Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 July 2009
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.
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.
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