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Reporter's Notebook: Highlights from the 2004 Meeting of the European Association of American Studies

For two years I have taught American women's history in Europe, last year for three months at the University of Utrecht the Netherlands (on an interuniversity exchange) and this year for the same length of time at the University of Bologna, Italy, as a Senior Fulbright Fellow. I have attended meetings of European Americanists, most recently the biannual meeting of the European Association of American Studies (EAAS), held in Prague, Czech Republic, April 2 through 5, 2004. Inspired by Rick Shenkman's "reporter's notebook" of this year's Organization of American Historians meetings, I offered to write my own report of these meetings and of what I have learned about the practice of U.S. History in Europe.

Let me start by saying, there is no single or unified European practice of American History. Europe is becoming a financial and political reality, but does not exist culturally or intellectually. The substantial moneys that are available from the EU to increase European scholarly interaction and integration cannot be extended into support for those interested in American issues. In facilitating the exchange of work between national groups within Europe, the language problem is the first obstacle but it is not the greatest. The EAAS meetings were held entirely in English, the quality of which was for the most part superb. But most published work is in national languages, by national presses, and in national journals, which is a barrier to other European Americanists, and even more to American Americanists.

In addition to language, what might be called the "disciplinary twist" of American history varies from country to country. In what I saw of Holland, the American Studies perspective with its emphasis on culture is strong. In Germany, Americanists work within history departments and in separate "American Studies Institutes." Here in Italy, many of those who write and teach as historians work from within Political Science appointments; the social history revolution that took place within the American practice of U.S. history has not had as thorough an impact here, and the approach to U.S. history remains predominantly political. Many European Americanists argue that not until European Americanists themselves achieve a greater degree of integration will they be able more fully to interact with and exert influence on Americanists within the U.S.. Institutionally a phenomenon with roots in the early cold war era, the European study of the United States needs a new context.

The EAAS meets biannually at meetings at which five hundred or more attend. The organization of the EAAS meetings offers an interesting alternative to the OAH and AHA. Individuals write to the planning committee with proposals for a group of workshops on a specific subject. If selected, the subject is advertised, and the organizer chooses from among those who submit specific paper proposals to compose two to three sessions on the topic. The result seems to be that sessions are more coherent and feature more papers by senior scholars. On the other hand, many of the historians I met at the EAAS meeting feel that it is a problem that their organization serves scholars in American literature and American Studies as well as American history. For them, the mix is uneasy. The lit people have the numbers (they double as English teachers) and the American Studies people have the cache of youth. Both groups have an easier time with sources than do the historians.

When I communicated with Rick Shenkman about this report, he asked me to write about the issue of anti-Americanism. The European Americanists themselves are not anti-American; how could they be? Each of them, for as many individual reasons, has found something with which they connect strongly in U.S. history and culture and to which they want to devote their professional lives. Many of their students however seem to be suspended between a cultural fascination and a political repulsion with the United States. (Earlier this week, in Leipzig, I met a group of energetic young American Studies majors busily organizing their second annual Hip Hop Awareness Week.) Walter Grunzweig, an American political and cultural specialist from University of Dortrmund, explained to me that he believed that some of this anti-Americanism is a projection on to the United States of issues and problems at home. In Germany, he feels that anti Americanism offers a way out of the weariness that younger Germans feel with their obligation to take responsibility for Nazi crimes. He sees it at his task as a teacher, not to make them friendlier to the U.S., but to help them dismantle their simplistic ideas of America in favor of greater subtlety, both about the U.S. and about their own Europe.

Many of the colleagues with whom I connected were from the same generation as me and from the left side of the political spectrum. They were drawn to the study of the history of the U.S. because radical social movements in the U.S. had inspired similar developments in their own countries. I believe that many of them feel the current incapacity of America to inspire utopian aspiration around the world almost as painfully as we do from within the U.S.. I also talked to some younger scholars, just finishing their first books and beginning their teaching careers. One told me that he had initially approached the subject of the United States with considerable hostility and prejudice, assuming that the U.S. was monolithically crude, repressive, hegemonic, prudish, etc. For these younger Americanists, their discovery of the range and variety of U.S. history is a considerable revelation. In their classrooms and among their non Americanist colleagues and through their writings, these European Americanists are by necessity mediators between Europe and the United States. Ironically, working among European Americanists has been a tonic to my exhausted affection for my own country.

