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American Studies, Cultural History, and the Critique of Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2010

Richard S. Lowry
College of William and Mary


For several decades historians have expressed reservations about how scholars of American studies have embraced theory and its jargons. The program for a recent American studies convention seems to confirm the field's turn from history and its embrace of the paradigms and practices of cultural studies. The nature of this gap is complicated by comparing scholarly work published since 2000 on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in the respective flagship journals of each field. Scholars in both fields are committed to the study of culture, but they differ in how they understand historical agency and subjectivity. A historical overview of American studies scholars' engagement with cultural critique as well as a critical analysis of how two exemplary books in the field engage with historical change offer historians a way to understand such work not only as complementary to their own objectives, but necessary for a full understanding of the past and our relation to it.

Copyright © Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2009

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1 Sturken, Marita, “Editor's Note,” American Quarterly 58 (June 2006): 5Google Scholar.

2 In fact, Wikipedia claims that “in the U.S. [cultural history] is closely associated with the field of American studies”; “Cultural History,” Wikipedia, Cultural history (accessed July 15, 2008).

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5 In his review of Kaplan, Amy and Pease's, Donald edited volume, Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham, 1993),Google ScholarIriye, Akira contrasts contents of the essays with the “‘hard’ phenomena” of “diplomacy, war, [and] trade.” See journal ofAmerican History 82 (June 1995): 289.Google Scholar E. Anthony Rotundo uses the second phrase to characterize Dana Nelson's method in his review of Hoganson, Kristin L., Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine American Wars (New Haven, 1998), andGoogle ScholarNelson, Dana D., National Manhood: Capstalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men (Durham, 1998).CrossRefGoogle Scholar See journal of American History 86 (Mar. 2000): 1818.Google Scholar My ear detects a gendering here that characterizes history as masculine and American studies as feminine.

6 “Turning point” comes from Trachtenberg, Alan, “The Incorporation of America American Literary History 15 (Winter 2003): 759. The article responds to a forum on Trachtenberg's book. Others of course have made this claim as well. Among the more influential areGoogle ScholarWiebe, Robert, The Search for Order, 1877–1920 (New York, 1967)Google Scholar; Hall, Stuart, “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular” in People's History and Socialist Theory, ed. Samuel, Raphael (London, 1981), 227—40; andGoogle ScholarSklar, Martin J., The United States as a Developing Country: Studies in U.S. History in the Progressive Era and the 1920s (New York, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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8 Kaplan, Amy, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture (Cambridge, MA, 2002)Google Scholar.

9 Gene Wise first suggested American studies had become “something of a ‘parasite’ field—living off the creations of others” in his 1979 essay ‘“Paradigm Dramas’ in American Studies: A Cultural and Institutional History of the Movement,” AmericanQuarterly 31 (Summer 1979): 315. Michel de Certeau first introduced the term “textual poaching” in The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, 1984), to describe how readers make use of texts in ways that ignore and even run counter to the prescribed use. Henry Jenkins expanded the concept in his discussion of the politics of cultural fandom in Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (New York, 1992).

10 Kuklick, Bruce, “Myth and Symbol in American Studies,” American Quarterly 24 (Oct 1972): 435CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 Michael Denning has echoed Robert Sklar's 1975 lament about the “poverty of theory in American studies.” See , Denning, ‘“The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies,” American Quarterly 38 (Summer 1986): 372; andGoogle ScholarSklar, Robert, “The Problem of an American Studies ‘Philosophy’: A Bibliography of New Directions,” American Quarterly 27 (Aug. 1975): 245–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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13 For purposes here, I count only scholarly articles and do not include reviews and review essays in the total.

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15 Farland, Maria, “B, W. E.. Bois, Du, Anthropometric Science, and the Limits of Racial Uplift,” American Quarterly 58 (Dec. 2007): 1017–44;CrossRefGoogle ScholarSchafer, Axel R., “B, W. E.. Bois, Du, German Social Thought, and the Racial Divide in American Progressivism, 1892–1909,” Journal of American History 88 (Dec. 2001): 925—49CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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19 Seitler, Dana, “Unnatural Selection: Mothers, Eugenic Feminism, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Regeneration Narratives,” American Quarterly 55 (Mar. 2003): 62CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20 Wickberg, “Heterosexual White Male,” 150.

