LETTER : American culture of the lonely individual

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The Independent Online
From Mr Richard Giordano

Sir: I was disappointed with Sheila Johnston's review of the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York ("Does Edward Hopper really epitomise American culture?", 22 August).

From the 17th century onwards, a central strand in American intellectual and cultural history has been the loneliness of the individual in a fluid society, itself located on a vast impersonal continent. The writings of the early Puritans, through Melville, through Malamud and Bellow, to Richard Ford - not to mention the popular sociology of the 1950s and 1960s (White Collar by Whyte, The Lonely Crowd by Reisman, The Urban Villagers by Gans) - all deal with a central dilemma in American life: the building of a nation by individuals who have few emotional bonds, and the resulting chasm between what a nation can be collectively, and what it really is today.

To a painting, Hopper's work depicts loneliness and, more important, isolation - the vast distance between individuals who are physically close. Hopper might be right when he says that this might be a depiction of the human condition, but the anxiety of this condition is a common theme in American culture. In building a new nation to be, as John Winthrop wrote in the 17th century, a beacon to the rest of the world, Americans were somehow to defeat the human condition that afflicts others. The anxiety of this failure is an American feature, not, as Sheila Johnston so provincially argues, European.


Richard Giordano