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The American Way: Family and Community in the Shaping Of American Identity Paperback – November 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

For more than half of the twentieth century, American leaders argued for "Americanism" with pro-family propaganda and policies. Theodore Roosevelt stumped for big families to produce soldiers for America's wars. German immigrant leaders strove to make "Germanic culture" predominate, via the Germanic family, in America's national self-conception. With measures aimed at preserving and promoting traditional families, female New Dealers labored to reestablish a national identity disoriented by the Depression. Publisher Henry Luce built a magazine empire (Time, Fortune, but especially Life) on the idea of the family as key to national consensus, something all Americans could "get behind." Cold war theorists insisted that stable families were essential to fighting Communism. For reasons as obvious as the U.S. entry in World War I and as subtle and various as resistance to government management, those five campaigns foundered, and the traditional family now seems irrelevant to American identity. Carlson keeps his counsel on that for the final pages; before then, citing reams of documents, he authoritatively recaps some forgotten history that is full of eye-opening fascination. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From the Publisher

The United States of America is arguably more family-centered than any other Western nation. If polling data can be trusted, the vast majority of Americans—a higher percentage than in any other nation—would rather build society around the family and the church than around the individual. In fact, family and religiously grounded community—not individualism, not capitalism, and not a commitment to polyglot cultural pluralism—have historically provided the basis of America's dominant self-understanding.

"The American Way," Allan Carlson's episodic history of the last century, shows how the nation's identity has been shaped by carefully constructed images of the American family and the American home. From the surprisingly radical measures put forth by Theodore Roosevelt to encourage stable, large families, to the unifying role of the image of the home in assimilating immigrants, to the "maternalist" activists who attempted to transform the New Deal and other social welfare programs into vehicles for shoring up traditional family life, Carlson convincingly demonstrates the widespread appeal exerted by the images of family and community. Carlson also shows how a family- and faith-centered discourse anchored Henry Luce's publishing enterprise and even American foreign policy during the Cold War.

But many of the reforms and ideas championed by pro-family forces in the twentieth century—family activists' embrace of the federal bureaucracy, Luce's propaganda for suburban living and modern architecture—inadvertently worked to undermine family and community life, writes Carlson. And he shows that the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which effectively made it illegal for employers to offer male breadwinners a "living wage," has made it harder for traditional families to make ends meet, further helping to fracture family life. Carlson concludes by arguing that, despite the half-hearted and partially successful attempt of the Reagan administration to again forge a link between the American identity and healthy family life, much bolder measures are necessary if American culture is again to be put on a family- and community-centered footing.

Written with grace and precision, "The American Way" is revisionist history of the highest order. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


Product Details

  • Paperback: 223 pages
  • Publisher: Intercollegiate Studies Institute; 1 edition (November 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1932236236
  • ISBN-13: 978-1932236231
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,667,531 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
According to Allan Carlson, America is at a crossroads. Historically, its culture has been based on that of Europe. However, there are waves of new immigrants from Latin America who refuse to assimilate and who stubbornly hold on to their non-Eropean culture.
Carlson also holds that America has been down the wrong path ever since the New Deal when there was a massive increase in the size and role of the Federal Government.
According to Carlson, family and community have been the cornerstones of American culture ever since colonial times. This culture included the idea that men were dominant and Protestantism was the dominant religion.
Also acording to Carlson, prior to the New Deal, social welfare was handled by private agencies, many of which were created by German-Americans before 1900. There was also a moral consensus that aided the growth of the American nation. That consensus has since collapsed.
The role of family in American culture has been undermined by government policies such as outlawing workplace discrimination against women.
Carlson's book is a bit gloomy, but it is still an excellent review of the better aspects of traditional American culture.
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Format: Paperback
In "The 'American Way,'" Allan Carlson explores how a certain vision of the child-rich family with a breadwinning husband and a stay-at-home mother became central to the American self-definition in the twentieth century. What contemporary feminist writers sneer at as the "Leave it to Beaver" family emerges in this account as the product of a disciplined vision pursued by union organizers, civil servants, and reformers (mostly women), who saw the ability of the mother to nurture her children and protect them from the temptations of the street or the sweatshop as the fulcrum for realizing the American aims of a good life for all. But mothers could only do this when they were supported by a husband earning a "family wage": enough to support his wife and children. From the turn of the twentieth century to the New Deal, this "maternalist" lobby fought to victory against free market absolutism, the pathologies of impoverished inner-city immigrant communities, and liberal feminism.

Allan Carlson pursues his topic in a series of readable, but disconnected essays: Teddy Roosevelt; the German-American family and assimilation; the New Deal as the apotheosis of maternalism; Henry Luce's influential vision of America; how the strength of the family buttressed American foreign policy; and finally the death of the maternalist vision after 1965 at the hands of the courts and feminists. The subsequent flood of married women into the workplace depressed men's wages, increased the commercialization of the household economy (the roots of today's obesity epidemic), and starved America's previously rich associational life. Throughout, he makes extensive use of the results of recent feminist historians to overturn their unquestioned assumptions and dogmas.
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Format: Paperback
The primary purpose of Carlson's book is to describe the history of the various attempts to formulate American culture through the avenue of federal government policy. Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt administration, which Carlson points to as the starting point of the this government interest in shaping national culture, the story that unfolds is, at one level, a conflict between those who viewed American society as a collection of families, as a collection of self-autonomous individuals with the same individual rights apart from differences in gender or family situation, or as a homogenous indivisible whole with (for the most part) the same values that shape a distinct national culture. It's an interesting story not only to view the shift in political parties (one can see through this prism the difference between cultural conservatives and industrial conservatives, along with the difference between the maternalists and the equity feminists.
More fundamental than the story of the success or failure of each group's attempt to formulate public policy is the tension of underlying premises that Carlson touches upon as this history is told. In a liberal democracy that encourages capitalism, what are the boundaries, if any, to the market process? Does the government have a proper role in encouraging a family policy (such as a "family wage" for the breadwinner male and limited job opportunities for the mother who, according to the policy purposes, has a duty to be at home to raise the children) that runs counter to the laissez-faire principle, or does that violate the promise of guaranteeing equality for all individuals?
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