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The thing was for me the essential paradox of this mythical creature the American namely in his in a contradictory ness and all that you can say I think about it is that the future of this species this strange creature who would conform to historical accident and geographical migrations whom we call the American Red the pon the way in which he will resolve these inner contradictions between his various possibilities. I thought from the assumption that all generalisations about national car are but they did in terms of polarity is that what one is trying to get at. Unified coherent whole but rather an axis upon which a culture revolves. Everything in life is a paradox and nothing expresses a human situation more clearly than the feeling of being contradiction with oneself and with everything else this happens all
the time. I think in America the thing is more striking it was good because of the anxiety to be the anxiety to separate all our problems. Paradox polarity contradiction. These are words that recur in discussions of American character as in the comments you've just heard from three leading American intellectuals Irving how John Higham and Alfred Kazan respectively and these words will help us on this final program in the series to evaluate ourselves as Americans and sum up the significant patterns in our lives. I am British me and this is a portrait of the American portrait of the American produced where the National Education already have a network under a grant from the National Home Library Foundation program number 13 patterns and paradox. The producer moderator Dr Bedi shm a author scholar and teacher of American studies in the balance on the strengths and weaknesses of Americans as a people. Suppose I asked you to evaluate this mythical creature we call the American. What
would you name as his best traits as against his worst traits. Almost a panel that was talking to you I'm talking to you Doctors me if I were talking to a European I might take a different tone of voice I find that I get very patriotic when I travel in foreign countries and I am full of criticism and outrage about America when I'm in this country. No I think that the. Best qualities are American idealism American continuing hopefulness that history can be controlled it is not controlling and controlling us indistinguishable hopefulness. A conviction although most Americans wouldn't use the phrase get a conviction about what the Northern is before the Civil War called the higher law which is which is superior to positive law. I think that weakness is among other things our ignorance ignorance of
historical fact ignorance of the nature and conditions of peoples in different parts of this country and in different parts of the world. That was our WB Lewis literary critic who teaches American studies at Yale University one of 14 expert interpreters of various phases of American character of whom I ask this question. It was a question that produced a fascinating variety of answers. Lewis stressed the qualities of helpfulness an idealism a strength ignorance and excessive pragmatism as weaknesses but a son of Wesley on whose central interests have also been in the fields of American literature and American studies found other qualities dominant. His most engaging and youthful qualities the most engaging and youthful qualities of the American would be his. Generosity he solidity his adaptability his resourcefulness in this generally you know and in this
order. But these are his most useful and engaging qualities more important to me is his. It's capacity for violence. Strangely enough. And here I go lead into the into the second part of the question which is the worst violence I mean really a capacity to go all the way. In fact the need for extremism that somehow or other under law it's our tremendously balanced and softened and cushioned. And as I said fluid and generous in appearance I don't mean that he kills to improve the world. I don't mean that at all I mean that whatever allows him to nurture a visionary quality and stick with it or a vision and stick with it also allows him to be able to.
Erupt and Akin kind of violent in direct contrast to the stress upon the Americans active and aggressive traits is the emphasis upon his passive or conformist nature. William H White Jr. whose volume the organization man was an analysis against analysis of and warning against patterns of conformity in our large institutions gave this reply when I asked him what our best and worst characteristics were. But let me couple them because I think they're one and the same and I'll go back to the Talk of the old phrase I just position to apply. This is what truly seems to be the distinctive aspect of the American and I think the total Bill's assessment of this is just as correct today as it was when he made it. It's also our weakness but. The seed of a failure is in that same disposition to oblige him to go on and
set up an almost worship the disposition to oblige to the extent that we do not recognize the terrible price we can pay for going too far and I think very abstract terms I want to get down to cases we talk as I wanted but that I think is the central not dilemma not dilemma. To this observer at any rate the central characteristic the bedeviling characteristic of the American two novelist John Dos Passos. The key word explaining both our strengths and our weaknesses was the word change. When we are living in a period of a series of changes we are going through a series of technological revolutions which are not over yet and the weaknesses and strengths go the same this amorphous quality by which the thing can develop very rapidly in one way or another with the most. A country which is almost nomadic oppressed people. Move around so young and people are completely capable of
taking on new new impressions and new new ways of doing things a new job and if they yet if the need comes I think the chances are that people could pull themselves together in this country. Do you think Americans would be willing if you Reese's back supply them of ice ages and it just that the atom alist is pretty tough ad because history is full of the wreckage of. Soft civilizations have gone under. But there's also usually some part of it survives and becomes a very active ingredient in the future civilizations. Do you think our softness. Are we right the moment it seems the most it seems the weakest thing we did know it might not be that at all.
