APRIL 22, 2018
2017 WAS PERHAPS an unfortunate year to publish a book about the cultural history of niceness in the United States. Certainly I had a tough time reading it. Call it a consequence of the changing weather patterns of our political climate. Every day I was seeing ordinary Americans — many more than I would have thought, or hoped, existed — acting the opposite of nice: bullies who seemed all too content to attack the vulnerable, to take aim at the defenseless, to kick suffering people when they are down.
As I made my way through Carrie Tirado Bramen’s brilliant American Niceness: A Cultural History, however, I became even more vexed by the less obvious figures propping up the more publicized perpetrators of injustice: the “nice” people who disdain overt cruelty, yet enjoy unacknowledged privilege premised on it. Those who frown, for instance, on the nastiness of politics these days and yearn for a return to more civil discourse. In the last election, many of these nice people just couldn’t stomach a nasty woman of a candidate, and pulled the lever for the other guy. How bad could it be? Let’s see what kind of job he can do. Sure, there’s the intemperate tweeting and the hateful rhetoric, but aren’t we all generally nice enough to work it out, especially if we can get the right kind of judges on the bench? The right kind of immigration and tax policies? The right brand of leadership that will get out of the way so that people can win or lose based on their own efforts?
If meanness is one reason it seems almost impossible to talk to each other across our current political divide, niceness is another. For the vulnerable and the threatened, being nice is not an option, for their lives are on the line. Yet too many Americans retreat behind the no-contest zone of niceness, and prefer not to even try. And this is why Bramen’s book is so important right now: American Niceness does a remarkable job of demonstrating not only the history of deeply entrenched norms of niceness but also the reasons they have lurked beneath our critical radar for so long. Bramen shows impressive range in her analysis, tracking the development of American niceness back to the earliest myths of settler colonialism on the New England shore and forward through the pre–Civil War decades all the way to foreign policy at the turn of the century. It’s an outstanding scholarly book: well researched, well written, and methodologically innovative. I also found it to be incredibly frustrating, because it so aptly demonstrates the embeddedness and pervasiveness of a quality that is both the greatest generator and the greatest inhibitor of positive change. Turns out, American niceness is a real motherfucker.
The “nice American,” Bramen acknowledges, has typically been overshadowed by his more sensational, more attention-hogging counterpart: the Ugly American. The term was popularized in 1958 by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer’s novel of the same name, but the archetype is at least as old as Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), which caustically upbraided American culture for the ubiquity of boorish behavior and tobacco-spitting. “Is the nice American the afterthought, the exception to the rule, the well-behaved and quiet anomaly to the outgoing and aggressive norm?” Bramen asks. “Or does it comprise a competing model of Americanness, one that has remained suppressed in the annals of history, confined to a postscript?”
In American Niceness, Bramen argues that, while the more obnoxious chest-thumping Americans have garnered headlines as well as critique, “more banal attributes such as friendliness[,] […] the rhetoric of sociality and the importance of likability” have been the quiet complements to an enduring and chameleonic American exceptionalism. Niceness has always been crucial to American culture. At times, it has provided cover for our worst crimes and inequalities; at others, a means of ameliorating or reforming them.
Bramen begins by noting how American niceness differs from European civility, which requires “a mastery of social form that involves disciplining one’s impulses and passions for the sake of manners and decorum.” Conversely, the nice American was “rough around the edges,” innocently rude, compassionate if unable to adhere to social protocol. This emphasis on niceness as innocence has always helped to paper over the obvious disconnects between American actions — typically violent and exploitative — and explain them away under the cover of amiability and naïveté. Amid myriad manifestations of American niceness, the most common one, dating all the way back to the post-Revolutionary moment and Thomas Jefferson’s shock at finding a “spirit of hostility” against the Republic when visiting Great Britain in 1786, can be boiled down to the oft-used 21st-century phrase, “Why do they hate us?” And here we encounter the damning affliction that plagues our status quo, what Bramen calls “the persistent enabling of Americans’ desire to see themselves as the victims, more sinned against than sinning.”
