A Question of Character

Kennedy_35.6_tocquevilleDavid M. Kennedy reviews Claude Fischer's Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, in The Boston Review:

From that comparative perspective and in that relatively homogeneous cultural setting, a gifted group of scholars, including some eminent historians, seriously interrogated an idea first elaborated by Tocqueville in Democracy in America: not merely the American state, but American society as a whole, exhibits characteristics that define a distinctive national identity.

Gunnar Myrdal, in An American Dilemma (1944), found those defining characteristics in the “American Creed,” a cluster of values concerning equality, freedom, fairness, and individual dignity, which he posited as the birthright of even the most bigoted redneck, and therefore a reliable platform on which to build a claim for racial justice. Daniel Boorstin’s trilogy, The Americans (1958–1973), emphasized the workings of a resilient, adaptive, un-dogmatic practicality, a commonsensical, can-do spirit nurtured on the frontier but eventually pervading the entire society. Louis Hartz, in The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), offered a virtuoso dilation on Tocqueville’s great insight that “the Americans were born free, instead of becoming so.” The absence of a feudal phase in American historical development, Hartz said, arrested the familiar European historical dialectic and attenuated the range of political and ideational disagreement in America (just as many contemporary commentators have suggested that the absence of a historical experience equivalent to the Reformation or the Enlightenment has given modern Islamic cultures their own distinctive caste). H. Richard Niebuhr found the roots of America’s peculiarly vigorous and fissile religious behavior in the absence of an established church and in the traits bred among an egalitarian people spreading over a large territory. David Potter, the most intellectually rigorous and influential of these several authors, claimed in People of Plenty (1954) that an unusual degree of material abundance had shaped distinctively American institutions, behaviors, values, and habits, including advertising, mobility, consumerism, and even notably indulgent child-rearing practices. Henry Nash Smith, in Virgin Land (1950), found a set of myths about physical space and individual autonomy, however dubiously rooted in documentable historical reality, to be nevertheless-powerful influences on the society’s enduring belief structures. David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) introduced the term “other-directed” to define a peculiarly American personality type, formed by constant interaction with others in a society where ranks were indeterminate and people were therefore chronically anxious about status, identity, and self-worth. Seymour Martin Lipset described American society as a prototype for modernity itself in The First New Nation (1963), compared American and Canadian national identities in Continental Divide (1989), and summed up a lifetime of thinking about national character in American Exceptionalism (1996). Both Robert Bellah, in Habits of the Heart (1985), and more recently Robert Putnam, in Bowling Alone (2000), have argued that unbridled individualism—a term coined by Tocqueville to describe the historical novelty of the American mindset—had by the late twentieth century dangerously undermined civic engagement and possibly threatened the society’s integrity.

Unfortunately, historians have made no significant contributions to that body of work for nearly two generations (Bellah is a sociologist, Putnam a political scientist; Lipset, who died in 2006, was also a sociologist). Higham dated the termination of historians’ interest in national character to the 1960s and attributed it to two factors. One, he said, was “a profound revulsion, initially against the state”—the most obvious institutional representation of the nation—“for the inhumanities it perpetrated or protected at home and overseas. ” The second, and probably more dispositive, reason was a new historiography, largely European in its origins, dedicated to l’histoire totale and especially to the project of bringing onto history’s stage the stories of marginal or submerged peoples and communities, “rather than the uniqueness of any great community.”

That robust historiographical movement was further energized in the American case—where it was called “social history,” or “history from the bottom up”—by the striking emergence of black nationalist and separatist ideologies in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement’s legislative achievements, the dramatic rise of an articulate feminist movement, and the no-less dramatic resumption of immigration after the repeal of the National Origins statute in 1965. In light of these anti-authoritarian developments and quests for racial, ethnic, and gender identity, it became not merely unfashionable, but professionally suicidal, for historians to suggest that the encompassing character of a society was itself a fit subject for study…What unifying elements might have historically contained, connected, or shaped all that diversity were questions that went unasked.

Claude Fischer, however, dares to ask them, and, as if to challenge his historian colleagues to reenter the discussion of national character, his answers draw on impressively exhaustive reading in the large but disarticulated library of social history that has emerged in the last few decades (the endnotes and bibliography add up to nearly half the pages of Made in America). He concludes not simply that certain traits have persisted among Americans, but that certain processes have long been at work as well. He is principally interested in trends and developments and differences over time—all matters lying squarely within the historian’s province.