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What are Americans like. The average American is of course a Texan eat lots of breakfast and get fat. So he has to go on a diet because he likes to look skinny. He calls everyone sweetheart in his bed to colored people. If he doesn't like who is president he usually shoot him. These words were written by a European child in answer to a question about what Americans were like and reported in an issue of Redbook magazine that was on the newsstands in the fateful month of November 1963. It was almost a case of reality following myth as if the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in a single act had succeeded in verifying the stereotype that we might call the aggressive American. It is this figure his exaggeration and size in action his violence his buoyancy his dynamism his inner toughness which will be my subject for study on this program. I am Betty Schumi and this is a portrait of the American
portrait of the American produced for the national educational radio network under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation. Program number 12 the aggressive American producer moderator Dr. Barry Schmidt author scholar and teacher of American studies. There are times when all of the ironies associated with a single facet of American character seem to converge upon a single moment in history. Such a moment was the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the irony for me converged upon the single word front here. It was during those days of grief after the event that I heard a newscaster asking whether Americans of the 1960s had in truth returned again to the aggressiveness of the frontier in reaction against the comparative calm of the 1950s and for several seconds. I assume that what he meant was Kennedy's own program the new frontier. The term that Kennedy had chosen of
all possible terms to represent his own political program. And when Kennedy had chosen it of course he had intended it to represent the aggressiveness the action the direct involvement the strength of the movement. His motto was get the country moving again. All of these virtues which he hoped would be associated with his political platform. Moments later however I learn that the interpretation had been offered instead to explain the fact that Oswald himself had just been shot and that these two murders along with others that had recently occurred in the south and the rise of a national temperament that preferred direct action violent action to slower workings of justice. That this all had suggested the possibility of a new vigilantism. That was abroad in the land. Well clearly the word from Tir stood for something very different to this interpreter as it did for hundreds of others who afterward offered similar
interpretations of the meaning of the assassination. Then it had meant for Kennedy himself when he chose the word. The irony lies in the possibility to speak very abstractly that from tourism itself killed the man who proposed this revival. But it is this aggressiveness associated with the frontier with rugged individualism with self-reliance with our belief in will in an action with the sheer energy of American life that is my concern. This program and we will see how this aggressiveness has affected our political institutions our domestic ideals our images of the presidency our foreign policy our humor. In fact three interpreters of American character to my spoke and from whom you will hear now saw the qualities or norms associated with aggressiveness as the central features of the American First when I asked
Marshall Fishwick director of Weems Foundation who teaches American studies at the University of Delaware how he would describe this figure we call the American he replied. We want to say as the self reliant aggressor and what you mean by that. Well I would mean by that that the American prides himself and has for generations on his ability to cope with an alien environment whether it be the American frontier whether it be in the wars of Europe. In the city slums are now in the planet's off the earth with these environments. The American intends and expects to do it himself and he expects to be first. In other words it seems to me that the American is engaged pragmatically and immediately with the problems and his great concern is always and primarily to win.
Now you chose the word aggressor. You mean the American has a new energy or are you again emphasizing this desire to be first. Well perhaps both because being the best fed people on earth with the most calories I suppose in a very real sense we have more energy to burn and more energy to aquire. Certainly we have energized our culture with machines with gasoline with Tomic energy so that the average American has literally dozens of horse power working in his house and so he does have energy but in the second sense we have a a philosophy of energy we have a philosophy of vitalism we admire the man who does many things. We worry about the man who does nothing and sits down. Is there another half of this. Is there such a thing as anti intellectual ism in American life. And is there a feeling that because we believe in doing we are a little bit suspicious of people
who spend a good part of their time in more leisurely activities who do not give at least outward evidence of busyness. Yes. I think unquestionably the doers of the world to use the Emersonian terms are people who build the Roman roads construct the British Empire are who put forth the American manifest destiny will be people who do not take the contemplated where at least we might call the theoretical parts of life so seriously but I would caution you to distinguish between a person. Who is anti-intellectual who just doesn't like ideas and a person who is who is opposed to a sort of ivory tower with Raul and perhaps using ideals or words as a shield against reality. It seems to me that everyone who sits out and sneers at the marketplace doesn't deserve credit on that score. A good deal of the cowardice of the world may be hidden behind people who
rebel lies or who even intellectualize but are not doers to the same question which I asked for a description about who the American was. Professor has a son who is at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Replied by stressing to oppose characteristics when the spirit of the question I would say the soft tough something like a combination of softness and hardness a combination of generosity and. Isolation is a quality that is tremendously intact untouchable. Isolation you associate with toughness. I isolate with a kind of hardness a kind of self intactness a kind of self enclosed quality that is quite hard at the core. Do you think there's something of Yankee in there as something of the Yankee that something out of the pioneer of the plainsman. Weston there and then.
