Volume XI, Number 2, Fall 2015

"American Studies in South-East Europe – A Review of Working Papers in American Studies, Vol. 1." by Emma Bálint

Emma Bálint is a PhD student at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Her research interests include American cinema, fairy tale studies and adaptation studies. Email:

Working Papers in American Studies, Volume 1
Edited by Jelena Šesnić and Sven Cvek
Zagreb: Croatian Association for American Studies, 2014, pp. 134
Web: http://www.huams.hr/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/wpas_v1_huams_2014.pdf

The one-day symposium of the 2nd Annual American Studies Workshop in Zagreb was organized with the aim to present a few “Cross-cultural Readings of the United States” (May 24, 2014), more particularly, to demonstrate what Croatia and South-East Europe have to offer this vastly rich field and to illustrate the need for European American Studies in general. The proceedings of this workshop were published in e-book format with the title Working Papers in American Studies, Vol. 1 (2014) on the website of HUAmS (Croatian Association for American Studies), licensed under Creative Commons. Although it appears to have been difficult for the editors, Jelena Šesnić and Sven Cvek, to organize these eight diverse essays into coherent chapters, the majority of them, predominantly written by Croatian scholars from the University of Zagreb, are in line with what has been designated as the purpose of the volume in the Editors’ Preface: to present “’local’ readings, interpretations, and imagining of the United States at its present or past aspect” (4) particularly from cultural, political, and economic perspectives.

The papers in this volume are thus categorized into three chapters, and, in lieu of summaries in the Editor’s Preface, each is introduced by a short abstract and a list of keywords. The first chapter, titled “Directions in European American Studies,” includes two papers, which present two approaches that attest to the need for and the benefits of the field. In “American Studies in Europe: ‘Divided We Stand’,” Professor Walter W. Hölbling from the University of Graz, Austria—who was one of the keynote speakers at the symposium—discusses relevant and fundamental questions of American Studies with the aim to defend European American Studies from a cultural viewpoint. With the help of an array of key- and buzzwords, he defines American Studies from a transnational perspective, emphasizing the need for contextualization in all academic discourse. He focuses on the globalization of the field, within which European Americanists have the advantage of being able to look at the US from the outside, possibly even objectively. He not only talks of contextualization and transculturation in theory, but also brings cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary references from the fields of cultural studies, media studies, economics, and literature as well. All in all, Professor Hölbling provides a great introduction to the collection and to American Studies in general, which could provide a helpful outline of the past and the present of the field to young university students.

The second essay in this chapter, titled “Shifting Identities in Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon,” written by Aleksandra Izgarjan from the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, is a less theoretical and more practical demonstration of a not particularly East-European, but nevertheless transcultural approach to American Studies. In this literary-cultural study, Izgarjan argues that issues of African-American identities, more particularly, the significance of finding one’s heritage and negotiating one’s identity, are at the base of Morrison’s novel. Izgarjan employs references not only to Morrison’s own life, but to her ancestors’ as well, and concludes that this novel is valuable because it can be viewed as an overview of the history of African Americans after the Civil War, which Morrison described through the shaping and development of her characters’ identities.

The second section of Working Papers is titled “Institutional and Cultural Frameworks,” with three papers by faculty members from the University of Zagreb. First, in “A Few Remarks on American Studies and the American Universities,” Borislav Knežević discusses the current crisis of university-level education, the humanities, and liberal education in the almost-unique higher education system of the US. Knežević’s firm belief is that American Studies should include the American academic site, both in their present and their historical states, primarily because he sees the university as the locus of the American culture, economy and international relations. A European’s view is useful because someone outside the US may be able to see the role of the university more clearly and objectively. Knežević lists various events, such as changing economic conditions and the baby boom, which have influenced the dynamics of the prestige of higher education, and have eventually led to the current fall of the humanities. The underlying issue, however, is that American higher education is based on a structure established at the turn of the twentieth century, and has not been adapted to contemporary economic and societal needs.

Another effect of the outdatedness of this structure is the difficulty of adopting new elements into it. In “Digital Humanities between Technology and Labor,” Sven Cvek approaches digital humanities not only as a field, but as a practice that contributes to the whole of the humanities—a combination of digital technology and academic labor, which could provide a solution for the current crisis in the humanities. The above issues are all symptoms of the present-day market-oriented academia amply criticized in the first chapters of this volume, within which the human element becomes nothing more than a bearer of capital in the forms of funds, grants or credits. Digital humanities is growing in popularity because of its profitability and is gradually being humanized and, as a result, is becoming increasingly relevant; however, it still avoids addressing its institutional context—the field of humanities. Cvek suggests that the best solution to overcoming this shortcoming would be to directly address the position of digital humanities within academia and, simultaneously, to emphasize its influence on other disciplines.

