What is American studies? It was a field of study that grew during the middle years of the 20th century. Early on it was shaped by Cold War political imperatives, by debates over what became known as American exceptionalism, and by a desire for holistic and broader interpretations of “America” and its cultures, in the face of what was perceived as the narrower disciplinary approaches housed in departments like history and English. Like other fields of predominantly humanistic inquiry, American studies struggled with methodological “wars” in the late 20th century. A younger generation of critical scholars challenged the homogenizing impulses that had shaped much of the early work, and scholars of color and feminist scholars (these groups overlapped significantly) took aim at the focus on a white male canon.
Late 20th-century American studies was also shaped institutionally because it became at many universities the “home” for ethnic and race studies. Throughout its history, now almost a century old, American studies has embodied both unifying and fracturing impulses. It has incorporated celebrations of the local and the particular, at the same time that it has also been defined by works of scholarship and pedagogical projects that attempted to find constant themes and commonalities across centuries and cultures and identities.
Princeton’s program has been blessed by a small endowment, which it has used judiciously to produce a rich array of experimental teaching and conferences and workshops and conversations. For undergraduates, it has remained a much-loved certificate program. It remains one of the largest certificate programs in the university. And the range and quality of the certificate holders — brilliant students who like to think outside the box — can be seen in the kinds of intellectual inquiries that they pursue (see our student theses). From early on, the program brought heterodox perspectives to campus; and it always insisted on interdisciplinarity and collaborative teaching. Fidel Castro, Hannah Arendt, many distinguished journalists and media figures, Bob Dylan, and Allen Ginsburg are among those who have graced the Princeton campus thanks to the work of the Program in American Studies. It has housed two successful lecture series, the Anschutz professorship and the Lapidus series in Jewish American Studies. Both have brought distinctive and distinguished voices to the campus.