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In Search Of... America's National Character

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 3, 2011 06:30 AM

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Does America have a distinctive national character? Up until the 1960s, this was a question of great interest to historians. But then, according to historian David Kennedy, it dropped off the map, to be taken up only sporadically by sociologists and political scientists. Writing in the Boston Review, Kennedy argues that historians need to take the question back.

Alexis de Tocqueville.

Kennedy is a Professor of History, Emeritus at Stanford, and as he sees it historians are in a unique position to write on the subject of the American character. Over the last half century, they've put together an extraordinarily diverse set of very specific American histories, bringing once-marginalized groups into historical focus; in doing this, they stepped away from sweeping questions, becoming "a guild of splitters, not joiners." Now, Kennedy argues, it's time to start drawing on "the large but disarticulated library of social history that has emerged in the last few decades." We've learned just how diverse Americans are - now we can start to ask what they have in common.

Kennedy singles out for particular praise Claude Fischer's Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. Fischer is a sociologist at Berkeley, but a sociologist who takes a historical approach, focusing, Kennedy writes, on "processes ... trends and developments and differences over time - all matters lying squarely within the historian's province."

Fischer's conclusion (according to Kennedy) is that it's defined by voluntarism is at the core of the American character. Voluntarism has two aspects. On the one hand, it means thinking of yourself as an individual equipped with a (voluntary) will - as someone who's entitled to pursue your own happiness. On the other hand, it means recognizing that, in Fischer's words, "individuals succeed through fellowship - not in egoistic isolation but in sustaining, voluntary communities." It's because of these two aspects of voluntarism that we have an affinity for both the exclusive and the inclusive - for gated communities as well as religious diversity, for casual manners as well as social climbing. This can't be the final answer, of course - Kennedy hopes that it's only the first salvo in an epic exchange of fire among historians.

It would be nice to get a (modern) historical perspective on the question of national character, since so much of our politics now revolves around contradictory claims about who or what is 'really' American. And though it might seem presumptuous for any single historian to identify what de Tocqueville called the "habits of the heart," generalization can actually further discussion, as long as it's informed and responsible. Forget sociologists and political scientists - the real competition for historians is cable news.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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