Modern American Encounters, V

Students in HIS350 Modern America are engaging with a variety of primary and secondary source materials this semester.  Recently they were given an essay assignment that asked them to consider the following:

All of us approach an historical era that is new to us with impressions: ideas, feelings, or opinions about something or someone, often formed without conscious thought or on the basis of little or disconnected evidence.  The purpose of this assignment is to reflect on how your thinking (“impression”) about the modern American experience is being reshaped by your encounters with a variety of primary and secondary source evidence.

Junior History and Social Studies Education major Matisse Murray reflects on American identity in her essay, “Pluribus or Unum?  Individualism and Collectivism in the Early 20th Century.”

I distinctly remember seeing my 10th grade history teacher’s blackboard, the word, “story” emblazoned across the top in chalky white lines.  He had truncated the word “history” and stepped back, allowing us to reflect upon the difference that two small letters could make.  Story has a different appeal than history but the two are certainly related.  As with all stories, history, the narrative of our world and its people, does not occur as a series of discrete events; instead, all is affected by the interactions and reactions between people and the environment.  This can be difficult to capture in a classroom.  As I review the period of modern America, I have been challenged to consider the early 1900’s, WWI and the ‘20s as periods far more connected to one another than simply being consecutive parts of a timeline.  The degree to which they are indeed reactions to one another is something that I have come to appreciate this semester.  While exploring this responsive nature of history, I have come to better understand the context surrounding the shifts in the American mindset that occurred during these eras, the role that other factors played as well as the resonance of this tension among Americans today.

Of all the social hallmarks of American society, individualism is perhaps one of the best known.  The spirit of the pioneer and the entrepreneur permeate our national consciousness and color the way in which we view the world around us; yet these concepts have never been static.  The degree to which individualism ought to be guarded was continually in conflict with calls for a collective mindset throughout the 20th century, especially during the eras of Progressivism and the New Era of the 1920’s.  This is especially intriguing because of the depth to which individualism is woven into the fabric of American character.  When learning about these first decades of the 20th century, I had never recognized the nuances of their relationship, but have now come to believe that the tension between individualism and collectivism acts as an effective illustrative framework. Throughout the Progressive era and America’s involvement in WWI, the country was roused to critically examine its individualist character.  As the results of technology and unbridled economic freedom manifested themselves through social problems in industrial and urban life, those who attempted to address these issues began to challenge traditional government aloofness.  Progressives called fellow citizens to reject selfish enterprise and act on behalf of others. Theodore Roosevelt and other politicians began to adopt this rhetoric, especially during the election of 1912, as government expanded to address socioeconomic and political inequalities.  TR wrote, “… the advocate of human welfare… rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate it”[1] while Wilson maintained that “the most fatal thing that we can do… is to imagine that we… have an interest which isn’t the interest of the whole community.”[2]  American support for progressive reform reflects the extent to which this mindset influenced American thought.

This idea of collective concern and crusading for the social good, to some extent, also served as the impetus for America’s entry into WWI.  Framing the war as a fight to “vindicate the principles of peace and justice,” Wilson and other progressives saw the war as a way to improve life both at home and abroad.[3]  George M. Cohan’s song “Over There” celebrates the enlistment of “every son of liberty” as they go “over there…and won’t come back till it’s over” in a commitment to finish the fight.[4]  Sacrifice became a way of life during wartime as families gave up food supplies and family members for the war effort.  Even before 1917, however, hints of discontent with US involvement could be found in songs like “If You Were the Only Girl in the World” as some Americans yearned to be disentangled from foreign conflict.[5] The disillusionment produced by the war ultimately caused a change in the national sentiment; accordingly, many Americans began to retreat not only from foreign intervention but from collectivity as well.  Weariness generated by the previous two decades caused a return to individualism as Americans tired of exerting themselves on behalf of others, whether they were fellow Americans or Europeans abroad.  Businesses were released from many of their regulations and middle class citizens were freed from thrift as economic liberty and consumerism overcame American culture.  It would not be until 1929 that Americans en masse again viewed individualism with alarm.

Another interesting issue that came to light through reflecting upon source material was an even broader identity question than whether the individual or the collective ought to be of paramount significance, as Americans struggled to respond to the depersonalization that began to overtake the country in the Modern era.  Especially with the widespread use of factory labor, the growth of cities, and the rise in population, people became increasingly faceless.  Cheap laborers were used and exploited as thousands more waited for jobs; urban areas teemed with people as small communities shrunk in prevalence; and immigrants were rapidly processed through Ellis Island by the thousands.  While progressives like Jane Addams attempted to put identities to the nameless in America through the Settlement House movement, politicians such as Teddy Roosevelt called for more direct democracy through tools such as the referendum and the recall, so that people could have a more distinct voice in their government.  Even after their efforts, WWI saw soldiers literally acting as gun fodder as millions died going “over the top” in a fruitless effort to break the stalemate of the trenches.  As Bing Crosby later sang in the song, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” it was not a group of men who “went slogging through Hell,” but rather “half a million boots.”[6]  Even as the 1920’s saw the development of mass production and the transformation of the American public into a throng of potential consumers, the era also celebrated individual people, heroes in sports and film as well as musical stars, such as those of the Harlem Renaissance.  The struggle to adequately counter the depersonalized trends that modernity brought to the United States was another key factor in the link between these eras.

Studying the responsiveness that is found within history has also illustrated for me the way in which social forces act as pendulums, swinging from one preference to another.  We still see the alteration between focus on the individual and the collective today.  Despite most Americans’ recognition that concern for others is vital to the nation’s wellbeing, personal autonomy and freedom to keep what we earn and act as we choose remains a central concern.  We see this tension between private and public interest when taxes and welfare provisions are debated and, on a broader scale, when the supremacy of domestic or foreign policy is disputed.  Our current fatigue with fighting overseas, to a degree, mirrors that of Americans following WWI.  As we begin to withdraw our military forces out of the Middle East, there is a strong sense among many Americans that turning inward is necessary in order to recover ourselves at home.  When one compares the elections of 2004 with that of 2008 or 2012, the alternating significance of foreign and domestic policy issues is clear.  Despite these parallels, we also begin from a very different perspective than those who were arguing these issues a century ago.  Although we still guard our sense of independence, we are also comparatively very much involved in the public welfare, through Social Security, Medicare and higher tax rates.  With regard to foreign policy, we are also far more comfortable with a greater degree of involvement overseas, especially in view of our experiences in recent world conflicts through which the United States has grown as a military power.  After a century of change, the presence of individualism in American life is still a matter of fluctuation, a pattern that reflects the significant role that reactions play in history.

In many ways, history is a narrative, in which its actors respond to plot twists and character development.  In my exploration of the era of Progressive thought and the New Era of the 1920’s, I have come to recognize that the tension of individualism and collectivism is a key to understanding the connections between these time periods.  Much of this is due to the responsive nature of history itself.  Both time periods were essentially reactionary and as this pattern persists, we can continue to watch the pendulum swing.

<<Read the previous post in this series

[1] Brett Flehinger, The Election of 1912 and the Power of Progressivism: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003), 68-69.

[2] Ibid., 125.

[3] James L. Roark et al., The American Promise Volume II: A History of the United States from 1865 (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008), 682.

[4] George M. Cohan, “Over There,” Over There, 1917.

[5] Clifford Grey and Nat D. Ayer, “If You Were the Only Girl In the World,” The Bing Boys Are Here, 1916.

[6] Jay Gorney and Yip Harburg, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” New Americana, 1932.


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