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American Identity

American Identity

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American Identity

Course No. 8540
Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
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4.7 out of 5
48 Reviews
70% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 8540
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Course Overview

What defines an American? Is it the love of liberty, the pursuit of justice, the urge to invent, the desire for wealth, the drive to explore, the quest for spiritual values? The paradox of the American identity is that although the United States is a melting pot of many different traditions, motives, and ideals, there are nevertheless distinctive qualities that define the American character

In this course, historian Patrick N. Allitt investigates the national character by introducing you to notable Americans from all eras of the nation's history, whose lives speak eloquently about the qualities that make one truly American.

Focusing on various character traits and attitudes that have indelibly shaped the national psyche, Dr. Allitt takes you on a journey from the very first settlers to the present, showing how certain characteristics have been passed down through time, and also how certain traits and beliefs have changed over time.

You will learn about the famous (like Thomas Jefferson), the infamous (like Al Capone), and the relatively unknown (like Emma Goldman). Each person covered in this course manifests certain characteristics that are quintessentially part of the American identity, or reveal some underlying aspect of the American identity.

A Deeper Understanding of Trends and Ideas

The figures in these lectures led fascinating lives. And while the course is enjoyable simply as a well-told series of biographies, it does much more, helping you gain a deeper understanding of the trends and ideas that shaped America and that continue to influence American society today. For example:

  • The 17th-century Puritan leader Cotton Mather is the spiritual ancestor of today's vogue for political correctness, which Professor Allitt sees as a secular transfiguration of the Puritan belief that you can think, do, and say the right things and gradually get rid of the wrong things.
  • The Civil War-era landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted combined public park construction and anti-slavery advocacy, spurred by the conviction that each contributed to fulfilling his ideal of a society where citizens are free, educated, genteel, and able to maintain contact with rural conditions.
  • The late 19th-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie helped create a pattern of philanthropy in which business leaders who succeeded by ruthless methods sanitized their reputations by endowing universities and other institutions. "It wasn't a trend which was taking place elsewhere in the world," says Professor Allitt.
  • The 20th-century columnist William F. Buckley, Jr., was among the first Americans to take pride in the conservative label, which Americans had long resisted attaching to themselves. Buckley transformed the image and idiom of conservatism, with consequences that persist into the 21st century.

What You Will Learn

Each lecture in this course takes as its subject a single individual or pair of individuals. Each person is then treated in terms of a particular activity, which is reflected in the lecture's subtitle: for example, "Frederick Douglass—The Abolitionist" or "Samuel Gompers—The Trade Unionist." The four parts of the course follow a roughly chronological pattern:

Part I introduces a series of powerful figures from colonial America, who imparted their imaginativeness, forcefulness, and energy to the American tradition. Among them are the explorer and colonial founder John Smith; the religious liberty advocate, Quaker, and colonial founder William Penn; the great Puritan intellectual Cotton Mather; and the astonishing 18th-century polymath Benjamin Franklin. This part climaxes with the revolutionary generation and the men and women who had to make the difficult transition from being British subjects to being American citizens. Some among them, such as First Lady Abigail Adams, set the tone and style for a long line of successors.

Part II considers influential Americans of the early 19th century, many of whom were involved in the great controversy over whether the nation would maintain or overthrow the slave system, and who collectively energized the young republic's astonishing economic growth. Two writers from this group, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott, bear witness to the maturing of a distinctive American literary and philosophical culture.

Part III picks up the story after the convulsions of the Civil War, highlighting the men and women who turned America into a first-class industrial nation dedicated to sustained economic growth, and who enabled the republic to stretch, in reality rather than just aspiration, from ocean to ocean.

Part IV shows how America's diversity flowered in the mid-20th century, as new waves of immigrants were assimilated and began to play a role in every facet of national life. This was also a time when America developed a global reach, personified in such international heroes as aviator Charles Lindbergh, such war leaders as General Douglas MacArthur, and such international cultural stars as Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein.