How about the softness is this humanitarian tradition is that humanitarian it's the sentimental it's outgoing it's the friendly it's vulnerable open a quality it's the quality that asks for liking if not love from hateful compassion manifest compassion but requires a certain degree of affection of love of reciprocity on one level but behind our underneath this is this. Intact core this interesting that you see the softness of the surface but the hardness of the reality or the heat of the thing underneath. Yeah any case I think in this I would go along with a D.H. Lawrence in his book called studies in classic American literature which I think is probably the most important book to modern good American criticism where he talks about the American as being really a killer a killer killer. I think he was thinking
mostly of the Western or the pioneer the man in the wilderness but he carries he takes over some of these characteristics to his notion of the American and he sees him as a as essentially a cruel person a person who wears an inner ferocity that isolates him from any kind of social sanctions even religious sanctions. Well let me press you on this further would you identify the hardness more closely with a 19th century figure say than the 20th century. Yes I think this would be true I think this would be largely true but I'm not willing to discount God. Sweetly the presence of this hardcore in in the 20th century American I think that however soften his computers and me appear. He still has the capacity this inner capacity for tremendous resistance and looking at the culture as a whole. One is that readers talk again and again by the by the fact that. The violence can erupt so
quickly all over this country and I think that a specific country to allow I think a sociologist would like to see to explain that violence in concrete contextual pragmatic terms. One thing that struck me in America is the need for heroism. That is I think that we have a larger need for the hero figure in our political and our social and our cultural and even our entertainment life. But typically in the movies and in the in the realm of entertainment but we need heroes. But what's more I think we tend to victimize heroes and we have at this to this ambivalence within us to create heroes and the need to destroy heroes more than almost any other culture that I can glibly refer to. I feel that the motive for destruction here is a kind of soft assertion on the part of the public itself in the
form of suff assertion of their own self if obvious sentiment perhaps even. I guess the hero they have they have yes they have created so that in one way we are always asking for autographs and making but be a machine. Heroes and at the same time we are initiating a process by which that destruction might be might be achieved. The same two sidedness in American character that Hasan saw as a combination of softness and toughness. Irving how social and literary critic saw in terms of the norms and counter norms of society. We had been talking about the heroes a society creates and how the myths that are built around them may be lie the facts and yet persist beyond the facts. And I asked how Which figures he might name as outstanding cases in point. Well obviously Lincoln was a central figure there in that he puts forward a kind of Franciscan image an image of passive of the feminine inclusiveness and
won't use that term as praise not denigration a term of a kind of feminine inclusiveness and warmth. Why is passivity a loving crying this which is in the back of the American American imagination as a contrast to the ruthlessness to the acquisitiveness to the brutality of the robber baron of the industrial magnate in a certain sense you can make a parallel and say Lincoln is too. The ghouls the Fisk's the Morgans and the Rockefellers as the idea of the suppressed but presumably still loving Negro is to the assertive dominant brutal white man. That is if you have a society in which aggression and dominance power money wealth brutality willfulness. If these are the approved I don't mean the things that are proven Sunday-School I mean of things that are approved life. If these are the approved
norms then it follows that they will also have to be if only for the purposes of the society making itself feel a little better. They will have to be counter enormous counter values and these will be ABA Franciscan karting passivity gentleness kindness fraternity love. For a fraternal relationship between men who do not try to to destroy one another and you get this or through American literature you get an anti Bumppo would his Indian friend you get it and Ishmael you get it and foreknew in the bear and you get it in real life. Or in a life of mythology in the figure of Lincoln. Since you have referred to literature and had previously described the pastoral romance as the essential contribution America had made to literature particularly that of the 19th century I went on to ask Professor Howe whether the hero of the American Novel or romance might also be distinctive in this same
way. Yes. What's distinctive about him is that he is the very opposite in characteristics of the kind of man who in American life is considered the best most typical and most desirable figure. He is not assertive. He does not try to get money. He does not try to dominate women. He does not try to establish himself as a power. He is not a manipulator. On the contrary the characteristic relationship that he establishes is friendship a pure spirited disinterested friendship usually with another man. That is to say this represents a value norm. In the profoundest contradiction to and constantly a very great criticism of the way of life of American society so far on the series I'm afraid I've spent too little time on the American presidency as an important illustration of the portrait of the American and I would like to redress the imbalance now by including a variety of comments on various
