thumbnail of Portrait of the American; The affluent American
Hide -
If this transcript has significant errors that should be corrected, let us know, so we can add it to FIX IT+
Once abundance is secured the ideal individual develops the qualities of a good consumer rather than those of a good producer. Society expects him to consume his quota of good. As a public service. When I was a child my mother said to me. Clean a plate. Because children are starving. And I point out that was years before the Marshall Plan was. Silent. Clean the plate. Four five six times a day. This. Style. Was wrong. Kiddie. Porn or some other way do. What you will.
You. Do not scoff at that fat. Chick. Comedian Allan Sherman testifies to David Potter's finding that the ideal American today in an age of abundance is the good consumer. I am me and this is part of the American. Portrait of the American writer for The National Education already own network underground from a national home library foundation. Program number five the affluent American producer moderator Dr Bedi author scholar and teacher of American Studies a wise German scholar
once asked me why American writers spend so much time discussing national character in terms of American democracy or freedom or idealism or innocence when there was really only one fact about us. Although it would be an astonishing fact. One thing that distinguished us not only from other peoples of the world today but from all peoples of all times. And that was our wealth affluence that standard of living that we boast about which is indeed the wonder and envy of peoples everywhere and also the only obvious thing that most Americans that most Europeans see about Americans who travel abroad. And the evidence in recent years does seem to suggest that our affluence our opulence has had a greater shaping influence upon us than upon what we are upon our international relations our ideals our institutions than we have wished to acknowledge in the past. But curiously What seems obvious to an outside observer is very often very difficult for the American himself to take
in. So let's begin by taking a hard look at some facts. Item one the United States with seven percent of the world's population has 42 percent of the world's income. Immediately we must ask whether this income is shared by a large segment of our population or merely represents the disproportionate wealth of the few wages of unskilled workers in the United States in 1940 where 60 percent greater than similar wages in Great Britain Australia or New Zealand the wealthiest among the other countries and 400 percent greater than in most of Latin America. Still there are other wealthy nations and it's still possible that our per capita income only seems high. Next to that of the very poor countries their per capita income for the United States in 1949 was more than double that of any other nation five times that of the Soviet Union over 20 times that of most African and Latin American countries and 70 times that of China.
Well all right so we're rich very rich so what. What do these statistics mean in terms of our daily lives. Consider the basic items of food clothing and shelter. We've already heard what food did to Alan Sherman. Here is what John Kenneth Galbraith reports in the affluent society. Nine hundred fifty eight more die in the United States have too much food than too little. When the population was once thought to press on the food supply the food supply now presses relentlessly on the population and item on housing which you might check against your own case in the average American home. There are over 2 rooms per person in the household. The average for all other countries combined is about two persons per room. You count hallways and bathrooms as a half room each. Two items on clothing reported by Potter and Galbraith. While people in other countries keep their bodies warm primarily by wearing clothing Americans keep their bodies warm by a far more expensive method by heating the air around them. The buildings they live and work in are teenagers wear Bermuda shorts in
winter. Our babies are less tightly swaddled and therefore freer from the discipline of clothing Our under clothing is lighter and flimsy or in fact many women and some men use clothing almost exclusively for erotic purposes. Three items on accepted forms of child care in America. Quoted from America's most popular authority on the subject. Dr. Benjamin Spock it is preferable that the infant not sleep in his parent's room after he is about 12 months old. It's fine for a child to have a room of his own. It's a sensible rule not to take the child into the parent's bed for any reason. How well I remember reading that advice when our first child was born and taking it very seriously as I imagine the other mothers who read Spock did and I remember how tiny that bassinette looked all by itself in the middle of the baby's own room at the age of six months. But just consider the assumption implicit in such advice which Potter points out. And that's the assumption that there are enough rooms in the household to permit this to permit the luxury of such psychological independence even at this
early age. One more item or rather a question. What was it that native populations and foreign countries always asked for from the G.I. station there or the Air Force pilot or the sailor to explain to a democracy perhaps or to teach them what America was about. Not at all according to Isabel Carey Lundberg. What they always asked for was what the whole world wants from the United States wristwatches fountain pen cigarettes chocolate bars chewing gum pills vaccines Jeep struction white bread and this list of items could be extended almost endlessly. Dieting is a major problem in America. So is the disposal of agricultural surpluses. So is garbage collection and incineration and air pollution from too many cars. The demolition of old buildings old in quotes is a major industry a major factor in our turnover economy and we have trouble getting rid of old appliances and machines. Automobile automobile graveyards on the edges of
