What Keeps a Big Country and a Diverse People United
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In the tradition of William Bennett comes this well-written, argument-provoking compendium of American virtues. McElroy, a professor of English at the University of Arizona, spent the late 1960s teaching courses in American studies at the University of Salamanca in Spain, where, he writes, “I had to think seriously and systematically for the first time in my life about what we mean when we refer to culture, why different cultures have formed, and how the culture of the United States differs from other cultures in the Americas and Europe.” His book takes a sometimes lecture-like, but certainly accessible air as he examines these matters in turn, beginning with the sensible observation that “a historical culture can be formally defined as a unique set of extremely simple beliefs,” such as, in the case of the prewar Japanese, the notion that the emperor was a god or, in the case of revolutionary-era Americans, that all men are created equal. The simplicity of those beliefs, McElroy writes, means that it’s easy to transmit them from one generation to another and to assimilate them. McElroy’s catalog of what those beliefs are, exactly, comes from sources from Poor Richard’s Almanack on down, and they are largely unobjectionable: “Manual work is respectable.” “Freedom of movement is needed for success.” “Helping others helps yourself.” “Every individual’s success improves society.” McElroy, an evident conservative, has no truck with Karl Marx’s formulation that the dominant ideas in a society are those of the ruling class; in his view, which will likely be dismissed by those of leftward leanings, these ideas are what makes Americans American. He closes with a lament against “the simultaneous weakening of so many American beliefs” in the face of what he calls “uncompromising ideologies”—meaning, one supposes, liberalism and its kin. Call it, well, a book of rules for nonradicals. (maps)

Pub Date: April 2nd, 1999
ISBN: 1-56663-231-5
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Ivan Dee/Rowman & Littlefield
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1999