Skip to main content

Reviewed by John H. Brown

Richard Pells, Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies,     and the Globalization of American Culture, New Haven and London, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0300181739, 498 pp,   in paperback edition $24

“The best history books do one of two things: they change one’s mind or they tell a terrific story.” So says Theodore K. Rabb, a distinguished Princeton University historian. *

Unfortunately, the book under review fails on both these counts. In a tome of nearly 500 pages, far longer than it need be, Richard Pells, a University of Texas professor emeritus and frequent Fulbright program grantee who specializes in twentieth century American cultural history, has produced neither a groundbreaking study nor an engaging historical narrative.

The main point of Pells’s opus is that “the United States was, and continues to be … a consumer of foreign intellectual and artistic influences.” But this self-evident assertion, according to Pells a refutation of the notion “that America was once a cultural backwater and is now a cultural behemoth,” is common sense to most people, even without a doctorate, who have suffered indigestion from a Domino’s pizza. Harping on the obvious, Pells falls victim to intellectual misdirections that don’t persuade the reader, for several reasons.

First, Pells — stressing how twentieth-century American culture was shaped by foreign influences to an unmatched extent but not comparing the cultural impact that outsiders (except Americans) had in other countries — suggests that cultural “borrowing” is uniquely American. But in fact cultures have borrowed from other cultures throughout history. The Romans were influenced by the Greeks and created a civilization of their own that defined (at least for historians) the Mediterranean world for centuries. Renaissance writers imitated the classics. In more recent times, transnational cultural interactions have taken place among many countries, with numerous states (as a result of such exchanges) creating their own “special” culture.

Pells underscores that modernism — vaguely defined by him as “the effort — beginning in the early twentieth century — to invent a new language to describe the scientific, political, and social upheavals of the modern world”— uniquely influenced today’s American culture, including when introduced in the U.S. by the foreign-born. But America was certainly not alone in its “willingness to ignore cultural boundaries” by “intermingling elements from high and low culture,” to cite Pells on what modernism entailed. Just consider, as one example of a modernist-influenced country, post-revolutionary Russia, another nation-continent on the “cultural periphery” of Europe: thanks in part to its non-Russian cultural contacts, it too absorbed and remade its vision of modernism, turning it into as a form of Russian culture which had a worldwide impact (e.g., the poems of Mayakovsky, the films of Eisenstein).

Second, Pells is incapable of coming to terms with an essential tension: between modernist art (for the most part intellectually challenging and unsettling) and American “popular” entertainment (much of it all too often mind-numbing and kitschy). Citing Hollywood outsider Orson Welles’s work, he claims that “wedding modernist artistic techniques with pure entertainment” is “archetypically American.”

But few would disagree that the success of Hollywood/Broadway blockbusters such as The Sound of Music (dismissed as “The Sound of Mucus” by its screen-version star Christopher Plummer) is due not to a “modernist” perspective, in style or substance, but to the evocation of an ersatz traditional, “safe,” wonder bread way of life that modernism repeatedly challenges.

Pells, however, contends that “There is no unified and distinctively ‘American’ set of values promoted by Hollywood or the creators of Broadway musicals.” And elsewhere he claims that Hollywood films traditionally don’t have a message, quoting Samuel Goldwyn’s advice to his writers, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”

But, describing the Titanic, one of the highest grossing (and saccharine) films in history, Pells gushes about the optimistic message of tinseltown entertainment:

On one level, Titanic was a classic American movie in which we are told — as if we had not heard the message a thousand times before — that people are free to live their lives however they chose, that class divisions don’t matter, and that happiness is preferable to wealth and power.

Third, Pells repeatedly displays a kind of USA-all-the-way triumphalism — could this have something to do with his getting so many Fulbright grants? — that triggers flashbacks to the now-discredited U.S. chest-pounding about Western Cold-War triumphs culminating in a so-called “end of history.”

Early on in his book Pells dismisses U.S. writers who don’t share his gung-ho view about the global supremacy of American culture as “peculiar” because of their “lament that American history and society lacked complexity.” He castigates universally admired literary masters such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Adams, Henry James, and T.S. Eliot, because they “complained that American life lacked density.”