presidents. Irving Howe was one of several people who mentioned Lincoln's importance to American mythology. I'd like you to hear now a footnote on Lincoln a comment made by James Farmer the national director of the Congress on Racial Equality. During a conversation that we had this was also about American heroes the heroes revered by the American Negro and especially those who were important to the current civil rights movement. The name of Lincoln had just come up when I offered this personal impression of what was happening to Lincoln in our own time in 1965 and as much history has been made in the last couple of years. During the march on Washington the family in Bali choice of a place was a Lincoln Memorial. But I think to me that since then a great deal of revision. Our link command has taken place and that perhaps among many people process most
closely involved with the civil rights revolution Negro and why Lincoln had cast a great leader a great deal of harm. When I was a child in elementary school in high school we were taught and really believed that Lincoln had freed the negro we were freed because Lincoln had done it and this made it much more difficult for us to launch a revolutionary movement to achieve complete equality. We were already free in spite of any contradictions which we might see in our life. Censored however is going to change a negro's thinking has become increasingly aware that he is not now free and that I can get a very incomplete job. The intellectuals and the historians have pointed to the errors in the Lincoln mess but the average Negro is not concerned about the mythology of what Lincoln really did but he was concerned about is the fact that he was not yet free. One of the exercises regularly engaged in by political scientists which helps to tell us not only who we are but also what they think we ought to be. Is
the game of rating and ranking the great American presidents Lincoln who often comes up number one on such lists is missing from the list offered by Victoria shock a political scientist at Mount Holyoke College. But this is primarily because she wished to name one important figure in the one thousand nine hundred three before turning to five figures. Important to the 20th. Certainly I should name Andrew Jackson as one of the great American presidents. It was he in a sense who democratize the presidency who brought to it a kind of patronage which brought a buoyancy to the American presidency. Those who preceded him tended in my opinion to be somewhat under the influence of European culture. But Jackson writing out of the West brought with him that buoyancy of the West that well if we jump then to the
20th century we have one of the great Republican presidents in the person of. They had a rose about. Who spoke lightly and carried a big stick in American foreign policy. This we do not condone now but on the other hand he made a number of contributions to the domestic scene in terms of traffic control regulation of campaign expenditures. One could go on. He stood for what I call a buoyancy in American politics. The rock you want is a part of the. Yes he was still a part of the Manifest Destiny notion that the American could achieve what he desired to do also in a sense he was a bit of a renaissance man. That is as the intellectual as the writer. He was also the army man and he could ride up San Juan Hill
with thirty two pairs of glasses tucked away in its horse's mane. In a sense this kind of bravado was I think a part of the American character at that point. Professor shock went on to list Woodrow Wilson the scholar in politics whom she found atypical of the presidency. Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose confidence strength imagination creativity impressed her. Harry S. Truman the self-made man whom Fate made president and who grew with the office and then her list ended with this comment pertinent to our thesis that a president who was and who did not live to fulfill his destiny is JFK. Who. Began with the kind of vibrant dynamic confident. Character. Which we associate with the American presidency in its modern form. You
find the boy and Kennedy all but you trace from Andrew Jackson. Yeah yeah. This seems to characterize the outstanding president as I regard them at any rate. But what Victoria shocked calls buoyancy and associates with greatness may be simply another name for the same aggressiveness that other people in other times find rather disquieting is a true for example that Theodore Roosevelt's belief in the big stick which really was part of his buoyancy as was his belief in the strenuous life is really not condoned any longer. Well here we raise the issue of the relationship between morality and power or morality and aggression in international relations. In assessing Harry Truman for instance Professor Schock added this reservation. I wonder as history goes to evaluate Truman whether or not his decision to lose the
atomic bomb over Hiroshima will be as acceptable as it has been in the past. But again this is something for the historians this may be the one question concerning the Truman administration. But in terms of the long run the question of the moral issue be baited even after the military issue is settled. But if the moral issue is determined in terms of eliminating the bomb then perhaps Truman's decision may have had the right effect. Right. Is this how Americans reconcile morality and power. Is this how we justify aggression. That is in terms of the future salvation of mankind. Alfred Kelley historian and foreign policy analyst at Wayne State University suggests that it is or at least that it has been.