Five years from now I would like you to hear the evaluations of the American made by four other critics all of whom have been heard on previous programs. Our writer Alan Harrington a civil rights leader James Farmer a sociologist RC Angell and a literary critic who came to America only a few years ago local Cambone first Allan Harrington I think best trait is knowing that. Everything is possible and that you can you're not stuck with a situation unless you like many of us to choose to be stuck with a bill that you aren't necessarily stuck with it is also among many of us. Spite of what I've said about Corporation people are. A discontent with just Oh I think a healthy one. I think the weakest trait is oddly enough just simply a contradiction of what I said before that way because traits are a growing submission to outside authority in the scientific.
The story of our times I think I know of many people I know find it hard to love when Offhand I would say that the most important strength is his idealism and the fact that somewhere within his psyche there are things to which you can appeal that can bring an end to the kind of injustice the conscience answer he was accorded to conscience yes conscience can be appealed to because there are tenets of faith which he holds somewhere in his by and they can be brought out and held before him and he can be made to feel guilty of his misdeeds because of these things which he holds dear. In another part of his mind I would say that the greatest weakness in the American character as I see it is what they want there to one of the tendency to conform and the desire to be accepted to be a member of the club as it were and secondly a strain of violence that I find within our American
society and seems to be rather deeply embedded there. But I think clearly I want to the best trait is the very dynamism that I've already mentioned I think another one is his humanitarianism I think that's a value we did not mention before but I think it's very strong in our culture and I think we do convey this around the world rather success. These are two of our strengths I think we perhaps have a too saw and we haven't. We don't keep our Or. Our idealism and our energy really working as much as we should we relax. Perhaps I would think this is our worst. Simply this good will be. But then see to give a man a chance to give an idea a chance. This is very American I should say in all fairness.
We owe our weaknesses a certain blustering aggressiveness which sometimes interferes with a mutual understanding and with the social intercourse. A certain tendency to ignore. History in the past a certain point and seek to view of the world as a kind of great bazaar for travellers. This from personal experience statements by Alan Harrington James Farmer RC angel and Glasgow Cambone respectively. No two answers alike you see which testifies not only to the diversity of perspectives among these men but also ultimately I think to the diversity of Americans themselves to the many sidedness the complexity of American character. But there was one pattern that did emerge from the answers I sought and I found its recurrence in different forms different guises very interesting.
Listen if I were to ask you then what you would think of as the two polar opposite in a paradox central to the American mind of the American experience. What might you immediately name as the two halves of this para. Well right away I would say the two halves of the paradox are one believing in democracy and freedom as an ideal and as a principle and to failing to practice that ideal of that principle where it comes to race relations within the country. That was James Farmer. Here is the answer to the same question about paradox or conflict in our lives as given by Irving hom. One example that would come to mind is the conflict between the pretension toward equality and justice and the practice of the most outrageous forms of racial discrimination and suppression. That's one obvious thing. Another would be the claim toward equalitarian ism on the one hand that as all men are equal and an increasingly stratify you
don't corporate social structure which in practice prevents the equalitarian ideal from being realized. A more general way of putting this might be that the when the norms or the standards by which Americans like to think they live off still those essentially inherited from the 19th century but the reality the practice by which they have to live is that of the 20th century. We hear next from our sociologist Dr. Angell of the University of Michigan. Well I don't really feel that American society is that badly off I think we've got a pretty good set of central events. We've had most of them for about a hundred fifty years and I think we've produced a pretty good society. I don't have any great cause with most of our institutions I think our family has it's had its troubles with our family on the whole produces pretty good children pretty good relations with adults. I don't have any great quote with our economic system as it is it's a kind of a mixed economy very strongly influenced by capitalism but also has certain welfare
features in it and so on I I think these things on the whole the structure is pretty good. What are saying here is that we don't really live up to our structure and we don't actually we don't actually pattern our lives. Sufficiently that after you could still pattern your life after this structure and have a great deal of diversity between belief and practice. That's right it's a paradox I think our beliefs are fundamentally sound. I think our practice diverges considerably from our belief our practice diverges from our beliefs on this professor's hollin angel would agree even though I suspect they might disagree on whether we ought to keep the ideals and change the practice. The reality of the twentieth century or change the ideals to bring them in line with the practice. Let's turn to politics and the behavior of the so-called independent voter in America. The Independent is in a sense a paradox because
