by Michael H. Burchett
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On the Old, Weird America
How does one probe the deepest psychic recesses of a nation so sprawling, so disposable, so seemingly transparent yet coyly evasive of real analysis? Our history is short, but it is incredibly dense, like a white dwarf star that sucks all inquiry into its imploding mass. Iíve studied the history of this country off and on for over two decades, taught it to others, disseminated my research on it in books, journals, reference, works, and on this site. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I suggest that I can likely tell you a few things about it that you donít already know, some of which might actually be interesting to you. But Iíll be damned if I can figure it out.
My attempts to do so, however, have led to a fascination with the dark, eerie, bizarre side of American history, those little pockets of idiosyncrasy that Griel Marcus called "the old, weird America." They were plentiful during the nationís infancy; in fact, weirdness was the norm back then. The institutions that had shaped and circumscribed the lives of Europeans for centuries Ė church, peerage, guilds, law Ė had always been weak or absent in the British North American colonies. Many of those who came here, from the British Isles and elsewhere, did so to get away from those institutions and the crushing grip they held on the lives of ordinary citizens. They came for a multiplicity of reasons under a variety of circumstances. Some were not free when they arrived here, and many never again tasted freedom. Some got here by being a step or two swifter than the sheriff; some got here by being a step or two slower than a raiding party. Under these circumstances, and across their sprawling and ever-spreading geography, the colonies were a petri dish in which incubated teeming microbes of vulgarity, violence, depravity, humor, and mad genius.
The cultural homogenization responsible for eradicating the old, weird America began with the invention of the telegraph and the development of railroad networks in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Railroad construction exploded during the postbellum era, opening up new markets for mass-produced goods that competed with the wares of local merchants and artisans. Railroads thus changed the way Americans shopped in the late nineteenth century in a manner similar to how the Internet changed consumer habits in the late twentieth century. Mail order houses, starting with Montgomery Ward in 1878, soon emerged to meet rural demand for finished goods. Railroads were also responsible for dividing the country into four time zones in 1883, eliminating reliance upon local "sun time" and permitting railroad lines to set more accurate travel schedules. The resultant consolidation of hundreds of local times into four distinct zones increased the efficiency with which goods were shipped to market and to individual consumers, helping to fuel the economic boom of the late nineteenth century and setting the stage for the homogenized consumer society of the twentieth. Each technological advancement served to advance this process of homogenization: the telephone; the phonograph; motion pictures; the automobile; the Federal Highway System; radio. The emergence of the suburbsin the 1940s and 1950s created a disposable, standardized middle-class consumer culture that provided a new model for mainstream American life. Emphasis was upon leisure and self-fulfillment within a social structure relaxed in overt appearance but underpinned by rigid standards of social conduct, political orthodoxy, circumscribed gender roles, and various forms of bigotry. Television was the glue that held it all together, a conduit for bright and powerful images of the ideal American life that passed throught a growing number of American homes during the postwar era. Decade after decade, the differences between individual regions and localities became less and less evident. Cable TV and the explosive growth of franchise businesses in the 1980s dealt yet another blow to the old, weird America; yet it still exists. Cultural trends of the early twenty-first century portend a technology-driven balkanization of culture that will reverse the process of cultural homogenization that dominated twentieth-century American society, doubtless resulting in the creation of various new, weird Americas. But where does one go to find the old? A complete list sources would not only be too long to post here, but would be a good project upon which to base a book. One would do well to start with the following: Michael Lesy. Wisconsin Death Trip
Robert Palmer, Deep Blues
Skip James, 1930 Recordings
Dock Boggs, Country Blues
I will write more on this topic in later installments. My apologies to all who have visited the past couple of months for the server problems, software glitches, and writer's block that prevented the timely completion of this essay.
George F. Kennan ( ) Diplomat; author of U.S. Cold War containment policy
Suggested Readings:The New York Public Library American History Desk Reference (New York: Macmillan, 1997).
Copyright © 2005 Michael H. Burchett. All rights reserved.