July 4, 2011


Exceptionally American: A review of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, by Claude S. Fischer (Wilfred M. McClay, Winter/Spring 2010/11, Claremont Review of Books)

Fischer makes the astonishing but entirely plausible argument that there is an essential continuity between the American national character of two centuries ago—let us say, of Tocqueville's day—and that of America today. And the way he goes about sustaining the claim is even more astonishing. Rather than simply ignoring the vast accumulation of specialized work in American social history as a hopeless muddle, a pudding without a theme, a pile of rocks in search of a cathedral, Fischer has plunged into it all with admirable energy, seeking to discover the congruencies and thematic resonances that the individual scholars themselves have been unable, and sometimes unwilling, to tease out.

Fischer has, one might say, undertaken to do the work that American historians have declined to do. Perhaps best known for his work on the social history of the telephone (America Calling, 1992), he has until now not been particularly well-known among American historians, who have in any event found other social sciences, such as anthropology, of greater interest in recent years. But they will have to contend with him now. The sheer volume of Fischer's reading, indicated by the book's more than 200 pages of Notes and Bibliography, is staggering, as is the discernment with which he sifts through the various works from which he draws material. But most admirable of all is the book's sharp clarity of organization and the jargon-free unpretentiousness with which the author puts forward his findings. Out of the massive volume of recent American social-history scholarship, Fischer finds clear, consistent themes emerging, pointing toward a clear and reasonably consistent "American character" that has endured over centuries, and has even, he argues, made Americans "more American" over the years. His is a story of a nation that has been steadily becoming more fully what it was from the beginning.

In the process, Fischer dispels a number of myths and misconceptions about American social history. Americans are not becoming more mobile; on the contrary, the trend has been moving in the opposite direction. Americans are not becoming less religious; on the contrary, religious affiliation stands at higher levels than in most past periods of American history. Nor are Americans becoming more violent, or more alienated from their work, or less concerned about the needy. The contrary proposition is true in each case.

But far more important than these debunkings are the striking continuities over the centuries that Fischer finds in the American national character. Needless to say, these continuities won't be startling to anyone acquainted with the pre-1960s scholarship; but even so, he makes them freshly plausible by grounding them in the newer scholarship. To begin with, he finds Americans from the beginning to have been largely a "people of plenty," in David Potter's famous term, which means that the "consumerism" so lamented in the present day is nothing new. Steady improvements in material security and economic prosperity have always been eagerly and confidently expected by Americans, serving to underwrite the expansion of a distinctive middle-class American culture, which has become over time more and more inclusive.

He also finds America to have been, from the start, a highly voluntaristic society—a better word than individualistic—meaning that Americans' relationships, organizational affiliations, and living circumstances were, to a great and steadily increasing extent, a product of their own choices rather than of necessity or external compulsion. Americans have always had an extraordinarily powerful belief in the possibilities of self-improvement or self-culture, and an unwillingness to accept the hand they were dealt in life as the hand they would be constrained to play. Similarly, they have tended to regard participation in public life as optional, and tended (with some exceptions) to favor cultivation of the private sphere of life.

Fischer is of course fully aware of the multitudinous prohibitions against speaking of "national character," but he brushes them aside. "While many scholars emphasize the survival of ethnic diversity into the twenty-first century," he acknowledges, "what is sociologically striking is the extent to which the American mainstream has overflowed and washed away that diversity, leaving behind little but food variety and self-conscious celebrations of multiculturalism." The concept of a distinctive national character "does make sense," he states, with the impatience of one who knows he is stating the obvious. Even though early America, like most societies, was "complex, pluralistic, and often conflicting," it is nevertheless clear that "out of this variety emerged a dominant social character" which "spread and gained power over time."

Fischer is even entirely comfortable using the "e" word—exceptionalism—to describe American culture, although he prefers to confine the word's meaning to "uniqueness" rather than superiority. Nevertheless, he asserts confidently that "there is an American cultural center; its assimilative pull is powerful; and it is distinctive—or ‘exceptional'. The historical record speaks." Lest the significance of this be lost, let me underscore it: he is saying that American culture is exceptional, and not merely (as President Obama tried to finesse the point) that we believe it to be. And that historical record, as Fischer hears it, speaks far more of a vast, enduring continuity in the American character than of change and fragmentation.

...is that the poor boobs were stuck making it even as we were overflowing and washing away the diversity of the world beyond our borders, from Eastern Europe to Asia to Africa to the Islamic World.

Posted by at July 4, 2011 9:42 AM

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