Skip over navigation

Program Description

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.  Today we sponsor public conferences on topics as wide-ranging as “American Regionalism,” “The Future of American Food Studies,” “Too Cute: the New American Orientalism,” and more.  We host an annual Anschutz Fellow, a distinguished scholar whose work straddles theory and practice; we sponsor a wealth of programs initiated by graduate and undergraduate students who constellate around the Program.

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.



“American Studies offers the promise of a sustained education

in what it is to live in this twenty-first century American world

 -- in a polyglot, heterogeneous, racially divided, corporate

dominated, politically emaciated but culturally rich and

constitutionally complex, pluralistic but highly unequal world. 

Knowledge about this world, this country, and about how it

came to be historically and about how diverse and varied peoples

make their lives in this world and call it America…depends on

open conversations that are alternately serious, playful, fun, and painful.”

                                                                       --Hendrik A. Hartog



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.  We see our mission as central to the future of this university.  To explore how America came to be historically and about how diverse and varied peoples make their lives in this world requires substantial, creative, and multi-viewed dialogues.  We aim to be the home for these difficult but enlivening conversations.  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.   

We draw an exciting collection of faculty from cooperating departments such as African American Studies, Anthropology, Architecture, Art and Archaeology, Economics, English, History, Music, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, Sociology, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.  We also enjoy intimate relationships with critical interdisciplinary programs such as the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies and the Program in Law and Public Affairs.