Bramen sets the table by delving into the histories of some of the earliest avatars of American niceness as well as their victims: Native Americans and enslaved Africans. Given the prominence of the Plymouth story in American mythology, Native American hospitality represents something of a primal scene: Samoset warmly greets the beleaguered Pilgrims, Tisquantum teaches them to grow corn, Massasoit promises protections, all culminating in the amicable multicultural gathering of the first Thanksgiving. In this “literal rather than pejorative” display of “Indian giving,” the most famous colonial roots of the US nation were planted.
By the 19th century, the Plymouth narrative was being put to several different uses. For Native American speakers and artists, the story of the first Thanksgiving was one of hospitality betrayed; for self-conscious Anglo-American writers, it served to shame advocates of and contributors to the violence of Manifest Destiny. But “[a]longside these dissident invocations of Indian hospitality,” Bramen writes, “there emerged a hegemonic variation that inscribes Indian hospitality into the story of national origins, where subaltern niceness structures white U.S. character […] [and fuels] the founding narrative of national exceptionalism.” In other words, white Americans absorbed Indian hospitality into their cultural identity while conveniently forgetting the history of genocide. In spite of more than a century’s worth of searing critiques from the likes of William Apess, Washington Irving, Black Elk, and Zitkala-Sa, full-scale appropriations seemingly win the day in the iconic painting of The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1621 (1912–’15), which famously inverts native hospitality and uses a white woman to mediate the predominantly male colonial encounter. (Lest we think that these old racist treatments have passed away, their persistence can be seen in the form of a 2014 one-dollar coin commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition with an image of Native American offerings of pipe and provisions, as if to render “manifest destiny as a cooperative effort, a joint venture, rather than a process of sustained and systematic violence.”)
The history of niceness only gets uglier when Bramen turns to 19th-century representations of enslaved African Americans. Unlike the historical shaming and forgetting associated with Indian hospitality, the “recognition of black amiability is less historical and more phenomenological; it is less about generational guilt and more about the hermeneutics of reading black bodies. It is more intimate, more physical, and more personal.” Nowhere does this become more apparent than in figurations of the black smile, most famously embodied in the frequently recycled character of Sambo in the widely popular minstrel shows and proslavery novels.
Like representations of Indian hospitality, these symbols of black niceness cut many ways. For antislavery writers, the smile signified complex human beings who possessed the full range of emotions and therefore merited human rights. Meanwhile, proslavery writers paired signs of black amiability with white paternalism to make the case for a benign institution. Minstrel shows advanced grinning caricatures. Fugitive slave advertisements described as many smiles as they did scars. By the turn of the century, however, such complexity had been reduced once again through the visual and, in this case, the commercial. Bramen convincingly argues that, by the late 19th century, the black smile had largely become incorporated into the national ethos, most notably in the grinning faces of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. Such mass-market icons of African-American amiability emblematized the successful reunification of post–Civil War America, thanks to the amnesiac qualities facilitated by the black smile.
American niceness manifested itself in religion, too. Acknowledging the well-worn analysis of the shift from an 18th-century wrath-filled Calvinistic authority figure to the friendlier, fuzzier 19th-century Jesus of liberal Christianity, Bramen targets what she calls the development of a “Christology of niceness” that became instrumentalized in numerous political initiatives, most notably the late-century Social Gospel movement. In the numerous biographies of Jesus — key examples include Henry Ward Beecher’s The Life of Jesus, the Christ (1871), his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Footsteps of the Master (1877), and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Story of Jesus Christ: An Interpretation (1897) — Jesus is invariably presented as nice: kind, personable, and sociable. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” a poem written in 1855 and set to music in 1868, sums up the general attitude nicely.
For someone like Harriet Beecher Stowe, this representation of Jesus had democratic implications: her Christ was a figure who upheld the ideals of domestic order and who swayed without coercing. Jesus’s influence, Stowe wrote in Footsteps of the Master, “was no mere sentimental attraction, but a vital, spiritual force” that functioned not only religiously but also politically. Stowe’s soft, feminized Jesus would be transformed by Social Gospel proponents into a more rugged, manly figure who could take action against the social blight exacerbated by industrialization and urbanization. More polemically, W. E. B. Du Bois, in the provocative “Jesus Christ in Georgia” (1911) which transfigures the Crucifixion into a lynching, repeatedly focuses the reader’s attention on the eyes of a black Jesus and the nice white woman who stays quiet when a mob unjustly attacks and hangs him. Here, the representation of American niceness — and its failure to occasion real moral courage — serves a critique of racial violence, while also appealing to the conscience of white people.
