales, nursery rhymes), and/or the products and media of mass culture (consumer goods, films, radio, television, advertising)? How should scholars consider material culture (architecture and the built environment) that exemplifies American styles?
In short, American Studies scholars consider how best to understand the social and material processes through which people have produced (and consumed) “American” cultures, identities, and politics over time. They use the disciplinary methods best suited to help them answer particular queries.
American Studies has also been political—and politicized—from its beginning. It has been a field influenced by struggles within and outside the academy. Its academic roots can be traced to the establishment of an American literary canon in the 1920s and 1930s. There was then no category of “American literature”; arguments for a distinct, democratic American literary tradition had to be made to distinguish it from the sovereignty of British work. Progressive historians played a part in revitalizing the study of United States history, in part to recuperate and champion American culture during the Great Depression. During that prolonged economic and social crisis, scholars and government officials alike focused on what values, ideals, and experiences Americans had in common. Hence writers and ethnographers employed by universities and by the Works Progress Administration documented the experiences of immigrants and indigenous Americans and interviewed octogenarian ex-slaves.
My initial question when I started my thesis was: “Why did churches
start to look like spaceships after WWII?”
The consensus and conflicts produced by World War II, and the post-war nationalism of what Henry Luce termed “the American Century,” also shaped American Studies. The first issue of the scholarly journal American Quarterly appeared in 1949, and the American Studies Association was founded in 1951. As programs were established in universities and colleges, some officials (and donors) promoted the field as a way to help wage the new Cold War against Communism. Academics once again sought to capture what they thought was exceptional and democratic in the American experience, with a focus on ideological consensus and shared symbols. Scholars looked inward at American mass culture, and outward at America’s role in the nuclear age.
In the midst of the social and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s—and at the very moment when American Studies was being established at Reed—scholars around the country began to turn a more critical eye on venerable American institutions, earning the field the nickname “anti-American Studies” from detractors. In the struggles against discrimination and for civil rights by African Americans, women, Latinos, and Native Americans, activists’ claims to citizenship and a place in American history became research topics for academics. As the long war in Vietnam came to a protracted end, scholars researched earlier American entanglements and peace movements. As President Nixon resigned in the wake of revelations of secret White House tapes, American Studies students pondered the history and rhetoric of political scandal and constitutional crisis.