Richard Pells: History Descending a Staircase ... American Historians and American Culture

Roundup: Talking About History

[Richard Pells is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II (Basic Books, 1997).]

Who was Marcel Duchamp, and why did his painting "Nude Descending a Staircase" provoke so much outrage at the Armory Show in 1913? What does George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" have to do with both the Jewish and African-American experience in the United States? Why was Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises so influential for modern fiction and journalism? How did Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch, and Billy Wilder, among many other émigré film directors, bring European cinematic styles and ideas to Hollywood? Why was Marlon Brando's performance as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire so revolutionary on stage and ultimately in the movies?

If you are an undergraduate or a graduate student taking a course in 20th-century American history, you are unlikely to find the answers to those questions. They won't even be posed. Nor will the names or the works of the artists, composers, novelists, filmmakers, and actors appear in the lectures or in the books assigned on the reading list. The vast majority of American historians no longer regard American culture — whether high culture or mainstream popular culture — as an essential area of study. The much-vaunted cultural turn in the humanities has run its course in one of the first disciplines it influenced.

There are many ways that people, including academics, decide what is vital to an understanding of a nation's past. Certainly, "ordinary" readers (which means book buyers) are fascinated by the biographies of political and military leaders. They continue to believe that charismatic personalities affect a country's destiny.

Professional historians have long since abandoned that idea as a delusion. Instead, for the last 30 years, they have told us that the intricacies of social history are the key to explaining a nation's identity and development. So for specialists in American history, what matters in the courses they teach and the books they write are the struggles and hard-won accomplishments of women, workers, immigrants, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans in a country inhospitable to the poor and the powerless.

Still, however fashionable social history has been since the 1970s, no American historian would dispute the importance of other almost-mandatory eras and topics. Colonial history and the formation of the Republic, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, industrialization and urbanization, the New Deal, America's emergence as a superpower — those themes are all meticulously covered in textbooks, monographs, and course syllabi. And such subjects, along with those in social history, dominate the sessions and book exhibits at the annual conventions of American historians.

But one might suppose that a central component of America's history (as of any country's history) is its culture. How can we fathom the values and preoccupations of the American people (no matter what their race, gender, or class) without paying attention to the nation's literature, painting, architecture, music, theater, and movies?...

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