American Tough: The Tough-Guy Tradition and American Character, Rupert Wilkinson (Harper & Row: $7.95). Interpreting a culture on the basis of a single trait is dangerous and daring; there is a chance, of course, that the author might find a master key, but the odds favor oversimplification, not original insights. Unfortunately, the former outnumber the latter in this 1984 work. The premise is fascinating: Only American pop culture has fully developed the notion of a super-hero. Tarzan, Spiderman and the Lonely Rider of the Old West stand tall despite alienation and an underlying sensitivity; Superman shows the potential of "special genetic breeding." Yet, instead of exploring the implications behind these telling cultural artifacts, Wilkinson spends more time over-generalizing about toughness in politics, corporate life and literature: "Emerson's writing combined the tough and the untough. . . . The American tradition of toughness is a multiple of opposites."
Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas (Scribner's: $18.95). Astrology, witchcraft, ghosts and fairies are thriving when this study begins. The setting is 16th-Century England, and the medieval church is declining. Magic that supposedly had appeared in the shrines of the saints or at the sacrament at the altar now can be seen in the streets, thanks to a new generation of individuals who flaunt their "powers" as fervently as another emerging social group--merchants--sells products. We don't view this revolution from the eyes of those who stirred the magic potions, however. Keith Thomas is more interested in examining how superstition managed to captivate the attention of respected scientists: "The mystical conviction that numbers contained the key to all mysteries," for example, "had fostered the renewal of mathematics."
Trivializing America: The Triumph of Mediocrity, Norman Corwin. (Lyle Stuart: $9.95). On a day charged with significant social and political events, the network newscasts in America lead with a story on the new Coke. Elevator "music engineers" find new ways to anesthetize. Politics and pop culture play to the superficial and lose sight of the subtle. Convinced that today's younger generation has either become oblivious to this "trivialization" or resigned to accept it, Norman Corwin, a distinguished writer and producer, issued this warning last year. A good part of what concerns Corwin--trends in sports and movies, or the fact that a Los Angeles radio station intentionally played a 90-second piano piece 840 times--might strike others as harmless. Corwin, however, realizes that "example has always had more followers than philosophy" and that bad examples can set "in motion a kind of vast dynamo that generates and renews its own energy like the batteries of a hurricane." He has thus composed this eloquent appeal to "the conscionable core, the humane marrow of America."
The Great Frontier, Walter Prescott Webb (University of Nebraska: $9.95). In 19th-Century Europe, "frontier" meant boundary; in America, it stood for opportunity. In this 1952 attempt to discover what makes us "American," Walter Prescott Webb affectionately profiles the people who redefined the frontier. Colonists left Europe, writes Webb, because, unlike the majority of the European people, they saw themselves as more than minor actors in history's grand scheme. The only problem with "The Great Frontier," which is otherwise impressive in its scope and depth of scholarship, is that Webb becomes so impressed by the power of individuals to build that he forgets our power to destroy. Thus, toward the end of the book, he quite seriously suggests that Americans "make an advance on (Brazil's) Amazon Valley." Doing so, he writes, "would result in a net gain to the wealth of the Western World." Of course, in redefining wealth, Webb has excluded the hundreds of species of plants and animals that would be irreparably destroyed by the development.