Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character, by Claude S Fischer, University of Chicago Press, $35, 528 pages, FT Bookshop price: £18
Everyone likes to generalise about Americans, all 300m of them. But few are likely to be able to do so with the authority of Claude S Fischer, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
In Made in America, Fischer embarks on a vastly ambitious project: “to sketch how American culture and character changed – or did not change – over the course of the nation’s history”, from the colonial era until now.
That he does so in fewer than 250 pages (there are 200 pages of notes), and in a readable and entertaining way, is a formidable achievement. Fischer narrows his frame of reference by considering the American people’s relationship with five basic aspects of life: physical security, material goods, social groups, public spaces and mental attitude. He concludes that, if anything, prosperity has enabled Americans to become more American, with more people aspiring to the prosperity and individual freedom that became socially and culturally embedded more than 300 years ago.
Fischer’s dense analysis of social change is brought to life by the stories of ordinary people, extracted from historical documents quoted in academic papers, books and studies. Indentured maids are no longer sent to the workhouse, as in Philadelphia in 1786. Young boys of 10 or 11 years old are no longer treated like Chauncey Jerome, a clockmaker whose father’s death in 1804 led to him being sent away to work.
But the fascination of this book lies in seeing how much has indeed remained the same. Fischer points out that the idea of Americans as addicted to credit and living beyond their means is not as new as we might think. Paul Dudley, attorney general of the colony of Massachusetts, lamented in the early 18th century, “that people ... are fallen beyond their Circumstances, in their Purchases, Buildings, Expenses, Apparel, and generally whole way of Living”.
More positively, Americans have continued to display an enthusiasm for joining groups – from their churches to the Elks fraternity, and more recently to book groups and internet discussions – a tendency that struck Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker, when he toured America in the 1830s.
This, says Fischer, points not to the John Wayne-like individualism popularly seen as an all-American attribute, but to the very American characteristic of voluntarism. Unlike Europeans, whose group identities were determined by parentage or religion, Americans, from the early settlers onwards, could choose to define themselves by the groups they joined. Early colonialists drew up their own mutually agreed rules or covenants for their settlements and religious groups and had the right to leave one community to join another. He argues that American voluntarism has been steadily extended over the following centuries.
Fischer also overturns certain myths. Despite popular anxiety about rootless modernity, Americans are far less mobile today than they were in the 18th and 19th centuries. More Americans go to church today than in the 18th century. Levels of voter turnout, at around 50 per cent, may be below the peaks seen in the 1880s and 1890s but are largely unchanged since the first part of the 20th century. On balance, the modern American is more secure, both physically and financially; women are less likely to suffer public assault, and men less likely to be involved in bar-room brawling than their pre-20th-century ancestors.
But overall, Fischer concludes, Americans are happier for being more American: “Were it not for the anxieties that accompany the freedom to be whoever one wants to be, the bookkeepers of happiness would have detected growing joy.”
Jonathan Birchall is the FT’s US retail correspondent