21 Needless to say, the range of engagement with theory by White, LaCapra, Stoler, and Scott is remarkable. Most relevant here are White, Hayden, The Content of the Form: Narratipe Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore, 1987)Google Scholar; LaCapra, Dominick, Soundings in Critical Theory (Ithaca, 1989)Google Scholar; Stoler, Ann, “Tense an d Tender Ties: The Politics of Comparison in North American History and (Post) Colonial Studies,” Journal of American History 88 (Dec. 2001): 829–65, andCrossRefGoogle Scholar “Matters of Intimacy as Matters of State: Response, A,” journal of American History 88 (Dec. 2001): 893–97;Google ScholarScott, Joan, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991): 773797.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also Cornell, Saul, “Moving Beyond the Great Story: Post Modern Possibilities, Postmodern Problems,” American Quarterly 50 (June 1998): 349–57.CrossRefGoogle ScholarThompson, E. P., The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London, 1978)Google Scholar.

22 On distinctions in history, see Handler, Richard, “Cultural Theory in History Today,” American Historical Review 107 (Dec. 2002): 1513–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Brantlinger, Patrick, “A Response to Beyond the Cultural TurnAmerican Historical Review 107 (Dec. 2002): 1503CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 , Wickberg, “What Is the History of Sensibilities? On Cultural Histories, Old and New,” American Historical Review 112 (June 2007): 673.Google Scholar On hegemony, see Lears, T. J. Jackson, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” American Historical Review, 90 (June 1985): 567–93; andCrossRefGoogle ScholarLauter, Paul, From Walden to Jurassic Park: Activism, Culture, and American Studies (Durham, 2001), 18Google Scholar.

25 Smith, Henry Nash, “Can ‘American Studies’ Develop a Method?American Quarterly 9 (Summer 1957): 201CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 One very fine exception to this would be Griffin, Larry J. and Tempenis, Maria, “Class, Multiculturalism, and the American QuarterlyAmerican Quarterly 54 (Mar. 2002): 6799CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Quoted in Pfister, Joel, “The Americanization of Cultural Studies,” Yale Journal of Criticism 4 (Spring 1991): 212Google Scholar.

28 , Lauter, From Walden to Jurassic Park, 2, 65Google Scholar.

29 Elliott, Emory, “Diversity in the United States and Abroad: What Does It Mean When American Studies Is Transnational?American Quarterly 59 (Mar. 2007): 23CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Michael Millner, “Post Post-Identity,” review of The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History, by Michaels, Walter Benn, and So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism, by Warren, Kenneth, American Quarterly 57 (June 2005): 542.Google Scholar On p. 541, Millner also notes a current “sense of exhaustion around the whole project of identity.” For a current engagement with identity studies, see Ruiz, Vicki L., “Citizen Restaurant: American Imaginaries, American Communities,” American Quarterly 60 (Mar. 2008): 121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Lauter, From Walden to Jurassic Park, voices a particularly strong sense of affinity between American studies and identity studies programs.

31 On difficulties between programs, see Goldstein-Shirley, David, “American Ethnic Studies, or American Studies vs. Ethnic Studies?” American Quarterly 54 (Dec. 2002): 691–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar On identity and pedagogical activism, see Rudnick, Lois Palken, et al., “Teaching American Identities: A University/Secondary School Collaboration,” American Quarterly 54 (June 2002): 255–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Berubé, Michael, “The Loyalties of American Studies,” American Quarterly 56 (June 2004): 223–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For reasons too complex to go into here, outside the United States, American studies has occupied a wider political spectrum: see Gunter H. Lenz, “Towards a Dialogues of International American Culture Studies: Transnationality, Border Discourses, and Public Culture(s)”in The Futures of American Studies, ed. Donald Pease and Robyn Wiegman (Durham, 2002), 461–85; and Davis, Allen F., “The Politics of American Studies,” American Quarterly 42 (Sept. 1990): 353–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Denning, ‘“Special American Conditions,’” 360, argues that “the founding question of the discipline remains ‘What is American?’”

34 Wolfe, Alan, “The Difference between Criticism and Hatred: Anti-American Studies,” New Republic, Feb. 10, 2003, 26.Google Scholar The earliest use of the term came in Kenneth Lynn's review of Lears's, T. J. JacksonNo Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920; “Looking Backward,” New York Times Book Review, Jan. 10, 1982, 29Google Scholar.

35 Wolfe, “The Difference between Criticism and Hatred,” 25. Wolfe is not alone in this language; Wise in ‘“Paradigm Dramas,’”308, terms the mid-twentieth century, “the Golden Era.” Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the PastoralIdeal in America (New York, 1964)Google Scholar.

36 Marx, Leo, “On Recovering the ‘Ur’ Theory of American Studies,” American Literary History 17 (Spring 2005): 121,126,128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Berubé cites an earlier version of the article, “Believing in America: An Intellectual Project and a National Ideal,” Boston Review 28 (Dec. 2003-Jan. 2004), <·6/marx.html>. I should note that this faith applies primarily only to those from the United States. On the cultural politics of the Popular Front, see Denning, Michael, The CulturalFront: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1998).Google Scholar On the early history of American studies, see Allen Davis, “Politics of American Studies,” and Wise, ‘“Paradigm Dramas.’”

