The following essay is taken from Dean Curry’s book, An American Grab Bag (1987) published by English Teaching Division Affairs, United States Information Agency, Washington D.C., pp. 88-98. Although many changes have taken place since the publication of this essay, the underlying factors that make up the American character are still true for the population in general.
When visitors from abroad undertake to describe the American character, the results are frequently puzzling to Americans.
“All Americans are Puritans; that’s what’s wrong with them, “says one.
“They’re always thinking about enjoying themselves, “says another.
“They spend too much time at work, “a distinguished visitor tells us. “ They don’t know how to play. “
“Americans don’t know what work is, “retorts another. Their machines do it all.”
“American women are shameless sirens.” –” No, they’re prudes. “
“The children here are wonderful–outgoing and natural. “ –”Natural as little beasts. They have no manners, no respect for their elders.”
There is, of course, no single pattern of American character any more than there is a single English or Turkish or Chinese character. Personality in America is further complicated by our diverse racial and cultural origins, by successive waves of immigration from all part of the world, by our regional diversified by the generation to which the person belongs–first generation immigrant, second generation child of immigrants, and on down the line.
The temptation is strong to lump all Americans together. Yet those who look a little deeper are puzzled by the seeming contradictions in American life. It is true that Americans as a whole work hard. But they also play hard. They spend more time and money in traveling, camping, hunting, watching television and reading newspapers and magazines than other people in the world. Yet they also spend more money on churches, social services, hospitals and all kinds of charities. They are always in a hurry, yet they spend more time relaxing. They are at the same time sensitive to the rights of the individuals and habitual conformists. They worship bigness yet idealize the little man whether he be the small businessman as opposite to the big one or the plain citizens as opposite to the big wheel.
Success as a Goal
One thing almost everyone is agreed on, including Americans, is that they place a very high valuation upon success. Success does not necessarily mean material rewards, but recognition of some sorts—preferably measurable. If the boy turns out to be a preacher instead of a businessman, that’s all right. But the bigger his church and congregation, the more successful he is judged to be.
A good many things contributed to this accent on success. There was the Puritan belief in the virtue of work; both for its own sake and because of the rewards it brought were regarded as signs of God’s love. There was the richness of opportunity in a land waiting to be settled. There was the lack of a settled society with fixed ranks and classes, so that a man was certain to rise through achievement.
There was the determination of the immigrant to gain in the new world what had been denied to him in the old, and on the part of his children an urge to draw off the immigrant onus by still more success and still more rise in a fluid, classless society. Brothers did not compete within the family for the favor of the parents as in Europe, but strove for success in outer world, along paths of their own choosing.
The English anthropologist, Geoffrey Gorer, sees the whole situation in Freudian terms. Europe is the father rejected by every immigrant who turned his back on his own culture in order to make a new life in America. The immigrant’s struggle for success never ends, because there is no limit to the possible goal. The second-generation child, in turn, rejects the alien parents because they cannot measure up to American standards. The only way he can soften the blow is to achieve a still greater success. All over America the lawyers, doctors, professors, and politicians with Italian, Irish, German or Polish names testify to the urgency of this drive.
Not to strive, not to take advantage of the opportunities in such a world, not to succeed where success was so available—these things naturally became a sort of crime against the state. To develop the resources of a new country required energetic people, bent upon using their energies—not only for the rewards that would result to themselves, but even more important, to the community. So material success in the U.S. is not looked upon as selfish. It results are seen to have communal value.
Ford, Carnegie, Rockefeller built great fortunes for themselves. But they also built an economy which has brought a great deal of material well being, higher health standard and better educational opportunities to millions of Americans. This is how it looks to us, anyway, from inside.
A society, which values competition so highly, is inevitably and aggressive one, even though the laws carefully limit the forms aggression may take. It has toughness about it, which is good for the muscle tone of the economy but hard on some individuals. In our pioneering days this aggressiveness was essential to survival. Now it can be a menace to society. The factory worker who reaches a dead end and sees himself stuck in the same job year after year may take out his aggressive feelings in a raise hatred or fighting management, or he may even turn it against himself by way of alcoholism, proneness to accident, or neurotic behavior.
Since a high regard is felt for success the rewards are high. Money is rarely cherished for itself in America; it rather a symbol and a tool. As a man’s status rises the demand upon him also increases. He is expected to give library to the hundreds of voluntary associations, which nourish and minister to the committee. Look at the Who’s Who entry for any prominent businessman, and you are likely to find him involved in an amazing number of committees and associations organized for the public good.
