Since the late 18th century, when they first entered into an alliance during the American Revolution, the French and Americans have had a long and sometimes stormy relationship based on a complex mix of mutual admiration, cultural criticism, and sometimes downright disgust for the “other.” The relatively new interdisciplinary field of imagology, or image studies, allows us to place the dynamics of such a relationship into perspective by grounding its analysis firmly in the study of national stereotypes, in the process providing new insights into the mentality of the observer. For if anything, image studies demonstrate again and again that national character is not–as assumed uncritically for centuries–an innate essence of the “other”, but rather a self-serving functional construct of the observer.
This collection opens with an inquiry into the assumptions and methods of the historical study of culture, comparing the new cultural history with the old. Thirteen essays follow, each defining a problem within a particular culture. In the first section, Biography and Autobiography, three scholars explore historically changing types of self-conception, each reflecting larger cultural meanings; essays included examine Italian Renaissance biographers and the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Mohandas Gandhi. A second group of contributors explore problems raised by the writing of history itself, especially as it relates to a notion of culture. Here examples are drawn from the writings of Thucydides, Jacob Burckhardt, and the art historians Alois Riegl and Josef Strzygowski. In the third section, Politics, Nationalism, and Culture, the essays explore relationships between cultural creativity and national identity, with case studies focusing on the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, the place of Castile within the national history of Spain, and the impact of World War I on work of Thomas Mann. The final section, Cultural Translation, raises the complex questions of cultural influence and the transmission of traditions over time through studies of Philo of Alexandria's interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, Erasmus' use of Socrates, Jean Bodin's conception of Roman law, and adaptations of the Hebrew Bible for American children.