21st century writing | 21st century approaches

America and America

Xavier Marcó del Pont

 

Shortly after its publication in 2010, Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel Freedom garnered critical praise of the highest order, with many reviews invoking that old, much coveted title: the ‘Great American Novel’ [1]. Coined by John William De Forest in 1868, this phrase has since been questioned at a number of levels. In recent years, Catherine Morley has protested against the first word of the term, stating that ‘the operative adjective [is] primarily a description of size’, going on to call the entire designation a ‘superficially impressive though somewhat empty title’ (Morley 1). Elsewhere, Gabriel Brownstein has perceptively read the differences between the ‘Great American Novel’ and merely a great American novel, further questioning the term. Jon Stratton has taken issue with the third word of the phrase, asserting that ‘[in the construction Great American Novel, t]he term novel […] can be extended to include film or, indeed, any medium that allows for extensive fictional development’ (Stratton 62). In this brief article, it is my intention to question the term ‘American’.

As a doctoral candidate studying the work of Thomas Pynchon, another writer of Great American Novels, I am frequently called upon to question what the defining features of American Literature are, with countless conferences, essay prizes and collections dedicated to the notion of American identity. However, amongst all this self-reflexivity it seems to me that the field of American Studies continues to disregard the ambiguity contained within the very word ‘America.’ America, after all, is first and foremost a continent, not a nation.

 

Could North Americans be renamed as United Statians or U-S-ians? [Image by The Q under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]

 

The significance of this nominal abduction will perhaps be lost to those who are not forced to confront it personally, yet to all Americans (other than US citizens) it will seem self-evident. However, let me illustrate it through analogy. Imagine the unsettling effect of and outrage that would ensue if, say, France or Germany were to begin referring to their population (and their population alone) as European. If referring to Africa as a country is widely interpreted as a telling sign of ignorance at best, why would treating America as a country be interpreted in any other way? Africa is a continent, not a country. And so is America.

Historically, many alternative names for US nationals have been proposed, so as to abolish this demonymic ambiguity. In his essay ‘Names for Americans’, Henry Louis Mencken lists and explains the genesis of many of them: Columbian, Columbard, Fredonian, Unisian, United Statesian, United Statian, Usian, Statesian, Washingtonian, Usonian, Uessian, U-S-ian, Uesican, Ustation, and the possibly humourous Colonican. Mencken also reports that Sir Edward Clarke, Solicitor-General of England from 1886 to 1892, put forth Usona – an acronym of United States Of North America – as an alternative name for the US, Usonan being its citizens’ demonym. Likewise, Washington Irving proposed – Mencken cannot ascertain whether seriously or otherwise – that the name United States of America be changed to either United States of Appalachia or United States of Alleghania, therefore introducing either the demonym Appalacian or Alleghanian, stating that even the ‘old national cypher of U.S.A. might remain unaltered’ (Mencken 243). Elsewhere, taking its form – one would imagine – from the Spanish language word estadounidense, Michael Kearney employs the term unitedstatesian (Kearney passim). None of these terms have, however, gained any popular currency.

It is not the case that this issue has not been raised within the field of literary studies. Yet most often it is awkwardly addressed in passing in introductions, or quickly mentioned in the form of typographical notes. In the introduction to A Companion to American Literature and Culture (2010), Paul Lauter concedes that ‘the phrase “American literature” is […] itself highly contested, and for good reason. After all,’ he continues, ‘the United States forms only one part of the Americas, and appropriating the term “American” to describe the literatures of this nation constitutes something of an imperial move.’ Having recognized this, he goes on to justify the volume’s use of the phrase on the grounds that it still is the ‘most commonplace in course catalogues, syllabi, and anthologies, [despite] its inescapable difficulties’ (Lauter 3).

