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.

Discourses have a disturbing tendency to remind antagonists of one another’s virtues. That is the point. Discourses erode the faith of Puritan New Englanders in the coming Millennium. They shake the confidence of pioneers. America’s Nature may be superior to Britain’s Culture, but the wilderness is dangerous, the weather inhospitable, the Indians often hostile. Crops fail, settlers quarrel, fanatics momentarily gain the upper hand, children and mothers die, success is elusive. The solitude of the vast American wilderness turns out to be just silence and loneliness. Culture, cultivation and civilisation, associated with great cities, great patrons, great artists and magnificent histories often seem unbearably attractive.

Should this happen, the emigrant has only two choices. The first and more humiliating is to quit. The would-be immigrant confesses that the enterprise was ill-conceived or a disaster, and returns. But failure is tantamount to sinning. Therefore, in turning his back on the New World, the emigrant must close his ears to the admonitions behind and jeers ahead. There were perhaps a million backsliders in the 19th century – American textbooks do not mention this, though the extraordinary Ellis Island museum of immigration does – and the Irish in America all along thought of their new home only as exile. The second alternative is, psychologically, to deny that immigration has gone awry and to insist, by repeating the catechism of the dominant rhetoric of transferring, that the essential aims have in fact been achieved. If outright success proves illusory, it is still possible to claim that the proper attitudes have been acquired. But actually, says Fender, immigrants avoid dwelling on the difficulties of everyday adjustment through such devices as delaying to write home until progress can be reported. In the light of the advantages claimed in advance of the voyage out, anything less than triumph is embarrassing and has the further drawback of discouraging others.

Fender’s close reading of selected documents repeatedly produces compelling interpretations. His analysis of the parallel texts written by the earliest settlers is very fine (he is not the first to consider them in tandem, but his remarks are invariably special). One is usually a private account appearing in a journal, the other designed for public consumption. Comparison shows how the second reinterprets events to make them conform to the standard triumphalism. Americans also altered the received vocabulary. The North American wilderness and its formidable mountains, swamps and interminable prairies, which in Britain would at best have been described as ‘sublime’ – that is, terrible but with moral significance – were recatalogued in America as ‘picturesque’, a word associated with the tamed and rusticated English countryside of the 18th century. Here, though, I’d point to a similar tendency in Britain, as when Dr Johnson ‘reduced’ mountains to ‘pictures’ by using a Claude mirror when climbing.

One puzzle in particular Fender explains with ingenuity. Why, especially because of the American propensity to advertise, was it that settlers in their letters home rarely attempted to persuade others to emigrate? The answer he provides is that the Atlantic crossing was considered to be an irreversible rite of passage. To be effective, the rite had to be voluntary, a willing and thus spiritual disposition to endure hardship, and a purging in advance of lingering doubts and hesitancies. In some theologies, rebirth is more an act of preparation than an epiphany.

As emigration from Britain is a two-way conversation, Fender considers the other side. How were the emigrants to be regarded? The answers vary by historical period. In the great expansion of mercantilist empire, emigrants were agents of the metropolitan power. As such, they were the advance guard ferreting out important raw materials and markets for London. But after the break (or Fall), emigrants were, as we know from British travellers’ accounts, deemed deficient in precisely those qualities cited by Americans as evidence of moral superiority. They were without culture, tradition or history, without established and venerable institutions, without decorum. They were unsettled and undisciplined, loud and spontaneous. According to a theory by Count Buffon, transplants invariably degenerated in their adopted environments. Americans in turn took their revenge upon Britain by exporting American versions of democracy and radicalism, later popular or mass culture, and these repeatedly became features of British domestic history throughout the 19th and indeed the 20th centuries.

The essential ambivalence of Anglo-American emigration is captured, Fender explains, in the way ‘settled’ Americans (e.g. Thoreau) regarded newcomers (such as the Irish). Late arrivals were criticised for their vulgarity, dependence and lack of initiative. Taken to an extreme, this ungenerous welcome ultimately meant a dismissal of America itself for having turned out badly, and in the attacks of a furious Henry James one hears the expatriate voice denounce the land of his birth and the national traits which at home are faithfully cheered.

An embarrassment not only with newcomers but with America’s everyday life, which, so far from being exceptional, is merely ordinary, enters into the fictional representation of things American. Fender is absorbing on the absence of a ‘middle distance’ perspective, witnessing action that takes place in the space between beholder and horizon. American writers position themselves for either the immediate (the self) or the long ago. True culture belongs to ancient peoples like the Greeks, and American Modernists such as Eliot or Pound are compelled to make reference to Homer or Goethe, to Shakespeare or the Italian Renaissance, skipping over the trite insignificance of the Yankee’s proximate world to embrace the past.

Perhaps only in its very broadest dimensions is Fender’s analysis familiar from the scholarly literature on American exceptionalism. Otherwise the range of reference to English and American writing is unfailingly impressive, the details are always stimulating, the interpretations subtle and sophisticated. Passages of literary skill are frequent, as in the conclusion to a discussion of Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail. Every part of his book is an eye-opener. It will be imitated and its thesis extended beyond the Anglo-American connection. It will doubtless form an important part of on-going work in immigration history.