This striving for success and prestige, according to psychologists, is a way of overcoming fears and a sense of inner emptiness. In a mobile society an energetic person can hardly help matching himself against others and seeing how far he can go.
Such a system is fine for those who have it in them to succeed. It is not so good for the mediocre. The fear of failure, the fear of competitors, the loss of self- esteem—these arouse tensions that some people cannot handle. In their turn they produce an excessive craving for love. So love and success are linked. Gorer believes that most Americans by the time they are adolescents have confused to ideas: to be successful is to be loved, and to be loved is to be successful. Mothers help to impose the pattern by showing affection and admiration when their children do well at school and by withholding affection when they fail.
Since there are no limits of class, inherited occupation or education to hold a child back, there are, in theory, no limits to what he can achieve. Consequently there is no point at which he can say: “There, I’ve done it. From now on all I have to do is to hold on.” Since any boy can, in theory, become president, striving is a moral obligation. Achievement, not class, is the standard by which men are judged. There is little or no glory attached to being born wealthy or privileged; the real test is how far you climb from where you start. Martin’s (2009: 6) survey reveals that American beliefs in the power of the individual, the value of a good education, and the possibility of success are still strong nowadays. She writes: “For decades, American identity hung its hat on rugged individualism. This idea persists, even today”. This is indicated by the findings that: (1) There is nearly unanimous agreement that “my success depends on me,” and that it is important to have a good education; (2) Nine out of ten people believe that individual hard work leads to success, and that education is the great equalizer; (3) Two-thirds do not believe that class and privilege predict success; (4) Half (51%) the people still believe the old saying that “anyone can grow up to be President.”
Americans love work. It is meat and drink to them. In recent years they have learned how to play, but they make work of that too. If it’s skiing, they throw themselves at it with an effort that would kill a horse. If it’s a vacation, they travel five or six hundred miles an hour, pause only long enough to snap pictures, and then discover what it was they went to see when they get home and look at the photographs.
Until very recently there has always been a great deal of work to do in his country, a great deal that needed doing. At the beginning men of all sorts and conditions had to pitch in. The preacher had to fell trees and plough fields. The teacher, the doctor, and the magistrate had to shoulder guns for the common defense. The farmer made his own tools, harness, and household equipment. He was blacksmith, carpenter, tin-smith, brewer and veterinary all rolled into one, as his wife was spinster, weaver, and doctor.
Americans still like to be handy at all things. College professors go in for making furniture or remodeling an old house in the country. Bankers don aprons and become expert barbeque chefs. Nearly everyone knows how to use tools, make simple repairs to plumbing or electrical fixtures, refinish furniture or paint a wall. Far from being thought a disgrace if he performs these “menial” tasks, a man is thought ridiculous if he does not know how to perform them.
Along with this urge to be jack-of-all-trades goes a willingness to change from one occupation to another. It surprises no one in America when a banker’s son becomes a farmer or vice versa. Or when a college professor shifts into industry, or a young man who starts cut with a truck purchased on credit ends up running an enterprise with fleets of trucks spanning several states. President Truman and Jimmy Carter were farmers before turn to politics. President Ronald Reagan was a film star before entering politics. James Bryant Conant, first a chemist, then president of Harvard University, resigned this highest post in the academic world to become High Commissioner and then Ambassador to Germany.
“For a European,” Writes Andre Maurois in America in perspective, “life is a career; for an American, it is a succession of hazards.”
A single individual can be at once an intellectual, a Boy Scout leader, a businessman, a sportsman, a dabbler in music or painting, a nature-lover, and one who does many of his own household chores. An employer, he may go hunting with his own or someone else’s employees. A shopkeeper, he may run for local office and be on familiar terms with professional men and government officials. He will live on several levels, which in other countries might be separated by class distinctions. The emphasis on success and achievement, coupled as it is with a desire to be loved and admired, leads to a critical dilemma of personality. To succeed one must be aggressive; to be liked, one must be easy-going and friendly.
One way out of the difficulty is to acquire group of friends—lodge brothers, members of the same church, a veteran’s organization—towards whom you are pledged in friendship. Having thus acquired assured friends, you could practice your aggression on those who don’t belong. This pattern explains to some extent the suspicion or hostility towards those of other races or religions.
