I was driving to H's this morning for homeschooling, and listening to Minnesota Public Radio as Marketplace ended and local programming began. Kerri Miller was interviewing poet and professor Claire Rankine on the topic: what it means to be an American. She opened the segment with a quote from Langston Hughes, just as I pulled up in front of H's house to let the kids out and carry my books up the walk.
"'Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed,'" quoted the host, and the guest was beginning to comment: the line was a line of nostalgia, for a thing that in her view, has never existed in reality, but only in that dream -- and I turned off the radio and gathered my children and schoolbooks, never getting to hear the resolution, any challenge or dialogue, only a quote and a snippet of one reading, one reaction.
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We are living in a time in America when the specter of white -- or at least nativist -- nationalism has swelled up and tried to take its place in the public forum, out of the corner to which it had seemed the polite company had banished it. I doubt anyone really believed it was gone, but for most of my life it has been possible for me to live under the illusion that it was only really espoused by a Them, an embarrassing Them that made the rest of us look bad. It is dismaying to find it demanding a seat at the table, reminding us where we came from. We would all rather pretend not to recognize our own cousins.
Maybe it was Langston Hughes that made the connection in my head. My oldest is studying American literature this year, with H., and will probably encounter some of Hughes' poetry.
There are a lot of ways to design a course in American literature. There is a certain canon that you can stick to, without going too far wrong, but it's more interesting to take a thematic approach. You can go chronologically, choosing significant pieces that exemplify American thought at each stage. You can take a regional approach, examining the stories and sermons that came out of New England Puritanism, the dark twists of Southern Gothic writers, social commentary in urban realism and of the homelessness born of the Dust Bowl, the peculiar pastorales of Westerns and of frontier stories, friends on a river raft under the stars. My favorite theme, however, is the same topic as the radio show: what does it mean to be American?
This is a rich and fruitful theme because -- because -- the answer is not simple or obvious. Nor is it complete, because every generation adds its own gloss. I think it is the underlying theme of all literature which is properly "American" rather than literature, even the greatest, produced by American writers: although many American writers have produced great literature that is part of the universal human heritage, only some of it is "American" in the sense that it reflects on the aspects of America that make it itself.
The reason that the answer is not simple or obvious is that nationalism, nativism, is the wrong answer. That is the simple and natural human answer to "What is a nation," the answer that countless failed nations (and a few that have not yet failed) have fallen back on, fallen on, for ages and ages.
You cannot build much of a literature with meaning on the idea that our nation is made up of people who look like us and talk like us and were born here of parents who were born here.
At least, you can't make very much of it when your nation is only a couple of hundred years old.
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But you can build a great tradition of struggling, in prose, in poetry, in song, with the different possible meanings of your national identity when you are willing to listen to the many kinds of experience that are produced by a troubled country struggling to interpret and apply an idea with justice, struggling even with the meaning of justice itself. What does "equal" mean? What does "free" mean? What does "men" mean? We have been grappling with these words, with more or less success, from the beginning. It is what our nation is made from. And grappling with words is what makes a literary tradition.
I place "What does it mean to be American?" at the center of all themes of all American literature. American literature is regional literature -- because we are a country that has imperfectly but persistently united disparate regions, with much bloodshed. American literature is populist literature, and intellectual literature, often embodied in the same work. American literature is the writing of the wealthy landed class, and the writing of the marginalized immigrant. American literature is written in languages that aren't English. American literature is sometimes written neither by nor for Americans (I am looking at you, de Tocqueville). American literature is sometimes written outside our borders. American literature is genre and canon. American literature aspires to Old World respectability and hails invective upon Old World failures and shame. It puffs itself up and is its own harshest critic. At its best it reflects honestly both something great and something fallen; perhaps even when it tries only to do one or the other, it proves its own opposite, is at once both commentary and artifact, not timeless or universal, but anchored in time and place.
And yet, that's timeless and universal too, because all of us do have a time and a place.
To reject the great question at the center of American literature -- the question of American identity -- is to reject the questioners. It is to discard all that thought and discourse, with all its challenges and contradictions, in favor of a simple and intellectually poverished American neo-Know-Nothing-ism. It is a minor tragedy, compared with the real-life marginalization of individual lives, loves, livelihoods. Is the tragedy more or less poignant because the tradition of that intellectual grappling is, today, so often cast off by free choice?