American CultureA recent discussion post presented a question regarding culture and how much a person is defined by his or her culture. In that discussion an idea was presented about the United...

American Culture

A recent discussion post presented a question regarding culture and how much a person is defined by his or her culture. In that discussion an idea was presented about the United States. 

To simplify (maybe over-simplify) here, the suggestion was that there is no such thing as a single American culture and only traces of distinct cultures exist in the US as a result of immigration. 

Do you agree? Is there such a thing as American culture? If there is an American culture, how would you characterize it? By dialect? By predilections and values? By artistic movements?


Expert Answers
creativethinking eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I have to echo post 2, where pohnpei characterized America as a nation that is "very individualistic and that does not particularly value tradition and traditional ways. It is something of an aggressive, me-first culture." In an overarching sense, I feel that America shows its youth in its idealogy. Just as a teenager feels invincible, I think we present a "we're the best" mentality that can be very arrogant or very empowering, depending on the way it is used.

I am not surprised to hear many suggestions of "freedom" as America's raison d'etre, since that is the impression sent out by our Lady Liberty to the huddled masses. However, those concerned about social justice need not scratch the surface too deeply before unveiling the many ways our country has stolen the freedom of others, from the enslaving and subjugation of African Americans, to the internment of Japanese Americans, to the outright destruction of traditional Native America and its people.

America is still figuring out who she is. Like any teenager, she's going to need to learn from experience. She might have incredible potential, but she's not yet wise.

P.s. I do disagree with marbar57 about artistic movements not being a part of the emerging U.S. culture... What about Native American, African American, Latino American and classical (read: white American) literature? Beat poetry? American folk music/country music? Film noir? JAZZ? I can't imagine creating a comprehensive definition of our culture without them.

Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would have to agree with those posts that focus on our individualistic attitudes as Americans, as contrasted with cultures in which community comes first, that whole "rugged individualism" thing that seems to have manifested itself most recently in the rich getting richer because somehow, the rest of us are not rugged enough.  However, I do think also that we also have a culture that embraces the new, and that some of what passes for greed and materialism is a function of our love for the latest, the newest.  This, of course, tends to endanger whatever culture we do have, since the "old" tends to be abandoned when the new comes in.

As far as the arts are concerned, it strikes me that jazz is a product of American culture, that it couldn't have begun and evolved anywhere else, with its rawness and embrace of improvisation, and that film-making is an American art form, as well, something that we embraced because of its newness. 

To some degree, few countries are completely homogeneous in culture. National borders are a fairly modern and political construct, so the fact that we are a blend of so many different cultures does not imply to me that we have none at all. 

marbar57 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with Post #4. As an American I feel a certain sense of pride in my country, but would have to say some of the reasons I believe and do certain things is because of my European roots. When I do or say certain things, I hear people say, "Oh it's just your fiery Irish temper flaring again!" or "You're built like an English schoolhouse," or "There goes that German stubborness again!"

I wonder how much of who I am today is because of my ancestry and how much of it is because I was born in America. I would have to say if there is a central culture in this country, it would have to be our national pride, our patriotism, our sassy, self-confident, cocky natures, our love of family. We have stayed a nation for over 200 years because we hate tyranny, oppression, and bondage.  

Do the following factors determine our culture? 

Dialect:  Maybe (As a whole we do speak distinctly different English from other countries.)

Values:  Maybe (If you consider freedom a value, then yes.)

Artistic Movements:  No (Many nations are much more artistic than we are and art is pretty much a worldwide thing, with no distinctions of border and country.)

wannam eNotes educator| Certified Educator

After traveling outside of the US, I would say there is definitely an American culture.  Yes, we are a melting pot and there are strands of other cultures woven into the fabric of American culture, but we still have our own unique developments as well.  I think our attitudes and our ideals are American.  Many Americans share a similar work ethic and similar ideas of vacation.  For instance, an American vacation is usually about a week (or less) whereas a European vacation (or holiday) can last for several months.  Americans also have certain ideas about personal space.  The US is very large and spread out.  Americans often expect a different amount of personal space than other cultures.  We think it is rude or uncomfortable to stand too close to a stranger.  Other cultures don't share this idea.  Look at the train system in Japan.  They literally press passengers into the train cars.  I would venture to say that most Americans would be uncomfortable with that situation.  Every country is going to develop it's own quirks and cultural traits regardless of immigration or how the country came to be.

litlady33 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Can any cultures really be defined by a phrase or a sentence? I think culture is more characterized by a feeling. As an American, it's easy to say that we don't really have a culture because it is a part of us. It's easier to see the culture of others because we can see it as different from us, even something to be admired an envied. But if someone is on the outside looking in, I think they would definitely say that we have some kind of culture.

I do agree with above posts that say America is a very "me" centered culture. We have been taught to chase after the American Dream and that we can do whatever we want, no matter where we started. This has created in us, I think, a sense of entitlement. But there are also great things about our culture. In addition to the great artistic movements we have had, I think we are a people of compassion and philanthropy. Americans, I believe, are always willing to help in the time of need. This is something I admire greatly about our country, and I hope it continues to be a value of ours.

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As an American, I have to say that I am extremely saddened by the fact that (I feel) America does not have a singular culture. When watching shows about the great history of other nations, I am reminded that America is still relatively young. America does not boast the ancient architecture which is seen in other culturally rich nations. Americans have to travel to other countries to experience renowned ancient architecture and celebrated culture.

That said, I believe that there are many cultures which exist within America. The people in America rally around its one common theme (as denoted by lentzk)--freedom. Given that freedom is so celebrated, the people can hold to the ideologies of whatever they wish. While I do believe that culture exists within America, think the South, I do not believe that America as a whole possesses a true cultural identity it can pass onto future generations.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I grew up as the child of one American and one non-American parent and I grew up outside the country.  So to me, there is an American culture that I would characterize (of the choices you offer) by predilections and values.  It is a culture that is very individualistic and that does not particularly value tradition and traditional ways.  It is something of an aggressive, me-first culture.  Now, I don't know how (if) that contrasts with other Western cultures as the culture I grew up in was not Western.  But that's how I see American culture (and especially how I saw it when I actually started living in the US when I started college).

Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a great question, and one that I had a great debate about in a history course one time.  To me, the central theme of American culture is freedom.  That may sound simple, but the freedom of endless possibilities is a central focus of American culture and present within our theatre, literature, language, art, and even food.

shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think we have both an American culture and a multitude of subcultures. Our "American-ness" is expressed in a belief in personal freedom and our right to pursue happiness in our own way. Most people would rise up in serious protest if those rights were seriously abridged.