thumbnail of Portrait of the American; Who are we as Americans?
Hide -
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 among the peoples in the world the American makes his appearance as the 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 seeker, which I mean...I don't mean that many pious sense necessarily 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-I Independent." From Ihab Hasaan, teacher and critic of literature: "I think in this I would go along with DH Lawrence in his book called "Studies in Classic American Literature" where he talks about the American as being really a killer." A killer? "A killer. From John Higham, historian: "A Co-operative Individualist." From Marshall Fishwick, American Studies: "We might say as the self reliant aggressor." From RC Angels, Sociologist: "As among other peoples, the American is perhaps the dynamic man." From RWB 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 ?Glacow Cambone?, lately from Italy:
"I used to think of the American as somebody who who lived, um... more freely, moved around a great deal, and who was as like as not associated with the forests and prairies, very much an outdoors man also a man who, a man a man who you knew his way around mechanics." And from Irving Howe, editor and social and literary critic: "Well if you wanted to be perverse about it, why not, you could that say once Natty Bumpo was killed off by James Fenimore Cooper, nothing matters anymore. Namely that once Natty finds he has no place to live in the east and he has to go west and die in the prairie, by the end it's all anti-climax." 13 versions of the American and no two alike. alike. One man calls us materialists, another idealists. One man sees the American as a sucker, another 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, another as a type who died with the frontier. I am Betty ?Schmee" and this is Portrait of the American. [Male speaker]: "Portrait of the American, produced with a national educational radio network under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation. Program number one: Who Are We as Americans? The producer moderator Dr. Betty Schmee, 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 let's 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 these. The first is by James Farmer, National Director of the Congress of Racial Equality:
"The mental image I have when I think of the American is of a white middle class person who is 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? [James Farmer]: "Yes. He has on a shirt and a tie and usually a suit." A man in a gray flannel suit, perhaps? [James Farmer]: "A notch below the gray flannel suit, I would say." Something closer to Babbitt perhaps? [James Farmer]: "That's right. Much closer to Babbitt. The gray flannel suit is the striver or the person who is a bit beyond the image that I have." Oh, is he something of a conformist? [James Farmer]: "Very much so. He's very much a conformist, a conformist in his dress and the attire...clothes that he wears and the food that he eats, in the things that he does. The bridge parties and the going bowling on a Saturday." Aha. And he watches television? [James Farmer]: "He watches television
in the evening and reads the Reader's Digest." Now, contrast Mr Farmer's stereotype with the one offered by William White, author of "The Organization Man" and editor of Fortune magazine. [William White]: "Well think of the cigarette as they want to show somebody that is terribly American and virile and so forth. You get this sort of Southwestern the Marlboro Man, something 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? [William White]: "Rugged. Rather bony." Muscular? [William White]: "Stringy, muscular.' Is he wearing a shirt and tie? [William White]: "No tie, no tie. He's an outdoor man, ah..." Clean-shaven? [William White]: "No, a little bit of attractive, uh, stubble, uh..." How about uh Uncle Sam, a little, uh...? [William White]: "Very much. I think Uncle Sam is very much..." Well now he tall? Lean and lanky? [William White]: "Yes he is, yes he is." Abe Lincoln
a little? [William White]: "Abe Lincoln." But John Higham, professor of history at the University of Michigan has a different advertisement in mind. [John Higham]: "What immediately comes to my mind is the advertisement of the American tourist in London with a swashbuckling raincoat and a well-quaffed young lady...ahem...dancing in his wake." Aha. Is he carrying a camera? [John Higham]: "He very well could be." Alright. Is he tall? [John Higham]: "Yes." Clean shaven? [John Higham]: "Oh, absolutely." Oh absolutely yes. Is he the man in the gray flannel [John Higham]: "With a little more dash and a little more pretense, at least, of initiative." Well now, 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. [Irving Howe]: "Depends 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 the pioneer type, the man who is utterly independent, the man who doesn't want to have anyone within 40 miles of him. A version of Daniel Boone. A rugged individualist and the rest. But that's in the realm of comic strips and mythology which perhaps had some kind of.ah...reality in the 19th century. If I look at the American in
