American Moderns: Fashioning a New National Culture
Literature and historians alike look to the past to define the present. In many ways, one can look at the defining moments in American history to understand the foundation in which today's culture exists. This paper asks one to examine the specific period of time after the Civil War and how the men and women born of these decades until the First World War created a new American culture. This involves looking at the work of historians like Christine Stansell in order to gain a better understanding of the pillars and forces that shaped American culture at the time.
It is apparent that times were changing drastically from the Victorian era to the Modern era. People's morals and values were changing as writers and artists pushed the envelope and introduced new ideas into the mainstream. It can also be assumed that these "new ideas and values" indeed existed prior to the Bohemian lifestyle of the Village in New York City but that like many things in American culture were not mainstream or discussed. One can look at technology, war and America's place in the global economy today and be awed at the progress made in such a short time period. It is fair to assume that due to the Industrial Revolution that lifestyles were changing from agrarian to urban. New technologies like electricity and the combustible engine were making life easier, making work easier, giving people more free time to explore, be more active in day-to-day life. This allowed for a new generation of thinkers, trailblazers who put new issues within the mind set of the everyday American. This was the birth of liberalism and what conservatives would label counter-culture. For the sake of understanding the time period better, this paper also asks one to examine Whinesburg, Ohio; the works of Sherwood Anderson to see if any factors from the Bohemian lifestyle are present as pillars of American culture in his work. It is this juxtaposition that allows for further in depth examination. It is interesting to discover the balance culture finds between that of the liberals and the conservatives.
Stansell and American Culture/Identity
Stansell's book American Moderns looks at a time where free-thinking and engaging in new ideas was blossoming into a lifestyle and movement of the Village. It is a lifestyle and movement that would take hold at other times and in other cities throughout the nation, of course for example, Berkeley, California in the 1960s. Patricia Cohen writes of Stansell's work in defining this culture as, "frames the book around three activities: talking, writing and loving" (2). In this regard, Stansell opens a new perspective as these people as radicals and being vivacious, bold and honest. They embraced free speech, print and sex in a daring way (Cohen 2). Out of everything Stansell discusses, it is the sex that are most absorbing. She weaves together issues of feminism, suffrage, independent careers, birth control and free love in a time where culture was just beginning to become flexible to changes found in society. She discusses how introduction of these new elements into lifestyle and therefore culture changes people's behaviors over time. Women were obtaining the right to vote, working outside the home and their role in culture changed because their role ate home changed. No longer were women married to housework as a career but they had different options. No longer was "she" defined by a man or a husband. As a result of birth control use increasing, so did relationships and moral behavior. No longer were men and women expected to marry in order to have sex. Because of the Bohemian lifestyle, people were not afraid to think different, nor to express themselves through words, both oral and written. Creating art and music was in vogue. Stansell believes that culture is built on talking, writing and loving. These are all things that the new role of women in society helped express with deeper meaning, shocking results. This addition of feminism has indeed changed how culture is viewed today and remains a pillar in society as even to this day as women struggle for equality.
This talk of expression, this need for a voice, to explore ideas is now so ingrained into our society that we almost forget that its there; that we almost completely take advantage of our freedoms. Many people would argue that feminism has ruined culture because it changed the face of family. Equal rights for men and women alike, changed the role of family. Having women in the workforce changed how businesses are ran, how people behave at work. Mostly, feminism changed how women view themselves and the expectations society has on women. No longer is it expected that women will marry or have a man take care of them. No longer is a woman expected to do women's work. Feminism opened many doors for women to be anything they want to be; a doctor, lawyer, engineer, CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The sky is the limit but with it comes the negative. Not only a women expected to work, "bring home the bacon" but also when it comes to family, still be a wife, mother and the primary nurturer. This is where society is changing to build from what the Bohemians started. Now you see husbands taking acer of their babies and the wife going back to work. Now you see instead of men and women marrying, they live together and share in the fruits of their labors. Never before has there been more choices and opportunities for expression and different experiences from that generation of trail blazers. This is happening despite war and a return to family values. What must be understood about culture is that these opportunities always existed; we just needed to flexible enough in our thinking to embrace these different ideas. It is thought that as a result of feminism that a return to family values is needed in order to recapture what was lost. One could argue that this need is indeed a factor in bettering our society and making our culture more easily defined. Is it possible that maybe crime rates would go down? The divorce rate would also go down? Children would stay in school, say no to drugs and respect their elders more? I don't think so. In fact, it is thought that a return to family values would create new crimes against women and change everyone's ability to have a voice in this country. Indeed those who believe differently would still be around fighting for equal rights and freedom of expression.
After read excerpts from Winesburg, Ohio a work by Sherman Anderson about people in a small Midwest town, one comes away with the first impression that this Norman Rockwell; this is middle town conservative America where looks can be deceiving. It seems that it is human nature to want love, art and expression in our worlds for enjoyment. Just because someone lives in a rigid environment, does not mean that they don't want the same things as someone living in Bohemian New York City. It is believed that there is not much separation when it comes to joys of the heart. Despite middle town American culture being less expression, less shocking and more clean cut, does not mean that feminism is not present, nor does it mean that flexible lifestyles and behavior are not present either. These things are happening everywhere, it is just sometimes they are not as apparent. This idea is mentioned because in one of the stories by Anderson, the character of Louise Bentley wants to be in love, wants to be loved by a man and she is not married. They are both young and want romance, lust and…