When the world belonged to the United States in terms of the thrust of American history the thrust of the West and in particular the thrust of American history. A nice coincidence between morality and power was it was possible it was possible for Jefferson for example. The thing for Jefferson worked out as simply as this he would say on occasion he did things that from a standpoint of international law ox for example or the way the state system worked were unethical. He played pretty fast and loose to get Louisiana and then he tried to get Florida by playing fast and loose. He would have had a good answer to this and his answer would have gone like this. True these things violate certain ethics of the state system. But if we look at the history of mankind in its future in the large we will say we will see that anything the United States does is after all in the interest of the world at large. So if the future of the world and the salvation of mankind is coincident with the future of the United States and its thrust
toward greatness then anything we do for the United States is obviously ultimately ethically reconcilable you say with this notion of I don't like something very much like this used to explain that humans use of the atomic bomb. I have to in fact Truman resorted to almost exactly this kind of ethical rationale in a certain sense of course this notion of a wave of history belongs to the Communists now rather than to us. We don't we are much more self-conscious about a violation of let's say a Wilsonian ethic in foreign policy and much more dubious about the validity of this kind of an explanation than we would have been let's say in Jefferson's day or in Wilson's day or turning from a conference table in the American presidency to the domestic scene. We can cite other examples of our attraction toward activism and aggression. For instance the appeal of the Western the Western melodrama in which the hero very often solves problems by violent means. The whole subject of violence in movies and especially on television perhaps the number one concern of many American parents today.
The cult of the gun in children's toys. I often wonder how in this country any parent who happens to be a pacifist would keep his children not only from having guns but from loving guns and all the assumptions that go with them. With the cops and robbers cowboys and Indians games. On the positive side and I do think there are two sides to this. There is the much lauded energy of Americans. Europeans have often said that they have more energy when they visit America than they have at home. There is the dynamism one finds in American poetry especially in the poetry of Walt Whitman. All those active verbs those i n g verbs or the dynamism of American speech or American jazz the rhythm of American life. And finally there's a telling strain in American Humor Yankee humor the terse dry ingenious kind of nonsense humor which is the kind I would have named as the most unique in America. That nutty corny swaggering spirit of abandon and looseness
and various kinds of ethnic humor. Now I'd like to illustrate several of these strains with some stories from the man who probably remains America's greatest humorist namely Mark Twain. Now these are from a recording made by the versatile actor Hal Holbrook impersonating a 70 year old Twain on the lecture platform. I write because I want it all. I was made a director in one of those accident insurance companies and I wanted to. Happen to recognize that the window yelling everybody in the crowd but nobody did anything. Nobody had been a friend of mine but me. I came to the rescue. I came I broke one and caught it. Now I phone and waste it.
As a matter of fact I got himself killed in much the same way I once knew a man and never had an insurance he was always sorry about didn't have. Mattered on the Fourth of July news hound a man for a mouth. I run a rocket when I write that. I am drinking water. When it blew up in scandal. You know MADD had haven't experienced Baghdad and I haven't yet but I am Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain telling the kind of story that combines exaggeration nonsense violence and aggressive enterprise. It is Western
Portrait of the American
The aggressive American
Producing Organization
Wayne State University
WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
Self-reliance of Emerson and frontier thesis. Preoccupation with size, attitudes toward space, mobility, capabilities, dynamism, belief in free will.
Other Description
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.
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Host: Ch'maj, Betty E. M.
Interviewee: Farmer, James, 1920-1999
Interviewee: Howe, Irving
Interviewee: Fishwick, Marshall W. (Marshall William), 1923-2006
Interviewee: Hassan, Ihab Habib, 1925-
Interviewee: Kelly, Alfred H. (Alfred Hinsey), 1907-1976
Interviewee: Schuck, Victoria
Producer: Gouds, Moyra
Producing Organization: Wayne State University
Producing Organization: WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
Speaker: Holbrook, Hal
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-3-12 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:10
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Chicago: “Portrait of the American; The aggressive American,” 1966-02-26, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed December 6, 2021,
MLA: “Portrait of the American; The aggressive American.” 1966-02-26. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. December 6, 2021. <>.
APA: Portrait of the American; The aggressive American. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from