The American Character Exemplified

There are countless examples of how these individuals embody distinctly American traits. Here are some of them:

  • Lack of Fatalism: Louisa May Alcott volunteered as a nurse in a Civil War hospital, where she contracted typhoid fever and was crippled for life from the mercury used to treat her. Nonetheless, she kept writing to support her family and pay off her father's debts. Her most beloved book, Little Women, emerged from this difficult period.
  • Energetic Approach to Problem-solving: Benjamin Franklin was inspired by a firewood shortage in Philadelphia to invent a more efficient source of heat: the Franklin stove. His clever marketing campaign for the invention displays another American characteristic: boundless self-confidence.
  • Faith in Economic Growth: Andrew Carnegie made a fortune in various industries before devoting himself full time to steel, seeing its limitless potential. It was then that he said, "Put all your eggs in one basket and then watch that basket!"
  • Dedication to Education: When Horace Mann was named secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1837, he encountered a school system in decay. By the time he left the job 12 years later, he had laid the foundation for universal compulsory schooling that would be a model for all other states.
  • Devotion to Religious Liberty: The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Thomas Jefferson drafted in 1786, was one of his proudest accomplishments, which he classed even above his two terms as president of the United States. The statute was the foundation for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  • Belief in Equality: When Abigail Adams asked her husband, John Adams, to "remember the ladies" as he worked to establish the new American nation, she was speaking partly in jest. But her feminist heirs were serious. In the 20th century Betty Friedan sought to give women real equality and real democratic access, rather than the outward legal shell of these rights.

You May Even Recognize Yourself

This is a course that is descriptive of the American character, rather than prescriptive; Professor Allitt emphasizes that one need not have certain characteristics in order to be really American. Nonetheless, if you are an American, you will probably find that you share basic attitudes and beliefs with many of the individuals featured in these lectures. This is no accident. One of the lessons of the course is that habits of mind that you may take for grantedùoptimism, self-reliance, and belief in education, among others—are specifically American in outlook and have been developed through the success of these and other like-minded individuals throughout American history.

