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Reflecting on ties of kin and culture

Beyond Ethnicity, by Werner Sollors. New York: Oxford University Press. 294 pp. $24.95. Horace Kallen once said: ``Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religion, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent, [but] they can never change their grandfathers.''

Werner Sollors's new book, subtitled ``Consent and Descent in American Culture,'' is, in a very real sense, a reflection upon and exegesis of that terse and pithy statement.

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Sollors suggests that, for many Americans, there has always been a tension between the desire (he calls it ``consent'') to go it alone -- to buy into the ethos of individualism -- and the counter-pull of the near-primordial ties of kith and kin and the legacy of other cultures, of ``descent.'' This tension is most clearly manifest in what is often called ``ethnic literature.''

The author, a German national and professor of American Literature who is chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, is in a unique position to make such a judgment. He is a sort of literary Gunnar Myrdal -- a man who, grant in hand, came to the United States, conducted research, and began writing about the polymorphous character of ``American character.''

However, unlike the information gathered by the Swedish economist, Sollors's data are to be found not so much in the field or in the street as in the bookstore and the library, in writings -- histories, biographies, plays, novels, and commentaries -- on the society and its people.

Because Sollors set out to analyze the perceptions that inform the way Americans think and act, reliance on such seemingly subjective source material proved to be a major strength, not a shortcoming. This is clearly evident in each of the essays that form the chapters of ``Beyond Ethnicity.''

In addition to very useful introductory remarks about the meaning of both real and symbolic ethnicity and discourses on the process of ``ethnogenesis'' and on certain motifs that pervade ethnic writing -- such as the ``melting pot'' metaphor or the issue of generational conflict and debates over ``Hansen's Law'' (``What the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember'') -- Sollors's book contains a rich lode of illustrative epigrams; some used as headnotes, some embedded in the text, each a well-chosen nugget of aphorism or illustration of commentary.

The quotations offer the reader a good sampling of ``literary ethnography'' by such distinct and distinctive writers as John Adams, Mary Antin, and Woody Allen; Edward Bok and Van Wyck and Mel Brooks; James Fenimore Cooper, Abraham Cahan, and Jules Chametsky; and on through the alphabet to the English playwright Israel Zangwill, and Florian Znaniecki, author of ``The Polish Peasant in Europe and America.''

Sollors's ``Beyond Ethnicity'' is at once a fascinating exercise in the sociology of literature; a stimulating, challenging, and (when he jumps too quickly from one topic to another) sometimes frustrating pastiche of old ideas and new insights; and, like the work of many of those fellow scholars acknowledged in the bibliography, an attempt to answer Tocqueville's still-relevant query: ``What is the connecting link between these so different elements? How are they welded into one people?''

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