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U.S. Culture

U.S. Culture


American culture is rich, complex, and unique. It emerged from the short

and rapid European conquest of an enormous landmass sparsely settled by

diverse indigenous peoples. Although European cultural patterns

predominated, especially in language, the arts, and political

institutions, peoples from Africa, Asia, and North America also

contributed to American culture. All of these groups influenced popular

tastes in music, dress, entertainment, and cuisine. As a result, American

culture possesses an unusual mixture of patterns and forms forged from

among its diverse peoples. The many melodies of American culture have not

always been harmonious, but its complexity has created a society that

struggles to achieve tolerance and produces a uniquely casual personal

style that identifies Americans everywhere. The country is strongly

committed to democracy, in which views of the majority prevail, and

strives for equality in law and institutions.

Characteristics such as democracy and equality flourished in the American

environment long before taking firm root in European societies, where the

ideals originated. As early as the 1780s, Michel Guillaume Jean de

Crиvecoeur, a French writer living in Pennsylvania who wrote under the

pseudonym J. Hector St. John, was impressed by the democratic nature of

early American society. It was not until the 19th century that these

tendencies in America were most fully expressed. When French political

writer Alexis de Tocqueville, an acute social observer, traveled through

the United States in the 1830s, he provided an unusually penetrating

portrait of the nature of democracy in America and its cultural

consequences. He commented that in all areas of culture—family life, law,

arts, philosophy, and dress—Americans were inclined to emphasize the

ordinary and easily accessible, rather than the unique and complex. His

insight is as relevant today as it was when de Tocqueville visited the

United States. As a result, American culture is more often defined by its

popular and democratically inclusive features, such as blockbuster movies,

television comedies, sports stars, and fast food, than by its more

cultivated aspects as performed in theaters, published in books, or viewed

in museums and galleries. Even the fine arts in modern America often

partake of the energy and forms of popular culture, and modern arts are

often a product of the fusion of fine and popular arts.

While America is probably most well known for its popular arts, Americans

partake in an enormous range of cultural activities. Besides being avid

readers of a great variety of books and magazines catering to differing

tastes and interests, Americans also attend museums, operas, and ballets

in large numbers. They listen to country and classical music, jazz and

folk music, as well as classic rock-and-roll and new wave. Americans

attend and participate in basketball, football, baseball, and soccer

games. They enjoy food from a wide range of foreign cuisines, such as

Chinese, Thai, Greek, French, Indian, Mexican, Italian, Ethiopian, and

Cuban. They have also developed their own regional foods, such as

California cuisine and Southwestern, Creole, and Southern cooking. Still

evolving and drawing upon its ever more diverse population, American

culture has come to symbolize what is most up-to-date and modern. American

culture has also become increasingly international and is imported by

countries around the world.


Imported Traditions

Today American culture often sets the pace in modern style. For much of

its early history, however, the United States was considered culturally

provincial and its arts second-rate, especially in painting and

literature, where European artists defined quality and form. American

artists often took their cues from European literary salons and art

schools, and cultured Americans traveled to Europe to become educated. In

the late 18th century, some American artists produced high-quality art,

such as the paintings of John Singleton Copley and Gilbert Charles Stuart

and the silver work of Paul Revere. However, wealthy Americans who

collected art in the 19th century still bought works by European masters

and acquired European decorative arts—porcelain, silver, and antique

furniture—. They then ventured further afield seeking more exotic decor,

especially items from China and Japan. By acquiring foreign works, wealthy

Americans were able to obtain the status inherent in a long historical

tradition, which the United States lacked. Americans such as Isabella

Stewart Gardner and Henry Clay Frick amassed extensive personal

collections, which overwhelmingly emphasized non-American arts.

In literature, some 19th-century American writers believed that only the

refined manners and perceptions associated with the European upper classes

could produce truly great literary themes. These writers, notably Henry

James and Edith Wharton, often set their novels in the crosswinds of

European and American cultural contact. Britain especially served as the

touchstone for culture and quality because of its role in America's

history and the links of language and political institutions. Throughout

the 19th century, Americans read and imitated British poetry and novels,

such as those written by Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.

The Emergence of an American Voice

American culture first developed a unique American voice during the 19th

century. This voice included a cultural identity that was strongly

connected to nature and to a divine mission. The new American voice had

liberating effects on how the culture was perceived, by Americans and by

others. Writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau proposed that

the American character was deeply individualistic and connected to natural

and spiritual sources rather than to the conventions of social life. Many

of the 19th century’s most notable figures of American literature—Herman

Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Mark Twain—also influenced this tradition.