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48 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Being American
    This course profiles 48 notable Americans whose lives and accomplishments help define the national identity. In his introductory lecture, Professor Allitt highlights characteristics that are distinctly American, while noting that these traits are neither prescriptive nor unchanging. x
  • 2
    John Smith—The Colonial Promoter
    Famous for being saved from execution by Pocahontas (which may not have happened), John Smith was a talented soldier, explorer, mapmaker, colonizer, and writer whose career heralds what would become the American approach to Indian policy, meritocracy, and frontier settlement. x
  • 3
    William Penn—The Religious Liberty Advocate
    Religious freedom is so central to the American way of life that it's difficult to recall what a radical notion it once appeared to be. William Penn is one of the first great advocates for making America a land of religious liberty where everyone is free to worship in his or her own way. x
  • 4
    Cotton Mather—The Puritan
    A ferociously devout Puritan, Cotton Mather is famous for his role in the Salem Witch trials and for introducing smallpox inoculations to Boston. To some, he represents Puritanism at it worst; others praise his high moral standards and constant attempts to root out corruption and decadence. x
  • 5
    Benjamin Franklin—The Improver
    American history is full of people trying to improve things, none more so than Benjamin Franklin. Born in humble circumstances, his success as a printer, writer, scientist, and public servant made him admired worldwide, proving that upward social and economic mobility was an American reality. x
  • 6
    Francis Marion—The Guerrilla Soldier
    Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox," helped preserve the possibility of American independence in one of the most treacherous campaigns of the Revolutionary War. His style of irregular warfare inspired tactics used later against the Indians and during the Civil War. x
  • 7
    Thomas Jefferson—The Patriot
    A striking aspect of American nationalism is its self-critical character, in which Thomas Jefferson leads the way. He was not only proud of the U.S. and its revolutionary accomplishments but also anguished about its imperfections, especially the blight of slavery, which he knew well as a slaveholder himself. x
  • 8
    Abigail Adams—The First Lady
    A minister's daughter full of the Yankee virtues of prudence, thrift, hard work, and sobriety, Abigail Adams was wife to the second U.S. president, John Adams. Along with Martha Washington, she helped create the pattern that American first ladies have followed throughout much of the last 200 years. x
  • 9
    Mother Ann Lee—The Religious Founder
    Religious innovation is one of the most distinctive aspects of the American identity. We look at Ann Lee, the principal founder of the Shakers, whose demand for absolute celibacy meant that no one would ever be born to Shaker parents and that recruits would have to live a life of heroic self-discipline. x
  • 10
    Rittenhouse and Bartram—The Scientists
    American preeminence in science did not come until the 20th century, but there were notable American scientists in the nation's early years, among them astronomer David Rittenhouse and naturalist William Bartram. Relatively unknown today, they had worldwide reputations in the late 18th century. x
  • 11
    Eli Whitney—The Inventor
    A distinctive aspect of the American identity is the ability to make practical new devices and put them to profitable use. A famous example is Eli Whitney, whose greatest invention, the cotton gin, was almost too useful, and the bargain he tried to drive was almost too hard. x
  • 12
    Lewis and Clark—The Explorers
    The most illustrious explorers in American history, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a three-year expedition to explore the Missouri river and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. Their work laid the foundation for the nation's subsequent westward expansion. x
  • 13
    Charles Grandison Finney—The Revivalist
    Charles Grandison Finney helped create the revivalist evangelical style in America in the 19th century, which emphasized a brighter theological message than that of traditional Calvinism. He was also a central figure in Christian education and in the movement to abolish slavery. x
  • 14
    Horace Mann—The Educator
    No American characteristic is more striking to outsiders than the nation's commitment to education. Horace Mann created America's first statewide public school system in Massachusetts, which became a model for other states and led to today's system of universal education for all. x
  • 15
    Ralph Waldo Emerson—The Philosopher
    Ralph Waldo Emerson was the leading figure among the Transcendentalists, an idealistic group of philosophical and social radicals in pre-Civil War New England. His lectures and essays made him the most famous American thinker of his era, at home and in Europe. x
  • 16
    Frederick Douglass—The Abolitionist
    The growing anti-slavery movement in the 1850s found an eloquent spokesman in Frederick Douglass, a former slave who had escaped from bondage. His moving autobiography and electrifying oratory energized abolitionists and helped precipitate the crisis of the union. x
  • 17