while at times he may by shifting parties temporarily serve to influence the election. That in actual fact the Independent is the less motivated voter is the more ignorant voter is the individual who doesn't participate very often in elections. The interest of the individual who votes most frequently who serves to carry the burden of the election who is the activist in American life is is the party person that was victorious shock of Holyoke College in Massachusetts who has studied our behavior as voters as a member of the president's commission on voting. But you see the pattern that begins to emerge in these emphases. Call it the contradiction or paradox between ideals and practice of the gap between myth and reality. If you feel indignant about it
you may talk in terms of betrayal or hypocrisy. If you remain fairly detached or circumspect you'll see it as a gap between our thought in our practice or as a dualism in the American mind some manifestation of this tension between American idealism on the one hand and American pragmatism or materialism on the other. Listen to three more comments on this same gap or contradiction or paradox as it appears. First in our religious life the comment is made by Alan Harrington our foreign policy a comment by Alfred Kelly of Wayne State University and in what might be called our everyday existence. The comment by the critic Alfred Kazin I would say that most Americans don't really believe in God anymore and yet they're still trying to live according to God's principles. They learned their mother's name and so it gets to be a necessary split in sadness or hypocrisy to keep us going. There's been historically a great deal of dualism in American foreign policy I put it this way.
And there's been a kind of coincidence between a certain kind of optimistic ethical idealism and a certain kind of hard practical reality. This is the way I put it I think. I think in America this thing is more striking elsewhere because of the anxiety to put it to be the anxiety to settle our problems to make ourselves believe that we have found a magic solution to certain life problems. Consequently with his eagerness to put a nice clean shining surface of accomplishment then of realization everything you know. Naturally the human reality of son asserting itself. Give an example I mean some years ago there was a story in TIME magazine. There was a line in it which fascinated me. There was a story about some tragedy domestic tragedy in Queens it happened in a policeman's family and the editor of the reporter wrote to Mrs. So and so had life by the tail. Went on to describe her blessings and
then explain that despite this something unfortunate happened up so long as you think that life can be gotten by the tail which is really a blasphemous idea from any point of view. But you have solved the problem but you have it everyone to life is good inevitably at every second of every minute. The reality of the universe of human character the reality of the situation which is always a tragic one always troubling one must assert itself you know. But there were other answers to my question about paradox in the American mind. Besides this insistent stress upon the divergence between ideals and reality Marshall Fishwick also one of the already in American Studies saw two dangerous trends occurring simultaneously. I would think immediately of the strain toward the past and the strain toward the future. One might also might almost say the path to cope
and the future called the Americans are up there with the relatively short path which they have. And have you find a tremendous effort to collect antiques. To dig up the remains of the fairly recent past as for example in the Civil War battlefield. We find the reconstruction the wholesale reconstruction of whole areas such at Colonial Williamsburg a multimillion dollar enterprise. As a matter of fact it all to Americans is one of the greatest compliment that can be paid to their cultural heritage as I thought recently with that new colonial home and that is precisely the way Americans think about the past. Recently I had a student ask me. People really bleed and die at Gettysburg as if it were staged by a TV camera and if you catch it was put on the Confederate uniforms to
pull people in to think they had left we have construed the image of the past with the reality of the past and this is very dangerous. After Wilders has said that youth is America's oldest tradition. Yeah she has had it now for 300 years. Yeah and of course we all know that the future color is just as dangerous. It implies that we must get better in every way. The new car must be better than the old the new house must be bigger than the old. Every graph on every wall now show an increase of membership an increase of income the stock market must go up and up. And of course if history proves there anything it is that you simply cannot constantly go in one direction without reverses or changes a catastrophe. Our WB Lewis divided my question into two parts. Naming as the paradox of the 19th century a contradiction between innocence and the awareness of evil that we discussed in a previous program. And then Lewis called attention to an approach an important new contradiction of facing our own generation.
