Thursday, January 13, 2005

Brief? Hell!
A Brief History of American Culture
Robert Crunden

Does a historian decide one day, “well, I guess for that next book, I’ll write a little history of American culture? Shouldn’t take me too long. Then I’ll play a couple of sets of tennis and then start the next one…”

Truthfully—isn’t it a trifle presumptuous to imply that all of American culture from its inception can be distilled into just over 300 pages? Well, it’s as impressive as can be to begin with. The rest of us wouldn’t know where to begin. Obviously, Robert Crunden does. In order to be able to finish—and get those two sets of tennis in before lunch time—he had to limit his definition of culture from the wide one that I’m thinking of as I write this (language, customs, dress, music, fashions, religions, fads, etc.) to a very narrow one that seems to be primarily political. Yet, not even he admits that. In the beginning he states that his purpose isn’t to join into any sort of discipline-based theoretical debate on the definition of the word, but he does say “I define culture as creative achievements at any level: classical music as well as commercial innovation, much-admired novels as well as intricate thrillers” (ix). That definition is noteworthy, because it identifies him to those of us in the know as accepting of low culture as well as traditional high culture. But it also seems to suggest that he’s going to take a wide view of culture and look at more than the political world. He specifies further, then, that his definition of American culture is “a peculiar mixture of Christianity, capitalism, and democracy in that order” (ix). So he uses those specific ideas as a lens for looking at America. The result is (for me anyway) a little disappointing.

Nonetheless, the scope is still pretty impressive, starting as it does in merry old England in the late 1500s. Crunden says that really, “American Civilization began in the England of Queen Elizabeth I” (xv). He describes the climate at the time, the lack of freedom of worship that caused “religious disputes” of sufficient stature that they were willing to undertake such a dangerous journey.

In the next section on Boston in the late seventeenth century, Crunden describes John Winthrop, calling him “the most important political figure to make the transition to America” (3). His “city on a hill” metaphor “marked the beginning of American exceptionalism and gave the colony a foreign policy even before it had a town” (4). Crunden says “Anne Hutchinson deserves mention because she was the first woman of importance in America” (7). Roger Williams was also important because he was opposed to mixing religious oaths with secular, state-oriented activities such as swearing-into office. His influence is still felt in that regard.

The second chapter deals with Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century, where Franklin and Cotton Mather are discussed. In chapter three Crunden discusses Virginia, around the same time. It’s not surprising to learn that “Virginia was the first of the colonies to have a permanent settlement but slow to develop a civilized culture” (40).

The book impressively breaks down history into small periods of fifty years or fewer and singles out two or three important figures per period, within a special political (and sometimes literary theme.

Maybe I'll confirm my bias here, but I think the book would have been richer with some discussion of what else was happening culturally. I think to limit the definition of culture the way he did limited the interest of the book. Ho hum.

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