Hanging together : unity and diversity in American culture /

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Main Author: Higham, John, 1920-
Other Authors: Guarneri, Carl, 1950-
Format: Book
Published:New Haven [Conn.] : Yale University Press, c2001.
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Chapter One Hanging Together Divergent Unities in American History [1974] For about a decade American historical writing has been characterized by a repudiation of consensus and an invocation of community. Present-day historians seem substantially agreed that many of their predecessors overemphasized unities in American history and society. Yet perhaps never before have so much interest and effort gone into a search for those times and places in which a high degree of solidarity obtained. On first notice, we have here a curious contradiction. The repudiation of consensus was supposed to permit a rediscovery of profound conflicts in our past. It has done so only to a very limited degree. The exciting advances in contemporary scholarship have more to do with understanding cohesive structures: the New England town, the family, the ethnic subculture, the professional and trade associations, the political machines.     A moment's reflection dispels the paradox. Historians who are interested in the issues of consensus and community are actually trying to distinguish between true and false communities, between the social arrangements that sustain participants and those that coerce or scatter them. The term "consensus" is commonly applied to a factitious conformity, arising from manipulation and acquiescence. When we speak of "community" we refer to a more authentic, more truly shared bond. To look at American historiography in this light suggests that for some time historians of quite different persuasions have been asking the same questions, though giving different answers. The so-called consensus historians who came to the fore in the 1950s--Richard Hofstadter, David Potter, Louis Hartz, and Daniel Boorstin--created the conceptual universe their present-day critics and successors inhabit. Both groups have been studying the possibilities and the limits of social solidarity in our peculiarly amorphous country.     A striking feature of this grand enterprise is the high proportion of negative conclusions it has so far produced. At first many historians described an all-embracing community, shaped by a common national character. Before long this kind of community began to seem too thin, even illusory, to have much significance. Interest in national character has survived only to the extent that it can be treated--as Michael Kammen does--as a bundle of contradictions. The locus of community has shifted to smaller, presumably more homogeneous entities. The more closely these are examined, however, the more they reveal their own fissures and stultifications. A remarkable number of recent studies focus on the points at which or the ways in which American communities have failed. A small army of historians has been trying to determine how and when the early New England towns came apart. Some say it was during the era of the Great Awakening; but Michael H. Frisch argues that Springfield, Massachusetts, kept its organic wholeness until the middle of the nineteenth century. Michael Zuckerman, on the other hand, insists that the cohesiveness of the New England towns was always contrived, that it rested on an intolerance of differences, and that it has never broken down but rather has spread throughout American group life. Survival of "the massive coercion of the monolithic community," Zuckerman sternly remarks, "belies the belief that we are a liberal society." Taking a different tack but reaching an equally gloomy verdict, Sam Bass Warner, Jr., portrays the entire span of American urban history as a story of "endless failures ... to build and maintain humane cities." With some important exceptions the search for community has led American historians either to a rediscovery of consensus or to a scene of alienation and disorder.     Bemused with so much failure, a reader must wonder what kind of social integration, what experience of unity, might qualify as successful. By what criteria do our historians distribute praise and blame among different kinds of communities? May we call one parochial because it is small and self-sustaining and another weak because it is large and nonexclusive? Under what conditions should we expect a unifying force to bind people more closely together, or to respect their partial autonomy, or release them completely? I ask these questions to suggest that the quality and nature of social cohesion pose fundamental dilemmas for Americans. Historians cannot resolve the dilemmas, but they can ask the past to clarify their shape and duration.     America has exhibited not only an enormous variety of communities but also some underlying differences in the forms of unity our peoples have sought. Much of the confusion in current scholarship seems to arise from a propensity to judge one pattern of social integration by criteria derived from another, and thus to demean the first at the expense of the second. American history has been in considerable measure a struggle between rival ways of getting together. In actual experience the alternatives have overlapped very greatly. Instead of facing a clear choice between commensurate loyalties, Americans have commonly been enmeshed in divergent systems of integration. That is not a condition peculiar to America. It is intrinsic to modern life. This essay sketches in barest outline three adhesive forces that have pulled people in different directions wherever the process of modernization has occurred. I intend to point up, not the uniqueness of American experience, but rather the special salience here of disparities every modernizing society seems to confront. I shall concentrate on the sequential unfolding of three forms of unity, which American historians have studied only in fragmentary ways. Obviously I shall not take account of all cohesive structures. In particular I leave aside the working of sheer political or economic domination, in order to concentrate on types of integration that function through consent, whether tacit or explicit.     At the most elementary level, the peoples of America have participated in what Clifford Geertz has called "primordial" unity: a corporate feeling of oneness that infuses a particular, concrete, unquestioned set of inherited relationships. The primordial tie is so much taken for granted that it may be nameless. It binds one to kin, to neighbors, to memories of a distinct place, and to the symbols and rites and customs associated with that heritage. It is therefore localized, specific, yet undefinable. Primordial consciousness differs in its intimacy and unbounded concreteness from what we ordinarily describe as ethnic feeling. The modern ethnic group is a federation of primordial collectivities. It depends on a conceptual simplification and extension of primordial sentiments. It comes about through encounters with outsiders and reflects in part their perceptions.     