Daniel Aaron's The Americanist.

The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 28 2007 11:02 AM

Ivory-Tower Ambassador

The studying, and selling, of America.

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The Americanist, Daniel Aaron.

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.

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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."

There's something a little uneasy in that flat formulation, and Aaron admits to the "ambiguities of my position as a cultural explicator of my country: to sing of its rocks and rills and templed hills (which I gladly did) and to air its dirty linen." Often assumed by his hosts in Warsaw or Montevideo to be a CIA agent, Aaron realized only later that some of his encounters with local intellectuals put their lives in danger. "It never crossed my mind," he remarks, "that my telephone conversations with a Polish acquaintance … might have been monitored or that one of the charges brought against him four years later would be his frequent 'contacts' with me." There's more than a little of the "innocent American" in Aaron's self-portrait as cultural ambassador; he knew that however carefully calibrated in his own mind the templed hills and the dirty linen—America's "unresolved problems of race and class," above all—he was being paid to sell America rather than to explain it.

A kindred balancing act pervades Aaron's scholarly work, which centers on America's internal divisions. Invited by the Ford Foundation in the wake of the McCarthy years to contribute to a series on American Communism, Aaron wrote Writers on the Left (1961), his dispassionate excavation of poets, playwrights, novelists, and pamphleteers engaged by Communism and its assorted exotic tributaries. Aaron was more intent on identifying literary quality than in sorting out ideological positions, noting for example that Dos Passos was a more convincing writer before he taught himself "to subordinate people to conditions." At the same time, Writers on the Left is the work of a chameleon scholar who managed to inspire trust among his informants even as his own status, as a self-styled "irregular in the ranks of the non-Communist Left," remained ill-defined.

Aaron's other major work, The Unwritten War (1973), published after his return to Harvard in 1971, takes its cue from Whitman's claim in Specimen Days that "the real war will never get in the books." It is a closely argued analysis of how both shirking "malingerers" like Henry Adams and Henry James and veterans like Ambrose Bierce suppressed racial fear as the key factor in the Civil War. American writers portrayed black people as objects "of contempt or dread," or as "an uncomfortable reminder of abandoned obligations," but always as peripheral to the main narrative of the war. "The Civil War was not so much effaced as unfaced," Aaron observes in The Americanist; the larger implication was that only in the 1960s, in American politics and scholarship, was America beginning to "face" its racist past.

While probing a conflicted America, Aaron himself seems comfortably assimilated in academia and the wider world, having survived what he calls "my dehyphenation," the erosion of whatever Jewish-American identity he might have inherited. He portrays himself as something of a fellow traveler in all things—working in the fields among Polish-American asparagus farmers in western Massachusetts during World War II, pitching for a local softball team called the Purseglove Pups, or interviewing ex-Communists in exile in Mexico or London. One feels both the intensity of these encounters and the distance, as the man who takes few real risks confronts those who do. Distant, too, is Aaron's personal life—a wife is mentioned in passing, and three sons, but little else to fill out the texture of his private world.

Aaron ends his memoir claiming to be a citizen of two Americas. "One is the country of Uncle Sam, an America, in the words of Herman Melville, 'intrepid, unprincipled, reckless, predatory, with boundless ambition, civilized in the externals but savage at heart.' " The other America is "its blessed double, home of heroes and clowns and of the cheerful and welcoming democratic collective." Aaron, a little regretfully, it seems, says that it is this second America "to which I feel culturally and temperamentally attuned."

Maybe so, but there's nothing clownlike or unduly cheerful in Aaron's clear-eyed account of American unease and inner division. He has always resisted the seductions of ideology while remaining interested in the passionate principles that have stirred up conflicts. Precisely because Aaron is a calm character, he has been able to anatomize those conflicts with rare clarity. In The Americanist and in his other books, he helps us to imagine a third America, one that somehow manages to combine the intrepid ambition of Melville's national vision with the democratic heroism Aaron has so admired.

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke. His latest book, A Summer of Hummingbirds, about writers and artists in Gilded Age America, has just been published by the Penguin Press.

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