Bernard Bowron, Leo Marx, & Arnold Rose, "Literature and Covert Culture, American
Quarterly, 9, no. 4, 1957.

Literature and Covert Culture

BY COVERT CULTURE we refer to traits of culture rarely acknowledged by those who possess them. In any society men tend to ignore or repress certain commonly learned attitudes and behavior patterns, much as an individual may ignore or repress certain personal experiences or motives. In the case of covert culture, the repressed traits are more or less common to members of a society, and they probably are transmitted in the same informal ways that the basic elements of the overt culture are transmitted. The covert traits are not more "true" or "real" than the overt traits; they are equally representative of people's attitudes and behaviors. The distinction lies in the degree of acknowledgment (to self and to others) and the degree of repression. If one were to suggest to a representative member of a society that his behavior, or that of his community, exhibits a particular characteristic of covert culture, he might be expected to scoff at the idea, and even reject it heatedly. Public responses to the Kinsey Report are a case in point. Similarly, Americans might deny the evidence of their disguised hostility toward machine technology which we present in this essay.

How then is covert culture recognized? We may assume we are in the presence of covert culture when we note a recurrent pattern of inconsistent or seemingly illogical behavior.l When most people in a given society or sub-society adhere to inconsistencies in their actions, when they resist with emotion any attempts to reconcile their actions with their expressed beliefs, and when they persist in this behavior over an extended period of time, then presumably we are dealing with covert culture. For obvious reasons, however, it is difficult to study covert culture. And in a heterogeneous society like our own, where variations in behavior are relatively common, it is unlikely that much of our culture long remains covert. On the other hand, the little that does may be of the greatest importance in certain emotionally charged areas of behavior, such as racial or sexual relations or religion

At this point it might be well to indicate what covert culture is not. In the first place, it is not a whole, complete culture that exists beneath the surface of the overt culture and "really" directs people's attitudes and behavior. It consists, rather, of parts of culture that happen to be seriously inconsistent with other parts of culture and so get driven underground.

Second, behavior in conformity with covert culture is not the same as alienation from culture (or "anomie," to use Durkheim's term). Covert elements of culture are just as much part of culture as overt elements. While behavior in conformity with an element of covert culture is inconsistent with respect to an element of overt culture, such inconsistency might also result from conformity with two incompatible elements of overt culture, although this disharmony would not be so extreme. Logical incompatibility between two elements of culture is likely to manifest itself frequently in a society based on heterogeneous traditions or in a society that is changing rapidly.

Third, covert culture is not a sub-culture. We are all familiar with the different roles that one plays in the various groups to which he belongs: contrast the behavior of the adolescent in his family and in his peer group. But, while members of each group are shocked or scornfully amused by behavior in the other group, they recognize each other's existence and in a sense regard the discrepancies as natural and even desirable. The adolescent himself is aware of the disparity in his roles, whether or not it creates a conflict for him. Even the sub-culture of a minority group (such as, for example, the Mennonites or Jews) is in no way to be equated with covert culture. This is a different culture from the dominant one, practiced by a small section of the society, and while it may be deliberately hidden from the majority, its deviations from the dominant culture are quite well known and apparent to those living in both the minority group and the larger society. Sociologists call those living in two societies "marginal men"; they are understood to be fairly rare in any society. Covert culture traits, on the contrary, are exhibited by the large majority of persons in a society if not by all of them.

But it may be asked how covert culture is learned, if it is unacknowledged and secret. The question, however, implies that the transmission of covert culture is deliberate and rational. Actually, only a small part of the education of the young in the overt culture of a society is deliberate. While the child learns through language or other symbols such as gestures, most of the process is very subtle. As Hickman and Kuhn point out: Few, if any, fathers or mothers take their children aside and say, in effect,

"I will now tell you what I know," "I will now tell you what you ought to know and believe," or "I will now tell you about our society and our culture." Any conversations of this general nature could have relatively little over-all influence on the child's attitudes. "Attitudes are caught, not taught."2

This is true for both overt and covert culture. The difference lies not in manner of learning, but in the degree of the adult's awareness of the cues he is emitting, or in the degree of his willingness to acknowledge the cues when they are called to his attention. One characteristic of this learning process is that the child picks up the cues of the covert culture, but at first does not know that they are "secret." He proudly displays the just learned trait openly in behavior or speech, and then the parent is shocked. This negative reaction coming once or several times now teaches the child that he must "forget" and "deny" this part of what he has recently learned from the parent. It should be pointed out, however, that the difference between covert and overt culture is a relative matter; some aspects of covert culture are talked over by intimate friends, as it were "over the back fence." Adults "teach" other adults some aspects of covert culture just as they teach children other aspects.