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 ah, upper middle class Jewish immigrants in New York and I see Negros 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 it doesn't appear to me that they, uh, 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. Ah, from my own point of view, the heterogeneity is very desireable. The prospect of all the various kinds of people in America blending into a way to a homogenized 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 Angel, sociologist at the University of Michigan, for example, whether he saw a stereotype, he replied. [Professor Angel]: "No, I don't. I don't, as a matter of fact. I'm sorry, I don't. I, ah, I think we're too pluralistic a society for that." And Graco Cambone who teaches comparative literature at Rutgers University distinguished between the impression he had in Italy and the one he has now. [Graco Cambone]: "It used to be that I had rather a predictable reaction that, uh, I would immediately see in my mind a kind of jolly, blustering, um, youngish type, ah, essentially likable. Not at all foolish, ah... 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 American. I'm even reluctant to speak of The American because I could rather speak of the Americans." Now it seems to me the analysis of American character and American life passes through three general stages or phases. In the first phase we entertain a stereotype, as did Glaco 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 Babbit, or 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 tall or 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 unimportant. In the second stage we may discover as did Glauco 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. [Marshall Fishwick]: " motto is...e pluribus unum, out of many one, and it seems to me that to the world at large that pluralism is truly incredible and to us at home is our great and shining glory. Americans are still remarkably diversified. We are a people who came from so many different racial stocks that the only metaphor that we can coin for ourselves is the melting pot. And yet in study after study, we realize that the melting pot has not melted. The American Indian is still very much an Indian. A Navajo is still very much a Navajo. And a very great many of the Negroes in this country are still quite and decidedly Negro, and proud of it. The Jewish community, the Slavic community, the Scandinavian community, ah, 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 there is a 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 this but he's proud of it. He's proud of the differentiation. He's proud of the fact that his children have totally different talents. I maintain that our (indecipherable) ratio is still such that we can afford differentiation." And you would preserve it? [Marshall Fishwick]: "I would try to preserve it. I think we have to preserve phases of it that will work but my own feeling is that we are going to lose a great deal of it and lose a great deal of it very rapidly." (indecipherable) Yet even here, at this second stage of the analysis, there is, if not disagreement of 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. [John Higham]: "Here's a conflict. Our stereotype of the American is still of the WASP and yet our creed ah, is of the multiple America." And yet isn't this part of what we intended in the first place when we speak of e pluribus unum, we mean both many but the one. [John Higham]: "Yes. Out of many, one. Here I think the motto reverses what I would describe as the historical reality. I would prefer to say, "Out of one, many." And I would prefer to say, the one in the many, the unity in the diversity, the 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 in 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 Negro's 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'll remember, as a white, middle-class conformist. And I asked him this" "Now having taken this measure of the American generally let me turn to the question of how the Negro today sees this 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, uh, this average man, uh, this conformist. Would you have comments on this? [James Farmer]: "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 is probably
the general image of the American, ah, the one that one sees in the ads and on billboards. The Negro looked at it and was sure this was not him yet he was, at least subconsciously, trying to imitate this image and to become this image. Ah, he was imitating the standards of looks, the light skin tended to become the standard of beauty, uh, straight hair, or straightened hair..." Yeah, hair straighteners and bleaching creams.. [James Farmer]: "Yeah, bleaching creams, um, became quite popular and one of the biggest money makers in the Negro community. Negroes dressed um 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 um, situation now. The Negro is, ah, finding more of an identity and this is tied in with the whole situation in Africa."
