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Past Imperfect

Americans have certain ideas about the good old days, especially in this nostalgia-inducing era of mortgage foreclosure, Wall Street meltdown, and healthcare crisis. Sure, between the advance of civil rights and modern technology and medicine, most would agree that life has generally become easier, longer, and more just. But wasn’t there a time when Americans lived debt-free? When our needs were simple and our luxuries few, and Christmas was about loved ones instead of a capitalist carnival of consumption? When families cared for an ill grandma themselves, instead of abandoning her to public welfare or a nursing home? Back thenit is never clear when, exactlyweren’t Americans more devoted to their kin, more faithful, less violent?

The answer, Claude Fischer says, is no. His masterful and rewarding book covers three and a half centuries of values, needs, ambitions, and feelings, and debunks a host of common misconceptions about American history. Personal debt has actually decreased over the decades: many of the earliest white settlers came to the American colonies as indentured (and deeply indebted) servants. In the nineteenth century the average American owed twice his annual income, 25 percent more than Americans owed one hundred years later. And early Americans were not terribly good at caring for the aged, needy, and ill. Eighteenth-century magistrates “warned out” abandoned slaves, single pregnant girls, the blind, mentally ill, and the neglected elderly, deporting them to wherever they came fromas long as it was someplace else. 

As to our visions of a peaceful and God-fearing arcadia: colonial society was a virtually lawless world in which “authorities stood aside when people settled their quarrels by violence, dismissed attacks on women as inconsequential, and ignored infanticides.” The vast majority of colonists did not attend religious services. Not until 1900 would the percentage of Americans claiming church membership reach even 50 percent. (In 2000, two thirds said they belonged to a religious congregation, down from 75 percent in 1950.) And the country’s favorite Hallmark holiday? Early Christmases were not quiet evenings of carols around the fire, but debauched festivals of boozing, games, and drunken fighting in the streets, until a growing Victorian middle class “sacralized and domesticated the holiday into a tame family event.”

We do not know our ancestors nearly so well as we thought we did. Fischer’s book is a fine exercise in quiet iconoclasm. His thesis—that over the past three centuries, economic growth and widening perimeters of social inclusion have enabled more people to share a uniquely American collective identitymay sound like heresy to many scholars. In most academic circles, one must avoid phrases like “American mainstream,” “American exceptionalism,” and “grand narrative” at all costs. These words have become code for a jingoistic history of privileged white men, the Anglo-Saxon haves who oppressed the multi-ethnic have-nots and tracked superpower footprints heedlessly across the globe. Since the 1960s, new social historians have asserted the primacy of “history from the bottom up” over the traditional tales of statesmen and generals, and have crusaded under the banner of hyphenated Americans and identity politics. They have condemned any attempt to chronicle a single history shared by all as a racist and classist illusion, a conservative maneuver in the culture wars.

Only a scholar with impeccable liberal credentialsa sociologist who has taught for nearly forty years at Berkeley and who co-authored a vociferous critique of The Bell Curvecould get away with what Claude Fischer has done. Made in America argues that there is indeed an American mainstream, that it is exceptional, and that over the past three centuries, it has thrived.

He spent years combing through “all the loose threads that comprise the study of American social history”: monographs on urban life, rural life, immigrants, slaves, housewives, farmers, workers, labor, leisure, and more. The notes and the bibliography in this volume fill almost as many pages as the text, and Fischer has done scholars and lay readers alike an enormous service in synthesizing hundreds of works of secondary literature in sociology and history—much of it written by new social historians who will be outraged by his conclusions.

Not only does Fischer argue that there is an American mainstream, but he is unapologetic about who forms its core. Made In America is primarily the story of the white, native-born, Northern, Protestant middle class that, he argues, “lives and promulgates the distinctive and dominant character of the society”—a character shared, over time, by increasing numbers of Americans of all races, creeds, and income levels. “There is an American cultural center; its assimilative pull is powerful; and it is distinctive—or ‘exceptional,’” Fischer writes. “The historical record speaks.”

