Monday, July 26, 2010


A long time ago, when Derek, Stephen, and I were spinning up the History News Network blog that became Rebunk, I recommended that we name it "NeoConsensus" as a nod to the post-World War II consensus school. Didn't happen, because Derek is the devil.

But check this out. At The American Prospect, Sarah Igo reviews Claude S. Fischer, Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. Here's the start:

A half-century ago, writing in the crucible of the early Cold War, American historians were convinced that something ran deep among U.S. citizens linking them to one another -- a national personality or fundamental essence that made Americans American. "By some alchemy," as Henry Steele Commager put it, "out of the blending of inheritance, environment, and experience, there came a distinctive American character." Louis Hartz and Daniel Boorstin suggested that its core was a deep-seated liberalism. David Potter argued that from the beginning, Americans were a "people of plenty," their history defined by material abundance. But whatever the particular interpretation, the "consensus historians," as they came to be known, viewed American character as distinct, coherent, and exceptional.

The very concept of national character went out of fashion in the 1960s when political and cultural events (not to mention challenges from New Left historians) made it harder to think of America in singular terms. There seemed to be too much conflict and diversity to locate a core. Social historians turned away from sweeping claims about all Americans in favor of detailed local studies of specific groups: slaves, pioneers, farmers, mill hands, shopkeepers, and immigrants. Suspicious of attempts to plot a unitary tradition, they disavowed not just previous definitions of American character but the notion of defining one at all.

This is partly what makes Claude S. Fischer's new history of American culture, Made in America, so intriguing. Fischer, a distinguished sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, places the concept of national character right in the center of his analysis -- indeed, in his title -- and proudly claims the mantle of Commager and others in the consensus tradition. Even his argument is reminiscent of Potter's: "Centuries of material and social expansion enabled more people to become more characteristically 'American,'" Fischer writes.
Even though Igo's review is generally critical, Fischer's book sounds promising. And if there is a neoconsensus coming, sign me up.


Stephen said...

We were so smart back then.

dcat said...

1) Rebunk was a much better name.
2) Capitalize the "D" in "Devil," please.