"Roots of American Studies"
Richard P. Horwitz

E-mail: Richard-Horwitz@uiowa.edu
WWWeb: http://myweb.uiowa.edu/rhorwitz/

Copyright © 2020
A verison of this essay also appears in The American Studies Anthology
ed. Richard P. Horwitz (Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2001)


American Studies is a branch of learning. Since the 1930s people have been gathering in its name to study and create courses, readings, films, and exhibits. On more than 400 college or university campuses in the United States and many more elsewhere around the globe, you can earn a diploma with "American Studies" on it. The aim of all of these activities, in one fashion or another, is understanding America. That is basically all there is to it.

Talking about such a thing as if it had "roots" risks creating some confusion. Since the mid 1970s, when Alex Haley’s book Roots and then a made-for-TV translation went blockbuster, the word has become clichéd. People started using it to mean just about anything vaguely genealogical or traditional (as in "roots-rock" music). Once you get to looking for roots in this way, they are too easy to find to be worth very much. Everything is apt to seem connected to ("rooted in") just about everything else.

But people often speak as if their roots were a unique, spiritual home -- not just any home, but the one where "our people" (and only they) were raised. From this perspective, "finding their roots" is supposed to help folks (e.g., initiates to an ethnicity or a course in American Studies) feel better about who they are.

It succeeds only if they also feel, not so much a part of history, but a product of it. They treat their origins as if they were their destiny, as if a distant force determined who they would be. Such a pedigree can be revealing, reassuring, or even necessary for self-defense, but it can also conceal the act of remembering. In effect, despite Haley’s reminders, people forget that Roots had to be both researched and made-up, both found and invented.

On the other hand, there are lots of people who do not know or much care about their roots. It is, for example, U.S. "minority groups" who embrace (or get stuck with) the roots that put a hyphen in their name: Italian-American, Korean-American, etc. People who pass for white, native-born, and English mother-tongued, can easily think that they are just "regular" or "one-hundred percent" American. They do not need "roots" to feel at home. History in effect began when their citizenship was secure. For people who are so comfortable, roots seem merely optional, like fashion accessories. Civility requires only that they endure the pride that less fortunate folks take in such trinkets.

In this respect, the cliché leaves people feeling free to opt out of history altogether. But why should anyone consider ancestors from Brooklyn, Britain, or Germany any more (or less) "rooted" than those from Laos or Ethiopia? Why should "regular disciplines" like philosophy, literature, history, or political science seem any more (or less) rooted than American Studies? Whatever the therapeutic value of these relations to "roots," they tend to render history a pastime for spectators only.

This textbook (The American Studies Anthology) is designed around a more restricted -- more literal but still metaphorical -- use of the word "roots."

For an actual tree, of course, the roots are the oldest part, buried below. Granted, a lot of the action in a plant’s life happens aboveground, where you can see it, maybe climb its branches, admire new leaves, or taste its fruit. But a lot has happened and continues to happen underground. A hefty taproot digs deep where growth first began. Its grasp allows the trunk to stand tall, even as limbs reach toward the light. With age, the tips of radiating roots stretch for nutrients to touch. Their shape, then, is a record of their route through the soil.

Under decent conditions, they explode out into loam, squeeze between boulders, and fan out over bedrock. They are durable but also degradable. If a major root encounters disease or trauma, it rots and reverts to the soil. Minor roots extend and swell to pick up the slack. None of them exactly determines the way a tree grows, but every bud is reared below.

In this way, roots are both a fixed record of the past and a dynamic resource for the future. Although normally out of sight, they are among the things most worth envisioning before you prune, graft, climb, or hang a swing. Part of what draws me to this way of introducing American Studies -- through a roots analogy -- is the lively sense of history that it evokes.

