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American Quarterly 53.4 (2001) 720-732
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The Worlding of American Studies
Surveying the legacy of U.S. foreign policy at the height of the Cold War, Henry Nash Smith found a contradictory mixture of isolationism and imperial ambitions. As the nation extended its borders westward, its economic and political programs were buttressed by a symbolic constellation that he called "the myth of the garden." The requisite utopianism surrounding the garden of America gave rise to a dangerous xenophobia, a belief that "other men [sic] and other continents, having no share in the conditions of American virtue and happiness were by implication unfortunate or wicked" (187). Instead of looking east to see themselves as "members of a world community," Americans had been excessively oriented towards continental expansion as the means to fulfilling the promise of Manifest Destiny. 1
Fifty years later, the muted critique of isolationism advanced by Virgin Land has become one of the central concerns for scholars [End Page 720] working in American studies, which has turned increasingly towards comparative, multicultural, and transnational perspectives as a way of combating the field's more traditional focus on a homogenous national culture. 2 However, in place of the transatlantic community Smith saw as the antidote to national insularity, contemporary critics are faced with a dizzying network of geopolitical relations that make oppositions between us and them, inside and outside, far more complicated than they appeared in the middle of the twentieth century. Although the shifting contours of this scholarship may be attributed partly to historical changes that make the world of 2001 a very different place than it was for critics of the 1950s, they are also in large part due to the influence of postcolonial theory and work in U.S. ethnic studies that assumes a transnational rather than a nation-based frame of analysis. As a result of these developments, some of the most interesting recent work in the field engages the critical juncture between American studies and postcolonial theory, comparative literature, and the study of globalization. This engagement has already begun to transform established methods and curricula. Three books published in 2000--Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism: From the Revolution to World War II by John Carlos Rowe, Post-Nationalist American Studies edited by John Carlos Rowe, and Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature edited by Amerjit Singh and Peter Schmidt--model a variety of approaches to an American studies that is more attentive to its position in the complex global environment of the new millennium. Together they show the potential of transnational perspectives to invigorate the field; however, they also reveal that American studies still has something to learn from its relatively new partnerships.
John Carlos Rowe's Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism joins a growing body of research on the subject of the North American empire. In its concern with the impact of foreign policy on domestic affairs, this scholarship expands on previous studies devoted to the problem of internal colonization by critics such as Robert Berkhofer, Richard Drinnon, Annette Kolodny, Arnold Krupat, Patricia Nelson Limerick, Michael Rogin, Richard Slotkin, and Ronald Takaki. 3 The interrelationship between the national and the international is one of the fundamental premises of Rowe's study, which proposes that the literary culture of the United States has been profoundly shaped by an imperialist ideology that has fueled the nation's foreign policy virtually [End Page 721] from its inception. Economic, political, and military expansionism went hand in hand with the rise of the nation state, making empire a constitutive feature of global modernity. Discounting the notion of...