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Review of  American Identities

Reviewer: Ashley Williams
Book Title: American Identities
Book Author: Lois Rudnick Judith Smith Rachel Lee Rubin
Publisher: Wiley
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 18.344

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EDITORS: Rudnick, Lois P.; Smith, Judith E.; Rubin, Rachel Lee
TITLE: American Identities
SUBTITLE: An Introductory Textbook
PUBLISHER: Blackwell
YEAR: 2006

Ashley M. Williams, American Studies, University of Virginia


This textbook, intended for high school and first-year college students,
provides an introduction to the field of American Studies. With the stated
intention of furnishing ''the methods and texts necessary for students to
read US society and culture from an interdisciplinary perspective'' (p.1),
the book is a collection of 49 diverse readings that focus ''on the many
different ways 'American' has been defined from World War II to the
present'' (p.xiii). Reading selections, which emphasize historical context
and the interpretation of cultural movements from the past 65+ years,
represent primary and secondary sources (including memoirs, poetry, comics
and song lyrics, along with journalism and academic writings) and include
both well-known American icons (such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X,
Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen) and lesser known figures (such as
Bharati Mukherjee, Mine Okubo, Jack Agueros). Through these readings, the
editors highlight how:

''American identities are made and remade over time, shaped by impetus from
the inside (creating a public persona, choosing affiliations, and allying
with communities) and from the outside (the class, race, gender positions
we are born into, the social authority/ public legitimacy associated with
presumptions about our visible characteristics and occupational positions)

In addition, the editors emphasize that the methods and selections in this
text provide students with the opportunity to create their own family
histories; this is emphasized more in the separate Instructor's Guide (not
reviewed here).


The text is organized both chronologically and topically into five parts,
most of which are divided further into thematic sections. Each part is
introduced with editors' overview of the historical trends and movements of
that period, and includes a smattering of photographs to illustrate the
periods and their main themes. Each reading selection is likewise
introduced by the editors with brief background information about the
selection's author(s) and the historical context of the piece. All of the
reading selections conclude with study questions meant ''to stimulate active
learning, engage students with the key thematic issues of the text, and
help them to see patterns and make linkages across cultures, places, and
times'' (p.xiii). These study questions range from focusing on summaries of
the selections and interpreting and analyzing them, to comparing the
selections to each other, both within and across historical periods and
movements (for example, asking students to compare the blues lyrics of
Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed with Betty Friedan's The Feminine

Part I (''Identity, Family, and Memory'') introduces students to the
textbook's main focus of American identities, and what is meant by the
label ''American''. The unit is divided further into sections on
''Understanding Identity'', ''American Families in Historical Perspectives'',
and ''Memory and Community''. The readings in this unit focus in particular
on the varying parts of and influences on identity (memory, mythology and
history; social group, ethnicity, race, gender, language, and family;
individuals, groups, communities, cultures and nations) and on the fluid
and dynamic nature of identity. The reading selections in this part include
memoir, history, and sociology.

Part II (''World War II and the Postwar Era 1940-1960'') is further divided
into topical sections on ''World War II and American Families'', ''The Cold
War and Domestic Politics'', and ''Family Migrations, Urban and Suburban''.
The selections draw from literature, history, autobiography, and journalism.

Part III (''War and Social Movements, 1960-1975''), the longest unit in the
text, is further divided into sections on ''The Civil Rights Movement'',
''Student Activism'', ''The Vietnam War'', ''Black and Puerto Rican Power'',
''Women's Lives, Women's Rights'', ''The American Indian Movement'', ''The Gay
Liberation Movement'', and ''The New American Right''. The readings include
political writings, music, memoir, and oral history.

Part IV (''A Postindustrial and Global Society, 1975-2000'') is divided into
sections on ''Deindustrializing America'', ''Marriage and Family: Modern and
Postmodern'', ''Multicultural America'', and ''The United States as
Borderlands''. The selections for this unit include readings from economics,
journalism, music, sociology, history, literature, and memoir.

Finally, the concluding unit Part V (''The Future of Us All?'') invites
students to consider how American identities will change in the future,
particularly over the course of their lives. The readings in this unit,
which draw from journalism, sociology and economics, focus on the
increasing racial, ethnic, linguistic and economic diversity of the US
population, and offer predictions, solutions and interpretations for what
this might mean for the definition of ''American''.


The textbook is successful in presenting a broad and diverse (both in
methodology and in subject matter) approach to American Studies, an
inherently interdisciplinary field. Unfortunately, the field of American
Studies has not truly embraced linguistic approaches, and generally
linguists who study American language use from a socio-cultural-historical
perspective do not tend to have much of a presence in American Studies.
Such a lack of linguistics-American Studies discourse is obvious in this
book, which contains no selections from a linguistic point-of-view. Rather,
the editors adopt a more typical approach to American Studies, focusing on
how history, literature, popular culture, etc., have contributed to the
constantly evolving definition of ''American''. Language and its use in the
US gets short shrift.

Nevertheless, several of the text's selections conceivably could be useful
in introductory American Studies courses that include a focus on language.
I briefly describe these selections below. Note that most of these
selections are not exclusively about language; rather, they feature
discussions or representations (and sometimes merely mentions) of various
linguistic issues that are key to the defining of American identities, and
which can be linked to the other aspects of American identities that are
prominent in this textbook.

CH. 1: Gwyn Kirk & Margo Okazawa-Rey (''Identities and Social Locations: Who
Am I? Who Are My People?''): takes a fluid, not fixed, approach to identity,
and acknowledges the important role language can play in identity.

CH. 4: Kesaya E. Noda (''Growing Up Asian in America''): again focuses on the
fluidity of identity, including the role of language and language stereotypes.

