Temptations of the Cultural Historian

O Strange New World American Culture: The Formative Years

by Howard Mumford Jones
Viking, 464 pp., $8.50

Professor Howard Mumford Jones could probably best be described as a cultural historian. That, at any rate, is how he is described on the dust jacket of his recent book, O Strange New World. The chief interest of this book may well lie in certain questions it raises implicitly, and leaves unresolved, about the nature of cultural history itself. I know of no attempt to make a neat and succinct formulation of its problems and goals comparable to the late A. O. Lovejoy’s essay on “The Historiography of Ideas.” No doubt the reason is that the general term cultural history is too broad, and admits of too many approaches, to tolerate a definition or even a description that would be adequately or usefully delimiting. Nevertheless, cultural history demands, even more than political, military, or economic history, a rigorously defined perspective, a firmly held criterion of relevance, and a keenly developed sensibility that has been trained in literature and the arts. Cultural history more than any other kind exercises the creative faculty and makes the heaviest demands on critical discrimination. Scholarship and breadth of erudition are by no means secondary, but they are pointless without these other qualities that can put them effectively to work.

Jacob Burckhardt’s History of Greek Culture, recently translated into English for the first time, is a masterpiece of cultural history because Burckhardt possessed all these qualities in a superb degree, and was thus able to move from aesthetic criticism to political, social, and religious analysis with wonderful assurance and tact. The result is that he defines the quality of mind and evokes the very spirit of the Greek city state with conviction and vividness. Alexandre Beljame’s Men of Letters and the English Public in the Eighteenth Century, which undertook to show how English writers in the period earned their living, may not contain literary criticism of the first order, but Beljame possessed abundantly that quality of relevance mentioned above, which permitted him to coordinate social and economic factors with English literature and the theater, thus giving us a picture of Literary London between Dryden and Pope that is still useful and delightful after more than eighty years. Even a limited and often inept cultural historian like Vernon Louis Parrington was so dominated by his rather charming faith in the Jeffersonian surmise in the American soul that his intellectual passion gives imaginative unity to his work, and sheds a sweet and innocent light by which to recognize the critical distortions of American literature he never dreamed he was making.

O Strange New World appears to be almost disastrously lacking in all these qualities. In the concluding paragraph of his book, Professor Jones asks: “Who was this new man, this American? We do not yet know. But finding an answer to Crèvecoeur’s famous query dominates our cultural history for decades.” This, I suppose, is the question on which the ten chapters composing the body of this book converge, and the chapters are to be taken as separate but…

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