USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Individualism in the United States

The next piece of the developing American identity in the era of WWI and its aftermath is individualism. This is a key notion, as it also helps to understand the ways U.S. society developed in the coming decades. Individualism was both a myth and a reality. It was real insofar as American life was less bound together than life in European states; there was, at this time, was much more flexibility within the U.S. social system. And yet, U.S. society confronted the individual with much the same set of challenges that individuals faced elsewhere, whether they were economic or cultural.

Individualism was present as a mythical force in American life in countless forms. New media sources took up this myth with ardor. Dime novels emphasized the rugged individualism of the Wild West. Magazines championed the icons of American business, like Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford. Leisure activities, especially the rise of spectator sports like baseball or boxing, created individual legends for people to identify with. And perhaps most importantly of all, the new and quickly growing movie industry embraced the notion of the heroic individual who could overcome all circumstances, however severe, and persevere until final triumph. These these iconic roles were personified by the burgeoning celebrity of Hollywood film stars. Such Hollywood narratives and cults of personality became a deep part of the American consciousness. To see the opposite of such an attitude, we only need to look at Eisenstein’s October, a film that for all intents and purposes denigrates the individual and heaps praise on the masses. In early Soviet cinema, the mass was the hero. In Hollywood, the masses were dangerous or suspect; individuals were the heroes. These notions were reinforced by societal developments, like the mass production of the automobile, the growth of both cities and the beginnings of suburbs, and the massive expansion of advertising, which sought to create individual identity through consumption. Ironically, the very activities that promoted individualism also supported mass conformity, a trend that would become much more pronounced in the 1950s, lasting until today.

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