The men and women who staked everything on America were for the most part poor. They struggled hard, went without, and saved in order to build up a business or buy a farm of their own. The freedom to own rather than the freedom to vote was the magnet that drew the majority of them across oceans. Naturally enough they put a high value upon the land or the business they acquired through their own efforts.
In contrast with this natural acquisitiveness of the new arrivals, the American attitude toward money is quite different. As the German psychologist Hugo Munsterberg writes in La Table Ronde (Sept. 1956), the American “prizes the gold he gets primarily as an indication of his ability…It is, therefore, fundamentally false to stigmatize the American as a materialist, and to deny his idealism…The American merchant works for money in exactly the sense that a great painter works for money—“ as a mark of appreciation for his work.
The acquisition of money is important as the clearest proof of success, though there are other proofs—prominence, public notice, good works, and fame. But the retention of money is not important at all. Indeed, it may be frowned upon if it keeps the owner from living well, subscribing generously to a long list of charities, and providing for members of the family who may have been less fortunate.
So the materialism that strikes a visitor to America is not that of loving and hoarding wealth; it is a love of making and consuming wealth. It is probably a middle-class rather than a distinctively American phenomenon, for most Americans are middle class.
America has been blessed with a rich supply of raw materials. It learned during the depression a rich country can become impoverished if it fails to use its wealth to benefit the majority. And it does not propose to make that error again. A sizeable portion of what it produces goes overseas, including agricultural and industrial machinery sent with the hope that standards of production and consumption can be raised in other parts of the world too.
There is no denying the fact that the high level of production does lead to a high level of material comfort, and that Americans are mighty fond of having things that are new, shiny, softly, padded, conveniently arranged, efficient, and so far as may be effortless. The bread comes already sliced so that the housewife need not exert herself to slice it. It used to be that when she put the bread in the toaster, she had to turn it once to toast both sides. Then came the toaster, which did both sides at once, then the toaster that popped the toast out when it was done, so that she did not have to turn a handle to raise it. Soon, no doubt, there will be a toaster, which butters the toast, cuts it in quarters, and puts it on a plate. Perhaps there is one even now.
Food comes ready-cooked and frozen, vegetables already washed. Floor wax must be self-polishing, pens write for years without having to be filled. Storm windows change to summer screens at a touch. Heat is thoroughly automatic, and air conditioning keeps the house equally comfortable in summer. Automation now promises to put a final end to all drudgery, even to building in the controls, which will keep the machines from making mistakes.
Why is it that, having created a world in which he could live without raising a hand or taking a step, the American habitually seeks ways of letting off steam? His towns are full of bowling alleys. Golf clubs, tennis courts, clubs, lodges, churches and associations into which he pours energy both physical and mental. The laborsaving gadgets, the love of comfort turns out to be ways of saving his time and energy for something else.
The Ideal of Service
There is an implication of selfishness in the words materialism and comfort—a suggestion of self-pampering at the expense of others. Yet, vulnerable as Americans are to criticism on other points, even their critics have not denied their generosity and a concern to help those who have not been so richly blessed with material goods. The Christian command, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is frequently invoked. A disaster, whether at home or abroad, invariably brings forth a flood of voluntary contributions, The necessity for mutual aid in the first settlements and on the frontier may have passed, but the response is still there.
Magazines are full of stories like the one about Mike Casanovas who had come to America from Greece in 1909 at the age of nineteen. He fought in World War I, married but lost his wife and baby. When his mother became ill in Greece he returned to help her, married there and had nine children. The Second World War reduced him and his family into poverty. Mike fought the Nazi parachutists, was penne up in a prison camp for three years. After the war, he returned home to find his family living skeletons.
An American citizen, he took advantage of the State Department offer to return him to the U, S., along with three of the older children. But it was hard to save enough money to pay the passage for the rest of his family. Mike was now sixty-five. When his story got into the papers, the $2,600 needed to bring them over was quickly raised. The welfare director at the Naval Supply Depot where mike worked helped with all the official red tape and located a modest home Mike could afford to buy. Painters donated their services, furniture stores gave furnishings, and the ladies of the Greek Church supplied linens and kitchenware. And Mike got his family. “Only in America could such things happen,” he said.
