The goal of our panel is to produce a conversation between the past and present of criticism for the project of finding new directions in the field of American studies. This panel will examine a variety of responses from a new generation of scholars working within American studies to the work of the previous generation. We will collectively take up the legacy of the work of the New Americanists, the dominant group of critics working in American Studies throughout the past three decades. While all three panelists agree that we need new methodologies that must build on the significant achievements in terms of opening up the field and the project of self-critique started by the New Americanists, each panelist provides a different direction for reorienting the field.
A pressing issue for our panel is how exactly does one follow or supersede an academic approach and field dedicated to multiplicity? Are we to be, as the title of our panel asks, “newer new” or should we think of ourselves as “coming after” the New Americanists? Throughout the eighties and nineties Americanists opened up the canon to include a wide and rich array of texts including those authored by women, Native Americans, African-Americans, sexual minorities, the working class, and others not previously counted. In so doing they redescribed the field of American studies as skeptical of prior criticism and questioning the founding assumptions of what they took as a field and a national literature committed to exceptionalism. While the general mood of recent Americanist criticism shares much with the exhaustion with ideological and symptomatic critique expressed by Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s “Surface Reading: An Introduction” that prefaces the Fall 2009 edition of Representations, we cannot say that the work that either self-identifies as New Americanist or was collected in any of several edited volumes, journal issues, or the Duke University Press book series was as dedicated to a single methodology as the texts and critics targeted by Best and Marcus. If there was a “way” in which the New Americanists read it was to recognize that the field itself was structured in such a way to prevent self-critique, thus the New Americanists continually engaged with the mostly formalist criticism that preceded them. We thus cannot repeat the founding gesture of the New Americanists.