Claude S. Fischer

 

On his book Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character

Cover Interview of April 26, 2010

The wide angle

In many of the fiercest debates of our day—for example, about religion, government, family policy, health, even about personal relationships—people draw on vague notions of how things “used to be.”

But we can draw on more than vague notions. In recent decades historians have conducted intensive research on how average Americans in earlier times lived—on how they worked, raised their families, furnished their homes, dealt with illness, found friendship, coped psychologically, and so forth.  This is the stuff of social history.

I find such detailed studies fascinating. They tell, for example, of efforts by itinerant ministers in the 1800s to set up the first churches in rural areas; of women confronting the loss of their babies; and of young up-and-coming men joining clubs as a route to middle-class success.

And I found that these studies, when collected together, speak to the debates of our day.  For example, we like to think that neighbors helping neighbors was all that Americans once needed to deal with misfortune in their communities.  Alas, that was more the exception than the rule in early America.  Our expectations, our practical means, and even our emotional capacities for humane assistance to the needy grew over the last two centuries.

Made in America brings the studies of America’s past together into a series of story lines and one broad interpretation.

Among the specific story lines are these:

High rates of death and illness, of economic misfortune, and of interpersonal violence in earlier days gave way slowly to greater security—a security that enabled Americans to plan ahead and take command of their fates.  This progress has been uneven and is threatened today, but over the long run, this has been the foundation of changes in American culture and character.

At the nation’s founding, relatively few Americans were truly the independent yeoman of American mythology.  Most people were dependents of the household head and also subject to local elites.  Over the centuries, more Americans participated in more social relationships of more kinds, including churches, clubs, work teams, and independent friendships.  People—most notably, women—formed new bonds and gained more independence, thereby changing the nature of American community and character.

As Americans became materially and socially richer, more of them self-consciously worked on improving their characters and on cultivating the “proper” feelings.  Although modern Americans are no smarter than their ancestors, they own a set of mental tools to operate in the world, tools that give them greater command of their lives and themselves.  Americans learned to restrain their disruptive emotions and cultivate their socially useful ones like sympathy and sentimentality.

What runs through these seemingly disparate themes is one argument—that the availability and expansion of material security and comfort enabled the expansion and solidification of a distinctive American culture.  That culture rests on the notion of community voluntarism: each individual is free to join or leave communities, such as congregations, but while a member of such groups, the individual is bound to be loyal. (“Love it or leave it.”) 

Over time, more people—women, youth, ex-servants and -slaves, the rural, the poor, the immigrant—could participate more fully in that culture and in such ways become “more American.”