Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture

By Susan Hegeman | Go to book overview

4
Terrains of Culture: Ruth Benedict, Waldo Frank,
and the Spatialization of the Culture Concept

You know I like [primitive cultures to be] scandalous, and the possibilities you touch on are endless, aren't they?

(Ruth Benedict to Reo Fortune, February 10, 1933)

IN TRYING TO OVERCOME the problem of the relationship between the individual and society, Brooks and Sapir could both be said to have succumbed to an updated version of the paradox that also haunted Matthew Arnold's vision of culture. The problem they both recognized, the alienation of the individual in modern society, couldn't, in their view, be tackled by the alienated individual alone. Recognizing on some level that the problem was part of the wider structural changes of industrial capitalism in the early twentieth century, they saw that the separation of the individual from the social could only be addressed socially, or at least by the smaller “nuclei” of community that Bourne had in mind. In other words, it took some kind of collective to change society, but of course, the absence of that kind of integrated collective was the problem to begin with. The only way out of this bind was either a “faith” that was deeply pessimistic at its core, or a search for some collective outside of modern alienation itself: a search for what Waldo Frank would call “buried cultures.”

It is nearly a truism of American intellectual history that the period after World War I is characterized by cultural despair, a deep frustration, especially among urban intellectuals, over the seemingly unstoppable encroachments of such abominations as the Klan, the Red Scare, and the bad taste of the Babbitry and the “booboisie.” And certainly, everything I have said about Brooks and Sapir can be read as exemplifying this attitude. But, as a number of others have shown, this postwar pessimism was only part of the story. For those sympathetic to the production of indigenous culture, there was also something exhilarating about Europe's catastrophic state: Americans, many thought, were finallyfreed of European culture to build something new on native grounds. Indeed, it was thought that the New World might even be in a position to save the Old from its own decadence. 1 Thus, in direct response to criticisms of American life such as Brooks's influential characterization of the divided American soul, some would findin “buried cultures” a highly optimistic, and even mystical, vision for America's future.

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