    Edmund Ruffin—The Champion of Slavery
    American history is full of dramatic contradictions, none more so than Edmund Ruffin. The father of scientific agriculture, he argued for a wide array of enlightened farming practices. At the same time, he was a passionate advocate of slavery and may have fired the first shot in the Civil War. x
  • 18
    Brigham Young—The Religious Autocrat
    In the 1840s, Brigham Young led the faithful of the new Mormon Church on a spectacular transcontinental journey to escape persecution in the U.S. Settling in what is now Utah, Young transformed desert land into irrigated farms and established a tightly regulated community that has flourished ever since. x
  • 19
    Frederick Law Olmsted—The Landscape Architect
    America's first landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, was the maker of large urban parks in dozens of cities, including Central Park in New York. He combined this career with a commitment to the antislavery cause. During the Civil War he headed the Sanitary Commission, an important aid organization. x
  • 20
    William Tecumseh Sherman—The General
    William T. Sherman represents what became the typical American style of warfare, bringing overwhelming force against the enemy and battering it into submission. His destructive campaign against the South during the Civil War made him one of the most controversial people in American history. x
  • 21
    Louisa May Alcott—The Professional Writer
    Daughter of an unworldly New England Transcendentalist, Louisa May Alcott got her family out of debt by becoming a prolific novelist. Little Women, a fictional transfiguration of her own childhood, became a classic almost at once and has remained one since its publication in 1868. x
  • 22
    Andrew Carnegie—Conscience-Stricken Entrepreneur
    Born poor in Scotland, Andrew Carnegie found economic opportunity in the U.S. and became one of the richest men in the world. Not content with piling up wealth for its own sake, he became a leading philanthropist. His altruistic "gospel of wealth" influenced generations of Americans. x
  • 23
    “Buffalo Bill”—The Westerner
    Images of the Wild West have long held a treasured place in Americans' conception of their nation, and few people did more to nourish them than "Buffalo Bill" Cody. Famous for staging fictionalized versions of his exploits, he occasionally returned to the field to rack up more adventures. x
  • 24
    Black Elk—The Holy Man
    Black Elk belonged to the last generation of Sioux that lived a semi-nomadic life on the plains, dependent on buffalo hunting. At age 13 he was present at the Battle of Little Big Horn. He experienced a powerful vision as a child and devoted his life to offering spiritual guidance to his people. x
  • 25
    John Wesley Powell—The Desert Theorist
    John Wesley Powell was the first man to travel the length of the Grand Canyon in a boat. He learned the languages of the desert Indians and became a leading anthropologist. At the U.S. Geological Survey, he proposed a dramatic and novel solution to the chronic problem of water shortage in the West. x
  • 26
    William Mulholland—The Water Engineer
    William Mulholland used fair means and foul to engineer an ample water supply for Los Angeles, showing that cities could flourish in the desert southwest of the U.S. His reputation was ruined in 1928 when the St. Francis Dam, whose building he had supervised, burst and killed 500 people. x
  • 27
    Samuel Gompers—The Trade Unionist
    A founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers was a hero to millions of American workers. He embodied their demands that their dignity as independent citizens be preserved, that they be paid decent wages, work in safe conditions, and enjoy job security. x
  • 28
    Booker T. Washington—The "Race Leader"
    Booker T. Washington is one of America's greatest success stories. Born a slave, he rose to a position of wealth and influence as an educator and race leader. However he was criticized for failing to speak out against worsening segregation, lynching, and other violations of African-American rights. x
  • 29
    Emma Goldman—The Anarchist
    One of the best-known anarchists in American history, Emma Goldman was widely feared and hated during her lifetime. She has since become one of the nation's most popular women. Aside from her radical political views, she believed in free love, birth control, abortion, and women's rights. x
  • 30
    Abraham Cahan—The Immigrants' Advocate
    Immigrating to New York as a young man, Abraham Cahan founded the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward to help fellow immigrants adapt to American ways. He also became a widely admired novelist, notably for his semi-autobiographical novel, The Rise of David Levinsky. x
  • 31
    Isabella Stewart Gardner—The Collector
    Many of the great American art collections were established in the late 19th century. None carries a more distinctive stamp than that of Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston, who showed a lifelong capacity for intellectual growth and eccentric high style. x
  • 32
    Oliver Wendell Holmes—The Jurist
    Arguably the greatest of all Supreme Court justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes joined the court in 1902 at age 61. He served until 1932, aged 91, during which he wrote many influential opinions reflecting his "legal realism" philosophy: "The life of the law has not been logic. It has been experience." x
