Posts Tagged ‘America’

One of the vague projects that followed me out of my Master’s degree involves re-reading some of the century-old children’s books I loved when I used to walk to my grandmother’s house after middle school and read (and read and read) them. The past few days saw me working through two of Gene Stratton Porter’s books: Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost. Alas–or perhaps thankfully–neither of them fits neatly into the narrowest construction of my field of interest, as they hardly mention canonical works, let alone allude to them regularly.

However, in the absence of the kind of backwards-looking dialogue about identity that I usually focus on, Porter’s books attempt a different kind of identity-construction. In fact, their lack of canonical reference is probably a part of their identity project: they look forward, and in doing so they must avoid much allusion to the literary–let alone British–past.

No, Porter is very consciously constructing American identity. Freckles, despite his Irish lilt, is figured as quintessentially American. Elnora, our Limberlost girl, is even more obviously and emphatically American. Porter’s sense of what makes them American and what makes them good is apparently clear-cut and innocuous. Yet, as I watch the current presidential race and think about the moral and idealogical dilemmas that we’re facing today, I can’t help reading this subtext on Americanness as an unconscious sort of prophecy about the tensions that are inherent in our national identity.

Freckles embodies American values because he pulls himself up (one-handed, no less) by his swamp-muddied bootstraps–but his innate honor is a signal of his European aristocratic bloodline. Elnora loves and appreciates the wilderness of the Limberlost–but is willing to sell trees or oil wells to fund her education. Freckles is especially American because he claims the Limberlost as home–but his daily guarding only serves to protect it so that it can be exploited by the right people.

In our current conversation, fraught as it is with bootstrapping elites, pedigreed, twelve-housed Joe six-packs, and moose-shooting, oil-drilling wilderness women, the American that Porter constructs seems to have come to pieces. In the century since Freckles and Elnora fictionally moved from the Limberlost of Indiana, the trees have come down along with the coherence that allowed classism and bootstrapping, environmentalism and exploitation, and forward focus and anscestral naming to coexist within the umbrella of American Identity.

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Though I realize this may make me unworthy of love, employment, or life, I must admit that I’ve never read The Grapes of Wrath. I don’t know why; most books I haven’t read despite many, many entreaties to do so can be attributed to some combination of time and pigheadedness. But when I needed a mass market paperback for the bus the other day, I grabbed Steinbeck.

As I opened it and began the first page, I experienced a strong sense of familiarity. It was stronger than could be explained by my brief encounter with the movie. (A ragingly incompetent highschool teacher once summarized the book for us by showing the movie in fast-forward while telling us some of the plot points she could remember. I was so youthfully, self-righteously offended by this method of presenting books that I think I walked out of the class.) It wasn’t the feeling you get when you see someone familiar but can’t place how you know them, because there’s an alienation inherent in that moment. Rather, it was the feeling that comes when you start talking to someone entirely new. Then, something in the conversation seems like it’s happened before, seems like you must–must–have been best friends already. You check a few associations, wondering if you have met, but your paths have never crossed before.

Steinbeck’s writing felt like that. The rhythm, the cadence, the sweeping Oklahoma landscape, the trucker and the truck-stop waitress all felt like we’d somehow already known each other. Now, as I’m paused before the next chapter, I’m finding myself wondering: is this sense of familiarity one of the strange side effects of a Master’s in English, or is it a testament to Steinbeck’s saturation of American literary culture? Is his work so utterly embedded in our reading and our cultural dialogue that merely living and reading in America for a decade steeps me in his style and his subject-matter? Will reading the rest of the book be like learning Latin, when I continually had to sort out how these words were connected to the ones I already knew and when their derivations only confused the original meanings? Will this sense of familiarity make for an instant friend, or just an eerie beginning?

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