Meanwhile, Bramen’s fourth type, feminine niceness, while requiring constant supervision and discipline, demonstrates the increasing entrenchment of niceness as inhibitor to wide-scale progressive change. For its champions, feminine niceness was the only glue that could hold together a society atomized and alienated by capitalist culture. But it only went so far. Stowe is, again, an illustrative figure. In We and Our Neighbors (1873), she portrays a therapeutic version of niceness by putting a nice, newly married woman in an unfriendly urban neighborhood and having her transform it into a community. Problematically, though, “the novel offers a personal understanding of structural inequities that can be pacified through individual acts of caring.” In other words, Stowe’s version of neighborliness can be put, in Bramen’s words, “in service of a model of capitalism where profit can be reconciled with social bonds and exploitation can be mollified through niceness. Interpersonal relations — the female domain of sociality — can make capitalism more humane.”
Bramen’s book concludes with a reading of the ways that the foundations of niceness laid by Indian hospitality, the African-American smile, the amelioration of Christology, and the amplification of genteel womanhood provided the launching point for US imperialism abroad. As the proof of a culture of American niceness that worked in multivalent ways, both proponents and critics of US imperialism deployed niceness as if it were an already settled fact. On a global scale, Americans cherished their niceness, convinced that they could become a “likable empire” in the Philippines. A figure who looms large here is the colonial governor and future president William Howard Taft, whose affable personality conveyed a “‘manifest cheerfulness,’ a national affect that […] conveyed [a] spirit of optimism and hope.” Taft’s magnanimity publicly advocated for racial equality, even as his private correspondence suggested more racist positions.
Positive stories also came from Thomasite teachers who wrote of their experiences with Filipino students that countered colonial hierarchy with a notion of reciprocity. But such evidence of personal niceness seems hypocritical when read in light of the Moro Massacre in 1906 and the blistering critiques penned by Mark Twain and Du Bois. Recognizing that some might think these personal stories from individual missionary-teachers and their students matter little in the face of colonial violence, Bramen nevertheless considers them historically important as “paradoxical figures who combined an imperial mission with personal vulnerability.” In other words, such demonstrations should not be erased in the critique of imperialism; in these instances of positive exchange, niceness was a force for good.
While I found myself struggling with the salvific qualities of niceness in this last instance, Bramen doubles down on this insight with a concluding gesture, worth quoting at length, that rewards the persistent reader who has become fully convinced that American niceness is the absolute worst thing to ever happen in human history. “On the one hand,” she writes,
niceness has enabled a pattern of forgetting, a way to disavow both the nineteenth-century wounds of genocide and slavery and their ongoing legacy today. This national habit of disavowal has depoliticized the violence of the white settler nation and its imperial manifestations by focusing instead on interpersonal moments of likability, epitomized in the media spectacle over Governor Taft’s popularity in Asia. On the other hand, however, over the course of its highly contested history, niceness has also been the vehicle of critique, a way to challenge, unsettle, and contest manifest destiny. […] [N]iceness represents the foundation and precondition for new forms of economic and political justice, reminding us that if the interpersonal can disavow the structural, it can also help us reimagine the world.
It’s a positive spin to put at the end of an otherwise dispiriting story (how American). It also seems the right move. Niceness in everyday sociality has received limited attention from cultural historians, and with all variety of political winds blowing these days, Bramen’s book offers a valuable new launching point for those seeking progressive change, for we must first see the full range of our condition. It’s hard to argue that we should dispose of niceness altogether, as it certainly seems a desirable and perhaps crucial element that facilitates the reciprocity and pluralism of a viable democratic ethic. Plenty of figures in Bramen’s book deploy niceness as one antidote to injustice. May we now find more.