  • 33
    Henry Ford—The Mass Producer
    The first automobiles were toys for the rich, but Henry Ford's Model T, introduced in 1908, came steadily down in price and by 1915 was affordable to ordinary citizens. Ford pioneered in paying high wages to workers to ensure a stable workforce and to enable his men to buy the cars they were building. x
  • 34
    Harry Houdini—The Sensationalist
    Magician Harry Houdini developed the ability to escape from apparently impossible situations. Understanding the need to promote his acts, he adapted well to the demands of 20th-century publicity and demonstrated that show business could make a talented performer into a wealthy and influential man. x
  • 35
    Al Capone—The Crime Boss
    Prohibition did little to stem the market for alcoholic beverages, and Al Capone stepped in to meet the demand. Considering himself a "businessman," he organized a crime empire that dominated Chicago, corrupting officials at every level and in every department. x
  • 36
    Herbert Hoover—The Humanitarian
    A successful mining engineer, Herbert Hoover achieved an international reputation for his humanitarian work during and after World War I. He was one of the most widely admired men in America when he was elected president in 1928, but the Great Depression took him by surprise. x
  • 37
    Helen Keller—The Inspiration
    Helen Keller was struck blind and deaf by scarlet fever before her second birthday. Under the care of a gifted teacher, Anne Sullivan, she learned to read, write, and make sense of the world around her. She went on to a life of advocacy for the blind, women's suffrage, socialism, and other public causes. x
  • 38
    Duke Ellington—The Jazzman
    Before 1900, America had made few contributions to the world's musical heritage. This changed with jazz, particularly with the career of Duke Ellington. His rise to fame was aided not only by his superb musical skills but by the advent of radio and the phonograph, which helped spread his music. x
  • 39
    Charles Lindbergh—The Aviator
    Charles Lindbergh became world famous for making the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. His later life was beset with personal and political difficulties. Nonetheless, he remains an American icon whose heroic act linked personal willpower and technical mastery. x
  • 40
    Douglas MacArthur—The World-Power Warrior
    Douglas MacArthur was a larger-than-life army commander ideally suited to America's role as a superpower. After performing brilliantly in World Wars I and II and the Korean War, he was dismissed by President Truman for publicly challenging the tradition of civilian control over military decisions. x
  • 41
    Leonard Bernstein—The Musical Polymath
    Leonard Bernstein did more than anyone to break down the hierarchy of musical styles from classical to jazz to popular. He was equally at home conducting Beethoven at the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, writing Broadway shows such as West Side Story, or broadcasting to children. x
  • 42
    Shirley Temple—The Child Prodigy
    Child actress Shirley Temple was the most popular attraction in Hollywood from 1935–38, cheering America during the Great Depression. As her career faded, she entered politics and served a succession of Republican presidents as an ambassador, State Department officer, and White House protocol chief. x
  • 43
    George Wallace—The Demagogue
    George Wallace built his political career on opposition to racial integration, winning several terms as governor of Alabama. His third-party run for president in 1968 made a strong showing. Trying again in 1972, he was wounded in an assassination attempt. Afterward, he recanted his racist views. x
  • 44
    William F. Buckley, Jr.—The Conservative
    William F. Buckley, Jr., founded National Review magazine in 1955, gathering anticommunists, classical liberals, and social traditionalists into an influential forum. Buckley's gifts as a polemicist and an entertaining talk show host helped turn conservative ideas into practical political realities. x
  • 45
    Roberto Clemente—The Athlete
    Puerto Rican athlete Roberto Clemente played his entire 17-year, major-league career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He complemented his skills in baseball with humanitarian work. His death in 1972 while taking part in an earthquake-relief operation sealed his reputation as a selfless role model. x
  • 46
    Betty Friedan—The Feminist
    The galvanizing event in modern feminism was the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Friedan founded the National Organization of Women in 1966 and became a central figure in the successful campaign to abolish discriminatory legislation against women. x
  • 47
    Jesse Jackson—The Civil Rights Legatee
    Jesse Jackson inherited the mantle of leadership of the civil rights movement after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. Mixing social protest with electoral politics, as King never did, Jackson became a controversial figure, especially after his runs for the presidency in the 1980s. x
  • 48
    Stability and Change
    Certain themes and ideas have persisted throughout American history, while others have changed beyond recognition. Professor Allitt discusses what we can conclude about the American identity from the fascinating case histories presented in this course. x

