Who We Are: A History of the
American Studies Journal

by Hans-Jürgen Grabbe

In September of 1960, English teachers in the state (Land) of Baden-Württemberg received a small publication consisting of some 20 mimeographed and stapled pages that contained news and articles about the United States of America. It was entitled American Newsletter and was distributed four times a year by the Cultural Affairs Unit of the United States Information Service (USIS) in Stuttgart.

Soon teachers of other Länder of the Federal Republic of Germany asked for copies and production of the Newsletter was transferred to Bonn, then the provisional capital of the FRG. By 1974, 15,000 copies were distributed throughout West Germany but the publication was discontinued due to cuts in the USIS budget.

Nine years later, in September 1983, in a climate of growing disenchantment with the United States in the wake of the 1979 “Dual-Track” decision of NATO and the resulting deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe, USIS Bonn relaunched its information tool for teachers under the title American Studies Newsletter. Three issues per year were distributed. The very first focused on the tricentennial of German immigration to America. It contained articles on German-Americans, American education, and American Studies in German secondary education by noted American scholars like Fredrick C. Luebke and Diane Ravitch and by German scholars active in the German Association for American Studies such as Agnes Bretting, Erwin Helms, and Peter Funke. Over the years, the focus on Germany and German-American relations became less pronounced since the ASN began to attract readers throughout the world.

The editor remained anonymous at first, but identified himself in ASN 3 (May 1984) as Jürgen H. Bodenstein of the United States Information Service, American Embassy, Bonn. For the next decade, Dr. Bodenstein was the driving force behind the ASN, continually improving its quality and extending its circulation. From 1996, due to another round of USIS budget cuts and resulting organizational changes, only two issues per year could be published. And yet, with some 20,000 copies printed, the ASN still reached a readership of more than 26,000 educators in 40 countries.

With issue no. 38 (April 1996), the publication changed its name to American Studies Journal and was entrusted to the German Association for American Studies. At that time, I was its president and from summer 1997 (no. 40) acted as editor on behalf of the GAAS, working with a small editorial team at the Zentrum für USA-Studien. The ZUSAS had been founded on October 31, 1995 at the Leucorea Foundation in Lutherstadt Wittenberg to conduct research on American history, culture, politics, and society. Since the Center for United States Studies regularly offered continuing education seminars for secondary school teachers that focus on American Studies content in teaching English as a foreign language, the ASJ was seen as a welcome addition to its activities.

Hopes that the scholars organized in the GAAS would embrace the ASJ and would regularly contribute articles directed at a wider readership among secondary school teachers and students proved futile, however. Therefore, from summer 1999 (no. 43), the American Studies Journal became the exclusive responsibility of the Wittenberg Center. ZUSAS research associate Dr. John Kelly Robison was named editor and worked in that capacity until his return to the United States in 2002. In the editorial of the last issue under his auspices (no. 48, Winter 2001), Dr. Robison expressed hope “that the American Studies Journal will continue to be published without any interruption.” Unfortunately, that was not the case. The Wittenberg Center entered into troubled waters and when it was once again stabilized, the question arose as to whether it still made sense to spend the money needed to print some 12,000 paper copies and have only a small academic institution store and distribute them. This always was a major logistical feat and a challenge to the capacities—even when ZUSAS, in 2006, became a research center of Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.

The first issue under my editorship, back in 1996, was entitled “The Internet: How it Came About—How it Affects Society—How it Influences Education.” In the following years, the internet changed our lives profoundly and no longer needed be explained to teachers and students. It had become a major, if not the major source of information for most of us. Then why not turn the ASJ into an electronic publication? E-journals had already become an accepted format. In the field of American Studies, for instance, the European Journal of American Studies (EJAS) went online, in 2006, at http://ejas.revues.org/. The American Studies Journal followed suit a year later.

From issue no. 50 (Fall 2007) up to no. 57 (2012), an editorial team assumed responsibility. Its members were Prof. Dr. Hans-Jürgen Grabbe (Universität Halle-Wittenberg), Prof. Dr. Alfred Hornung (Universität Mainz), and Dr. Martina Kohl (Embassy of the United States of America, Berlin). Dipl.-Angl. Carsten Hummel (ZUSAS) was put in charge of website design and maintenance. In 2012, Alfred Hornung left the board of editors; the good standing of the ASJ owes much to his efforts. Also in 2012, the Leucorea Foundation which had contributed to the staffing and funding of the ASJ since 1996 decided to terminate its support by the end of the year.

The remaining editors, Martina Kohl and Hans-Jürgen Grabbe, decided to reach out to younger scholars and co-opt new editors who could take the ASJ farther into this century and would provide valuable expertise in American Studies, digital media, and project work in the English as a Foreign Language (EFL) classroom. Since Dr. Martina Kohl had just entered into a partnership with Prof. Dr. Torben Schmidt of Leuphana Universität Lüneburg that resulted in the Going Green bi-national project (www.goinggreen2014.org) where learner groups from both sides of the Atlantic participate and exchange ideas for sustainable development, it seemed logical to approach him. Prof. (apl.) Dr. Maria Moss, a colleague at Leuphana and an expert on 20th century and contemporary U.S. literature, Native American Studies, and Environmental Studies, also joined the team of editors. To make the ASJ website even more attractive, Martina Kohl suggested that the journal be supplemented by an American Studies Blog. Another important decision was to continue the ZUSAS Occasional Papers series under the auspices of the ASJ.

At an editorial meeting at the Leuphana University in May, 2015, Prof. Dr. Andrew S. Gross of the English Department at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen was invited to become a member of the editorial team. It was also decided that Hans-Jürgen Grabbe would act as General Editor and Martina Kohl as Deputy General Editor. Early in 2017, Torben Schmidt left the journal but continues as one of the AS Blog editors. From August 2017 to June 2019, Prof. Dr. Carmen Birkle served as one of the editors for literary and cultural studies. She stepped down as editor after becoming general editor of the journal Amerikastudien/American Studies. However, her ASJ affiliation continues as a member of our Board of Advisors. 

From issue 58, published in October 2014, the asjournal.org web presence consists of three elements: the American Studies Journal with its offerings of scholarly and methodological content, the ASJ Occasional Papers series as a web space for individual contributions of general interest, and the American Studies Blog with its topical observations and comments on present-day U.S. society and culture. Thanks to the skills of webmaster Carsten Hummel, our web presence comes in a fresh, hassle-free design.We hope that our American Studies bouquet appeals to experts and lay persons alike.