The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times

By Berkeley, Christopher | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times


Berkeley, Christopher, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times. Norman F. Cantor, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.

A new century is nigh; the incoming horde of freshmen peeking out from underneath their backward-turned baseball caps this fall will be graduates (some of them) in 2001, the first graduating class of a new century. The season is ripe, then, for a book like Norman Cantor's The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times, which attempts to survey twentieth-century culture in Europe and the United States from its roots as a reaction against Victorianism to fin de siecle postmodernism.

This is not a timid book. Cantor is inclusive in his coverage, explaining and commenting on twentiethcentury physics, genetics and medicine, legal thought, literature, higher education, and Quentin Tarantino, just to name a sample. To manage such an ambitious work, Cantor organizes his subject around five major topics: modernism, psychoanalysis, Marxism and liberal political thought, political conservatism, and postmodernism.

For Cantor, modernism began in the early years of the twentieth century with the revolt against Victorian morality and historicism, and was largely spent as a movement by the Second World War. While he views modernism cutting across many fields-quantum mechanics in physics, the Bauhaus in architecture, and Cubism in painting, for example-Cantor's treatment of modernism is centered on literature, epitomized by T. S. Eliot, W. B. Yeats, and Ezra Pound. Here he delineates several strands of modernism, such as the "classical" modernism of Eliot and the "expressionist" modernism of Yeats.

The next section of The American Century Cantor devotes to Freud and his followers, down to the muddled state of psychoanalytic theory today. In these chapters, the strongest in the book, Cantor provides an intellectual genealogy from Freud and his immediate followers, tracing the impact of psychoanalytic thought on such figures as Jung, Bettelheim, Piaget, and Lacan. Though one interpretation might discuss Freudianism itself as an aspect of modernism, since Cantor believes modernism peaked by the 1940s, he considers only the early Freud a modernist. Treatment of later thinkers who used Freud in sociological theory, such as the Frankfurt School, Cantor calls structuralists or neo-idealists.

The next two sections of the book are devoted successively to Marxism and leftist political theory, and Fascism and conservative thought. Cantor traces the influence of Marx using much the same intellectual-genealogical method earlier employed on Freud, but it does not fit as cleanly here, as not all left-liberal political thought can be traced back to Marx in the same way psychoanalytical thought has its origins with Freud. He then gives equal time to Fascism and conservative thought, arguing their bases in nationalism and social hierarchy.

Cantor's treatment of postmodernism provides the weakest analysis of the five major sections of the book, treating it essentially as a kitchen-sink category of anything that comes after the 1940s: poststructuralism, Levi-Strauss, deconstructionism, and feminism, to name a few. In short, he treats postmodernism absolutely literally: postmodernism is everything after modernism.

Everyone will find something to dislike about this book, which is the obvious hazard of such a wideranging survey. …

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