The cultural framework in this second chapter’s title becomes relevant in the next essay, which focuses on a more popular view of America. Lovorka Zergollern-Miletić introduces the findings of a series of questionnaires she had conducted with Croatian students in “Croatian Students’ Perception of American Culture,” the aim of which was to see how stereotypes and prejudice against Americans prevail among educated Croatian youth, with the additional hypothesis that media has a significant role in shaping their image of America. Although Zergollern-Miletić initially assumed that Croatian youths are apolitical, prejudiced, and often reluctant to think critically about any culture, she found that they were more critical of their own culture than of the Americans’. In fact, both parts of the hypothesis were proven true: firstly, because a few students commented on the fact that they may have been relying on popular stereotypes; and secondly, because they claim to have acquired their knowledge from formal education and from television and cinema. In the course of analyzing the questionnaires, however, the author realized that these answers are insufficient, and has already devised a plan to conduct additional personal interviews.

The third and last chapter includes three studies on “America and Croatia” from a historical perspective, also written by scholars from the University of Zagreb. As the title suggests, these papers focus most directly on the relationship between Croatia and America. The first essay, “An Austro-Hungarian America: Emerson from Croatia, 1904-5” by Tatjana Jukić, discusses the influence of Emerson’s ideas, including economic, philosophic, literary and political ones, on Antun Gustav Matoš, a Croatian scholar. Matoš looked to America for role models and found them in people like Andrew Carnegie. He introduced the thoughts of Emerson and modern literature to Croatia, and the aim of this paper is to see how this was influenced by Austro-Hungary, a comparatively powerful country at the time.

“Croatian Leftist Critique and the Object of American Studies” by Stipe Grgas, the acting president of AASSEE (Association for American Studies in South East Europe), is by far the longest essay in the collection, extending to about twice the length of any of the other articles. It is the complexity of Grgas’ essay that makes this length necessary: he looks at America through the ideas of the Praxis group, which represents the leftist critique in the title. The views and criticism of the US by past socialist countries, in this case by Yugoslavia and by the Praxis group, is important because they contributed greatly to the establishment and early development of American Studies. Since the 1990s, the discussion of the US in Croatia has greatly been dominated by economic terms and capitalism. Among the Zagreb Praxis group, capitalism appeared as a problematic term, as they preferred using a Heideggerian approach focusing on human existence, but they still actively criticized the US. Grgas, nevertheless, claims that today capitalism should be central to American Studies and globalization, and that a combination of Marx’s and Heidegger’s ideas would contribute the most to our understanding of America in the contemporary globalized world.

The collection concludes with Jelena Šesnić’s historical study, which focuses on the political influence of not a group, like the previous paper, but of a single person: Bogdan Raditsa (spelled Radica in Croatian). In “Bogdan Raditsa, the 1970s, and the Question of Croatian Emigration,” Šesnić discusses the situation of Croatia and the role of political exiles during the Cold War, when emigration to the West was widespread. Within this period, 1971 has become a critical year known as the Croatian Spring, when a student revolution was staged by nationalist political activists, directed against the unification of Yugoslavia. As a result, the 1970s was experienced as a decade of freedom movements by not only “Croatian Croats,” but by Croats all over the world. Bogdan Raditsa was an exiled historian who became one of the leading Croatian political emigrés. His outsider’s commentaries, such as the distinction between “American Croats,” “Croatian Americans” and “Croatian Croats,” (126) proved to be not only useful, but correct as well, since he accurately predicted, among other things, the emergence of national self-determination and the fall of communist regimes. This study by the volume’s editor—who wrote a brief history of Croatian American Studies, which is also available on the HUAmS website—is a suitable conclusion to the chapter and to the whole collection, because it draws a clear connection between Croatia and South-East Europe in general and the United States, and opens up new horizons worth researching further, possibly in the second volume of the Working Papers in American Studies.

The present first volume of the Working Papers in American Studies is a collection of generally brief, easily comprehensible, and up-to-date articles, which are at once practical overviews and provide detailed and in-depth analyses of their subjects. Each essay introduces a topic in its own right, which also means that it is difficult for a few of them, in particular for Izgarjan’s and Zergollern-Miletić’s, to fit into the otherwise fairly vague categories of the three chapters. In addition, many of them appear to have had to sacrifice interesting and sometimes much-needed definitions and pieces of information in order to comply with the restrictions of length, such as Knežević’s and Jukić’s specialized studies, which seems to have been unnecessary, given that the book was published electronically. Speaking of which, it is praiseworthy and greatly appreciated that the volume was made available online and is thus freely accessible. Through the array of subjects and perspectives presented in these papers, it has been made evident that this region’s European American Studies has a lot to offer to the greater field of American Studies, and, since this collection is indicated to be the first volume of a series, hopefully we will see an even more varied collection of similar studies in the near future.