The United States is home to many cultures and a wide variety of ethnic groups, traditions and values. With the exception of Native Americans, Hawaiians and the people of Alaska, almost all Americans or their ancestors have settled or immigrated within the last five centuries. The predominant American culture is a Western culture, largely derived from the traditions of European immigrants, with influences from many other sources, such as traditions brought from Africa by slaves. More recent immigration from Asia and especially Latin America has contributed to a cultural mix that has been described as both a homogeneous melting pot and a heterogeneous bowl in which immigrants and their descendants retain different cultural traits.
The basic American culture was established by the Protestant British settlers and shaped by the settlement of the frontier, with derivative character traits passed on to descendants and passed on to immigrants through assimilation. Americans are traditionally characterised by a strong work ethic, competitiveness and individualism, as well as a unified belief in an “American creed” that emphasises freedom, equality, private property, democracy, the rule of law and a preference for limited government. Americans are extremely charitable on a world scale. According to a 2006 British study, Americans gave 1.67% of their GDP to charity, more than any other nation studied, more than twice as much as the British (0.73%) and about 12 times as much as the French (0.14%).
The American dream, or the perception that Americans enjoy high social mobility, plays a key role in attracting immigrants. Whether this perception is realistic is a matter of debate. While the prevailing culture claims that the United States is a classless society, researchers note significant differences between the country’s social classes that affect socialisation, language and values. Americans’ self-image, social views and cultural expectations are linked to their occupation to an unusually high degree. While Americans tend to place a high value on socio-economic success, being ordinary or average is generally seen as a positive trait.
Traditional American cuisine is similar to that of other Western countries. Wheat is the main grain, with about three quarters of grain products made from wheat flour. Many dishes use local ingredients such as turkey, venison, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, squash and maple syrup, which were eaten by Native Americans and early European settlers. These local dishes are part of a national menu shared on one of America’s most popular holidays, Thanksgiving, when some Americans prepare traditional dishes to celebrate the occasion.
Characteristic dishes such as apple pie, fried chicken, pizza, hamburgers and hot dogs are derived from the recipes of various immigrants. French fries, Mexican dishes such as burritos and tacos, and pasta dishes loosely based on Italian sources are commonly consumed. Americans drink three times more coffee than tea. American industry marketing is largely responsible for the ubiquity of orange juice and milk in breakfast drinks.
American eating habits owe much to their British culinary roots, with some variations. Although new vegetables could be grown in America, which was not possible in England, most settlers were unwilling to eat these new foods until they were accepted by Europeans. Over time, American food changed so much that restaurant critic John L. Hess said in 1972, “Our founding fathers were as superior to our present political leaders in the quality of their food as they are in the quality of their prose and intelligence. “
The US fast food industry, the largest in the world, pioneered the drive-through format in the 1940s. The consumption of fast food has led to health concerns. In the 1980s and 1990s, Americans’ calorie intake increased by 24 per cent; fast food consumption has been linked to what public health officials call the American “obesity epidemic”. Heavily sweetened soft drinks are very popular, and sweetened beverages account for 9 % of Americans’ calorie intake.
Literature, Philosophy and Art
In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, American art and literature were primarily inspired by Europe. Writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe and Henry David Thoreau established a distinct American literary voice in the mid-nineteenth century. Mark Twain and the poet Walt Whitman were important figures in the second half of the century; Emily Dickinson, virtually unknown in her lifetime, is now recognised as an essential American poet. Works that capture fundamental aspects of national experience and character – such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) – can be considered “great American novels”.
Eleven American citizens have received the Nobel Prize for Literature, most recently Toni Morrison in 1993. William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck are often counted among the most influential writers of the 20th century. Popular literary genres such as the Western and the hardboiled detective novel developed in the United States. The writers of the Beat Generation opened up new literary approaches, as did postmodern authors such as John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo.
The Transcendentalists, led by Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, created the first great American philosophical movement. After the Civil War, Charles Sanders Peirce, then William James and John Dewey led the development of pragmatism. In the twentieth century, the works of W. V. O. Quine and Richard Rorty, and later Noam Chomsky, brought analytic philosophy to the forefront of American scholarship. John Rawls and Robert Nozick led a revival of political philosophy. Cornel West and Judith Butler established a continental tradition in American philosophical scholarship. Chicago School economists such as Milton Friedman, James M. Buchanan and Thomas Sowell have influenced various areas of social and political philosophy.
In the visual arts, the Hudson River School was a mid-19th century movement in the tradition of European naturalism. Thomas Eakins’ realistic paintings are widely celebrated today. The 1913 Armory Show in New York, an exhibition of European modernist art, shocked the public and changed the American art scene. Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley and others experimented with new individualist styles. Important art movements such as Abstract Expressionism by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and Pop Art by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein developed in the United States. The wave of Modernism and later Postmodernism made American architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Philip Johnson and Frank Gehry famous.
One of the first great promoters of American theatre was the impresario P. T. Barnum, who ran an entertainment complex in Lower Manhattan from 1841. The team of Harrigan and Hart produced a series of popular musicals in New York City from the late 1870s. In the 20th century, the modern musical form emerged on Broadway; songs by musical theatre composers such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim became standards in popular music. Playwright Eugene O’Neill received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936; other celebrated American playwrights include Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and August Wilson, winner of several Pulitzer Prizes.
Although little known at the time, Charles Ives’ work in the 1910s made him the first significant American composer in the classical tradition, while experimentalists such as Henry Cowell and John Cage created a distinctively American approach to classical composition. Aaron Copland and George Gershwin developed a new synthesis of popular and classical music. Choreographers Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham helped create modern dance, while George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were the leaders of 20th century ballet. Americans have long played an important role in modern photography, with such leading photographers as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Ansel Adams.
