The American Century: Varieties of Culture in Modern Times


June 1997

An intellectual road map of the 20th century," is how Publisher's Weekly defines Professor Norman Cantor's magnum opus, The American Century: Variety and Culture in Modern Times. A provocative and engaging overview of the life and culture of our world in the last one hundred years, The American Century examines which artistic, political, social, and scientific advances or blunders the world can look back on as defining moments in this tumultuous era. Modernism ...

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June 1997

An intellectual road map of the 20th century," is how Publisher's Weekly defines Professor Norman Cantor's magnum opus, The American Century: Variety and Culture in Modern Times. A provocative and engaging overview of the life and culture of our world in the last one hundred years, The American Century examines which artistic, political, social, and scientific advances or blunders the world can look back on as defining moments in this tumultuous era. Modernism culturally revolutionized the twentieth century, and Cantor searches for origins and clues to modernism's rise in prevailing attitudes in the late Victorian era. He draws on an impressive array of disciplines -- including art, literature, the performing arts, philosophy, theology, science, psychology -- to trace the shifting trends that have allowed the twentieth century to break free from Victorian ideals and stand on its own.

"A history of the twentieth century," says Professor Cantor, "can at least show the pattern of thought and action that underlies the polarized outcomes of the past hundred years and, drawing on other disciplines, suggest why ours has been both the most accomplished and intellectually progressive and the most lethal and morally retrogressive one in recorded history."

The American Century possesses the feel of an ongoing discussion on the eve of a jump to a new millennium. Cantor provides lively analyses of breakthrough achievements in cultural arenas such as the novel, literary criticism and political theory, dance, music, and film. In fact, The American Century is a revised version of Cantor's earlier book, Twenthieth Century Culture; one significant addition is the inclusion of Cantor's assessment of the impact made by 100 particular films, viewed as encapsulated pockets of insight into pervasive mood swings in American culture over the course of the waning millennium. By not failing to look at the most persuasive cultural benchmarks of the century, from Marxism to psychoanalysis, postmodernist deconstruction to feminism, "Scarface" to "Rocky," Norman Cantor has written a book that can explain the origins of the contemporary principles and values American society carries into a new era.

Distinguished scholar Norman Cantor presents an absorbing, readable, and opinionated overview of 20th-century culture which covers the arts, philosophy, science, and political movements. Featuring 35 percent new material, "The American Century" is the magnum opus of a historian, teacher, and author of great distinction.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A revised and expanded version of Twentieth Century Culture, Modernism to Deconstruction (Lang, 1988), this is a wonderful summing up of Western civilization in the 20th century, with fascinating chapters on modernism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, fascism, and Postmodernism. This should be in all public and college libraries. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
From Barnes & Noble
This look at Western intellectual, cultural, and scientific events over the last 100 years is filled with deft observations on everything from Freud to Frank Lloyd Wright, Marxism to modernism, The Rite of Spring to The Right Stuff. Cantor's narrative encompasses art, literature, ideology, philosophy, science, sociology and more, creating a detailed tapestry of the modern age. "...peppered with startling insights and bold judgments..."--Publishers Weekly. Black and white illustrations.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780737258301
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/1/1997
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 591

Meet the Author

Norman F. Cantor was Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology, and Comparative Literature at New York University. His many books include In the Wake of the Plague, Inventing the Middle Ages, and The Civilization of the Middle Ages, the most widely read narrative of the Middle Ages in the English language. He died in 2004.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Cultural World Of 1900

The Four Cultural Revolutions There is some debate, as there always is when a new century begins, whether the starting point for the twenty-first century will be technically 2000 or 2001. No matter: As in 1900 (or 1901 a new century brings with it the widespread assumption among ruling groups that the cultural pattern of the previous decades will continue unchallenged, and among radical observers outside the power elite, the perception that intellectual and artistic life is threatened with a great upheaval.

One hundred years ago holders of political place and wielders of great wealth were indeed aware of some economic clouds on the horizon. From 1873 to 1896 there had been a long and debilitating economic depression, affecting Western Europe and the United States and inevitably also societies on the periphery. At the beginning of the new century, various kinds of socialist movements and workers' organizations threatened the monopoly of power in the hands of the old aristocracy and the advancing industrial and financial magnates. Even the world's greatest empire, that of Britain, showed itself vulnerable when faced with the stubborn independence movement of Dutch farmers in South Africa during the miserable Boer War (1899-1902). Suppressed by Imperial Britain with much effort, expense, and embarrassment, the war portended the colonial powers' ongoing difficulty in countervailing national liberation movements. In the end the British pacified the Boers only by acceding to their demand for a legally mandated racially segregated society in South Africa, in which the indigenous black majority totallylacked political power. This official recognition of legalized racism was another dark forecast for the twentieth century.

The stability and peace of Europe were also threatened in 1900 by the increasing competition for hegemony among the great powers, signaled by armament buildups, squabbles over overseas colonies, and aggressive international postures.

Along with these visible signs of fissures in the power systems of lords, militarists, and capitalists, established in the nineteenth century, the beginning of the twentieth was also marked by the slow emergence in great cities of the cultural upheaval of modernism, which challenged the consciousness, mindset, and artistic imagination of the eighteen hundreds.

