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The Shaping Of Modern America

In almost 40 years of writing, David Halberstam has explored almost all aspects of American culture — from the front lines in Vietnam to the Civil Rights struggle in the South.

No subject is out of bounds for Halberstam, including politics, history and athletics.

In his newest effort, "Defining a Nation: The Remarkable Circumstances That Shaped the American Character," Halberstam, along with 36 of his contemporaries — including Walter Cronkite, Louis Auchincloss, John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, Mary Gordon, Stan Katz, David Kennedy, Molly O'Neill, Arthur Schlessinger and Anna Quindlen — put it all together in a stunning book of essays.

The bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner visited The Early Show on Wednesday to talk about the book, which examines the physical and cultural evolution of the United States over the last 100 years.

Read an excerpt from "Defining a Nation":


Our America
by David Halberstam

Sometimes when I'm off to lecture here in New York and I'm in my finery, wearing a dark blazer and gray slacks and a very conservative tie, serious clothes for a serious man, I notice that the cab driver, usually newly arrived from the Indian subcontinent or the Middle East, will treat me with a certain respectful attitude, as though he is dealing with an older American, one whose family has been in this country for multiple generations.

I always find this puzzling because I still think of myself as a new American, and I have clear memories of my paternal grandparents, the mark of the old country still very much on them, as they made their own difficult adjustment to this country, at once lovingly and warily, hoping against hope that it was as different from the old country as they believed when they first set off for its shores.

That duality of vision—the sense of the cabbies or the Hispanic superintendents on my block that I must be some figure off the Mayflower, and my own private sense, that Ellis Island is barely yesterday—seems to me to be wonderfully American. To be sure, we are, in terms of the bearers of our name, virtually the Mayflower Halberstams.

My grandfather arrived in this country around 1890, to my knowledge the only Halberstam to come to the United States before the war; some fifty years later, after the war and the Holocaust, many other Halberstams, distantly related, came here and, like us, prospered accordingly. Both of my paternal grandparents came from around Brod, a part of Russia-Poland-Ukraine (depending on who was winning that year), outside Lvov. My father and his six siblings were, I believe, all born here.

Of my maternal grandparents less is known. They came from Vilno, in Lithuania, and thus in family disputes, my father's side were the Galitizianas, my mother's side, the Litvoks. My maternal grandfather made it as far as Jackson in west Tennessee, where other family members had already taken root. I do not think my grandfather fared very well, and at some point someone told him that part of the problem was his last name, Solinger, which was said to be too Jewish, and so he changed it in one great masterstroke—it's one of my favorite family stories—to Levy. It's a story that still helps make me modest when I deal with other, newer Americans.

My maternal grandfather, Abraham Levy, who was born in 1862, died very young, at forty-three, leaving his widow with six children, two of them infants, including my mother. When as a boy I listened to family stories from her side of the family line, my maternal grandmother seemed a distant figure, someone who never spoke or acted and in fact never even seemed to make an appearance; she always remained a figure in the shadows, as if her family's life had somehow gone on without her taking part.

I later decided she had been so traumatized by the early death of her husband, the death of two other children in infancy, and the obligation to raise six children in a new and very alien world that she was dealing with serious depression in an age when people did not recognize what depression was.

Our family sagas were otherwise, I suspect, not that unusual for immigrant families of that era: a good deal of failure and hardship at first, some successes, followed by more failures. I sensed from the family stories that my paternal grandfather loved America immediately, even as he struggled with it, and that my grandmother, like the wife of many an immigrant, often said less and remained more wary of the new country but adapted more skillfully.

Their store ("Harry Halberstam, Clothing, Boots, Shoes and Furnishings/Ladies' Cloaks, Suits and Furnishings") was hardly a smashing success; it opened and closed in Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania, and Springfield, Massachusetts, before finding some degree of permanence in Torrington, Connecticut. There were a good many family stories of my grandfather with his quick temper chasing customers out of the small store, and of Sarah Halberstam, my grandmother, deftly bringing them back in and completing the sale.

The more I hear of the immigrant experience, the more I am inclined to think that our story is fairly typical. In so many of these immigrant families in the very first generation, when the men hit something of a wall in adapting to a new culture with a new language and the most marginal—if any—jobs, it was the women who more often than not proved stronger and more flexible and held the family together, often under terrible hardships. They did this as discreetly as possible, careful to subtract nothing more in terms of pride from their men, who, no matter how great their courage when first starting on the adventure, could not deal with the sense of diminished self in a new country where it was turning out to be so hard to make a living, despite all the seeming new freedoms.