Of course, as a branch of learning American Studies does not really have roots (at least no more than learning has "branches"). With a little elaboration, the analogy begins to collapse. The field might make more sense if you think of it as a piece of machinery than as a plant. Colleges, libraries, and museums are fueled by cash and driven by professionals who are licensed operators. And in some ways every piece of curriculum resembles theater. Regents build the stage, deans do the casting, teachers write the scripts, and students more or less successfully "perform." The history of American Studies might well be introduced as if it were an industry, a city, a game, or for that matter (mindful of the jargon) a foreign language.

But among the distinct benefits of thinking of the field as if it had roots is the insinuation of connections across space and time. The past is at once out-of-sight and powerfully ever-present, both sturdy and pliant.

It is a pretty safe bet, for example, that in times of international conflict views of America will become politicized and polarized. Every event that might have foreshadowed the conflict, even if only distantly related and vaguely remembered, will be dusted off and stitched into regimental banners. Public officials and their intellectual defenders will review the past and find a legacy that puts God on their side. Foes and their defenders will find the same record satanic. As passions heat up, the latest entry in the "American" record -- the goings-on that made it seem so holy or demonic in the first place -- will be considered more surely the culmination of a "larger trend." As passions cool, though, these interpretations will likely seem just another in a series of variations on familiar themes. As a simplification of experience -- partly researched and partly made-up -- they may seem regrettable, even forgettable. But they will likely remain ready for recall and refiguring as future events unfold.

To cite just one example, students and intellectuals in urban China in the late 1980s tended to idealize the U.S. or at least to believe that Chinese officialdom paled by comparison. During the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, they adapted American symbols to express (to CNN, among others) their hopes for domestic reform. Their "goddess of democracy" was a strikingly pure-white rendering of the Statue of Liberty with her torch held high. (It is worth remembering, of course, that the original in New York is a copper-blue figure of 19th-century French design.) But barely ten years later, in response to the U.S./NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the same symbols lent themselves to monstrosity. In 1999 students again adapted Lady Liberty for demonstration placards (and CNN). But this time she scowled and wore a swastika while waving a clutch of missiles. U.S. versions of its relations to China for the most part swung on the same gate.

Clearly, these understandings -- these nascent America Studies -- uniquely befit the two moments. They have their own "historical integrity." But they just as clearly relate to each other and remain available for future reference. We might (just might) expect a variant of one or the other to emerge at other times under comparable conditions. If in engaging in American Studies we find ourselves drawn to kindred impressions, it is worth considering ways that our current circumstances resemble those past conditions. Are we, in effect, drawing on "the same roots"? Should we? Or would other roots be better? What might those be? The main purpose of this anthology is to provide a serviceable sampler.


Within modern memory people all over the planet have become remarkably conscious of America. The U.S. dollar is probably the single most convertible currency. Remote villagers have impressions of California and Muhammad Ali. "When America sneezes, the world gets a cold," they say. How that happened, at least over the short run, is pretty easy to explain.

During World War II (1939-1945), Africa, Asia, Europe and the Pacific were sites of brutal combat. Saturation bombing, fire storms, death camps, disease, nuclear explosion and radiation destroyed whole cities, paralyzed industry, transportation, and agriculture, and left millions in mourning, hungry, and homeless. The resource-rich Americas, however, were relatively untouched. Oceans separated them from both eastern and western fronts. By delaying its declaration of war so long (till December 1941), by methodically gearing up for the fight, and by helping others (especially Europeans) to arm and then recover, the United States experienced the war primarily as a trauma but also as an economic godsend. It helped end one of the worst depressions in history. It left the U.S., previously a second- or third-rate power, the dominant force on the planet.

That first taste of preeminence did not last long. As the Soviet Union quickly rebuilt and tightened control over its "satellite" states (1949-53), the world was soon gripped by another conflict, a "Cold War" that often in fact turned hot. Any anti-colonial agitation, boundary dispute, shift of allegiance or even the hint of one, no matter where it was, could be swept up in the rivalry between the U.S. and the USSR. From the late 1940s through the 1980s, they were the world’s two superpowers, and global, nuclear conflagration was an ever-ominous prospect in their relations.

