Review: Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century

Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century
Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century by Warren I. Susman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Without Susman, there is no Kaufmann. It is because of this book, specifically the essays concerning the culture of the 1930s that my dissertation went from a look at folk music in Chicago to an examination of Alcoholics Anonymous. I literally had a eureka moment in the shower, thinking about the 1930s as a more conservative time than is usually thought, that the movement to become a part of various organizations, the Communist Party among them, was less about changing the political/social/economic system as it was about wanting to be a part of something greater than ones self. That isn’t to say that radicalism didn’t have its moment in the sun during the era, but when we look at the enduring institutions (like AA) the focus on the traditional, the institutions that recall an earlier time have sustained and even thrived. At our core, the United States is a fairly conservative place, even at our most radical times.

The rest of the essays in the book are interesting to varying degrees, with Susman’s signature piece, “The Usable Past” probably having the greatest effect on my teaching. It is a very strong consideration of how we find different heroes from the past, disregard others as the current situation dictates. Susman pays particular attention to the myth and legend of the Pilgrims and the mutations the story has gone through over the centuries. I think Susman would find the lionization of Ronald Reagan particularly interesting, especially considering the place he holds in the GOP, yet his policies and actions would have branded him RINO among many within the Republican Party.

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