Academic journal article American Studies International

"Who Is to Blame? What Is to Be Done?": Joint Ventures with Russian Americanists in the 1990s

Academic journal article American Studies International

"Who Is to Blame? What Is to Be Done?": Joint Ventures with Russian Americanists in the 1990s

Article excerpt

At a recent colloquium on the New American History, my graduate students vigorously debated a statement from one of their texts. Ann Douglas writes, "America is the only nation to exercise the dubious privilege of never seeing the world, or itself through anyone's eyes but its own." (1) While her remark seemed entirely apropos of the images produced by Hollywood filmmakers, the colloquium discussion broadened to consider American historiography itself. The students believed that their coursework in American history and social studies lacked international perspective. My contributions to the rebuttal originated in my experiences as a history professor at a comprehensive Midwestern university for more than 30 years as well as nearly a decade in joint scholarly ventures with Russian Americanists.

Since 1990 the Journal of American History under the editorship of David Thelen has aggressively sought "to incorporate the study of American history outside the United States into the way American history appears in this journal." (2) Three successive issues in 1999 explored "how a central feature of American history might look different if we interrogated the nation-centered ideas about content and habits of practice that frequently surrounded it." In the first issue, the Declaration of Independence was read and interpreted by a variety of Americanists abroad. Nikolai Bolkhovitinov and Marina Vlasova supplied the Russian vantage point. The former is doubtlessly the most widely recognized Russian Americanist of his (senior) generation and the latter was one of the emerging westernized practitioners of the younger cohort. (3) In the second issue, a battery of Mexican scholars looked at the history, economy, state, and culture of the United States. In the third issue, familiar themes of American history were "reconfigured as transnational processes of negotiation, creolization, and border crossing." (4)

The transnational trend in American Studies has wide-ranging goals and can be traced in the successive reports of the LaPietra conferences of the last five years. Visions included reforming key themes and periods of history, addressing transnational issues in curriculum from K-12 through higher education, and cultivating "a genuinely international community of American teachers and scholars." As reported by Thomas Bender, "Such a reframing of American history invites a welcome sense of defamiliarization that will, in turn, prompt a new and more intriguing curiosity about the American past. There is thus something vital to be gained from the acquisition of the cosmopolitan feeling once described by William James as a sense that `one's native land seems foreign.'" (5)

Simultaneous to these developments in American history were like trends in American Studies. The roundtable at the 1998 ASA conference in Seattle--"The Imagined Community of International American Studies"--provided both retrospect and prospect. In the former, Maureen Montgomery noted, "the emergence of American Studies outside the United States was contentious and developed in a diversity of ways." She measured "somewhat stunted growth," as the movement was predominantly an export of the U.S. In the latter, Bruce Tucker foresaw the creation of an intellectual borderland that will "transform our understanding of ourselves and how we conduct our relationships with people whom we began by calling `other.' It should make us reflect about `how we see' and what the comparative act of seeing tells us about our own past." (6) Walter Holbling, without naming Russian Americanists, observed that, "the quality of work done by many Eastern European scholars even before 1989 is remarkably high and, if one knows how to `read' them with the appropriate de-ideologizing filters, provide pertinent analyses and discussions of American literature, culture and society." (7) He anticipates "an intellectual and material boom" as the USIA reallocates funding from Western toward Eastern Europe. …

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