Robert Pells


On his book Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture

Cover Interview of May 30, 2011

The wide angle

This is my fourth, and by far my broadest, examination of modern American culture.

My first two books focused almost exclusively on American culture.  The first, Radical Visions and American Dreams, dealt with the Great Depression of the 1930s; the second, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age, with the Cold War years after World War II.

But I became increasingly interested in the international dimensions of American culture—the ways that America shaped and was influenced by other people’s cultures throughout the 20th century.  Much of this new interest was stimulated by my personal experiences living and teaching throughout Western and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Turkey, Brazil, Australia, and Indonesia.

Thus my third book, Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II, was my first foray into this more global setting.

Now, in Modernist America, I want to show not only how Americans influence foreign cultures, but how we are affected by other cultures.

The relationship between America and the rest of the world is not one-sided, but reciprocal.  The United States was and continues to be as much a consumer of foreign intellectual and artistic influences as it has been a shaper of the world’s entertainment and tastes.

As a result, I needed at times to write as much about cultural developments abroad as at home.  I describe the movements and ideas of the European Cubists and Surrealists, the modernist music of Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg, the effects of African as well as Latin American and Caribbean music on American jazz, the importance of German Expressionist cinema in the 1920s, the impact of the French New Wave directors like François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard on films of the 1960s, and the ideas of the Russian theater director Constantin Stanislavski in helping to create a new form of American acting both on stage and screen after World War II.  Towards the end of the book, I also concentrate on influences (especially in film) from Japan, Hong Kong, and India.

In short, Modernist America is comparative and global in scope.  My guiding premise throughout is that you cannot understand American culture without appreciating its close ties with cultures from Europe, Africa, Latin America, and Asia.