In 1899 the Viennese psychiatrist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, found a publisher for his book The Interpretation of Dreams. Although it was actually released before the New Year of the new century, Freud persuaded his publisher to put a 1900 copyright date on the book because he thought it heralded a new way of understanding human behavior and consciousness. He was right: Freud's was a major voice of the modernist cultural revolution.

If twentieth-century cultural history has a unifying theme, it is that of modernism: the emergence of modernism, its impact in multiple areas as diverse as painting, philosophy, science, and anthropology, and how it evolved. And the foundations of this cultural revolution consist of what was happening in Europe around 1900 So critical was this development that we call the period in which we live the age of postmodernism because we are not quite certain what it is--or what else to call it. What we do know is that it follows on the modernist era, and that we are its legatees.

Exhibitions of the work of the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and the painter Henri Matisse are examples of our persistent concern with modernism. Hardly a month goes by without a showing in a major American city of some form of modernist art. Cultural weeklies and quarterlies as well as university humanities departments devote much time and attention to modernist literature and its influence. Modernism in fact remains dominant in the publishing world, more than it probably does in the culture as a whole, continuing to have a major and not always fortunate influence on what is published in poetry and fiction. The physics and microbiology that are central to natural scientists are rooted in the modernist view of the world, and are inconceivable without it. Psychoanalysis, sociological research, and anthropological theory as taught in our universities are alike products of modernism. Modernism is one of the four great cultural revolutions in Western civilization since 1500. By "cultural revolution" is meant a great upheaval in consciousness, perception, value systems, and ideology that has affected the way we think of ourselves and our world, and that has had a seminal impact in literature, philosophy, religion, political theory, and the visual and performing arts.

The first of these cultural revolutions was the Reformation of the sixteenth century, which not only generated Protestantism but involved the reshaping of the Catholic Church as well. It produced the Calvinist ethos and the great manifestations of baroque art and music.

The Protestant reformers taught that all is dung and dross in comparison with Christ. Each individual is driven back on one fundamental fact of human existence, his or her relationship to God. The "works," or institutions, of the church pale into insignificance when confronted with this existential fact. The only redemptive force in human life was ultimately God's love of human beings, his creature. And the only liberty or righteousness of which human beings are capable flowed from faith in God. This was Martin Luther's Liberty of a Christian Man: "No external thing, by whatever name it may be called, can in any way conduce to Christian righteousness or liberty." Thus the Protestant Reformation, at the same time as it declared the awesome majesty and omnipotence of God, taught the incomparable dignity and privilege of the individual human conscience. No other civilization has so prized individual liberty and conscience. And this message has not entirely vanished in the twentieth century, even in the most adverse environments, in the gulag or Auschwitz.

The second legacy of the Reformation was John Calvin's doctrine, deriving from Jewish, early Christian, and medieval eschatological traditions, of the holy community. State and society should be controlled by the godly, by those who have demonstrated their reception of God's grace. Nineteenth-century liberalism, which drew heavily on Calvinist tradition, softened this doctrine into the belief that if good and idealistic men could only take over the reins of government, the problems of industrial society would be resolved. This assumption endures in the program of the Democratic Party, and the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The American Century. Copyright © by Norman F. Cantor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: A.D. 2000
1 The Cultural World of 1900 1
The Four Cultural Revolutions 1
Foreshadowings of Modernism 8
Characteristics of Victorian Culture 15
Causes of the Modernist Cultural Revolution 27
The Victorian Achievement 41
2 Modernism 43
A Model of Modernism 43
The Novel, Poetry, and Criticism 51
Drama, Music, and Dance 67
The Visual Arts 78
Classical and Expressionist Modernism 98
Philosophy and Science 103
Social and Behavioral Sciences 125
History and Theology 142
The Expansion of Modernist Culture 149
Modernism and World War I 161
3 Psychoanalysis 167
Psychoanalysis Today 167
The Origins of Psychoanalysis 172
The Early Freud and Depth Psychology 178
The Later Freud and Cultural Theory 187
Jung 192
The Radical Freudians 200
The American School of Ego Psychology 206
Psychoanalytic Structuralism 212
Radical British Theorists 221
The Psychoanalytic Heritage 223
4 Marxism and the Left 227
American Marxism Today 227
Foundations of Socialism 229
The Prewar Era 241
Leninist and Western Marxism 246
The Left in the Great Depression and World War II 258
The God That Failed 280
Resurgence of the Intellectual Left 286
Recent Marxist Theory 303
The Sixties and the New Left 310
5 Traditions on the Right 328
The American Right Today 328
Fundamentals of Rightist Culture 341
Rightist National Heritages 365
Nazism and the Second World War 390
Fascism and Modernism 402
The Emergence of Colossal Science 406
Expiation and the Revival of the Right 411
6 Postmodernism 425
The Coming of a New Age 425
Structuralism 435
Deconstruction 448
Academic Vicissitudes 465
Feminism 475
Postmodernism in the Arts and Literature 481
The Neobaroque 497
7 A Millennium and a Century End: A New Era Begins 503
Cultural Analysis Through Film 513
Select Bibliography 531
Index 575
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