D. Berton Emerson at the LARB:
If meanness is one reason it seems almost impossible to talk to each other across our current political divide, niceness is another. For the vulnerable and the threatened, being nice is not an option, for their lives are on the line. Yet too many Americans retreat behind the no-contest zone of niceness, and prefer not to even try. And this is why Bramen’s book is so important right now: American Niceness does a remarkable job of demonstrating not only the history of deeply entrenched norms of niceness but also the reasons they have lurked beneath our critical radar for so long. Bramen shows impressive range in her analysis, tracking the development of American niceness back to the earliest myths of settler colonialism on the New England shore and forward through the pre–Civil War decades all the way to foreign policy at the turn of the century. It’s an outstanding scholarly book: well researched, well written, and methodologically innovative. I also found it to be incredibly frustrating, because it so aptly demonstrates the embeddedness and pervasiveness of a quality that is both the greatest generator and the greatest inhibitor of positive change. Turns out, American niceness is a real motherfucker.