Since 2001, observers of transatlantic affairs have spent much time chasing the elusive shadow of a supposed “culture drift” between the US and Europe.1 Their efforts produced the mantra that diplomatic clashes between the two sides were structurally unavoidable, because a growing cultural divorce irrepressibly drew apart their strategic interests, their perception of global challenges, and the fundamental paradigms that informed their response. Yet with hindsight, it is clear that the argument was badly flawed. It was based on a monolithic and myopic reading of dominant cultural traits in Europe and America, which obscured their inherent ambivalence; on overly selective snapshots that produced faulty historical trends, conjuring Golden Ages and irreversible declines in transatlantic cultural relations only by switching the object of the enquiry halfway through the analysis; and it asserted a causal linkage between cultural environments and highpolitical decision-making processes that were theoretically unsound and unconvincing. In truth, there never was a time when the relationship between American and European culture (esthetic, normative, and strategic) was seamless and unproblematic. By definition this relationship must always remain conflicted. This is because American cultures, while heirs to European precedents, are heirs that wrenched themselves away from the overbearing legacy of the Old World, in a conscious and occasionally militant effort to modify it, improve upon it, or indeed reject it. America might be Europe’s seed,2 but it was born equally from the replication, the competitive emulation, and the condemnation of European cultural models. A transatlantic “culture drift” can only occur from the starting point of a Golden Age when American and European cultures overlapped. Yet this Golden Age never existed. The European legacy in America is all the more ambivalent as the two continents parted ways during one of the most dynamic and conflicted times in European cultural history. America inherited Europe’s cultural legacy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – that is, halfway through the process of cultural reinvention that created European secularism out of the ashes of religious war; halfway through the emergence of

the Enlightenment; halfway through the codification of Europe’s classical esthetic canon; halfway through the emergence of modern European diplomatic practice. As a result, the US shares with Europe not so much a set of civilizational paradigms, but a set of questions; the answers it found on its own. In addition, internal American rifts have added to the complexity of transatlantic cultural relations. First, America has always been more than Europe’s seed – pace Samuel Huntington’s argument to the contrary.3 From the time of the First Encounter on Cape Cod, colonial Amer icans merged European cultural traits with native influences. After independence, mass culture in the US came to reflect the variegated origins of its population, fusing African with Latin American and East Asian cultural trends. Second, elite and mass cultures in America have developed vastly different, though equally problematic, rapports to European influence. Restricting our outlook to elite American culture, the sway of European models at first glance seems clear and unproblematic. Indeed, those observers who believe in the existence of a “culture drift” often seem nostalgic for the heyday of transatlantic high culture, and the passing of the American ruling class that supposedly embraced it. Yet this fundamentally mischaracterizes the complex relationship that American elites have entertained vis-à-vis European cultural templates. Visually, a paragon of Europe’s unmitigated influence upon American high culture is perhaps the Vanderbilt’s palatial retreat at The Breakers, in Newport.4 It provides a tangible illustration of the desperate wish among American parvenus to emulate European high-cultural models, by building the chimera of a Tuscan villa piece by imported piece under the guidance of American architects and European craftsmen. Yet such mimetism is not in fact the epitome of American high culture; nor is it the triumph of a pan-Western canon. It is a charade, a dead-end, an illusion. It says more about the personal insecurities of the Vanderbilts, than about the nature of American esthetics. The bizarre miracle that is Monticello provides a more valuable testament to the extent and limits of Europe’s artistic sway across the Atlantic.5 Here, on what was the frontier of the US, clinging to the very edge of Western civilization, is a Palladian villa – a layered reference to classical antiquity’s architectural, esthetic, and moral codes, as reinterpreted in turn by Renaissance Italy and Enlightened Britain. And yet Jefferson did more than mimic European models as if bowing his head to their superiority. Monticello is more than The Breakers. The author of the Declaration of Independence certainly aimed to prove that America could faultlessly replicate the highest standards of the European canon – thus setting to rest, among European visitors, any temptation to dismiss America as a civilizational backwater. But Jefferson did not stop here. At the same time that it was quintessentially Palladian, Monticello was also quintessentially American. Though inspired by Tuscany, it belonged on its

frontier land; it grew out of it; it was a Virginian, a Piedmont building, as much as the native longhouses that had existed nearby. With Monticello, Jefferson from his mountain top aimed for all to see not only that a translatio Musarum had taken the apex of artistic refinement from the Old to the New World: but that the old canons of European esthetics only truly flourished once America had reinterpreted them on the far side of the Atlantic. The more audacious forerunners of American high culture soon became sufficiently self-confident to move away entirely from European templates, and indeed define “Americanness” in exact opposition to them. The third visual exemplar that illustrates the dialectic, then, is not even a building: but a space. It is the American national park promoted by Theodore Roosevelt.6 Roosevelt of course was just as much a scion of America’s aristocracy as a Jefferson or a Vanderbilt. Yet instead of emulating or transforming European canons, he moved away from them altogether when he turned the vast landscapes of the West into the ultimate expression of American esthetic and moral values. Yellowstone was America’s cathedral; El Capitan, its princely castle; the towering redwoods of the Pacific Northwest, its belfries. High culture in the New World, in Roosevelt’s mind at least, had been emancipated from European models; indeed it would be defined as a militant rejection of them, a catharsis away from their decadence. Nor was Roosevelt the first to drive a wedge between Europe and America. In European eyes, as early as the eighteenth century, the tables were turned: American culture was the disease, Europe the catharsis. This paradigm caused Buffon, among others, to argue that nature in the New World inevitably decayed, producing degenerate human types who presumably were incapable of developing an esthetic sensitivity for the sublime.7 Not only was America culturally inferior: but it was unfit for any high culture whatsoever. This is the prejudice that Jefferson expected from his European visitors, and attempted to undercut with the wonder of Monticello. Indeed, his Notes on the State of Virginia, though borne out of a factual survey, turned into an anti-Buffonian apology for American nature, a vigorous defense of Americans’ ability to inherit, modify and advance the noblest expressions of Western culture.8