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Your professor

Patrick N. Allitt

About Your Professor

Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
Dr. Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt-an Oxford University graduate-has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow. He was the Director of Emory College's Center for Teaching...
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American Identity is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 48.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I loved it, I love all of Professor Allitt's courses. The course manages to be informative as well as entertaining. What I really liked about this course is that Professor Allit managed to delve into so many areas of society by discussing such a diverse array of individuals as musicians, Intellectuals, religious figures, politicians and generals. Another way in which Professor Allitt makes this course special is by at times shifting the focus of his lectures away from the people who traditionally would receive the focus to individual's who usually would be confined to the footnotes of history (e.g. Abigail Adams rather than John Adams, William Tecumseh Sherman rather than Ulysses S. Grant or Herbert Hoover rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt).
Date published: 2017-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Edutainment at its best Dr Allitt has created a wonderfully entertaining and informative set of lectures in which he profiles 50 or so 'typical' Americans (specifically folks from the US) who had gained, during their lifetime, a modicum of notoriety. From the proto-American John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) to the controversial Jesse Jackson. From the clearly famous or infamous like Thomas Jefferson, Al Capone, Herbert Hoover and Wild Bill, to the relatively obscure with Emma Goldman, Isabella Gardner, Ann Lee, and David Rittenhouse. Each individual thumbnail biography tells a story of what the good Professor describes as the American spirit...sometimes a rags-to-riches inspirational story, sometimes a ruthless success story fueled by self-interest (please read MrDarcy's fine review on The Great Courses)...each story meant to exemplify the fruits of intelligence, adventurousness, courage and hard work. Each lectures is a standalone survey, but should be enjoyed as a whole...you won't be disappointed. Highly recommend...sale/coupon combo works well.
Date published: 2017-08-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent and beautifully taught (as expected)I ha I have heard all of Professor Allitt’s courses but one in TGC and consider them to be among the finest that TGC has to offer. The ones I enjoyed most are “The industrial revolution…”, “Rise and fall of the British Empire” and “Victorian Britain…”. The striking thing about his courses is the way he tackles the subject. Almost invariably he presents the evolution of the history he is presenting through the study of a very large and nuanced set of characters that made significant contributions in very diverse fields and helped to navigate the historical process in a particular direction. In this fashion, we can get a good understanding of the fabric of different cultures using biographies and historical evolution. In addition, I have taken literally all of the courses on American history that were available within the TGC (roughly 25 courses) and this one was one of the last ones I heard, so I was curious to see if this course would have much to add. This is exactly the essence of this course, in fact I think this course may fit this presentational style best of all of his courses, since the whole goal here is to understand this fabric of “American Identity” and not so much to follow any specific historical narrative. As in all of his courses, he cast his net very wide indeed and brought the stories of American people from extremely diverse fields such as important early scientists, religious innovators, business entrepreneurs, politicians, explorers, writers, politicians, musicians, engineers, native Americans, union leaders, tycoons, architects, ex-slaves, ….. Indeed, this unique cultural - biographical investigative style was almost unique within the courses I have heard on American history (Professor Guelzo's course "American mind" is somewhat similar but focuses exclusively on American Intellectual history), and provided for me new and fascinating perspectives of America. I was totally fascinated by this course and enjoyed it immensely as I have come to expect of all of Allitt's courses. I believe that this course has a very interesting and effective method of explaining to us how and why America came to be what it has come to be… Hugely recommended!
Date published: 2017-07-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fascinating course by an outstanding professor! This professor is from Great Britain, and his accent and vocal mannerisms are fantastic, which makes the material much more interesting. Plus, the fact that he has an outsider's perspective on the American Identity really adds a great deal of value to what he's discussing. This is one of the best Great Courses I've listened to thus far, and I highly recommend it.
Date published: 2016-10-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Another look at history A focus on what the beliefs and feelings were at the time because of the historical circumstances. Also a good review of the historical facts.
