Portrait of the American; Who are we as Americans?
What then is he this new man. This American so asked the American farmer from Pennsylvania in the year 1782 and his challenge has echoed through the generations. In the year 1965 I asked that same question. Our versions of that question of experts in many walks of American life. And I received the following answers from James Farmer civil rights leader.
I would say to him all the people in the world of America makes his appearance very materialist from William H White Jr. an expert on American corporation life.
The idealist from John Dos Passos American novelist the sucker from Alfred Kazan literary critic.
Well I would use the word figure which I mean. I don't mean that many pies in this is there really I mean a man in search of his own future and a man who thinks that the country will determine it for him.
From Victoria shuk political scientist.
Oh there's no question the American wants to think of himself as a capital independent from his son teacher and critic of literature.
I think in this I would go along with Lawrence in his book called studies in classic American literature where he talks about the American as being really a killer a killer killer from John Higham historian co-operative individualist from Marshall Fishwick American studies.
We might be self reliant aggress or from RC angels sociologist as among other people the American is perhaps a dynamic man from our WB Lewis American studies as the hopeful Adam from Ellen Harrington novelist and former public relations man. When I asked him if he saw in the PR man one of our portraits of the American.
Very much so. And a public relations man saves us from the truth sometimes from Glasgow Cambone lately from Italy.
I used to think of the American a somebody who who lived. More freely moved around a great deal and who was as like as not associate the forests and prairies very much an outdoors man also a man who a man who you know his way around mechanics and from Irving Howe editor and social and literary critic.
Well if you want to be perverse about it or not you could say about one snotty bump I was killed off by James Fenimore Cooper. Nothing matters anymore. Namely that one's 94 if you have no place to live in the east and you have to go west and die and the prairie by the end it's all anti-climax 13 versions of the American and no two alike.
One man calls us materialists and the other idealists. One man sees the American as a sucker and the other as a seeker. How can one see the PR man when another sees the killer. One sees the American as a man in search of his future and the other as a type who died with the frontier.
I am Betty Smee and this is part of the American portrait of the American produced with a national education already on network under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation. Program number one who our way as Americans. The producer moderator Dr. Barry Schmidt author teacher scholar in American studies.
Let's begin with this matter of stereotypes the image that comes to mind when you think of the American the image that recurs in advertising or comic strips that say you probably have some picture in the back of your mind when you think of the American Try describing him then compare the stereotype you come up with with me.
The first is by James Farmer national director of the Congress of Racial Equality but the mental image I have when I think of the American is of a white middle class person probably a salesman or a junior executive. This is of course the result of conditioning from the billboards and the advertising which I've seen.
Let me press you on this a little. Is he wearing a shirt and tie. Yes. He has got a certain time and usually. Man the great final thought perhaps a notch below the gray flannel suit I would say something closer to Babbitt perhaps that's right. Much closer to Babbitt really when a suit is the stripe of the person who is a bit beyond the. Image that I have. Oh is he something of a conformist. Very much so.
He's very much a conformist a conformist in his dress and the attire clothes he wears and the food that he eats in the things that he does the bridge parties and the going bowling on a Saturday and he watches television. He watches television in the evening and reads the Reader's Digest.
Now contrast Mr Farmer stereotype with the one offered by William White author of the organization man and editor of Fortune magazine.
Well think of the cigarette as they want to show somebody this terribly American and barrel and so forth. You get this sort of the Southwestern the Marlboro Man I mean like that. And in a sense they are only giving one more version of a stereotype but Europeans have often done. Let's let's get the stereotype in mind. Rugged rugged rather bony muscular strain muscular. He wearing a shirt and tie. No talk no talk. He's an outdoor track to stubble. But how about Uncle Sam a little very much I think Uncle Sam is very angry much. Well now are we tall lean and lank yes yes yes.
Abe Lincoln was Abe Lincoln but John Higham professor of history at the University of Michigan has a different advertisement in mind.
What immediately comes to my mind is the advertisement for the American tourist in London with a swashbuckling raincoat and a well-qualified young lady. Dancing in its wake. Is he carrying a camera. A very welcome. Is he tall. Yes. Clean shaven.
Oh absolutely yes. Is he the man in the gray flannel suit perhaps with a little more dash and a little more.
Pretense at least initiative.
Well no. Shall we ask which one of these men is right. That is which stereotype best describes the American. Is he the cheerless Babbit. Is he the Southwestern Uncle Sam. Is he the swashbuckler in the raincoat. That is. Which image comes closest to either myth or reality either in our time or in times past. But here an important distinction must be made between the past and the present between the myth and the reality and Irving Howe editor of Dissent Magazine and professor of literature at Hunter College makes that distinction for us.