 

A continent, not a nation: American Studies needs to address the "geo-chauvinism" of allowing the United States to be synonymous with America [Image by Kathie M Ceballos under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]

 

Elsewhere, Richard R. Valencia also highlights that the use of the term American to denote US citizens is ‘a practice deeply embedded in historical and contemporary scholarship’ (Valencia xv). He goes on to state that his terminological inaccuracy results from ‘convention, not [from] a geo-chauvinistic claim that the USA has exclusive ownership of the word’ (Valencia xvi). The fact that Valencia relegates this complex issue to an apologetic footnote is in itself telling. In my opinion, the ‘geo-chauvinist claim’ is implied regardless. To admit that this ‘convention’ is ‘a practice deeply embedded’ is nothing else than to recognize wrongdoing and follow it with a rather blatant caveat. Whether a sign of a nation’s definitional hesitation, or telling evidence of an urge to synecdochically take over the nominal identity of an entire continent, what may seem at first to be but a mere semantic glitch is revealed in fact to be a symptom. Cultural complacency and unquestioning adherence to tradition are neither valid excuses nor productive tactics. The last 50 years have seen enormous efforts made to modify cultural attitudes, efforts that go hand in hand with an alteration at the level of language, with certain words and terminology evolving, being appropriated and reappropriated.

Thomas Pynchon, whose work continually questions boundaries, nation-building, and the diversity of identities that constitute the American continent, humorously reflects on geo-political chauvinism in his 2009 novel Against the Day:

“[…] you can see that it all makes one great mass, doesn’t it? Eurasia, Africa, America. With Inner Asia at its heart. Control Inner Asia, therefore, and you control the planet.”

“How about that other, well, actually, hemisphere?”

“Oh, this?” He flipped the globe over and gave it a contemptuous tap. “South America? Hardly more than an appendage of North America, is it. Or of the Bank of England, if you like.” (Pynchon 271-272)

As in Mason & Dixon (1997), here Pynchon stresses the fact that boundaries not only signify separation, but also engender difference. In the aforementioned passage, ‘South America’ is characterized as exo-continental, a protuberance or an outgrowth, both out of sight and unsightly. Through the conflation of country and continent, most American nations are rendered peripheral, exiled within their own continent.

Reducing the term American to signify but the inhabitants of one single nation immediately annuls any possible discussion of continental commonality. Whereas volumes and syllabi that assess, for example, European or African literature and culture are commonplace, the term American Literature has gained an inaccurate specificity. Due to the co-option of the term, it has become essentially impossible for American continental literature or culture to be addressed or even contemplated. It is, in the English language, a literally unspeakable concept, suggesting – or rather constructing – an insurmountable boundary between American cultures.

 

What is American Literature? Rethinking Great American Novels [Image by Connecticut State Library under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]

 

In his 1990 essay/manifesto, ‘Border Culture: The Multicultural Paradigm’, Guillermo Gómez-Peña states:

‘Let’s get it straight: America is a continent not a country. Latin America encompasses more than half of America. Quechuas, Mixtecos, and Iroquois are American (not United States citizens). Chicano, Nuyorrican, Cajun, Afro-Caribbean and Québécois cultures are American as well. Mexicans and Canadians are also North Americans. Newly arrived Vietnamese and Laotians will soon become Americans. United States Anglo-European culture is but a mere component of a much larger cultural complex in constant metamorphosis.’ (Gómez-Peña 95)

As Gómez-Peña highlights, the use of such an utterly imprecise and reductionist national demonym instantly others the rest of the American continent. In these times of ever increasing multiculturalism and global interconnectedness, it is paramount that we attend to the manner in which we categorize and conceptualize national and continental cultures.

Although I am not under the deluded impression that these words will have any effect on the way US nationals describe themselves, their history, culture, or literature, as a scholar I cannot help but question this conspicuous terminological ambiguity. I do believe that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), and other texts are excellent candidates indeed for the title of Great American Novel. However, I am certain that Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (1963), Gabriel García Marquez’s Cien Años de Soledad (1967), José Mauro de Vasconcelos’s O Meu Pé de Laranja Lima (1968), Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (1988), Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004), and many others are also rightful contenders for this title, being – as they undeniably are – Great American Novels.

 

CITATION: Xavier Marcó del Pont, “America and America,” Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 5 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 October 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.5.01.

 

Xavier Marcó Del Pont is currently completing a PhD thesis entitled Titles and Topoi: Narrative Structure, Structural Metaphors, and Organizational Devices in the Works of Thomas Pynchon at Royal Holloway, University of London. He co-convenes the Literary and Critical Theory Seminar at the Institute of English Studies (London) and is a member of the Editorial Board for Royal Holloway’s e-journal Exegesis. 

