5 - America as a Civilization  pp. 200-249

America as a Civilization

By John S. Gilkeson

Image View Previous Chapter Next Chapter



In America as a Civilization (1957), Max Lerner, a former journalist and pundit who was teaching American civilization at Brandeis University, asserted that “for good or ill, America is what it is – a culture in its own right, with many characteristic lines of power and meaning of its own, ranking with Greece and Rome as one of the great distinctive civilizations of history.” Lerner's choice of title exposed him to the quips of friends who, astonished, asked, “Do we have one?” For the book's title begged an issue that had long troubled American intellectuals: the distinctiveness, intrinsic worth, and creativity of American culture. By 1957, few observers, either at home or abroad, would have objected to Lerner's claim that there was a distinctive American culture. Why, though, did Lerner feel the need to proclaim America a civilization rather than just a culture? His answer was that when a “culture,” which he defined, following contemporary anthropological usage, as a “design for living” or “set of blueprints for a society,” had not only grown “highly complex” but also “cut a wide swath in history in the minds of men,” then one searched “for a term more highly charged with the overtones of these meanings.” Civilization was just such a term. For it connoted a “way of life” and “world view” that had left “a deep imprint” on human experience. Moreover, because of its connotations of “total pattern” and “total impact,” civilization was an even more holistic term than was culture.