CH. 10: Alice Childress (from Like One of the Family: Conversations from a
Domestic's Life): useful for an analysis of African American English and
African American identity, and roles of African Americans in 1950s.

CH. 12: Jack Agueros (''Halfway to Dick and Jane: A Puerto Rican
Pilgrimage''): on Puerto Ricans in New York City, including Spanish-English

CH. 13: Philip Roth (from Goodbye, Columbus): representation of working
class urban Jewish immigrant language use in comparison to wealthy suburban
Jewish language use.

CH. 16: Songs of the Civil Rights Movement: some representation of African
American English in protest songs.

CH. 21: Richard J. Ford III (from Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam
War by Black Veterans): representation of African American English.

CH. 25: Young Lords Party (''13-Point Program and Platform''): Puerto Rican
Spanish-English code-switching, and the politics behind this usage.

CH. 33: Rey ''Sylvia Lee'' Rivera (''The Drag Queen''): some examples of
Spanish, gay speech, and slurs against sexual minorities.

CH. 36: Eric Alterman (from ''It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive'': The
Promise of Bruce Springsteen): discussion of working class/ blue collar
language vs. college-educated English.

CH. 37: A Musical Representation of Work in Postindustrial America:
includes non-standard language in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, hip hop,
and rap.

CH. 38: Gregory Mantsios (''Class in America: Myths and Realities (2000)''):
discussion of the changing definition of ''class'' in the US. Students might
find the work of Nunberg (2006) or Lakoff (2002) useful and revealing
linguistic approaches.

CH. 39: Kristin Luker (from Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood): on
the changing definition of motherhood in connection with the debate on
abortion. Again, one could link this selection with the work of Nunberg
(2006) or Lakoff (2002).

CH. 40: Judith Stacey (''The Making and Unmaking of Modern Families''): on
the changing definition of family. Another place to discuss language and
politics, Nunberg (2006) or Lakoff (2002).

CH. 41: Bharati Mukherjee (from Jasmine): includes examples of how names,
identity, and language are intertwined.

CH. 42: Claudine Chiawei O'Hearn (''Growing up Biracial and Bicultural''): on
language, identity, and language shift/ language loss.

CH. 45: Gloria Anzaldua (''To live in the Borderlands means you''): an
excellent example of bilingual Spanish-English poetry, and the text's only
selection of this.

CH. 47: Lynell George (''Brave New World: Gray Boys, Funky Aztecs, and
Honorary Homegirls''): on Los Angeles adolescent immigrants and
multilingual/ multicultural mixing and borrowing. An opportunity to
introduce the notion of crossing (Rampton 1995).

CH. 48: Roger Sanjek (from The Future of Us All): on multilingualism in New
York City, including a discussion of attitudes towards bilingualism and
bilingual education.

Beyond the lack of selections from a linguistic viewpoint, I have a few
points of critique.
One is that, as mentioned above, the text focuses on changes to the
definition of ''American'' since World War II; however, the editors Rudnick,
Smith, & Rubin do not explain why they choose to focus on this time period
and exclude the development and evolution of American identities pre-1940.
Surely there are readings from pre-1940 that also would be illustrative for
their purposes? I suspect that the editors do have a strong reason for why
they chose to concentrate only on the modern/ post-modern US; an
explanation of this would have been useful.

Additionally, while the editors do not explicitly define ''American'' (this
being the purpose of the text, to examine the varying meanings of this
label), there is the underlying assumption that ''American'' somehow is
restricted to those living in the US. There is no acknowledgement of even
the possibility of challenging this assumption in location. What of those
from other countries in the Americas (and indeed, not all of American
Studies is restricted to only the US)?

I do highly commend the text's approach to identity. Not only is identity
viewed as fluid and dynamic, but the editors, and their reading selections,
also acknowledge more perhaps prescribed aspects of identity, and the
multiple internal and external influences on identity; whether from
expectations, impositions, or traditions, these factors influence how an
individual, group, community, and nation views themselves. This
acknowledgement of the constructed and ''brought along'' aspects of identity
has likewise been examined within sociolinguistics, particularly in the
work of Bucholtz & Hall (2005). With this similarity in approaches to
identity, perhaps scholars of American Studies and the US sociolinguistic
situation have a point of dialogue.

Overall, this textbook meets its goal of serving as an interdisciplinary
introduction to American Studies. The editors have done excellent work in
selecting representative readings from a diverse group of periods,
movements, authors and genres. However, if an instructor desired to give
more coverage to linguistics and language in the US, and how language has
influenced the changing definition of American identity, it would be
necessary to supplement this text with further discussion and readings on
points that the some of the text's selections touch upon, but which the
text as a whole does not specifically address. While there is generally a
shortage of introductory material on language and linguistics in the US,
there are notable exceptions that would be appropriate for American Studies
courses that address or focus solely on language in the US, including
Finegan & Rickford 2004, Wolfram & Ward 2006, and Lippi-Green 1997.


Bucholtz, Mary & Kira Hall. 2005. Identity and interaction: A sociocultural
linguistic approach. Discourse Studies 7 (4-5): 585-614.

Finegan, Edward & John R. Rickford (eds.) Language in the USA: Themes for
the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, George. 2002. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and
Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

Nunberg, Geoffrey. 2006. Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberals
into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York
Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. New
York: Public Affairs.

Rampton, Ben. 1995. Crossing: Language and Ethnicity Among Adolescents.
London: Longman.

Wolfram, Walt & Ben Ward (eds.). 2006. American Voices: How Dialects Differ
From Coast to Coast. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ashley M. Williams (Ph.D. Linguistics, University of Michigan, 2006) is a
Lecturer in American Studies at the University of Virginia. Her research
interests include sociolinguistics, bilingualism, identity, conversation &
interaction analysis, and Chinese & Asian Americans.

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