Of my grandfather's pride in being an American, and of his intentions for his family to be as American as possible, there can be no doubt. I recently came upon some of the letters he wrote to my father, then a sergeant with the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during World War I. He was thrilled that two of his sons had gone back to Europe to help settle the mess there; as they were now so American by dint of wearing his new nation's uniform in so patriotic a struggle, then so was he also that American. Perhaps my father would be on duty when President Wilson came to Paris for the Peace Talks.

"Don't get into any mischief in Paris," he admonished my father in one letter, and above all else, he added, "don't disgrace the Halberstams in Paris."

There was gradually in our family, on both sides, a growing confidence about our place in America. The younger children in general were more Americanized and their education was better. They were permitted greater freedom of action—their older siblings often arguing on their behalf with the parents against the more traditional rules of the home, rules set in the old country. The anxieties of the grandparents, their fears that were rooted in the old country as well as their nervousness about how secure they were in the new one and their uncertainty about what to expect and how to behave, were passed on in ever smaller increments. Of course, there was a quantum change with the arrival of the grandchildren—the pull on them was the pull of their young American peers in the schoolyard, not the pull of the old ways in Russia and Poland and Austria.

My father, being the family's first professional man (he had, in typical American fashion, come back from World War I and, encouraged by the doctors there, gone to college and then medical school to become a surgeon), was the sun king of his family, a strikingly handsome man. He had great natural charm, and his graduation from Tufts Medical School marked our family's first stop toward the better part of the American dream.

On my mother's side there was, after a time, a surprising amount of prosperity—her older brother Harry, after his father's death, had packed up the family, moved to Boston, opened up a commercial paint store, and soon prospered. In time he moved to a wonderful suburban home, bought Red Sox season tickets, and purchased a summer home in Falmouth on Cape Cod—all things virtually unknown in a family such as ours. Not surprisingly, neither he nor his older siblings got very much in the way of education after high school, but, because of his success, my mother went to Simmons College in Boston and got her master's degree in education at Boston University, and her younger brother Aaron, the baby of the family, went to Harvard and Harvard Medical School.

Our family has inevitably broadened out in the modern America. When I was a boy, all the members of my father's family lived within thirty or forty miles of my grandparents' house in Torrington, in the different industrial towns of northwestern Connecticut, except for us, because my father practiced medicine in New York. My mother's family all lived in the Boston area, except for Aaron, my uncle, who seemed to be more attached to my father's family than his own and lived in Winsted, just a few miles from Torrington. Now we've branched out a great deal; moved all over the country, principally into the Sunbelt; and met and married people that we never would have met back in a more geographically and socially limiting and limited era.

The maiden name of my wife, Jean Halberstam, is Sandness and her people are Norwegian and Swedish, living mostly in the upper Midwest. Some have been farmers and some have been ranchers; they are Lutheran, serious, hard-working, incredibly purposeful, utterly admirable people.

They tend to be much closer to the land than my side of the family; they can, unlike us, sing without being off key; and there is a far stronger sense of pacifism on Jean's side than on my side. Both her parents had died by the time we were married, but I did in time meet her people and liked them, especially her cousin Claire Sandness, her godfather and the son of her father's oldest brother.

I was thrilled to meet him, not only because he is a lovely and good man who now raises quarterhorses, but because he has a marvelous face, looking much like Eliot Richardson, the former attorney general of the United States. I feel like we've needed a jawline like that in our family for a long time.

My daughter has both those bloodlines running through her. She has started off life more privileged than her mother or I and has gone to better schools at an earlier age, in many cases schools that neither I nor most assuredly my parents could have attended. Sometimes I am inclined to ponder how American she is (as my parents and grandparents must have pondered how American my brother and I were, so different in our more privileged young lives, with even a touch of the suburbs in our lives when we were teenagers, and so much more affected by peer friendships that must have been inexplicable to them).

I sometimes think of how much my father, who died thirty years before she was born, would have loved this wonderfully funny, very modern, yet quite traditional young woman with her own powerful sense of obligation, her instinct to carry on without being asked, something of an unspoken tradition in our family—the idea that those to whom much is given must give back.

And I ponder as well where and when the Americanization of our family began: Was it when my father saw his first big-league baseball game and became an instant lifelong fan? Was it when he made the Johnsonburg High football team (at least I think it's the Johnsonburg team)? Was it when he volunteered for the AEF? Was it when my Uncle Harry moved the family from Tennessee to Boston and opened his store after his own father's death? But of course the real beginning was when they all first reached Ellis Island, the day they got off the boat.