our cities are part of the landscape sometimes they can take up more room than the cemeteries and we even have a term planned obsolescence to signal our acceptance with whatever regret of the quantitative over the qualitative principle of production. And all of these items begin to seem rather frightening when we consider that most of the people of the world still go to bed hungry and have never possessed even as luxuries many of the things we regard as necessities. What of the individual at the center of this affluent society. How does he react to his enormous good fortune. Well of course he may be very proud of his country for its high standard of living and proud of his own possessions but at the same time living as he does in the very midst of the plenty he's affected in ways that he's not aware of and he may tend to take the general well-being for granted. And it's for this reason that we need an outside perspective from foreigners or from critics to help us see who we are as affluent Americans and what makes our behavior unique and an
enormous danger of American pride. It is very hard to be humble when you are first. When you do have the good things of the world and if there is one thing which most of us constantly notice in American tourists is they are by the nature of things. That to be not haughty and not super serious which of course some are there apt to be this dame full of people who are poor people who do hard work with their muscles. People who are impoverished in mind and spirit. It is very hard for the haves to share the anguish and the problems of the have nots. So I do not believe the American is callous or cruel but I believe that he is indeed set apart by his good fortune. One might think of the Americans as the chosen people of the 20th century and as we all know from the history of the ancient world the chosen people who were the
Hebrews had a terrible judgment work to bomb them. At least in Brit terms and Old Testament terms when the judgement did not find that they had done all that might be done to redeem the world and their people. Or let's put it this way. To be chosen either by fate or God or what. What you care to chose to call it is both a great privilege and a terrible responsibility. That was Marshall Fishwick an American studies scholar and director of Weems foundation naming pride as a central weakness in American character and the trait that other peoples most often object to as for instance when they call us Ugly Americans or see us as materialists or when they use the phrase The Americanization of Europe which more and more has come to be defined simply as the coming of wealth or economic well-being to these countries. William White ran headlong into this phrase when he was in Europe on us assignment for Fortune
magazine after World War 2. I did a story for fortune in 1950. Easiest one I ever had to do in a way it was on that was in connection with our USA issue. All these things and I was to try to assess at that particular what was at that particular time was going to play an intellectual image of the American what was right about that time extremely well because at that time the great threat that America seemed to intellectuals. I think they were dead wrong at the time and I think they require quite a revulsion almost in European circles against the previous idea was that when I look at the so-called Americanization of Europe when they were looking at was the spread of the middle class it was a very Mandarin sort of atmosphere I remember one man was talking about Italy how wonderful Italy this is an Englishman. I want to flee Italy was before its ruination by Americans and so forth. He was talking about this particular I was as he gives one visions of an unspoiled peasantry.
Then he talked of what he will remember you to the girls that never used make up or they were there in their natural self and they were they didn't save their life as I remember the money he said and then he went on to talk about the most recent visit when he saw all the girls now they were all dolled up with a lot a little bit of money now and they had their hair done they even of the factory girls used lipstick and so forth and as though something had been taken from I know that we had one argue about it was a pretty lousy way to look at things you're saying that. What you're really objecting to not heard him say it all. But if the social infringe I know a conflict is raised here for the American and that is how do we reconcile our belief in consumption our materialism if you wish with the idealism that discussed on previous programs a number of answers have been suggested that we idealize our acquisitive motives our new car becomes an ideal
for us that we use material wealth to realize our ideals as white suggested the ideal of social and French is meant or that we manage to be both idealists and materialists at the same time. It was interesting to me that both James Farmer national director of the Congress of Racial Equality and John Higham intellectual historian from the University of Michigan saw that combination or contradiction in us though each approached the issue from a different direction. So when I asked Farmer what single word he might use to describe the American among the peoples of the world he replied I would say the people to the world of America parents materialist. I asked John Higham point blank whether he thought Americans were materialists No not at all. The whole world is materialistic. Americans have a particular
reputation for being materialistic because their materialism seems so often in conflict with their idealism. Many of their people also seem to us Americans far more are grasping. That we think we are. But there is less of a tension less of a contradiction perhaps between such radically opposed strains we think of the. Let's say the Buddha says very unworldly and idealistic and we very often think of the French as particularly grasping in America these qualities are strangely blended and mixed.