I would say we were speaking of the American world of American letters since the war. I seem to see a firm what a different pair of. The contradictions and I would say this would be conformity on the one hand and rebellion or heresy on the other. These seem to me to be this in me the central contradiction that again both in fact and in the American writing one can discover. In recent years the the the character who in the 19th century a founder and a sudden fulfilled himself. Through his entrance into the social world. Now does the same thing by his regular rebellion against it by turning away from it resisting it solving it. All right then do you oppose the novelists or the rebels. Not just not when the problems in painting and in many field rebels and Yale College I'm sure he
would you opposed them to some math middle class suburban society out there who are the conformist that is would you would you think that it's a battle between two groups of people. Or is it a conflict with an individual. I think it's both and I'm glad you glad you added the latter. I think it. It does frequently take the form of one individual expressing his his rebelliousness against the the pressures that grabbed at him in society. I suspect though that as you're implying that the same character is resisting conformist impulses in himself I don't have any doubt about that. Historian John Higham sees the same contradiction but doesn't think it's particularly modern or rather he sees this issue of rebellion versus conformity as both very old and very new and he cites one of the first great scholars in the field we now
call American studies. Alexis de Tocqueville I would go back to the top fell. Who taught us to look upon ourselves as individual lists perhaps before anyone else had told us that that was what we were and our talk built point by that American individual had been late on the one hand to anarchy and on the other hand to conformity. That for talk fell there was contained in the very essence of American Individualism a very basic split and paradox. The individual is in the conformity notices the topic of my time going into a discussion of the kind of thing that is played today. There's a debate among historians as to how much America today resembles the America of Tuck fell. Many of us are inclined to think that
America has more talk with Aliant today than it was when talks fell. So describe that. In that we are aware today of patterns of conformity that seem to us far more pervasive and coercive than what we are cutting to associate with the America talk till today. Summing up I would say that the comments made about both evaluation and paradox by these 14 stimulating individuals add up to a portrait of the American as first a man who is both idealist and pragmatist and who must live with a constant tension between these polarities. Secondly as both a conformist and a rebel an individual ist who must resist conformist impulses in himself. And thirdly as an activist a dynamic man who in Henry James words stands in an attitude of hospitality to the
chances of life. But a man whose activism also can erupt in violence and aggression not allowing for generous overlap among these and other themes. My own feeling is that this third characteristic the one that stresses the American compulsion to move to act to do that this is the feature which in the long run emerges as the central or dominant or distinguishing one. And so I have reserved the final place on this program for a comment by Irving how that defines this characteristic most eloquently in a single answer. How combine the description of this American at his best and his worst with a comment on both his paradoxical nature and his future prospects. The best traits of the worst trait are exactly the same namely. The best traits are his openness to experience his belief that things are possible that he can mold his own destiny that he can be his own master
that the world is set there for him to to you to change to improve. In other words the whole tendency of Americans toward activism toward doing things Joy. Shaping the world in terms of that desire. This very same trait turned around looked at from a different perspective or in a different context can become extremely unattractive. It becomes a kind of willfulness it becomes a kind of model a Lising and contempt. For the past and indifference to the achievement of other people's ignorance about the possibilities of a righty in human culture which runs all through American writing all the way from the Hawthorns opinion that nudes in the Roman gallery should have had clothing to Mark Twain's Phyllis thin volume Innocents Abroad and goes right into the very press and the Ugly American things of that sort.
And it takes the form of a belief that whatever we wish or whatever we want is good somehow that we have a special sanction from heaven in effect that we are a chosen people without any theological basis for the choice. And these this seems to me the essential paradox of this mythical creature the American namely in his in a contradictory ness and all that you can say I think about it is that. The future of this species this strange creature who has been formed through historical accidents and geographical migrations whom we call the American rests upon the way in which he will resolve these inner contradictions between his various possibilities. Portrait of the American program number 13 patterns and paradox. The producer moderator Dr Bedi may author scholar and teacher of American studies. This program was produced by Wayne State University in Detroit. The program was directed by Dan Logan technical direction by Ed Raymond Craig Elliott. Your announcer
Portrait of the American
Patterns and paradox
Producing Organization
Wayne State University
WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Summary of series showing what has happened to the portrait of the American.
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: Kazin, Alfred, 1915-1998
Interviewee: Farmer, James, 1920-1999
Interviewee: Howe, Irving
Interviewee: Angell, Robert Cooley, 1899-1984
Interviewee: Whyte, William Hollingsworth
Interviewee: Lewis, R. W. B. (Richard Warrington Baldwin)
Interviewee: Dos Passos, John, 1896-1970
Producer: Gouds, Moyra
Producing Organization: Wayne State University
Producing Organization: WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-3-13 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:28
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Chicago: “Portrait of the American; Patterns and paradox,” 1966-03-07, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 21, 2021,
MLA: “Portrait of the American; Patterns and paradox.” 1966-03-07. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 21, 2021. <>.
APA: Portrait of the American; Patterns and paradox. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from