Service as an ideal has spread out into many branches of American life. More and more the institutions of a community are expected to participate the needs of the citizen, and to make possible a healthier, happier, richer life. Meanwhile service as a commercial activity has leaped ahead. Since 1870 the experienced labor force engaged in production of services has risen from twenty-five percent to fifty-three percent. Whether you want a daily diaper service for the new infant, a carwash (many of them mechanized so as to be completed in ten or fifteen minutes) or a clipping for your poodle, you are sure to find it. The yellow pages in the back of every telephone book list hundreds of such offerings.
While the supermarkets have been moving in the direction of self-service in exchange for lower prices, smaller enterprise have sprung up to supply whom service to those who want it, especially to the many people who now live in rural or suburban areas. Our country district is visited regularly by a grocer, a green grocer, several bakers, a dispenser of frozen foods and three ice cream man, not to mention the occasional salesman of brushes, vacuum cleaners, insurance, magazine or cars, and the absolutely indispensable country institution the rural leather carrier.
The accent on service suggests an attempt to blame the two conflict things forces in the national character—the hardheaded drive for business success and the soft religiously inspired urge us to serve others. As the recipient of such service, we intend find ourselves when think to patronize them all, for if they are talking the trouble to serve us it seems only fair that they should be helped to succeed.
The modern mother tries to teach her children such ideals as service to others, considerateness for the weak and for women, fair play in all the other miserable moral traits. Psychologists believe that since it is practically universal in America for the mother to rear he own children, Americans think of good behavior as feminine. But most Americans will confess that father, as the final arbiter and dispenser of punishment, sticks in their minds as the avenger of the moral law, and that goodness consequently bears a strongly masculine imprint—even one that is psychologically locatable.
Gorer, who says that no other society gives so important a role to the mothers of grown sons, sees the mother symbols in the Goddess of Liberty as the moral force which keeps aggressiveness in check. Americans, he feels, have two standards of conduct, one for business, the other for human relation. They are symbolized by Uncle Sam, the shrewd demanding father, and by the Goddess of Liberty, the encapsulated mother speaking moral imperatives. The contradiction between male and female worlds comes to the fore in arguments over political and welfare projects. Thus resistance to the New Deal was partly an objection to introducing social legislation into the domain of masculine affair, and confusion in foreign policy often arises because we want to be hard-headed as well as generous and likeable.
Although there are some truths in his observation about conflicting impulses, the current trend is for business to absorb the social consciousness into its own orbit.
A Nation of Conformists?
One aspects of American life most visitors agree on is its conformity. Because they had to establish traditions, because they had to absorb millions of people from diverse cultures, Americans tended to insist upon conformity in fundamentals. Yet the conformity visitors see here is outward, and even then not inclusive. American businessmen are much freer to dress as they like than their counterparts in England. Woman appear at the supermarket in everything from fur coats to Bermuda shorts. If the cities look alike, with their neon signs aglow in the night, they have their separate personalities when one comes to know them. Though the movie theatres throughout the land are offering the same fare, every town has its amateur music makers, its camera clubs and painting places. In a nation of 261,638,000 people (1995 census), there is a wide variety of temperaments and tastes.
New religions popped up, school of human relations and popular psychology open their doors, new fads in diet are introduced, and all find avid followers. Love of the new and different seems to be a built-in features.
Yet no society can flourish without some unifying principles—something which makes its members want to act in the way the mass act if the society is to achieve its goals. David Riesmann’s theory of the other-directed personality gives us a helpful understanding of how this happens in the U.S. Riesmann believes that the other-directed personality, especially in the cities, is replacing the inner-directed type, which has been typical of America during its period of frontier exploration and industrial development. While the inner-directed channel his efforts into production, the other-directed puts his drive and energy into consumption, for in our present economy of abundance the main problem is not how to conserve but how to create enough consumption to keep everyone at work and the economy rolling.
The other-directed man seeks approval rather than power. Who wants to be “in the know,” to wear the “right” thing, approve the “right” tunes, books, or music, and to have piece of mind rather than greed wealth, happiness rather than a place conspicuously above the rest of the crowd.
Seeking approval, he learns like a chameleon to conform his tastes and actions to those above him, changing from day to day or from moment to moment. He learns to manipulate himself in order to manipulate others; this is the whole basis of the technique of “winning friends and influencing.” Oriented toward things, he is not as materialistic as other character types. It is influence, approval, acceptance and security that he seeks rather than exhilarating risk with the change of great rewards and fame. The income takes has done its share in producing this point of view. What a man wants nowadays is not a bank account but an expense account which does not have to be saved or worked for and which is not taxable.