The rhythmic and lyrical styles of African-American music have profoundly influenced American music as a whole, distinguishing it from European traditions. Elements of folk idioms such as the blues and what is now called old-time music were adopted and transformed into popular genres with a worldwide audience. Jazz was pioneered by innovators such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington in the early 20th century. Country music developed in the 1920s, rhythm and blues in the 1940s.
Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were among the pioneers of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan emerged from the folk revival to become one of America’s most famous songwriters and James Brown led the development of funk. More recent American creations include hip-hop and house music. American pop stars such as Presley, Michael Jackson and Madonna have become global celebrities, as have contemporary music artists such as Taylor Swift, Britney Spears, Katy Perry and Beyoncé, and hip-hop artists Jay Z, Eminem and Kanye West. Rock bands like Metallica, the Eagles and Aerosmith are among the biggest sellers in the world.
Hollywood, a northern district of Los Angeles, California, is one of the leading places in film production. The world’s first commercial film screening took place in New York in 1894, with Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope. The following year, the first commercial screening of a projected film took place, also in New York, and the United States led the way in the development of sound film in the decades that followed. Since the early 20th century, the American film industry has been largely based in and around Hollywood, although in the 21st century more and more films are not made there and film companies are subject to the forces of globalisation.
Director D. W. Griffith, the greatest American filmmaker of the silent era, played a central role in the development of film grammar, and producer/entrepreneur Walt Disney was a leader in animated films and film merchandising. Directors such as John Ford redefined the image of the old American West and history and, like others such as John Huston, expanded the possibilities of cinema with on-location shooting, which had a major influence on subsequent directors. The industry had its golden years, in what is commonly referred to as the “Golden Age of Hollywood”, from the early sound period to the early 1960s, with screen actors like John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe becoming iconic figures. In the 1970s, directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman played a key role in what has been called the “New Hollywood” or “Hollywood Renaissance”, with gritty films influenced by the images of post-war French and Italian realism. Since then, directors such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron have become known for their successful films, often characterised by high production costs in return for significant box office takings, with Cameron’s Avatar (2009) grossing over $2 billion.
Films topping the American Film Institute’s AFI 100 list include Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), often called the greatest film of all time, Casablanca (1942), The Godfather (1972), Gone with the Wind (1939), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Graduate (1967), On the Waterfront (1954), Schindler’s List (1993), Singing in the Rain (1952), Life is Beautiful (1946) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). The Academy Awards, better known as the Oscars, have been presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1929, and the Golden Globe Awards have been presented annually since January 1944.
American football is in many ways the most popular spectator sport; the National Football League (NFL) has the highest average viewership of any sports league in the world, and the Super Bowl is watched by millions worldwide. Baseball has been considered the national sport of the United States since the late 19th century, with Major League Baseball (MLB) being the largest league. Basketball and ice hockey are the other two major professional team sports in the country, with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) being the major leagues. These four major sports, when played professionally, each take up a season at different but overlapping times of the year. College football and basketball draw large crowds. In football, the country hosted the FIFA World Cup in 1994, the men’s national team has qualified for ten World Cups, the women’s team has won the FIFA Women’s World Cup three times, and Major League Soccer is the largest league in the United States. The professional sports market in the United States is worth about $69 billion, about 50 per cent more than all of Europe, the Middle East and Africa combined.
Eight Olympic Games have taken place in the United States. In 2014, the United States won 2,400 medals in the Summer Olympics, more than any other country, and 281 in the Winter Olympics, second only to Norway. While most major US sports originated in Europe, basketball, volleyball, skateboarding and snowboarding are American inventions, some of which have become popular in other countries. Lacrosse and surfing originated with Native Americans and Native Hawaiians before contact with the West. The most watched individual sports are golf and car racing, especially NASCAR. The men’s national volleyball team has won three Olympic gold medals, one FIVB World Championship, two FIVB Volleyball World Championships and one FIVB World League.
The four major broadcasters in the United States are the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and Fox. The four major television networks are all commercial enterprises. Cable television offers hundreds of channels covering a variety of niches. Americans listen to an average of just over two and a half hours of radio programming per day, most of which is also commercial.
By 1998, the number of US commercial radio stations had grown to 4,793 AM stations and 5,662 FM stations. In addition, there are 1,460 public radio stations. Most of these stations are operated by universities and government agencies for educational purposes and are funded by public or private funds, subscriptions and corporate contributions. Much of the public radio is provided by NPR (formerly National Public Radio). NPR was created in February 1970 under the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967; its television counterpart, PBS, was also created by the same legislation. (NPR and PBS are operated separately). As of 30 September 2014, there were 15,433 licensed full-power radio stations in the United States, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The best-known newspapers are The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. Although the cost of publishing has increased over the years, the price of newspapers has generally remained low, forcing newspapers to rely more heavily on advertising revenue and stories supplied by a major news agency such as Associated Press or Reuters for national and global coverage. With few exceptions, all newspapers in the US are privately owned, either by large chains like Gannett or McClatchy that own dozens or even hundreds of papers, or by small chains that own a handful of papers, or increasingly by individuals or families. In large cities, there are often “alternative weeklies” that supplement the major dailies, such as The Village Voice in New York or LA Weekly in Los Angeles, to name the best known. In big cities, there may also be a local business newspaper, trade papers related to local industries, and newspapers for local ethnic and social groups. The earliest versions of newspaper comics and the American comic strip appeared in the 19th century. In 1938, Superman, the superhero of DC Comics, became an American icon. Besides web portals and search engines, the most popular websites are Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia, Yahoo.com, eBay, Amazon and Twitter.
More than 800 publications are produced in Spanish, the second most common mother tongue after English.