British Association for American Studies


From Exceptionalism to Transnationalism: Change and Continuity in American Studies

Many Americanists trace the emergence of American Studies to the post-WWI period when confident expressions of “American cultural distinctiveness” by authors and historians such as V. L. Parrington and Helen Merrell Lynd laid the foundation for the academic study of culture and produced the first interdisciplinary studies of American literature and history.[i] Seminal works on American history and national character like Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (1939) and Henry Nash Smith’s The Virgin Land: The American West in Symbol and Myth (1950) inspired the analyses of myth and symbol in American consciousness and a set of publications by authors such as Leo Marx and Allan Trachtenberg  who were to have a deep impact on the new orientations the discipline was taking by the mid-20thcentury. [ii]

Historians of the discipline often cite such landmark works as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835-1840) and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar (1837) as setting out a full program for the study of American life. Such figures were basically aware of the flaws inflicting American society and culture, notably slavery and racism, but they were not as concerned with the “injustices suffered by American women.”[iii] A few members of the oppressed communities managed to publish their vision of what American life was like: the abolitionist Frederick Douglas in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences (1815-1897).

Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” first published in 1893, is similarly considered one of the founding works in American Studies.[iv] In his essay, Turner argued that the frontier played a particularly important role in shaping American character by giving Americans a set of qualities that are uniquely theirs – resolve and ambition, creative genius, inventiveness, vigor, and joie de vivre.[v] Some of the narratives associated with the Frontier Thesis later inspired works on a variety of themes that remain essential to the study of American identity, such as democracy, individualism, and egalitarianism.[vi] The “new” western historians have criticised the Turner Thesis for whitewashing “settler invasion.”[vii] Many practitioners of the field, however, argue that it was specifically its thematic dynamism which gave it its typically critical stance.[viii] For in the late 1960s and 1970s, several English departments across the US began to move away from the established canon in poetry and fiction to focus more on a range of understudied areas such as minority cultures, immigrant groups, and language communities.[ix]

By the end of the 1960s, Americanists shared a common interest in the problems of minority and disadvantaged groups (ethnic minorities, women, lesbians and gays, people with disabilities) and worked out new methodological strategies that borrowed from British neo-Marxists and French historians, rewriting histories “from the bottom up and the inside out.”[x] The mundane matters of life acquired unprecedented significance.[xi] A new phase in the history of the discipline had begun as formerly neglected areas in American studies (advertising, the media, consumerism, social class, public ceremonies, music, film and television, visual arts, the environment, technological innovation) took on new dimensions in such works as Daniel Boorstin’s The Americans (a historical trilogy published successively in 1958, 1965 and 1973).[xii] A new emphasis on small communities attested to the growing influence of social science methods and announced the coming shift of American Studies away from its classical humanistic standards and towards a fresh concern with micro-social structures. The social and cultural specificities of small communities began to take center stage as the totalizing assessments of the old schools were waning.

For George Lipsitz, an eminent theorist of American Studies, the growth of this field is to be understood against the baseline of the social movements of the 1930s, 60s and 80s.[xiii] The struggle of such movements (women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement) was one about resources and power, a struggle against racism and sexism.[xiv] So American Studies came to be associated with, or was to become centered essentially on, the study of participatory democracy. For Lipsitz, the discipline’s “founders” – Leo Marx, Robert Penn Warren and Henry Nash Smith – meant it to be “the kind of scholarship … that connects cultural texts to their social and historical contexts.”[xv] For example, in order to come to a better understanding of the causes, character and social and cultural repercussions of the labor strikes of the 1920s, scholars were supposed to start with the study of specific patterns of cultural production that may involve correlated areas within the cultural sphere such as religious affiliation, speech forms, music and fiction and what they suggest about the working class way of life.