All these suggest that the old pattern of rugged individualism is changing. We no longer admire the man who gets to the top by climbing over the bodies of his competitors. Rather, we like a man who gets along well with his competitors as well as with his employees and colleagues, and one whose traits of character conform to our ideal of the warm, friendly, adaptable, cooperative personality, …
While action on the traditional American trait of the individualism has been weakened by an economy of abundance with its diminished need for competitiveness, our traditional action on equality has gained ground. Not so long ago the rich man of the town or the public figure in the national eye preserved a distance and dignity in grace, manner and speech, and was expected to do so … Now the high appear equal with the low, and vice versa, in dress, manners, education.
Whether in his relation with his children, his barber, his employees, his fellow workers, or the stranger in the next seat on the plane, the American wants to be known as a good guy. It is important to him to be well regarded and one of the reasons why he forms so many clubs and fraternities is so that he may be sure of being surrounded by a comfortable group whose mutual membership pledges them above all things to like each other.
Because the average Americans respect work and is quite willing to work with his own hands, he really fears no barrier of clash between himself and the waiters who serve him or the boss who give him his orders. Overseas visitors are constantly surprise to find employees and employers calling each other by their first name, and some of them do not like it. They think it shows lack of respect. But Americans do not want respect; they want to be liked. Liking does not readily climb the walls of class or caste. So the walls come down.
Equality does not mean a uniform position on a common level; the variety in human capabilities and the specialized division of labor world make this impossible even if it were desirable. Rather, the ideal—and to a remarkable extend the reality—is universal opportunity to move through the world gamut of status, from day laborer to corporation president, from immigrant’s son to college professor. To find such stories it is not necessary to turn to the fiction of Horatio Alger, but merely to the biographies of the successful.
There was a time when no American could hope to become president unless he could claim to have born in a log cabin … Sociologists like to point out that the road from laborer or clerk to corporation president is not as open as it once was. Yet Hanow Curtice, once a bookkeeper, was the head of General Motors, and the former messenger boy David Sarnoff was head of RCA. Today, moreover, the son of the laborer is far more likely to go to college, from which he can step more quickly up the ladder, while at the same time the gulf between the captain of industry and his employees has been narrowed by the constantly rising standard of living. When the working man has his car and his TV set, and his wife her electric refrigerator, washing machine and vacuum-cleaner, when the children go through high school and often to college, and when the boss has all the worries while the worker has only to do his thirty-five or forty hours a week, the high posts lose a good deal of their attractiveness for all but the most ambitious.
The greatest of Marx’s many errors was failing to take social mobility into account. Our visitors from overseas often wonder why no political parties have developed here a long the lines of class conflict. The answer is simple: we do not have classes in the European senses, because each generation is on the move. To fight an “upper-class” would be to tear down the very goal towards which the ambitious worker is moving. High wages, short hours and the guaranteed annual wage make the employee’s lot look enviable to many an entrepreneur or professional man. Social status itself is changing when the plumber can afford to spend a month in Florida while the lawyer cannot afford to lose a case by being away from home.
Nor is it possible any longer to look at the industrialist as a crass materialist. More and more he wants to use his money for some cultural end. Alistair Cooke, in One Man’s America, tells of the Chicago meat packer who happened to visit a museum, became interested in painting, and is now one of the world’s best-informed collectors of French moderns. Or there is Huntington Hartford, who has used his fortune to advance the arts in many ways—as a movie producer, as founder of place where creative artists can work undisturbed, as a collector of paintings, builder of a New York art gallery and founder of a legitimate theater in Hollywood.
Americans hunger for a harmonious home, for love, success and companionship like people everywhere. But it is as wanderers that many of them find where they belong, and to whom. They meet the girl (or the man) they are looking for in a plane, at a dance, or at an office party. They find a career by experimenting with courses in many fields at college, and then by moving from one company to another until they find the right job. Advancement often comes more quickly by switching to a competitive company than by staying in the one where they started, and so mobility is rewarded while stability is penalized.
Then as they work up the ladder, they keep moving into a better neighborhood or into bigger houses to accommodate more children. They are not afraid of moving; they love it. To pioneer is in their bones, and though their westering may no longer be geographical it is spiritual and instinctive. Americans believe, as their basic statement of faith asserts, that happiness is something to be pursued, not waited for. They are dedicated to the quest, and even to the vague unrest that goes with it.
