Jacket Image

Enlarge Image

234 × 156 × 32 mm
352 pages
48 illustrations
13 Aug 2018

Inventing American Tradition From the Mayflower to Cinco de Mayo Jack David Eller

What really happened on the first Thanksgiving? How did a British drinking song become the national anthem of the United States? And what makes Superman so darned American? Every tradition, even the noblest and most cherished, has a history, nowhere more so than in the USA, which was born with a relative indifference, if not hostility, to the past. Most Americans would be surprised to learn just how recent – and controversial – the origins of their traditions are, as well as how those origins are often related to the trauma of the Civil War and to fears for American identity stemming from immigration and socialism.

Inventing American Tradition
explores a wide range of beloved traditions, including political symbols, holidays, lifestyles and fictional characters, and looks at the people who conceived of and adapted them into the forms familiar to Americans – and the innumerable people around the world influenced by American culture – today.

What emerges is the realization that all traditions are invented by particular people at particular times for particular reasons, and that the process of ‘traditioning’ is forever ongoing.

‘In his highly entertaining Inventing American Tradition, the anthropologist Jack David Eller illuminates with gentle wit and scepticism the many myths, legends and traditions that have grown up in the United States . . . Reading about American traditions while witnessing the contortions of the Trump presidency lends peculiar poignancy to this book . . . What makes Eller’s book so timely is captured in his observation that “tradition is and always has been more about the present and the future than the past”’ — Literary Review

‘The concept of traditions being invented seems counterintuitive, writes Eller, but since the United States has no ancient past and was “self-consciously created,” what we now consider uniquely American traditions had to be constructed or cobbled together from a variety of sources . . . The stories behind these traditions help provide texture to the fabric of everyday American life . . . With such wide-ranging subjects, Inventing American Tradition should appeal to those interested in dipping into a digestible history of Americana.’ — Booklist

‘American traditions like our flag, anthem, and holidays are often thought of as ingrained in our history, as if they sprung fully formed on the day of our nation’s birth. But every tradition has a human story behind it, often involving conflict and disagreement and spurred on by an unlikely creator.’ — New York Post

‘This is a wonderful book because it is not only about America, but also about ourselves: we all love Superman, swig Coke and say “OK.” Many traditions have become successful exports and have conquered the planet. (Though some remain stubbornly domestic.) The triumph of American culture, though lamented by some, is an indication that these traditions must have got something right. It is not simply that we all love traditions, and that human beings are traditional creatures – the whole world is, to some extent, American now. This delightful and thoughtful book convinces the reader that this is not altogether a bad thing.’ — Catholic Herald

‘Just be warned: If, at Thanksgiving dinner, Uncle Leo shouts facts about the origin of the humble hamburger or Pledge of Allegiance, you’ll know he got to the book first.’ — Washington Independent Review of Books

‘Although Eller’s book focuses on American traditions like the origins of the national anthem, the eponymous hamburger and Micky Mouse it will make you consider how our own traditions have evolved.’ — Comfortably Hungry blog

‘Investigates the often-surprising origins of American political symbols (the national anthem), iconic clothing (blue jeans), and holiday celebrations (Thanksgiving), with an eye to those who created them and their reasons for doing so.’ — Publishers Weekly

‘Jack David Eller’s lively and engaging Inventing American Tradition recognizes that every nation develops invented traditions that bind its citizens. Creatively combining history, literature, and folklore, Eller demonstrates that this is gloriously true in the American republic. From our National Anthem to Mickey Mouse to Coca-Cola to Thanksgiving, we could not consider ourselves a nation without sharing these traditions. This fascinating volume explains how each of these symbols shapes what it means to be a patriotic American.’ — Gary Alan Fine, co-author of Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America

‘I derived great pleasure, I explained, from Eller’s mythbusting . . . Each of Eller’s fifteen chapters offers a survey of the given tradition’s popular history, identifies some of the myths surrounding it, and debunks them . . . Perhaps the most compelling stories Eller tells come in the political and holiday tradition sections of the book. They remind us of just how profound the impact of the Civil War has been on American culture . . . filled with fascinating tidbits of American folklore.’ — Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective

Show all

Jack David Eller is a former Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Community College of Denver. He is the author of numerous books, including Cultural Anthropology: Global Forces, Local Lives (2016), Culture and Diversity in the United States (2015) and Cruel Creeds, Virtuous Violence: Religious Violence across Culture and History (2010).

Introduction: Tradition is Not What It Used to Be

American Political Traditions
1 Of Thee I Sing: National Anthem
2 You’re a Grand Old Rag: American Flag
3 The New American Man: Uncle Sam
4 The Republic for Which It Stands: Pledge of Allegiance and Motto

American Holiday Traditions
5 We Gather Together: Thanksgiving
6 Honor Thy Mother and Father, etc.: Mother’s Day and Father’s Day
7 Lest We Forget: Patriotic Holidays
8 We Are the World: Ethnic American Holidays

American Lifestyle Traditions
9 America in a Word: “OK”
10 I’d Like to Teach the World: Coca-Cola
11 Meals on Wheels: Hamburger
12 America’s Individualistic Uniform: Blue Jeans

American Traditional Characters
13 And the American Way: Superman
14 Who’s the Leader of the Club? Mickey Mouse
15 You’ll Go Down in History: Some American Characters

Conclusion: The Future of American Tradition

Further reading
Photo acknowledgements