Primordial ties vary enormously, in character and strength, between groups and over time. In American history the primordial bond has probably been most intense and pervasive within the separate Indian tribes and kin groups. Among Indians primordial unity permeated every dimension of life. As a result, the development of a wider ethnic consciousness--a pan-Indian identity--came very slowly; and when primordial solidarity has given way under pressure from the dominant white society, the psychological consequences have often been unbearably painful and demoralizing.     Primordial attachments flourished also among those immigrants who arrived in America with little, if any, sense of nationality, who knew themselves as the people of a particular Norwegian valley, the sons of a certain Calabrian village, the members of an eastern European shtetl, the country folk of one small district on the Chinese coast. So far as their circumstances permitted, immigrants re-created those local solidarities in the New World. Chinese clustered under the shelter of their warring district companies. Eastern European Jews ordinarily limited their synagogues, their mutual aid societies, and often their workshops to "landmen," so that the whole round of daily life could occur within a circle of fellow townspeople. Italian peasants grouped themselves by village or province on the streets of New York. Often the people from a particular locality would maintain a conspicuous conformity in dress and avoid competing with one another in business.     It would be a mistake to suppose that primordial identities have originated only outside native white American society and have lingered only on its fringes. Solidarities of this kind emerge wherever people live together long enough to enclose their daily experience in a skein of common memories. Perhaps the most tenacious primordial attachments among American whites developed in the eastern counties of the South in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and spread into the lower Mississippi Valley in the nineteenth century. There alone the archaic Elizabethan term "kinsfolk" survived, slightly Americanized into "kinfolks." It was a constant reminder that complex networks of personal relationships extend far beyond the household. No sharp line separates antecedents from neighbors, kin from community. In the world of kinfolks, vestiges of a folk society and a folk memory endured. Here is the root of that concrete sense of place and belonging which Thornton Wilder and C. Vann Woodward have described as one of the hallmarks of a southerner. Whereas most Americans sought their identity in abstractions, southerners resisted the abstract in clinging to "the blessing of being located--contained."     Other Americans, abstract and dislocated, have sometimes greatly envied that attachment to past and to place and have contributed enthusiastically to the celebration of it. American yearnings for a lost primordial world shaped the northern image of the South in the nineteenth century and invested it with immense nostalgia. It was an Ohio-born minstrel who composed what became the war song of the Confederacy and a polyglot New York audience that first popularized it: I wish I was in de land ob cotton, Old times dar am not forgotten; Look away, look away ...     In adverting to southerners and to the land of cotton, we are indeed looking away. We are looking away from New York; but we are also looking beyond the primordial matrix. We have entered a larger universe, where primordial experience is transmuted into a collective image that can focus the allegiance of people with roughly similar linguistic and geographical origins. The creation of group identities grounded in primordial life has continued to be a significant industry in American popular culture: it has given us the Down-Easter, the Hoosier, and the cowboy, to name but a few; and our own time has brought forth new species, such as the hippie, which have not yet acquired a stable geographic base. But the multiplication of ethnic and regional groups cannot disguise a long-term tendency for primordial ties to come apart. The peopling of America required at the very outset a profound rupture in primordial solidarity, and the enormous mobility that has churned American society ever since has given special importance to other integrative mechanisms. The most powerful of these in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was ideological.     Since I propose to talk at some length about the importance of ideology in American history, I must say at the outset how I am using that elusive term. I do not, like many of the critics of ideology, restrict it to rigid, totalistic outlooks; nor do I limit it to secular political creeds. On the other hand, I wish to avoid also the looser usage that describes any rationale for a social loyalty as an ideology. A culture or a group may or may not have an ideology, depending on the degree to which its goals are explicitly formulated and also endowed with transcendent significance. Ideology is therefore a variable in history; perhaps it may even give us a measure of the importance of ideas in motivating and directing a society. American historians, defending their particular bailiwicks and points of view, have characteristically argued over the causal force of ideas in history without sufficiently appreciating that ideas may be enormously more significant in one era or society than in another. We have therefore overlooked one of the great systemic changes in American history.     To come more directly to the matter of definition, I wish to designate as ideologies those explicit systems of general beliefs that give large bodies of people a common identity and purpose, a common program of action, and a standard for self-criticism. Being relatively formalized and explicit, ideology contrasts with a wider, older, more ambiguous fund of myth and tradition. It includes doctrines or theories on the one hand and policies or prescriptions on the other. Accordingly, it links social action with fundamental beliefs, collective identity with the course of history. This combination of generality with directional thrust has enabled ideology to function as an important unifying force. Arising in the course of modernization when an unreflective culture fractures, ideology provides a new basis for solidarity.     