Both farmer and Chaim then supported interpretations that took them back to the beginning of American history into the issue of why people came here. When I asked Farmer if the materialism he saw conflicted with an idealism in the American producing a divided mind he replied the American nation was built upon idealism. The people who came to these shores came for idealistic purposes. They came for freedom. They came for a new life where the rights of man could be recognized. Yet in the practical responsibilities of building a nation making their way in a hostile continent as it were they came up against practical problems and were able to rationalize those acts which they found practically necessary. And at the same time keep intact the idealism which I suppose produced a great deal of compartmentalization in the American mind and we find in many nations.
Here is John Hyams comment on the same issue. Let's go back to the very beginning of American history. America was discovered in the course of a search for profit. And yet people established they are going societies where we're trying to create utopia. They're trying to create. John Winthrop said they were trying to provide a pattern a blueprint for a man to purge the impurities from European culture. And yet the energy made possible the utopia where highly materialistic energy the very voyages would not have been possible without capitalist enterprise. In other words while both interpreters supported the view of the American as a man of divided mind by appealing to motives in our earliest history one saw the idealism as the energizing
force and peep in bringing people here with the materialism developing afterward while the other saw the profit motive as the prime cause that made possible the utopian ideals. There are also two theories offered to explain why America was a success. Materially speaking one of these holes that the Voyagers locked in on a continent that was rich in natural resources climate water waterways and so on. The other theory holds that the crucial factor in developing America was aggressive enterprise. Obviously the Indians haven't produced an affluent society before Columbus and the others arrived. At any rate luck and enterprise together proved to be the winning combination in the wealth of modern America was the result. But let me return to this central figure the man at the center of this opulent society. What are the effects of affluence upon him. This is a question that has long been the concern of the distinguished novelist John Dos Passos. Perhaps our only writer to attempt to make American afe affluence part of a national epic
USA who in fact titled One of the books of this trilogy The big money. I talked with DOS PASSOS at the Peabody Institute Library in Baltimore and began our interview by asking him to fill in the blank on my favorite sentence among the peoples of the world. The American makes his appearance as the sun. They could cover that by have a great many profound observers of human races. I've discovered that the one thing that the human race can't stand is prosperity I was reading that interesting and interesting a little paragraph by a John Adams on that subject just this morning. I'm speaking of the American 1965 I'm not speaking of the American 1925 like the American 1825 but I think that the softness that comes from prosperity is the feature that
the little green men from Mars would first notice notice if they came. If you want a vantage of a communist systems have over run over there I was just amazed that they produced such such disagreeable conditions of life that people have to produce produce a certain amount of a vigor in order to stand it at all oh. I could see why prosperity could lead to softness but I wasn't sure what does Bassos meant by calling the affluent American the sucker. Well we all know the character who's always being taken down the river by politicians by his foreign policy but was always very good being sold to goldbrick it seems to me that the Americans are all advance in that direction and any other people and not the fact of money and perhaps this is indirect.
You know we're bombarded all the time with all sorts of stimuli half Kingis I moved you to do something I think we probably are more bombarded with that than any other people because the organisation of the consumer is so much the basis of the of the economic system that he's continually bombarded did he have money and everyone out to get him. If you try to talk to finding where your money would you buy me. Well they don't even get that. Yes I mean the Soviet Union it would be nobody would spend advertising dado say because that caters to go out. Now this sense of merciless bombardment by the stimuli of an eager expanding consumer culture its advertising its advice its headlines its music its picture of the world. This is what
Dos Passos captured in the newsreel sections of USA and his later Chronicles. He took the items for these news reels from real life and juxtapose them to suggest both the temptations held out to the aspiring in America and also to suggest the relentless tempo that compels him that impels him forward. We have put together parts of four of these newsreels from the Big Money section of U.S.A. in order to illustrate what an affluent expanding society sounds like what the whole world wants from the United States wristwatches fountain pen cigarettes chocolate bars chewing gum pills vaccines so jeeps trucks and white bread. You're tired of walking riding a bicycle or riding in street cars. He's likely to
buy a Ford a lot holdups kind of crowd. Do you really and I had so much of judgement and willpower I could not fail to rise above the general run of men. He became intimate just as soon as his wife discovers that every Fort is like every other Ford and that nearly everyone has one. She is likely to influence him to step into the next social group of weights. The dodge is the most conspicuous example revolver battle followed. The next step comes when daughter comes back from college and the family moves into a new home. Father wants economy mother craves opportunity if our children don't have desires social prestige and son wants trouble speed get up and go Man slaying their Hotel Majestic by three foot paths. Such exploits may indicate a dangerous degree of bravado but they display the qualities that made a boy of high school age the acknowledged leader of a gang
