Monday, May 09, 2011

Our 100% Diverse American Heritage

There's an essay I originally read some years ago, written in 1936 by a sociologist named Ralph Linton, that I think Americans of today would do well to read.  Originally found in the book The Study of Man: an Introduction, it is commonly referred to as "The One Hundred Percent American."  The essay follows a typical American male as he gets up out of bed ("built on a pattern that originated in the Near East...") and follows him through his morning routine.  At every step of the process, the origin of the practice or item being used is mentioned, and a diverse and colorful array of foreign influences quickly becomes apparent.
...He slips into his moccasins, invented by the Indians of the Eastern woodlands, and goes to the bathroom, whose fixtures are a mixture of European and American inventions, both of recent date. He takes off his pajamas, a garment invented in India, and washes with soap invented by the ancient Gauls. He then shaves, a masochistic rite which seems to have been derived from either Sumer or ancient Egypt.
We Americans are rightly proud of our heritage, but I can't help but feel that we do not claim our heritage as fully as we ought to.  Our heritage comes from every part of the globe imaginable, and indeed our very "American-ness" is what it is because of parts that came from ironically "un"-American places.

This should not surprise us, of course.  Part of being a mature person is to learn how to adopt practices and qualities that are desirable, while leaving behind the ones that are less so.  We learn, for example, that our parents are human beings just as capable of making mistakes as anyone else, and yet most of us love and revere them anyway for the roles they've played in our lives.  This also applies to the myriad of cultures that have contributed to making our American culture what it is (perhaps for good or ill).

For those of us who consider ourselves Christian, it's worth remembering, as Linton reminds us at the close of this section, that the diversity of heritage even applies to our understanding of God.
...While smoking (the American male) reads the news of the day, imprinted in characters invented by the ancient Semites upon a material invented in China by a process invented in Germany. As he absorbs the accounts of foreign troubles he will, if he is a good conservative citizen, thank a Hebrew deity in an Indo-European language that he is 100 per cent American.

Although The Study of Man is available via the Internet Archive, which typically houses only works in the Public Domain, my research suggests that it should still be under Copyright, having been duly renewed in 1964. However, I cannot determine who currently owns the work. I therefore cannot make any promises as to how long the link should remain online, nor be responsible should anyone choose to copy the work.  The section being discussed here starts on page 324.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this link with me, Mark. I enjoyed both the original and your comments.

    ReplyDelete

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