The American Society

The American Society

The American Society

The American Society

Excerpt

The problem of who we are and what we are has always been of acute to the American people, so any new attempt at defining the national character should properly begin with the observation that the attempt has been a thousand times before. From the very beginning of our cultural existence, we have been the most self-conscious people on earth.

The Pilgrims of Plymouth and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay subjected their lives to continuous self-examination, for fear they might overlook evidence of divine displeasure with their efforts to found a New Salem in the wilderness of North America. Anxious citizens like Samuel Sewall kept diaries in which they probed for the hidden meanings of daily events with a skill no less deft and a resolution no less unswerving than that of a psychoanalyst pursuing the origins of his patient's neurosis. (That the United States in the twentieth century has accepted the principles of Freudian theory with unexampled enthusiasm should occasion no surprise; our fascination with symbolical interpretations of human behavior has an ancient history.) More self-assured Puritans like Thomas Shepard and Cotton Mather published autobiographies and histories of New England not only in order to enhance their own self-awareness, but to provide maps to guide the steps of later generations of pilgrims en route to the Celestial City--a didactic motive which in various secular forms has continued ever since to inspire American leaders to write their memoirs.

Benjamin Franklin, for example, who firmly believed that contributions to the self-consciousness of one's children were a desideratum, conceived of his Autobiography as an extended piece of advice to his "Dear Son" as to how to get ahead in the world, and the innumerable self-made men have subsequently followed Franklin's literary lead, to the point where the "success story" has become an established genre of American writing. Sagas of spiritual travail were thus transmogrified into chronicles of how poor boys rose from rags to riches, and in this evolution from religious idealism to the crassest mate-

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