Program History

Mugshot of Founding Department Chairman Max Lerner

Max Lerner

 
As an academic discipline, American studies was born at Harvard University shortly before World World II; in the  1940s, when the United States became the preeminent world power, the republic begged to be understood in a special way.  Neither exceptionalist smugness nor Old World condescension alone would do.  
 
Drawing in particular upon the established disciplines of English and history, the new field of study took the social institutions and cultural values of this newly powerful nation to be worthy of explanation and analysis in their own right and, as though the American experience were itself coherent, merited scrutiny on its own terms.  For more than seven decades, that rationale has continued to embody American studies.

Founded in 1948, Brandeis University itself emerged even as American studies was becoming a discipline of its own.  But in the first decade of the university, no separate departments were deemed necessary. As a program, American studies soon emerged, and finally became a department in 1970. 

Its key figure was Max Lerner, a public intellectual who taught at Brandeis from 1949 until 1973. The lecture course that Lerner offered was once required of all sophomores and was devoted to “America as a Civilization.”  His magnum opus of that title, published in 1957, deserves to be ranked as almost certainly the last effort by a single intelligence, between the covers of a single book, to comprehend that huge subject. That is, Lerner’s book is an update of Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic "Democracy in America" as an inquiry into the national character.

Lerner was a liberal magazine editor, a columnist (and polemicist) on behalf of progressive causes. He was also a scholar of considerable catholicity of interest, and his two vocations set the tone for the early phase of American studies at Brandeis.

Political activism as well as scholarship also marked the career of Lawrence H. Fuchs, who taught at Brandeis from 1952 until his retirement half a century later. The recipient of an honorary degree from the university in lawrence fuchs2002, Fuchs wrote speeches on world peace, self-determination and minority relations for then-U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy, became the first director of the Peace Corps in the Philippines and, under President Jimmy Carter, served as executive director of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. 

Fuchs’ first book, "The Political Behavior of American Jews" (1956), remains definitive. His most ambitious work, "The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity and the Civic Culture" (1990), won the John Hope Franklin Prize of the American Studies Association for the best book in the field of American studies. It also was given the Saloutos Prize in immigration history. 

Except when on leave of absence or sabbatical, Fuchs served as chairman of the department, from 1970 to 1979, from 1981 to 1986 and from 1993 to 1994.

Fuchs was the key figure in hiring colleagues who also combined a flair for teaching with a proclivity for political activism. Their interests tilted the orientation of the department heavily in the direction of social science, rather than strictly the humanities, which at that time was unusual in the field of American studies. 

Pauli Murray had been a civil-rights activist, a pioneering feminist, a poet and an attorney whose amazingly varied career is recounted in her autobiography, "Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage" (1987). William Goldsmith had been a labor organizer on behalf of the Textile Workers Union of America before joining the Department of Politics and, subsequently, the Department of American Studies. Jacob Cohen joined the Department of History in 1961 and took a leave of absence from the university from 1964 to 1968 — among the most tumultuous years of the civil-rights movement — to serve on the staff of the Congress of Racial Equality.

Along with John Matthews, who came from the Department of Theater Arts, the team of Murray, Goldsmith and Cohen joined Fuchs to form a department that was to be confined to undergraduate instruction. Mission creep in the best sense characterized the early phase of departmental history. American studies became responsible for introducing courses into the Brandeis curriculum that later would later grow into entire other programs and even departments, such as African and Afro-American studies, Women’s and Gender Studies and Environmental Studies.

The other key figure in the early years of the department arrived in 1971: Donald Worster. A specialist in the new subfield of environmental history and an expert on the West, the Kansas native won a Bancroft Prize in for "Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s." Worster served two terms as chair of the department. 

The following year, Stephen J. Whitfield, who had received his doctorate in American history from Brandeis, arrived to teach. He has specialized in courses that examine the intersection of politics and ideas, and chaired the department from 1986 to 1988, 1994 to 1996 and 2006 to 2009.

During the 1970s, a department that had once been a program itself began to sprout ancillary programs and to cultivate an increasing variety of courses — even as the discipline moved away from a paradigm that combined history and literature to a focus on the multiplicity of social categories and groups in the nation. The new paradigm came to be called multiculturalism, and remains dominant in the field of American studies.

