Cultural Conflict in America: Alan Trachtenberg's The Incorporation of America

By Patrick Walters

The American past has been reduced in modern times to several over-simplified myths such as the West, progress and the uniqueness of Democratic culture. The ideals, values and history of America are often lost as they are filtered into a misconstrued and over-simplified version of the nation's past. In The Incorporation of America Alan Trachtenberg argues that American culture and history are actually the functional product of the tension between industry and centralizing capitalist forces. Only by understanding the inner workings of these national tensions can one tell the true, non-romanticized history of the nation.

The industrialization of the nation's institutions during the Gilded Age had much greater implications on the country's culture and social structure than the direct material and economic effects of manufacturing. Great alterations in social structure, cultural focus and politics altered America's definition of itself. With the age of industry came a time of increased national self-consciousness. Though America is known traditionally as a nation of "rugged individualism," Trachtenberg describes the complex forces which really contribute to the cultural synergy that is America. Industrialization created a conflict between workers and the powerful corporations. The tensions between laborers and capitalists, individuals and corporations produced what Trachtenberg called a national "nervousness." Class division became the heart of America as a select few became rich while the majority were thrust into labor without hope for prosperity.

The factory system left permanent marks that defined American society: an emphasis on time that created a very "hurried" sense in the nation, the railroad and a fascination with machines. The age even inspired the unsuccessful Populist Movement which reflected a desire to return to the classic American ideals represented in the classic agrarian myths. These tensions, Trachtenberg argues, were also evident in literature such as the factory/city issues addressed in Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. This age of Social Darwinism truly tested the U.S. motto of "E. Plurbus Unum" in the economic sense -- Americans were politically equal, but "America" could not be considered economically equal. The cities, as well, represented the tension and inequality that is America. They were microcosms of class conflict, struggle and the symbols of the consumer-oriented society the nation had become with the Gilded Age -- characterized by institutions like department stores, periodicals and even mass spectator sports. In this age the innocence of America was lost and the term "America" became relative.

The Gilded Age and the industrialization of America defined the American people. The tensions, according to Trachtenberg, were resolved with a victory of the elite classes -- their culture installed itself as "official doctrine" while they dominated business, politics and labor over the divided, bickering voices of the lower classes. America was not really unified but instead consisted of several sets of tensions which the elite class eventually dominated.