The British Association for American Studies at Fifty

By Davies, Philip John | Contemporary Review, April 2004 | Go to article overview

The British Association for American Studies at Fifty


Davies, Philip John, Contemporary Review


IN April the British Association for American Studies will hold its annual meeting in Manchester. In the course of four days about 230 presentations are scheduled on all aspects of American Studies. The speakers in Manchester will come from over sixty different universities and colleges in the United Kingdom, from about twenty different states of the USA, and from around a dozen other nations. The Association was founded in 1955, and this conference will launch its fiftieth anniversary celebrations.

Americans and interested observers alike often regularly fall into the trap of referring to the USA as a young nation. The nation's critics can refer patronisingly to its youth and immaturity, while its defenders can offer its youth and vigour as justification for its behaviour. These are unhelpful responses based on an ill-judged conception. The USA has the world's oldest written national constitution currently in use, and the foundations of this constitution are firmly based both on a well-understood political heritage rooted in its European genealogy, and in the political experience of activity of Americans for 170 years before the Constitution was ratified.

As early as 1619 the Virginia General Assembly was elected to represent local planters in meetings with the English-appointed Royal Governor and his council. In 1620 the men of the Mayflower signed a document outlining an agreed form of administration to be used until the legal limbo of the Massachusetts settlers could be settled, and more permanent arrangements be made under the authority of the crown. Over time there was experimentation with new political forms in the American colonies. Thousands of miles from the seat of central government in London, with effective communication taking months, the North American settlements developed their own systems of administration. Consultative assemblies were set up, the law was enforced with the help of local juries and the definitions of eligibility for political participation occasionally went so far as to include women.

By the time in the late eighteenth century that American grievances had begun to focus on the actions of the Crown and Parliament in London, the colonists had matured through almost 200 years of political discussion and essentially autonomous action. Another 200 years later, the USA has adapted further over time to ever more varied political contexts, as its international role and its domestic population have gone through massive changes, and the political leadership of the nation has struggled to manage under these pressures. This is a mature nation deserving mature academic observation and analysis.

Quite when the study of the USA emerged on the British educational curriculum is hard to identify. Professor Andrew Hook has made the case that Glasgow deserves to be recognised as the first city of American Studies. Glasgow and the Clyde were prominent foci of the trans-Atlantic sea-road of the 18th century. There were links in trade, commerce, emigration, and the exchange of letters, books, expertise and ideas. In 1882, when John Nichol, occupant of the newly-created Chair of English Literature at Glasgow, wrote American Literature, an Historical Sketch, 1620-1880, it was a ground-breaking work. Not even in America itself had a comprehensive history of American literature appeared before. Nichol presented American literature within the context of American history and society, promoting the idea that American literature is part of American culture, an idea that lies at the core of interdisciplinary American Studies. Along with his friend James Bryce, author of The American Commonwealth, Nichol was a pioneer of American Studies in Britain.

While pioneers in a number of universities began to examine and analyse US politics, history, society, and literature in their research and teaching, these elements of the study of America did not cohere into recognisable American Studies programmes until the middle of the twentieth century. …

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