The essay “Is American Culture “American”?”, by historian Richard Pells, examines the notion that American culture cannot be defined as a singular culture, but rather an amalgamation of worldly thoughts, ideas and styles, that when combined, emulated the diversity of the American experience. I will provide a summary of this essay, showing Pells’ arguments that Americans have simply “borrowed” foreign cultures and repackaged them as a culture easier to swallow on a global front. I will then provide an argument as to why Pells is correct in his assertion that America has not bullied the world into accepting our culture, but instead, has deftly blended our culture to be one with the worlds’.
Beginning over a century ago, observers abroad began to notice the influence of American culture on a global scale. Essay upon essay chronicled the disappearance of national languages and traditions, and the lack of a country’s unique “identity” under the weight of American habits and way of life. Political activists, journalists and academics have complained that varied cultures are becoming uniform, and now see global culture and American culture as the same thing. This is where Pells begins his argument. He notes that such things that appear to be American, such as fast food, theme parks and Hollywood, can all trace their beginnings to a European model. There were English fish and chips served on the go long before McDonald’s came around. Walt Disney modeled his famous Disneyland after the Tivoli Gardens in Denmark. Before 1920, the main exporter of moving films was France and Italy.
What America did well, Pells notes, was being able to refine these arts, which were specialized to their region, and make them palatable to the rest of the world. Pells credits this to America’s position as an immigrant melting pot. America was becoming home to millions of European immigrants at the dawn of the 20th Century. The still growing American culture was welcoming of all these newcomers, and had to adapt in order to move forward as a country. Newspapers and shopkeepers, media and conglomerates needed to create a product that had broad, cultural appeal if they wanted any chance to succeed. And when combined with the unrelenting culture of American capitalism and marketing, products and ideas often made their ways overseas. In essence, Americans had mastered the ability to take the best traits and customs of a foreign culture, and blend it with the best traits of others to create an acceptably palatable product for a worldwide audience.
This was especially true in burgeoning film and entertainment markets in the beginning of the century. Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s use of unorthodox, atonal music validated the rhythmic innovations of American jazz. American composers like George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein combined European folk melodies, religious hymns, blues, jazz and gospel songs into their scores for stage and screen. Hollywood film makers such as Orson Welles and Quentin Tarantino have been influenced by the techniques of French New Wave and Italian neo-Realism filmmakers in the use of shadows and light and the way the narrative is laid down.
The emergence of Hollywood blockbusters, cable TV and the internet have continued to “force” American ideals into foreign homes, but again presented with ideas and styles that can be related to on a global scale. To conclude his essay, Pells goes on to say that:
In the end, American mass culture has not transformed the world into a replica of the United States. Instead, America’s dependence on foreign cultures has made the United States a replica of the world.