Where all is shifting and changing, there is need for some kind of measuring stick. Hence (and also because of our pragmatic bias) the prevalence of numerical standards—the marking systems in school, the dollar valuation of jobs or works of arts, the love of what is highest, biggest, hottest, coldest, fastest.
Americans accept change, not only as something that happens to them but as something they do to the environment. As Clyde Kluckhohn has observed, men meet a crises by changing either the environment or themselves. The east has generally chosen the latter course, the West, the former. Americans seem to take particular delight in such changes—in removing a mountain to make a road straight, diverting rivers so as to change desert into farmland, replacing hand labor with automatic machinery, and then creating an industry out of recreation itself in order to give new outlets for increased leisure and to employ those who would otherwise be idled by automation.
The Influence of the Frontier
The special quality of American culture arises from what the American land and climate did to men who brought with them the glories and the burdens of European culture. Released from the feudal restrains, which still clung to ownership even in the seventeenth century, they were driven by long hunger to possess land of their own. The hazards of settling that land—taking it from Indian by treaty or battle, struggling through trackless forest to find it, hewing out homes and rising corps with nothing but a few simple tools, dying sometimes in battle or from weather or hunger—these hazards quickly changed into Americans the Europeans who survived. It was struggle that shaped the American spirit.
The frontier experience, so strong in its impact, so harsh a teacher, brought new traits to the fore. The hard conditions of the daily life made for crudeness in manners. The competition for favorable land (or later for gold), the need to kill in order to stay alive, the absence of law and order made man tough, brutal sometimes, and quick to resort to brute strength. This violence has continued in such aspects of our life as gangsters, race riots, corrupt politics, union racketeering and the violent political attack.
Hard as the life was, it also offered great riches, sometimes for a small return. Hence the “get rich quick” philosophy—the belief that hard work and a little luck would turn all things into gold. Traders got rich furs from the Indians for mere trinkets. Out of the earth came gold, silver, oil—richer than the shower of gold Zeus rained down upon Danae. Then came the robber barons to make fast fortunes by manipulating railroads, and finally the gambling in stocks, which affected everyone until the Wall Street collapse in 1929.
But the frontiers fostered positive results too. It encouraged energetic activity and dignified labor with the hands. It made of the independent, self- reliant farmer a symbol, which still influences our national life. It produced a resourceful, inquisitive, practical-minded type, able to turn his hand to any sort of work, preferring to govern himself in small, easily manageable communities, inventive, quickly adaptable to a new environment, relatively free of class distinctions, full of optimism and faith in the country which had rewarded him so well.
All these traits live on, one way or another, in the contemporary American. The frontier has not disappeared with the spanning of the continent, or the end of homesteading. As a matter of fact, the government still has lands for homesteading, which it disposes of at the rate of forty thousand to fifty thousand acres a year. More important, the pioneer spirit is deeply embedded in the American’s concept of himself.
A nation hacked out of wilderness by men constantly on the move, constantly regrouping and forming new personal associations, is bound to alter its concept of friendship. Men must learn to size each other up quickly, to judge by deeds rather than by reputation or family background. A man coming into a new community must have a friendly manner if he wants to make friends, and he needs friends in order to get along.
This quick friendliness, often regarded as insincere by foreigners, remains a spontaneous habit. All relationships, we feel, should have something of love or friendship in them. We do not make a strong distinction, common in some countries, between a few close friends and the rest of mankind. The more friends we have, the more people we call by first name on the street or greet at board meetings, at church or at the movies, the more comfortably immersed we feel in our environment.
The American creed
What are then the ideas or beliefs that shape American character? In Character and Opinion in the United States, George Santanaya says: “This national faith and morality are vague in idea, but inexorable in spirit; they are the gospel of work and the belief in progress.”
Clyde Kluckhohn, in Mirror for Man, explains that in American creed he finds: an implicit faith in the rational, a need for moralistic rationalization, an optimistic conviction that rational efforts count, faith in the individual and his rights, the cult of the common man (not only as to his rights, but as to his massed political wisdom), the high valuation put on change and progress, and on pleasure consciously pursued as good.
