Our nation began with the simple phrase, “We the People.” But who were and are “We”? Who were we in 1776, in 1865, or 1968, and is there any continuity in character between the we of those years and the nearly 300 million people living in the radically different America of today?
With Made in America, Claude S. Fischer draws on decades of historical, psychological, and social research to answer that question by tracking the evolution of American character and culture over three centuries. He explodes myths—such as that contemporary Americans are more mobile and less religious than their ancestors, or that they are more focused on money and consumption—and reveals instead how greater security and wealth have only reinforced the independence, egalitarianism, and commitment to community that characterized our people from the earliest years. Skillfully drawing on personal stories of representative Americans, Fischer shows that affluence and social progress have allowed more people to participate fully in cultural and political life, thus broadening the category of “American” —yet at the same time what it means to be an American has retained surprising continuity with much earlier notions of American character.
Firmly in the vein of such classics as The Lonely Crowd and Habits of the Heart—yet challenging many of their conclusions—Made in America takes readers beyond the simplicity of headlines and the actions of elites to show us the lives, aspirations, and emotions of ordinary Americans, from the settling of the colonies to the settling of the suburbs.
The more America changes, the more it stays the same, according to this engrossing historical survey. Drawing on everything from economic data and mortality statistics to studies of colonial portraiture, University of California Berkeley sociologist Fischer assesses broad trends across four centuries of American life. His measured but upbeat view of the evolving American experience will disappoint the hell-in-a-handbasket crowd: he finds that Americans have grown more religious and charitable over time, and markedly less violent and nomadic, while remaining roughly unchanged in their propensity toward greed and consumerism. Through it all, he discerns a benignly Tocquevillian trait that he calls "voluntarism," an individualism softened by unforced solidarity that fulfills itself by freely building communities, be they frontier villages, dissenting churches, egalitarian families, or Internet chat groups. While vast gains in health, wealth, and political freedoms have transformed our lives, they have, he contends, made Americans more voluntaristic and thus "more characteristically 'American'... insistently independent but still sociable, striving, and sentimental." Fischer's lively prose argues these propositions with a wealth of hard evidence and illustrates them with piquant vignettes of people of all eras muddling through. The result is a shrewd, generous, convincing interpretation of American life.