Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture

By Susan Hegeman | Go to book overview

3
The National Genius: Van Wyck Brooks, Edward Sapir,
and the Problem of the Individual

Yet we cannot be sure of legends Coming from our wise Grandfathers and grandmothers, Many of them are lies. Our aching hearts can tell us that Many of them are lies.

(Edward Sapir)

Behind every theory of culture lies a latent psychology.

(Robert F. Murphy)

AS WE SAW in the previous chapter, the emergence of a spatial culture concept— one usually linked to the nation, or more romantically, to the organic unity of the “beloved community”—opened up a new set of problems regarding the role of the individual in culture. In its most general outlines, the problem can be put this way: if, as was increasingly shown by the Boasians, diversity in human behavior could be explained “culturally” rather than in terms of biological differences, where did the individual fitin? Was culture all-determining of one's behavior, as some had held race to have been? How did one understand individual creativity, innovation, or “genius” within the cultural context? To what extent did individuals produce cultural changes? For Bourne, whose hopeful vision so relied on the freedom from alienation only found within the community, the individual who did not fitin was relegated to the space of loss or impurity outside the “cultural nucleus” of real belonging. But this problem could also be articulated in the reverse: that for the individual who feels alienated, exterior to the society in which he or she lives, the problem might be that there is something vitally wrong with that society.

In Chapter 4, I will show how this problem of alienation is in some sense resolved—or better, displaced—in the work of Ruth Benedict, Waldo Frank, Jean Toomer, Hart Crane, and Sherwood Anderson, by the articulation of a fully spatial conception of multiple, relatively equivalent social contexts, among which the individual is apparently free to choose. But here, I will discuss the work of literary critic Van Wyck Brooks and anthropologist Edward

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