Those who are probably in the best position to study a society's covert traits are observers who come to it with the perspective of an alien culture. Hence anthropologists and perceptive foreign travelers have until now provided much of the evidence of covert culture. The anthropologists have most frequently analyzed the concept itself.3 This would suggest that the concept is most useful when direct impressions of a living culture are available. The study of covert culture does not at first thought seem possible through the analysis of written documents; hence the concept seems irrelevant to the study of past societies about which we have few other sources of evidences It is our purpose here to suggest a means of uncovering elements of covert culture through the analysis of written, and particularly literary, evidences.

Now, to be sure, there is nothing new about the idea of studying literature as a source of information about culture. Historians have been doing it for a long time. When allowances are made for shifts in style and taste, the manifest content of literature may be assumed to reflect important characteristics of culture. But what about covert culture? Since we assume, to begin with, that most members of a society do not care to be reminded that they exhibit traits of covert culture, it follows that the writer who seeks a sizeable audience will not knowingly portray them. On the other hand, popular literature may be studied for what it betrays as well as what it depicts. In other words, it may be approached as a projection of covert culture. Such an approach to the arts is well established in several areas. Psychologists have for some time been using graphic and lingual expression to get at the unconscious associations of individuals. Of these projective tests, the Rorschach, TAT and Word Association test are perhaps the best known. Similarly, literature widely accepted by the public, or a significant segment of the public, may provide an avenue to the unstated ideas of a society. Of course the Freudians and Jungians have studied literature, but not precisely in the way we are suggesting. They have sought recurring popular themes in the`classics as projections of what they consider to bc universal instincts or complexes. They are concerned with the traits common to virtually all men. What we are concerned with, on the other hand, is a technique for dealing with certain distinctive characteristics of a particular culture located in time and place.

The projective component of written documents is chiefly to be found in imagery and metaphor, using metaphor in the broadest sense to include all the more common figurative modes of expression. When a writer uses such analogizing devices, in which the analogy is either explicit or implicit, he is in effect revealing a pattern of association which can only be partly conscious. That is to say, no matter how many reasons he may acknowledge for selecting a particular figure' of speech, the fact remains that he selects it

from a virtually infinite range of possibilities. Therefore no degree of deliberate calculation can fully explain his choice. For example, why does an author choose a machine to express menace; why not a storm or an earthquake? We are of course not concerned here with idiosyncratic quirks of personality. Our interest is limited to images and metaphors which recur frequently in the written expression of a particular society. We do not have in mind the mere clich‚ or faddish expression, but rather the metaphor repeatedly used in varying language to describe similar phenomena.5 We shall provide an example below.

First, however, a word must be said about our apparent tendency to favor more stereotyped modes of expression. It is true that the more unreflective the creative process, the more useful the work may be as a projection of the psyche, so to speak, of the entire society. But this is not to say that we underestimate the value of less hackneyed literary modes. We conceive of written documents as distributed along a spectrum from the most stereotyped or conventional at one end to the most original and perceptive at the other. The great writer is a sensitive observer, and needless to say, he does not merely project his culture. On the contrary, often he consciously reveals covert elements that less perceptive artists ignore; moreover, he sometimes reveals them precisely by turning stereotypes inside-out. Hence this distinction between overt and covert culture should not seem completely unfamiliar to students of literature. Indeed, it is in some respects akin to a recurrent literary motif, the paradoxical relation between "appearance and reality." Not that there is an exact equivalence between the two sets of terms. When a writer indicates the presence of a "reality" hidden beneath "appearances" he usually intends more than we do by covert culture. Nevertheless he often includes an awareness of covert traits. For example, Shakespeare has Lear become aware of covert traits of culture; Cervantes, on the other hand, deliberately makes Don Quixote oblivious of them. In King Lear the discrepancy generates a tragic view of life; in Don Quixote it is the essence of comedy. In both works, however, the reader's illumination comes at least in part from the author's revelation of the disparity between what we have called overt and covert culture. That disparity is, however, but one aspect of the paradox of appearance and reality.