At the EAAS meetings, anti-Americanism was a major theme running through an entire strand of sessions on "The Changing Image of America: the View from Europe." I attended one session featuring western European speakers and another presented by scholars from eastern Europe, where anti Americanism is not flourishing to the same degree. The speakers did a marvelous job of situating the subject in historical perspective. In the first session, Frederico Romero of the University of Florence talked about deep changes in the nature of European anti Americanism. Traditional European anti Americanism, which he characterized as a right wing tendency but also mobilized by those on the left, is passing away along with the sense that Europe is a victim of American power. The common strategic perspective that the U.S. and western Europe shared through the Cold War has finally been banished, as he put it, from imagination as well as from policy. He did not agree with Grunzweig's perspective that the idea of America can still offer something inspiring and visionary for European youth, who he believes have access to more globalized cultural tools for challenging established authority and homegrown conservatism. Instead, he believes that current European anti Americanism rests on a newly positive and self confident European identity. Citing some polling material, Romero argued that Europeans see themselves in contrast with and superior to Americans especially when it comes to their appreciation for social solidarity versus what they regard as Americans' excessive individualism. I wasn't particularly convinced by these details, but I was impressed by Romero's insistence that, over and above the current crisis in U.S./European relations, important epochal shifts are underway in the cultural and political paradigms that inform Europe's image of the U.S. and vice versa.

The second session on The Changing Image of America: A View from Europe featured two excellent presentations from the Czech Republic and Turkey. Both approached the subject in terms of longstanding admiration for America, which remains persistent even in the age of 9-11. Josef Grmela, Charles University, gave an impressively broad overview of the enduring nature of Czech pro-Americanism. Among the Czechs, Stalinist efforts to root out American influences utterly failed and the policy of deAmericanization had to be abandoned; the events of 1968 made America into an even more compellingly positive political (and now cultural) icon. He noted Czech interest in Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Czech support for the U.S.'s eventual decision to intervene in Kosovo as continuing to nourish this pro-American tendency. Thus, like Romero, he situated the question of European attitudes towards the U.S. in a long rather than immediate political perspective. Equally impressive was the paper by Baris Gümüsbas of Hacettepe University, Turkey, who provided a very sophisticated interweaving of political and literary materials to demonstrate the ways in which becoming American had historically served as a symbol for the longing among discontented Turkish individuals for total personal and social transformation.

On a different subject, I also attended a session with two exceptional papers on African American themes. An European Americanist colleague who has lived and taught extensively in the U.S. observed to me that she thought that European Americanists do not fully comprehend the centrality of race to American society or of slavery to American history. If that is true, these two papers were exceptions in their originality and power. Sabine Broeck, University of Bremen, Germany, presented an immensely sophsiticated reading of Toni Morrison's Beloved, emphasizing the degree to which this great novel has succesfully established the power of memory to recall the pain and trauma of mammoth historical violence, in the process initiating a booming new genre in the literature of victimization; as a result, she argued, it is no longer possible to read even Beloved with the same shocking freshness. This was a very bold, provocative paper in its willingness to explore the cultural commodification and banalization of themes of amnesia, pain, and social violence. This was followed by a paper on lynching by Andrew Warnes of the University of Leeds, UK. With great delicacy and sensitivity, this paper explored the themes and implications of the rhetorical equation of lynching with "barbecue," especially drawing on African American writing.

To conclude, the relationship between U.S. and European Americanists is obviously an unequal one. They know our work; we know much less of theirs. American historians of the U.S. need to play our part in nourishing this relationship because their work is first rate and their perspectives illuminating. The Organization of American Historians and the Journal of American History have been for some time working energetically to internationalize the study of the United States. New York University's "La Pietra" meetings and publication constituted a major contribution to this project.

What else can be done? I would suggest a regular slot for a European Americanist on the editorial board of the JAH. If and when the European Americanists find ways to bring together their researches within a single venue, perhaps via a web publication of the best of the EAAS papers, this could easily be linked up through the websites of the OAH, JAH, and AHA to be made more accessible to historians within the U.S.. And last but certainly not least, I encourage those of my U.S. historian friends who have not yet done so to take advantage of the many opportunities and considerable interest in American Studies abroad to go abroad to lecture or teach. Do not let the spectre of anti Americanism deter you.