Date published: 2016-07-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Portraits of American Hustlers The historian Jon Meacham has written the following about the American identity: “Americans would rather the world thought of us as Jimmy Stewarts, when there’s a strong strain of Humphrey Bogart in our national character.” Is the American identity one of wide-eyed idealism, as apparent in the iconic figure of Jimmy Stewart? Or does the optimism mask a deeper and more troubling truth of the American identity, as exemplified in the brooding and cynical Humphrey Bogart? “The American Identity” is an ambitious and sprawling 48-part set of portraits of Americans. For any lover of biography, this course is an exhilarating experience, due to the selection of the lives and the detail provided by the lecturer. As indicated by the speaker, the goal was not to select the fifty greatest Americans, but rather to capture the enormous diversity of American lives. As a whole, the course is like a history of the American experience as seen through the lens of biography. Professor Patrick N. Allitt is the congenial lecturer, and the scholarship is superb. The speaker works carefully with primary sources, and the lectures are filled with quotes from the people being profiled, as well as their contemporaries. There is one priceless citation from Mark Twain about the polygamous Brigham Young, whom the sly Twain wryly applauds for taking pity on sixty “ungainly and pathetically homely creatures” who became Young’s wives. For Twain, that was “a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nation should stand uncovered in his presence, and worship in silence.” For that quote, this Great Course was worth the price of admission! Professor Allitt’s presentations were impressive both in the crafting of the lectures and in his speaking skills. The only problematic area was in how to tie together the lives of nearly fifty Americans over a period of nearly four hundred years. The professor relies on an opening lecture to frame the course in the twin concepts of “practicality” and “idealism” as the parameters of the American identity. And in lecture #17, Professor Allitt attempts to define his approach to such an open-ended topic by stating the following: “When I’m teaching, I always say to students, ‘Try to keep your moralizing in the background and try to keep your understanding in the foreground.’” Unfortunately, the professor’s moralizing seeps through in the very selection of the themes of “practicality” and “idealism.” And throughout the course, there was the Pollyanna Principle at work in the lecturer's cheerful and optimistic outlook on the American character. But is Professor Allitt’s paradigm of "practicality and idealism" the only way of understanding the American identity? Walter A. McDougall, who is a professor of history and the Alloy-Ansin Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, has come up with a completely different model for exploring the American identity, as presented in his book “Freedom Just Around the Corner.” While working with the same sources as Professor Allitt, including such essential texts as Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (1835) and M. G. Jean de Crèvecoeur’s “Letters from an American Farmer” (1782), Professor McDougall explores how these travelers from France perceived a pattern of deceit, dishonesty, and crass self-interest on the part of Americans, who were, according to Crèvecoeur, “litigious, overbearing, purse-proud.” For Crèvecoeur, it was rare when American society “does not degenerate into fraud against fraud.” Professor McDougall uses Herman Melville’s short story “The Confidence Man” as an essential reference point for a culture of scammers and schemers, grifters and grafters. In other words, to understand the American identity, we need to acknowledge that we are part of a long tradition of hustlers! The thesis of “hustling” emerges from this lecture series, if we peel away the layers of the American identity to examine the true stories of the various lives. For example: • Professor Allitt starts the biographies with a profile of Captain John Smith, a notorious liar and self-promoter. In a book entitled “True Relation,” Smith created the myth that his life was saved in Virginia due to the heroics of Pocahontas, a young native American woman who simply could not resist Smith’s charms. With great understatement, Professor Allitt suggests that Smith may have embroidered the truth. • Eli Whitney is remembered primarily as a great American inventor, which, on the surface, ties right in to Professor Allitt’s thesis of practicality and idealism. But in his life, Whitney was outhustled by those who copied his famous cotton gin without his permission. Whitney labored for years to fulfill a large order of muskets in order to pay his legal costs for defending his right to profit from the cotton gin. His life and his identity were captured perfectly in Crèvecoeur’s early impressions of Americans as “litigious, overbearing, purse-proud.” • William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody is the embodiment of the American Old West. But how much of his life was spent in hustling? In order to combat those who were exploiting his image, Cody took to the stage to portray himself to the public. But his self-impersonation was not always honest. In one show, he claimed that he was the killer of Chief Tall Bull. But it was Major Frank North who actually killed the chief, and North was acting alongside Cody in the theater production! Cody’s grandest achievement on the world stage was his influential show, “The Wild West.” He wanted the extravaganza to be “an educational affair,” and indeed it has had the lasting effect of cementing the mythology of the West in the popular imagination. But how much of the show was real, and how much of it was the ingenuity of a hustler? • Abraham Cahan is identified by Professor Allitt as "the immigrants' advocate." In Cahan's humane and quasi autobiographical novel, "The Rise of David Levinsky" (1917), the protagonist rises to success in the garment industry. But his road to riches is paved by deceit and hypocrisy. As recounted by Professor Allitt, "at first when other people cheat him, he is horrified by it. But he learns the tricks, and he starts doing this himself. So, he is aware that his rise to fame and fortune is being done unscrupulously." • Andrew Carnegie was a hard-working and clever American immigrant from Scotland who made extensive use of insider trading and influence peddling to build his fortune in steel manufacturing. He left