Monday, 28 May 2012

The Theory of American Uniqueness

There comes that time in every American history teacher’s career (once or twice a decade) when curiosity about new trends in interpretation and scholarship blasts him into an exhilarating orbit of the best new books and articles on his old subject. For teachers about to be so launched, Daniel J. Boorstin is the new historiographical star to watch: enormously learned but with a style that shrewdly uses the vernacular to express at once controversial and persuasive new viewpoints about the American past, this professor of history at the University of Chicago is suddenly all over the place in print. 

For one thing, his Walgreen lectures, The Genius of American Politics (Phoenix Book P 27, $1.35), have just appeared in paperback. There he argues convincingly that our belief in an American way of life as “given” made the search for a systematic ideology unnecessary; thus our faith in the existence of an American theory made a theory superfluous.

This freedom from dogmatism sharply distinguishes us from the European ideologues arguing intensely over their paper utopias; we could afford not to argue—our utopia was working. The real uniqueness in the American experiment lies in our avoidance of procrustean dogmas that try to tailor diverse circumstances to abstractions; we found our “oughtness” in the “is”—our values came from the experience we discovered. Our lesson to the world is to cherish this openness to experience.

In The Americans: the Colonial Experience (Random House, 1958, $6.00) Boorstin takes this thesis and expands it in terms of the easily forgotten particularities of the various regions and interests that made up seventeenth and eighteenth century America. Another guiding assumption of his is our mistaken attempts to assess American democracy by the standards of a European aristocracy. 

A good example of this was in his explanation in Commentary (January, 1958) of why Williamsburg, Virginia, is a perfectly democratic historical presentation compared with the typical aristocratic European tour of culture. Another magazine article of equal importance was “America and the Image of Europe,” Perspectives USA, 14. Boorstin intends to complete his survey of American history in two more volumes. He is also editing the very useful “Chicago History of American Civilization,” many titles of which are in paper editions.

He has clearly entered the first rank of American historians both literate and lively: Richard Hofstadter, William Miller, Oscar Handlin, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. For teachers anxious to recharge their scholarly batteries, these are the men to read.

Published in The Clearing House, Vol. 34, No. 4 (Dec., 1959)

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