Editor's Choice

What is the main idea of "One Hundred Percent American" by Ralph Linton?

Quick answer:

The main idea of Ralph Linton's essay "One Hundred Percent American" is that American life is profoundly influenced by other cultures, challenging the notion of American superiority. Linton illustrates how everyday items and concepts used by Americans originate from various parts of the world, highlighting the interconnectedness and global dependency that shape American daily life.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

“One Hundred Percent American” is an essay written by Ralph Linton in 1937, which explains the impact of globalization on Americans. The main idea is that Americans often think of themselves as superior and that other cultures adopt our customs and technology, but this essay proves that is not true. Linton argues that it’s more of a two way street between societies, each one influencing the other; most of what Americans use on a daily basis came from other parts of the world. Throughout the essay, Linton provides many examples of everyday items Americans use that did not originate in America. For example, he mentions upon first waking up, Americans are wrapped up in cotton, which originated in India; linen from the Middle East; or silk, which originated in China. From there, Linton mentions the clock that Americans glance at originated in medieval Europe, and as he continues through a typical morning for an American male, he continues providing examples of how American lives have been impacted by other countries without us even realizing it. By bringing to light everyday items Americans use that originated in other cultures, Linton is showing just how profoundly our lives have been influenced by outside cultures. As Americans, we need to realize this instead of continuing to believe that we are superior to others.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In an essay published in 1937, anthropologist Ralph Linton called attention to the interconnectedness of the material resources and intellectual concepts on which people in the United States depend in their ordinary daily lives. All these things and ideas "hold the unfortunate man in thrall." To challenge the bases of fervent nationalism that Americans such as this hypothetical average man espouse, Linton shows that he could not get through even one day without foreign-made and foreign-derived items. That dependency includes the night as well, as "pajamas" originated in India. Using a humorous tone, Linton acknowledges that most Americans do not know, or at least pay little attention, to these multinational and multicultural influences. He refers to the people who embrace these "un-American practices . . . without realizing what is going on" as "unsuspecting patriots."

While Linton's essay focuses primarily on the material aspects of American life, it also includes a number of important concepts by which the hypothetical man would evaluate his position. In particular, he points to the mathematical concept employed in his title: "one hundred percent (decimal system invented by the Greeks) . . . . "

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The main purpose of this document, called "One Hundred Per-Cent American" by Ralph Linton, is to show that globalization has been occurring for a very long time, and that what we think of as a distinctive and separate "American" way of life is really a melting pot of customs, innovations, and inventions that come from all around the world. Our pajamas were invented in India, our silk comes from China, our bathtubs come from Roman models, the glass we use was invented in Egypt, and soap like ours was first made in ancient Gaul. The average American male getting ready for work "puts on close-fitting tailored garments whose form derives from the skin clothing of the ancient nomads of the Asiatic steppes."

What the author calls the modern American breakfast also comes from all over the world: the cantaloupe was first domesticated in "Persia," (modern Iran), the waffles are Scandinavian, and the cereal from grain first domesticated in the Near East. Even the language in which this American thinks his very "American" thoughts comes from Europe and India.

This essay attacks isolationism, puncturing the idea of an America set apart from the rest of the world. It uses irony, saying the opposite of what it really means, in its opening statement ("There can be no question about the average American’s Americanism or his desire to preserve this precious heritage at all costs"). We know this statement is ironic because the author then spends the rest of the essay showing that this "Americanism" in fact comes from all over the globe. The essay also ends ironically, stating,"As he scans the latest editorial pointing out the dire results to our institutions of accepting foreign ideas, he will not fail to thank a Hebrew God in an Indo-European language that he is a one hundred percent (decimal system invented by the Greeks) American (from Americus Vespucci, Italian geographer)."

In other words, rather than pretend we invented our culture and that foreign ideas are dangerous (lead to "dire results") and are not "American," we might recognize our debt to the rest of the world and the extent to which other cultures have enriched our own. We are all interconnected, and that is good.

It it interesting that this essay was written in 1937, when a debate raged about how far the US should involve itself in the tensions heating up in Europe that would lead to World War II--and yet today we are having a similar debate about how involved our country should be with the rest of the world. This essayist would almost certainly say we should not build walls or keep out immigrants.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial