A Warren Center "occasional speaker", in collaboration with the American Studies Program.
As “American dream” became a cliché in the 20th century, the contrary refrain of American nightmare was probably inevitable. This talk is about American culture and European reconstruction. Alongside the familiar currents of Henry Luce’s American Century run stranger currents of culture, as the ruin of postwar Europe led writers and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic to understand America in new ways. Some saw the United States assume the mantle of cultural redeemer. Others saw a stereotypical America, rich in civilization but poor in culture, overtake a stereotypical Europe, rich in culture and equally rich in disaster. Others found keys to their own contexts in American books, reading Moby-Dick in the ruins. Many of our modern myths of the United States and Europe were formed in the wake of World War II; it is curious to revisit them now, in the wake of the American Century itself.
“Nightmare envy” captures that atmosphere of transatlantic disparity, projection, recrimination, and longing. Envy, whether malicious or benign, emerges from disparity; the disparity might be spiritual, cultural, material, or military, and the envy can cut both ways. It is not always clear who is envying whom, or for what. Nightmare envy links writers in many settings: Margaret Mead in England and New Guinea, F.O. Matthiessen in Prague, Simone de Beauvoir in New York and New Orleans, Ralph Ellison in Salzburg and Rome, James Baldwin in Switzerland, William Faulkner in Europe and Japan. It also illuminates “American exceptionalism” (that most misused Americanist term of art) and the founding preoccupations of American Studies itself.
George Blaustein is assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Nightmare Envy & Other Stories: American Culture and European Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2018).