However recent and abbreviated the history of the department may be said to be, a second generation of faculty members emerged to revitalize and extend the scope and virtuosity of the field. In women’s history, Susan Forbes was succeeded by Joyce Antler, herself a Brandeis graduate and later department chairwoman from 1996 until 2000 and again from 2009 to 2012.

In Environmental Studies, Worster was succeeded by Brian Donahue, the holder of three degrees from Brandeis, and by Laura Goldin, an attorney.  In film studies, David Marc was succeeded by Thomas Doherty.  In Legal Studies, Charles Rogovin (who had provided legal assistance to comedian Lenny Bruce), and then Saul Touster were succeeded by Richard Gaskins, who holds advanced degrees in philosophy as well as law.  In the Journalism Program, Susan Moeller and then Michael Socolow found a successor in Maura Farrelly.  Despite the virtuosity and versatility of the faculty in American Studies, its curriculum resembles that of American Studies departments and programs elsewhere, which means mutual reliance upon dozens of courses that are formally offered in others disciplines—especially in departments of History, English and American Literature, Politics and Sociology.

Remarkably enough, over the span of more than a third of a century, the administration of the Department has exhibited impressive continuity and stability (in addition to competence).  Grace R. Short served as academic administrator from 1970 until 1987; upon her retirement, a book prize in her honor was established, awarded annually to the most accomplished seniors who graduate as majors in American Studies.  Angelina Simeone became Ms. Short’s successor.  In 2005, when Ms. Simeone decided to work half-time, Cheryl Sweeney joined the Department as her colleague.  When in the fall of 2011 Cheryl Sweeney took up another position, still at Brandeis, at the Heller School, Melanie Zoltan took her share of department management, and has been a stunning success. All of these staffers have been indispensable.  They have inspired the devotion and love of the students who have been stamped with the imprint of the Department, and have earned the gratitude and love of the members of the faculty as well.

Scholarly distinction characterizes the Department of American Studies. Besides the aforementioned prizes awarded to the books of Fuchs and Worster, Brian Donahue’s The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord (2004) won three prizes: the Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History, the Saloutos Prize from the Agricultural History Society, and the Best Book Prize from the New England Historical Association.  Thomas Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 (1999) won the Theater Library Association award the excellence in writing in film and broadcasting.  Jacob Cohen’s “Yes, Oswald Alone Killed Kennedy,” an analysis of responses in public culture to the Kennedy assassination, was included in Best American Essays: 1993, edited by Joseph Epstein.  Cohen also chaired the Department from 1989 till 1993, and again from 2001 until 2006. 

Three members of the Department have won one of the university’s highest honors, the Louis D. Brandeis Prize for Excellence in Teaching: Whitfield in 1993, Mary Davis (also a member of the Legal Studies Program) in 2001 and Eileen McNamara (Journalism) in 2011. In the same year, Gaskins won the Lerman-Neubauer ’69 Prize for Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring, and Maura Jane Farrelly won the Michael L. Walzer Award for Teaching in 2010.

In the current century, as the United States is increasingly compelled to operate in a world that globalization has flattened and shrunk, it is worth adding that Whitfield and Doherty have taught extensively abroad as Fulbright visiting professors, both in the Low Countries (Doherty in the Netherlands, Whitfield in Belgium), in Singapore (Doherty) and in Israel (Whitfield).

However divergent their experiences have been, all of the faculty members who are affiliated with American Studies remain committed to the ideals of intellectual probity and conscientious teaching.  Evidence to this effect came in May 1987, in the wake of the only outside assessment to which the Department was subjected.  An external committee of three scholars spent two days on campus, speaking with faculty, majors and administrators, and concluded that “this is an extraordinarily hardworking and successful teaching Department that performs a high level of service for its students and the University.”  The students whom the committee interviewed “uniformly praised the Department’s careful pedagogy, and its reputation of attentiveness and accessibility.”  And because the faculty “seemed remarkable for its collegiality” as well, the “overall assessment of the role of American Studies at Brandeis is extremely positive.”  The report was signed by historian John Higham, the regnant specialist in American historiography as well as a number of subfields; by sociologist Peter I. Rose, an expert in American minority relations and a pioneer in the internationalization of American Studies; and by historian Drew Gilpin Faust, a scholar of the South and of the Civil War and current president of Harvard University. 

The Department of American Studies continues to encourage its students to collaborate in the adventure of thinking about the national experiment in the most resourceful, as well as the most scrupulous, terms in academia.