During the 1980s, however, the greater economic might and symbolic allure of the United States became obvious. As World War II ended, GIs whet foreign appetites for stateside novelties -- chocolate bars, chewing gum, and nylons -- tossed from liberating tanks. The U.S. government vigorously promoted its exports in postwar trade policies and the Marshall Plan (1947-51). But by century’s end, trade in Americana had become a multinational enterprise. It became hard to find anyplace on the planet too isolated for distributors of Coke, Marlboros, fast-food, Hollywood movies, TV series, weaponry, athletic gear, seeds, software, tractors, aircraft, jazz, blues, and rock and roll. Around the world "international youth" donned Levi’s and Gap T-shirts. Even when designed in Korea, stitched in Honduras, and marketed out of Germany, "American-style" became a global fashion. Whatever their mother tongue, people learned to greet each other with "Hi, OK?" "No problem." Quite likely, too, no matter where they were, the U.S. military could rapidly deploy overhead, and the U.S. Federal Reserve in effect set their nation’s prime interest rate, too. With the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, there was only one superpower left: the United States of America.

So you might well think that by now there should be no confusion about where America is or what it represents. Since, now and then, U.S. flag-wavers hype "Americanism" and wavers of other flags bemoan "Americanization," you would think these people were talking about the same place.

Not necessarily so.

The problem is not just a matter of perspective, nationality, patriotism, or the issues of the day. The problem is also an ambiguity in the whole notion of place and the name "America" in particular.

In common usage there are at least three distinct senses of the word: geographic, political, and symbolic. Each has somewhat different implications for how anyone could find the place, much less how you should study it. How can you know whether something does or does not belong in a generalization about America? How can you define the place precisely enough to check?

One way to settle this would be to agree on a map. Let the earth’s fixed contours set the boundaries. Draw a line along the waterfronts of the Western Hemisphere, tracing where the earth meets the sea. That gets "America" located, fixed at least at mean tide. Then take account of everything that falls inside the lines. That takes care of what can count as "American." This is a straightforward solution that is also more or less the one used in other fields with "studies" in their names (e.g., Cold-War vintage "area studies" such as Asian or African Studies). But for the sorts of issues that have piqued curiosity about America, the no-nonsense solution may be short of satisfying.

The first problem is that the land mass "from sea to shining sea" includes two obvious parts, North and South America. And, beyond the noun in their English names, there is nothing very cohesive about them. Even the seasonal migration of birds tends to separate at the Gulf of Mexico. No colonial power and none of the hundreds of native peoples who have inhabited the two continents for thousands of years has ever claimed the whole of it for a home. Insofar as they have tried -- as the Spanish and Portuguese did prior to the 15th-century edicts of Pope Alexander VI or in more recent movements for free-trade zones or First-Nations rights -- the terrain has never been contiguous. For example, the alliances that occasionally bind Inuit, Guaraní, and Cheyenne include Aborigines on the other side of the globe. Hence, the Mexican writer, diplomat, and activist Octavio Paz concludes, "America" exists in the singular only through "an abuse of language."

If we had to choose just one of the Americas to be "America," judging from geography and pedigree alone, it ought to be the one in the south. The word "America" comes to us from the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. He coined the name (he literally put it on the map) in 1507 to honor the Florence-born explorer Amerigo (in Latin, "Americus") Vespucci. In what now appears to be one of the world’s greatest examples of false advertising, Vespucci and his imposters claimed to have beat Columbus in the European race to North America. Waldseemüller was probably among those who believed him, but it is now quite certain that Vespucci lied (that is, if we correct Columbus by tethering his 1492 landfall -- Guanahaní/San Salvador in the Bahamas -- to North America rather than Asia). Vespucci’s first transatlantic ventures (1499-1500) were limited to what is now Brazil, and Waldseemüller’s map indicates very little to the north of it. Nevertheless, the name caught on in the south and spread slowly with the European invasion to cover the rest of the hemisphere as well. Scholars at least since Ralph Waldo Emerson have found it amusing that the name for half the world immortalizes a scam.

