Jon Perry
Eng 301
9/9/09
Rhetorical Analysis #1
Is American Culture “American”?
The essay “Is American Culture “American”?”, by historian Richard Pells,
examines the notion that American culture cannot be defined as a singular culture, but
rather an amalgamation of worldly thoughts, ideas and styles, that when combined,
emulated the diversity of the American experience. I will provide a summary of this
essay, showing Pells’ arguments that Americans have simply “borrowed” foreign cultures
and repackaged them as a culture easier to swallow on a global front. I will then provide
an argument as to why Pells is correct in his assertion that America has not bullied the
world into accepting our culture, but instead, has deftly blended our culture to be one
with the worlds’.
Beginning over a century ago, observers abroad began to notice the influence of
American culture on a global scale. Essay upon essay chronicled the disappearance of
national languages and traditions, and the lack of a country’s unique “identity” under the
weight of American habits and way of life. Political activists, journalists and academics
have complained that varied cultures are becoming uniform, and now see global culture
and American culture as the same thing. This is where Pells begins his argument. He
notes that such things that appear to be American, such as fast food, theme parks and
Hollywood, can all trace their beginnings to a European model. There were English fish
and chips served on the go long before McDonald’s came around. Walt Disney modeled
his famous Disneyland after the Tivoli Gardens in Denmark. Before 1920, the main
exporter of moving films was France and Italy.
What America did well, Pells notes, was being able to refine these arts, which
were specialized to their region, and make them palatable to the rest of the world. Pells
credits this to America’s position as an immigrant melting pot. America was becoming
home to millions of European immigrants at the dawn of the 20th Century. The still
growing American culture was welcoming of all these newcomers, and had to adapt in
order to move forward as a country. Newspapers and shopkeepers, media and
conglomerates needed to create a product that had broad, cultural appeal if they wanted
any chance to succeed. And when combined with the unrelenting culture of American
capitalism and marketing, products and ideas often made their ways overseas. In essence,
Americans had mastered the ability to take the best traits and customs of a foreign
culture, and blend it with the best traits of others to create an acceptably palatable product
for a worldwide audience.
This was especially true in burgeoning film and entertainment markets in the
beginning of the century. Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s use of unorthodox, atonal
music validated the rhythmic innovations of American jazz. American composers like
George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein combined European folk melodies, religious
hymns, blues, jazz and gospel songs into their scores for stage and screen. Hollywood
film makers such as Orson Welles and Quentin Tarantino have been influenced by the
techniques of French New Wave and Italian neo-Realism filmmakers in the use of
shadows and light and the way the narrative is laid down.
The emergence of Hollywood blockbusters, cable TV and the internet have
continued to “force” American ideals into foreign homes, but again presented with ideas
and styles that can be related to on a global scale. To conclude his essay, Pells goes on to
say that:
In the end, American mass culture has not transformed the world into a replica of
the United States. Instead, America’s dependence on foreign cultures has made
the United States a replica of the world.
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Jon Perry Eng 301 9/9/09 Rhetorical Analysis #1 Is American