Commentary Magazine

The American People, by Geoffrey Gorer

Portrait of the American
The American People: A Study in National Character.
by Geoffrey Gorer.
New York, Norton, 1948. 246 pp. $3.00.


Geoffrey Gorer, a young British cultural anthropologist, has lived in the United States for seven years, has studied with Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and John Dollard, has worked on projects of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Yale Institute of Human Relations, and has served as liaison in Washington for one of his country’s wartime missions. Mr. Gorer’s attempt at a description of us Americans is based more on sensitive observation and a point of view called “psychocultural” than on any exhaustive scientific study, although he has, it is true, utilized opinion polls, case histories, and previous sociological studies. Almost as interesting as the statements and conclusions contained in this excellent book—and certainly more important and far-reaching—is this strange hybrid “psychocultural” method itself, containing as it does elements of anthropology, psychoanalysis, political awareness, news-reporting, and—most important of all—literature. (Without some dosage of literary sensibility, no matter how crude or unencouraged, I doubt whether the concepts and images produced by the psychocultural method could be held together in any seeming order.)



The primary and recurrent theme of The American People is stated in the first chapter, “Europe and the Rejected Father.” Mr. Gorer believes that the whole question of authority in America is bound up with the impulse toward “Americanization” of the children of immigrants, which involved a rejection of the European father and his European ways as a hindrance in adjusting to the new American world. From this initial rejection are derived two fundamental characteristics of the American people: a competitive, almost anarchic egalitarianism, and the dominance of the female and female influences in the area of ideals. While the family retains its outward form of paternalistic authority in America, its actual content has been altered drastically. Almost by default, moral training was put in the hands of the mother and the female school-teacher; the latter is extremely important because she teaches Americanism first and only secondarily imparts “knowledge.” Mr. Gorer goes so far as to suggest that the American world of “things,” including business and much of politics, has come to be governed by the nonethics of masculine competitiveness, while the world of personal relations is left as the proper province of female morality. “The clinging mother is the great emotional menace in American psychological life, the counterpart of the heavy domineering father in England and on the Continent.”

From this point on it is impossible to give a systematic outline of The American People. The book does not march along to the sound of scientific drums; it ebbs and flows like fiction, and has a plot and characters—the former being the psychocultural method, the latter the initial assumptions involved in the rejection of the European father. There are many enthralling scenes and startling incidents in The American People. But I can only try to indicate a little of its rich suggestiveness.

Middle-aged clubwomen are perhaps the largest politically active group in America, and are extremely influential. Mr. Gorer suggests that the fate of Western civilization may lie in their hands. . . .“Most American babies experience acute hunger”—because of rigid adherence to arbitrary feeding schedules. Since there is no traditional way of raising a child in America, and since the child and the future he represents lie at the very center of American life, the mother suffers from anxiety that creates an obsession with “scientific” systems of child-raising (these are changed every generation). Mr. Gorer makes the superb statement that Americans “identify with their children rather than with their parents”—which, as a single line, equals some of the great moments of art.

The concept of the “sissy” also plays a great role in our life, and is uniquely American. Its corollary is the notion of the “regular guy.” Here, perhaps because of my lack of a detached view, I cannot help but think that Mr. Gorer misses much of the value of these concepts—he sees them purely as the means of egalitarian tyranny. (Just as, in other places, his European view debars him from full appreciation of the American’s detachment from his government, and his admirable natural scepticism; also Mr. Gorer is way off the mark in his description of the wisecrack.)

The American system of “dating” exists in no other primitive or civilized society, and is likened to a mixture of chess and social dancing. It uses all the gestures of courting and lovemaking in a competitive game of status. Meanwhile love and success are deeply connected in America, since love here is asymmetrical, i.e. “to be loved it is not necessary to love in return, but rather to be worthy of love.”—But these are only slight indications of the content of The American People: it is better to read the book and be convinced or angered by this young Englishman himself.



In a sense, this psychocultural approach of Mr. Gorer’s (it was first used to describe American character, he tells us, by Margaret Mead in And Keep Your Powder Dry) is the present result of the great cultural tendency that produced the “objective” naturalistic novel. I would suggest that this approach appears, potentially, capable of doing better what that kind of novel wants to do. Not that The American People is superior, or even strictly comparable, to Zola’s Germinal, Dreiser’s Cowperwood books, or Farrell’s Studs Lonigan. Gorer has much to learn from them, but they in turn would have profited considerably from his knowledge and method. It is possible that in the far future the tendency on the crest of which Gorer now rides may succeed in displacing the novel entirely. As it is, The American People is much more interesting than most novels.

Mr. Gorer’s method does not describe “conduct” or “being”; it describes what it can assimilate in connection with conduct and being. Another method, equally good, might paint a quite contradictory picture. To this extent his work is similar to that of the novelist or critic, and is, strictly speaking, unscientific. For example, there is frequent confusion between analogy and cause in his writing (which, as a matter of fact, is characteristic of much psychoanalytic work). This is a grievous error in science, but not nearly so much so in literature. (Is it science’s business to assign significance to the fact that businessmen prefer poker while workers more often shoot craps? Or to point out that the socially approved position of the American urban windowshade is halfway up, halfway down?)

In general one can say that sociology lies in the mid-ground between politics and literature (which some centuries ago, before the birth of sociology, were not nearly so much separated as they are now). To realize themselves, each of the two disciplines must fructify the other. For sociology this means, not to ignore values and their class-struggle context, on the one hand, or the throbbing individual on the other. Mr. Gorer describes the patterns that make up the American character, but it is implicit (and felt and assumed by the reader) that he is describing American character itself, i.e. the peculiar life lived here. But the pattern is never equal to the life; and when it is not sufficiently informed by the latter, it is inaccurate—scientifically inaccurate.

And in truth what Mr. Gorer misses in his description of the American character is the importance of the great “underworld” of our existence, which is the consequence of the fact that the “American way of life” is very much in process—dynamic and chaotic process, moreover. The importance of the patterns he describes is at least matched by the fact that nobody here fully believes in them. The classical mode in literature also emphasized overall patterns, the character-type rather than the individual instance. But as society became more heterogeneous, the best talents sought new modes which would be more inclusive of the variousness and the quick of life. Science too must consider the heterogeneous “underworld” (and let no one think that psychoanalysis does this adequately).

If I make the statement that the most important events taking place in America today are the daydreams of the workers at their machines, is that a political, a sociological, or a literary statement?



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