Modernist America is a history of American culture in the 20th and early 21st centuries. It focuses on literature, painting, architecture, advertising and design, classical music, jazz, Broadway musicals, movies, and movie stars.
Essentially, I argue that American artists and entertainers adopted elements of foreign cultures—especially European high culture in the 20th century—and transformed these elements into a popular culture that spread throughout the world.
Americans were particularly dependent on and influenced by the presence of European émigrés and refugees who fled to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. They had an enormous impact on American painting, architecture, music, and film.
But the global success of American culture always rested from the beginning on its cosmopolitan embrace of others’ values, ideals, and cultures.
In the end, New York and Hollywood replaced London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna as the center of Western culture. This was because of America’s ability to borrow and adapt other people’s cultures, a talent that made American culture both compelling and familiar for people all over the planet.
Along the way, I hope readers in the United States and abroad will come to appreciate why the music of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland was so dazzling, why Frank Lloyd Wright and Jackson Pollock were such innovative artists, why Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were such imaginative jazz musicians, why Marlon Brando was such an astonishing actor, and why Orson Welles’s cinematic genius was so influential in creating both a uniquely American and a modern global culture.
“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.”
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.
Chapter One, “Modernism in Europe and America,” outlines the book’s major arguments. It also focuses on the urban aspects of modernism, the cultural importance of cities like Vienna, Berlin, Paris, and New York. The chapter deals as well with the devastating carnage of World War I, and the ways that modernist artists and intellectuals—from Picasso to Hemingway—felt that they had to invent new ways of seeing, talking, and hearing to express the upheavals of the modern world.
Chapter Eleven, “The New Wave at Home,” explores the renaissance in American filmmaking from the late 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s. It is in this chapter that I trace the impact of French and Italian filmmaking on a new generation of American directors: Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Woody Allen, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Bob Fosse, Steven Spielberg. These were the years when American movies—from The Godfather to Annie Hall to Nashville to The Deer Hunter—captured the imagination of audiences throughout the world, and made American films the center of world cinema.
Chapter Twelve, “A Method They Couldn’t Refuse,” analyzes the emergence and techniques of a new generation of American actors who have dominated the theater and movies for the past 60 years: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson. The entire second half of the book deals with the history of Hollywood—as an immigrant industry, as a business, as global entertainment, and above all as the most important form of art in the 20th century. In sum, any reader who loves movies will find this book a treasure of analysis, stories, and interpretations, spanning from Citizen Kane and Casablanca to Bonnie and Clyde and Titanic.
“Trends in culture define a country and a world every bit as much as economic and military crises.”
The significance of Modernist America is in its scope, and its effort to tie together developments in all the arts and in most forms of entertainment.
Too often, modern American historians do not concentrate on cultural developments, nor do they approach their work from a comparative perspective. In a sense, they are too insular.
What I have tried to do is provide just such a comparative, global, point of view—and remind us all that trends in culture are as important as political and social events. Cultural developments define a country and a world every bit as much as economic and military crises.
So for any reader who cares about the arts, or who just loves to be entertained by a movie, Modernist America may well be the book for you.
Richard Pells is a Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of four books on American culture. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, as well as six Fulbright chairs and senior lectureships. Richard Pells has been a visiting professor in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin, Cologne, Bonn, Vienna, Finland, Sao Paulo, Sydney, and Indonesia. He is currently writing a book called War Babies about the past and present impact on American culture and politics of the generation of Americans born during World War II.