Andrew Hartman is Associate Professor of History at Illinois State University. This interview is based on his new book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (University of Chicago Press, April 2015).
JF: What led you to write A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars?
AH: In 2008, just as my first book Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School had been published, my graduate school advisor and good friend Leo Ribuffo offhandedly suggested that perhaps my second book should be a history of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s. He knew then, and I soon discovered, that no historian had ever written a monograph about the culture wars. The topic matched my interests since it allowed me to explore education, politics, religion, and culture—all through the lens of intellectual history, which is my specialty. More to the point, A War for the Soul of America fits with my career-long research project: an historical exploration of American modernity, identity, and nationalism.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A War for the Soul of America?
AH: Many have regarded the culture wars as a mere sideshow or as a simple byproduct of deindustrialization, but A War for the Soul of America argues that the culture wars were the very public face of America’s struggle over the unprecedented social changes of the late-twentieth-century United States, as the cluster of social norms that had long governed American life began to give way to a new openness to different ideas, identities, and articulations of what it meant to be an American. The hot-button issues like abortion, affirmative action, art, censorship, homosexuality, and multiculturalism that dominated politics in the period were symptoms of the larger struggle, as conservative Americans slowly began to acknowledge—if initially through rejection—some of the fundamental transformations of American life.
JF: Why do we need to read A War for the Soul of America?
AH: For one thing, A War for the Soul of America is the first book-length history of the culture wars, the dramatic struggle which pitted liberal and secular Americans against their conservative and traditionally religious counterparts and captured the attention of the nation during the 1980s and 1990s. This in itself makes the book worth reading for those scholars and citizens interested in American political culture and the things that divide and unite us. But more compellingly, my book is a meditation on the problem of American modernity in relation to historical change, continuity, and periodization.
Many Americans prior to the sixties, particularly middle-class white Americans, were largely sheltered from the “acids of modernity,” the modern ways of thinking that subjected seemingly timeless truths, including truths about America, to a lens of suspicion. The radical political mobilizations of the sixties—civil rights, Black and Chicano Power, feminism, gay liberation, the antiwar movement, the legal push for secularization—destabilized the America that millions knew. It was only after the sixties that many Americans, particularly conservatives, recognized what they perceived as multitudinous threats to their once great nation.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JF: What is your next project?
AH: Marx in America, which will also be an analysis of the problem of American modernity. In a recent review essay of Jonathan Sperber’s new biography of Karl Marx, Geoff Eley writes that most intellectual historians accept that “Marx’s thought became basic to the intellectual architecture of the modern world, whether as inspiration or anathema.” Marx in America will take up Eley’s presupposition, with the United States of America as representative of the modern world. More specifically I will ask: How have the ideas of arguably the world’s most important modern thinker, Karl Marx, been received in the country seemingly most hostile to them—the United States? This will be a big book and will take many years to research and write. But I am excited.