The poetry of Walt Whitman, perhaps above all, spoke in a distinctly

American voice about people’s relation to one another, and described

American freedom, diversity, and equality with fervor.

Landscape painting in the United States during the 19th century vividly

captured the unique American cultural identity with its emphasis on the

natural environment. This was evident in the huge canvases set in the West

by Albert Bierstadt and the more intimate paintings of Thomas Cole. These

paintings, which were part of the Hudson River School, were often

enveloped in a radiant light suggesting a special connection to spiritual

sources. But very little of this American culture moved beyond the United

States to influence art trends elsewhere. American popular culture,

including craft traditions such as quilting or local folk music forged by

Appalachian farmers or former African slaves, remained largely local.

This sense of the special importance of nature for American identity led

Americans in the late 19th century to become increasingly concerned that

urban life and industrial products were overwhelming the natural

environment. Their concern led for calls to preserve areas that had not

been developed. Naturalists such as John Muir were pivotal in establishing

the first national parks and preserving scenic areas of the American West.

By the early 20th century, many Americans supported the drive to preserve

wilderness and the desire to make the great outdoors available to


Immigration and Diversity

By the early 20th century, as the United States became an international

power, its cultural self-identity became more complex. The United States

was becoming more diverse as immigrants streamed into the country,

settling especially in America’s growing urban areas. At this time,

America's social diversity began to find significant expression in the

arts and culture. American writers of German, Irish, Jewish, and

Scandinavian ancestry began to find an audience, although some of the

cultural elite resisted the works, considering them crude and unrefined.

Many of these writers focused on 20th-century city life and themes, such

as poverty, efforts to assimilate into the United States, and family life

in the new country. These ethnically diverse writers included Theodore

Dreiser, of German ancestry; Henry Roth, a Jewish writer; and Eugene

O'Neill and James Farrell, of Irish background. European influence now

meant something very different than it once had: Artists changed the core

of American experience by incorporating their various immigrant origins

into its cultural vision. During the 1920s and 1930s, a host of African

American poets and novelists added their voices to this new American

vision. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen, among

others, gathered in New York City’s Harlem district. They began to write

about their unique experiences, creating a movement called the Harlem


Visual artists of the early 20th century also began incorporating the many

new sights and colors of the multiethnic America visible in these new city

settings. Painters associated with a group known as The Eight (also called

the Ashcan school), such as Robert Henri and John Sloan, portrayed the

picturesque sights of the city. Later painters and photographers focused

on the city’s squalid and seamier aspects. Although nature remained a

significant dimension of American cultural self-expression, as the

paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe demonstrated, it was no longer at the heart

of American culture. By the 1920s and 1930s few artists or writers

considered nature the singular basis of American cultural identity.

In popular music too, the songs of many nations became American songs. Tin

Pan Alley (Union Square in New York City, the center of music publishing

at the turn of the 20th century) was full of immigrant talents who helped

define American music, especially in the form of the Broadway musical.

Some songwriters, such as Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan, used their

music to help define American patriotic songs and holiday traditions.

During the 1920s musical forms such as the blues and jazz began to

dominate the rhythms of American popular music. These forms had their

roots in Africa as adapted in the American South and then in cities such

as New Orleans, Louisiana; Kansas City, Missouri; Detroit, Michigan; and

Chicago, Illinois. Black artists and musicians such as Louis Armstrong,

Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie became the instruments of

a classic American sound. White composers such as George Gershwin and

performers such as Bix Beiderbecke also incorporated jazz rhythms into

their music, while instrumentalists such as Benny Goodman adopted jazz’s

improvisational style to forge a racially blended American form called

swing music.

Development of Mass Media

In the late 19th century, Americans who enjoyed the arts usually lived in

big cities or had the money to attend live performances. People who were

poor or distant from cultural centers settled for second-rate productions

mounted by local theater troupes or touring groups. New technologies, such

as the motion-picture camera and the phonograph, revolutionized the arts

by making them available to the masses. The movies, the phonograph, and,

somewhat later, the radio made entertainment available daily and allowed

Americans to experience elaborately produced dramas and all types of


While mass media made entertainment available to more people, it also

began to homogenize tastes, styles, and points of view among different

groups in the United States. Class and ethnic distinctions in American

culture began to fade as mass media transmitted movies and music to people

throughout the United States. Some people criticized the growing

uniformity of mass culture for lowering the general standard of taste,

since mass media sought to please the largest number of people by

appealing to simpler rather than more complex tastes. However, culture

became more democratic as modern technology and mass media allowed it to

reach more people.

