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The classic American autobiography has a midlife conversion at its core. Henry Adams went to Paris in 1900, saw the dynamos at the world's fair, and had an epiphany that technology would rule the 20th century as the Virgin Mary had ruled the Middle Ages. Gertrude Stein arrived in Paris two years later, looked at Cézanne's still lifes of apples and sprouting onions, and converted to Modernism and Picasso on the spot. For Adams and Stein, at the dawn of what Henry Luce called the American Century, to be an American meant to have one's finger on the pulse of change.
The conversion at the heart of Daniel Aaron's sly and engaging The Americanist is subtler than these bolts of cultural lightning, though no less self-conscious of America's distinctive role in world affairs. Aaron is one of the founding figures of American Studies, an academic discipline that flourished at midcentury and remains an ambiguous legacy of the Cold War. His book is both an insider's account of the often-colorful characters who have populated the field, as well as a rueful meditation on an academic field that was often roped into efforts to sell American culture abroad during a time of expanding American power.
Aaron's sink-or-swim childhood prepared him well for cultural adaptation, for becoming "the Americanist, who gradually evolves into a practitioner of things American." Like one of Saul Bellow's picaresque heroes, he was born in Chicago in 1912, into an assimilated Jewish family, and orphaned at age 10, with few advantages beyond always coming first in the alphabetical roll call. He barely remembers his mother, who grew up in Elbert Hubbard's Roycrofters community of craftsmen and hucksters in East Aurora, N.Y., which marketed neo-medieval domestic décor for what Aaron calls "the culturally insecure." His father, an invalid lawyer, worked briefly on the fringes of Hollywood, where the family moved when Aaron was 5; he played with "a bored Jackie Coogan," the child star of Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, and got up close to a caged Rin Tin Tin.
Despite his conspicuously Jewish name, Aaron suffered little from overt anti-Semitism during his stint as a moody premed at the University of Michigan, where he lived in an all-Jewish fraternity and drifted from science classes to reading Nietzsche and Baudelaire. With a useless degree in English at the low point of the Depression, he began graduate studies at Harvard, where his department chair informed him that Jewish students in English "were sometimes deflected into departments (German, chemistry, and sociology, for example) where names and accents and looks scarcely mattered." He found a more congenial intellectual home in the new Harvard program on the history of American civilization, inaugurated as Harvard celebrated its 300th birthday, where he enrolled as a graduate student in 1936.
It is at this point that Aaron's career intersects with a larger movement in American culture. American civilization—or, as it later came to be called, American Studies—was a maverick academic field that melded different disciplines (first history and literature, and then sociology, art history, and anthropology) in trying to make sense of the American experience. The field attracted wide-ranging scholars and writers from a variety of backgrounds; it also attracted the notice of the State Department, as a potential source of "cultural ambassadors" abroad. At Harvard, Aaron hobnobbed with his American Civ classmate Charles Olson, a "six-foot-six mailman's son from Gloucester" and future author of the pioneering work of Melville scholarship Call Me Ishmael and the sprawling Maximus poems. Later, Olson, in the sort of double career open to American Studies operatives, worked for the Office of War Information—later folded into the CIA—and then ran the boldly experimental Black Mountain College during the 1950s.
After his own "long soak in Americana" at Harvard, Aaron taught American literature at bucolic and all-women Smith College for 30 years, beginning in 1939, the year that Nancy Davis, "Mrs. Reagan-to-be," enrolled there, and during the time when Betty Friedan, Sylvia Plath, and Gloria Steinem graduated. But his real base of operations was increasingly elsewhere. "Only as the cold war widened and deepened," he writes, "did it occur to me that unintentionally I may have been preparing myself for some low-grade ambassadorial role." During the '50s and '60s, under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency and various foundations, Aaron taught and lectured in Austria, Finland, Poland, and many other countries. "I went to these places," Aaron writes, "not to 'sell' the USA but to 'explain' it, not to palliate its blemishes but to contextualize them."