This is what he replied when I asked him what sudden image came to his mind when he thought of the American friends whether I'm looking at the reality or comic strips if I'm looking at comic strips or versions of comic strips and I see pioneer type the man who I believe independent the man who doesn't want to have anyone within 40 miles of him a version of Daniel Boone rugged individualist and the rest. But that's in the realm of comic strips mythology which perhaps had some kind of. Reality in the 19th century. If I look at the American 20th century I don't see an American although I realize that one of the major American industries is looking for the American. What I see is a great many different kinds of people I see a middle class Jewish immigrants in New York and I see negroes in Alabama and I see flotsam and jetsam in California and I see automobile workers in Detroit who may be of Polish or Slavic extraction in other words I see a great many different kinds of people and doesn't appear to me that they form one ethnic strain. What you could say perhaps is that there is a gradual process by which a hundred or two hundred years from now they will form an ethnic strain. From my own point of view the heterogeneity is very desirable. The prospect of all the various kinds of people in America blending into way to one margin are used version is I think a terrifying prospect since it will remove whatever little social moral variety we have in this country.
This stress upon American diversity. Heterogeneity pluralism appears often in conversations about the American but in different contexts. When I asked Professor Angell sociologist at the University of Michigan for example whether he saw a stereotype He replied No I don't.
I don't and I'm sorry I don't. I I think we're too prolific a society for that.
And Graco Cambone who teaches comparative literature at Rector's university distinguished between the impression he had in Italy and the one he has now.
It used to be that I had a rather predictable reaction that I would immediately see in my mind a kind of jolly blustering youngish type essentially likable. Not at all foolish. Perhaps a bit candid but that's not the same thing as foolishness. And now I don't even know that I could answer the question off the cuff. I don't even know that I could tell you. This is my idea of the America I'm even reluctant to speak of American because I could rather speak with the Americans.
Now it seems to me the analysis of American character in American life passes through three general stages or phases in the first phase we entertain a stereotype as did classical Cambone when he was in Italy and we feel that this stereotype this image is perfectly obvious and predictable. The American Oh you know Uncle Sam or you know Daniel Boone or Babbitt Abe Lincoln John F. Kennedy the man in the gray flannel suit or whatever. Yet even at this stage as you see there's a great deal of disagreement over the image. In fact among those I interviewed the only areas of agreement I found were that the American was taller on the tall side that he was white although only James Farmer himself a negro bothered to point out that he was white and that he was a man and no one bothered to note that he was male. This was one of the things that everyone assumed to be true. The interesting thing is that the persons holding these various types tend to assume that their listeners do also. So much so sometimes that they wonder why the question would even be asked. It may seem to them superficial or perhaps even un important. In the second stage we may discover as did Glasgow Cambone after he came to this country how diversified Americans really are. And we may be so impressed with the varieties as between regions races classes occupations nationalities as between images of the past and images of today. We may be so impressed with these varieties that we deny that a stereotype or a unity even exists. We prefer to place our emphasis upon the pluralism rather than the unity. Marshall Fishwick who is director of Weems foundation and teaches American studies at the University of Delaware makes a strong case on behalf of this pluralism.
Marco is a plural but unum out of many one. And I think to me that to the world at large that pluralism is truly incredible and to other at home. Home is our great and shining glory. Americans are still remarkably diversified. We are people. Who came from so many different racial stocks that the only metaphor that we can go in for ourselves is the melting pot. And yet in study after study. We realized that the melting pot has not melted. The American Indian is still very much an Indian and I was still very much an AVO. And it was a very great many of the negroes in this country are still right and the Farrelly Negro and proud of it in the Jewish community that the Slavic community the Scandinavian community the community of the Basques in the mountains of the Portuguese fishing people on the coastal towns and so forth and so on all these are very strong. But this is only the surface of pluralism underneath it has a very very strong internal pluralism almost anyone who has an American family will tell you that his children are remarkably different. And he not only is admitting that proud of it he's proud of the differentiation is proud of the fact that his children have a totally different talent. I maintain that our Madeleine ratio is still such that we can afford differentiation and we would preserve it. I would try to preserve it. I think we have to preserve their work but my own feeling is that we are going to lose a great deal of it and a great deal of it very rapidly and more in the book and I'm on a lot.
Yet even here at this second stage of the analysis there is if not disagreement or if not difference of opinion a difference of stress. John Higham whose book strangers in the land is concerned with the patterns of American nativism has been concerned with the reactions of well the native or original Americans to the varieties of immigrant and racial groups coming to this country. I asked him whether the stereotype of the WASP the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant had declined at all in the face of our obvious diversity Here's a question what are stereotypes and yet our.
Multiple America and yes in this part of what we intended in the first place speak of a plural because you know we mean both many but one out of many one.
I think they are a very what I would describe as a historical reality. I would prefer to say one many and I would prefer to say the one in the many.
