I entered this unit with a naive understanding of what literature in America embodied and expressed. I blame this, in part, on the saturation of mass media constructing America’s national identity in popular culture, the escapism of Disney, or even in slogans of unhinged political leaders such as Donald Trump exclaiming, “Make America Great Again”.
“We Want You”, a poster that could be described as a “Pin-Up” of American Nationalism and identiy.
The essential issue of such limited and ignorant perceptions of America is that it neglects the rich diversity and, at times, deep contradictions that are expressed in their literature. Through taking this unit, I have been fortunate to have been allowed to expand my understanding of the rich variety of polemical issues that are expressed in American Literature. One may only have to look so far as the Declaration of Independence to understand how one nation may embody a chasm of variety in their identity:
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”
-Source: Forbe Quotes
At its core, America is a nation-state that strives to break free from traditional conventions to escape the constraints of normalcy and endeavor after the new territory of the unconventional. Thus, when looking at the literature of this nation-state it is evident, or innate that paradoxes will exist.
Upon reflection, my best blog, The Divine, explores some of the conventions of which American Literature strived for an individual identity. Transcendentalism was a loose movement that explored the way that higher reasoning, or spiritual intuition, maybe explored through self-reliance, a deep connection with nature and a rejection of society’s conventions. Through the deliberate rejection of traditional English literary conventions, Transcendentalism is reflective of the Declaration of Independence in allowing America to express their individual literary identity.
In my best blog, The Divine, I explored key ideas of Emerson’s “nature” in a creative response. By first critically analyzing the way Emerson suggested that human contact with nature can lead to a higher order of thinking that is restorative and divine, I opened myself to my natural surroundings to explore this. In doing so, I transformed what was once a lack of inspiration for these blogs into an explosion of images and sensory experiences that I could translate into a creative response. In the line, “I could hear the humming harmony of the trees whistling in the wind clearer now”, the alliteration of “humming harmony”, was used to explore a unified rhythm between my soul and the soul of the environment around me. The religiously infused connotation of, “rays of the sun to bless me with their sacred touch,” expressed the intimate connection that I felt with my creator after having opened my experience up to nature. I deeply felt the meaning of Emerson’s words as I was enriched with my own spiritual connection to nature and the divine that opened me up to academic inspiration. Through the works of the Transcendentalist and their revolutionary literary products of self-reliance and independence, America’s national identity was empowered with an individualized and powerful divergent from traditional English conventions.
Such empowering views, however, were not the unified experience for all Americans. One could argue that this drive for individualism and individual success, in turn, rejected and oppressed the other that was ostracised from the American identity. As this unit progressed I was forced to ask myself, to what extent does the success of one person suppress the other?
In an attempt to make sense of this great paradox in the American Literary composition, my blog The Quilt of Tradition was produced. This blog was based upon Alice Walker’s, “Everyday Use”, and expressed the issues of a dual identity, or the double consciousness of the African American. This essentially embodied the way that African Americans are torn between their most authentic African identity and the force of assimilating into the American national identity. Through my analysis of the visual representation of using the quilt as an ornament or physically every day, I developed a deeper understanding of this torn identity. Dee desiring to use it as an ornamental piece symbolizes the way that cultural identity is forced to become a mere aesthetic presence, without actively expressing or embodying it in one’s life. Whilst Maggie’s desire to use it “every day”, connotates the active use and embodiment of her identity. Critically, Walker identifies with all these characters. This is extremely powerful and comments on the paradoxes of America as she expresses that neither choice is the issue, but the very fact that an individual has to choose between their cultural identity or nation-state identity is the issue.
Thus, I was left with a contradictory understanding of American Literature. On one hand, the self-reliant and convention-breaking style of the Transcendentalist resonated with me personally as I experienced the spiritually transformative influence of nature on my divine connection. Contradictorily, I was presented with the grim reality that one’s success often may mean the demise of others. It was not until William Faulkner’s, “As I Lay Dying,” that I was able to make sense of this great paradox.
In his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize, Faulkner stated:
“The problems of the human heart in conflict with itself … alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat”
Through his exploration of the contradictory responses of grief, Faulkner understands that the essential state of the human spirit is to be a conflict with oneself. Thus, perhaps the only universal connection in a nation of paradoxes such as America is the presence of conflict and differences. The very fact that American literature is so diverse and enriched in differences is what I argue is its strength. America is a nation of paradoxes, and that is what makes it so great.