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Th. Clark on M. Vaudagna’s The Place of Europe in American History

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1Maurizio Vaudagna, ed. The Place of Europe in American History: Twentieth-Century Perspectives. Turin: Otto, 2007. pp. 403

2ISBN 88-95285-02-6 / ISBN 978-88-95285-02-3.

3This collection of essays serves as a useful reminder in two directions: to US Americanists that they may have thrown out the European baby with the Eurocentric bathwater, and to European Americanists that sitting on the periphery of the discipline can be an opportunity to creatively question and comparatively engage the center, rather than always just hasting to catch up with its latest academic fashions. As Maurizio Vaudagna points out in his introduction, numerous factors have contributed to the decreasing relevance of Europe from an American perspective during the twentieth century, such as the rise of the US to the status of superpower and global cultural node, a domestic transition of power from the East to the West Coast, the demographic shift from European to Asian and South- and Central American immigration and, academically, the necessary deconstruction of a Eurocentric perspective on American history and culture. Providing European perspectives on the “diverse social, political, intellectual, and institutional dimensions through which the European presence has been felt, for better or worse, on the North American continent throughout the twentieth century,” (6) this volume reasserts the unquestionable significance of the “Old World” for the United States as a myth, mirror, resource, problem and partner.

4The volume is divided into four sections dealing with intellectual exchanges, political perspectives, social policy, and multidirectional emigrations. What unites these diverse essays besides their Euro-American focus is a methodological preference for the more traditional, rather than post-structuralist, historiographical approaches, and, with three exceptions, their Italian origin. Tiziano Bonazzi explores the labyrinth of mutual European and American myths and interdependencies through a key Atlantic document, the Declaration of Independence. His richly woven text comes to some provocative conclusions, such as a reading of Revolutionary America as a part of what he conceptualizes as “Greater Europe,” and the recent liberation of the US from the Old World’s mythical significance, which raises the possibility of a yet undetermined “New West” for America, while leaving Europe to ponder its purpose bereft of its vital significant other. Daria Frezza considers the Atlantic dimension of sociological race discourses, pointing out how questions of national identity and inclusion, race suicide theories and eugenics developed within a transatlantic network of scientists, while critical approaches in the US fed on analyses of European fascism and national socialism. That even seemingly home-grown schools of American art, which would go on to have a massive impact on Europe, derived much of their inspiration from there in the first place, is Claudio Zambianchio’s contention. Thus he points out the Harlem Renaissance’s detour of processing African folk culture through European modernism, or the debt of Abstract Expressionism to the immigration of Surrealists and other modernists fleeing fascist Europe. Giuliana Muscio concludes the section with a fascinating typology of the presence of European actors in US film as a signifier or function of cultural legitimization, the erotic, cinematic paradigms and versatility. She devotes particular attention to Italian-American actors and their multiple and contradictory roles as they embodied Mediterranean stereotypes as well as representing ethnic diversity, their adaptability to cinema demands being based on “natural acting” styles rooted in Italian theatrical traditions.

5The political section is mainly devoted to liberalism and how it connects as well as reveals the distinctiveness of US and European political cultures. German liberalism failed to overcome the socio-cultural polarization of society in building a bridge to social democracy and thus faltered in the face of the challenges of a modernity it had brought about, argues Jörn Leonhard. In contrast, the New Deal represents the vitality of American liberalism, resting on the strong foundation of the older Progressive movement, which ironically took many cues from pre-WWI Germany. It is debatable, though, whether Leonhard’s Hartzian thesis for this success as grounded in a consensus on universal human rights (while excluding key groups from humanity) holds water in the light of the work of Rogers Smith and other far more radical critics of liberalism. Raffaella Baritono deals with the failure of Progressive’s adaptation of the British Labour Party model in the US due to structural and ideological differences while Marco Mariano’s discussion of LIFE reveals the importance of visual aspects in Henry Luce’s campaign for the concept of an Atlantic Community, as photo-essays and maps shattered the belief in an isolated America and reconceptualized its position in the world. Concluding the section, Mario Del Pero reflects on Henry Kissinger’s attempt at recasting US foreign policy in terms of the realist European paradigm, a strategy which only briefly succeeded in the wake of the Vietnam trauma, before neoconservatives again raised the tattered banner of a moral and idealistic foreign policy based on exceptionalist assumptions.

6The Atlantic divide in matters of social rights defines the subsequent social policy section. Each of the essays by Jennifer Klein, Elisabetta Vezzosi and Maurizio Vaudagna illustrates the massive and frequently successful resistance in the US to social policies that became part of the post WWII welfare state model in many European nations. Thus Klein maps the emergence of welfare capitalism, as American industry, well aware of tendencies in Europe, torpedoed social liberals in government attempting to establish health care and welfare as social rights. Rather than a shared social responsibility, “security” became a privatized contractual concept founded on the myth of endless economic growth, leading to the exclusion of millions of poor Americans from social services and the collapse of corporate health and pension plans in times of crisis. In the absence of a national health care system, as Vezzosi describes, the European-inspired advocacy of maternity leave regulations since the Progressive Era failed to ever crystallize into legislation, especially since second-wave feminism was focused on gender-equality rather than maternity issues. After the previous readings, it almost comes as no surprise that conservatives in the New Deal Era viewed Roosevelt as a potential dictator whose social liberalism was undermining genuine American liberty – the freedom of laissez-faire and unencumbered property rights and that Republican centrists were incapable of reigning in these detractors with devastating electoral results. This is Vaudagna’s thesis, though he points out, that such conservatives were not simply reactionaries disconnected from modernity, but part of an ongoing transatlantic debate on the shifting understanding of freedom.

7The concluding essays on immigration shift the focus southward, as Manuel Plana narrates the turmoil of  Mexican politics between 1913 and 1917 involving US and European interests which utilized local groups of Mexican immigrants in the US and European communities in Mexico to advance their interests. Alessandra Lorini tells the story of a group of Italian freedom fighters invited and then prevented by the U.S. from joining Cuba’s struggle for independence and Simone Cinotto closes the volume with an account of the transnational imagination and biography of Joe Marchetti, whose life story suggests the fluidity and adaptability of norms in mobile ethnic communities, rather than static “cultural backgrounds.”                      

8If a general impression can be drawn from such a wealth of scholarship, it is perhaps, that the United States and European nations were united in a struggle with the modernity they had brought forth, grasped it by using each other as sites of information, reflection, and ideological rejection, frequently devising different solutions which have resulted in political and social cultures we recognize in their sometimes alienating distinctiveness.  As this volume shows, studying the generalities and particulars of Atlantic history thus remains an invaluable exercise in charting the paths of American and European histories, as well as the roads not taken.

Dr. Thomas Clark, British and North American History, University of Kassel, Germany.

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« Th. Clark on M. Vaudagna’s The Place of Europe in American History », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2008, document 2, Online since 16 September 2008, connection on 23 June 2017. URL : http://ejas.revues.org/3192

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