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Patterns for America

Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture

Susan Hegeman
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 274
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  • Book Info
    Patterns for America
    Book Description:

    In recent decades, historians and social theorists have given much thought to the concept of "culture," its origins in Western thought, and its usefulness for social analysis. In this book, Susan Hegeman focuses on the term's history in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century. She shows how, during this period, the term "culture" changed from being a technical term associated primarily with anthropology into a term of popular usage. She shows the connections between this movement of "culture" into the mainstream and the emergence of a distinctive "American culture," with its own patterns, values, and beliefs.

    Hegeman points to the significant similarities between the conceptions of culture produced by anthropologists Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead, and a diversity of other intellectuals, including Randolph Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Dwight Macdonald. Hegeman reveals how relativist anthropological ideas of human culture--which stressed the distance between modern centers and "primitive" peripheries--came into alliance with the evaluating judgments of artists and critics. This anthropological conception provided a spatial awareness that helped develop the notion of a specifically American "culture." She also shows the connections between this new view of "culture" and the artistic work of the period by, among others, Sherwood Anderson, Jean Toomer, Thomas Hart Benton, Nathanael West, and James Agee and depicts in a new way the richness and complexity of the modernist milieu in the United States.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2322-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-2)
  4. Introduction The Domestication of Culture
    (pp. 3-14)

    This is a book about the idea of culture as it was understood and deployed in early-twentieth-century United States, a moment when, as the anthropologists A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn put it, “the idea of culture, in the technical anthropological sense,” had become “one of the key notions of contemporary American thought.” Writing from midcentury, they also noted that, used ubiquitously, the term was in danger of losing whatever precision it might have possessed “in the technical sense”: “Psychiatrists and psychologists, and, more recently, even some economists and lawyers, have come to tack on the qualifying phrase ‘in our...

  5. 1 Modernism, Anthropology, Culture
    (pp. 15-31)

    There are a number of ways that one might delineate a relationship between the concept of culture and the aesthetic and intellectual period we call modernism. Indeed, as it will become clear, I see this connection as multiply inflected. But, for the purposes of beginning, I will start by observing that the rhetoric of “culture” itself conforms neatly to certain modernist ideologies.

    Critical accounts of “culture” as a term—of which there are sufficient examples to comprise something like a genre—almost always begin with vexation, and exclamations at the word’s ambiguity. For Raymond Williams inKeywords, “Culture is one...

  6. 2 Dry Salvages: Spatiality, Nationalism, and the Invention of an “Anthropological” Culture
    (pp. 32-65)

    Having, in the last chapter, discounted one modernist fable that would name anthropologist Franz Boas the creator of “culture,” I must now reconstruct the case for a nearly indisputable point: that in a more complex way Boas was central to the creation of both the culture concept and the professional discipline of anthropology in America, and that he is an exemplary figure in the intellectual life of his moment. Moreover, I do see him as having instantiated a distinct conceptual break from previous views of human life, a break that enabled a wide variety of thinkers, including W. E. B....

  7. 3 The National Genius: Van Wyck Brooks, Edward Sapir, and the Problem of the Individual
    (pp. 66-92)

    As we saw in the previous chapter, the emergence of a spatial culture concept—one usually linked to the nation, or more romantically, to the organic unity of the “beloved community”—opened up a new set of problems regarding the role of the individual in culture. In its most general outlines, the problem can be put this way: if, as was increasingly shown by the Boasians, diversity in human behavior could be explained “culturally” rather than in terms of biological differences, where did the individual fit in? Was culture all-determining of one’s behavior, as some had held race to have...

  8. 4 Terrains of Culture: Ruth Benedict, Waldo Frank, and the Spatialization of the Culture Concept
    (pp. 93-125)

    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...

  9. 5 The Culture of the Middle: Class, Taste, and Region in the 1930s Politics of Art
    (pp. 126-157)

    In 1940, Stuart Chase, a well-known writer of popular social science, offered the following anecdote at a banquet honoring First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt:

    The story goes that an American tourist was being shown the new subway in Moscow. His guide pointed out the frescoes on the walls, the ticket-choppers’ booths, the turnstiles for passengers. After admiring all these, the tourist inquired: “What about the trains?”

    Then the guide showed him the new washrooms, more turnstiles, and more frescoes. “What about the trains?” the tourist asked again.

    “What about the trains?” the guide repeated angrily. “What about the trains? What about...

  10. 6 “Beyond Relativity”: James Agee and Others, Toward the Cold War
    (pp. 158-192)

    In my discussion of the “cultural” moment of the thirties, I addressed the double-sided consequences of the domestication of culture: while it offered a way to articulate national coherence conforming to the country’s increased political, economic, and social centralization, it could also be used to express a certain resistance to that centralization (associated with both massification and totalitarianism) through the idea of regionalism, on the one hand, and through a class-based cultural politics, on the other. As we saw, the regionalist idea would be especially powerful for the way that it mobilized a populist antiurbanism and contributed to the formation...

  11. 7 On Getting Rid of Culture: An Inconclusive Conclusion
    (pp. 193-214)

    In this final chapter, I will jump ahead to the present, to briefly interrogate the postmodern context of “culture,” and the legacy of its modernist antecedents sketched out in the previous chapters. Obviously, “culture” is very much with us, and very much a central term of our debates, many of which have their origins in the earlier parts of this century. Culture is, moreover, still a term related to the articulation of social space—indeed, so much so, that it is not surprising that it has come under new scrutiny in the light of postmodern critiques of “totalization” and totalizing...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 215-258)
  13. Index
    (pp. 259-264)