The unity in the diversity of unity behind the diversity which is really for American Studies a version of the concept called personality and culture by those who combine the study of psychology with sociology and anthropology that is to say my concern here is with the man at the center of the personality in the midst of the diversity. What I feel is that there is a third stage that we reach in the study of American life and character when we realize that we needn't make the choice between the one or the many. But see the influence of this unified stereotype upon the diversity upon our diverse strains. Now the point here is that it makes a difference it makes a great deal of difference what the stereotypes that we entertain perhaps unconsciously actually is. It makes a difference and what we're going to do with our lives with how we think with the way we dress with the way we think we ought to behave with our attitudes toward other peoples and so on. Take the case of the American Negro and the negroes effort to decide who he is in this country. This is the issue I discussed with James Farmer.
Immediately after he described the American and you remember as a white middle class conformist and I asked him this now having taken the measure of the American generally let me turn to the question of how the negro today the image and what his own reaction is to this generalized image of the American It's sometimes said that the American Negro has taken over the white standard of culture and the white standards of beauty. And until very recently has been inclined to try to make himself more and more like this. The average man is a conformist would you have comment on that.
Yes I'm glad you said until recently I think it was true until recently but I think there is a change now. Up until recently the American negro had a real problem with identity and to find out who he was since he was in a white culture and this image which I presented as probably the general image of the American the one that one sees in the ads and on billboards the negro looked at it and was sure that this was not him yet he was our least subconsciously trying to imitate this image and to become this image he was imitating the standards of looks. The lights again tended to become the standard of beauty and straight hair or straightened hair.
NPR straighteners from bleaching I mean Green became quite popular and one of the biggest moneymakers in the Negro community negroes dressed pretty much like this image did and sought to get a little home in the suburbs as this person did. There's been a great change in that situation now being Negro is a frightening more of an identity and this is tied in with the whole situation in Africa.
All right he thought for the quote American identity has as you have given to us have been or at least the trend of who or what an African identity a black identity I would say which is not necessarily African.
Black America black Caribbean will return to this issue of the double identity and later program.
But here let me stress that it does make a difference you see what a nation's stereotypes and standards of beauty actually are and becomes important to know what these myths are if only to react against them. Obviously on a purely commercial level it makes a difference to the people who sell hair straighteners and bleaching creams or elevator shoes or hair dyes or anything else to know what the standards of beauty that the society entertains would be at any particular time. More importantly of course what Farmer stresses is the problem that emerges when a man's real identity and behavior are at variance with what is expected and admired. Clearly it makes a difference to the man involved if the person he is and must be differs greatly from the person he thinks he is and ought to be. Moreover it makes a difference whether we've decided in advance whether the American is a good guy or a bad guy. Whether we've chosen in advance to focus attention on the myth or the reality and whether we take sides with one or the other it also makes a difference who we think are audiences. When I asked our WB Lewis of Yale to evaluate the American for his good traits and his bad traits he replied almost the panel I was talking to doctors may have are talking through your opinion.
I took a different tone of voice I find that I get very patriotic when I travel in foreign countries. And oh. Criticism outrage about America when in this country who are we as Americans.
It's really a version of the old question who am I that has confronted mankind and played philosophers and fascinated novelists and poets through the centuries. When I asked novelist John Dos Passos whether after all his writings he had been able to discover who the American was that is whether any central or dominant or favorite image came to mind.
He replied Well if it did I would have to write all the books I would have had. In fact everything would have been much easier because if I think about it spent by Time-Life trying to add to that question Who are we as Americans.
It is a question that can challenge a man for a lifetime and it has preoccupied many American novelists poets dramatists sometimes for a single work sometimes as with DOS PASSOS through a great many. And we can compare these images these portraits of the American that have appeared in American fiction with the factual portraits offered by our intellectual critics. Here are samples of four such portraits in fiction extending from the early 18th century to our own time. I've selected examples to stress this diversity of portraiture though we can still see the unity underneath. First here's a character you might have met had you attended a theater in London during the late 1800s. This is the type the constants were calls the Gamecock of the wilderness the Davy Crockett Sampson the hard head type and had you met him on the London stage he might have regaled you with a monologue that went something like this.
Many's the time I've danced possum up a quilting frolic or party with a tumbler full of cider I have never spilled a drop. It is never a day that you see a genuine Yankee Doodle I calculate. Now look at me. Cast iron all over and pieced with rock. Regular tornado. Have fun have fun undervote we Yankees don't like British shoes. We're born and educated at full speed. Our spirit is at a higher pressure. Life resembles I sure do death surprises like an electric shock.
Next we cross over to the year 1876 when Mr. Henry James introduced us to the Americans. That was the title of his novel in the person of one Mr. Christopher Newman.
