What explains the unmatched global influence of American culture?by Josef Joffe / September 18, 2014 / Leave a comment
How the World Was Won: The Americanisation of Everywhere by Peter Conrad (Thames & Hudson, £19.95)
In centuries past, the cultural reach of the mighty ended exactly at their military borders. The Roman, Habsburg and Ottoman empires did not radiate beyond their conquests, nor did the Soviet colossus. Yet American culture needs no gun to travel. In terms of historical influence, only France comes to mind as a distant second. In the 17th and 18th centuries, its language, architecture and manners extended way beyond its possessions, though unlike America’s, French culture never seeped down to the masses.
“In the beginning,” John Locke mused in his Second Treatise, “all the World was America.” He meant that America belonged to nobody and thus to all. Today, all the world is America in the sense that it listens, talks, watches, dresses, dances and eats American. We read books courtesy of Amazon and Kindle. We communicate via Twitter and Instagram. We ape the latest American business-school fads and have assimilated the informal manners and youth culture of the Yanks. French postmodernism became the dogma du jour only after an invigorating detour through the humanities departments of the United States. Ambitious parents dream of Harvard and Stanford for their offspring. Even the lowly bagel, originally parboiled and baked in 15th-century Poland, has swept Europe as an echt American import.
In his grand history of American cultural influence since 1945, the Australian author and scholar Peter Conrad recounts “How the World Was Won.” It is a magisterial story, never before told in such an intelligent and, essentially, sympathetic manner. The book covers “all the bases,” as they say in the US (baseball being one of the few American things that has not conquered the world). Conrad ranges over literature, film, theatre and music. He draws on culture high and low—on William James, Porgy and Bess, Marvel Comics, Coke, Google and Jasper Johns, the painter who turned the Stars and Stripes into a global icon by “demilitarising” it. (As a universal emblem, the…