The Cult of Individualism

A History of an Enduring American Myth

by Aaron Barlow


American culture is divided—and it always has been.

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Cover image for The Cult of Individualism

August 2013


Pages 238
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics American History/Culture

American individualism: It is the reason for American success, but it also tears the nation apart.

Why do Americans have so much trouble seeing eye to eye today? Is this new? Was there ever an American consensus? The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth explores the rarely discussed cultural differences leading to today's seemingly intractable political divides. After an examination of the various meanings of individualism in America, author Aaron Barlow describes the progression and evolution of the concept from the 18th century on, illuminating the wide division in Caucasian American culture that developed between the culture based on the ideals of the English Enlightenment and that of the Scots-Irish "Borderers." The "Borderer" legacy, generally explored only by students of Appalachian culture, remains as pervasive and significant in contemporary American culture and politics as it is, unfortunately, overlooked. It is from the "Borderers" that the Tea Party sprang, along with many of the attitudes of the contemporary American right, making it imperative that this culture be thoroughly explored.


  • Documents how the concept and execution of "American individualism" is as diverse as America itself
  • Explains how the American notion of individualism has roots that extend back to cultural myths that predate the founding of the nation
  • Spotlights the role of the "Borderer" culture spearheaded by the Scots-Irish, whose legacy fuels much of America's contemporary cultural and political divides
  • Provides eye-opening information for any reader who wishes to know why so many of our 21st-century political debates in America seem hopelessly irreconcilable
Author Info

Aaron Barlow is associate professor of English at New York City College of Technology (CUNY). A cultural studies specialist, he is the author of five other Praeger titles: The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, and Technology; The Rise of the Blogosphere; Blogging America: The New Public Sphere; Quentin Tarantino: Life at the Extreme; and with Robert Leston, Beyond the Blogosphere: Information and Its Children. He is faculty editor of Academe, the magazine of the American Association of University Professors, and editor of One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, a collection of essays concerning Peace Corps experiences in Africa. He earned his doctorate in English at the University of Iowa.



"This [is an] engaging, informative study of the Borderers, the Scot Irish who migrated first to Northern Ireland and then to the American colonies. . . . Provides a sensible plea to include the Borderer experience more fully into the national heritage for the benefit of all. Recommended."Choice


"In The Cult of individualism, Aaron Barlow offers an analysis of the current polarization in American political and cultural life—a historical analysis with a focus that heretofore has remained the preserve of academic specialists on the one hand and pop sociologists on the other. He traces the red-state 'cult of individualism' to the culture brought by the Irish Protestant immigrants to colonial America, a culture with a centuries-old vexed relationship to the rest of Britain and America. This is an important book for those who want to understand the red-blue division and the inflections of the individualist myth on both sides, with a mind to breaking down the wall of mutual incomprehension and contempt that is endangering the republic."—Rodger Cunningham, Co-Chair of the English Department, Alice Lloyd College, and Author of Apples on the Flood: Minority Discourse and Appalachia

"Aaron Barlow's The Cult of Individualism is impressive in its engagement with a subject that affects every aspect of life in the American twenty-first century. Barlow's focus on sociality and connectedness allows him to analyze individualism in a dynamic way that presents a compelling picture of change and continuity in American life. The manner in which he has positioned himself and his research is compelling, and serves as a model for an engaged, yet rigorous study of complex social matters. Above all, the rich source materials upon which Barlow has drawn make for a vivid portrayal of American culture within and beyond its traditional power sources."

—Robert André LaFleur, Professor of History and Anthropology, Beloit College

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