The Program in American Studies is the University’s oldest interdepartmental plan of study. It began in 1942 as the “Program in American Civilization,” in response to the perception among faculty and students that “many educated Americans have in their education been cut off from a clear understanding of the traditions of their country.” Several other factors were in play in the 1930s and 1940s: faculty across departments in the humanities and social sciences were interested in coordinating their efforts; and both the Depression and totalitarianism caused concerns that the American way of life was threatened.
From its inception, the interdisciplinary program inspired new courses, public lectures, art exhibits, and conferences. The first conference, in 1942, was "The Impact of Racial and National Groups on American Civilization from 1800 to the Present." The first symposium, in 1954, was on "The Image of America Abroad"; the first core course, "Individualism in American Life," was offered in 1956. Early visitors included cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, historian Richard Hofstadter, and U.S. Representative Eugene McCarthy. In 1959, Cuba's new leader Fidel Castro visited the campus as a guest speaker for an American studies course on "The United States and Revolutionary Spirit." The program has continued to attract high-profile guests, such as poet Allen Ginsberg, who spent two weeks in residence at Princeton in 1996.
Through resources such as the University Library and archives, art museum, and campus buildings, students have a variety of ways to examine American life. The Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library has a rich store of public policy papers, including those of alumnus and former Princeton president Woodrow Wilson; Nassau Hall, the site of the Continental Congress from June to November 1783, also bears scars from its role in the Revolutionary War Battle of Princeton; and the University Art Museum's holdings range from Charles Willson Peale's 1784 portrait of George Washington at the Battle of Princeton to works by Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Georgia O'Keefe, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol.
Existing today under the aegis of the Humanities Council, the Program aims to give students an understanding of America—its cultures, its institutions, its intellectual traditions, the relationships among its peoples, and its relationships with other cultures, nations, peoples, and intellectual traditions. The Program reflects the creative ferment in the study of American life and culture. We work to integrate the historical and literary studies traditionally identified with “American Studies” with newer methodologies and approaches, as we struggle to make sense of a complex and multifaceted society.
A relatively small and intimate community, the program is a place for intense, adventurous and freewheeling interdisciplinary conversations and courses about American culture, politics and history. Such conversations are vital for the education of American citizens and young scholars of matters relating to American life. Unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries, the Program in American Studies at Princeton brings differing perspectives and understandings into dialogue with one another, generating a unique level of intellectual rigor and excitement.
The cooperating departments from which the program draws faculty and other resources presently include Anthropology, Architecture, Art and Archaeology, Economics, English, History, Music, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, Sociology, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.