MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture by Michael Kammen
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MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An ambitious, wonderfully detailed investigation into the shifting perceptions of American cultural identity from Pulitzer Prize-winner (People of Paradox, 1973) Kammen (American History and Culture/Cornell; A Machine That Would Go of Itself, 1986, etc.). Taking his title from Lincoln's First Inaugural Address plea for national unity, Kammen asserts that, particularly in times of upheaval, ""a usable past has been needed to give shape and substance to national identity."" Thus, the broad chronological division of the book into three postwar periods: 1870-1915, when the trauma of civil war and an influx of immigrants made history a mechanism for social and political unification; 1915-45, during which time the tensions of memory and modernism, populism and elitism, combined to forge a uniquely American aesthetic; and 1945-90, an era of ""amnesia"" encompassing an intense interest in things historical and a shocking lack of specific knowledge. Throughout, the author masterfully untangles the threads of myth, tradition, and nostalgia underlying the curious ""ambiguities and dualisms"" of a nation stubbornly devoted to both past and future vision. Hence, there arose such very American anomalies as Henry Ford following up his transformation of working life and leisure (and his oft-quoted remark that ""History is more or less bunk"") with obsessive collecting and the creation of two ""living"" museums. Splendidly inclusive in the best, most delightful vein of intellectual history, in which no cultural artifact is discounted as trivial, Kammen's study offers a liberal sampling of high and low culture--literature and popular reading material; pageants and parades; art, architectural, and design trends; museums, theme parks and monuments--as well as a nice dollop of historiography and a careful consideration of similar movements abroad. Admirable, perceptive, and refreshingly well balanced--a daunting task superbly accomplished.

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 1991
Page count: 864pp
Publisher: Knopf