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American Studies and the Radical Tradition: From the 1930s to the 1960s

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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During the last years scholars in American Studies have become more conscious of the methodological problems of their work and have made wide-ranging use of the developments in various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. They have also discovered the importance of a critical perspective on the history of their “discipline.” But there clearly is the feeling of a loss of direction, an uneasiness about the purposes and objectives of American Studies. Often the appropriation of new methods and approaches was pursued under the old premises, and awareness of the history of the field reduced to a stereotypical periodization of “phases” characterized by dominant “key concepts” or “methods.” Whereas during the late 1960s and early 1970s the work of the so-called myth-symbol school (from H. N. Smith to Leo Marx) was criticized as methodologically unsound (by B. Kuklick) and politically conservative (or reactionary) (by Lasch et al.), more recently some of its work, particularly by Leo Marx and Richard Slotkin, has been condemned (by Kenneth Lynn) as “regressive,” “reductionist,” or simply “anti-American Studies.” This confusion about the origin, the objectives, the political implications, and the “legacy” of the early period of American Studies, from the 1930s to the 1960s, and the development and changes in literary and cultural criticism and in historiography during these decades is, it seems to me, one reason for the precarious relationship between “history” and “theory” in American Studies today.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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Author's note: Earlier versions of this paper were read at Rutgers State University, New Brunswick, N.J.; the Biennial Convention of the American Studies Association, Philadelphia; Columbia University, New York; the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; and the University of California, Berkeley. I thank Leo Marx for his careful reading of my essay and George Abbott White for sharing his knowledge of F. O. Matthiessen's work and life.

1. See, for example, Wise, Gene, American Historical Explanations: a Strategy for Grounded Inquiry (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey, 1973, rev. ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980)Google Scholar; “Some Elementary Axioms for an American Culture Studies,” Prospects 4 (1979): 517–47Google Scholar; Mechling, Jay, “In Search of an American Ethnophysics,” in Luedtke, Luther S., ed., The Study of American Culture: Contemporary Conflicts (Deland, Fla.: Everett/Edwards, 1977), pp. 241–77Google Scholar; “If They Can Build a Square Tomato: Notes Toward a Holistic Approach to Regional Studies,” Prospects 4 (1979): 5977Google Scholar; and the essays by Wise, Mechling, Karen Lystra, and Kelly, R. Gordon in the “On the Shoulders of Giants” section, Prospects 8 (1983): 158.Google Scholar

2. See Tate, Cecil F., The Search for a Method in American Studies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1973)Google Scholar; Wise, Gene, “‘Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement,” American Quarterly 31 (1979): 293337CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and two excellent review essays, Bledstein, Burton J., “American Studies: A Life and Times,” Michigan Quarterly Review 19 (Summer 1980): 410–20Google Scholar, and Gunn, Giles, “American Studies as Cultural Criticism,” Yale Review 72 (Winter 1983): 296305.Google Scholar

3. Lynn, Kenneth S., “The Regressive Historians,” American Scholar 47 (Autumn 1978): 471500Google Scholar (on Leo Marx, 480–89); “Looking Backward” (rev. of Lears, No Place of Grace), New York Times Book Review, 01 10, 1982.Google Scholar

4. See my essay “American Studies-Beyond the Crisis?: Recent Redefinitions and the Meaning of Theory, History, and Practical Criticism,” Prospects 7 (1982): 53113.Google Scholar

5. Cf. Bell, Daniel, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976)Google Scholar; Graff, Gerald, Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)Google Scholar; Goodheart, Eugene, Culture and the Radical Conscience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973)Google Scholar, and The Failure of Criticism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978)Google Scholar; Lasch, Christopher, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Norton, 1978).Google Scholar

See, for example, Pells, Richard H., Radical Visions and American Dreams: Culture and Social Thought in the Depression Years (New York: Harper and Row, 1973)Google Scholar, and Dubofsky, Melvyn, “Not So ‘Turbulent Years’: Another Look at the American 1930's,” Amerikastudien/American Studies 24/1 (1979): 520.Google Scholar

6. Bercovitch, Sacvan, “The Rites of Assent: Rhetoric, Ritual, and the Ideology of American Consensus,” in Girgus, Sam B., ed., The American Self: Myth, Ideology, and Popular Culture (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981) pp. 542, esp. p. 29Google Scholar; cf. The American Jeremiad (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978)Google Scholar, esp. “Epilogue: The Symbol of America.”

7. Bercovitch, Sacvan, “The Problem of Ideology in American Literary History,” Critical Inquiry 12 (Summer 1986): 635ff, 639, 642, 648, 650CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and his “Afterword” in Bercovitch, Sacvan and Jehlen, Myra, eds., Ideology and Classic American Literature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 427, 431ff., 437ffGoogle Scholar. I am indebted to Sacvan Bercovitch for making a copy of his afterword available to me before publication of the book.

