Letters Archive
Spring 1997, Vol. 5, No. 2
  • Experimenting with Cultural Studies
  • Erudition and Specialization
  • Tracing "Culture" in Modernist America
  • Tracing "Culture" in Modernist America

    Susan Hegeman

    In 1917, Mabel Dodge, the subject of Gertrude Stein's famous prose portrait, received a letter from her husband, painter Maurice Sterne, that would change the course of her interesting life. It began, "Do you want an object in life? Save the Indians, their art-culture—reveal it to the world!" Soon after, Dodge renounced her role as the social center of the New York avant garde, and made her home in what was then a very remote northern New Mexico. In Taos, Dodge became a central figure in another artists' colony that would eventually include D.H. Lawrence and Georgia O'Keefe, both of whom shared her fascination with Native America.

    There are a number of ways to explain this modernist migration. For impoverished artists (though Dodge was hardly among them), Taos was a cheap place to live, and the landscape was undeniably inspiring. Also, as Sterne's letter suggests, the artists were attracted to the Indians—or at least, to their primitivist fantasies of them. Then too, in 1917 it did not seem so unreasonable a thing to turn one's back on a Europe in chaos and to seek out a place still largely untouched by modernity and the horrors that apparently went with it. A few short decades after the end of the Indian wars, New Mexico seemed to offer a new "art-culture" from which to draw inspiration, and thus also an alternative "cultural" homeland to Europe.

    Thus, the passion with which Dodge and others took up the cause of the Indians' "art-culture" suggests not only a significant change in perceptions of Native Americans, but a fundamental transformation in how "art" and "culture" were understood as well. In this reconception, Indians were no longer designated the "primitive" antithesis to the "civilized" Europeans. Indeed, romanticized as possessors of an ancestral culture much along the lines of Renaissance Italy or Tudor England, the Indians' cultural accomplishments could be described as comparable to those of Europe. Pueblo pottery and Navajo rugs joined ranks with the products of the great European painters and sculptors, and the recently "discovered" African art traditions.

    This is but one example of the general rearticulation of ideas of "culture" that occurred in the early twentieth century in the United States. Later, among less elite groups of Americans, "culture" would come to connote different but equally dramatic changes in how people viewed their, and others', position in the world. Though the term was employed in highly specialized ways among social scientists, it also be came an important part of the American vernacular. Indeed, after World War II, "culture" had such widespread usage that in 1950 two of anthropology's more prominent practitioners were led to exclaim, "Why has it rather suddenly become popular in the United States, to the point that such phrases as 'Eskimo culture' appear even in the comic strips?" My answer to the anthropologists would be that in these beginning years of the Cold War, "culture" offered the perfect vehicle for imagining a coherent set of customs and values that could be called "American." Though "Eskimo culture" was in the comic strips, "American culture" was on their minds.

    My "book-in-progress," The Democracy of Cultures, is an at tempt to grasp the significance of "culture" in the context of American modernism. It both charts and complicates many of the assumptions that have been made about that very confusing con cept. "Culture" is often defined as two separate ideas. On the one hand, it is a term of value or a realm of human existence associated with refinement or art ("high culture"); on the other, it is a technical, value-neutral term of description, connoting the customs, habits, and assumptions of a group of people ("Pueblo culture"). The first definition is usually associated with aesthetics, hierarchical evaluation, and the work of Matthew Arnold; the second, with cultural relativism, scientific detachment, and the discipline of anthropology. Just as the former definition is firmly associated with the Victorian era, the latter could be said to be quintessentially a product of the modernist moment, coined and popularized as it largely was by the practitioners of the new academic discipline of anthropology.

    But as Mabel Dodge's changing involvement with what might be called "culture" should show us, these two usages of the term are far less easily separable than this simple distinction would suggest. While Dodge may not have been able to conceive of Native American life without having something like an anthropological understanding of "culture," she was nevertheless interested in "saving" Indian "art-culture" for reasons that were at base aesthetic.

