The Distorted Image: Changing Conceptions of the American Character since Turner

The Distorted Image: Changing Conceptions of the American Character since Turner

The Distorted Image: Changing Conceptions of the American Character since Turner

The Distorted Image: Changing Conceptions of the American Character since Turner

Excerpt

It has become almost a national sport among American intellectuals to examine and criticize American life and institutions. Everything Americans do, everything foreigners say about us, is examined for the light it may shed on the American character. The American national character has become an American national obsession. Though I am concerned with the American character in this study, I make no attempt to describe, define, or explain that character. Rather, my goal is to determine what American intellectuals have offered in the way of descriptions, definitions, and explanations. My raw material, in other words, is not the national character itself, but the opinions people had and have about it.

Nor do I make an attempt to establish or to deny the theoretical validity of the concept of national character. The concept will be taken as given, and discussion and analysis should not be mistaken for either advocacy or condemnation. I do, however, have an opinion on the subject, and I feel I should state it in the interests of clarity. It seems to me that the concept of national character, especially when it is applied to a large, heterogeneous nation like the United States, is useful only as a large-scale generalization to cover the prominent characteristics of the national culture -- not the traits of any supposedly typical individual personality. Thus, we may regard a particular collection of cultural traits as "typically American" if it is exhibited more often or more intensely in America than in any other nation. In other words, the concept may prove useful as a semi-metaphorical descriptive device for a whole national culture, but it has no predictive value. One cannot with certainty assign an individual to any particular national group solely on the basis of his observed behavior, nor can one predict with any degree of accuracy how an . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.