the country during the notorious Homestead Strike of 1892, distancing himself both from the discontent of his workers and the violence that resulted from the strike. In his heyday, Carnegie undersold his rivals, forcing down prices to put them out of business. Professor Allitt describes Carnegie as a “conscience stricken entrepreneur,” who took up philanthropy late in life to atone for his past transgressions. • The wealthy American heiress Isabella Stewart Gardner hired art connoisseur Bernard Berenson to be on the lookout for great works of art and to broker deals for her. Berenson scammed Gardner by skimming a greater profit than than his agreed-upon 5% commission. But the equally shrewd Gardner checked up on Berenson and learned that he was cooking the books. • William Mulholland was the water engineer who engaged in conspiratorial activity to divert the Owens River to bring water to Los Angeles County. Even the Los Angeles press was complicit in the plot to deceive the community of the Owens River Valley in the construction of a massive aqueduct. Mulholland’s story of greed and betrayal was the basis for the Roman Polanski film “Chinatown,” where the hapless detective J. J. “Jake” Gittes, as played by Jack Nicholson, discovers the truth behind the massive water scheme. In the film, the Chinatown district is itself is a metaphor for corruption and rapacity in the highest levels of the political and business community of Los Angeles in the 1930s. The theme of hustling continues throughout Professor Allitt’s lectures. American identity is so tied to scamming, hustling, cozening, and looking for an “angle” that it may be perceived in almost any one of the biographical profiles: Bronson Alcott's shameless exploitation of his more talented daughter Louisa May, as recounted in detail in lecture #21; the stunts of the escape artist Harry Houdini as recounted in lecture #34; the duplicity of General Douglas MacArthur, who took credit for the courageous achievements of his fellow generals and officers in the war in the Pacific during World War II, as summarized in lecture #40; the political chicanery of Jesse Jackson, who is described in lecture #47 as “a con artist” by his critics; the hands-on training in the CIA received by arch conservative William F. Buckley, as noted in lecture #44; Betty Friedan’s nifty avoidance of her past, as discussed in lecture #46; and so on. Even the virtuous Helen Keller was cashing in on her remarkable life story by performing on the crass stages of American vaudeville, as described in lecture #37! The active listener of these lectures might conclude that the course should be retitled “American Hustle.” The truth about the American identity stems from the essence of human nature in which people exploited the unprecedented freedoms that were part of the American experience from the very beginning of our nation's history. By the second half of the course, Professor Allitt begins to warm up to this important truth when he states the following: "The line between legitimate and shady business ventures has often been hard to draw in American history." This course affords students the opportunity to study quintessential American lives and make up their own minds about the true nature of the American identity from a cavalcade of American hustlers. Course Grade: B+
Date published: 2015-08-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An Intriguing Look at What it Means to be American It has taken me a long time to finally sit down and right this review. Overall, I enjoyed the course. It is an interesting outsider's perspective on the exploration of the American Soul, as borne out by the study of the lives of great men and women. Professor Allitt makes a concerted effort to populate the list with those who might not be instantly familiar to the average student, even if most of the names would be familiar to a purchaser of the great courses. I must applaud the professor for taking such great care in his portrayal of brief snapshots of entire eras, professions, and facets of human life within the lives. For many of the individuals, context building and background information take up a good third or half of the lecture in order for what they accomplished to have real value to the learner. My only damning complaint is that at times this course lost my interest. Allitt is a good lecturer and so is his material, but ultimately I would find myself starting to do other things as the course becomes background noise. In fairness this happens in other courses as well, but not to the extent it did with this course. Lastly, there were also times when I was baffled by choices on which individuals were chosen to represent certain movements and professions. Professor Allitt stated that he could easily do more courses to populate hundreds of lives, noting that he did little work with scientists in the twentieth century, and seemed to ignore entire movements and walks of life. This recognition, however, only makes me wonder all the more why there was an emphasis on individuals that would barely make it into some people's C list of importance. Those concerns, however, did not make the course unenjoyable or any less deserving of my earlier praise. This was a good course, I recommend it to anyone hoping to delve deeper into what it meant - and means - to be an American.
Date published: 2015-05-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Terrific course I have enjoyed Prof. Allitt's other TTC courses, and this one ranks among his best. His subjects are well chosen, and his lectures are uniformly informative and entertaining. His lecture style is pleasant, his humor and wit delightful, and his perspective valuable. I highly recommend this course, both to those who know a lot about American history and to those who are meeting the selected individualsfor the very first time. I watched the DVD version of the course, but I think the audio version would work just fine. Again, highly recommended.
Date published: 2015-01-03
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