    In fact, similarly aesthetic interests were also prevalent among those who were considered to be coiners of the new, social scientific usage of "culture:" the anthropologists. But this should hardly come as a surprise, considering that the most prominent anthropological theorizers of "culture" were based at Columbia University, a few short subway stops from Dodge's former home in Greenwich Village. Indeed, Columbia anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Robert Lowie, Elsie Clews Parsons, and Ruth Benedict were influential in the same intellectual and artistic circles in which Dodge and her friends traveled, and several of the anthropologists, including Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir, had serious artistic ambitions.

    Thus, the "cultural" discourse of the period was one in which artists invoked relativism and other aspects of the anthropological conception of culture, while anthropologists in their turn fretted about questions of individual "genius," aesthetic standards, and morality. Given these complex inter-influences, both "culture" and the modernist moment of which it is a part must be rethought together.

    Thus, in my research I address the meaning of "culture" in terms of the contradictions its usages suggested: between the hierarchical and value-neutral conceptions of the term, between the aesthetic and the social-scientific, between the technical-professional and the popular. Usages of the culture concept in this period suggest still other tensions, including anxieties about the relationship between ethnic, racial, and national identities, and the place of the individual within society.

    These contradictions can be best illustrated by seeing the anthropologists and other intellectuals and artists of the period as engaged in a similar project of "cultural" definition. There was a close, but often slighted, historical relationship between the founders of American professional anthropology—including Boas, Mead, Benedict, Parsons, and Sapir—and influential literary intellectuals including Randolph Bourne, Constance Rourke, and Van Wyck Brooks. Not only were these figures often in communication with one another, but, as "public intellectuals," they were also engaged in similar political and cultural debates, over such disparate issues as American nationalism; U.S. entry into World War I; racism; birth control, marriage, and women's rights; homosexuality; free verse; and the meaning, content, and extent of American "culture" itself.

    Thus, Franz Boas's founding work in the field of anthropology can be discussed fruitfully not only alongside his more public statements against scientific racism and against U.S. participation in World War I, but also together with the work of such thinkers as W.E.B. Du Bois and Randolph Bourne: all offer conceptual alternatives to racist and nationalist discourses of the period, and hence reveal the political dimensions of the creation of relativist conceptions of culture. Similarly, literary critic Van Wyck Brooks's important statement on "Highbrow" and "Lowbrow" tendencies in American culture can be interestingly compared to anthropologist Edward Sapir's essay "Culture—Genuine and Spurious." Both writers rejected cultural relativism to some degree, to insist on the social and personal necessity of thinking in terms of hierarchies of cultural value. But perhaps even more importantly, both demonstrate how the idea of "culture" presented new confusions about how to understand the individual's place within the social whole: how much of me is "cultural," and how much is unique to me alone? What hap pens to me as an individual if the "culture" of which I am a part is debased, immoral, or stifling?

    The answers to these pressing questions are partially offered in works such as Waldo Frank's book-length essay Our America and Ruth Benedict's widely-read Patterns of Culture, and in the work of such writers as Sherwood Anderson and Jean Toomer. For them, plural "cultures" were conceived of in spatial terms, as a range of aesthetic and political possibilities open to the cultural traveler disappointed with his or her own milieu. Out there some where, in other words, was the "culture" that "fit," one's authentic homeland. This kind of "cultural" imagination can, I think, help us understand the modernist regionalisms of better-known literary figures, including Willa Cather and even William Faulkner. It also goes a long way toward explaining some of the fascinations of Taos for the artists who migrated there.

