Assistant Professor of History Wendy Wall was recently honored with the Ellis W. Hawley prize for “the best book-length historical study of the political economy, politics, or institutions of the United States, in its domestic or international affairs, from the Civil War to the present.” Wall’s book, entitled Inventing the ‘American Way’: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement, explores the efforts of diverse groups to shape a national consensus between the mid-1930s and the early 1960s.
Inventing the ‘American Way’ calls into question the notion that Americans just naturally developed a common set of values in the early years of the Cold War,” Wall said. “Business groups, liberal intellectuals, interfaith activists and many others were united by an intense longing to define a common American Way, but they were all motivated by different agendas. The book highlights the hidden culture wars of the mid-20th century.”
In her book, Wall strives to answer the question: “If Americans remained divided on many issues in the postwar years, why did a tone of unity and accord so pervade the literature and politics of the era?”
Wall asserts that the fragile postwar consensus has its origins in the decade preceding World War II, when the Great Depression created a feeling of frenzied chaos. In the midst of such turbulence, “Americans across the political spectrum” promoted the concept of a distinctive American Way both to try to paper over deep divisions in U.S. society and to shape the nation’s political culture. After the fall of France in 1940, many liberals believed that the greatest threat to democracies lay within, in the centrifugal forces that, if left untamed, might pull a democracy apart.
“Americans were worried that without a common credo, we wouldn’t be able to fight and withstand ideologies looming abroad,” Wall said in a Tuesday lecture at the Colgate Bookstore.
In spite of Americans’ universal recognition of the need for national morale, Wall argues that different groups actually endorsed dissimilar values and ideologies in their pursuit of a consensus.
Wall noted the scope of the book, saying, “It focuses primarily on struggles over two broad issues: the shape and place of capitalism in U.S. life, and the place of ethnic, religious, and racial ‘outsiders’ in a nation that had long been defined by elites as white and Protestant. The role of the U.S. on the world stage overlapped with the other two axes of debate.”
One aspect of the book that Wall finds particularly interesting is the way in which it uncovers the origins of several terms that remain central to U.S. politics today. According Wall, many people assume that phrases like “free enterprise” and the “American Way” came out of nowhere, but they were actually popularized in the late 1930s. Wall made clear in her lecture that business groups adopted the term “free enterprise” to replace “private enterprise.” They sought to convince Americans that “free enterprise” was one of the “tripod of freedoms” to which every American was entitled – the other two being freedom of politics and freedom of religion.
When asked how long it took to complete such an intensive investigation of American history, Wall emphatically answered, “Don’t ask! Let’s just say I began working on this study when most current Colgate students were in elementary school! It’s a huge relief to know that it’s done.”
The study began as Wall’s doctoral dissertation. She explained that her interest in issue of national identity eventually led her to the particular approach of American history explored in Inventing the ‘American Way.’
Wall was rewarded for her effort when the Organization of American Historians selected her book as one of the winners of the Ellis W. Hawley prize. Oxford University Press, which published Wall’s book, first nominated her book for the award. A committee of professional historians then selected the winners. This year’s other winner is University of Maryland Associate Professor David Freund, who wrote a book entitled Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America.
In a press release from the OAH, the prize committee said of Inventing the ‘American Way,’ “Wall has been meticulous in her gathering of primary sources and creative in her interpretation of their meaning … This beautifully written volume offers a sophisticated analysis of the reciprocal relationship of political economy and popular culture to probe the parameters of diversity and consensus.”
“I’m pleased, honored, surprised. I’m proud of the book, but I never thought I would win a prize like this,” Wall said in response to the honor. “I’m delighted.”
Professor Wall arrived at Colgate in the fall of 2000, and has since taught a variety courses in the history department, as well as the Challenge of Modernity. This, however, will be her last semester at Colgate. In the fall she plans to move to Kingston, Ontario, where she has taken a position as an assistant professor of history at Queen’s University.