Pluralism and Unity explores the problem of American identity and the nature of political and cultural pluralism in the early 20th century. Originally conceived as a contribution to the U.S. exhibit at Expo '98 in Lisbon, Portugal, Pluralism and Unity has grown into a continuing investigation of the multiple dimensions of modernity and pluralism.
The authors have sought to present a series of choices in the debate about pluralism rather than any single thesis. We hope that we have provided a body of evidence broad enough to introduce our visitors to the rich debate on pluralism at the beginning of the 20th century in the United States, and deep enough to provide a sense for the enormous intellectual and creative energies that have been dedicated to this issue across the spectrum of American society.
David T. Bailey
David G. Halsted
East Lansing, June 30, 1998
Pluralism and Unity is divided into six major sections:
Images explores the iconography of pluralism in early 20th-century America. For example, the Culture section emphasizes how cultural images of America and American-ness were created by immigrants. Of the four founders of United Artists, two were immigrants. Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp came to be seen as a quintessentially American icon in one of the most typically American art forms and industries, despite that fact that his creator was born in London. Irving Berlin wrote a song about (a fictional) childhood in Michigan and went on to write American standards like White Christmas, although he was born in Russia. Berlin and Chaplin helped to create an American culture that would reflect a newly multifaceted conception of American identity, much as native-born architect Frank Lloyd Wright sought to create an American architecture.
The Debates pages introduce four major figures in early 20th-century discussions about pluralism. Each represents one of four different points of view. In the Race section, representatives range from the Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey to the white racist William Cowper Brann. Each of the figures in this section has an accompanying biography, available by clicking on the corresponding image, and each of these biographical essays includes a set of links to texts and, where available, sound files of the person's voice.
Concepts presents a series of ideas and definitions around which the question of pluralism was articulated. In the Ideas section, this page gives a sense for the range of perspectives on the issue of pluralism. The term "pluralism" has a distinct force in ethics, in politics, in religion; each of these different concepts has different implications and may lead to different conclusions. It is perfectly possible to be a pluralist about culture but not about ethics. On these pages, each definition is accompanied by links for further investigation online.
In addition to these resources, the search mechanisms located under Sounds, Texts and People provide a means to look directly for recordings, texts and biographies of individuals from the period.
Although in layout and form this site may seem to resemble a textbook--like the most recent pedagogical tools it is heavily illustrated and is accompanied by multimedia supplements--or possibly a reference work, the authors actually regard it as a research project, if a slightly unconventional one. It is unconventional in the sense that it is heavily illustrated and contains multimedia materials. It is also unconventional in the sense that, although an interpretive slant is readily apparent, the site tries very hard not to come to a single conclusion about pluralism. A conventional research project would eventually close on an authorial interpretation, or, at least, in a carefully delimited range of interpetations of the evidence presented or the ideas canvassed in the text. We have provided a fair amount of interpretive material, but we hope we have also provided enough primary material to permit the attentive visitor to see the holes and gaps in those interpretations. As we continue to work on the project, we hope to amass even more primary material, so that the interpretive elements will provide a less and less obtrusive structure. The real intellectual and moral fire-power in this site comes from people like William James and Booker T. Washington, not from our interpretive essays. We want the visitor to become better acquainted with the voices in the site, especially those separated by time from the present.
Because this project is located online, we have a kind of freedom that is denied to researchers working on texts that will ultimately find their way into a typical printed form such as a book or journal. This has become evident in several specific areas:
1) The collection of primary materials. Much of the material we present here was found on the Web--in library and university sites or on pages created by individuals with an interest in a particular era or theme. We and our colleagues have done some scanning and data conversion ourselves, of course, in placing sound files from Michigan State's Vincent Voice Library online and scanning or typing in primary texts. However, as the Web continues to grow and as more and more materials appear on it, it will become more and more possible for researchers to link directly to examples and information, rather than simply footnoting what can be found elsewhere. The great benficiary here is ultimately the reader, who can follow out links and references with great speed.
In this instance, at least, the Web is demonstrably superior to print for scholarly work. There is nothing like manipulating an image carefully in a graphics program to teach the researcher how the image is put together, how its elements relate to one another and how the image can be interpreted. For the reader, simple animations can bring elements of visual images into a coherent patern in an instantly compelling and communicative way, and the ability to hold several images open at once-- or to transpose one image onto another--makes it possible to engage actively with visual imagery in a way that print can only suggest.
3) The creative use of sound. Even experienced scholars finds fresh interest in hearing the voices of people like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois or Margaret Sanger. It is not that the reproducing a sound clip is in itself a scholarly achievement, but that there is something compelling in the voice itself. It is worth knowing that Samuel Gompers or Eugene V. Debs could speak with a verbal discipline that is all but forgotten today; that the debate about pluralism used to be carried on within the long tradition of Western rhetoric. This tradition is one of the pieces of the very complex intellectual frame within which these individuals articulated their positions in the debate. William Cowper Brann refers to Tarquin and the rape of Lucretia; W.E.B. DuBois boasts that students at Atlanta University devoted one-quarter of their time to Latin and Greek; Eugene V. Debs plays with imagery and concepts from Rousseau, Nietzsche and Greek mythology, and Randolph Bourne's Twilight of the Idols, a summary of contemporary American debates, counts on familiarity with Nietzsche and Wagner. The sound of the oral rhetorical tradition leads back to the intellectual frame that tradition supported and out of which it grew. It is not a mere ornament. At the same time, of course, this sound has great potential for use in pedagogy and public scholarship. A sonorous voice, expressing in well-formed sentences a thought complex enough to be intellectually compelling, is still an effective means to persuade, to engage, to instruct.
4) The creative use of sound and images together. We really only have two examples of this in the site. One, Over There, sung by George M. Cohan, illustrates how popular culture shaped American attitudes toward US involvement in the First World War. By letting the Real stream turn the pages for Irving Berlin's I Want To Go Back To Michigan, we demonstrate how the verbal imagery of the lyrics worked with the music and the visual imagery of the printed cover to create a picture of a mythical boyhood (Berlin had never been to Michigan) that draws on deeply-held American beliefs about rural Midwestern life and its essential connection to American identity.
In short, Pluralism and Unity turned out, at least for the authors, not to be an investigation merely into pluralism and unity. It has also been a matter of discovering how to use the online medium to discover things and to convey what we have discovered. In this sense, we ended up doing R&D for the Humanities and social sciences as they come to grips with the Internet and the new possibilities it opens up for research, teaching and the opening of scholarship to a broader public.
H-Net, Humanities and Social Sciences Online has dedicated itself to research in precisely this area. H-Net's cooperative projects with universities in Africa, Asia and Europe are aimed at exploring how the Internet can best be used to bring scholars and students together on an international scale. Each summer for the last two summers, scholars have visited H-Net from Africa and Europe to explore new ways of using the Internet for distance learning and for the delivery of scholarly information via the Internet. One of the authors of this site is currently working with a Polish organization to create online civic education material for schools in Poland on a USIA grant. The NEH-funded Envisioning the Future conference, held in Fall of 1997 at Michigan State, brought together scholars and teachers from all over the world to discuss the uses of multimedia materials at the post-secondary level. H-Net's continuing commitment to develop the Internet as a new medium for academic publication, research and teaching informs and inspires the Pluralism and Unity site.
Valuable resources were provided by Michael Seadle, Maury Crane, Peter Berg and Rick Peiffer of the MSU Library.