For an illustration of the use of written documents to reveal covert patterns, consider American culture during the onset of industrialism before the Civil War. Here, as most historians testify, was a society whole-heartedly committed to the idea of progress. This was an era of unprecedented expansion, social mobility and optimism. In the newspapers, magazines and orations of the time we find countless celebrations of the new technology as emblematic of man's increasing dominion over nature. Take, as an example, a minister's address to the New York Mechanic's Institute in 1841 In expounding his theme ( "Improvement of the Mechanic Arts" ), the Reverend Mr. Williamson employed many commonplaces of the hour. The mechanic arts, he said, . . . change the face of nature itself, and cause the desolate and solitary place to be glad and blossom as the rose the mountains are levelled the crooked is made strait [sic] and the rough places plain the ascending vapor is arrested in its upward course and converted into a power that well nigh enables us to laugh at distance and space the broad Atlantic has become, as it were, a narrow lake.... And still the course is onward, and we even threaten to seize upon the forked lightning, and pluck from the faithful magnet a power, that shall render useless the canvass [sic] of the mariner and achieve a yet mightier triumph over the obstacles that space has interposed to the intercourse of man with his fellow-man . . . much of human happiness depends upon the cultivation of these arts . . . without them, man is but a helpless child, exposed to ten thousand dangers and difficulties, that he cannot control; but with them, he is strong, and can rule in majesty over that mighty empire which God has given him.6

To say that this rhetoric embodies certain dominant values of the culture is not to deny that there also were outspoken critics of technological innovation. There were. But they constituted a relatively small minority. Some spoke for the slavery interest or the emergent labor movement, others for various religious sects or utopian reform groups. By and large, however, Americans at this time enthusiastically endorsed the new machine power, and even more enthusiastically applied it. Many of the respected leaders of society, men like Daniel Webster and Edward Everett, paid homage to technology in language indistinguishable from Mr. Williamson's. On the basis of the written evidence, therefore, one might conclude that American culture, leaving aside a few groups of partially alienated people, exhibited only approval of industrialization.

But that is not quite the whole story. To be sure, it describes the dominant overt response to mechanization^, but it fails to account for a certain contrary undertone that any close student of the period recognizes. To be more specific, in examining a large sample of reactions to technological change in this period, we discover some which defy simple classification. Here, for example, is an article by James H. Lanman on "Railroads in the United States," which appeared in Hunt's Merchants' Magazine in 1840.7 In accordance with the spirit of this journal of commerce, the writer presents an affirmative survey of the advance of steam power in America. He regards "productive enterprise" as the distinguishing feature of American culture, and he praises the new machines as "the triumphs of our own age, the laurels of mechanical philosophy, of untrammelled mind, and a liberal commerce!" He finds railroads particularly inspiring; so far as he is concerned "it is clear that all patriotic and right-minded men have concurred in the propriety of their construction." If we confine attention to Mr. Lanman's manifest opinions, we have no reason to distinguish him from such ebullient devotees of progress as the Rev. Mr. Williamson.

Nevertheless a more searching examination of this article uncovers a curious anomaly. In spite of the writer's evident effort to enlist support for the new power, he repeatedly invokes images which convey less than full confidence in the benign influence of machines. Steamships and railroads are "iron monsters," "dragons of mightier power, with iron muscles that never tire, breathing smoke and flame through their blackened lungs, feeding upon wood and water, outrunning the race horse...." Elsewhere Mr. Lanman is eager to allay fear of railroad accidents. Therefore he carefully evaluates statistics on deaths and injuries. He finds the results clearly favorable to railroads as compared with travel on "common roads." At the same time, however, he describes a train "leaping forward like some black monster, upon its iron path, by the light of the fire and smoke which it vomits forth."

In contrast to the manifest theme of the piece, these images associate machines with the destructive and the repulsive. They communicate an unmistakable sense of anxiety and menace. Without more evidence, of course, we cannot prove that the writer actually was uneasy about the new power. By themselves these images prove nothing. But the fact is that we can produce many other examples of the same kind. Moreover, and this seems to us a most telling point, when we turn to these alienated writers who consciously try to arouse fear of machines, we find them deliberately choosing the same images. Robert Owen, for example, describes the new technology as a power "which neither eats nor drinks, and faints not by over-exertion, brought into direct competition with flesh and blood." "Who is there," he asks, "to check this mighty monster that is now allowed to stalk the earth . . .?"8 It was in this period that a kind of machine created in a writer's imagination entered the language as the prototype of terror and the demoniacal Frankenstein's monster. A final example of the simultaneous attraction and fearfulness of the locomotive, with distinct Oedipal overtones, is provided by this doggerel: Big iron horse with lifted head, Panting beneath the station shed, You are my dearest dream come true; I love my Dad; I worship you!
Your noble heart is filled with fire, For all your toil you never tire, And though you're saddled-up in steel, Somewhere, inside, I know you feel. All night in dreams when you pass by, You breathe out stars that fill the sky, And now, when all my dreams are true, I hardly dare come close to you.9

