Is American Culture Dying? It Depends on Your Definition of "American Culture"

In a recent Guardian profile, actor and playwright Sam Shepard declared that American culture is "on [its] way out," especially since so much of its industry has been off-shored.

Sam Shepard has been an emblem of American culture for nearly fifty years. He's a prominent actor, having starred in films such as The Right Stuff and Days of Heaven, but it's for his writing that Shepard will long be remembered. And it's for a discussion about True West, Shepard's landmark 1980 play about two feuding brothers, that had The Guardian's Laura Barton meet with him near the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, where Shepard holds a post.

The two discuss many fascinating topics: show business, the difference between various literary forms, and the recent deaths of his friends Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. But what's perhaps most notable is the 70-year-old Shepard's opinion of America's cultural trajectory:

"We're on our way out. Anybody that doesn't realize that is looking like it's Christmas or something. We're on our way out, as a culture. America doesn't make anything anymore! The Chinese make it! Detroit's a great example. All of those cities that used to be something. If you go to a truck stop in Sallisaw, Oklahoma, you'll probably see the face of America. How desperate we are. Really desperate. Just raw." 

That Shepard brings up Oklahoma is fitting. For the past forty years he and novelist Cormac McCarthy have helped carry the mantle of America's literary fascination with the West. One of the many themes of True West is the clash between the region's primal rawness and its newer, more seemingly refined veneer. It's one of many examples of distrust between old and new in Shepard's work. His opinion on American culture reflects that.

Whether you agree or disagree with him probably depends on your definition of "American culture." A lot about America has changed since Shepard rose to prominence. With that change has come shifts in priorities and demographics. While Shepard's America may be on its way out, the America of others may be on its way in.

Take a look at the profile (linked again below) and let us know what you think.

Read more at The Guardian

Photo credit: trubach / Shutterstock

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