Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character Review

Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character
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When I first picked up Made in America it appeared to be the sort of book that risked potentially mind-numbing information overload. I was inclined to just skip around it some, to cherry-pick topics where I had particular interests. I was drawn in, however. Charles S. Fischer's sweeping and penetrating survey is a treasure trove for persons inquisitive about American social history, fact-filled and thought-provoking.
The author aggregates his subject matter into five big themes relating to American culture and character: security (economic and physical), goods (consumption), groups (families, neighborhoods, churches, etc.), public spaces (both physical and virtual), and mentality (self concepts and feelings).
Fischer concludes that the modern American character is remarkably similar to that of our ancestors. "What seemed socially distinctive about America in the eighteenth century still seems distinctive in the twenty-first," he writes. The fundamental difference is that today we generally have more, "more time on Earth, more wealth, more things, more information, more power, more acquaintances, and so many more choices." He believes that "the expansion of material security and comfort enabled early American social patterns and culture to expand," that "with growth more people could participate in that distinctive culture more fully and could become `more American'."
Fischer applies the notion of "volunteerism" -- he observes that Americans generally behave as if they are sovereign individuals, individuals who succeed through fellowship. They are not disconnected, but tend to prefer choice in their group affiliations. This notion contrasts with the underlying assumption in many societies that individuals are only parts of a social whole, acting out predetermined roles.
Along the way Fischer debunks what he claims are various myths about our history, such as the beliefs that we have become more violent or less religious (sometimes we have misconceptions about the past, sometimes the present, and sometimes both).
That he generally finds consensus and continuity is not surprising since he focuses primarily on the "mainstream" -- he suggests that middle and working class Northern white Protestants have represented "the dominant character of the society." Fischer claims the "assimilative pull" of that center is powerful and distinctive, and his story stresses its widening over time to include others. The obvious criticism of this point of view is that it leaves out too many for too long. African Americans, immigrant groups, and many others come across as late-joiners rather than as important contributors and shapers.
Fischer also appears to be a "lumper" rather than a "splitter," and that too disposes him to see continuities where others might perceive important differences. For instance, he stresses that constructing a "better self" has been an American project for centuries, and this broad conclusion overrides the significant evidence he presents of historical shifts in the focus of our self-improvement obsessions. But doesn't the content of the improvement objectives matter (for example, good manners, versus weight control, versus business success, versus inner peace, and so on) and say something important about our "character"?
He does not always discern straight-lines in the historical evidence, though. Notably, he often perceives the 1960s and 1970s to have been eras of discontinuity, disrupting the course of the mainstream. In spite of the alarmist fears of some, however, Fischer reassures that "Americans did not turn into free lovers, free thinkers, ramblers, rebels, or anarchists; they remained by Western standards remarkably committed to family, church, community, job, and nation -- quite bourgeois."
It should be apparent that Fischer does not shy away from controversial assertions. Historians and sociologists will recognize many long-standing debates where the author has taken sides, and are likely to often disagree. Yet that is the charm of this book: it stimulates.
Students of American social history at all levels are likely to find Made in America worth the investment. Among its virtues are the endnotes and the "Works Cited" bibliography, each over 100 pages.

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