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Cross Sections of American Civilization

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

A History of American Life. Edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger and Dixon Ryan Fox. Vol. II. The First Americans, 1607-1690. By Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker. Vol. III. Provincial Society, 1690-1793. By James Truslow Adams. Vol. VI. The Rise of the Common Man, 1830-1850. By Carl Russell Fish. Vol. VIII. The Emergence of Modern America, 1865-1878. By Allan Nevins. New York: The Macmillan Company. $4.00 each.

Few will question the importance or the difficulty of writing a comprehensive history of American civilization. For years now economic historians have been modifying the stock political generalizations with which American histories of the old type abounded and reinterpreting political and sectional controversies in terms of the clash and interplay of economic forces. The social historian, who regards the entire life of man as his province, has at length emerged to supplement the economic. To him it is important to know how men voted and were ruled, but also how they made their living, what houses they built and clothes they wore, the schools and churches they attended, the roads they travelled, the books and papers they read, their attainments in intellect and culture. The materials of the social historian accordingly are as diverse as life itself, and for him truth is as elusive as are human motive and personality.

Of the attempts which have been made in recent years to chart the course of American social history, “A History of American Life,” edited by Professors Schlesinger and Fox, is the most ambitious and most promising. The editors have divided American life into twelve chronological cross sections, of which four are now presented in as many scholarly and fascinating volumes. These with their invaluable bibliographies provide an admirable introduction to the diverse activities of our forebears. In general, they are original only in the sense that they are chronological syntheses of elements drawn from monographs, more or less familiar to scholars, and many topical studies, such as histories of the press, family, education, religion and architecture. In many instances, however, new sources have been drawn upon, and in every case there is a marked freshness of approach and point of view. Each work is the product of critical scholarship, but no one of the four authors errs, as do so many modern interpreters of past American custom, by applying ruthlessly to another age the criteria of today. The value of historical training shows itself conspicuously here in the appraisal of each generation in the light of contemporary standards. In the best sense, these volumes are sympathetic.

The first two volumes describe the life of the colonial period, each treating of something more than two generations. The continuous development from simplicity to complexity, from transplanted English to native American culture, can accordingly be clearly traced. Both Professor Wertenbaker, in “The First Americans,” and Mr. Adams, in “Provincial Society,” emphasize environmental influences and economic factors. Both lay more than customary stress on the similarities in race and culture between northern and southern colonists. Professor Wertenbaker, who has studied Virginia most, minimizes the Cavalier element and magnifies the sixteenth-century yeomen, while Mr. Adams, who has hitherto devoted chief attention to New England, denies the superiority of colonial culture in that region and describes aspects of southern culture hitherto little known. It would be unwise to disturb an account they have between them so neatly balanced. The beginnings of sectional divergence are pointed out by one author; its development, through increase in southern slavery and northern commercialization, is traced by the other. Professor Wertenbaker clarifies the problem of the Anglican church in Virginia, and writes fascinating pages about the practice of physic in a superstitious age, seventeenth century morals (which on the whole were exceptional), crime and punishment, and other kindred topics little touched on by the political or economic historian. Mr. Adams is most illuminating perhaps in charting the course of colonial culture through distinct stages: first borrowed from Europe, then weakened in a wilderness, then arising among a limited group in native form, while at the same time folk art declined. His book, written with rare literary, charm, reflects the increasing richness of eighteenth century life, and only the confusion of events in the mid-century obscures the clarity of his thought.

One must skip two generations to Professor Fish’s “The Rise of the Common Man, 1830-1850,” and can readily perceive the increased complexity and velocity of life. In the two decades described in this volume, ‘common men whose ancestors had had little share in aristocratic colonial culture rejoiced in the attainment of complete political independence, repudiated class-dominance in government, and with superb optimism and aggressive patriotism laid the foundations for an American culture which they believed all men might share. It may be that “new winds” swept slave states as well as free more than has been supposed, but in our opinion the author has failed to differentiate sufficiently the diverging sections. It was in the North and West that liberty and equality were looked upon as established facts, that the political dominance of the aristocracy was overthrown, that the foundations of public education were securely laid, that the spirit of reform was rampant. Professor Fish is far from unaware of the sectional clash in politics, but although his comments on southern life are uniformly sympathetic and intelligent, his treatment of the pro-slavery, philosophy and the social system of the South are distinctly inadequate. Probably southern civilizations will be considered at length in the forthcoming volume dealing with the following decade. Professor Fish devotes himself chiefly, to the civilization which was destined to prevail. Its dangers and limitations he perceives. The influence of wealth in government was increasing and, all men’s opinions being equal, taste decayed. None the less, he feels that the general tendency was to level up, not down.

The victorious march of that civilization, which defeated its rival in war and destroyed it in Reconstruction, is described by Professor Nevins in “The Emergence of Modern America, 1865-1878.” The supreme achievement of the post-bellum decade, as he sees it, was unity—political, economic and cultural: another way of saying that the northern system was adopted by the South, with whatever grace, and that distinctive southern civilization disappeared. This volume takes us into the rush of modern life, though as yet there were no automobiles nor even electric street-railways. The period treated is, on the whole, the most unattractive in our history. The machine age, both in politics and industry, had definitely arrived. Comfort was greatly increased, though the bath-tub had not yet attained superlative excellence; private morals were rigid and convention was prim, but public morals were at their lowest ebb; American life was flashy; architecture reflected wealth but not taste. Culture of a sort was broadened through press, lyceum and Chautauqua, and more significantly through public education; fortunately it was being deepened also through the transformation of colleges and universities. The forms of political democracy ill concealed a sinister plutocracy; industrial conflict had definitely appeared. Professor Nevins does not resolve complex elements as readily as does, for example, Mr. Beard, but if he does not make it entirely clear whither the American machine was tending, he demonstrates that after the war it gathered power and proceeded with increased momentum toward some goal subsequently to be revealed.

The achievement of a distinct American culture within a limited group, the effort to obtain cultural uniformity by “leveling up,” the final victory, of the new civilization based on the material prosperity of an increasingly industrialized society—these are the high points of the first volumes of a notable series. We await with impatience the remaining volumes which will undoubtedly make available a vast amount of additional information about social and intellectual life and will enable us, we believe, to perceive more clearly the path along which American culture has proceeded.


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