Review – Bramen, “American Niceness”

Carrie Tirado Bramen, “American Niceness: A Cultural History” (2017) – Americans… mean, mean, mean, or… nice?! Well, opinions have differed! And in keeping the modalities of the “new” (well, “new” as in “closer to Foucault than Burckhardt,” not “new” as in… Olivia Rodrigo? She’s a new singer people like, right??) cultural history, historian Carrie Bramen does not come down on one side of the “are Americans nice?” question. That’s not the point. The point of this book is to interrogate how Americans have deployed the concept of “nice” over the course of the nineteenth century, the era in which that overused word took on something like it’s contemporary meaning.

It would also be easy enough to write a history of how niceness, the most banal of positive descriptors, had been used to paper over social conflicts. Arguably, that was a major thrust of bourgeois thought and activity, in the nineteenth century and continuing on to today- the idea that the problem isn’t who has power, but who is nice to whom (see arguments over “civility” in the last few years). There’s a material element to that, too; niceness culture grew more powerful as standards of living rose. “Nice” as in manners is one thing, “nice” as in “nice kitchens, bathrooms, indoor heating arrangements” actually does change lives. You can see why people could kind of drift into thinking that a system that produced all that had to be ok, if people would only behave in accordance with our newly-nice surroundings.

Well, now I’m reporting my own ideas and not Bramen’s. Bramen’s work on niceness is a little more abstract. She has chapters themed around a few contested ideas of niceness. Native Americans- cruel, or nice (see the concept of “Indian giving”)? The smile of the slave- proof of docility, and if so, what does docility mean? Or was it all a ruse to hide their potential for violence? Different people argued different things, mobilizing the tropes of niceness for their own ends. Some cultural historians really can’t get over the way tropes can mean different things to different people. Admittedly, so much cultural analysis is so thoroughly one-dimensional — this trope means this and only this — that you can see why they’d want to nail the point home.

Probably the most interesting throughline has to do with gender and the valuations given to different kinds of rhetoric. Niceness was and is a thoroughly feminized concept. Much of what we’re looking at in this book takes place before the great big gender freakout of the late nineteenth century, when men throughout the white world decided they’d been emasculated and needed to embrace the macho and eschew the ladylike. What we’re looking at is high nineteenth century “separate spheres” ideology. It wasn’t exactly “woke” but it wasn’t as deeply misogynistic as what came after. The sphere of women was, in many respects, understood as key to “civilization,” the source of both progress and power (whereas after the freakout, femininity came to be understood as corrosive to civilization). What you see in a lot of “American Niceness” is the application of niceness as a feminine, civilizing virtue to various groups and concepts, usually by women (Harriet Beecher Stowe is the closest to a main character in this book) but not always. Probably the most interesting chapter to me was the “nice Jesus,” and all the dimensions of that.

Bramen eventually gets into post-freakout territory with the effort to make America’s empire in the Philippines seem “nice,” which it did mainly through two classic American means: sending schoolteachers (a feminized profession) to fan out across the archipelago to teach American-style niceness, and the emphasis a lot of (generally male) American propagandists played on the ingenuousness and self-effacement of American imperialism as compared to the British or German models. Bramen talks some about the relationship between niceness and violence in America, the way that the former apologizes for and covers up the latter, but I think the conclusions she draws here are generally more tentative and not as strongly followed-up-on as other ideas she has. All in all, a decent showing and showcase for both the strengths and weaknesses of the contemporary cultural history model. ****

Review – Bramen, “American Niceness”

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