To sum up, we conclude that expressions of the overt culture do not provide an adequate conception of the American response to industrialization. From them we get the familiar picture of a confident, optimistic public and a few small dissident groups. But the concept of covert culture makes possible a somewhat different hypothesis. When we analyze the imagery employed even by those who professed approval of technological change, we discover evidence of widespread if largely unacknowledged doubt, fear and hostility. It is not necessary to our present purpose to account in detail for this phenomenon. Suffice it to suggest that American culture at this time also embraced a set of values and meanings inherently antithetic to the new technological power. This was a time, as everyone knows, when Americans tended to celebrate the "natural" as against the "artificial." At all levels of culture, from the relatively abstruse speculations of Emerson to the popular gift books, from Cooper's novels to the paintings of the Hudson River School, Americans affirmed values and meanings said to reside in nature. Natural process, that is, was conceived as containing the key, barely concealed, to all human problems. Needless to say, this belief was not peculiar to America. But as a consequence of the unique American geography and the actual presence of the wilderness it did seem particularly appropriate.

' It is possible that people betrayed their fear of the machine in casual conversation But this source of information usually is not available to sociologists, much less to historians. If the sociologist asks people directly about their attitudes toward machines he is likely to get "rational" answers about how much labor they save, how they provide products and services previously not available, and so on...

... As Perry Miller has pointed out, what the European romantic dreamed the American actually experienced. 1 Now the progress of technology hardly was reconcilable, at least in the long run, with the sanctity of the natural order. For the use of power machines implied that nature was a neutral if not hostile force that men needed to dominate. This view was in obvious contradiction with the idea that man's felicity depended upon the ordering of life in passive accommodation to spontaneous operations of nature.

We are suggesting, though here we can hardly demonstrate, that this unacknowledged conflict of values may have been an important source of the anxiety revealed by the imagery to which we have called attention. l2 This is not to identify approval of technological progress with overt culture, and hostility with covert. What is covert here results from the impulse to adhere (simultaneously) to logically incompatible values. In other words, it is the awareness of the contradiction that is repressed and that gives rise to the covert traits (in this case unacknowledged fear and hostility) revealed in imagery. Thus it is worth noting that Lanman, the writer who praised locomotives even as he called them monsters, also praised the "steam screw" which, he said, "should tear up by the roots the present monarchs of the forest, and open the ample bosom of the soil to the genial beams of the fertilizing sun." Recall that the writer speaks for a culture passionately devoted to nature to Bryant's lyric view that "the groves were God's first temples." Is it surprising that he felt impelled to compare machines to terrible monsters? In any event, the disparity between the feelings latent in his images and the manifest optimism of his theme is highly suggestive. It gives some clue to the correspondence between this writer's strangely mixed feelings and the recurrent, if largely unexpressed, pattern of inconsistency in the culture of nineteenth-century America.

This interpretation, finally, is borne out by the work of the more sensitive and perceptive writers of the age. When we turn, for example, to Cooper, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Melville we find a reiterated expression of precisely those contradictory meanings the typical magazine writers did not acknowledge. What is more, the great writers in many cases employed the same or similar imagery to get at these conflicts. But with an important difference. When Lanman called a machine a monster he was scarcely aware of what he was doing. When Thoreau or Hawthorne did the same thing, he was often deliberately complicating the significance of Americas favorite symbol of progress. He gave the railroad an ambiguous meaning, not out of any inherent passion for ambiguity, but rather because he worked to convey as much of the meaning of experience as possible.13 In other words, he grasped the contradiction that Lanman, like many other Americans, refused to recognize. It is no accident, therefore, that serious men of letters in this period so often employ machines in symbolic opposition to various emblems of nature. They thus confirm the presence of those covert traits of culture which unreflective writers merely betray.

Repressed traits and attitudes of former periods need not be a closed book. Dead men answer no poll-takers, but they have left an extensive written record of their underground cultures. This record may be deciphered One indispensable key is the analysis of systems of imagery and metaphor in diverse popular writings and in works of formal literary art. The sociologist need not regard this method of study as an exclusive possession of the literary scholars who originally developed it. Used with care and discrimination, it is equally available to him.

