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What is the American Narrative? Leading Authors and Scholars Examine the topic in Dædalus


Press Release

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The viability of the American Dream – the belief that upward mobility is within reach of all who work hard and play by the rules – is in jeopardy in the face of political and economic turmoil and fundamental demographic shifts, according to contributors to the winter 2012 issue of Dædalus, journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Guest edited by Denis Donoghue, Professor of English and American Letters at New York University, essays in the volume, “On the American Narrative,” explore many of the threads that create the country’s “master story,” including American exceptionalism and the role of the Constitution as the nation’s “operating manual.” These topics, considered by fourteen prominent scholars and writers, are emerging as themes of the 2012 presidential election campaign.

“Our country is less a place than a story” or “a cluster of hundreds of millions of stories,” writes Harvard’s Carl M. Loeb University Professor Laurence H. Tribe, in “America’s Constitutional Narrative.” According to Tribe, that intertwined set of narratives “constitutes us as a people – e pluribus unum” – by structuring an inter-generational conversation about our national aspirations and traditions.

William H. Chafe, a historian at Duke University, questions the idea of a singular, cohesive national narrative. In “The American Narrative: Is There One and What Is it?” Chafe says America is conflicted by two narratives, one centered on the common good and another that celebrates individualism over collective action. Chafe writes of a nation that appears politically dysfunctional – if not permanently fractured. Americans are more polarized than ever, he suggests, as a result of profound changes such as the technological chasm separating the generations and the expectation that Spanish speakers will soon outnumber native English speakers in the U.S.

New York University history Professor David Levering Lewis, in “Exceptionalism’s Exceptions: The Changing American Narrative,” traces the history of American exceptionalism “from high-flown political science theory…to ideological boilerplate” and suggests the need for “a twenty-first century reset.”

According to writer E. L. Doctorow of New York University, a new American narrative is being written: the “Narrative C” of his essay title. Citing the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, Doctorow explores how the shape of our democracy may be changing and how our belief in American exceptionalism “may no longer be sustainable.”

In “Spooked,” novelist Gish Jen wonders whether America is still the can-do country or if it is “perhaps at a pause at the top of the ferris wheel – at the ‘and’ of ‘rise and fall.’”

Other essays in the volume include:

“Introduction,” Denis Donoghue, New York University
“Narratives of the Constitutional Covenant,” Peter Brooks, Princeton University
“The American Mythos,” Jay Parini, Middlebury College
“On Western Waters: Anglo-American Nonfictional Narrative in the Nineteenth Century,” Rolena Adorno, Yale University
“The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: An Old Drama Still Being Enacted,” David A. Hollinger, University of California, Berkeley
“Why Diamonds Really are a Girl’s Best Friend: Another American Narrative,” Linda K. Kerber, University of Iowa
“The Other Case,” Michael Wood, Princeton University
“Southern Literature: A Blending of Oral, Visual & Musical Voices,” William Ferris, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
“Death Comes to the Broadway Musical,” musicologist and pianist Charlotte Greenspan

Order print and Kindle copies of the Winter 2012 Dædalus.

Dædalus, founded in 1955, is the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The American Academy, created in 1780, is a non-partisan policy research center and international learned society dedicated to intellectual leadership across the nation and around the world. Current Academy projects include initiatives for science, engineering, and technology; international security; the governance of American institutions; the state of humanities and culture; and challenges to America's system of education.


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