Wednesday, May 30, 2012

America, America.

What is an American? How does literature create conceptions of the American experience and American identity? I'm taking a course in American Literature right now, and this question keeps surfacing, popping up out of the textbooks and in our class discussion forums and in our videos and assigned reading. What is America? What do you think of when you think of that word? On the face of it, an American is just a citizen of the United States, but when we say that something is "American" we usually mean something different. 
    America by Cayusa
  • Apple pie and baseball
  • That star spangled banner
  • Democracy 
  • Capitalism
  • Technology 
  • Freedom
  • Individuality
  • Warfare
  • Opportunities
  • Melting pot
  • Pioneer spirit
  • Self-made man

Do any other words or phrases come to your mind? If you're thinking what I'm thinking, then it seems as if "America" is more of an ideal than a geographical location. After all, how many times have you heard something or someone who is certainly from America called "un-American?"

Literature has provided us with many ideas of what “American” means. It has preserved the oral traditions of the most ancient Native Americans, conveyed the revolutionary ideals of the United States’ founding fathers, and provided a vehicle for political, religious, and personal narratives that have both harmed and benefited the nation.Over the centuries literature has contributed to the concept of the "American" with cultural characters both fictional (e.g. Jay Gatsby and Tom Sawyer), and historical (e.g. Benjamin Franklin and the Puritans). These characters have come to stand for the best and worst of America, representing both heroes and villains. 

A Condemnation - NOT an Encouragement by Richard Loyal FrenchLiterature has preserved some of the best specimens of Americana, but it has also given a voice to those who would not otherwise be heard, to those who were considered to be on the outskirts of the American experience. The poet Walt Whitman, for example, used his poetry (especially "Song of Myself") to expand the idea of American identity by including men, women, slaves, young, old, and crazy alike into his vision of America, which was the same thing as "myself". Langston Hughes' powerful poem "I, Too" served to enlarge this idea of "myself" and America to include African Americans who had been treated as less-than-human by many of their fellow citizens. Literature helps bind us together, but it also highlights the differences between fellow Americans.

The more I read of American literature, the more I see the suffering, the injustice, the hatred, the misunderstandings, the bigotry, the sorrow, the hardship--the more I see all the things that tell us that the American Dream is an unreality, and even if it was real it wouldn't be worth pursuing--the more I am glad that I don't have to defend everything my country has done and is doing and will do in the name of "America." And yet I am proud to be an American, proud of my country's noble heritage, its fine ideals, its history, its philosophy, its future. I'm proud of the wide Southern porches, and the Kansas sunflower fields, and the Hollywood glamour, and the New York flurry, and the Wisconsin winters, and the Florida beaches. I'm proud of the melding, the varied inheritance, the vibrant combinations that come from a million different colors and tongues. What a contradiction! What a paradox! It's a problem as big as America herself. How to reconcile a country one doesn't agree with, and yet loves?

This short poem by Claude McKay gives a little glimpse into those conflicted feelings:


Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand. 

This poem gives me the picture of a nation that cuts down the poet while at the same time giving him strength. He hates and yet loves this land, and that is the same conflict that I have often felt concerning America. I don't approve of everything that the American government has done, and I don't necessarily like the direction mainstream America is leaning toward, but I love this country all the same, and thank God that I live here! 

Perhaps this is the paradox that lies at the heart of America herself: she is a land that is fiercely loyal and patriotic, and yet constantly battles for more success and self-improvement.

America, a photo by Cayusa on Flickr.

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