 
 

Works Cited:

Brownstein, Gabriel, ‘How to turn a great American novel into a Great one’, Guardian Unlimited (17 February 2011): http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2011/feb/17/great-american-novel [Accessed 15 September 2012]. Originally published in extended form in The Millions: http://www.themillions.com/2011/02/the-big-show-franzen-goodman-and-the-great-american-novel.html

De Forest, John William, ‘The Great American Novel’, The Nation: A Weekly Journal, Vol. VI, January 9th, 1868, pp. 27-29.

Kearney, Michael, ‘Borders and Boundaries of State and Self at the End of Empire’, Journal of Historical Sociology, Vol. 4, No. 1, March 1991, pp. 53-74, http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6443.1991.tb00116.x.

Gómez-Peña, Guillermo, ‘Border Culture: The Multicultural Paradigm’, in The Decade Show: Frameworks of Identity in the 1980s (Los Angeles and New York: Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Studio Museum of Harlem, 1990), pp. 93-103.

Lauter, Paul, ‘Introduction’, in A Companion to American Literature and Culture (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 1-5, http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9781444320626.ch.

Mencken, H. L., ‘Names for Americans’, American Speech, Vol. XXII, No. 4, Dec. 1947, pp. 241-256, http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/486658.

Morley, Catherine, The Quest for Epic in Contemporary American Literature (London: Routledge, 2008).

Pynchon, Thomas, Against the Day (London: Vintage, 2007).

Stratton, Jon, ‘The Beast of the Apocalypse: The Postcolonial Experience in the United States’, in Postcolonial America, C. Richard King (Ed.) (Baltimore: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

Valencia, Richard R., ‘Introduction’, The Evolution of Deficit Thinking: Educational Thought and Practice (Stanford Series on Education and Public Policy) (London: Routledge Falmer, 1997), pp. ix-xvii.

 

Notes:

[1] For illustrative examples, see: Lezard, Nicholas, ‘Freedom by Jonathan Franzen’ [Review], Guardian Online, September 1st, 2011, accessible at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/sep/01/freedom-jonathan-franzen-review; Alsup, Benjamin, ‘Jonathan Franzen Will Go Down Swinging’, Esquire, August 11th, 2010, accessible at: http://www.esquire.com/fiction/book-review/jonathan-franzen-freedom-review-0910; Grossman, Lev, ‘Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist,’ Time, Aug. 12, 2010, accessible at: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2010185,00.html; Schmich, Mary, ‘Even in Twitter age, The Great American Novel still exists’, Chicago Tribune, September 18th, 2010, accessible at: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-09-18/news/ct-met-schmich-0919-20100918_1_great-american-novel-jonathan-franzen-freedom.

 

 

Please feel free to comment.

7 comments

  1. Daniel O'Gorman /

    Hi Xavier. I enjoyed reading this and totally agree with your argument. I've also had to think about exactly what we mean when we talk about 'American' fiction in relation to 9/11 and collective trauma e.t.c. The reference to Garcia Marquez in the conclusion also reminded me of Bill Clinton singing the praises of One Hundred Years of Solitude a few years ago: an example of the GAN debate reaching into the highest echelon of US (and pan-American) politics.

  2. Xavier Marco del Pont /

    Indeed, John Leonard of The New York Times is said to have stated: "The great American novel has been written by a Latin American." [1]
     
    It is a very intriguing phenomenon. The only other case of demonymic overlapping that occurs to me is that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) and the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville). The nationals of both countries are Congolese. Belgian Congo and French Congo are not acceptable terms anymore, as these colonial signifiers seem at odds with the fact that these are sovereign states. Nevertheless, this simply means that the citizens of both nations are referred to as Congolese: there is no unilateral nominal usurpation, as there is with the terms America and American. If one is an American from any nation other than the United States of America, it would seem that one has a country, but no claim to a continent.
     
    [1] Bell-Villada, Gene H. (Ed.), Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), p. 96.
     

  3. Steven Morrison /

    Very interesting indeed. Does the term 'Great American Novel' make any sense outside of the context of the US, I wonder? It would have to be something more than a great novel written by someone from the Americas (what would be made of Henry James?) and it would have to be something more than a great novel about America (Lolita, Nostromo, to name two awkward cases). It would have to speak to a shared American experience, somehow; and the only book I know of that does this, or can be argued to do this, is still Moby Dick and that only because it was written at a time when its concerns – the melting-pot, the frontier, the colonial inheritance and the forging of new identities – could be seen to apply across the whole continent. And that only with the eye of faith maybe. What such a beast might look like at any time after 1851, I don't know, anymore than I could say what 'The Great European Novel' might be. Many great novels, as you say – perhaps 'the' is the most problematic word.