They were American because they chose to be American and had made that perilous journey to get here. I remember what Pat Moynihan, the New York senator and student of American immigration, once said about people like them. He had dissented from the famed Emma Lazarus poem about the tired and the poor—he spoke instead of what extraordinary people the immigrants who came here were, perhaps not in the material sense, but in their strength, their courage, and their willingness to journey into the unknown with so little except for their own willpower and their faith in the future.

Over the years, like virtually every writer and social critic I know, I've had my own running arguments with my country, not surprising in my case for someone whose first reporting jobs were covering the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the South and then reporting on the beginning of the war in Vietnam. But I don't think I ever lost my love for America nor, perhaps even more important, something my parents taught me: my appreciation for its possibilities.

As I've grown older I've become more convinced than ever that for all our contentiousness, we are always engaged in a great marathon debate and search for a just, democratic society, one that respects individual rights but allows the country to remain strong. The forces at play in this struggle, both exterior and interior, change and shift all the time, and thus the debate changes all the time. But the debate continues. The tensions in it—sometimes it's very ugly—do not mean we are less democratic than we think or than we used to be; rather it means that the terms of the debate and perhaps sometimes the technology of it are always changing.

As I enter my seventh decade I am intrigued that America, for all its flaws, for all the things I dissent from, remains so powerful a beacon to so many of the less favored of the world who understand the most elemental part of our social contract: If you come here and work hard, your children have a chance to rise above you in just one generation.

The irony of that never escapes me—that at times when our own domestic disputes are sharper than ever, we remain more luminescent to the rest of the world than ever before. We offer, I think, an almost unique deal in the eyes of much of the rest of the world—come here and try it, remember that the first generation will have to sacrifice, but chances are that the next generation will have a far better chance of living a good life and enjoying far greater personal liberty than in the old country. Not everyone accepts the deal with equal enthusiasm.

A few years ago, I had a cab driver relatively recently arrived from Moscow. He had been a violinist in the old country and he played with various groups here, clearly in his estimation not to the level of his abilities, and therefore was also forced to drive a cab. He had, he said, been here all of two years. I asked him how he liked our country. "What's to like?" he answered. I asked if he had a family. Yes, two daughters. And how were they doing, I asked. Well, the older was at Yale on a full scholarship, and the younger had just been accepted at Harvard on a full scholarship. You're right, I thought to myself, what's to like.

We remain, for all our flaws, a place where for new Americans—as opposed to the descendants of slavery—the status and burdens of the past are more lightly imposed on the individual than anywhere else. Here more than anywhere else you are free to become the person of your dreams, to choose, with a bit of luck and hard work, your profession; you have the right to reinvent yourself and become the person you wanted to be rather than the person you feared you might become.

Sometimes when I'm at a New York dinner party, where the guests are amazingly diverse, very successful, and represent in the truest sense the new post-war meritocracy, I like to imagine, instead of the company assembled, the parents or even the grandparents of those present, and the babble of voices and arguments that would ensue.

The best story along this line, about the chance to find your own talent level so quickly in this country, was told to me about I. I. Rabi, the famed physicist. Rabi was born in the old country, in Austria, and he had come here as an infant; his father had first worked on the Lower East Side in New York, making women's blouses in a sweatshop. But the son was a brilliant student who went on to college, became in time an integral member of the Manhattan Project, and in 1944, won the Nobel Prize. On the occasion of that award a journalist duly came out to interview him. What did Rabi think of this great honor? the journalist asked. "What do I think?" Rabi repeated rhetorically. "I think that in the old country I would have been a tailor."

Over the years, I have been increasingly impressed that we have been able as a nation to attain such high levels of personal freedom while remaining so strong as a nation; gradually I've come to believe that the two are directly connected, that the freer we are—the closer we come to using the talents of all our citizens—the stronger we are, not merely in the arts and in communications, where we monitor the quality of individual freedom so closely, but in business and in science as well.

I believe that the business and industrial explosion of the latter part of the twentieth century was fueled by some of the same forces that drove the new independence and individualism of the counterculture spirit of the 1960s; and that any number of talented people, both from the business and scientific side, who in another age might have joined up with larger, more traditional, secure companies opted for more entrepreneurial incarnations offered in an increasingly iconoclastic America with high-tech start-up companies. There is, of course, no empirical evidence of this, but it's my strong hunch, nonetheless.

From the book, "Defining a Nation: The Remarkable Circumstances That Shaped the American Character"; Copyright (c) 2003. Reprinted by arrangement with Wiley Books. All rights reserved.

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