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American Mythos

American Mythos: Why Our Best Efforts to Be a Better Nation Fall Short

Robert Wuthnow
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    American Mythos
    Book Description:

    America was built on stories: tales of grateful immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, Horatio Alger-style transformations, self-made men, and the Protestant work ethic. In this new book, renowned sociologist Robert Wuthnow examines these most American of stories--narratives about individualism, immigration, success, religion, and ethnicity--through the eyes of recent immigrants. In doing so, he demonstrates how the "American mythos" has both legitimized American society and prevented it from fully realizing its ideals.

    This magisterial work is a reflection and meditation on the national consciousness. It details how Americans have traditionally relied on narratives to address what it means to be strong, morally responsible individuals and to explain why some people are more successful than others--in short, to help us make sense of our lives. But it argues that these narratives have done little to help us confront new challenges. We pass laws to end racial discrimination, yet lack the resolve to create a more equitable society. We welcome the idea of pluralism in religion and values, yet we are shaken by the difficulties immigration presents. We champion prosperity for all, but live in a country where families are still homeless.

    American Mythosaptly documents this disconnect between the stories we tell and the reality we face. Examining how cultural narratives may not, and often do not, reflect the reality of today's society, it challenges readers to become more reflective about what it means to live up to the American ideal.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2702-2
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
    (pp. 1-11)

    The deep narratives that shape our sense of national purpose and identity are so firmly inscribed in our culture that we usually accept them without thinking much about them. These are the stories we tell ourselves about the moral responsibilities of individuals and about success and failure, about immigration and diversity. Through them we find easy ways of believing that the enormous privileges we enjoy as Americans are privileges we deserve. The deep meanings of these stories provide us with common ways of thinking about who we are. At the same time, they bias our perceptions. For instance, they encourage...

    (pp. 12-37)

    How does a society renew itself? What exactly does renewal mean? The news media daily tell us of serious national problems that require our attention. The message of these headlines is that the public, our leaders, and we individually must rekindle our efforts to solve these problems. Today’s newspaper, for instance, informs me that the number of Americans unable to find jobs has been growing even though consumer spending, factory orders, new equipment, and a rising stock market all point to a stronger economy. The question is whether our commitment to full employment is flagging and, if so, what we...

    (pp. 38-78)

    I have suggested that the threat to democracy from below fundamentally concerns the individual. While the threat from above—the danger of takeover by the wealthy and powerful—requires legislative and judicial vigilance, the threat from below emerges from social conditions that discourage ordinary citizens from playing an active part in upholding democracy and in contributing to the common good. Tocqueville’s ideal of self-interestrightly understoodrequires social conditions that maintain individual freedomandindividuals who play a responsible role in their communities. When individuals become part of a nameless and faceless mass, democracy suffers. The mass conformity that worried...

    (pp. 79-103)

    Musing as he often did about America’s future, Walt Whitman predicted in 1872 that the United States would become the world’s leading power and remain so for some time to come. The anguish of the Civil War, Whitman believed, would soon fade from memory, and a more optimistic spirit would take hold. The transcontinental railroad had recently been completed, commerce was growing, and an army of hardy pioneers was moving west. Whitman was inspired by these developments. More than by the prospect of military and economic dominance, though, Whitman’s imagination was fired by the thought of America’s becoming a noble...

    (pp. 104-127)

    On November 2, 1913, theNew York Timesdevoted a full-page article to penniless immigrants who became unbelievably successful through little more than their own efforts. They included “coffee king” Herman Sielcken, “lumber king” Frederick Weyerhaeuser, “telephone king” Michael Idvorsky Pupin, and “king of the kitchens” Jules Weber. Each had come to America in steerage class, started at the bottom, and worked his way to the top. Weyerhaeuser’s story was typical. He immigrated at the age of eighteen, worked at a lumberyard in Illinois, saved enough money to buy a small lumber mill of his own, managed it prudently, and...

    (pp. 128-162)

    Throughout our nation’s history, the relationship between America’s places of worship and its democratic form of government has been peculiar. On the one hand, we have insisted on strict separation of church and state, meaning that religious organizations cannot participate directly in government and that government must refrain from actively promoting religion or doing anything to favor one religion over another. On the other hand, religion has long been regarded as one of the mainstays of American democracy. Tocqueville’s observation is no less true today than it was in the early nineteenth century: Americans gather at their houses of worship,...

    (pp. 163-191)

    America’s collective efforts to become a better nation have in no small measure been concerned with achieving full inclusion for marginalized racial and ethnic groups. These efforts reflect a growing awareness that we must accord greater respect to the distinctive cultural traditions and lifestyles of minority groups. In recent decades, programs focusing on racial and ethnic inclusion have sought not only to overcome discrimination and provide equal opportunities, but also to move beyond older “melting pot” notions that assumed everyone would be like the white Anglo majority. The guiding vision of inclusion has been to supersede the old model of...

    (pp. 192-217)

    One of the more curious developments during the last third of the twentieth century was the coupling of America’s fascination with material possessions with our perceptions of new immigrants. This was an ironic connection: the argument was not that new Americans sought material pleasures, but that immigrants’ values could restore some sanity to our national psyche. And it was not the most straightforward connection that might have been made, for the period could just as well have been (and often was) described solely in terms of economics. It was one in which hard-nosed critics and even some defenders of the...

    (pp. 218-234)

    The cultural assumptions around which a society is organized provide stability to that society. These assumptions influence how we think about individual responsibility, our roles as citizens, and our nation’s place in the world. Although there are differing views in the United States about how much or how little we should emphasize our individuality, we are a society that takes our rights and freedoms as individuals very seriously. These rights and freedoms form the basis for assumptions about moral obligations to ourselves and to one another. Just as it is common for us to insist on individual autonomy in making...