Fischer marshals that record into a narrative of growing material wealth and security, expanding opportunity, and the entrenchment of a style of life that he believes shaped “American character” in colonial days, and conclusively defines it now: voluntarism. A blend of self-determination and fellowship, Fischer’s voluntarism is a uniquely American equilibrium of the individual and the group, an enthusiasm for community as long as membership is always by choice rather than obligation. It begins with the Puritan covenant and takes countless forms over the years, from women’s temperance unions and the Loyal Order of the Moose to suburban block parties and more cooperative views of marriage as an ideal, but voluntary, partnership (even as divorce rates skyrocketed).

Fischer tracks the evolution of American voluntarism as “mainstream” Americans’ bigger paychecks, more spacious houses, new cars, and televisions changed how they spent their leisure time, negotiated public and private space, and interacted with strangers and family. The trajectory is uneven—the Great Depression uprooted many in the middle class, and their ascent halted again in the 1970s—but his narrative is generally one of continuity, the flourishing in modern times of impulses and instincts present in colonial days.

He pauses occasionally to note the exceptions. While most middle-class wives in the mid-nineteenth century enjoyed a “bourgeois family” in which a nurturing husband allowed her to be “queen of the home,” “[m]ost rural, working-class, immigrant, and black women—that is, most women—did not even rule a separate sphere.” While many families were buying homes and investing in communities, “[t]he major exceptions were poor, black Americans.” Fischer assures us that poor non-whites aspired to this suburban idyll. His claims may stick in the craw of the subaltern studies crowd, but he gives evidence that many struggling immigrants and black families sought the house, backyard, and 2.5 kids as soon as they were able. This was not, we are left to infer, because these are WASP values, but because they are natural human desires for security, comfort, and privacy—desires made uniquely attractive and accessible by the circumstances of American history.

In an academic climate paralyzed by political correctness and identity politics, Fischer’s narrative is refreshingly universalist and materialist. He explicitly dismisses intellectual history, allowing that “[i]deas do matter, but typically the winds of intellectual ferment hardly disturb the deep currents of social transformations.” He charts the changes in American character primarily through the changes in Americans’ material situations, arguing that the more we have acquired, the more comfortable have been our lives, the more we have been free to pursue the goals of our forefathers. Fischer’s analysis is the opposite of traditional Marxist materialism: in his hands, materialist analysis reveals an increasingly prosperous, inclusive American mainstream, not an alienated working class.

While Fischer’s argument is often convincing, the neat momentum of his narrative runs aground on more recent history. It is hard to deny that in our day the success story of American voluntarism seems to have stalled. Although Americans’ quality of life topped that of Europeans from colonial times onward, and our GDP per capita still dwarfs that of most European countries, by other measureslongevity, economic mobilityour standard of living fell behind in the 1970s and has never recovered. The gap between the rich and the poor is expanding, not contracting. It is hard to find a unified worldview, voluntaristic or otherwise, in the polarized state of contemporary politics.

In this light, Fischer’s dismissal of “non-mainstream” struggles is too casual, and his flip neglect of intellectual history leaves us with no framework in which to understand, for instance, the philosophical reasons—not just the material ones—why Americans cannot agree on how to best care for the poor and sick. After all, opponents of Obama’s health care reform—who are preparing to exercise their “voluntaristic” rights in the courtroom—may interpret the Constitution through generations of cultural accretion, but they also read it through John Locke. (Fischer does not mention the father of the American social contract even once, an odd omission in a book on voluntarism.) Still, no single volume could satisfy all these demands, and Fischer’s omissions are more provocative than they are egregious. Made In America is exactly the sort of grand and controversial narrative, exactly the bold test of old assumptions, that is needed to keep the study of American history alive and honest.

Molly Worthen is a freelance writer and doctoral student in religious history at Yale.