As a people, Americans have been absorbed in “making it,” in their own success story, in the making of Americans. To be an American is itself a career, as so many Americans, old stock as well as new, have testified. We are a legend to ourselves, and though the rest of the world has believed in this legend and has contributed to it, only we have lived it with the absorption that makes it necessary for us constantly to note our progress.
By now there must be a book for every day of American history—and the universities and the mass media are joined in incessantly producing still more documentation of “just what makes us tick” and “our American heritage.” Nothing “American” is alien to our incessant cultural analysts, many of them of recent immigrant stock and endlessly fascinated by the wealth of material to which they feel happily related by their newfound status. This material—often perilously thin—they comb over and over for ideas, perspectives, approaches, that are usually based on facts that genuine historians have dug up for them. Everything in American experience is worthy of study, and every “approach” in this “area” is “unexpected,” “provocative,” “noteworthy.” There is no one to contradict us when the “area of interest” is, simply, our interest in ourselves. Who is to deny us Custer’s Last Stand, the Greek Revival, Concord families, slavery in the cities, Long Island painting, Scott Fitzgerald’s college stories, W.P.A. art, Italians in California, old Charleston literati, pro-Franco sentiment in New England, William Jennings Bryan’s voice, pro-British Loyalists during the Revolutionary War, the agrarian radicalism of Mary Ellen Lease? Who is to say that there is not “something to be learned” from the myth of America as a garden, the pastoral image, the American Adam, Warren Harding’s sex life, Abraham Lincoln’s trouble with his wife, Freud’s theory of the instincts, Geoffrey Gorer’s theory of the American character, David Riesman’s inner-outer character formula? Whom and what dare we reject for our intellectual enlightenment when the object of these studies, called “American civilization,” is really our society as ourselves, our lives, our wish to get hold of every possible problem and do something about it now? Anything goes in this collective autoanalysis, and everything goes into it—any borrowing from sociology and esthetics, and enforced joining of the unjoinable; any political nostalgia or irritable political reflex. There are no intellectual checks on the production of “American studies,” for there can be no genuine demonstrations of causation; the “field” is never social history, economic history, literary history, intellectual history, but the number of relationships that we can make between facts that we have not discovered for ourselves and which therefore are used as symbols.
“America” itself is always the greatest, the inexhaustible, symbol. After all, we are Americans engaged in the adventure of making ourselves Americans or understanding what unmade the Americans we used to be; we have fulfilled desires …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.