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The Myth of American Nationhood – Nadia Benjelloun

Jul 3, 2021 | Non Fiction | 0 comments

The founding of the American nation post-independence has without question been a critical turning point in history. With it, came the digressing of socio-political thought borne traditionally of the Anglocentric orientation. But as the adage that goes, “history repeats itself”, similarities in values have made comebacks in recurrent themes in literature. Particularly the literature that spans from the late 17th century up to early 20th century has played a role in contributing to the myth of American nationhood.

History has encouraged literary reasoning to take on a particular path. While the Anglo-American tradition is not the only one, it has assumed the most ascendency. What that knowledge has been generated, has not been independent of political dogmas. Take Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent for instance, they illustrate how mass media serves as a propaganda device. In sum and substance, the idea is that consent, is staged, as is democracy. Similarly, the literature that has built up over time, has set the stage for principles and values like, work ethics and upward mobility, individuality, equality of opportunity, autonomy, and egalitarianism.

Up until the digital revolution, mass communication has been present in the form of paper media. As such, most of the evidence to follow, comes from both scholarly, and literary transcripts. With the kick-off of the US after independence, the general sentiment of the nation was to aim for a meritocracy, as opposed to the aristocracy they had in Great Britain, from whom they were trying to break away from. But a critical race theorist today would likely argue that that was never achieved, since meritocracy in the way it has evolved over the course of history in the name of democracy, has not favored everyone, and therefore, is just another power agency, and only existed and continues to exist as an “imagined” state.  This will be expounded more on, later.

The reason why people were so quick to digest the ideas of American independence and the creation of a democratic republic, despite being a radical proposition, was because the Anglo-American worldview assumed that history is cyclical and progressivist. “Therefore, preservation of the present order depended upon the public’s perception of the past.” (Thomas,1987) This historical consciousness drives a sense of authority and reasoning for an Americanist to make judgments for the world. The literature then, encourages the prolongation of that worldview, and provides a safeguard for those ideas, and whatever resulting values it’ll create.

Going back to the founding of the country, months leading up to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine wrote a pamphlet titled Common Sense, where he argued for independence, and proposed democratic republicanism. He used strong diction, describing the government as products of our wickedness, an affection of negativity, and a necessary evil. Necessary because without it, we would suffer, he claimed, but evil because it tends to bring out the worst in us. The revolution was interpreted as a window to political maturity, and the beginning of something new, so the pamphlet was a best-seller. Americans have become infatuated with individualism ever since.

This started a domino effect in the periods of Romanticism and Transcendentalism that followed. The literature that emerged, was recognized as works of the American Renaissance. Romanticism emphasized individuality, imagination, emotion, and nature over social order. This overlapped with the literature at the time because it was characterized by a novel sense of national self-confidence, considering social order was deemed an object of government, which as Thomas Paine had expressed, was something corrupting.

Later works reinforced the idea that people should not give into governmental manipulation. Ralph Waldo Emmerson, for example, wrote a speech called The American Scholar in 1837, which called for a new devotion to self-reliance. “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. … A nation of men will for the first time exist because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.” (Emmerson, 1837) Suggesting that this nation of the “Thinking-Man” would exist for the first time, showed that this kind of independence was believed to deviate from European mainstream thought. Emerson further promoted this intellectual aspiration in an essay he wrote in 1841, titled Self-Reliance.  In it, he argued that people should not conform to the masses and should think and act for themselves. He influenced writer Henry David Thoreau, who later wrote a lecture called Civil Disobedience (1849); similarly, he urged people to refuse governmental support, since according to him, government was immoral. In the meantime, this was also the setting for Transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism was primarily a New England philosophy that was based on the idea that people’s spiritual natures transcend doctrines-religious or otherwise. It was thought that one’s true nature lied in one’s intuition, therefore more credit should be given to the self. For this reason, Walt Whitman’s poem Song of Myself was extremely popular, since it did exactly that, and celebrated the self. The tone of the poem is sermon-like but inviting. It discusses the idea of the communion of the self, with lines like, “what I shall assume, you shall assume,” and “ for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” suggesting that while one is independent, one is still interconnected with everybody else, and the forces of nature. Thus, the ideas of interdependence and Unitarianism were born. However, the Victorian Era was also taking place, which expected that the portrayal of the common people and social situations be realistic.

As a result, writers and thinkers alike took on a more pessimistic outlook on life. Literature was relied on to be a bridge between the Romanticism, and the shift to modernism. Pro-suffrage and abolitionist ideas had room to enter the picture but could not do so without compromising one’s already established status. Fiction became the new gateway to provoking social change. At face value, one might imagine that there is not anything to be gained from a story one knows is not true, but fiction can also carry elements from the real world. “We fill in without having to be told that all roses in the narrative will have thorns, and all the houses will have doors, and all the people will have arms and legs.” (Abbot, 5) This logic makes fiction eligible to lend wisdom the same way nonfiction can. Additionally, “fiction, with its freedom, can imitate every single device one can find in nonfiction and still remain fiction.” (Abbott, 6). Two model writers who borrowed scenarios from the real world to make a point in a fictional one, are Elizabeth Barret Browning, and George Eliot.