Ordinary curiosities, though, are usually, unproblematically aimed to the north. When people in Pakistan or Peru no less than Peoria talk about "America" they are much more likely to have Chicago or the Rockies in mind than Asunción or the Andes. Obviously, the academic definition of the place should keep such curiosities engaged. But if in response we disregard the crackpot pedigree and restrict "America" to North America, should Mexico, the U.S., and Canada share equal billing? And what about the Caribbean? U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam? Or the "American" state of Hawaii? The simple, map-it solution seems to fly in the face of political reality and common sense.

A second option, then, is to credit a political (or geopolitical) rather than strictly topographical definition. We can use "America" as shorthand for the jurisdiction of the United States of America. After all, it is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere with the word "America" in its name. Its contents, we might say, are simply whatever the U.S. Bureau of the Census counts and the Coast Guard or Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) let in. The abbreviation is, of course, chauvinistic (like calling all gelatin "Jello"), but it is familiar to most people and no more irrational than your average place name.

Of course, too, the place then becomes a bit more of a moving target. Knowing what belongs in or out of "America" in this sense requires the interpretation of complex legal, military, and diplomatic affairs. At any given moment reasonable people disagree about where U.S. jurisdiction begins and ends. Currently, for example, Hopi, Mesquakie/Fox, Amish, Puerto Rican, and Nuyorican peoples tend to claim quite different relations to that jurisdiction, all of them with historical justification. Most of Africa’s descendants who fell under American jurisdiction got there by way of kidnapping.

America probably cannot be said to exist as a unified sovereign before the Articles of Confederation or the U.S. Constitution was in force (1781 or 1789). The range as well as the substance of its dominion has been contested and changing ever since.

The 49th Parallel became a national northern boundary only through a half-century of warfare and multiple rounds of negotiations with Great Britain (1792-1846). While that boundary remained a blur, "the American West" kept leaping westward -- first state-by-state (e.g., Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky); then wholesale. Under the terms of the Louisiana Purchase (1803), for a few million dollars, France "sold" to the U.S. everything between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, including possessions that were not remotely French. Among the human occupants were Native Americans who had been sovereign for millennia. The expansion of U.S. borders at the expense of native peoples has been a subject of litigation as well as bloodshed from first contact to the present day.

Probably the largest, outright land grab was by way of the Mexican War (1846-48). Again for a paltry sum, with guns drawn, and in defiance of competing claims of sovereignty, the U.S. expanded its boundaries to include everything north of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo, from the Continental Divide to the Pacific. When forced to sign the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, Mexico (counting its contestable claims) shrank by about a third. Other territories in which U.S. jurisdiction has been ambiguous or in dispute include Puerto Rico, the southern Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Guam, more than 2,000 islands in the Pacific ("Trust Territory," 1947-1978), as well as Panama and the Philippines for more than a century. When you add to this list the other nations (chiefly in Latin America and the Caribbean) that the U.S. military has occupied for years at a time now and again, the definition of "America" as one polity, the United States, still leaves a great deal unclear. It is certainly hard to think of it as ever neatly corralled on "the mainland."

Mindful of this history, it is also hard to come up with a reasonably precise count of how many "Americans" there are, much less where they live or what they are like at any point in time. Everyday thousands of people and a veritable army of attorneys struggle mightily to settle their relationship to the United States government. Granted, a lot of prior scholarship on the U.S. has provided reliable generalizations while dodging these details. But even if the level of uncertainty is restricted to the most obvious cases -- Native Americans and citizens of territories other than the mainland states -- the number of people affected is large (certainly more than 30 million) and growing fast. When you add the number of illegal aliens or refugees whose citizenship status is pending, the level seems morally as well as numerically far greater than a quibble.

