THE U.S. CULTURE
American culture is rich, complex, and unique. It emerged from the short and rapid European conquest of an enormous landmass sparsely settled by diverse indigenous peoples. Although European cultural patterns predominated, especially in language, the arts, and political institutions, peoples from Africa, Asia, and North America also contributed to American culture. All of these groups influenced popular tastes in music, dress, entertainment, and cuisine. As a result, American culture possesses an unusual mixture of patterns and forms forged from among its diverse peoples. The many melodies of American culture have not always been harmonious, but its complexity has created a society that struggles to achieve tolerance and produces a uniquely casual personal style that identifies Americans everywhere. The country is strongly committed to democracy, in which views of the majority prevail, and strives for equality in law and institutions.
Characteristics such as democracy and equality flourished in the American environment long before taking firm root in European societies, where the ideals originated. As early as the 1780s, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crиvecoeur, a French writer living in Pennsylvania who wrote under the pseudonym J. Hector St. John, was impressed by the democratic nature of early American society. It was not until the 19th century that these tendencies in America were most fully expressed. When French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville, an acute social observer, traveled through the United States in the 1830s, he provided an unusually penetrating portrait of the nature of democracy in America and its cultural consequences. He commented that in all areas of culture—family life, law, arts, philosophy, and dress—Americans were inclined to emphasize the ordinary and easily accessible, rather than the unique and complex. His insight is as relevant today as it was when de Tocqueville visited the United States. As a result, American culture is more often defined by its popular and democratically inclusive features, such as blockbuster movies, television comedies, sports stars, and fast food, than by its more cultivated aspects as performed in theaters, published in books, or viewed in museums and galleries. Even the fine arts in modern America often partake of the energy and forms of popular culture, and modern arts are often a product of the fusion of fine and popular arts.
While America is probably most well known for its popular arts, Americans partake in an enormous range of cultural activities. Besides being avid readers of a great variety of books and magazines catering to differing tastes and interests, Americans also attend museums, operas, and ballets in large numbers. They listen to country and classical music, jazz and folk music, as well as classic rock-and-roll and new wave. Americans attend and participate in basketball, football, baseball, and soccer games. They enjoy food from a wide range of foreign cuisines, such as Chinese, Thai, Greek, French, Indian, Mexican, Italian, Ethiopian, and Cuban. They have also developed their own regional foods, such as California cuisine and Southwestern, Creole, and Southern cooking. Still evolving and drawing upon its ever more diverse population, American culture has come to symbolize what is most up-to-date and modern. American culture has also become increasingly international and is imported by countries around the world.
FORCES THAT SHAPED AMERICAN CULTURE
Today American culture often sets the pace in modern style. For much of its early history, however, the United States was considered culturally provincial and its arts second-rate, especially in painting and literature, where European artists defined quality and form. American artists often took their cues from European literary salons and art schools, and cultured Americans traveled to Europe to become educated. In the late 18th century, some American artists produced high-quality art, such as the paintings of John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Charles Stuart and the silver work of Paul Revere. However, wealthy Americans who collected art in the 19th century still bought works by European masters and acquired European decorative arts—porcelain, silver, and antique furniture—. They then ventured further afield seeking more exotic decor, especially items from China and Japan. By acquiring foreign works, wealthy Americans were able to obtain the status inherent in a long historical tradition, which the United States lacked. Americans such as Isabella Stewart Gardner and Henry Clay Frick amassed extensive personal collections, which overwhelmingly emphasized non-American arts.
In literature, some 19th-century American writers believed that only the refined manners and perceptions associated with the European upper classes could produce truly great literary themes. These writers, notably Henry James and Edith Wharton, often set their novels in the crosswinds of European and American cultural contact. Britain especially served as the touchstone for culture and quality because of its role in America's history and the links of language and political institutions. Throughout the 19th century, Americans read and imitated British poetry and novels, such as those written by Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.
The Emergence of an American Voice
American culture first developed a unique American voice during the 19th century. This voice included a cultural identity that was strongly connected to nature and to a divine mission. The new American voice had liberating effects on how the culture was perceived, by Americans and by others. Writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau proposed that the American character was deeply individualistic and connected to natural and spiritual sources rather than to the conventions of social life. Many of the 19th century’s most notable figures of American literature—Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Mark Twain—also influenced this tradition. The poetry of Walt Whitman, perhaps above all, spoke in a distinctly American voice about people’s relation to one another, and described American freedom, diversity, and equality with fervor.