During the 20th century, mass entertainment extended the reach of American

culture, reversing the direction of influence as Europe and the world

became consumers of American popular culture. America became the dominant

cultural source for entertainment and popular fashion, from the jeans and

T-shirts young people wear to the music groups and rock stars they listen

to and the movies they see. People all over the world view American

television programs, often years after the program’s popularity has

declined in the United States. American television has become such an

international fixture that American news broadcasts help define what

people in other countries know about current events and politics. American

entertainment is probably one of the strongest means by which American

culture influences the world, although some countries, such as France,

resist this influence because they see it as a threat to their unique

national culture.

The Impact of Consumerism

Popular culture is linked to the growth of consumerism, the repeated

acquisition of an increasing variety of goods and services. The American

lifestyle is often associated with clothing, houses, electronic gadgets,

and other products, as well as with leisure time. As advertising

stimulates the desire for updated or improved products, people

increasingly equate their well-being with owning certain things and

acquiring the latest model. Television and other mass media broadcast a

portrayal of a privileged American lifestyle that many Americans hope to


Americans often seek self-fulfillment and status through gaining material

items. Indeed, products consumed and owned, rather than professional

accomplishments or personal ideals, are often the standard of success in

American society. The media exemplify this success with the most glamorous

models of consumption: Hollywood actors, sports figures, or music

celebrities. This dependence on products and on constant consumption

defines modern consumer society everywhere. Americans have set the pace

for this consumer ideal, especially young people, who have helped fuel

this consumer culture in the United States and the world. Like the mass

media with which it is so closely linked, consumption has been extensively

criticized. Portrayed as a dizzy cycle of induced desire, consumerism

seems to erode older values of personal taste and economy. Despite this,

the mass production of goods has also allowed more people to live more

comfortably and made it possible for anyone to attain a sense of style,

blurring the most obvious forms of class distinction.


Living Patterns

A fundamental element in the life of the American people was the enormous

expanse of land available. During the colonial period, the access to open

land helped scatter settlements. One effect was to make it difficult to

enforce traditional European social conventions, such as primogeniture, in

which the eldest son inherited the parents’ estate. Because the United

States had so much land, sons became less dependent on inheriting the

family estate. Religious institutions were also affected, as the widely

spread settlements created space for newer religious sects and revivalist


In the 19th century, Americans used their land to grow crops, which helped

create the dynamic agricultural economy that defined American society.

Many Americans were lured westward to obtain more land. Immigrants sought

land to settle, cattle ranchers wanted land for their herds, Southerners

looked to expand their slave economy into Western lands, and railroad

companies acquired huge tracts of land as they bound a loose society into

a coherent economic union. Although Native Americans had inhabited most of

the continent, Europeans and American settlers often viewed it as empty,

virgin land that they were destined to occupy. Even before the late 19th

century, when the last bloody battles between U.S. troops and Native

Americans completed the white conquest of the West, the idea of possessing

land was deeply etched into American cultural patterns and national


Throughout the 19th century, agricultural settlements existed on large,

separate plots of land, often occupying hundreds of acres. The Homestead

Act of 1862 promised up to 65 hectares (160 acres) of free land to anyone

with enough fortitude and vision to live on or cultivate the land. As a

result, many settlements in the West contained vast areas of sparsely

settled land, where neighbors lived great distances from one another. The

desire for residential privacy has remained a significant feature of

American culture.

This heritage continues to define patterns of life in the United States.

More than any other Western society, Americans are committed to living in

private dwellings set apart from neighbors. Despite the rapid urbanization

that began in the late 19th century, Americans insisted that each nuclear

family (parents and their children) be privately housed and that as many

families as possible own their own homes. This strong cultural standard

sometimes seemed unusual to new immigrants who were used to the more

crowded living conditions of Europe, but they quickly adopted this aspect

of American culture.

As cities became more densely populated, Americans moved to the suburbs.

Streetcars, first used during the 1830s, opened suburban rings around city

centers, where congestion was greatest. Banks offered long-term loans that

allowed individuals to invest in a home. Above all, the automobile in the

1920s was instrumental in furthering the move to the suburbs.

After World War II (1939-1945), developers carved out rural tracts to

build millions of single-family homes, and more Americans than ever before

moved to large suburban areas that were zoned to prevent commercial and

industrial activities. The federal government directly fueled this process

by providing loans to war veterans as part of the Servicemen’s

Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the GI Bill of Rights, which provided a

wide range of benefits to U.S. military personnel. In many of the new

housing developments, builders constructed homes according to a single

model, a process first established in Levittown, New York. These

identical, partially prefabricated units were rapidly assembled, making

suburban life and private land ownership available to millions of

returning soldiers in search of housing for their families.

American families still choose to live in either suburbs or the sprawling

suburban cities that have grown up in newer regions of the country. Vast

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