- Piecing Together National Character
“The concept of a national character has been shattered by the historical pluralism of the past two decades,” Robert M. Collins wrote in this journal in 1988. “Like Humpty Dumpty it is beyond saving.”1 Claude S. Fischer, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, has nevertheless rallied all the king’s horses and men to the task. Drawing on the rich body of work by social historians over the past several decades, he has produced a synthesis that aims to trace the development and to limn the features of American culture and character since the nation’s founding. Made in America perceives striking continuity between past and present and offers a useful way to think about the relationship between the individual and society in the United States. Still, Fischer’s approach will no doubt rankle many, both in its determination that one can speak with certainty about such a thing as national character and for the broad brushstrokes with which it paints several centuries of history.
For Fischer, the steady expansion of material well-being, social opportunities, and choices in all aspects of life constitutes the central force shaping American culture, while its distinguishing feature has been “its voluntarism.” Voluntarism is predicated on the belief in the “sovereign individual” as well as the conviction that individuals “succeed through fellowship.” In a voluntaristic society, individuals freely choose mutuality (pp. 10–11). “What is most notable about America,” Fischer writes, “is not radical individualism, the principle of going it alone, but voluntarism, the principle that individuals choose with whom they go” (p. 98). Life in early America was geared to voluntarism, a melding of “individualism, group-orientation, contract, and egalitarianism,” which then “spread and deepened” over time (pp. 100–101).
Fischer’s quest to comprehend an American character once routinely occupied scholars. For Frederick Jackson Turner, Americans were forged on the frontier, which fostered individualism and democracy. His seminal 1893 address might well have been titled “The Influence of the Frontier on American Character,” observed historian David Potter. More than Turner’s ill-defined [End Page 606] frontier or the availability of so-called “free land,” Potter argued in People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and American Character (1954), the entirety of the nation’s resources and a capacity to exploit them helped account for democracy and other American “habits of fluidity, of mobility, of change, of the expectation of progress.”2 Other mid-century scholars joined Potter in the effort to make explicit the source and content of a distinctive national character, spurred in part by the post–World War II perception of American stability in an otherwise volatile world. An escalating Cold War infused the American Studies movement with political import, further inspiring the study of American exceptionalism.3 Among historians, interest in the power of national myths and the origins of an inimitable national character produced such works as Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land (1950), Louis Hartz’ The Liberal Tradition in America (1954), and Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Americans (1958). In the same years, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William H. Whyte, Jr.’s, The Organization Man (1956) attended to the features of a distinctly modern American type wrought in a society of corporations and suburbs, economic prosperity, and mass media.
By the late 1960s, however, such efforts had grown both intellectually and politically suspect. Assertions about the United States’ special status among other nations now seemed part and parcel of a Cold War self-righteousness that propelled the U.S. into war in Vietnam. A further blow to the study of national character was dealt by an ascendant interest in the experiences of workers, women, immigrants, racial minorities, and other marginalized groups, which called for an interpretive framework emphasizing diversity and complexity over any search for a singular national experience.4 Shifting our attention once more from the parts to the whole, Made in America finds new ways to piece together a once seemingly fragmented past...