Equally strong id the American’s faith in his institutions. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution lay down the fundamental principles of self-government with such clarity and finality that we are prone to regard them as an American invention, or at any rate as principles and rights, which are peculiarly ours. These hallowed documents provide us with basic principles, which, thanks to their deistic background, are presented as coeval with creation and incapable of being questioned or upset. Therefore we do not have to agonize over basic principles; they are given us, once for all.
The lack of reflectiveness which observers find in us arises partly from this conviction that our goals are set and do not need to be debated; we have only to work hard in order to reach them. To create, to build—to clear a new field, sink a new mine, start a new civic organization, develop a new business—this is what they dream of. Like all creators, they are suspicious of critics.
For this reason, and because they are active participants rather than passive observers, they feel obliged to defend the country against any outside censures, no matter how bitterly thay attack its shortcomings themselves. De Tocqueville, much as he admired the U.s., found this patriotism irritating. If you stop praising them, he complains, the Americans fall to praising themselves. What he observed, of course, was part of the love and be loved pattern, which in spite of its naiveté has obvious advantages over the hate and be hated regimen, which has determined so much of human history.
If many of the items in this American credo were the product of pioneering, some were an inheritance from the puritans whose ideas their descendants carried west with them. Respect for the individual as a creature of God, made in his own image, was one of these. The idea of government by compact and consent went back to the pilgrims, the authority of reason to the grand and intricate arguments of the seventeenth century theologians. Allegiances to principles rather than persons, and conviction that religious faith was the only firm foundation for the governing of men, were the heartwood of the Puritan idea.
So Americans played out the drama of redemption on a stage whose boards were nailed down by Calvinist morality. If they broke its stern laws, they expected to be punished, and if the crime was not found out, sometimes they punished themselves. The temptations of the flesh they resisted by working harder, and thus work came to have a double value.
No story is more typical of this religious attitude towards work that that of Colonel Abraham Davenport when, on a day in 1780, it was thought that the day of judgment was at hand. As the sky darkened, Davenport rose in the Connecticut House of Representatives to oppose the suggestion that the session adjourn.
“The day of judgment is either approaching or it is not,” he said, ”If it is not, there is no cause for adjournment. If it is, I choose to be found doing my duty. I wish, therefore, that candles may be brought.”
The sense of humor is often the most revealing aspect of a culture. Surely humor has never been valued more highly in any civilization than in this one. Will Rogers is venerated as a national hero for this pungent, earthy comment on the American scene—for his gift of making Americans see what is ridiculous in themselves. Mark twain, in many ways our most representative writer, is admired not so much because of his skill at picturing American life as for his humor. It is part of the optimism of our outlook that we prefer comedy to tragedy, and that the funny men get top billing and top salaries on TV.
Humor is the great reliever of tension, the counterbalance to the dash and roar of our fast-paced industrialized life with its whirring machines, traffic snarls and frayed tempers. Humor shows these vary things to us in such a way that we can laugh about them.
Nothing is too sacred for the comic transformation, in fact, the more sacred the topic, the stronger the impact. Jokes about the minister are legion. Says the parishioner to the minister who explains that while shaving he was thinking about his sermon and cut his chin: “You should have been thinking about your chin and cut the sermon.”
The most frequent subject in all media, from the comic pages to TV, from The Reader’s Digest to the word of mouth joke, is the relation between men and women. Says the pretty girl at the perfume counter: “Give me something to bring out the mink in a man without stirring up the wolf.” That men are out to get all they can from a woman without marrying is an equally prevalent theme.
(“She has the kind of figure that gets the once over twice.”)
Once caught, however, the male is subject to his wife’s whims. “Husbands are a sorry lot,” says Dagwood in Blondie, one of the most popular comic strips. He knows he is “being took,” yet he likes it, because his admiration for Blondie is increased by her cleverness. Her skill at manipulating him is the major theme of the strip—which reveals more about American family life than a pile of learned monographs.
Those tensions exist in the home life, however, the humorist love to point out. No joke has the changes rung on it more frequently than that of the woman driver who is usually pictured sitting in the midst of a wrecked car. (“Didn’t you see me signal that I’d changed my mind?”) Men probably wreck far more cars than women, but it satisfies the male ego to think that women have not yet mastered the machine.
A popular variant of the dominant female is the mother-in-law. Year after year the jokes about her continue—evidence not so much of any serious tension as of the Freudian implications—projections of marital friction onto an associated but less immediate object, seeing in the wife’s mother the inevitable approach of the mate’s old age and hence one’s own.
