Rob Kroes: A Moment in a Scholar's Understanding of America





There are generally two momentous occasions in a European academic's career: when the professor accepts an appointment at a university and when she or he retires from that appointment. On those occasions the professor's colleagues, students, administrators, relatives, and friends, from home and abroad, gather to celebrate a professional life. The honoree gives a formal lecture. On the first occasion the honoree reflects on the state of the field and projects what the professor hopes to contribute; on the second the professor reflects on the state of the field as she or he leaves it. The essay that follows is Rob Kroes's formal retirement lecture from his thirty-year career as director of the pioneering American Studies Program at the University of Amsterdam. On a bright sunlit late Friday afternoon, September 9, 2005, in the Doopsgezinde Kerk along the Singel Canal in central Amsterdam, Kroes gave his lecture to hundreds of colleagues and friends who had gathered from all over the world. The lecture was the central focus for three days of festivities that included a symposium in which people reflected on his contributions to the field, the presentation to him of a festschrift of original essays, and a lavish retirement party held on the Dutch estate of the last German kaiser (where that emperor had also, well, retired from an earlier career).1 Following his speech inside the church, Kroes's dean, colleagues, successor, and students paid tribute to him. The ceremony ended with an event that brought smiles to all who knew his love for herring. Dressed in a cutaway coat, his herringmonger strode to the front of the hall, presented him with a herring on a silver platter, and Kroes, holding it by the tail, gulped down the fish. A Dutch moment. A Kroes moment.

Even before Kroes began to speak, many knew the lecture would be an important statement. From Boston to Berlin, Bozeman to Bologna, scholars came to hear how this director of a leading European center for the study of American culture, this former president of the European Association for American Studies, would now frame the challenge that he had placed at the center of his career: How could Europeans contribute a distinctive perspective to the study of the United States? Some knew what to expect, for he had been trying out parts of his theme over the past year in talks in Europe and North America. Naoki Fukuhara, who covered Europe for a leading Japanese newspaper chain, had come from his base in Brussels, Belgium, to report on a speech his editors thought would offer an emerging European perspective on the United States.

In that speech, Kroes gave a new twist to his longstanding project. Europeans could make a distinctive contribution to American studies, as he had illustrated in some forty books he had written or edited, by exploring how, in exchanges of people, images, and ideas, Europeans used the United States to advance and retard their own political debates and cultural projects. For Europeans, the United States over the past two centuries had been "the site of the modern," as Rob frequently put it, the place where European ideas could be explored and developed more fully than in their more tradition-bound birthplace. Whether as immigrants to Montana, inhabitants of Europe who consumed American television programs, music, and clothes, or individuals trying to frame horizons of possibility and constraint in a globalizing world, Europeans used the United States to think about European needs and agendas. As the way of the future, American mass culture—a favorite theme of Kroes's work—represented the greatest hope for some Europeans and the worst nightmare for others, simultaneously the promise of and the threat to European civilization, but, above all, a source that Europeans could embrace, reject, and adapt to fit their own needs....

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