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American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 135-140

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Our America

Criticizing Leo Marx is a little like criticizing Karl Marx. It is a daunting task, but it needs to be done. All scholars who research the literature and culture of the US owe enormous debts to the author of The Machine in the Garden, to the scholarly brilliance and moral passion that has characterized his long career. When Leo Marx urges us not to betray the American studies tradition that he helped to start, we need to consider his words carefully and respectfully. Yet the melancholia and mourning for a lost American studies that permeates his piece does not provide us with an adequate understanding of why and how scholarship about this abstraction called "America" has changed.

Marx takes his own generation's most generative paradigm as a universal truth, while misreading the aims, intentions, and achievements of contemporary scholars. He confuses criticism of the nation-state with contempt for the nation and its culture. He reminds us of the radical promise of mainstream culture, without accounting adequately for the ways in which promises of evolutionary change have served as excuses for injustice and inequality. Marx sees what is dying, but not what is being born. He does not see what one of the characters in Jack Conroy's Depression Era stories sees, that when a Spanish nettle is pulled from the earth the plant may die, but its seeds and pods scatter in all directions creating new life elsewhere (Wixson 32).

In my book American Studies in a Moment of Danger (2001), I attempted to acknowledge, understand, and critique Marx's appraisal of the past four decades of scholarship, so I will not reiterate that argument here (69–73). In this brief response to "On Recovering the 'Ur' Theory of American Studies," I seek instead to dispute Marx's claims about the motives of contemporary American studies scholars, challenge his readings of new work in the field—especially David W. Noble's Death of a Nation (2002)—and suggest some solutions that might place Marx and those of us he criticizes on common ground.

The challenge that Marx extends to us comes at a crucial time. At this moment in history, the most powerful people and the most [End Page 135] influential institutions in our country are waging a calculated and comprehensive cultural campaign about the meaning of America. Disloyalty to their plans and programs becomes equated with disloyalty to the nation. This "America" is an America of white male propertied power, of imperial ambition, of collectivist coercion disguised as the defense of individual freedom. This America proves itself through patriarchal power and military might, not by keeping its political promises. This America is a country, not a continent.

In the name of unity, our leaders seek unanimity. They seek to foster through fear what they cannot inspire by faith. When they cannot lead us, they lie to us. They insist that the story of America must be a unified narrative told from one point of view. They want aland where we dance to their tune, not our land of a thousand dances.

The contemporary scholars whom Marx portrays as embittered radicals consumed with hatred for the nation speak for and from another America. They ground themselves in what W. E. B. DuBois called "Abolition Democracy," the collective struggle fashioned from the freedom dreams of enslaved black people that produced the 14th Amendment—not just the Constitutional provision guaranteeing equal protection of the law but the broader social charter and social warrant that emerged in its wake. Faced with the practical imperatives of trying to procure full citizenship and free social membership in a nation premised and predicated on their exclusion, they understood that America would have to change if they were to be included in it. Their struggles led them to create a world where the 14th Amendment became law, where white male propertied power and Anglo-Protestant inclusion no longer defined the terms of citizenship or social membership.

The Abolition Democracy advanced by black people opened the door that allowed...


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