Landscape painting in the United States during the 19th century vividly captured the unique American cultural identity with its emphasis on the natural environment. This was evident in the huge canvases set in the West by Albert Bierstadt and the more intimate paintings of Thomas Cole. These paintings, which were part of the Hudson River School, were often enveloped in a radiant light suggesting a special connection to spiritual sources. But very little of this American culture moved beyond the United States to influence art trends elsewhere. American popular culture, including craft traditions such as quilting or local folk music forged by Appalachian farmers or former African slaves, remained largely local.
This sense of the special importance of nature for American identity led Americans in the late 19th century to become increasingly concerned that urban life and industrial products were overwhelming the natural environment. Their concern led for calls to preserve areas that had not been developed. Naturalists such as John Muir were pivotal in establishing the first national parks and preserving scenic areas of the American West. By the early 20th century, many Americans supported the drive to preserve wilderness and the desire to make the great outdoors available to everyone.
Immigration and Diversity
By the early 20th century, as the United States became an international power, its cultural self-identity became more complex. The United States was becoming more diverse as immigrants streamed into the country, settling especially in America’s growing urban areas. At this time, America's social diversity began to find significant expression in the arts and culture. American writers of German, Irish, Jewish, and Scandinavian ancestry began to find an audience, although some of the cultural elite resisted the works, considering them crude and unrefined.
Many of these writers focused on 20th-century city life and themes, such as poverty, efforts to assimilate into the United States, and family life in the new country. These ethnically diverse writers included Theodore Dreiser, of German ancestry; Henry Roth, a Jewish writer; and Eugene O'Neill and James Farrell, of Irish background. European influence now meant something very different than it once had: Artists changed the core of American experience by incorporating their various immigrant origins into its cultural vision. During the 1920s and 1930s, a host of African American poets and novelists added their voices to this new American vision. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen, among others, gathered in New York City’s Harlem district. They began to write about their unique experiences, creating a movement called the Harlem Renaissance.
Visual artists of the early 20th century also began incorporating the many new sights and colors of the multiethnic America visible in these new city settings. Painters associated with a group known as The Eight (also called the Ashcan school), such as Robert Henri and John Sloan, portrayed the picturesque sights of the city. Later painters and photographers focused on the city’s squalid and seamier aspects. Although nature remained a significant dimension of American cultural self-expression, as the paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe demonstrated, it was no longer at the heart of American culture. By the 1920s and 1930s few artists or writers considered nature the singular basis of American cultural identity.
In popular music too, the songs of many nations became American songs. Tin Pan Alley (Union Square in New York City, the center of music publishing at the turn of the 20th century) was full of immigrant talents who helped define American music, especially in the form of the Broadway musical. Some songwriters, such as Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan, used their music to help define American patriotic songs and holiday traditions. During the 1920s musical forms such as the blues and jazz began to dominate the rhythms of American popular music. These forms had their roots in Africa as adapted in the American South and then in cities such as New Orleans, Louisiana; Kansas City, Missouri; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Black artists and musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie became the instruments of a classic American sound. White composers such as George Gershwin and performers such as Bix Beiderbecke also incorporated jazz rhythms into their music, while instrumentalists such as Benny Goodman adopted jazz’s improvisational style to forge a racially blended American form called swing music.
Development of Mass Media
In the late 19th century, Americans who enjoyed the arts usually lived in big cities or had the money to attend live performances. People who were poor or distant from cultural centers settled for second-rate productions mounted by local theater troupes or touring groups. New technologies, such as the motion-picture camera and the phonograph, revolutionized the arts by making them available to the masses. The movies, the phonograph, and, somewhat later, the radio made entertainment available daily and allowed Americans to experience elaborately produced dramas and all types of music.
While mass media made entertainment available to more people, it also began to homogenize tastes, styles, and points of view among different groups in the United States. Class and ethnic distinctions in American culture began to fade as mass media transmitted movies and music to people throughout the United States. Some people criticized the growing uniformity of mass culture for lowering the general standard of taste, since mass media sought to please the largest number of people by appealing to simpler rather than more complex tastes. However, culture became more democratic as modern technology and mass media allowed it to reach more people.