Pells does pooh-pooh, as stated above, the notion that “America is a cultural behemoth.” And he admits that, “by the first decade of the new century, American films were losing some of their market share in Europe and Asia,” noting that “The cinema, and culture in general, were becoming more international.” But Pells leaves little doubt that the USA, thanks to what he considers its incomparable cultural recycling is, and remains, culturally no. 1.

Hollywood directors, proclaims the University of Texas professor like a Roman centurion, have produced “a popular culture that conquered the world.” In less military terms, he declares further:

America remains the cultural elephant in everyone’s living room. … But the dread of Americanization has also been an implicit tribute to America’s success in adopting and transforming the art and ideas from overseas, before sending these back in forms that were more mesmerizing for the masses.

And he ends his volume with the following hymn to the Republic:

Americans have converted what they inherited from others into a culture which audiences everywhere could comprehend and embrace — a culture that is, much of the time, both emotionally and artistically compelling for millions of people all over the globe.

In its paean to the worldwide influence of American culture, arguably benign, Pells’s book lacks a serious, scholarly examination of why, in many parts of the world today (and in America itself) this culture, for all its achievements, is not always seen as “emotionally and artistically compelling” — one of the key questions of our post-9/11 era.

Pells’s failure to take up this issue is the main drawback of his book.

Finally, let’s consider the quality of Pells’s volume as historical narrative.

In 13 chapters and an epilogue covering painting, architecture, music, and (most of all) film, he provides detail after detail on how the U.S. transformed foreign modernist influences into widely accepted American cultural items for home consumption and export.

Despite a chronological approach in some individual chapters, there simply is no discernible intellectual direction/movement in his book. It consists, far too often, of a dull (I can’t resist writing pell-mell) listing of data and endless summaries of film plots that belong more properly in Wikipedia entries than in a Yale University Press publication. It gives us facts, not a story.

While ploughing through his volume, I could not help keeping out of my mind the admission by this much-published academic in his preface that, as an undergraduate at Rutgers — the State University of New Jersey, he didn’t know the location of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. “But I figured,” he writes, “I’d better find out if I hoped to be ‘educated’ at a time when a university education meant displaying (or at least faking) some knowledge about art, music, literature.”

Occasionally a few intriguing tidbits do emerge from Pells’s motionless, bottomless, factoid sea. Among these aperçus is the professor asking: “Was it possible that Pablo Picasso and Louis B. Mayer shared similar ambitions and sensibilities?” And there are a few unconventional, if arguably off the mark, Pells pronouncements: “No single person in the twentieth century was more responsible for shifting the cultural balance of power from Europe to America than Adolf Hitler.” (Note that, for Pells, culture, at least in this passage, is an instrument of “power” rather than something worthy in and of itself).

The one memorable chapter in the book — on the influence of the Stanislavski Method on American cinema — shows how the Method’s focus on an actor’s inner feelings, rather than on his reciting lines, led U.S. movie stars such as Marlon Brando, famous for his silent facial insinuations, to mumble on the screen. This is useful in understanding why, as noted by the Australian-born Daniel Day-Lewis (the star of the recent Spielberg hit Lincoln), that (as quoted by Pells), “In America the articulate use of language is often regarded with suspicion.”

U.S. diplomats might be interested to know that the book covers (superficially) American “cultural diplomacy” in connection with State Department and USIA (United States Information Agency) cultural programs during the Cold War. But CIA covert support for such programs during the U.S.-USSR ideological conflict, not widely known, is not mentioned by Fulbrighter Pells, perhaps because focusing on this rather sad spooks’ episode is not the most glorious way of presenting American cultural triumphalism in action to readers both at home and abroad.

The book’s index is quite thorough, and there is a useful bibliography, however narrowly based on English-language works.bluestar

* The Times Literary Supplement (November 30, 2012), p. 12.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy


Dr. John Brown
Dr. John Brown

John H. Brown, a former Foreign Service officer, teaches a course at Georgetown University entitled “Propaganda and US Foreign Policy: A Historical Overview,” which, he notes, may eventually result in the publication of a monograph on the topic. He is the writer/compiler of the daily Public Diplomacy Press Review (PDPR).

Comments are closed.