In a provocative 1986 American Quarterly article, Michael Denning argues against the very question that informs American Studies: “What is American?” For Denning, using that question as a methodological starting point is problematic because it assumes that “America” (shorthand for the United States, or for the culture of the United States, or for the idea that animates the culture of the United States) is exceptional. American Studies, understood as such, is the product of American exceptionalism, and, since American exceptionalism is something that all correct-thinking individuals must reject, perhaps American Studies is something we should reject, too.
Of course, the idea of American exceptionalism has (at least) two meanings, and different political valences stem from these different meanings. To some, the concept of American exceptionalism means that America is better than other countries—a beacon of freedom or a “city on a hill.” America, right or wrong, but usually right. To others, it means, simply, that America is different, particularly in comparison to Europe. In this second meaning, “exceptional” is stripped of its normative claims. The fact that America is unique is not an indication that it is better; rather, it often indicates the opposite.
Denning divides the disciplinary genealogy of American Studies along these two meanings of American exceptionalism. On the one hand, Cold War consensus scholars like Daniel Boorstin articulated America as a stand in for the apex of civilization. In this, Boorstin’s multi-volume The Americans might be seen as a scholarly tribute to Henry Luce’s “American Century.” On the other hand, Denning locates another strand of American Studies that emerged from the less celebratory conception of American exceptionalism, best represented in its disciplinary origins by F.O. Matthiessen and Kenneth Burke. This side of American Studies—which evinced a Weltanschauung Irving Howe called “Emersonianism”—articulated a methodology premised on cultural criticism, and often demonstrated leftist political commitments at odds with the nationalistic triumphalism of Boorstin and his ilk. Perhaps appropriately, conservative Kenneth Lynn called this Anti-American Studies.
Although Denning is much more sympathetic to the more radical type of American Studies, he argued that, even in that form, American Studies is too provincial. This is primarily because American Studies in all of its forms emerged as an alternative to Marxism. Denning believes that the Marxists who formed the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, particularly Stuart Hall, were far less parochial because, rather than ask, “What is British culture?” they asked, “What is culture?” Perhaps ironically to those conditioned to thinking about Marxism as a closed off ideological project, theirs was a more supple methodology. The international discourse of Marxism would open up the terrain of scholarly analysis beyond the narrow boundaries of America, both literally and figuratively.
Denning’s argument, as such, poses a set of paradoxes. In the first place, does following his suggestion lead us further into the “epistemological quagmire” that Ray Haberski recently isolated? Does it leave us incapable of analyzing and categorizing the very cultural conflicts we helped set into motion? Or does it better allow us to heed the methodological advice of Matthew Frye Jacobson, as relayed by Andy Seal, that we focus our scholarly lenses on empire and neoliberalism? Is it truly necessary to ditch the categories of “America” in order that we also extirpate American exceptionalist sensibilities? Is it imperative that we remove all vestiges of American exceptionalism from our scholarship—even the radical type exemplified by Kenneth Burke?
This last question points to a glaring irony. A conception of American exceptionalism has underwritten a preponderance of American left historiography and, more specifically, Marxist thought.
To begin with, the title of Denning’s American Quarterly article—“‘The Special American Conditions’: Marxism and American Studies”—uses an 1851 Engels quote about “special American conditions” that set the United States apart from Europe’s revolutionary past, present, and future. Moreover, most historians of the American left have felt compelled to grapple with Werner Sombart’s 1906 question: “Why no socialism in America?” No matter the answer to that question—religion, race, the frontier, consumer goods, etc.—the assumption was always that America was exceptional. Not better, just different.
Two recent historiographical examples bear mention: in his 1987 book (now in its third edition, with a new preface), Marxism in the United States: A History of the American Left, Paul Buhle writes (in prose that is characteristically poetic and cryptic): “Guilty Calvinism and innocent utopianism mixed strangely together in virtually every American radical reform movement from the seventeenth century. Perhaps they still do.” Buhle’s point is that European socialists had an extremely difficult time organizing alongside American radicals because of the vast cultural gulf that separated them. Radicalism, including Marxism, only had a chance on American soil when it sought to reconcile itself to American particulars, such as Calvinism and utopianism.
Michael Kazin has made some version of this point over and over again in several of his books, especially The Populist Persuasion, where, for example, he argued that the Wobblies failed to make a dent in American political culture because they were not “American” enough, and his more recent book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. In the latter, Kazin writes that American radicals, as Americans first and foremost, were most successful when they yoked their political visions to the Declaration of Independence—to “the modernist vision that Americans be free to pursue happiness unfettered by inherited hierarchies and identities.” When they argued for a more collective politics, especially during times of economic hardship, they appealed to an American collective wrapped in the American flag.
Even Denning himself, in his magisterial 1997 book, The Cultural Front: the Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (the topic of my very first USIH blog post over seven years ago), makes clear that the cultural radicals of the Popular Front (such as Kenneth Burke!) were successful at getting the national culture to better reflect radicalized working class values when they mixed small-“c” communism with Americanism. Since Denning’s book was published over a decade after his American Quarterly essay, perhaps he had a change of mind. Or perhaps there’s some nuance I’m missing? Is it possible to study this thing we call America, even from a Marxist or leftist vantage point, without reifying the American nation as an exceptional cultural and political category?