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United States, US, USA

Culture

Crevecoeur, modern arts, soccer games, California cuisine, Southern cooking

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United States Culture, customs, behavior, and way of life in the United States. The American people express their culture through traditions in food, clothing, recreation, and ceremonies; through the education system and institutions of learning, including museums and libraries; and through the arts, encompassing the visual, literary, and performing arts.

American culture is rich, complex, and unique. It emerged from the short and rapid European conquest of an enormous landmass sparsely settled by diverse indigenous peoples. Although European cultural patterns predominated, especially in language, the arts, and political institutions, peoples from Africa, Asia, and North America also contributed to American culture. All of these groups influenced popular tastes in music, dress, entertainment, and cuisine. As a result, American culture possesses an unusual mixture of patterns and forms forged from among its diverse peoples. The many melodies of American culture have not always been harmonious, but its complexity has created a society that struggles to achieve tolerance and produces a uniquely casual personal style that identifies Americans everywhere. The country is strongly committed to democracy, in which views of the majority prevail, and strives for equality in law and institutions.

Characteristics such as democracy and equality flourished in the American environment long before taking firm root in European societies, where the ideals originated. As early as the 1780s, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur, a French writer living in Pennsylvania who wrote under the pseudonym J. Hector St. John, was impressed by the democratic nature of early American society. It was not until the 19th century that these tendencies in America were most fully expressed. When French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville, an acute social observer, traveled through the United States in the 1830s, he provided an unusually penetrating portrait of the nature of democracy in America and its cultural consequences. He commented that in all areas of culture—family life, law, arts, philosophy, and dress—Americans were inclined to emphasize the ordinary and easily accessible, rather than the unique and complex. His insight is as relevant today as it was when de Tocqueville visited the United States. As a result, American culture is more often defined by its popular and democratically inclusive features, such as blockbuster movies, television comedies, sports stars, and fast food, than by its more cultivated aspects as performed in theaters, published in books, or viewed in museums and galleries. Even the fine arts in modern America often partake of the energy and forms of popular culture, and modern arts are often a product of the fusion of fine and popular arts.

While America is probably most well known for its popular arts, Americans partake in an enormous range of cultural activities. Besides being avid readers of a great variety of books and magazines catering to differing tastes and interests, Americans also attend museums, operas, and ballets in large numbers. They listen to country and classical music, jazz and folk music, as well as classic rock-and-roll and new wave. Americans attend and participate in basketball, football, baseball, and soccer games. They enjoy food from a wide range of foreign cuisines, such as Chinese, Thai, Greek, French, Indian, Mexican, Italian, Ethiopian, and Cuban. They have also developed their own regional foods, such as California cuisine and Southwestern, Creole, and Southern cooking. Still evolving and drawing upon its ever more diverse population, American culture has come to symbolize what is most up-to-date and modern. American culture has also become increasingly international and is imported by countries around the world.

Sources

United States (Culture)

Baym, Nina, and others, eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 2 vols. 5th ed. Norton, 1998. Selection of American fiction and critical essays.

Berman, Morris. The Twilight of American Culture. Norton, 2000. Argues that America is rapidly approaching a period of increased social chaos.

Bordman, Gerald, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 1992. Comprehensive reference work.

Bryson, Bill. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States. Avon, 1996. A highly readable and entertaining excursion through the history and development of American English.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. Verso, 1998. A reassessment of U.S. cultural history with a focus on the 1930s as the catalyst.

Harris, Cyril M. American Architecture: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Norton, 1998. A portrait of America's architectural diversity.

Hart, James David, and Phillip Leininger, eds. The Oxford Companion to American Literature. 6th ed. Oxford University Press, 1995. Comprehensive reference work.

Haskell, Barbara. American Century: Art and Culture, 1900-1950. Norton, 1999. Catalogue for an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art celebrating the millennium.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley, and Stanley Sadie, eds. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. 4 vols. Macmillan, 1986. Standard reference on all aspects of American music; includes classical and popular.

Hughes, Robert. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. Knopf, 1997. Readable, opinionated history of 350 years of art.

Phillips, Lisa. The American Century: Art and Culture, 1950-2000. Norton, 1999. Focuses on those who propelled American art through five turbulent decades.

Sklar, Robert. Movie-Made America. Rev. ed. Random House, 1994. Examines the cultural history of movies in the United States.

Contributors

Fass, Paula S., A.B., M.A., Ph.D. Professor of History and Chancellor's Professor, University of California, Berkeley. Author of The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s and Outside In: Minorities and the Transformation of American Education.

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