A Movement in the Mirror: American Studies in the 1970s

Guernsey, Lisa Gwendolyn , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia

Imagine back to that self-conscious moment when one unknowingly walks by a mirror: the shock of unexpected recognition, the sudden need to pull oneself closer, stare down the pores, reconfigure the collar and smile for improvement.  Twenty-five years ago the American Studies movement seemed to experience a similar moment of self-realization. At a time when American Studies programs were either expanding or getting started across the country, when the once-vanguard movement was now becoming established (and, even to some, old-hat), and when generations of breakthrough scholars were being replaced by generations of newer scholars hoping for their own breakthrough, American Studies was ripe for a period of self-reflection. The 1970s provided it.  Henry Nash Smith's 1957 question, "Can `American Studies' Develop a Method?", may have released the first hints of introspection, but by the mid-1970s constant self-questioning, self-doubt and self-approval permeated the movement. Article and book titles alone reflect the mood: "American Studies--A Defense of an Unscientific Method" (1969), "American Culture Studies: The Discipline and The Curriculum" (1973), The Search for a Method in American Studies (1973), "Unity and Diversity in the Study of American Culture: The American Studies Association in Perspective" (1973), "American Studies: Struggle in the DMZ," "American Culture Studies: A Discipline in Search of Itself" (1975), and "The Problem of American Studies `Philosophy'" (1975).1 Gene Wise's widely-read 1979 essay then topped the pile, as he paused to reflect on American Studies' self-reflection in "`Paradigm Dramas' in American Studies." Self-awareness, one might say, had reached a consuming extreme. 

Part of the reason for the deluge in American Studies introspection, in the 1970s or otherwise, may be inherent in American Studies scholars themselves. As an American movement founded on self-analysis (Americans studying "America"), and as a field committed to putting events, trends or individuals in historical context, American Studies set itself up for its own unrelenting self-scrutiny. The sometimes brutal introspection, some may say, has not abated yet.2 Yet the 1970s, in particular, provide a rich time period in which to look at why this self-reflection began and how it took hold. Both intellectually and institutionally, American Studies and its professional association, the American Studies Association, underwent several changes in the 1970s; to several critics as well as insiders, in fact, the movement seemed to be in "crisis."3 Examining the agents of these changes--and the reasons for this "crisis"--may shed light on the directions American Studies has taken since, as well as provide a microcosmic example of the intellectual debates occurring today within academic study as a whole. The crisis in the Humanities, the suspicion of objectivity, and the onset of postmodernism are all reflected in the corridor of mirrors set up by the American Studies movement in the 1970s. To gaze into those mirrors and beyond is to grasp, at least to some degree, the extent of the changes reverberating through academic thought over the past two decades.   

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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