David W. Noble, Death of a Nation: American Culture and the End of Exceptionalism.
IT IS NOT AN OVERSTATEMENT to say that this book is David W. Noble's magnum opus. Between the covers is a 301-page narrative filled with the provocative ideas, insightful and honest self-reflection, and breadth of knowledge that mark this historian's more than half-century career as a scholar and teacher of the cultural and intellectual history of the United States. Death of a Nation represents the intellectual life cycle of an influential scholar and teacher. For Noble both expands on ideas he has developed throughout his career and incorporates into this broad cultural history some of the research of former graduate students he has influenced at the University of Minnesota. Noble's scholarship, like his life, is rooted in connections.
The argument is familiar to those of us who know and have been influenced by Noble's work. The intellectual crisis of the 1940s that, in The End of American History (Minnesota 1985), Noble demonstrated had caused postwar "consensus" historians to separate themselves from their Progressive mentors, takes central stage again here. In Death of a Nation, however, Noble expands his analysis to include novelists and literary critics, painters, architects, and musicians, as well as his traditional subject, historians. These various artists and intellectuals participated in a cultural reorientation in the 1940s when their assumptions about an isolated national culture bounded by the geographic space of the United States were shattered. Artists, musicians, writers, and intellectuals had illustrated, composed, and written of an exceptional national landscape rooted in the provincialism of the New England Romantics of the 1830s and 1840s. This WASP nationalism was thought to keep at bay the destructive "Old World" and, therefore, un-American features of the trans-Atlantic capitalism out of which the United States developed. In the postwar years, 20th-century artists and intellectuals confronted the reality that the United States was and always had been an expanding capitalist country, one that contained many cultures, and one for which an exceptional and homogeneous national story could not be composed without a major dose of self-delusion. (The delusion persists, of course, in public discourse.) Hence the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollack replaced the regionalism of his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton; the cultural pluralism of Richard Hofstadter replaced the cultural homogeneity of Charles Beard; and the universal internationalism of postwar architects replaced the universal nationalism of Louis Sullivan and the organic nationalism of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Strains of the postwar reorientation had appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Noble does not try to claim otherwise. European styles and techniques had influenced photographers and the Ash Can School painters. Architects who had hated the architecture of capitalist cities in New England developed new and what they assumed to be democratic and American designs for the just-as-capitalist cities of the Mid-West. Novelists had created characters who lived unfulfilled lives of despair, characters for whom the American promise was, in Theodore Dreiser's words, an "American tragedy."
Noble therefore does not posit that everyone shared an uncontested set of assumptions before World War II and then embraced an equally uncontested and different set of assumptions after the war. Rather, he demonstrates that following the internationalism associated with World War I, American exceptionalists were elated when the United States failed to join the League of Nations. Then, at the onset of the Great Depression, they hoped for the final victory of the producers' democracy they had coveted for so long. They now awaited the death of international capitalism. Consequently, Thomas Hart Benton's paintings of the 1930s celebrate the productivity of a virtuous, industrious, and homogeneous national citizenry. Frank Lloyd Wright hoped that international capitalism would collapse and Americans would be virtuous producers rather than greedy profiteers. The proletarian fiction of the Depression decade pits virtuous workers against the agents of distant capitalist employers whom they never see. And literary critics openly defined themselves as Marxists. World War II, however, shattered these hopes and assumptions.
Consequently, the holy trinity (Henry Nash Smith, R.W.B. Lewis, and Leo Marx) of the postwar symbol-myth-image school of the 1950s and 1960s could write only about the 19th century. They could not write about a romantic national landscape rooted in New England provincialism if they studied 20th-century literature, for 20th-century literature does not represent that provincialism. Their books, then, were "Elegies for the National Landscape" (the title of chapter four). Smith, Lewis, and Marx mourned the cultural landscape's demise. They also quit teaching graduate students, students who wanted to study authors commented on and increasingly represented the multicultural reality of the United States. Marx accepted positions at institutions where teaching undergraduates became his primary responsibility, Smith went to Berkeley to work with the Mark Twain papers, and Lewis remained at Yale but his new work represented traditional literary criticism rather than the type of broad cultural study he attempted in The American Adam.
For most intellectuals, writers, and artists, the idea of a universal national cultural landscape died on the altar of international capitalism. They now realized that a multicultural society had emerged from the conflicts between profit-seeking Euro-Americans and the ethnic and racial minorities who refused to melt in the national pot. The Cold War that pitted international capitalism against international communism, the bloody struggles for civil rights and Black Power, the women's movement: the various aspects of the social and cultural crises of the 1950s and 1960s made it clear to all but the most diehard ideological advocates of a universal national cultural landscape that the nation had always been diverse and the economy had always been capitalist.
While the "death of a nation" (the death of the idea of a universal national landscape) has been accepted, for the most part, in the academy and in the arts, it is of course alive and well in public discourse. Those who defend narratives of the national landscape assume that such narratives are the only legitimate narratives, the only ones that have meaning. To them, the only true meaning is to be found in the universal national. That position, Noble proclaims, "has always been the position of bourgeois nationalists." (285-286) George W. Bush, for example, would hate this book if he could read it. Those who want to claim the name "American" still want to own the term for a particular people in a specific national landscape.
Two central ironies pervade these pages. The first is that bourgeois nationalists evoke the metaphor of a universal national landscape while they simultaneously embrace an expansive capitalist economic system that transcends national boundaries. The second involves the international capitalist system that emerged with the growth of the colonial Atlantic economy, that ripped Africans from their homes to produce profitable New World crops for their Euro-American masters, and that tried its damnedest to destroy indigenous people. That system created, through blood and conquest, the multicultural societies despised by the advocates of homogeneous national landscapes and applauded by David W. Noble.
This is a highly readable and informative book that is a must read for students of the cultural history of the United States and for people interested in the intellectual connections between historiography and other areas of cultural studies.
Robert T. Schultz
Illinois Wesleyan University
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|Author:||Schultz, Robert T.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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