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"Forever Young"? The Changing Images of America

"The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years." – Oscar Wilde

Among the first explorers of America, many avowedly went looking for the fountain of youth. Whether or not this was the goal of all, America always represented the idea of a fresh start in pre-colonial and colonial days, and the history of American immigration up to our times testifies to the power of this image. But the image of America entertained by the population of the United States on the one hand and by non-Americans on the other has also been in a state of constant vacillation. Conflicting images and conceptions have in turn taken hold of imaginations, structured political arguments and determined reactions to positions or attitudes adopted by the United States. From an object of desire and yearning to one of diffidence, fear or hostility, from being seen as a benevolent power to being rejected for its unilateralism, the United States has in turn behaved and/or been perceived as liberator, oppressor, a haven or an evil empire, generous or selfish, conservative or constantly innovative. Does it still make sense to think of the United States as the 'forever young' country of the new, in Seymour Martin Lipset's terms, 'the First New Nation'? How does one account for the varying perceptions of America, temporally and spatially or culturally. How does literature affect the image of America? How do the arts? How does history? How does the desire to establish an American tradition, a permanent hunger for 'the new thing' and the recent recourse to permanent reinterpretation cohabitate? Is it because America is or no longer feels or looks 'young' that disaffection has set in? Or is the loss of "that lovin' feelin'" a temporary moment in the evolution of America's image? Are the various images of America, within and without, a hindrance to its actual evolution? This conference invites an examination, from all angles and in all periods, of the way images of America (based on reality, prejudice or fancy) impact its self-perception and its perception abroad.


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