Ideological unity assumed its special importance in America at the outset. One large part of early American society was founded upon an ideology. Elsewhere ideologies arose out of dissatisfaction with the existing social order. In the Old World this was the case with Puritanism. It constituted the first great ideological movement in English history. As a revolutionary force, it cut through established institutions and relations like a laser beam. Yet Puritanism ultimately failed in England, and after its shattering defeat in 1660 ideology never again provided the primary basis for social integration. America, on the other hand, had no preexisting structure for Puritans to overthrow. Here ideology arrived not as a subversive or divisive force but as a bedrock of order, purpose, and cohesion.     If ideological unity was from the outset fundamental in New England, primordial unity was correspondingly weak. The researches of Sumner Chilton Powell suggest that the early settlers of New England towns could not rely very much on the local familiarities and affinities of primordial experience. The first settlers of Sudbury came from widely scattered parts of England; they melded together a surprising variety of customs and practices. In addition to a common English culture, however, they possessed an ideology that put a heavy stress on mutuality and discipline. It bound them with written covenants, taught them formal creeds, and commanded them to subordinate all private concerns to one collective end. Since the New England colonies adopted a loose, decentralized government in both church and state, they entrusted to ideology much of the regulative function that elsewhere belonged in the hands of constituted rulers. In place of hierarchical authority, the Puritans substituted a voluntary mobilization of belief. In doing so, they originated an especially American combination: institutional decentralization and ideological uniformity.     Although Puritanism was never overthrown, its pristine vitality ebbed toward the end of the seventeenth century. The remarkable social cohesion of the preceding decades in New England diminished. During the next half-century a rising consciousness of the common English heritage uniting all parts of the British Empire helped to stabilize colonial life. But the programmatic fervor of ideology subsided. About this first decline of ideology in American history we know very little, except that it proved short-lived. American Christianity recovered in the eighteenth century an ideological thrust that sustained it into the early twentieth. With the dispersion of population from the clustered settlements of the seventeenth century, the original Puritan reliance on ideological mobilization revived and intensified.     The Puritans had needed the discipline of ideology to hold their ranks, to stave off fragmentation. Their descendants had to cope with a society already fragmented. To encompass a people rushing away from one another--a people straining the last ligaments of a common life in their pursuit of land and freedom--Americans put their ideological inheritance to expanded uses. What had been a discipline became also an incitement. Exploding churches turned the full power of the Word outward to reach the unconverted and to penetrate a culture no single group could dominate. This produced, of course, enormous conflicts. It split congregations and multiplied competing sects. Like any other integrative mechanism, ideology divides as well as unites. Nevertheless, the point remains: the Great Awakening marks the moment in American history when ideology undertook the task of forging a new solidarity among individuals who had lost through migration and competition any corporate identity.     The new solidarity was very difficult to achieve and not fully worked out until the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century. Gradually, however, the impulse toward union broke through the theological and ecclesiastical fences that had separated Protestant bodies in the past. Whereas the Puritans had generally insisted that a single comprehensive faith should enclose a tightly knit society, eighteenth-century Christians developed an intellectual framework that accommodated unprecedented diversities. What I shall call the Protestant ideology had as its working principle a distinction between two levels of belief. Specific creeds and confessions adorned the more formal, visible level. They served as identifying marks for particular segments of the population and as concrete symbols of a pervasive freedom of choice. At a deeper level, unaffected by the clash of creeds, dwelled the inclusive truths, which required neither debate nor strict definition. Thus the Protestant ideology accepted conflict between "denominations" as permanent, legitimate, and inspiriting, for the conflict could be seen to rest on and to demonstrate the worth of certain unifying ideals. As time passed, theological doctrines acquired a largely honorific, ceremonial status in America's pantheon of religions. The basic ideology stood guard, and one could question its tenets only at the risk of heresy.     This dynamic relation between ideals shared by the great majority of people and distinct creeds that attracted only limited followings helps to explain an anomaly puzzling to European observers of nineteenth-century America. How could intense religious activity proceed unobstructed in a setting that seemed largely secular? In actuality secular life was suffused with a pan-Protestant ideology that claimed to be civic and universal. Pledged to leave private beliefs undisturbed, it was vague enough that increasing numbers of Jews and Catholics could embrace it. But it infused a generalized piety in school textbooks and civic oratory. At the same time the Protestant ideology gave a special focus and initiative to the Protestant churches. It offered them a unifying purpose. It encouraged their members to feel a praetorian responsibility for the whole society.     Necessarily, the tenets of the Protestant ideology were few and simple. First among them was the conviction that no compulsion should rule the choice of faith. Genuine religious commitment is a private and voluntary act. While it remains so, a pure religion and a sturdy morality will undergird American institutions. The great diversity of churches guarantees that no one of them can corrupt this truth or reduce an energetic people to apathy. (Continues...) Excerpted from Hanging Together by JOHN HIGHAM. Copyright © 2001 by John Higham. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.