In Letters From An American Farmer And Sketches Of Eighteenth-Century America (1782), a French-born nobleman Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur (December 31, 1735 – November 12, 1813) asked the enduring question: "What, then, is the American, this new man?" The author had become a citizen of New York in 1770 and changed his name to John Hector St. John. In 1978, Duke University history profesor Anne Firor Scott wrote an article for The Journal of American History that balanced the gender-scale: "What, Then, is the American: This New Woman?" The meaning of American is not a settled matter in the second decade of the 21st century. If this is (fair & balanced) nailing jelly to the barn door, so be it.
Yankee Come Home
By William Deresiewicz
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“But of course,” Susan Sontag says somewhere, “New York is not America.” But of course: the notion is a commonplace, not least among the liberal classes. People like me, in other words, and probably people like you. And we all know what the formula means: that the values and sensibilities that New York epitomizes—cosmopolitan, freethinking, cultured—are somehow not America, either. That we, thank God, are not America, are not Americans. That New York is, that we are, halfway towards what more enlightened Americans have always longed to be (though we are more apt to intend the idea now in political than in cultural terms): European.
But here’s a thought to give us pause: the other side agrees. No weapon in the right-wing arsenal—the nativist, nationalist arsenal—is more frequently deployed than the charge of un-Americanness. They claim that we are not Americans, and we agree with them. When we attempt to delegitimize them (which we do just as often), we use a different epithet: “stupid.” Which is, lo and behold, the same thing we say about “Americans.” “Americans” are stupid, fat, ignorant, and bigoted. They eat the wrong food and vote for the wrong candidates. “America” is Walmart, Disney, Texas, SUVs. New York, San Francisco, organic produce, independent films, hybrid cars—that’s all something else.
Here’s what it amounts to: we both just wish the other side would go away. And here’s the truth: it won’t. They aren’t going to secede again, and we aren’t going to all move to Canada. Political life is an arranged marriage with no possibility of divorce. We’re stuck with each other. Which doesn’t mean we ought to stop fighting, or look for compromise as anything other than a last resort. It does mean that we need to acknowledge reality, and we can begin by acknowledging—by asserting—our own reality. We are America, too. America is Texas and New York, soldiers and professors, Glenn Beck and Louis Lapham, the Daytona 500 and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I’m a leftist, Jewish, atheist, urban, East Coast, Ivy-League-educated child of immigrants who reads The New York Times and listens to NPR, and I’m every bit as American as Rick Perry or Sarah Palin. If we want to take America back, we need to take “American” back. Ω
[William Deresiewicz, formerly an associate professor of English at Yale University, is a widely published literary critic. His criticism directed at a popular audience appears in The Nation, The American Scholar, the London Review of Books, and The New York Times. More often than not controversial, his negative reviews of Terry Eagleton, Zadie Smith, and Richard Powers drew heated reactions within the literary community. In 2008 he was nominated for a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism. Despite the publication of Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets by Columbia University Press in 2004, Deresiewicz was denied tenure at Yale in 2008. His most recent book is A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter (2011). Currently, William Deresiewicz blogs in The American Scholar (All Points) about American culture with new posts each Monday.]
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