that has been a thorn in the side of the state of boys seeking future offered opportunity positions were bright chance for advancement going to learn errand boy office boy young man wanted. Opportunity in a bank that uses its offices from the ranks of wide awake ambitious bookkeeper energetic hard worker for $7 an hour presence for metal part canvassers chemistry elevator surance my insurance my milling machine man shipping clerk shipping clerk sign maker teacher time keeper tool and die maker or translator take this opportunity for you young man not afraid of hard work. Young men are often young and first talk to young men is to knock a young man to travel a young man to learn opportunity. Girls girls we have hundreds of positions open. We're anxious to fill vacancies cashiers chambermaid Beatrice's companions piled books books come tumbling
operators glow buyer models good opportunity for stylish young ladies intelligent young women. We offer a good salary commission bonuses prices business opportunity training advancement educational opportunities hospital service restroom and lunchroom excellent lunches no less than pot. The elder Mr way had been attempting for several years to get a certain kind of celery spray on the market. The investigation of the charges that he had been beating revealed way had been warned to cease writing letters but it also brought to light the statement that the leading cell regrow ors were using a spray containing a deadly poison. Miners retell the horrors of death in as much as banks are having trouble employed at this time. Checks are not going through as fast as they should. To prevent delay please send us express money on instead of said If I check. Or if Rob fails to check stock price the climate breeds
optimism and it's hard for pessimism to survive the bright sunshine and balmy breezes that blow from the Gulf and the Atlantic hurricane sweeps south Florida Florida devastated 1000 dead 38000 deaf to. The sounds of UAC according to John Dos Passos writing the 1000 20s and they really haven't changed much. There are new songs new jobs new disasters new products or new poisons in the products. There are other hurricanes and disasters more Broadway beauties. But if anything the pace has quickened and the capacity of advertising has intensified while at the same time more and more we're presented with a picture of a completely contented America. A comment that seems especially pertinent at this point in that serves to
sum up the effects of affluence was made by the literary critic Alfred Kazan during our interview in New York. You'll recall that it was Kazan who advanced his view on a previous program that made the American epic unique was the story of transformation. The fact that Americans were constantly making themselves into new people. But then Kazan added if the real epic we had earlier is the making of Americans the real vice of America is the selling of America to ourselves everyone else you see. After all we not only have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams as a people as an historical entity but I've also tried to assure ourselves and other people that we have succeeded for all time that we serve. This of course is nonsense. So the paradox is of course the inevitable tension at the heart of it. It's like looking at a television movie or anything else one is struck again and again by the by the unbelievable with him but the unbelievable duplicity and innocent duplicity if you like with which the American tries to convince himself that everything is worked out.
Television and yes yes well the television ads not only represent a cause of unbridled greed insensate and vulgarity but there have been also an attempt to sell us an image of accomplishment to produce not a sense of of endless contentment and inevitably looking at these things one thinks of of how they lie and how they must lie in terms of the human reality. Does the American then pay a high psychological price for his affluence. Is he aware that a joke is being played on him. Or can he accept the illusions which must be the necessary aim of the public relations and advertising industries. These industries which David Potter has aptly called the institutions of abundance we can pick up our discussion of affluence at precisely this point next time when my theme will be the burdens and obligations that abundance imposes upon the American portrait of the American program number five.
The affluent American the producer moderator Dr Bedi may author scholar and teacher of American studies this program was produced by Wayne State University in Detroit. Performers where William McDonald Phil Davidson Dave medico and John Crighton. The program was directed by Dan Logan technical direction by Ed Raymond Craig Elliott or announcer Phil Jones a grant from the National Home Library Foundation has made possible the production of this program for national education already oh this is a national education already own network.
Portrait of the American
The affluent American
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-xp6v2q6h).
Episode Description
Second theme: American affluence, interpretations, meanings of; effects on areas of life and modern values.
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
Producer: Gouds, Moyra
Producing Organization: Wayne State University
Producing Organization: WDET (Radio station : Detroit, Mich.)
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 66-3-5 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:28:48
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; The affluent American,” 1966-01-10, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 25, 2024,
MLA: “Portrait of the American; The affluent American.” 1966-01-10. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. April 25, 2024. <>.
APA: Portrait of the American; The affluent American. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from