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Invited Articles

Vol. 1 No. 1 (2019): The Salzburg Seminar and Its Legacies in American Studies

"You know, I used to be a Jew": Groucho Marx, Max Reinhardt, and the Transformation of American Studies

DOI
https://doi.org/10.47060/jaaas.v1i1.69
Submitted
November 21, 2019
Published
2020-09-08

Abstract

Beginning with the unlikely pairing of Max Reinhardt and Groucho Marx, this article unpacks an old, politically troubling Jewish joke as a way of tracing two trajectories that unfolded between Austria and the United States. The first follows the author's family, the second the interdisciplinary field of American studies. The joke's commentary on the dilemmas of assimilation, as played out in the family history, frames a more sustained examination of how national identity was understood by the American studies project consolidated in Salzburg and the US just after World War II. Focusing on how the new field's ways of engaging and occluding problems of race, subordination, exploitation, and land-theft shaped an interpretation of American democracy's history and prospects, the article puts these issues in the context of Donald Trump's election as president and the urgency of understanding not only the ruptures but also the historical continuities his presidency represents. Against the backdrop of those reflections, the article considers how contemporary American studies does and might engage the continuities. The field must help shape a national narrative both accessible in idiom and able to reckon with the ongoing history of white supremacy and settler colonialism. Doing that entails not only moving beyond but also borrowing anew from that early, Salzburg-style formation of American studies. It may also benefit from the Jewish joke: the conclusion and two postscripts read the joke's limitations in the light of recent social struggles yet also note its unnerving relevance to the Trump-era resurgence of antisemitism.

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