Black, White and Female

Betty Wood

  • The Limits of Liberty: American History 1607-1980 by Maldwyn Jones
    Oxford, 696 pp, £22.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 19 913074 4
  • America: A Narrative History by Charles Brown Tindall
    Norton, 1425 pp, £16.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 393 95435 8
  • The Longman History of the United States by Hugh Brogan
    Longman, 740 pp, £19.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 582 35385 8
  • American Tough: The Tough-Guy Tradition and American Character by Rupert Wilkinson
    Greenwood, 221 pp, £27.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 313 23797 2

Given the enormous value which the historical profession currently attaches to the highly specialised monograph, it becomes all too easy to devalue, if not to denigrate, more general surveys of the past. Yet in Britain, and for slightly different reasons in the United States also, such texts can and do play an important, and entirely valid, role in the teaching of American history. Since the Second World War the history of the United States has established itself as a reputable and increasingly popular subject in British colleges and universities, and in the last few years this interest has filtered down to the schools. Those undergraduates and sixth-formers encountering American history as a serious academic discipline for the first time require an introductory text or texts which not only delineate the overall scope and shape of the subject but also make some attempt to dispel popular myths and misconceptions. These requirements are just as important in the United States, where many high-school and college survey courses in American history rely heavily upon one or two basic works.

In many respects, it is the American method of teaching history, and not least their own history, coupled with the by no means uncommon requirement that students purchase copies of designated books, that has generated such an enormous demand for the general text, a demand which American historians and publishers alike have long been eager to satisfy. This is a perfectly respectable academic exercise and one which fills a genuine need. However, the suggestion, and perhaps even the expectation, on the part of Professor Tindall’s publishers, that students might need help in reading and comprehending his mammoth work gives pause for thought. Thus the publishers in question recommend that students – and one assumes they have American students in mind – acquire Thomas S. Morgan’s The Study Guide for Tindall’sAmerica: A Narrative History’, which, among other things, ‘offers general tips on how to read the text and how to study history’, as well as providing ‘for each chapter a list of learning objectives and a detailed outline’. One is left wondering why Professor Tindall’s book was considered necessary in the first place. Whatever its shortcomings, his survey is not as impenetrable as its size might suggest. Every student, by definition, ought to be capable of following and understanding it, if not, heaven forbid, of memorising it for the purposes of an examination.

Traditionally, general histories of the United States have been organised according to a widely accepted, but often far too rigidly applied, method of subdivision. For many years scholarly perceptions and preoccupations dictated a periodisation, and a labelling of particular periods, that owed virtually everything to political events and personalities and paid little regard to changes in the economic, social and cultural landscape. Maldwyn Jones, Charles Tindall and Hugh Brogan have played absolutely safe and settled for an orthodox approach. They neither dispute nor deviate significantly from the well-trodden paths of traditional historiography.

If Professors Jones and Tindall are to be criticised, it is not so much for their adherence to the conventional mode of subdividing and categorising American history as for the space they have elected to devote, for the importance they attach, to particular periods. Both authors, but Professor Jones is the main culprit, are to be faulted for their scanty treatment of the Colonial period. The fact that so much of their own research has been conducted in more modern periods of American history may help to explain the gross injustice they have perpetrated on the first century and a half of European settlement. Of Professor Jones’s 696 pages of text only 36 are devoted to the years between 1607 and 1763. Professor Tindall, with 164 pages (including bibliographies and several pages of generally informative maps and illustrations), does scarcely better. It is safe to assume that neither author would ever dream of trying to compress the next century and a half of American history into the same number of pages. A general history of the years between 1763 and the First World War in 36 – or even 164 – pages would probably be laughed out of court on several fairly obvious grounds. Indeed, Professor Tindall accords the years since 1945 the same amount of space that he allocates to the entire Colonial period, whilst it takes Professor Jones all of 79 pages to cover the same ground. This is an emphasis, an unfortunate imbalance, which in some quarters might lend credence to the taunt that American history amounts to little more than a study of current affairs. In terms of chronological balance, Hugh Brogan’s is far and away the better study. He devotes almost a quarter of his book to the Colonial period and conveys a vivid impression of the character, if not always of the complexities, of this phase of American history.

Each of these authors touches on many of the themes which served to shape the Colonial experience: but the inescapable fact is that the skeletons provided by Professors Jones and Tindall, and even by Hugh Brogan, are in desperate need of fleshing out. Of course, it could be argued that all the reader need do is to follow up the leads supplied by the authors in their bibliographies. But whereas Tindall supplies an excellent survey of the available literature (as he does for later periods), there are some surprising gaps in the lists provided by Maldwyn Jones and Hugh Brogan. Indeed, they give little indication of the veritable flood of recent literature on the history of the mainland colonies. It is particularly disappointing not to find any mention of Gary Nash’s The Urban Crucible (1979) or David Galenson’s White Servitude in Colonial America (1981). Student readers of Jones and Brogan could be forgiven for thinking that little of relevance has been published in this area of American history since the mid-1970s, while nothing could be further from the truth. Fortunately, and perhaps predictably, this same criticism does not apply to quite the same extent to the bibliographies provided by Jones and Brogan for later periods.

