A call to return to studying the American character

A historian argues that we need more current research and writing about the American character:

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.

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.”..

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.

This is an interesting argument that might lead to some fruitful discussion. I feel that there is some discussion of this among academics: Americans of recent decades are often said to be marked by individualism, consumerism, materialism, and greed. And in order to understand something like voluntarism (or other traits), we would need to compare these behaviors and beliefs to those of other nations with similar or different historical trajectories.

Speaking of voluntarism, this has some basis in one of the key texts regarding the American character. Though it is now quite dated (over 160 years old), Democracy in America by Alexis de Toqueville is frequently cited in both popular and academic discourse. de Toqueville suggested one way Americans were distinct was their propensity to form voluntary associations. (I also wonder if this is one of those key academic works that many cite or reference but few have read all the way through.)

Kennedy also is suggesting that we need more overarching research on America and its social patterns. This is not necessarily easy: academics who engage in this sort of sweeping work could be open to criticism from many sides.

And it is also interesting to note that Kennedy singles out the work of a sociologist as the sort of work that he would like to see done regarding the American character.