Old Image, New Portrait

Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, by Claude S. Fischer, University of Chicago Press, 511 pages, $35.00

A half-century ago, writing in the crucible of the early Cold War, American historians were convinced that something ran deep among U.S. citizens linking them to one another -- a national personality or fundamental essence that made Americans American. "By some alchemy," as Henry Steele Commager put it, "out of the blending of inheritance, environment, and experience, there came a distinctive American character." Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin suggested that its core was a deep-seated liberalism. David Potter argued that from the beginning, Americans were a "people of plenty," their history defined by material abundance. But whatever the particular interpretation, the "consensus historians," as they came to be known, viewed American character as distinct, coherent, and exceptional.

The very concept of national character went out of fashion in the 1960s when political and cultural events (not to mention challenges from New Left historians) made it harder to think of America in singular terms. There seemed to be too much conflict and diversity to locate a core. Social historians turned away from sweeping claims about all Americans in favor of detailed local studies of specific groups: slaves, pioneers, farmers, mill hands, shopkeepers, and immigrants. Suspicious of attempts to plot a unitary tradition, they disavowed not just previous definitions of American character but the notion of defining one at all.

This is partly what makes Claude S. Fischer's new history of American culture, Made in America, so intriguing. Fischer, a distinguished sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, places the concept of national character right in the center of his analysis -- indeed, in his title -- and proudly claims the mantle of Commager and others in the consensus tradition. Even his argument is reminiscent of Potter's: "Centuries of material and social expansion enabled more people to become more characteristically 'American,'" Fischer writes.

What makes Fischer's task more challenging, however, is that he must contend with the voluminous findings that social historians have produced over the last four decades, often in an effort to dismantle consensus history. Fortunately, he is a master of synthesis, sifting through hundreds of studies of local communities and the lives of ordinary men and women (his footnotes make up a book in themselves) to arrive at what he sees as the defining arcs of American culture from the colonial period to the present. Fischer himself calls this an "outrageously vast and absurdly ambitious goal." Writing a history like his has a built-in tension, requiring sensitivity to the experiences of disparate Americans but also comfort with broad generalizations.

Fischer filters a mass of material through five themes that span American history: security, goods, groups, public spaces, and "mentality." That he reaches insightful conclusions about each illustrates the value of the long cultural view. Fischer holds, for example, that on balance, Americans gained physical and economic security over the centuries as diets improved, disease and violence diminished, and the economy grew. The federal government fostered this stability, yet paradoxically, increased security "may have reinforced Americans' confidence and sense of independence" so much that they could rail against the state as if they owed nothing to it.

Turning to trends in spending, debt, advertising, and working hours, Fischer discounts those who believe that a culture of consumption brought about a profound psychological shift. Americans in the early 21st century, he contends, are no more materialistic or "consumerist" than their predecessors but simply the beneficiaries of democratized luxury.

Fischer also weighs in on the ongoing debate about the fate of community and associational life, disagreeing with Robert Putnam and others who have seen only decline in civic engagement in the second half of the 20th century. According to Fischer, despite greater claims on their time, Americans remained enthusiastic "joiners" and were perhaps more deeply invested in informal book clubs and mutual support circles than were previous generations in formal clubs and lodges. Fischer views Americans' attitudes toward "the public" as more fickle. He sketches a zigzagging path, whereby the isolation of early American life opened up to an embrace of public spaces, political activity, and free mixing with strangers in the 19th century -- -followed by Americans' more recent retreat into private and "parochial" spaces where the chance of interaction with unknown others was limited.

Finally, Fischer traces the long tradition of self-improvement, expounded by citizens from Ben Franklin to Rick Warren, which he claims made Americans "better equipped to cope" with and control their lives.