It is worth remembering, too, that even when jurisdiction has been clear, its meaning -- the legal significance of citizenship -- has been less so. Although the rights of U.S. citizens have been the envy of much of the world, at least since the adoption of the Bill of Rights (1791), domestic access to them has always been uneven. The freedom to move, assemble, worship, or speak at will, the rights to vote, to hold public office, to own property, or to expect equal protection under the law have been doled out in discriminating portions and subject to recall (as for felons or Japanese-Americans during their internment, 1942-45).

For most of U.S. history, certainly all of its first half, full citizenship rights were the preserve of a minority. In the early republic, only free, adult, "white," male property-holders could vote or hold office. Women’s civil rights, limited as they were at the end of the 18th Century, either remained limited or were yet further constricted during the first decades of American jurisprudence. Slaves, of course, had no legally protected property rights; they were property. The U.S. Constitution mandated apportioning the House of Representatives (where federal revenue bills originate) by counting each slave only three-fifths of a white person. This "Great Compromise" (1787) was a victory for representatives of slave-holding southern states. According to those from the more populous northern states, slaves did not warrant representation at all.

After the Civil War government policies haltingly, but in total immensely expanded legal access to first-class citizenship. The 13th (1865), 14th (1868), 15th (1870), 19th (1920), 24th (1964), and 26th (1971) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution -- as well as a much larger number of state and local laws, administrative reforms, and judgments -- greatly reduced legal discrimination based on race, gender, wealth, and age. Of course, the actual experience of citizenship or the way other nations compare is another matter. The point is merely that a definition of "America" as a single nation -- a region of clearly marked and consistent jurisdiction -- leaves a lot to be desired. Where is the stable subject for American Studies attention? Our sense of place and the bounds of political reality seem ever out of synch.

Of course, this muddle -- about the range and meaning of nationality -- is not necessarily debilitating for the field. The hunt for practical parameters can itself be enlightening. Many scholars have successfully framed their studies with a serviceable map and some basic political data. The land and the government are important, demanding subjects in themselves. Much of what interests people in studying America is, in fact, on the ground and in its political institutions. It is hard to see how any generalization about the place could make much sense without attention to these realities, complex and volatile as they may be. Hence, history, politics, economics, anthropology, law, geography, technology, sociology, and environmental studies are among the main roots of American Studies.

Often, however, people’s curiosity about America, even the way they define it, is not quite (or at least not entirely) a matter of its setting and institutions, land and legalities. People can, for instance, recognize certain ways of having fun or facing problems, dressing, working, writing, or talking as "typically American." The nationality of your passport, the port-of-origin of your clothing, or the ground where you stand may not be at issue. "America" can be more abstractly connected to all of these things. This qualitative sense of the place can be detected in fine increments. Details in the way folks set a table, pronounce the letter "A", pose for photographs, or indulge their children can be calibrated as more or less "American."

For centuries, visitors have come to the U.S., not only to see the land and assess its institutions, but also to get a feel for the people. Bold impressions can be gained even at sites far from the U.S., say, in an Asian Planet Hollywood or one of those stores built for Yankee executives and GIs on "Third-World" assignment. Such places can be "more American" than anyplace actually in the United States.

Of course, part of what is going on here is stereotyping. People might cling to these impressions, not because they fit reality, but because they do not know any better. Demagogues of nearly every persuasion have inflated their agendas or deflated their foes’ by associating them with the flimsiest of relations to the United States. Domestic political activists, Free Masons, Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, and immigrants could be more easily persecuted once rendered "un-American." Outside the U.S., pious missionaries and patriotic reformers could be silenced as subversive agents of phantom "American" conspiracy.

Flimsy as such connections might be, these, too, are among the roots of American Studies. They are the ones that scholars would prefer to prune. Rather than fostering an understanding of America, they can become a substitute or an obstacle. One of the major challenges of American Studies as an academic field has been to help people appreciate the difference between the sorts of symbols and generalizations that nurture understanding and the stereotypes that do not.