As he sat in the Louvre in Paris gazing at the works of Raphael and Titian and Rubens and James says of him an observer with anything of an eye for national types would have had no difficulty in determining the local origin of this undeveloped connoisseur. The gentleman on the divan was a powerful specimen of an American. He was in the first place physically a fine man. He appeared to possess that kind of help and strength which when found in perfection are the most impressive the physical capital which the owner does nothing to keep up. If he was a muscular Christian it was quite without knowing it. But the traces of national origin are a matter of expression even more than a feature. And it was in this respect that our friend's countenance was supremely eloquent. It had that typical vagueness which is not vacuity that blankness which is not simplicity. That look of being committed to nothing in particular of standing in an attitude of general hospitality to the chances of life being very much at one's own disposal.
So characteristic of many American faces the year is now nine thousand twenty two and the man you will hear from next is George F. Babbitt Sinclair Lewis his version of the American delivering an address to the Zen of real estate board.
Gentleman it strikes me that each year at this annual occasion when Friend and foe alike get together and lay down the battle axe and let the waves of friendship what dome up the flowering slopes of amity it behooves us standing together. I know I can shoulder to shoulder as fellow citizens of the best city of the world to consider who we are. But leave me it's the fellow with four to ten thousand a year say and an automobile and a nice little family in a bungalow on the edge of town that makes the wheels of progress go round. That's the type of fellow that's ruling America today. In fact that's the ideal type to which the entire world must attend. If there is to be a decent well-balanced Christian go ahead future for this little low planet with all modesty. I want to stand up here as a representative business man and gently whisper here is our kind of folks. Here is the new generation of Americans has wet hair on their chests and smiles on our ears and diving machines in their offices. We're not doing any boasting but we like our CEOs first rate and if you don't like us look out. Better get on top of all the cycle and hits town.
Finally in the year 1960 we meet a young man who must be two generations removed from Babbitt and dramatist Edward Albi calls the American dream and the play actually it's grandma herself a Type-B longing to Babbitts day and age who discovers the American dream and who names him.
Oh there. Why aren't you something. I said My my aren't you something.
Thank you. You don't sound very enthusiastic. I'm used to it.
Yeah. You know if I were about a hundred and fifty years younger I could go for you know.
Yes I imagine so. When you look at those muscles. Yes they're quite good aren't they. Well I they sure are they natural.
Well the basic structure was there but I've done some work too you know. You know now that you have I mean when you look at that face. Yes that's quite good isn't it. Clean cut Midwest farm boy type almost insultingly good looking in a typically American way. Good profile straight nose on his daughter's wonderful smile.
Yeah well I you know what you are don't you. You want to. And they're going to agree. That's what you are. All those other people they don't know what they're talking about. You you know at the end there I couldn't agree.
Edward Al BS American dream type who was on the one hand very different from the ring tail roarer of the frontier. But on the other hand in his conceit his innocent conceit if you like his lack of humility not so different from the frontiersman from the back bragging Babbitt or even from Christopher Newman. Well we'll meet all of these characters again and hear again from the various critics on future programs. These programs are designed to or are organized around four general themes which I feel are crucial to the understanding of American character the themes of American innocence which I'll begin talking about next time American Affluence the American success myth and the American quest for self portrait of the American program number one.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- Portrait of the American
- Who are we as Americans?
- Producing Organization
- Wayne State University
- WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-804xms5g).
- This program seeks an answer to the question: Who are we as Americans?
- Series that examines assessments of the American using the themes of innocence, affluence, success and the American self. Features analysis by Dr. Betty Ch'maj, interviews, dramatic readings. Series features interviews with John Dos Passos, James Farmer, Marshall Fishwick, Alan Harrington, Ihab Hassan, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, R.W.B. Lewis, and William H. Whyte, Jr.
- Asset type
- Media type
- Embed Code
Copy and paste this HTML to include AAPB content on your blog or webpage.
Host: Ch'maj, Betty E. M.
Interviewee: Kazin, Alfred, 1915-1998
Interviewee: Farmer, James, 1920-1999
Interviewee: Fishwick, Marshall W. (Marshall William), 1923-2006
Interviewee: Whyte, William Hollingsworth
Interviewee: Dos Passos, John, 1896-1970
Interviewee: Hassan, Ihab Habib, 1925-
Interviewee: Schuck, Victoria
Producer: Gouds, Moyra
Producing Organization: Wayne State University
Producing Organization: WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-3-1 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
If you have a copy of this asset and would like us to add it to our catalog, please contact us.
- Chicago: “Portrait of the American; Who are we as Americans?,” 1965-11-24, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 21, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_500-804xms5g.
- MLA: “Portrait of the American; Who are we as Americans?.” 1965-11-24. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 21, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_500-804xms5g>.
- APA: Portrait of the American; Who are we as Americans?. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_500-804xms5g