    • Xavier Marco del Pont /

      Within the context of the US the concept of the Great American Novel makes sense as a symptom of the somewhat fallacious notion of American exceptionalism. Has any other nation claimed an entire century as its own, the way the 20th Century –we are told– was the ‘American Century’? To my knowledge, no other country in the world has engineered and marketed internationally the notion of its nation’s Great National Novel to the extent to which the United States of America has.
       
      De Forest's definition seems in many respects appropriate to me; he uses phrases such as "the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence," "the task of painting the American soul," "a tableaux of American society" (p. 27). But he never strays from the realist mode, stating that the characters in the Great American Novel must speak like real people do, and not "in the language of men who never expressed themselves but on paper, and on paper in dreams" (p. 28). In conversation, a friend of mine recently proposed Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho as a possible contender to the title of Great American Novel. In some ways, it is indeed a conscientious portrait of the US in the 1980s, it is filled with everyday detail and references to cultural ephemera, and it does capture the zeitgeist of its setting. But would it ever be considered for the title? (Of course, Patrick Bateman is hardly the common man…)
       
      My favourite of De Forest's definitions is a work that depicts "American life so broadly, truly, and sympathetically that every American of feeling and culture is forced to acknowledge the picture as a likeness of something which he knows" (p. 28). Yet, it is this very definition that places the Great American Novel at the verge of the impossible, if it doesn't push it over its edge. The matter of which texts might be left out is, as you say, just as important as that of the potential candidates. (And, as you point out, the matter of the definite article -that infuriating "the"- also prevents a satisfying resolution.) However, our impressions of what kind of work can even be considered for the title of Great American Novel stem mostly from assertions by US nationals about US literature. The moment the Great American Novel becomes a continental matter, its definitional parameters and dogmas are up for grabs.
       
      Note: The full text of De Forest's article can be found here.
       

  4. Really interesting piece. I have been thinking quite a lot about how the "American" canon romanticism was built around American romantics like Melville recently. One of the things that I found fascinating was that the term "American" was initially used by people such as Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller to mean exactly what you describe, that is, something beyond the nation-state of the United States. At the time they were writing, the United States was falling in to factionalism. In order to "transcend" that they adopted "America" as an intellectual term to describe a set of concepts and propositions, rather than a fixed set of political realities.This is not unlike Simon Bolivar's romantic Latin-American conception of Americanness and there is plenty more work still to do on this connection. It is interesting that it is the age of De Forest (that is, of later nineteenth-century, pos-Civil War American realism), when the US was becoming much more of an expansionist power with international colonies and control of financial markets, in which "American" comes to stand for the more grounded political reality of the US.

    • Michael Collins /

      Please excuse all the typos in that. I have fat fingers.

      • Xavier Marco del Pont /

        First of all, thank you all for your comments and for sharing your thoughts.
         
        It is interesting that you would mention Simón Bolívar since -like José de San Martín, José Artigas, and other Libertadores- he comes from the era in which the national identities of the continent begin to take shape. Their task, in some ways, was that of putting an end to the European hegemony upon the continent, thus allowing the words Uruguayan, Peruvian, Chilean, Colombian, and so on, to mean something truly distinctive. Demonyms, after all, are supposed to point toward this uniqueness, to declare it in a single word. And it is from this specific vantage point that my critique of the term American to signify merely US citizen stems, of course.
         
        From a certain angle, it does appear to be a geo-chauvinistic statement reminiscent of the doctrine of the right of conquest, Manifest Destiny, etc [1]. Yet, it is interesting to consider it from a seemingly more pedestrian perspective: a language (or a nation) not having specific terms for the Other makes more sense than a language (or a nation) lacking a specific term for its own native speakers (or nationals). The Ancient Greek called all Others Barbarians, to the Jewish the rest of the whole are Gentiles, and so forth. Defining the Other in nebulous terms is always troubling, yet -it would seem- the norm. At the level of language, US nationals have failed to develop a demonym that points towards a singular national identity or, as I phrased it above, one that declares it in a single word.
         
        This self-definitional vagueness I find very intriguing.
         

        [1] Or the Conquista del desierto campaigns. I do not wish to imply that this general attitude is in any way exclusive to the US.
         
         

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