Cultural History

The history of pre-contemporary American cultural excellence takes the form of scattered bursts of isolated genius usually emerging from unlikely sources, such as a prosperous insurance salesman composing unpublishable and temporarily unperformable music in his spare time (Charles Ives), or an employee of the governmental Coast Survey whose extraordinary papers on philosophy were largely published, and honored, after his death (Charles S. Pierce). For this reason, the historian of our intellectual life commonly speaks of both the creative individual’s “alienation” from the dominant American culture and the absence, at the levels of excellence, of any continuities in time or relationships in space. “American art has differed in this respect,” wrote the critic Harold Rosenberg in the middle fifties, “that the triumphs of individuals have been achieved against the prevailing style or apart from it, rather than within or through it.” This absence of a sustaining tradition was at once America’s intellectual peril and yet its refuge, for our greatest minds became instinctive frontiersmen, doing their tasks alone, their most adventurous works leaping beyond the established (largely European) precedents in their respective arts; only a scant few had long careers of sustained, first-rank productivity. This background perhaps accounts for why American cultural produce at its best exhibits a rough-hewn, untutored, eccentric quality that impresses Europeans precisely for its innovative other-worldliness, as though they acknowledged that no European, no matter how hard he strived for originality, could have written Moby-Dick, The Leaves of Grass, or The Making of Americans.

—The Maturity of American Thought (c. 1980, 2006)

It now seems clear that three distinct groups of people—generations, if you will—spent most of their twenties in the sixties. The first graduated from college before 1960, the second matriculated afterwards; and the third consists of those between, who were probably in college at the turning date.

Anyone who was at all idiosyncratic, which is to say conscious, in 1960 can remember, I’m sure, his classmates and/or teachers advising that his waywardness would be a handicap in the “outside world”; yet most of these people discovered, within a few years, that the society outside was far more cordial than the imprisonment of school. These idiosyncrasies often turned keys to unanticipated possibilities and discoveries, as well as “education,” that continued well into our late twenties. Those of us who took the leap beyond convention often realized plateaus beyond our wildest dreams—not only could I write a piece of long prose, but I liked it, and it was published, and a book quickly followed, etc.; and the speed at which yet more possibilities were revealed, and then possessed, never ceased to amaze me.

Our views of national destiny and war, bureaucracy and wealth, chastity and education, choice and necessity, etc., were formed by this experience of abundance, increasingly diverging from those of our scarcity-minded elders, and this difference became the root of the much-noticed “generation gap.” We assumed that jobs would always be easily available and thus, unconcerned about our “prospects,” assumed courageous risks without question or compromise. By mid-decade, most of us found the emerging anti-authoritarian optimism more congenial than not, and identified, however vicariously, with the unemployable hippies, the fans joyously amassed at the great rock festivals, the protestors at Columbia and even Chicago; for it seemed that, reservations notwithstanding, “the kids” represented us, both emotionally and intellectually.

—Twenties in the Sixties (1979)

Another historical cause, often forgotten, was the immigration here during the 1930s of many of Europe’s greatest artists and intellectuals, escaping from totalitarian regimes and collectively initiating a “brain drain” from which subsequent European cultural life has never completely recovered. The most commanding and adaptable of these refugees inevitably had a decisive influence upon American cultural endeavors, as much through their own work and their teaching as their personal example.

—The Maturity of American Thought (c. 1980, 2006)

One truth that should not be lost on historians is that once the number of American radio stations increased from one in 1920 to a few in 1921 to several hundred in 1922, the broadcasting industry had simply burgeoned beyond the European model of government control. Here, as elsewhere, Americans had successfully mass-merchandized an innovation that Europeans thought would and should belong only to an elite.

The Art of Radio in North America (2010)

That increase in university-level education mentioned before is primarily responsible for a scarcely noticed trend that is nonetheless extremely significant—the greater enlightenment of a greater proportion of the population. That is not to say that by the 1960s most Americans believed in the liberal ideals of, say, equal opportunity, economic redistribution, the illegality of racial and religious prejudice, tolerance of social idiosyncrasies, the ending of colonial and political subjugation, and unrestricted freedom of expression—scarcely so, as there were still large pockets of reactionary ignorance and innocence; but certain attitudes that were espoused by a small, dissenting, well-educated minority in 1945 had by 1965 gained far more popular support. For instance, anti-Semitism, so virulent in the thirties, had all but disappeared by the sixties; artists and intellectuals were no longer apologetic and deferential in public; and “socialism” and “anarchism” were no longer self-condemning words. Many groups previously squashed down participated in the Revolt of the Underling, which I take to be the encompassing 60s theme informing successful protests by students, women, blacks, homosexuals, etc. for equal, if not preferential, status. By the sixties, too, the sort of ideas that, a decade before, would have been dismissed as “before their time” now found increasing dissemination and support.

—The Maturity of American Thought (c. 1980, 2006)