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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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