Letters

Letters Archive
Spring 2000, Vol. 8, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)
  • Teaching the Holocaust
  • Former Warren Center Fellow Susan Hegeman Publishes Book on Culture and Modnerism
  • The Reproduction of Nature: Cultural Origins of America's National Parks
  • Former Warren Center Fellow Susan Hegeman Publishes Book on Culture and Modnerism

    Susan Hegeman, now an associate professor of English at the University of Florida, was the William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow for the 1996/97 Fellows Program, "The Question of Culture." Her recently published book, completed during her tenure at the Warren Center, offers a compelling account of how the term "culture" has been deployed in the discourses of anthropology, literature, and popular culture in the twentieth-century United States.
    In her acknowledgments, Hegeman thanks the Warren Center and calls her year here "especially important": "[It] allowed me the time, space, and ideal collegial environment for finishing this book the way I wanted."
    Patterns for America: Modernism and the Concept of Culture (Princeton University Press, 1999) traces a number of shifts in the meaning of the word "culture" that took place between 1900 and 1950. It argues first that during this period, "culture" changed from a term used primarily by anthropologists to a common word that denoted the whole range of a people's beliefs and practices. At the same time, culture came to be understood in comparative rather than evolutionary terms. Whereas for earlier thinkers culture had been a yardstick for measuring the "advancement" of different peoples along a single axis of development (and thus for making judgments about these peoples' superiority or inferiority), the newer conception of the word was more relativistic, and emphasized the fundamental difference of individual cultures. Differences among cultures were often categorized in geographic and spatial terms, so that given places -- the United States as a whole, or more specific locales such as Chicago or the lands of the Zuñi -- came to signify not just the places themselves, but a set of practices and beliefs. Thus, when people in the mid twentieth century spoke of an "American" culture or way of life, their understanding of the term conveyed geographical particularity, distinctness from other cultures, and self-estrangement in ways that earlier uses of the term had not. In Hegeman's words, "'culture' may have hit home to many Americans, but it left them thinking about themselves and their allegiances in a newly relational, contextual, and often critical way."
    Hegeman argues that these shifts coincided with the rise of literary modernism and helped to inform some of American modernism's deployments of culture as a term. Many of her most striking analyses juxtapose developments in anthropology and literature. Franz Boas's emphasis on anthropological fieldwork (and the attention to the local that such fieldwork demands), for example, is used to illuminate T.S. Eliot's use of place and artifact as metaphor in his poem "The Dry Salvages." Similarly, the turn toward the distinctness of separate cultures exemplified by such anthropological texts as Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture finds its analogue in the work of artists who portrayed the culture of highly distinct regions -- Sherwood Anderson's fictional Winesburg, Ohio; Jean Toomer's Georgia; and Thomas Hart Benton's Midwest. Indeed, the modernist preoccupation with the provincial and the primitive reflects this change in an understanding of culture: regional and marginal cultures became seen as "authentic" precisely because of their differentiation from larger and more heterogeneous cultures.
    Hegeman maintains, however, that while the newer conception of culture may have been relativistic, it did not necessarily reject hierarchy or standards of value. Indeed, one group of writers that Hegeman examines -- the "culture critics" who included Waldo Frank, Randolph Bourne, and Van Wyck Brooks -- attempted, in ways often reminiscent of Matthew Arnold's famous promotion of culture as a means to "sweetness and light," to define a national culture, diagnose its problems and contradictions, and resolve them. In some cases, a previous moral standard of culture was replaced by an aesthetic standard. Thus, Hegeman's later chapters point to the way that the dichotomy between modern centers and "primitive" peripheries helped to establish not only the notion of a specifically "American" culture, but also the division of culture into the aesthetically defined categories of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow. The fascination with the regional and the middlebrow evinced by some leading modernists gave way in the years after the Second World War to a new "highbrow" assault on what was seen as a degraded culture, described by such terms as "kitsch," "masscult," and "Kulchur." At this point, literary and anthropological definitions of culture diverged sharply. The ensuing confusion as to what constitutes culture -- which continues in our current debates surrounding the uses, viability, and future of the term -- can be traced to this point in time.
    Jay Clayton, professor of English at Vanderbilt and a co-director of the 1996/97 Fellows Program, says of Hegeman, "Susan was the ideal visiting fellow -- a dream seminar participant! She has marvelously wide-ranging interests and an engaging, even vivacious mind. I miss the lively give-and-take of those afternoons very much, but having Susan's book in hand helps to restore some of what we lost when our Fellows' year came to an end."

    -- By Thomas Haddox



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