During the 20th century, mass entertainment extended the reach of American culture, reversing the direction of influence as Europe and the world became consumers of American popular culture. America became the dominant cultural source for entertainment and popular fashion, from the jeans and T-shirts young people wear to the music groups and rock stars they listen to and the movies they see. People all over the world view American television programs, often years after the program’s popularity has declined in the United States. American television has become such an international fixture that American news broadcasts help define what people in other countries know about current events and politics. American entertainment is probably one of the strongest means by which American culture influences the world, although some countries, such as France, resist this influence because they see it as a threat to their unique national culture.
The Impact of Consumerism
Popular culture is linked to the growth of consumerism, the repeated acquisition of an increasing variety of goods and services. The American lifestyle is often associated with clothing, houses, electronic gadgets, and other products, as well as with leisure time. As advertising stimulates the desire for updated or improved products, people increasingly equate their well-being with owning certain things and acquiring the latest model. Television and other mass media broadcast a portrayal of a privileged American lifestyle that many Americans hope to imitate.
Americans often seek self-fulfillment and status through gaining material items. Indeed, products consumed and owned, rather than professional accomplishments or personal ideals, are often the standard of success in American society. The media exemplify this success with the most glamorous models of consumption: Hollywood actors, sports figures, or music celebrities. This dependence on products and on constant consumption defines modern consumer society everywhere. Americans have set the pace for this consumer ideal, especially young people, who have helped fuel this consumer culture in the United States and the world. Like the mass media with which it is so closely linked, consumption has been extensively criticized. Portrayed as a dizzy cycle of induced desire, consumerism seems to erode older values of personal taste and economy. Despite this, the mass production of goods has also allowed more people to live more comfortably and made it possible for anyone to attain a sense of style, blurring the most obvious forms of class distinction.
WAYS OF LIFE
A fundamental element in the life of the American people was the enormous expanse of land available. During the colonial period, the access to open land helped scatter settlements. One effect was to make it difficult to enforce traditional European social conventions, such as primogeniture, in which the eldest son inherited the parents’ estate. Because the United States had so much land, sons became less dependent on inheriting the family estate. Religious institutions were also affected, as the widely spread settlements created space for newer religious sects and revivalist practices.
In the 19th century, Americans used their land to grow crops, which helped create the dynamic agricultural economy that defined American society. Many Americans were lured westward to obtain more land. Immigrants sought land to settle, cattle ranchers wanted land for their herds, Southerners looked to expand their slave economy into Western lands, and railroad companies acquired huge tracts of land as they bound a loose society into a coherent economic union. Although Native Americans had inhabited most of the continent, Europeans and American settlers often viewed it as empty, virgin land that they were destined to occupy. Even before the late 19th century, when the last bloody battles between U.S. troops and Native Americans completed the white conquest of the West, the idea of possessing land was deeply etched into American cultural patterns and national consciousness.
Throughout the 19th century, agricultural settlements existed on large, separate plots of land, often occupying hundreds of acres. The Homestead Act of 1862 promised up to 65 hectares (160 acres) of free land to anyone with enough fortitude and vision to live on or cultivate the land. As a result, many settlements in the West contained vast areas of sparsely settled land, where neighbors lived great distances from one another. The desire for residential privacy has remained a significant feature of American culture.
This heritage continues to define patterns of life in the United States. More than any other Western society, Americans are committed to living in private dwellings set apart from neighbors. Despite the rapid urbanization that began in the late 19th century, Americans insisted that each nuclear family (parents and their children) be privately housed and that as many families as possible own their own homes. This strong cultural standard sometimes seemed unusual to new immigrants who were used to the more crowded living conditions of Europe, but they quickly adopted this aspect of American culture.
As cities became more densely populated, Americans moved to the suburbs. Streetcars, first used during the 1830s, opened suburban rings around city centers, where congestion was greatest. Banks offered long-term loans that allowed individuals to invest in a home. Above all, the automobile in the 1920s was instrumental in furthering the move to the suburbs.