Book Review

Cook on Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America

Andrew Hartman A War for the Soul of America[Introduction: This is review number two, from Vaneesa Cook, in our round table on Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America. Cook is the Bader Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her dissertation is titled “Thy Kingdom Community: Spiritual Socialists and Local to Global Activism, 1920-1970.” Yesterday’s installment came from Bob Hutton, tomorrow’s will be from Peter Kuryla, and two more will follow from Michelle Nickerson and Amy Kittelstrom. Hartman’s reply will be Saturday. Enjoy! – TL]

In A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, Andrew Hartman gives the slippery topic of culture its due as a serious site of political battle. Hartman’s opening thesis that the liberation ethos and identity politics of the 1960s acted as a catalyst for the culture wars in the late twentieth century is convincing, especially given the evidence he marshals of 1980s nostalgia for the 1950s (p. 172) or quotations from 1980s conservatives like Allan Bloom who directly disparaged the sixties decade (p. 233). Hartman also plays to his strengths, fueling much of his narrative with cases from education history, while deftly avoiding a lengthy engagement with tired stories about busing and evolutionary science.

Hartman, in taking the stakes of the culture wars seriously, presents a challenge to scholars such as Thomas Frank (What’s the Matter with Kansas?), who dismissed debates about American identity as “sideshows” to more important economic trends in the post-sixties period. For instance, in chapter 8, Hartman insists that the culture wars did not represent a mere “sideshow” to politics and economics, a clear reference to Frank’s claims (p. 251). In the conclusion, however, Hartman suggests that capitalism nevertheless co-opted the liberation ethos of the 1960s as a commodity “no more, no less” while the culture warriors weren’t looking (p. 289). This provocative and perhaps inconsistent statement begs additional analysis, as do many of the ironic gems scattered throughout the book. For example, Hartman uncovers an interesting contradiction in the language theory of liberals, who, he says, were selective in their beliefs about the power of language to affect action (p. 253). But, he does not follow up on this point. Hartman’s insights here and elsewhere leave the reader wanting more.

It is also unclear whether Hartman intends to contest another recent and controversial treatment of post-sixties culture, Age of Fracture (2011) by Daniel T. Rodgers. Rodgers argues that the insidious nature of capitalism and the indomitable persistence of larges-scale power structures in the late twentieth century prompted a turn to culture and fragmented identity politics as a way to cope with political impotence. Hartman alludes to Rodgers repeatedly when using terms such as “fragmenting” or “splintering” to describe reactionary developments during the culture wars, but he does not challenge Rodgers head-on.

Perhaps he doesn’t need to. Instead of depth-charging the culture warriors for hidden motives, Hartman presents the history of the culture wars at face value, as a solemn and fundamental reckoning with transformations in American culture, in and of itself. He shows the intensity and seriousness of these battles over race, gender, education, and religion like no one else, thus obviating facile explanations about “false consciousness.” Postmodern cultural changes, he claims, undermined the utopian universalism of left-liberal activists as much as economic or political factors did in the late twentieth century (p. 240). In other words, Hartman sees culture as the driving force of economic and political trends, not the other way around. His challenge to Frank and Rodgers is hidden in plain sight, but not thoroughly unpacked within the chapters.

If Hartman asks his audience to read between the lines on issues of culture and economics, he sometimes draws his battle lines too starkly, as when he pits religious conservatives (the Christian Right) against secular liberals (atheists and the areligious) without any attention to religious voices on the left of the political spectrum. Certainly, liberal religion lost its dominance as a national force in the latter half of the twentieth century, when the Christian Right rose to prominence. And Hartman astutely addresses the cultural concerns of the Christian Right in more than one chapter. But, if we are interested in the ways in which culture relates to economics or in delineating the limits of postmodern relativism, recovering the post-sixties history of liberal religion and the “social gospel,” which applied universal Christian values to economic and social welfare, is especially important. Hartman, no doubt, has produced a well-written, accessible, and definitive treatment of the culture wars in the late-twentieth-century U.S., but the complex history of the war for the soul of America (in its explicitly religious context) remains to be written.

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  1. Vaneesa: Thanks so much for contributing this review! I think that the comments have been slow to trickle in, on yours and Hutton’s, because they were first, and people have a tendency wait to see how a roundtable unfolds.

    That said, on your points, a question: I don’t recall Dan Rodgers’ treatment of the period as “controversial.” I remember the book getting a lot of attention, and its being well-liked, but I don’t recall controversy. What makes you assert that? Maybe my memory is simply not so good on this? Or maybe there was some manufactured controversy that I missed? – TL

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