    It is my contention that some thing interesting happened to "culture as a result of this regionalist usage. Regions of the United States, notably the South and the Midwest, became the sites from which to articulate tensions within the United States between the cultural and political centers of American life and their peripheries. Through an account of the politics of regionalism in this period, and an examination of Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merell Lynd's influential community study, Middlletown (which was taken to offer a kind of baseline "culture" for America), I argue that the term "culture" came increasingly to connote a static social entity, often associated with a stereotypical "Middle America." This idea of "Middle America," convergent with both an increasing vernacular acceptance of the word "culture" and the development of an expanding middle class, came, in turn, to connote a unique stratum of cultural taste: the "middle brow." Midwestern regionalist artists, notably Thomas Hart Benton, used the emergence of this "culture" of the middle to challenge the power and opinions of the New York based art establishment, and to consolidate in the minds of many the relationship between "middlebrow" taste and political, aesthetic, and social conservatism.

    Meanwhile, East Coast intellectuals of the political and aesthetic vanguard saw in this development a potential threat not only to established claims to cultural authority, but to a project of social and artistic transformation associated, in part, with the concept of culture itself. The result, as the decade closed, was an emerging "highbrow" anxiety about attempts to represent "culture." Among American anthropologists, "culture" diminished somewhat in importance as a discipline-defining concept, and more popular discussions of "culture" became largely absorbed into debates over class and cultural value. In the work of such writers as Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, "culture" would be deployed against the tastes of the masses, for whom they developed a new vocabulary of de graded taste: "Masscult," "Midcult," "kulchur, " "kitsch. "

    My research thus treats "culture" as a critical term that was deployed in a specific historical period, with indefinite and unpredictable consequences. Among modernist intellectuals, "culture" promised a conceptual framework for resolving certain tensions of American social life in the period, and for reconceiving society in new and potentially transformative ways. But I would argue that the lasting consequence of the modernist redefinition of culture was to allow for the idea that American literary and artistic life existed, developed, and thrived independently of its European models. With wider usage, it also enabled a particular new kind of group identity, in which citizens of the United States imagined that they thought and behaved and lived in a distinctly "American" way.

    We can now see with historical perspective that both of these ideas—the uniqueness of "American" artistic traditions, and the distinctness of an "American" people—were useful fictions in their contexts: the isolationism of the interwar moment and the exceptionalism of the Cold War. Much of the interesting scholarly work on American life in recent years has been devoted to showing not only how complexly heterogeneous is the citizenry of the United States, but also how almost any art tradition that we would care to call distinctly "American" is actually the product of centuries of circulations of people, ideas, and materials from all the world's continents.

    But even given these dramatic revisions, "culture" seems to have adapted and moved on, transmuted by the needs and issues of our moment—in academic descriptions of these new global identities and processes, and in the various volleys of the more public "culture wars." In the academy, "culture's" remarkable re-emergence as a critical term, especially in the humanities, of ten seems easily dismissed as resulting from its centrality to the consolidation of new disciplinary formations such as "cultural studies.

    However, much of the vehemence, and a surprising amount of the substance, of the current debate over "culture" is a holdover from an earlier moment—as in, for example, the passion with which many invoke the idea of an "American culture." It is my hope that, as we engage in these new sites of "cultural" struggle, we remember the complexity, seriousness, real interdisciplinarity, and public spirltedness of a previous generation s cultural negotiatlons .

    Susan Hegeman is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Vanderbilt and the William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow at the Warren Center. While at the Warren Center, she is participating in the 1996/97 Fellows Program, "The Question of Culture." Hegeman is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Florida.

    Letters Archive Index

    For more information, contact the Center's executive director, Mona C. Frederick.

    [ RPW Center for the Humanities | About the Center | Visiting Fellowship Information | Howard Lecture Series | Seminars and Programs | Programs since 1987 ]

    [ Vanderbilt University | Site Index | Search Vanderbilt | Help ]

    Created by Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.
    Photo credits: Gerald Holly and Vanderbilt University Publications & Design.

    Copyright © 1998, Vanderbilt University
    URL: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/rpw_center/
    Last Modified: Tuesday, 9 May 2000
    For more information: rpw.center@vanderbilt.edu