In the context of globalization, American Studies have contributed to the study of multiple identities, pan-ethnicity and the study of the “other” in relation to power structures and transnational cultures. This new discourse stresses the importance of cross-cultural experiences in the processes of national identity construction. It attempts to reconcile cultural diversity with national unity while celebrating difference and competition, a tendency that is supposedly further entrenching what scholars of race and ethnicity call “inter-ethnic group racism.”[xvi] The controversy on the theory of “culture wars” during the 1990s reflected Americanists’ new concern about the increasing fragmentation of the American cultural arena.[xvii] The debate opposed proponents of the conservative vision of society which celebrated national unity and common destiny to the advocates of a non-national/postnational identity.[xviii]         

Over the course of the past three decades, the discipline has finally broken with the paradigmatic generalizations about American culture and civilization of the pre-seventies and begun to focus on specific themes within the mantra of race, class and gender. Redefining American cultural identity through the lens of the intersection of race, class and gender was accompanied with the rise in the early 2000s of a comparative historiographic scholarship which investigated the transnational dimension which came to instruct the analytical approaches of American Studies in the next decade. Research conducted within these areas, such as Joanne Meyerowitz’s investigation of the “culture-personality” paradigm in relation to social constructionist thought, has advocated for the need of American Studies to question its own assumptions about the deterministic nature of culture regarding gender roles and sexuality.[xix]

Focusing their critique of conventional identity categorizations in American Studies on the oppressive nature of the traditionalist discourse on race, class and gender, scholars such as Meyerowitz and Nischik have inspired research in topics that, a few years ago, were out of the discipline’s line of sight. These have ranged  from whiteness through trans-sexuality to cultural geography. And while traditional disciplines such as social science and history continue to provide American Studies with methods and insights that have proved vital for its development, it is today much more dynamic and versatile than what one might have expected of a field that, as J. C. Rowe observes, has long suffered from an “embattled institutional situation.”[xx]


[i]See, for instance, Mark Bauerlein, “The Institutionalization of American Studies” (pp.42-43), in Theories of American Culture, Theories of American Studies, eds. Winfried Fluck and Thomas Claviez (Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 2004), 37-47; John C. Rowe, The Cultural Politics of the New American Studies(London: Open Humanities Press, 2012), 84-86; and Matthias Oppermann, “History of American Studies from its emergence to transnational American Studies,” in Approaches to American Cultural Studies, eds. Antje Dallmann, Eva Boesenberg, and Martin Klepper (NY, Routledge, 2016), 11-22; V. L. Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought(NY: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1927), a three-volume history of American letters from the early colonial period; Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture(Harcourt Brace & Company, 1929).

[ii]Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America(NY: Oxford University Press, 1964); Allan Trachtenberg  The Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol(IL: University of Chicago Press, 1965).

[iii]Women’s Studies was not introduced into the academy until the 1970s. See, for instance, Betsy Crouch, “Finding a Voice in the Academy: The History of Women’s Studies in Higher Education” (p.17), The Vermont Connection33, n.1 (2012): 16-23.

[iv]Released again in 1921 by Henry Holt & Company.

[v]Commenting on the qualities of the frontiersman, Turner observes that “to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and with all that buoyancy and exuberance which come with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier,” extracted from “The Frontier in American History,” The Project Gutenberg eBook, accessed November 14, 2018, http://www.gutenberg.org.

[vi]See, for example, the poetry of John Wallace “Captain Jack” Crawford (e.g. “The Burial of Wild Bill,” “The Broncho,” and “California Joe”) which celebrates the courage and determination of the American pioneer.

[vii]Erik Altenbernd & Alex T. Young, “Introduction: The Significance of the Frontier in an Age of Transnational History,” Settler Colonial Studies4, n.2 (2014): 127-150. Important “new” western historiographical works include Patricia N. Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West(NY: W.W. Norton & Co, 1987) and Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815(NY: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[viii]Simon J. Bronner, “The Death of American Studies?” European Journal of American Studies13, n. 2 (2018): 1-26.

[ix]For an insightful discussion of the impact of the New Left on social activism and academe in the 1960s, see Nikos Sotirakopoulos, The Rise of Lifestyle Activism: From New Left to Occupy, 1sted. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 24-25. See also Richard Rorty’s discussion of the rise of the Academic Left in the 1960s in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America(MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). On the shift from the study of the “canon” in American history, literature and politics to the investigation of new discursive formations and representations that better reflected the cultural diversity of contemporary American society see, for example, Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean’s American Cultural Studies: An introduction to American culture(NY: Routledge, 2012), 5-6.