8. Two recent collections, in addition to Ideology and Classic American Literature, contain revisionist studies by literary scholars mostly related to the project of the new Cambridge History of American Literature: Michaels, Walter Benn and Pease, Donald E., eds., The American Renaissance Reconsidered, Selected Papers from the English Institute 1982–83, New Series, no. 9 (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985)Google Scholar, and Bercovitch, Sacvan, ed., Reconstructing American Literary History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986)Google Scholar, which is dedicated “To the memory of F. O. Matthiessen and Perry Miller.” Two essays in The American Renaissance Reconsidered offer revisionary readings of Matthiessen's American Renaissance: Arac, Jonathan, “F. O. Matthiessen: Authorizing an American Renaissance”Google Scholar (pp. 90–112), and Pease, Donald E., “Moby Dick and the Cold War”Google Scholar (pp. 113–55). Both essays ask important questions and offer valuable suggestions, but unfortunately are seriously marred in their overall interpretive endeavor by a reductive reading of Matthiessen's work. These readings rely on the hostile and superficial “analysis” of Matthiessen's “politics” in O'Neill, William L.'s book A Better World: The Great Schism: Stalinism and the American Intellectual (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), pp. 173–83Google Scholar, that has been repeated, in a less polemical form, in Rosenberg, Karen's “Stalinism, Democracy, and Commitment: Remembering F. O. Matthiessen,” Harvard Magazine (0304 1983): 5154Google Scholar. Arac and Pease argue in terms of a crude distinction between “two Matthiessens” (Pease), collapse critical distinctions and historical dialectic (e.g., Pease's constant use of “became indistinguishable from”), and provide versions of a “repoliticization” that reify Matthiessen's understanding of “wholeness” (Arac) and then directly confront it with ideological constructs or “positions” such as the “Popular Front” (Arac) or the “Cold War” (Pease).

9. The importance of the World War II years is emphasized in Philip Gleason's recent review essay, “World War II and the Development of American Studies,” American Quarterly 36 (1984): 343–58Google Scholar. Cf. also Richard Pells's new book quoted in n. 13.

10. I discuss these questions more generally in another essay that focuses especially on the more recent work of Graff, Gerald, Lasch, Christopher, Bercovitch, Sacvan, Trachtenberg, Alan, Said, Edward W., and Jameson, Fredric: “Tradition, Discontinuity, and Counterdiscourse: Some Problems in American Radical Cultural Criticism since the 1960s,” in Lenz, Günter H. and Shell, Kurt L., eds., The Crisis of Modernity: Recent Critical Theories of Culture and Society in the United States and West Germany (Frankfurt: Campus; Boulder, Col.: Westview, 1986), pp. 191249.Google Scholar

11. Cf. Ryan, Michael, Marxism and Deconstruction: A Critical Articulation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982)Google Scholar, and “Literary Criticism and Cultural Science: Transformations in the Dominant Paradigm of Literary Study,” North Dakota Quarterly 51 (Winter 1983): 100–12.Google Scholar

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17. Matthiessen, F. O., The Achievement of T.S. Eliot: An Essay on the Nature of Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1935, rev. and enl. 1958), p. vii.Google Scholar

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29. Ibid., pp. xivff.

30. Ibid., pp. xvff.

31. Matthiessen, F. O., “Needed: Organic Connection of Theory and Practice,” Monthly Review 2 (19501951): 11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32. See Sklar, Robert, “American Studies and the Realities of America,” American Quarterly 22 (1970): 597605CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Berkhofer, Robert F., “Clio and the Culture Concept: Some Impressions of a Changing Relationship in American Historiography,” Social Science Quarterly 53 (1972): 297320.Google Scholar

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35. Cf. Brooks, Van Wyck, “What Is Primary Literature?Yale Review 31 (19311932): 3437Google Scholar, and the “Irresponsibles”-debate (MacLeish).

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37. Ibid., pp. 35, 37; The Responsibilities of the Critic, p. 193Google Scholar. Cf. Stern, Frederick C., F. O. Matthiessen: Christian Socialist as Critic (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), pp. 95ff.Google Scholar

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51. Ibid., pp. 14, 6, 7, 5, 8.

52. Ibid., pp. 6, 8, 10.

53. Ibid., p. 13.

54. Ibid., p. 11. Cf. his note “Marxism and Literature,” Monthly Review 4 (19521953): 398400.Google Scholar

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57. Ibid., pp. 90, 177.

58. Ibid., p. 90.

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60. From the Heart of Europe, p. 44Google Scholar (my emphasis).

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63. Ibid., pp. 219, cf. 201, 206ff.

64. Ibid., p. 240; for the comparison to Whitman cf. esp. pp. 239ff.

65. Ibid., p. 250. Cf. Matthiessen's statement in the 1947 introduction to The Achievement of T. S. Eliot: “I believe that it is possible to accept the ‘radical imperfection’ of man, and yet to be a political radical as well, to be aware that no human society can be perfect, and yet to hold that the proposition that ‘all men are created equal’ demands adherence from a Christian no less than from a democrat” (p. ix). Cf. Gunn, , F. O. Matthiessen, pp. xxi, 157Google Scholar; Stern, , F. O. Matthiessen, pp. 18, 31, 200, 240, 242Google Scholar, but with a stronger emphasis on unity/totally unified sensibility, cf. pp. x, 18, 39, 43, 103.

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80. Ibid., p. 32.

81. Ibid., pp. 14, 20ff.

82. Ibid., pp. 5, 285, 287, 305, 32. Cf. Hartz's later book The Founding of New Societies (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1964)Google Scholar. Cf. Dorothy Ross's important essay “The Liberal Tradition Revisited and the Republican Tradition Addressed,” in Higham, John and Conkin, Paul K., eds., New Directions in American Intellectual History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), pp. 116–31.Google Scholar

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97. Ibid., p. 35.

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105. Ibid., pp. 246ff., 251, 261, 282. Cf. Smith's later book Democracy and the Novel: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978)Google Scholar. Ch. 1 defines the “issues” in relation to “Matthiessen's program” in American Renaissance.

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107. Ibid., p. 304.

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123. Ibid., pp. 111, 112, 113, 116.

124. Ibid., pp. 113, 116.

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