All right,so the substitute for the quote "American identity" as you have given it to us, has been, or at least the trend is toward what, an African identity? [James Farmer]: "A black identity, I would say, which is not necessarily African. A black American, and, um, black Caribbean." We 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 audience is. When I asked RWB Lewis of Yale to evaluate the American for his good traits and his bad traits he replied. [RWB Lewis]: "Almost depends who I was talking to. I mean, I'm talking to you, Dr. Schnee if I were talking to um a European, I might take a different tone of voice. I find that I get very patriotic when I travel in foreign countries. And full of criticism and outrage about America when I'm 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 plagued 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. [John Dos Passos]: "Well if it did I wouldn't have had to write all those books [laughter], I'da... In fact everything would have been much easier because it's, ah, I think I've probably spent my entire life trying to answer 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 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 that Constance ?Rourk? calls the Gamecock of the Wilderness the Davy Crockett Sampson 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. [Man's voice]: "Oh, many's the time I've danced possum up a gumtree at a quilting frolic or huskin party with a tumbler full of cider on my head and I have never spilled a drop. It isn't every a day that you see a genuine Yankee Doodle I calculate. Oh no... Now look at me! I'm cast iron all over and pieced with rock. I'm a (indecipherable). I'm a regular tornado. I'm half fire, half ice, and a little touch of thunderbolt! We Yankees don't do things like you Britishers! We're born in a hurry!
Educated at full speed! Our spirit is at a higher pressure and our life resembles a shootin star until death surprises us like an electric shock!" Next we cross over to the year 1876 when Mr. Henry James introduced us to "The American", 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. [Man's Voice]: "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 health 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. Of being very much at one's own disposal so characteristic of many American faces." The year is now 1922 and the man you will hear from next is George F. Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis's version of the American delivering an address to the Zenith real estate board. [Man's voice]: "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 waft up the flowering slopes of amity, it behooves us, standing together eye to eye and shoulder to shoulder, as fellow
citizens of the best city of the world, to consider who we are. Believe 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 (indecipherable) if there is to be a decent well-balanced Christian go-ahead future for this little ole 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! Fellas with hair on their chests and smiles in their eyes and adding 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 under cover before the cycle and hits town!" Finally in the year 1960 we meet a young man who must be two generations removed
from Babbitt and whom dramatist Edward Albee calls the American dream. In the play, actually it's grandma, herself a type belonging to Babbitt's day and age, who discovers the American dream and who names him. [Male voice]: "Hello there." [Female voice]: "My, my aren't you something?" [Male voice]: "Hm?" [Female voice]: "I said, my my aren't you something?" [Male voice]: "Oh, thank you." [Female voice]: "You don't sound very enthusiastic." [Male voice]: "Oh, I'm, I'm used to it." [Female voice]: "Yeah. You know if I were about 150 years younger I could go for you." go for you." [Male]: "Yes I imagine so." [Female]: "Mmm, will ya look at those muscles?" [Male]: "Yes they're quite good aren't they?" [Female]: "Why they sure are. They natural?" [Male]: "Well the basic structure was there but I've done some work too, you the gym." [Female]: "Yeah, I'll bet you have. Will you look at that face?" [Male]: "Yes it'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, honest eyes, wonderful smile."
[Female]: "Yeah well I you know what you are don't you. You're the American Dream. That's what you are. All those other people, they don't know what they're talking about. You, you are the American Dream." [Male]: 'Thanks." Edward Albee's American dream, a 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 the 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.
[Male voice]: "Portrait of the American", program number one. Who are We as Americans? The producer moderator Dr Betty Schmee, author, teacher, scholar in American studies. This program was produced by Wayne State University in Detroit. Performers were Dave Menigal, Phil Davidson, and William McDonnell, Norma Heslup, and John Cryner. The program was directed by Dan Logan. Technical direction by Ed Reem and Craig Elliot. Your announcer Phil Jones. A grant from the National Home Library Foundation has made possible the production of this program for National Educational Radio. This is the National Educational radio network.
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)
If you have more information about this item than what is given here, or if you have concerns about this record, we want to know! Contact us, indicating the AAPB ID (cpb-aacip/500-804xms5g).
Episode Description
This program seeks an answer to the question: Who are we as Americans?
Series 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.
Broadcast Date
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
Duration: 00:29:18
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 (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 20, 2024,
MLA: “Portrait of the American; Who are we as Americans?.” 1965-11-24. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 20, 2024. <>.
APA: Portrait of the American; Who are we as Americans?. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from