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American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 118-134

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On Recovering the "Ur" Theory of American Studies

I muse upon my country's ills—
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time
On the world's fairest hope linked with man's foulest crime.
"Misgivings," Herman Melville (1860)


When Winfried Fluck invited me to come to Berlin and discuss "the theory of American studies," he suggested that I should feel free to be "shamelessly autobiographical."1 By now, it seems, my firsthand impressions of the American studies project in its infancy have acquired a certain documentary value. Although I was not present at the creation, I arrived on the scene almost immediately afterward, and so I accept the proffered license to draw on my fallible memories of those early years. They go back to September 1937, when I entered Harvard as a freshman—the same month, coincidentally, that Henry Nash Smith and Daniel Aaron took up residence as the first doctoral candidates in Harvard's brand-new graduate program in the History of American Civilization. The beginning of their graduate studies often has been said to mark the beginning of interdisciplinary American studies as a field of teaching and research.2 During the next four years, while Smith and Aaron (whom I did not know at that time) were earning their doctorates, I took a bachelor's degree in History and Literature. The History and Literature program, which had been established in 1906, was an interdisciplinary undergraduate concentration (or major), and the American subfield in effect was a precursor of the new graduate program in the History of American Civilization. Although the two programs were separately administered, they relied on much the same faculty—Americanists [End Page 118] interested in teaching and research that crossed the disciplinary boundaries between the study of history and literature, society and culture.

My formal education was interrupted by World War II, but in 1945, after four years' military service, I enrolled as a candidate for the "Am Civ" doctoral degree. By 1949, when I completed my graduate work, I had studied with most of the men—and they were all men— who had helped to shape the new program: F. O. Matthiessen, Perry Miller, Kenneth Murdock, Samuel Eliot Morison, Ralph Barton Perry, Howard Mumford Jones, and Arthur Schlesinger Sr., as well as Smith, who was a visiting professor at Harvard during 1945–46. (Smith and I later were colleagues at the University of Minnesota, where I taught from 1949 to 1958.) At both Minnesota and Amherst College, where I taught from 1958 to 1976, I also came to know the founders of their respective American studies programs, Tremaine McDowell and George Rogers Taylor. All of these scholars were my teachers or colleagues or both, several became close personal friends, and in those early years I was party to countless discussions of the new project. If all or most of these faculty members had subscribed to a formal theory of American studies, I almost certainly would have known it.

The problem is that I don't recall having heard any discussion— or even mention—of such a theory. From the vantage of our post-theory era, in fact, Harvard's doctoral program in the History of American Civilization began life in a scandalously "untheorized" condition.3 It was introduced without fanfare, almost casually, as a strictly local experiment in interdisciplinary teaching and research. If a theory was implicit in this modest curricular innovation, it was a rationale for interdisciplinarity. In official announcements of the new project the mantra was interdisciplinary. At that time, to be sure, the arguments against the rigid compartmentalization of knowledge within the traditional disciplines still seemed fresh, even challenging. Later, in the 1950s, a long debate about the theory and practice of interdisciplinarity began. The chief issue was whether American studies could, or should, develop a "method" of its own. After several years, Smith in effect settled the argument with his magisterial 1957 essay, "Can 'American Studies' Develop a Method?" He concluded that the formulation of a widely accepted, clearly...


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