The private roots of scholarship are seldom very respectable. I bring this up because I’ve been thinking about the two small events that made me an Americanist. They happened in adolescence, when we are at our most pliable and also at our most obsessive. The first event was a book, and the second event was a film. The book was Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself (1960). When I was sixteen, my father bought me a second-hand paperback copy in a flea market we visited one Sunday in the Liberties. I still have this copy: the blue 1994 Harper Flamingo edition, with a truly abysmal photograph of Mailer on the cover. The film was Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), which I watched one Friday night in my parents’ living room when I was seventeen (I was the kind of seventeen-year-old who spends his Friday nights watching films and getting excited about them, i.e. a baby academic).
I have since come to see JFK as, in various ways, “problematic” (to use a word that is, in the age of hashtag activism, itself in danger of becoming a bit of a problem). Robert Hughes, in his 1993 polemic Culture of Complaint, calls JFK a “vivid lying film” (6). Both modifiers are accurate. The burden of JFK’s hyperkinetic three hours and eight minutes is that John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a cabal of enemies so tentacular that it included not just patrolmen in the Dallas Police Department but also mob bosses, CIA agents, Lyndon Johnson, and just about anyone who happened to be in the neighbourhood of Dealey Plaza on November 22nd, 1963.
Unequipped, in 1998, to weed out the lies, I was enthralled by the vividness. I fell in love with Stone’s manipulations of American iconography (and hagiography). I ordered books about the Kennedy assassination from Amazon—Amazon being, in those days, still an amusing novelty and not yet itself a kind of tentacular conspiracy (against independent retailers, unions, employees, the common weal, et cetera et cetera). Reading these books (Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy) and rewatching JFK, I began to absorb the lineaments of American history, by which I meant, and in many ways still mean, postwar American history: 1945 to the present, Henry Luce’s American Century.
Looking back, I can see that I fell wholesale for some pretty fringe stuff: conspiracy theories, apocalyptic daydreaming, the whole constellation of crackpot ideas that makes up what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style. But even as I blundered around various rickety websites that claimed exhaustively to discredit the Warren Commission Report, I was gleaning hard facts: dates, names, social movements, genuine ideas. Following this crooked path, I was turning myself into a future PhD in American Studies. If you believe, as I do, that scholarship, like art, grows from primitive personal roots, then my teenage love affair with the paranoid style is the reason I am now an Americanist. It’s Hofstadter himself who points out, in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964), that conspiracy theorists often engage in a parody of scholarship: “The enemy, for example, may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry” (Hofstadter 32). Via a parody of critical thinking, I found my way to the real thing.
My JFK obsession dovetailed neatly with my interest in Norman Mailer. In the preface to Advertisements for Myself, Mailer conjured up an apocalyptic prognosis for America as it entered the 1960s: “it may be time to say that the Republic is in real peril, and we are the cowards who must defend courage, sex, consciousness, the beauty of the body, the search for love, and the capture of what may be, after all, an heroic destiny” (23). Potent stuff, when you’re sixteen: at least as potent as Oliver Stone’s vision of American history as a vast right-wing conspiracy—a drama with the very future of freedom at stake. Look at that high-flown rhetoric! Wasn’t that what it meant to be a writer? Wasn’t that what it meant to be alive? And here I was, doubly marooned: stuck in Ireland, where nothing ever happened, and stuck in the posthistorical 1990s, with the real cultural action far behind me. Or so I would have told you, back when I was seventeen.
Mailer’s work, like JFK, I have come to see as “problematic,” although not, perhaps, in the usual ways (better critics than me have flattened him for his unconscious racism, his not-so-unconscious misogyny, and his career-long conviction that violence was the path to grace). No: as with Oliver Stone, it’s Mailer’s invocation of the paranoid style that now seems to me the most interesting, and perhaps the most troubling, aspect of his work. The spokesman of the paranoid style, says Hofstadter, sees “a hostile and conspiratorial world” directed not against himself but “against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others” (4). Thus Norman Mailer, in 1960 (when he wrote Advertisements for Myself), and thus me, in 1997 (when I first read it). Postwar America as apocalyptic battleground. The writer as culture hero, armed against the world. This, of course, was the aspect of Mailer’s work that I found so alluring as a teenager—look again at that Hofstadter quote and tell me that it doesn’t describe the weltanschauung of a typical teenage boy—and it was this aspect of his work that led me, in my PhD thesis and in my handful of published articles on Mailer, to try to uncover some of the historical and intellectual roots of his vision.
I was an undergraduate, still Mailer-and-America-besotted, when I first read Hofstadter’s essay. Or perhaps I should say when I first misread it, because what I wanted from Hofstadter wasn’t what he gave me—i.e. an objective historian’s scrupulously-argued account of “an old and recurring mode of expression” in American public life (Hofstadter 6). What I wanted from Hofstadter was more high-flown rhetoric, more conspiratorial American glamour: mafias, cabals, freedom at stake.
Years passed before I could grasp Hofstadter’s point firmly. These were the years in which, at last, I came to see great value in being Irish and in reading and writing about Ireland. These were also, of course, the years during which history, after its Fukuyaman hiccup in the nineties, hungrily resumed, and it became once again a matter of urgency to interpret America. The years of my doctoral research coincided with George W. Bush’s second term in office: the years of Blackwater, rendition, Abu Ghraib, the Project for the New American Century, and other manifestations of America’s increasingly wayward-seeming destiny. Attending American Studies conferences in those years (I presented my first paper at an IAAS Postgraduate Symposium in UCD in 2005), you felt like you were doing the only thing worth doing: thinking and talking about America and whither now it goest, in its shiny car in the night. The community of American Studies scholars in Ireland is small but pertinently placed: Anglophone, cosmopolitan, postcolonial (and thus reflexively sceptical about imperial power and its pathologies). I wonder how many of us are still half in thrall to our teenage crushes on American popular culture and if that’s a necessary, if not perhaps a sufficient, explanation for why we do what we do.
In a sense, I suppose all I’m saying is that, when I was a teenager, I was a sitting duck for the then-prevalent modes of American soft power and that my adolescent crush on the history of the United States steadily evolved into a grown-up fascination with the roots and consequences of that history. This is not a particularly surprising story, but it does say something small, perhaps, about the attractions of American soft power and about the critical energies it calls up in less hegemonic parts of the world.
The last time we were in New York, my wife and I took a day-trip to Washington, D.C. It was December 29th, 2016. In front of the Capitol Building, workers were assembling the “specialty riser” on which Donald Trump’s inauguration would take place three weeks later. Our train had taken us through rust-belt Pennsylvania, past mile after mile of decay: peeling row houses, factories boarded up with corrugated tin, burnt-out tow-trucks, scrubland gone to seed, empty shipping containers. A post-industrial state of nature. In his inaugural address, Trump would invoke “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” At the RNC in July, he had told the world: “I alone can fix it.” The paranoid style had returned to American public life. Now I could see it for what it was. But I could still feel its dangerous allure. In a souvenir store near the White House I saw a young African-American man fingering a red MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN baseball cap. “You can’t go wrong with the hat,” he mused aloud. I briefly toyed with the idea of buying a cap myself. But I didn’t.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Jonathan Cape, 1966.
Hughes, Robert. Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America. Warner Books, 1994.
Mailer, Norman. Advertisements for Myself. Flamingo, 1994.