To rewind back to the 1840s, Elizabeth Browning wrote a poem named Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point. The poem is a dramatized lyric about a female runaway slave. It describes her distaste for the slave-owners and their oppression, she talks about how her lover was killed, how she was raped, how she killed her child, and how she was caught in the end. The mood of the poem is that of an outraged voice, and though it was published in an Abolitionist journal, it is arguable that that was her intent. Given the time period, most of the readership would have been male, meaning accessibility and reception of the poem would depend on their social capital. Accordingly, Browning would have had to frame her work in a way the still addressed androcentric, conservative appeals. For instance, inasmuch as Christianity was used to justify slavery, the speaker used it to legitimize the infanticide in stanzas XVII through XXVIII. This was the speaker’s way of resisting slavery since the child was a product of an abused system. Eliot too explored the child-murder narrative.

In the case of Adam Bede, the infanticide was an accident and on impulse. A crime like that would have been regarded as only possible by someone who was driven by anger or lunacy. Hetty, the main character, wanted to preserve herself, knowing full well that her affair would have her shunned by society, hence initially abandoning the infant. (It was until later she goes back but finds the baby dead.) An infanticide would not just reflect poorly on her as a mother but would be a cause for public anxiety. Understanding Victorian values of motherhood, Eliot punished her female character with her being caught and sentenced to hang, demonstrating how her naivety led her to her own destruction. (A hint of retributive justice.) It was only with a religious (Christian) confession after, that she was “freed”, and there was hope for resolve in the next chapters. Although Eliot presents the questioning of medico-legal discourse in the nature of a trail like Hetty’s, and prompts readers to contemplate reform, it had to be done subtly, and indirectly to fit in with the values of the time. This was a stepping-stone for literary realism, which hoped to shed light on human motive. As interpretations of everyday life became more elaborate, so did the re-envisioning of the self.

The 1860s and onwards saw a new fixation on ideals like the American dream. Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick is a generic story of rags to riches. The novel’s light-hearted mood and easy to follow structure made social mobility look effortlessly attainable. It was criticized for reducing the American experience, and for making success and respectability subjects of Capitalist propaganda. A critical race theorist would jump on this opportunity to point out that a modern collection of short stories like Drown, by Junot Diaz for example, might be a more apt representation of the American dream. The stories share different flavors of both struggles and successes that comes with assimilation, or its lack thereof. The characters are diverse, and the dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality are considered.

On the other hand, the wider is the range in identities, more conflicting the national identity would be. “If as the post-structuralists argue, experience is multiple, fractured, and diverse, whose experience counts as ‘real’…generalizing from one point of view erases, ignores, or invalidates the experiences of others.” (Mendel, 34) To that end, both Diaz’s and Alger’s books are under the same themes. Both are an appeal to American values, both analyze materialism, and both convey messages on power relations. Even in the attempt to use critical theory to re-imagine “identity” in more relatable stories like in Drown, is typical of libertarian-oriented studies made the product of postmodern thinking. This is the cycle of the progressivist history; the world view that pits society as having a dichotomous nature-the oppressed, and the oppressor. It started with the US against the British crown and evolved to the individual versus the state, or institution.

Despite what the literature implies, Anglo-American values are predictable, essentialist, and nothing new. The myth of E pluribus Unum, out of many, one, comes from the idea that the makings of American society originate from transformation and integration of cultural differences. When in fact, this is no more a rhetoric of the “founding fathers” narrative.

“As imagined communities (cf. Benedict Anderson’s book of the same title), nations not only need narratives of origin, but also narratives of their future – in the case of the US, which looked upon itself as a nation of immigrants, such a forward-looking narrative needed to address how differences of origin and descent could be transcended, and the melting pot seemed to be the perfect model to describe the particular composition of US society” (Paul, 259)

The idea that America created a “new national character” that is supposedly revolutionary, could be responsible for the first trace of American exceptionalism.  Moreover, the literature, given the historical context, further enabled the psychological gears of American nationhood.

From Tangier, Morocco, Nadia Benjelloun is a poet, essayist, and novelist. Most recently, she authored A Vigilant Mind (The Good Life Review), and has been  featured in over a dozen journals. She has also made an appearance in Publishers Weekly Magazine, been a guest on The Daily Spark with Dr. Angela Chester, and was a speaker at the Arab Writers Union Conference (2015). She graduated from the University of New England with a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies in May 2021 and has a forthcoming novel.


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