One of the central themes of American historiography is that there is no American Empire. Most historians will admit, if pressed, that the United States once had an empire. They then promptly insist that it was given away. But they also speak persistently of America as a World Power.
—William Appleman Williams, 1955
This astute, provocative remark serves as an epigraph to Amy Kaplan’s famous essay “‘Left Alone with America:’ The Absence of Empire in the Study of American Culture,” which opens the landmark volume Cultures of United States Imperialism (1993), edited by her and Donald Pease. When I came across the article yesterday, I actually didn’t know that it was so important in its own academic field, but was immediately hooked by the quote. As I’ve now learned, Williams himself was a groundbreaking scholar in the 50s and made the case for an imperialist framework towards better understanding American history. But countering his primarily economic analysis, Kaplan called for an attention to culture—both the significance of culture in imperialism, and that of empire to the making of American culture: “Foregrounding imperialism in the study of American cultures shows how putatively domestic conflicts are not simply contained at home but how they both emerge in response to international struggles and spill over national boundaries to be reenacted, challenged, or transformed” (Kaplan, 16).
For a total outsider to the field, I think I’ve had a somewhat ambivalent relationship to American Studies. Oddly, this may have resulted from both unfamiliarity but also a pretty close proximity. On the one hand, I managed to go through college without ever really hearing much about or knowing what entailed American Studies. On the other hand, training to be a historian in the US means being surrounded overwhelmingly by “the Americanists,” as we usually refer to them in grad school. And then there’s the fact that the rest of us often tend to regard this group (i.e. the mainstream!) as almost uninteresting, or at least uninterested in the distant past before America or in the world beyond. Going along with these perceptions are also the grumpy complaints we often make about supposedly having to work more and harder: more languages to learn, more and distant places to travel for research, and so on. All of this, needless to say, is a generalization and therefore unfair by definition.
Sometime ago I began to notice that a lot of research I like and find interesting—such as critical works on race and gender, as well as recent ethnographic studies on immigrant communities—is being done by scholars in the field of American Studies. I then also had the belated realization that American Studies might just be another instance of an area studies discipline, not much unlike Middle Eastern or South Asian Studies. Of course, this apparently simple observation is actually not so at all, when you consider that the very premise of area studies had been the West analyzing the rest. In any case, Kaplan’s essay in particular has gotten me very excited and curious about the kinds of scholarship being produced in American Studies.
Secondly, I’ve been finding myself increasingly enthralled by American history—including not just that of the US, but of the Americas at large. This was instigated in part by some stuff I happened to read last spring on early European encounters with the “New World” i.e. Pizarro and the Incas, Cortés and the Aztecs and so on. Equally fascinating is the social world of 17th century New England, as can be gleaned from Mary Rowlandson‘s captivity memoir which was a veritable bestseller in its time (There’s been a really cool recent study trying to recuperate the submerged voices of the Native peoples encountered by Rowlandson, and to remap the indigenous geography that would become sporadically invisible as overlaid by English toponyms). But later history can be just as interesting and complex, as I pondered during a trip to New Orleans last month. The contestation over North America between the French, the Spanish and the British foretell rather little of the political geography that would eventually emerge as we know it today. We see glimpses of a later French-Native alliance of sorts in The Revenant, which I got to see a few weeks ago while in Texas and absolutely loved (at the very least for its stunning cinematography, but also for its testament to the originality of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s filmmaking and the evolution and continuing brilliance of his career ever since Amores Perros fifteen years ago).
My only real exposure to American history until now had been through Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which I first encountered in the form a graduation gift from a college friend, who described it as a “classic” in the experience of countless young Americans and which could therefore doubly serve as a rite-of-passage for me. I started reading it that summer after graduation, and remember being thoroughly intrigued by some of the early colonial history, though I only got through maybe just about a third of the book. I managed to pick up the book again years later and speed read/skim through the rest, just so I could say I finished it.
But since the historiography in Zinn is perhaps somewhat outdated if not a bit slipshod, I just picked up from the library a recent survey history (A Concise History of the United States of America by Susan-Mary Grant) and am really liking it so far.