Title: The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities
Author: Richard Bushman
Categories: Cultural History, Social History, Middle Class, Material Culture, Social Identity
Place: American Colonies/United States
Time Period: 1690-1850
Richard Bushman examines the refinement of American culture during the colonial period through the first half of the 19th century. In doing so, he uses gentility as a "cultural system" - one of a handful at the time that included religion, domesticity and capitalism. Bushman uses a cultural and social history approach melded with a sophisticated treatment of material culture - doors, parlors, silverware, architecture, etc. make up his evidence. In the end, Bushman charts a shift from two distinctive phases, from one in which society was divided between a provincial elite that tried to import their aristocratic gentility from England, to one at the end of the 18th century that saw the flourishing of a middle class that embraced a "vernacular gentility" that selectively emulated, but did not blindly imitate, upper class gentility. In the end, he argues that this process, while somewhat democratic in expanding access to genteel culture to more and more people, actually ended up stunting the growth of a class consciousness, since everyone (even the lower classes) falsely believed they were or could become middle class.
In the first phase, from 1690 to 1790, the American gentility used sources such as etiquette books to take cues from English nobility. In the early 18th century, the proliferation of "middling mansions" and the rise of parlor culture - building a room/architectural feature dedicated solely to entertaining guests - starkly divided the refined from the unrefined. There was a central tension between this exclusionary gentility and a growing sense of republican equality. Beginning after the Revolution, a shift began to occur (from 1790-1850) that marked the emergence of a middle class that emulated the gentry through a modest "vernacular gentility," in which they selectively incorporated elements of upper class culture. Although this opened up access to genteel culture to greater numbers of people, it also served to even more starkly distinguish the poor and unrefined from everyone else. In the end, it did more to hide class divisions and retard a cohesive class consciousness than it did to democratize culture.
Bushman also argues that gentility spread in two ways: through society and across space. From the societal standpoint, this meant that in the early 19th century anxieties over displacement and a fluid social order could get reassured by markers of hierarchy and distinction. Importantly, Bushman notes that it is important to remember that cultural transmission was NOT equal. Power was disproportionate, so refinement flowed disproportionately from top to bottom. From a spatial standpoint, this meant that refinement spread from urban centers to rural villages, and remained more concentrated in the northeast than the South or West.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Shift from aristocratic gentility of colonial period to growth of middle class "vernacular gentility" after 1790
- "Vernacular gentility" - middle-class Americans selectively employed aspects of upper-class gentility
- Democratization of culture - ends pessimistically with characterization that people had a false consciousness (confusing trappings of power with actual power)
- Dual spread of culture through space and the social structure
- Cultural system of gentility (Clifford Geertz legacy)
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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