Humor reveals our attitude toward children—our love of their innocently wise comments on life, our delight in the evidences they give of being fully formed individuals with rights and spunk of their own, even to the point of talking back to their parents. (Says the little girl at the table, urged by her mother to eat up her broccoli: “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”)
Can psychiatry help to overcome the frustrations of life? “There’s nothing wrong with the average person that a good psychiatrist can’t exaggerate,” says the comedian, thus confirming our suspicions and making it a little easier for us to put up with ourselves.
The thirst for humor drives advertisers to resort to it, in the hope of catching an audience long since jaded by all the other appeals. “You die—we do the rest,” an undertaker advertises. What welcome relief from the usual unctuousness of his kind!
American humor, in short, confirms the importance of mating and the family, the high status of women and children, the pace and tension of life, and above all the love of humor itself as an approach to life more to be prized than riches, a gift to be cherished and applauded. The minister uses it in his sermons, the doctor in his healing, the lawyer in his pleading, and the teacher in his teaching. About the worst thing we can say of man is that he has no sense of humor. For humor is regarded as an essential part of “the American way.”
It helps to equalize, and we believe in equality. It is often a symbol of freedom, for it permits the common man to speak freely of his leaders; it helps him cut them down to size. It deflates stuffed shirts. It allows us to look at ourselves in perspective, for when we laugh at ourselves we have surmounted our shortcomings. And in a land where new contacts are always being made, humor provides a quickly available emotional unity—not subtle or regional but universal, one which lets us feel immediately at home anywhere. It is the grammar of confidence, the rhetoric of optimism, the music of brotherhood.
What is an American?
“I can’t make you out’” Henry James has Mrs. Tristram say to the American, “Whether you are very simple or very deep.” This is the dilemma, which has often confronted Europeans. Usually they conclude that Americans are childish. But one cannot accurately call one society mature, another immature. Each has its own logic.
What is it then that makes Americans recognizable wherever they go? It is not, we hope, the noisy, boasting, critical, money-scattering impression made by one class of tourists. The only thing to be said in their defense is that, released from the social restrains which would make them act very differently at home, they are bent on making the most of this freedom.
Americans carry with them an appearance, which is more a result of attitude than of clothing. This attitude combines a lack of class-consciousness, a somewhat jaunty optimism and an inquisitiveness, which in combination look to the European like naiveté. Also a liking for facts and figures, alertness more muscular and ocular than intellectual, and above all a desire to be friendly. (Let us, for the moment, leave out of the picture such stigmata as gum chewing, too much smoking, and an urge to compare everything with Kansas City or Keokuk.)
To boil it down to the briefest summary, American characteristics are the product of response to an unusually competitive situation combined with unusual opportunity.
Americans are a peculiar people. They work like mad, then give away much of what they earn. They play until they are exhausted, and call this a vacation. They love to think of themselves as though-minded businessmen, yet they are pushovers for any hard-luck story. They have the biggest of nearly everything including government, motorcars and debts, yet they are afraid of bigness. They are always trying to chip away at big government, big business, big unions, and big influence. They like to think of themselves as little people, average men, and they would like to cut everything down to their own size. Yet they boast of their tall buildings, high mountains, long rivers, big state, the best country, the best world, and the best heaven. They also have the most traffic deaths, the most waste, the most racketeering.
When they meet, they are always telling each other, “Take it easy,” then they rush off like crazy in opposite directions. They play games as if they were fighting a war, and fight a war as if playing a game. They marry more, go broke more often, and make more money than any other people. They love children, animals, gadgets, mother, work, excitement, noise, nature, television shows, comedy, installment buying, fast motion, spectators sports, the underdog, the flag, Christmas, jazz, shapely women and muscular men, classical recordings, crowds, comics, cigarettes, warm houses in winter and cool ones in summer, thick beefsteaks, coffee, ice cream, informal dress, plenty of running water, do-it-yourself, and a working week trimmed to forty hours or less.
They crowd their highways with cars while complaining about the traffic, flock to movies and TV while grapping about the quality and the commercials, go to church but don’t care much for sermons, and drink too much in the hope of relaxing—only to find themselves stimulated to even bigger dreams.
There is, of course, no typical American. But if you added them all together and then divided by 226,000,000 they would look something like what this chapter has tried to portray.
 1980 census