If it takes a special talent to make a boring topic interesting, there’s an inverse talent possessed by those who take interesting topics and make them boring. In American Niceness, Carrie Tirado Bramen, associate professor of English at SUNY Buffalo, takes a fascinating topic—one long overdue for a good cultural study—and reduces it almost entirely to race, gender, and colonialism. It is a squandered opportunity.
Bramen’s topic is “niceness,” broadly understood as sociability and amiability. She focuses on the widespread belief that Americans are a nice people who believe they act for nice reasons. She argues that Americans use the idea of being a nice people to justify and then forget all sorts of awful behavior. And critics of American actions, she contends, frequently use the concept of niceness to shame American oppressors and establish the humanity of the oppressed.
This isn’t much of a revelation. How many people doing awful things anywhere have done them with the self-conception that they were anything other than nice people acting nicely? (Some, of course, but they were the exceptions.) Likewise, how many groups subject to social oppression haven’t pointed to the hypocrisy of those doing wrong to them?
Although Bramen’s book is labeled a “cultural history,” a great many of the examples of niceness she discusses come from a relatively narrow slice of 19th-century fiction—most prominently from the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe. This isn’t particularly surprising from an English professor, but for readers expecting a true cultural history, it’s a letdown. She pays almost no attention to field anthropological studies and little to mass media, material culture, or the world of business. Her book does not even offer a robust exploration of the class dynamics associated with niceness, although there are some hints that a longer treatment might have been cut. As she puts it, in fluent academese, the book “explores the intersectional formation of American identity through race, class, gender, and religion as seen through the refracted lens of sociality.” In plain English, this means that her book is a rather dull contribution to “oppression studies.”
Bramen freely indulges in anachronism. One 19th-century writer she admires is said to have confronted the “violence embedded in whiteness.” Naughty Nan, Louisa May Alcott’s wild child turned medical doctor, is described as “troubling” from a feminist perspective because she practices some normative behavior for women of her era. Ben Franklin’s condemnations of white behavior toward Indians are flawed because they “avoid a structural critique [of] systematic violence embedded in settler colonialism.” It seems rather unjust for Bramen to fault people from the past for not thinking exactly as she does.
At times, Bramen’s tunnel vision produces interpretations that border on the absurd. For example, the book’s introduction makes a particularly tortured argument that the Declaration of Independence is “a sort of urtext for a hegemonic understanding of American niceness.” As a document that effectively declares war, the declaration can’t be viewed as “nice” by any commonsense definition of the term. Sure, the declaration contrasts what Bramen calls “English nastiness”—it describes the character of King George III as “marked by every act which may define a Tyrant”—with a depiction of Americans as nice victims. But this is neither a novel nor an interesting observation. It’s hard to think of a time in modern history when any group went to war, even as the aggressor, without at least attempting to portray itself as the wronged party.
All of this said, American Niceness isn’t entirely bad. Bramen’s exploration of American rule in the Philippines and the contrast between the personal amiability of Gov. William Howard Taft and the often-brutal acts committed by American soldiers is a helpful exploration of an understudied epoch in American history. Of course, the other ugly tales she tells—of the treatment of American Indians, women in 19th-century America, enslaved Africans, and blacks subject to Jim Crow—are disgraceful and worthy of attention, but writing about them in the context of a study of niceness does little to enrich our understanding.
The book’s analysis of Stowe has some valuable insights; in fact, there’s an excellent paper about Stowe buried among the book’s less interesting arguments. Bramen convincingly argues that Stowe manages to shame the slaveholder and humanize the enslaved person, while still acknowledging the “amiability and generosity” of the South’s slave culture. “To be nice is not necessarily to be just,” Bramen observes; truer words were never spoken.
Image credit: Flaffy