[x]Although they tended to undertheorize the relationship between culture and political economy, mid-century Americanists adopted many of the modes of analysis used by the Birmingham School’s theorists (e.g. R. Hoggart, R. Williams) as well as those used in Frankfurt School criticism (e.g. H. Marcuse, T. Adorno, M. Horkheimer). See, for example, Douglas Kellner, “The Frankfurt School and British Cultural Studies: The Missed Articulation” last modified December 10, 2017, http://www.gseis.ucla.edu/faculty/kellner/kellner.html. See also James R. Barrett’s discussion of ethnic and working-class histories in “Introduction: The Subjective Side of Working-Class, in History from the Bottom Up and the Inside Out: Ethnicity, Race, and Identity in Working-Class History(NC: Duke University Press, 2017): 1-5.

[xi]The opening up of American Studies to the study of the material aspects of American culture(s) and society is discussed in depth in Campbell and Kean’s American Cultural Studies. In this ontological work, Campbell and Kean explain how the interdisciplinary character of American Studies has allowed it to produce emancipatory narratives out of classical American literary texts, discussing the significance of everyday life experiences in the construction of new public spaces. As they put it, “the grand narratives have become worthless and what can stand in their place are the stories from lives actually lived, of people speaking for themselves in order to ‘re/con/struct’ meanings in everyday terms” (p.269).

[xii]The first volume of the trilogy was The Americans: The Colonial Experience, the second The Americans: The National Experience, and the third The Americans: The Democratic Experience(for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1974).

[xiii]As he puts it, “the history of American Studies [is] also a history of successive social movements,” in American Studies in a Moment of Danger. (MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), xvi.

[xiv]Ibid. xiv-xv

[xv]Ibid. xi

[xvi]Rodney Clark, Norman B. Anderson, Vernessa R. Clark, and David R. Williams, “Racism as a Stressor for African Americans: A Biopsychosocial Model” (p.805) American Psychologist54, n. 10 (1999): 805-816.

[xvii]The concept was popularized byJames Davidson Hunter in Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, Making Sense of the Battles over the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics(NY: Basic Books, 1991). Other works were published in the 1990s in response to Davison’s assumptions, such as James L. Nolan Jr’s The American Culture Wars: Current Contests and Future Prospects(VA: University of Virginia Press, 1996).

[xviii]The idea of a unique American national identity was first discussed by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur in his Letters from an American Farmer(first published in 1872). Recent scholarship on American national unity includes, among several other important works, those of Seymour M. Lipset (see, for example, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996) and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (see, for example, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society, NY: W. W. Norton & Co. 1992). The latter consider ethnic and cultural diversity a vital constituent of the American democratic process, but warn against essentialism and sectarian politics; Postnational (or post-Americanist) ideology is based on neo-pluralist narratives which challenge the mainstream discourse on American identity and nationality. For an in-depth discussion of post-Americanism, see Donald E. Pease, ed., National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives(NC: Duke University Press Books, 1994).

[xix]Joanne Meyerowitz, “Transnational Sex and U.S. History,” TheAmerican Historical Review114, n. 5 (2009): 1273-1286. See also Meyerowitz’s essay “’How Common Culture Shapes the Separate Lives’”: Sexuality, Race, and Mid-Twentieth-Century Social Constructionist Thought” (especially page 978), The Journal of American History 96, n. 4 (2010): 1057-1084. See also Reingard M. Nischik for a discussion of the transnational dimension that American Studies has taken on over the past decade in Comparative North American Studies: Transnational Approaches to American and Canadian Literature and Culture1sted. (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

[xx]Rowe, quoted in Eileen T. and Edward J. Lundy, eds., Practicing Transnationalism: American Studies in the Middle East(TX: University of Texas Press, 2016), 10.

About the Author

Sami C. Nighaoui holds a PhD in English language and literature from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities in Manouba, Tunis. He is a Steinhardt School of Education (NYU, 2004) alumnus and holder of a diploma in educational leadership from the United States Department of State (Washington, DC, 2006). He co-founded the American Studies Research Group at the American Cultural Center in Tunis and the Research Group on Prejudicial Narratives at the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences in Kairouan, Tunisia. He served as Director of the English MasterÕs Program at the same faculty from 2014 to 2017. He currently teaches American Studies at Carthage University, Tunis. He is author of several articles on race relations in the United States, recently published a book on the African American liberal integrationist experience and edited two volumes on post-disciplinarity and deminoritisation.