The changing political scene, dealt with at length by Jones, Tindall and Brogan alike, serves to delineate particular periods of American history, but there are also chapters, and sections of chapters, in each of these books which deal admirably, if sometimes fleetingly, with a wide range of social, economic and cultural themes. Few topics completely escape the attention of these authors. Although their main concern is with those who might be described as ‘upper’ and ‘middle-class’ Americans, it is pleasing that they have seen fit to acknowledge the contribution of those scholars who in recent years have attempted to analyse American society and politics from the bottom up rather than from the top down. Although they can scarcely be described as light reading, America: A Narrative History and The Limits of Liberty are engaging accounts: Hugh Brogan’s Longman History, on the other hand, sparkles. It is written with a verve and humour likely to fire the reader’s imagination.

The ‘American character’ has fascinated successive generations of American and non-American commentators alike ever since the middle years of the 18th century. Nowadays, as in the past, few are without an opinion, if not their own pet theory, on the subject. Rupert Wilkinson claims, not unreasonably, that an essential ingredient of the American character, and one which owes as much to the mythologising as to the reality of the American past, is ‘toughness’. This quality, or set of qualities and values, Wilkinson argues, forms the essence of an influential, if somewhat equivocal ‘tough-guy tradition’. Although, as he points out, this tradition is by no means universally approved of by Americans, toughness has come to comprise ‘a cultural force with which virtually all Americans have to deal’. Professor Wilkinson devotes a chapter apiece to three closely related themes: the forces that have shaped ‘American ideals of toughness’, the interplay between ‘strenuous producer’ and ‘indulgent consumer’ values, and the complex relationship between ‘ideals of self-reliance and self-assertion and the pressures and attractions of modern organisation’. His fourth and final chapter compares ‘American toughness’ with ‘toughness elsewhere’, the ‘elsewhere’ being principally Britain and Australia.

This monograph is the first full-length study which attempts to provide a systematic examination of the tradition, and is to be welcomed for this reason. But while there is much that is attractive and plausible about this vigorous discussion, it is one which is open to criticism on a number of grounds. As he admits, Professor Wilkinson is mainly concerned with ‘upper’ and ‘middle-class’ Americans, and American men at that. Although women, ‘lower-class’ whites, and blacks, flit in and out of his analysis, one is left with no clear impression of either the part that these groups might have played in defining ‘American ideals of toughness’ or of the precise significance for them of the values that according to Professor Wilkinson underpin the tradition. Women and blacks especially are dealt with in a rather cursory fashion. He is probably right to suggest that ‘American tough-guy styles and attitudes have never been a total monopoly of men,’ and that ‘the various forms of the American tough guy are not bound by gender,’ but this vitally important and highly controversial proposition, not least for feminists, ought to have been developed at greater length and placed in a longer-term historical and sociological context. Similarly, in his all too brief discussion of the black sub-culture sustained, and imprisoned, in the Northern ghettos, Professor Wilkinson does not speculate on what the black past, and more specifically the slavery experience, as well as perceptions and interpretations of that past, may have contributed towards the definition of black notions of ‘toughness’. Do the majority of blacks subscribe, and do black ‘heroes’ conform, to the essentially upper-class and middle-class-white stereotypes which are described. Here again, a lengthier discussion would have been in order.

As Professor Wilkinson argues, the attitudes and aspirations, the self-reliance, self-assurance and self-assertion, that together comprise the main ingredients of present-day American ideals of toughness reflect a complex and somewhat contradictory interplay between various aspects of the American past and the manner in which successive generations have chosen, or been persuaded, to interpret and to mythologise that past. The thesis is that three main themes have intertwined to shape and define ‘the American concern with toughness’: ‘a plain man, anti-courtier tradition that goes back to Tudor and Stuart England; a complex of frontier myths and images; and the tension in a business society between striving and self-indulgence’. Although one would not dispute the importance Professor Wilkinson attaches to each of these themes, his analysis is not always as thorough as it might have been. Like Jones and Tindall, he pays too little regard to the longer-term significance of the Colonial experience. Moreover, there are some alarming gaps in his discussion of the forging of American attitudes in the course of the 19th century. His account of the way in which American individualism, and the ‘common man’ tradition, evolved during the late 18th and early 19th centuries disregards the contribution of Jefferson. Just as remarkable is the fact that Social Darwinism gets only the briefest of mentions. Perhaps the most surprising omission of all is that, apart from a brief discussion of evangelical religion in the 1920s, the book virtually ignores the role of religion in shaping American attitudes. This account of American myth-making is nowhere near so complete or subtle as that elaborated in James Oliver Robertson’s excellent study American Myths American Reality (1980), unmentioned by Rupert Wilkinson in his otherwise comprehensive bibliography. Wilkinson is at his best when he discusses the American present rather than perceptions of the American past, and there is much to recommend in those sections of his book which deal with modern popular culture.