37 Smith,“Can ‘American Studies’ Develop a Method?” 197.

38 , Smith, preface to The Virgin Land: American West as Symbol and Myth (New York, 1950), vGoogle Scholar.

39 Warren cites Smith's book, though he draws more fully on Slotkin's, RichardRegeneration Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860 (Norman, OK, 1973),Google Scholar which he also cites.

40 Smith, “Can ‘American Studies’ Develop a Method?” 208.

41 Geertz's, Clifford influential essay, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York, 1973), 3-30,Google Scholar draws on Max Weber to suggest that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” (5). Geertz's essay appeared after Smith's book but offered an interpretation of culture that complemented that in Virgin Land.

42 Trachtenberg, Alan, Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol (Chicago, 1965)Google Scholar.

43 Wise, ‘“Paradigm Dramas,’” 306. Wise notes that the textbook for one of the earliest American studies courses was entitled, simply, The American Mind.

44 Denning, ‘“Special American Conditions,’” 360, makes this point. Wise, ‘“Paradigm Dramas,’” 307, puts it as an effort “to probe for the fundamental meaning of America.”

45 Susman, Warren, “History and the American Intellectual: The Uses of a Usable Past” in Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1984), 7-26Google Scholar.

46 Marx, “On Recovering the ‘Ur’ Theory,” 121.

47 See Wise, ‘“Paradigm Dramas,’” 308–10.

48 Davis, “Politics of American Studies,” 355. Diamond, Sigmund, “Lux, Veritas, et Pecunia,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 16 (1991): 4155;andCrossRefGoogle Scholar, Diamond, “Compromising American Studies Programs and Survey Research,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 6 (Mar. 1993): 409–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

49 Marx, “On Recovering the ‘Ur’ Theory” 123, 124, 128.

50 See Davis, “Politics of American Studies,” 359.

51 Pease and Wiegman, The Futures of American Studies.

52 Brantlinger, “A Response to Beyond the Cultural' l'urn,” 1500–12.

53 Watts, Steven, “The Idiocy of American Studies: Poststructuralism, Language, and Politics in the Age of Self-Fulfillment,” American Quarterly 43 (Dec. 1991). 626CrossRefGoogle Scholar(quote 3), 627 (quote 1), 645 (quote 4), 655 (quote 2). Watts engages in particular with Brodhead, Richard, “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” Representations 21 (Winter 1988): 6972;CrossRefGoogle ScholarTompkins, Jane, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790–1860 (New York, 1985)Google Scholar; and Wolf, Bryan Jay, Romantic Re-Vision: Culture and Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century American Painting and literature (Chicago, 1982)Google Scholar

54 See Williams, Raymond, Culture and Materialism (New York, 2005)Google Scholar.

55 Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony.” Another key moment is Richard Slotkin's revision of his use of “myth” in light of poststructuralism. See , Slotkin, “Myth and the Production of History” in Ideology and Classic American literature, ed. Bercovitch, Sacvan and Myrajehlen, (New York, 1988): 7090Google Scholar.

56 The classic explications of these ideas remain Jameson, Frederic, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1 (Winter 1979): 130–48; and Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular.”CrossRefGoogle Scholar

57 For an example of an American studies approach to this, see especially Lipsitz, George, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis, 1990)Google Scholar.

58 On the transnationality of cultural studies, see Pfister, Joel, Critique for What? Cultural Studies, American Studies, Left Studies (Boulder, CO, 2006), 4957.Google ScholarJohnson, Richard, “What is Cultural Studies Anyway?” Social Text 16 (Winter 1986/1987): 3880CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59 Denning, ‘“Special American Conditions,”’ 357.

60 Pfister, “Americanization of Cultural Studies,” 209.

61 Patricia Limerick has had “plenty of occasions to feel impatient with and worried about the disadvantages of the jargon and complacency of quite a number of applications of cultural theory. When I think about the really quite substantial effort that one must go to, to ‘translate’ scholarly work to wider audiences (and smart audiences at that), I wonder why so much effort must go into creating the initial obscurity that then occasions the need for translation”; in al, Drew Faust et., “Interchange: The Practice of History,” Journal of American History 90 (Sept. 2003): 588Google Scholar.

62 Pfister, “Americanization of Cultural Studies,” 223. Frank, Robert, The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanationsfor Everyday Enigmas (New York, 2007).Google Scholar Winfried Fluck suggests that a market-based academic culture of expressive individualism in the humanities encourages tenure- and status-seeking intellectuals to “brand” their work with a particular valence of criticism; see Fluck, “The Humanities in the Age of Expressive Individualism and Cultural Radicalism” in Futures of American Studies, ed. Pease, and Weigman, , 211–30Google Scholar.

