Deconstructing America

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • Sea Changes: British Emigration and American Literature by Stephen Fender
    Cambridge, 400 pp, £40.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 521 41175 0

The topic of national self-regard falls under the general historical heading of ‘exceptionalism’ – where claims are made as to the unique quality of national experience, or ‘character’. The two are usually connected. How a nation views its elementary virtues or basic inclinations is obviously significant. A shared sense of the whole has a bearing on the fashioning of political campaigns, on the values taught in the family and at school, on social and urban policies, on the construction of the workplace, on definitions of success and failure and on the response of its citizenry to moments of crisis.

The ‘problem’ of American exceptionalism takes a special form. The nation invented itself and did so at least twice: once in the Colonial period and again more searchingly in the Revolution and Early Republic. One can even speculate that a nation of immigrants, as much now as in the classic period after the 1890s, must perpetually reinvent itself, since it depends upon or is receptive to overseas sources of labour, energy and loyalty.

Stephen Fender is a San Franciscan by birth and is now Professor of American Studies at Sussex. Being mid-Atlantic, he is in a good position to analyse the question of American exceptionalism. He does so by concentrating on the experience of emigration. Working with socialscience models and their more recent literary forms, he creates a paradigm or matrix which he calls the ‘rhetoric of emigration’ or the ‘dominant discourse of emigration’. It is a ‘discourse’ because it is bipolar or transatlantic, because the topics reproduce themselves over time and because the issues are never resolved. The longevity of the discourse is accounted for by an existential difficulty – the impossibility of defining an ‘American’ – and by the institutionalisation of the discourse. It is embedded in art, in fiction and in the teachings of schools and universities. It is passed on as a basic fact of life and as a self-conscious political commitment.

The universality of the emigrant’s (and immigrant’s) passage is too broad and varied a topic for single treatment. Fender concentrates on the Anglo-American exchange, beginning with the Puritan settlements, but he also touches upon the Irish, emigration to the Dominions, and immigration into the US from the Pale. Although historians disagree, it can be argued that the difference between emigrating to colonies remaining within the British Empire and emigrating to America is the sense of a permanent break. After the Revolution, subjectship was replaced by citizenship, as embodied in the competing ideologies of republicanism (civic responsibility) and natural rights (personal liberty).

An American, at least initially, is therefore someone who is politically free as defined by social contract theory, who can own land, the abundance of which is evident in the ever-advancing frontier and the vast wilderness, who is self-reliant and can expect success in life as the reward for diligence. An American, Fender goes on to say, is also defined by achievement and not by birth. But because American self-understanding is part of a discourse, self-realisation requires a series of conscious decisions involving the rejection or acceptance of a number of distinct institutions and values. The decisions are more than picking and choosing, for the choices come in packages. Americans must reject all the principal defining institutions of the metropolitan country, its structures of governance and religion, its hierarchies and privileges, its attachments and cherished traditions. Americans must similarly reject the cultural artifacts associated with Old World institutions, especially those which emotionally and socially constrain the individual: history, imperial grandeur, Classicism, high culture – even villages. (Richard Hofstadter once explained how the ceaseless lure of land inhibited the growth of village settlements and led to the habit of continually pulling up stakes.)

Repeatedly, in diaries, journals, letters, ‘official’ histories, promotional tracts and works of fiction and poetry, Fender observes the simultaneous process of rejection and reaffirmation. Repudiation of the old must be complete, acceptance of the new equally unstinting. The alternative? Accusations of being ‘un-American’, and Fender contrasts this likelihood with British practice where alienation is voluntary and subjectship permanent. Perhaps.

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