American Studies, Cultural History, and the Critique of Culture

Richard S. Lowry
2009 The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era  
For several decades historians have expressed reservations about how scholars of American studies have embraced theory and its jargons. The program for a recent American studies convention seems to confirm the field's turn from history and its embrace of the paradigms and practices of cultural studies. The nature of this gap is complicated by comparing scholarly work published since 2000 on the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in the respective flagship journals of each field. Scholars in both
more » ... Scholars in both fields are committed to the study of culture, but they differ in how they understand historical agency and subjectivity. A historical overview of American Studies scholars' engagement with cultural critique, and a critical analysis of how two exemplary books in the field engage with historical change, offers historians a way to understand such work not only as complementary to their own objectives, but necessary for a full understanding of the past and our relation to it. Several years ago, I asked an old friend to join a panel on "Progressive Childhood" for the American Studies Association's annual meeting. He and I had attended graduate school together in American studies but had gone different directions once we left: he towards social and, later, public history, I towards literature and cultural studies. In our associate professorhood, however, we had found our interests converging in rewarding ways around issues of urban reform. The ASA seemed the perfect opportunity to get together. When the panel was accepted, my friend was pleased but added that he was going "to have to let the moths out of my wallet and pony up to join" the ASA. "I dropped my membership," he went on, "a few years ago because I frankly found the AQ [American Quarterly, the association's flagship journal] shifting more and more toward incomprehensible cult crit and less cultural history." While the pun on the presumed abbreviation of "cultural" was more witty than most, my friend's complaint sounded Lowry JGAPE Page 2 of 59 familiar. I had heard similar comments from colleagues in history for decades-about how "trendy," "theory-obsessed," or "jargon-ridden" American studies had become; how scholarship in the field lacked "depth" and "rigor;" how much methodological navelgazing scholars in the field seemed to indulge in. Over the years I had risen to the field's defense, pointing to superb scholarship done by scholars working directly in the field, and suggesting that historians could do with a little more reflexive theorizing about what it is they did. But my friend's comment brought me up short: here was a fellow traveler who had distanced himself from the field he had been trained in. The program for the convention we attended (2005) suggested that he shared his aversion to American studies with other historians. Out of over 1,200 participants on the program, only 133, just over 11 percent, identified themselves as historians. Of those, forty-nine clustered together on only twelve panels, leaving a mere eighty-four scattered among 250 other panels. And even if we grant a high percentage of historians who officially affiliate themselves with American studies programs (people like Elaine Tyler May, Ann Fabian, etc.), it does not change that the conference was overwhelmingly organized around issues of "cult[ural] crit[icism]," cultural studies, and literary studies. American studies, it seemed, was as little interested in historians as historians were in American studies. This tendency toward critique, and presumably away from history, was all the more apparent in a subsequent (2006) issue of American Quarterly. Describing its contents, the editor Marita Sturken writes, "These are all essays that grapple with the issues of our times, the contradictions and tensions of culture, and what those contradictions can tell us about how we look at the past, how the past is entangled with
doi:10.1017/s1537781400001298 fatcat:6zdvd4l75re6bedjq5vcevmxxm