Inventing the American Tradition by Jack David Eller, Reaktion Books, 304pp, £25/$30
Where do traditions come from? Their origins are generally supposed to be lost in the mists of antiquity, but this is clearly not the case with America, a country less than 250 years old.
While the framers of the constitution were deliberately setting out new foundations, Americans soon discovered that they had to invent a set of traditions to bolster their national identity and pad out the values embodied in its Enlightenment constitution.
As America’s understanding of itself has grown and changed, so have the traditions that embody this understanding. This is particularly noticeable in the period after the Civil War, as Jack David Eller explains in this instructive and entertaining book which brings to life what might otherwise be dry-as-dust anthropology.
Some traditions, we discover, are based on faulty history. There is no evidence that the first Thanksgiving dinner featured a turkey; it is clear that such a dinner did happen, though Thanksgiving only became a national holiday some time later.
Other holidays had easily defined beginnings, generally because they were championed by some determined campaigner and were then taken up by marketing men with an eye to selling merchandise. This was the case with both Father’s Day and Mother’s Day, which were shamelessly commercial more or less from the start. While these became traditions, there were other proposed days of celebration, such as Grandparents’ Day, that have never quite caught the popular imagination.
In that category, perhaps, we should place Kwanzaa, which was started by Maulana Karenga, also known as Ronald McKinley Everett, in 1966, as a specifically African-American holiday. It runs from December 26 to January 2, and it uses nomenclature drawn from Swahili, the name itself signifying a celebration of first fruits. It has been ruthlessly mocked by some right-wing commentators as completely inauthentic and lacking cultural roots. But if it catches on, it will end up being just as authentic as any other tradition.
This “catching on” is the process that Eller calls “traditioning”. Every tradition has to start somewhere, and Kwanzaa seems no different. What will count is whether Kwanzaa is still with us a century hence or in the dustbin of history.
Tradition is clearly a religious concept as well as a social one, and this book contains much in it on which Catholics will want to ponder. Apart from holidays, Eller also focuses on the use of words, various products and several literary characters. “OK” is clearly a deeply American expression, and his discussion of this expression is one of the best parts of the book. “OK” contains a philosophy – it means what it says, that is, it signifies “acceptable but not brilliant”. To be content with what is OK is a pointer to the American character.
So too is Superman, who started off as a liberal do-gooder like Robin Hood, but then changed in the Depression into a patriotic warrior for truth, justice and the American way. He has now started to show signs of disillusionment with patriotism.
My own reading of Superman, and more still of Spider-Man, is that he is a Christ-like figure, a messiah and saviour. Superman embodies, quite literally, muscular Christianity in secular dress, which is surely the underlying philosophy of America. Spider-Man, by contrast, is a more vulnerable figure, and as such, I would venture to say, more Catholic than the ultra-Protestant Man of Steel. For Spider-Man evokes the idea that there is a price to be paid for his heroism, and that he carries a burden that from time to time reminds us of Christ as a Man of Sorrows.
Superman is a triumphalist character who can save the world seemingly without cost. He now seems a tarnished figure in the light of American foreign policy of the Bush era; Spider-Man much less so. Although these are paths that Eller does not explore, he certainly sets one thinking.
This is a wonderful book because it is not only about America, but also about ourselves: we all love Superman, swig Coke and say “OK”. Many traditions have become successful exports and have conquered the planet. (Though some remain stubbornly domestic.) The triumph of American culture, though lamented by some, is an indication that these traditions must have got something right. It is not simply that we all love traditions, and that human beings are traditional creatures – the whole world is, to some extent, American now. This delightful and thoughtful book convinces the reader that this is not altogether a bad thing.
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