The cliché of the Ugly American—loud, vulgar, materialistic, chauvinistic—still expresses what people around the world dislike about their Yankee counterparts. Carrie Tirado Bramen recovers the history of a very different national archetype—the nice American—which has been central to ideas of U.S. identity since the nineteenth century.
Niceness is often assumed to be a superficial concept unworthy of serious analysis. Yet the distinctiveness of Americans has been shaped by values of sociality and likability for which the adjective “nice” became a catchall. In America’s fledgling democracy, niceness was understood to be the indispensable trait of a people who were refreshingly free of Old World snobbery. Bramen elucidates the role niceness plays in a particular fantasy of American exceptionalism, one based not on military and economic might but on friendliness and openness. Niceness defined the attitudes of a plucky (and white) settler nation, commonly expressed through an affect that Bramen calls “manifest cheerfulness.”
To reveal its contested inflections, Bramen shows how American niceness intersects with ideas of femininity, Native American hospitality, and black amiability. Who claimed niceness and why? Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans have largely considered themselves to be a fundamentally nice and decent people, from the supposedly amicable meeting of Puritans and Native Americans at Plymouth Rock to the early days of American imperialism when the mythology of Plymouth Rock became a portable emblem of goodwill for U.S. occupation forces in the Philippines.
Brilliant…This is why Bramen’s book is so important right now: American Niceness does a remarkable job of demonstrating not only the history of deeply entrenched norms of niceness but also the reasons they have lurked beneath our critical radar for so long. Bramen shows impressive range in her analysis, tracking the development of American niceness back to the earliest myths of settler colonialism on the New England shore and forward through the pre–Civil War decades all the way to foreign policy at the turn of the century…Niceness has always been crucial to American culture. At times, it has provided cover for our worst crimes and inequalities; at others, a means of ameliorating or reforming them.
Any nation that lays claim to certain principles, just like any person who dares to do so, opens itself up to the charge of hypocrisy. Some of the best moments in Bramen’s history ask what might happen were we to actually live up to our ideals.
Under the cover of niceness, Americans have done many things that are not at all nice: Native American genocide and slavery at the start, setting the stage for more free-ranging racism, sexism and imperialism. Bramen teases out the constructions (and underlying contradictions) of how we imagine ourselves, and who we really are. She discusses how niceness, and, of course, the manipulation of this idea, was invoked to sustain American exceptionalism…She is right that American niceness, a coercive strategy, is often not genuine. Long-standing myths created to hide exploitation endure in the present, supplanting a frank reckoning of our national character.
What [Bramen] has written is a fascinating account of how niceness has figured in ‘a national fantasy of American exceptionalism,’ that Americans are unique because they are nice and friendly.
Using primary sources, this well-researched book demonstrates how national identity is formed, transformed over time, and functions personally and politically… An important resource for readers of history and literary criticism.
American Niceness is the sort of big, provocative, and essential book that attracts intelligent readers, especially at a time when U.S. politics puts the question of American niceness squarely on the table. It insists brilliantly on seeing the debates and wishful thinking regarding the ‘niceness’ of subaltern Americans as fundamental to nation-making practices of representation. The sections on how the feminine and the diplomatic fused are fascinating, as are those on siblings and learning to love and hate at once. There is no work even remotely like this one.
No discerning reader will fail to spot that this is a big book in every sense of the word, indeed a game-changer, in its contribution to the history and theory of American culture. In its trenchant but fair-minded exploration of ‘how niceness has figured in a national fantasy of American exceptionalism,’ this book pulls off the feat of taking seriously a long-scorned but crucial dimension of national self-conception. American Niceness will be a vade mecum for students of U.S. culture everywhere.
- 384 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
Sorry, there was an error adding the item to your shopping bag.
Sorry, your session has expired. Please refresh your browser's tab.