63 , Pfister, Critique For What?, 2381Google Scholar.

64 Gabaccia, Donna R., “Is Everywhere Nowhere? Nomads, Nations, and the Immigrant Paradigm of United States History,” in “The Nation and Beyond: Transnational Perspectives on United States History,” special issue, Journal of American History 86 (Dec. 1999): 1115CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 , Gabaccia, “Is Everywhere Nowhere?”; Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian-American Cultural Politics (Durham, 1996)Google Scholar; Clifford, James, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA, 1988)Google Scholar; and , Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the hate Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA, 1997)Google Scholar.

66 Milette Shamir raises this issue in ‘“Our Jerusalem’: Americans in the Holy Land and Protestant Narratives of National Entitlement,” American Quarterly 55 (Mar. 2003): 2960.CrossRefGoogle Scholar For an overview of border studies in history, see Adelman, Jeremy and Aron, Stephen, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104 (June 1999): 814–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Amy Kaplan, “Left Alone with America” in Cultures of United States Imperialism, ed. Kaplan, and Pease, , 321;Google ScholarRadway, Janice, “What's in a Name?: Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, 20 November 1998,” American Quarterly 51 (Mar. 1999): 132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

68 Quoted in Kaplan, “Left Alone in America,” 6.

71 Radway, “What's in a Name?,” 10–15.

72 Gillman, Susan, “The New, Newest Thing: Have American Studies Gone Imperial?American Literary History 17 (Spring 2005): 196–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 Gustafson, Sandra M., “Histories of Democracy and Empire,” American Quarterly 59 (Mar 2007): 117CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 Eight out of twenty-three articles in AQ and seven out of eighteen in the history journals can be construed as engaging the topic.

75 This describes the logic behind Pease, and Wiegman, , eds., The Futures of American Studies.Google Scholar A recent engagement with these issues animates Levander, Caroline and Levine, Robert S., eds., HemisphericAmerican Studies (New Brunswick, NJ, 2008)Google Scholar.

76 Wajda, Shirley Teresa, review of Tender Violence,Google Scholar by Wexler, Laura,journal of American History 89 (Dec. 2002): 1078–79;Google ScholarCapozzola, Christopher, “Empire as a Way of Life: Gender, Culture, and Power in New Histories of U.S. Imperialism,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 1 (Oct. 2002): 370–71Google Scholar.

77 A good gauge of Kaplan's influence comes in a review of a collection of essays on North American empire, in which Jon Smith wonders, “Has American studies stalled out, with the best boomers in the business still writing elaborate footnotes to Amy Kaplan?”; , Smith, review of Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, ed. Ann Laura Stoler, Journal of American History 93 (Mar. 2007): 1273Google Scholar.

78 Janiewski, Dolores, review of The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture, byGoogle ScholarKaplan, Amy, Journal of American History 90 (Mar. 2004): 1488.Google Scholar See also Stephanson, Anders, “Imperial Pursuits,” Diplomatic History 28 (Sept. 2004): 581–86;CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Singh, Nikhil Pal, “The Spectacle of Empire,” American Quarterly 56 (june 2004): 429–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

79 Wexler, Laura, “Black and White and Color: American Photography at the Turn of the Century,” Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 13 (1988): 341–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

80 Wexler, Laura, “Tender Violence: Literary Eavesdropping, Domestic Fiction, and Educational Reform,” Yale Journal of Criticism 5 (Fall 1991): 355–70;Google Scholar repr. in The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender and Sentimentality in Nineteenth Century America, ed. Shirley Samuels (New York, 1992), 9–38.

81 Brodhead, Richard was among the first to explore these issues; see his “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” Representations 21 (Winter 1988): 6796CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

82 See Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1977)Google Scholar.

83 Wexler borrows the phrase from Sekula, Alan, Photography Against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1975–1983 (Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1984)Google Scholar.

84 Both father and son were professional photographers; the former known for his images of Confederate and Union officers during the war, the latter an early “field” photographer who made many of his images outside the studio.

85 Trachtenberg was Wexler's colleague at Yale and edited the series for UNC Press in which Wexler's book appeared.

86 Bederman, Gail, Manliness and Civilisation: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago, 1995)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hoganson, , Fighting for American Manhood; and Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York, 1995)Google Scholar.

87 Kaplan, Amy, “Manifest Domesticity,” American Literature 70 (Sept. 1998): 581606CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

88 The Order of Things (New York, 1970)Google Scholar is the title of Foucault's most influential book.