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Cosmic American Studies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


There is not only an existential poignancy but also an intellectual piquancy to the 1950 suicide note of F. O. Matthiessen, one of the founders of American studies: “I am depressed over world conditions. I am a Christian and a Socialist. I am against any order which interferes with that objective” (“F. O. Matthiessen”). Matthiessen attributed his fateful decision to a situation—the Cold War—in which it increasingly seemed difficult to assert credibly and pursue effectively a socialist agenda without being presumed or pressured to hold commitments to materialism, atheism, and secularism. The dominant narrative of American studies is that the Cold War gave the field its life—the ideological impetus and institutional infrastructure to produce and peddle a sophisticated version of American exceptionalism (Radway 47-49; Wise 308-12). But Matthiessen's tragic case suggests instead that the Cold War may have killed American studies, at least a possible version of it. Matthiessen's fatal dilemma, I want respectfully to suggest, might instruct us how to reconstruct the history and future of a field whose “bread-and-butter concerns” have always included religion (Stein and Murison 1; cf. Modern). Matthiessen's political credentials as a socialist were bona fide, and his intellectual inclinations were toward deep historicist analysis, but he couldn't commit to Marxism, despite his frank acknowledgment of its indispensable contribution not only to intellectual culture but also to his own thinking. Clearly, personal religious reasons played a role—“I am a Christian, not through upbringing but by conviction, and I find any materialism inadequate” (Matthiessen, “Education” 180). But I want to underscore Matthiessen's intellectual objections, which arose from the evidence of his historical inquiry into American literature and culture. That is to say, I want to distinguish between how his theological convictions may have prejudiced him against Marxism's secularist teleology and how his scholarly investigation of American literature and culture raised legitimate questions about Marxism's implicit secularization narrative. In reviews of the Marxist literary histories of his Americanist colleagues V. F. Calverton and Granville Hicks, Matthiessen complained of their inability to comprehend what he called “the main development of religious idealism from Edwards through the transcendental movement” and “the strain of affirmation of the ideal that runs from the seventeenth century to the twentieth” (Responsibilities 187, 195). The secularist premises of Marxist analysis—at least in the crude form espoused by Calverton and Hicks—seemed to Matthiessen blunt instruments with which to accomplish deep understanding of the pronounced “religious idealism” of American literature and culture.

Theories and Methodologies
Copyright © 2013 by The Modern Language Association of America

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