Yet another way to define "America," then, is as a symbol, a heuristic device. It is not quite the place itself but a sense of it, a figuration. It is useful precisely to the degree that it remains a little suspect -- simple and true enough to be recognized but also colored or incomplete enough to afford perspective. Less a tangible, whole thing than its attributes, the meaning of "America" is necessarily, properly contestable. It is a name for the qualities that, we might well say, "belong" to an elusive, geographic and political terrain.

Before America can be comprehended in this way, it must (like Haley’s autobiography) be both researched and made-up or at least molded to sensible shape. The bounds of "America" might be no more (or less) substantial than sentiment, with familiarity on one side and estrangement on the other. Like Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s or Robert Bellah in the 1990s, we can wonder if it is fair to say Americans have their "habits of the heart." They might be shaped not only by topography, law, and national power but also by word-of-mouth, ritual, the circulation of goods, arts, and amusements, flights of fancy, and acts of will. This is the sense of the word "America" to which expressions like "typically American," "un-American," "Americanism" and "Americanization" appeal. You certainly do not have to "be" American or have any particular feelings about it to understand the place in this symbolic way.

Of the three senses of the word this one is certainly, for better or worse, the most intractable. As fuzzy as it may be, it is the one that has drawn the most widespread, sustained, and passionate curiosity. What does "America" mean? How should it be understood? What has the place -- not just its institutions, but also the land, its various peoples, and their creations -- come to represent? Is that really how it should be understood? To what extent is it wise or stupid to think so?

These are critical and interpretive as well as analytic questions. Help rightly comes form the arts and humanities -- literature, philosophy, architecture, dance, painting, sculpture, religion, film, music, -- as well as history and the social sciences. This symbolic definition of America is the root from which this volume most heavily draws. It is also the root that connects American Studies to culture.


Insofar as these disciplines of the liberal arts and concepts of place, nation, stereotype, and symbol are the roots of American Studies, culture is their soil. It is what the field's participants feed on and the closest thing to a common ground. Their curiosities are rooted in the cultures of America.

In the case of the word "culture," though, such reasoning by analogy is not only awkward but also tough to control. There is no handful of options for defining "culture;" there are hundreds of them.

Nearly every one of the liberal arts has at least a few elaborate theories of the subject. They aim to answer questions in the abstract for once and for all: In what sense can culture be said to exist? Where does it come from? How is it best described? How can competing descriptions be adjudicated? How does culture (or the representation of it) affect people? What makes it persist or change?

Neither simple nor majestic answers remain persuasive for long. Anyone who has taken a course or two in the humanities or social sciences, has probably been exposed to a half-dozen definitions, each of them with something to recommend and none of them quite alike.

Amidst this variety, though, are some common ideas. By nearly all accounts, culture is a pattern -- a regularity of sorts -- in the lives of a group of people. It is far from uniform. Individuals, factions, and environments can be related to it in different ways. (The various theories of culture most clearly part company in anticipating the nature of those relationships.) But the pattern is, in one way or another, characteristic of the group as a whole, something they can be expected to know or at least to act as if they did. They conform to it or fight it, flee from it or improvise on it everyday. They expect their associates -- at least if they are "competent" and "one of us" -- to do the same. Their fortunes likely depend on their capacity to do so, but of course some people have more leeway than others. These patterns change with time and conditions and may be subject to great variation in actual practice. The pattern does not actually determine what anyone does, but bearing it in mind, most goings-on seem less surprising. They "fit." Conceptually -- even if not morally -- they make sense. Generalizations about American culture, then, are better to the extent that they simply make more sense of the place. It is against this background that the symbolic definition of "America" seems particularly fitting.

Nevertheless, within and across disciplines at any point in time, people are apt to use the word "culture" in very different ways. Their senses of the term are particularly tough to parse because the definitions tend themselves to invoke analogy. Consider the most common ones:

Think of culture as . . .