Such collaboration between literary and sociological scholarship is, fortunately, a two-way street. At least it should be. For the concept of covert culture, in turn, offers a rewarding approach to literary studies. This point cannot be developed here. But it is surely implicit in what has been said about formal literature's significant confirmation of the existence of culture traits that are only revealed inadvertently in popular modes of expression. Critics concerned with the devious ways in which a society nurtures its men of letters cannot afford to neglect the existence of covert culture and the writer's responses to it. Here is a major source of those tensions that give a work of literary art its structure, its irony, and its stylistic signature.

we agree with Henry G Fairbandk's ctrwinhaoi‡re and romantic opponent of science and technology. But, like the writers he criticizes, Mr. Fairbanks tends to misconstrue Hawthorne's aim in mentioning machines at all. Hawthorne was not concerned to convey his opinions about the new center of human Experience. In doing so as we have tried to indicate, he revealed contradictions characteristic of American culture generally.

  1. This technique for observing covert culture has been presented in Arnold M Rose, Theory and Method in the Social Sciences (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1954), chap. xxi, "Popular Logic in the Study of Covert Culture." Some elements of covert culture in the United States are suggested in this chapter.
  2. Addison Hickman and Manford H. Kuhn. Individuals, Groups, and Economic Behavior (New York: Dryden Press, 1946), p. 30.
  3. The anthropologists have concerned themselves more with the tendency of culture to form patterns or systems covertly rather than with the relationship of covert culture to behavior. See, for example: Edward Sapir, "The Unconscious Patterning of Behavior in Society,'~ in E. S. Dummer (ed.), The Unconscious: A Symposium (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928), Clyde Kluckhohn, "Patterning as Exemplified in Navaho Culture," in L. Spier, A. I. Hallowell, and S. S. Newman (eds.), Language, Culture and Personality: Essays in Memory of Edward Sapir (Menasha Win.: Sapir Memorial Publication Fund, 1941), pp. 109-28, Laura Thompson, "Attitudes and Acculturation," American Anthropologist, L (1948), 200-15. A few sociologists also have worked with the concept of covert culture: F. Stuart Chapin, "Latent Culture Patterns of the Unseen World of Social Reality," American Journal of Sociology, XL (July, 1934), 61-68; Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, III.: The Free Press. 1949), pp. 21-81.
  4. Although the Freudians have characteristically been most concerned with universal rather than particular cultural traits, Freud himself did suggest the possibility of inquiries along the line of this essay. "The analogy between the process of cultural evolution and the path of individual development may be carried further in an important respect. It can be maintained that the community, too, develops a super-ego. under whose influence cultural evolution proceeds. It would be an enticing task for an authority on human systems of culture to work out this analogy in specific cases." Civilization and Its Discontents, trans. Joan Riviere (3rd ed.; London: Hogarth Press, 1946), p. 136.
  5. while popular clich‚s have some interest to the social scientist, they are to be thought of as habits of speech (e.g., "pretty as a picture") rather than as unconsciously selected projections of covert culture, so that mere recurrence of metaphor is not a sufficient criterion. What is to be sought is a metaphor or image that is expressed recurrently in varying language and used to describe the same set of phenomena.
  6. Rev. Bro. I. D Williamson, The C0vennant and Official Magazine of the Grand Lodge of the United States, I (June, 1842), 275-81. The original lecture was delivered on November 18, 1841. A survey of responses to industrialization was made possible by a grant from the Graduate School, University of Minnesota, and by the research assistance of Dr. Donald Houghton.
  7. 'III (October, 1840), 273-95.
  8. 8 New Harmony Gazette, II (August 8, 1927 ), 347. Owen's words are from an Address Delivered to the Franklin Institute on June 27, 1827.
  9. 9 Benjamin R. Low, "The Little Boy to the Locomotive," in David L. Cohn The Good Old Days (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940), p. 188.
  10. ""The Romantic Dilemma in American Nationalism and the Concept of Nature," Harvard Theological Review, XLVIII (October, 1955), 239-53. "It is interesting that as early as 1881, Dr. George Miller Beard, an American physician, related the anxiety of Americans to the new technology. His pioneering work, American Nervousness, Its Causes and Consequences (New York, 1881), was taken seriously by Freud. See Philip P. Wiener, "G. M. Beard and Freud on 'American Nervousness.' " Journal of History of Ideas (April. 1956). 269-74.
  11. See Hawthorne and the Machine Age," American Literature, XXVIII (May, 1956), 155-64. For a somewhat different method of interpreting the response of American writers to the onset of industrialism see, e.g, Leo Marx "The Machine and the Passenger Landscape Conventions and the Style of Huckleberry Finn "