Not surprisingly, given the breadth of his account, Fischer barely pauses to entertain debates that have preoccupied scholars for decades -- over whether modern advertisers created or responded to consumers' desires, for example, or whether parents became more attached to their offspring as child mortality decreased. But in digesting and analyzing a vast literature, he brings to a wider audience several generations worth of hard-won discoveries about American social life. Throughout, Fischer vividly evokes the past. "In the nineteenth century, migrants crossed the Appalachians with a few worldly goods slung on their backs," he writes. In 2000, by contrast, "families moving across state lines with the Mayflower company crammed, on average, over three tons of possessions into eighteen-wheelers." Lively accounts of religious revivals are accompanied by statistics -- such as the estimate that the sum total of Boston's churches in 1867 could accommodate only a quarter of the city's residents -- that help make sense of the bigger picture. And fascinating details pepper the narrative: Free home postal service, he notes, resulted from mid-19th-century worries about women in public.

But Made in America is not simply an entertaining narrative history. It is also an argument, or rather a set of arguments, about character and culture. The first is that "modernity" entailed less wrenching and negative change than most today believe. In the realm of culture and society, continuity -- or the intensification of already apparent patterns -- was the rule. Fischer writes, for example, that his is "not one more account of how American character was corrupted by rising individualism, egoism or selfishness." Instead, Americans "remained by Western standards remarkably committed to family, church, community, job and nation." Second, like Potter, Fischer sees abundance as the engine of American history: not simply economic wealth, in his telling, but an ever-increasing stock of security, health, social opportunities, political freedoms, and self-mastery. Third and most significant, he declares a Tocquevillian "voluntarism" -- a highly socialized individualism that led Americans to join groups and build communities -- to be the substrate of national character, the key trait that binds Americans together.

The concept of voluntarism carries a lot of weight for Fischer. Better health and longer life spans allowed more Americans to gain "that control and sense of capacity that is part of voluntarism," he writes at one juncture. Similarly, "the multiplication of goods" extended "the culture of American voluntarism" because "more Americans could more fully participate as Americans" in buying and expressing themselves through material objects. Even American friendships were "distinctly voluntary." Although the concept is useful in charting developments such as the liberalization of the family and religious affiliation, Fischer strains at times to squeeze each of his themes under the voluntarist umbrella.

All these arguments, moreover, depend on the premise that the whole of American culture, even something as amorphous as its emotional climate, moved in the same direction. It's an assumption that enables Fischer to describe Americans as sharing a character type -- "insistently independent but still sociable, striving, and sentimental" -- and to ask whether they became "more or less happy," confident, rational, or anxious over time. But treating an entire population as being of one mind can obscure more than it reveals. It leads to a portrayal of a culture without serious conflict or even great diversity, a culture, in short, of consensus.

Is this an America most of us would recognize? Fischer, a scholar who in the past has written extensively about the divides of class and race, finesses those questions by focusing on "average Americans' lives," a focus that entails, he says, devoting "less attention to those whose experiences diverged from the average." Leaving aside the difficulty of locating the mainstream in the first place, what this means, as Fischer readily admits, is equating middle-class culture, an "emerging bourgeois way of life," or even the "social character" of "Northeastern Protestants" with American culture. This he does out of a belief that now, as in the past, "the American middle class lives and promulgates the distinctive and dominant character of the society."

Although there is much that is illuminating in this approach, Fischer is open to the same line of criticism as were the consensus historians of the post-World War II era who enshrined uniformity and harmony as the keynotes of American life. His contention that individual Americans became "more American" over time as they joined the "expanding circle" of the middle class flattens and simplifies cultural history. It asserts rather than demonstrates that the middle class is the leading edge of cultural change, skirts class as well as ethnic and racial conflict, and doesn't in a serious way allow for the collision and commingling of various parties in the formation and evolution of national culture.

Concerned as it is with the contours of American character as well as culture, it is hard to read Fischer's book as other than an argument for consensus history. If Made in America is a reminder of the perils of that tradition, it also brings to mind what is compelling about it: clear storylines with the power to shape what Commager might have called the national imagination. There is an audience for such work and thus an opportunity for it to enter into public conversation and understanding. It is on this score that Fischer's accessible book is most valuable, upending much conventional wisdom about American history, from the religiosity of the founding generation to the lack of community spirit in our own.