. . . an onion (with a peel and layers)

. . . an organism (with stages of life, blood, head, and heart)

. . . a factory (with raw material, source of power, bosses, and workers)

. . . a building (with foundation, windows, and façade)

. . . an ecology (with niches, climates, and food chains)

. . . a language (with grammar, dialects, and speakers)

. . . a code (with secrets, transmitters, and receivers)

. . . a body (with personality, sexuality, upbringing, and occasional disease)

. . . a system (with inputs, feedback, and outputs)

. . . a structure (with hierarchy, needs, and objectives)

. . . a game (with plays, rules, and referees)

. . . a drama (with roles, script, and audience)

. . . a city (with streets, sewer lines, and neighborhoods)

. . . a text (with authors, genres, and readers)

. . . an ideology (with premises and implications)

. . . a regime (with a currency, rulers, and rebels).

When unpacked, each of these analogies lends the concept of culture particular qualities. In setting out to understand a culture, it matters a great deal whether you think of it, say, as something you should internalize or peel. Is what you have to do more like conducting an autopsy, cracking a code, or playing along? Some analogies leave a lot of room for you to join in or to imagine malcontents living in peace. Compare, for instance, the height of the hurdle when you think of culture as a language to learn versus a personality to transform. Or compare the implications for understanding a piece of Americana in its "cultural context," a common challenge in American Studies. Must you, in effect, predict the weather, excavate a building, or just look up the rules?

In this manner, every representation of America tends to assume the hue of the conception of culture that it employs. Each theory encourages us to construe understanding -- say, the signs that we have arrived at a worthwhile interpretation of America -- in its own way. With practice, just knowing which analogy a scholar favors, you can anticipate how open or closed, orderly or chaotic, complex or simple the place is apt to seem. In a sense, the analogy determines what counts as evidence as much as the facts. This is among the reasons that academic theories of culture are so ubiquitous, elaborate, and controversial. A lot is at stake.

They can also be excruciatingly self-conscious. People’s ways of defining their experience is part of the subject itself. The group of people who do American Studies presumably have a culture, just like everyone else.

Each of the disciplines with which American Studies trades usually has its own favored route out of this morass. A leading scholar or a textbook simply declares that culture "really is X" or "best considered Y."

In the history of the culture of doing America Studies, however, the usual solution -- especially in the U.S. -- has been more eclectic and pragmatic. There is a playfully ambitious, can-do spirit. Back in 1957 Henry Nash Smith, a founder of the field, dubbed it "a kind of principled opportunism." Ever since, Americanists have been willing to face the charge that they are dilettantes, if the compensation includes insights that academic propriety or highfalutin theory impedes.

Interdisciplinary Americanists scour the disciplines, not so much to reduce the number of their options as to increase the chances that they know a good one. They want to be familiar with every concept of culture that will help them recognize and evaluate a pattern when they see it. After all, sometimes or in some ways, patterns of living actually are connected, say, more like gears in a transmission than like organs of the body. America as a symbol might really befit its time more like a word in a sentence than like the output of a system or a coin of the realm. The long list of analogies is designed to suggest some of the options that have proven most useful. Scholars of American Studies engage such interdisciplinary theory to increase the chances that they will use the most effective concepts rather than falling into service of the one that is merely orthodox or handy.

The best interpretation of the culture is the one that makes the best sense of America -- that one that is the most coherent, comprehensive, imaginative, elegant, and incisive, in light of the largest possible body of evidence and the curiosity at hand.

A Conclusion

American Studies, then, is an interdisciplinary branch of learning. Its subject is "America." Its roots include concepts of place, nation, stereotype, symbol, and culture, and they include various definitions of one particular place -- America -- that are both related and worth distinguishing. In "doing American Studies," as in deciding how to define America or culture, scholars aim to be responsive to the diversity of peoples they study, their ability to affect and be affected by turns of events, and by their own sensibilities. The following selections are designed to help recall some of the most powerful ways that people have done so.