Is there an American character? Are there any generalizations that one can safely make about a nation of 300 million people, 40 million of whom were born elsewhere?
Claude S. Fischer believes the answer is yes. In Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, new from the University of Chicago Press, Fischer argues that a distinctive American culture that can be traced from the colonies to the present day. That culture, he writes, is marked by a peculiar combination of voluntarism, skepticism toward authority, and a propensity to form groups and associations.
“What seemed socially distinctive about America in the eighteenth century still seems distinctive in the twenty-first,” writes Fischer, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. “The major change has been the broadening and deepening of that distinctive culture and the incorporation into it of more Americans who had been – because of gender, race, age, servitude, poverty, and isolation – less than full participants.”
Throughout the book, Fischer warns against gauzy nostalgia. But it’s hard not to hold the book without feeling pangs of regret for the past. One reason is its cover photograph, a 1939 image of a parade in Butte, Montana.
The second reason is the book’s phenomenal scholarly apparatus, which feels like a remnant of a dying age of publishing.
Fischer’s text ends on page 246. But then there are 102 pages of endnotes, many of which include long digressions about topics in historical sociology, including television-viewing, agricultural wages, and suicide. You could give yourself a rich education in American culture by reading these pages alone. Then there is a bibliography, which runs for 106 pages, and an index, which runs for 53.
“Have Americans become more or less happy?” Fischer writes at one point, before explaining how fruitless most efforts to answer that question have been. For the record, we at PageView will be a little less happy when endnotes like Fischer’s migrate entirely online.—David Glenn