I belong to an alumni association which is more social club than academic, and was reminded recently of our penchant for creating what we lovingly call “new old traditions”. In other words, making it up as we go along. The book that brought back these fond memories is “Inventing American Tradition – From the Mayflower to Cinco de Mayo” by Jack David Eller. (Reaktion Books, London, 2018) Of course, the book is a great deal more serious than we ever were, but it nevertheless bears comparison.
The book attracted me because it is a social history and I was therefore probably going to be spared lengthy or in-depth analyses of politics, wars, and other weighty subjects that I have grown less tolerant of as the years go by. Who needs it?? The daily news is difficult enough to digest without also having to contemplate the mistakes of previous generations!
I was not disappointed, and learned a lot in the process.
The author’s premise is that as a recently invented country filled entirely with immigrants (and their slaves. And – oh, yes – those pesky original inhabitants), America was from the beginning a country with no past. The colonists therefore focused on the newness of their creation – which of course, had never been done before in the history of the world. There was a good bit of rejection and even suspicion of traditions from the old country and even, the new. What did we need with traditions, preservation or history? We were starting fresh. It was actually a very destructive attitude, because so much was lost during this period of literally hundreds of years during the Colonial period. According to Eller, this American attitude dominated both public and private life until we hit a rough patch called the Civil War and very nearly destroyed what little fabric the divided country had managed to create.
According to the author, American identity was mostly created after the Civil War, 250 years after the pilgrims landed on these shores. All of a sudden Americans began to realize what nearly had been lost, and turned a 180, forming memorial associations, building museums, and identifying historic sites. There was a veritable frenzy of creating symbols, holidays, patriotic displays and performances, glorifying the military heroes of our recent conflict – especially in the South. Everyone was suddenly anxious to belong to the Daughters of the Revolution, the Sons of Norway, the GAR – the list is epic!
The country adopted new mottoes, started churning out coinage and currency with patriotic slogans, finally got around to adopting a national anthem and a Pledge of Allegiance, developed patriotic curricula for public schools, and for the first time even taught American History!
You may have already perceived a familiarity to this narrative. Well, there is another point – that really hit me hard. The period of time between the Civil War and WWI was also a major period of American growth, mostly from immigration. These newcomers had no traditional memories of America. They came seeking asylum, or because of the perceived opportunities in a new land, but knew nothing about America’s past or its dominant language. It presented a perfect opportunity to teach them how to be Americans, since we were already teaching these things (for the first time) to our own homegrown children. Instead we feared them, rejected them, and blamed them for all kinds of societal ills.
NOW is it starting to sound familiar?
There’s more. Much more in this well-researched book and I highly recommend it..