The relationship of literature or literary activity to national self-understanding is nearly a subspecialty in the history of culture. The use of literary materials for cultural and historical analysis is indispensable for a number of reasons, but one of them surely accessibility. Heuristically, it would be difficult to write a book such as Sea Changes using any other approach – let us say, the millions of newspapers and magazines that are extant, the miles of Congressional documents, the personal correspondence as yet unknown, radio broadcasts that have been preserved and diaries and journals as yet undiscovered. The use of carefully selected works of fiction, joined to biographies and journals and diaries, is a shorthand form of work otherwise neglected or reluctantly undertaken. Interpretations can naturally be challenged – I might disagree with the weighting Fender gives to the story of the Connecticut settler who complains that ‘there is no good berrys in the country’, and his brief account of enclosure in England is both outmoded and unsupported – but the general approach is valid.

Nevertheless, another level of validation exists. Books such as Sea Changes are not necessarily detached from the process they describe. They are, in fact, part of the same discourse and contribute to its survival. Indeed, the passages of fine prose are intermixed with the literary jargon that customarily accompanies ‘discourse’ (the word itself is used 21 times in the first 25 pages of text), such as ‘the other’, ‘to privilege’, ‘decentring’ and ‘deconstructing’. Altogether they indicate the moral world assumed in the book’s thesis.

To put the issue more squarely, whatever Fender’s intentions (it is now fashionable to ask whether an author is in command of his or her own text), the overall impression conveyed by Sea Changes is that America as an idea or aspiration has failed. It was never Paradise Regained, it was never truly the means to a millennium, it was not the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, and it really did not begin to deliver the promise of freedom to all its inhabitants until the Civil War was fought. Indeed, it has yet to deliver that promise. Furthermore, and more damning, Americans knew from the outset that their claims were flawed: but with so much psychological and emotional investment tied up in the decision to emigrate, a candid admission was impossible. It was impossible for the immigrants, and it was impossible for the nation: for as Fender says, America is the ‘collective singular’. The parts are more primary than the whole.

A historiographical retrospective is useful at this point. Within the last two decades, most notably in the Eighties, the study of history shifted towards the investigation of ‘meanings’. Whether this is yet another branch of the Seventies preoccupation with ‘process’ is a nice point: but both words deflect readers from considering national ends and achievements, distance them from the celebration of success and from the sources of national self-congratulation. Fender cites Charlotte Erikson’s conclusion that emigrants were uninterested in democracy. He refers to the ‘mythology of the American dream’. This is now a fairly common sentiment. In reaction to it, national self-congratulation takes the dangerous forms of a simple-minded nativism and anti-élitism.

In the policy sciences, the comparable strategy is to focus on ‘decision-making’ rather than on decisions. One reason is clear. Americans are at present disenchanted with their politics and social policies, and the mood is infectious. Another has to do with weariness from half a century’s internal controversies, starting with the House Un-American Activities Committee, extending through the McCarthy era and the tumultuous years of civil rights marches. Reflecting the bitterness arising because of the Vietnam War, art became more concerned with the enemy within than the enemy without, as Fender shows in his discussion of the American war novel. All these events have deeply affected the way in which writers, historians and critics view America’s missionary enthusiasms.

In reviewing the changing tone of history-writing in the last half-century, we continue to discover a stepping back from direct association with the Republic’s self-adulation, a fear of conspiracies (of which America has had a number in high places) and a suspicion of the evident or the substantial. In the Fifties one heard more or less for the first time the widespread use of the media word ‘image’ as a substitute for the real thing, and shortly thereafter from north of the American border came Canada’s avenging angel proclaiming that the medium itself was the message. Now we hear in some quarters that there is no meaning beyond the text itself.

The process of deconstructing America and other Western nations is well-advanced in our day, yet many other countries are attempting to construct themselves. We could say that in doing so they are engaged in discourses not only internally but with neighbouring peoples. The results are hardly edifying, if we are to judge by what is happening in the territory familiarly called Yugoslavia or by how minorities are treated in the former republics of the Soviet Union, indeed almost anywhere. The Czechs and the Slovaks have just decided to part, but their marriage was never consummated. The displacement of peoples in the course of the present century and the unfortunate consequences of being a member of a minority group are evidence of the nearly universal rejection of the concept of an immigrant society.

Suppose we use these present circumstances as a perspective for studying American exceptionalism or national character. How would the story appear? It might entail playing down the sense of doubt and unfulfilment advanced as the ‘dominant discourse of emigration’. A list of works could be compiled that were more celebratory, less problematical and ambivalent, more certain about American definitions of democracy, success and decency, just straightforward and uncomplicated declarations of national sufficiency. Americans would be seen to believe in their country as the City on the Hill, the New Jerusalem, a light unto the nations. Satisfaction would be expressed in such actions as having led an often reluctant Europe in the long war against Communism, or in having tripped up the Watergate crowd. Present difficulties notwithstanding, Americans would take pride in having tried to create a multi-ethnic, plurally-religious society where elsewhere the attempt itself was unthinkable – no, risible. The sources would of course contain dissenting opinions, but dissent is wholly compatible with freedom.

Too simple.

The method of a ‘dominant discourse’ has undeniable intrinsic attractions. It provides more dramatic opportunities for narrating history. It captures the tensions that are inevitably part of the story. It has verisimilitude. So perhaps Professor Fender wishes us to take note of the fact that nations legally and ideologically committing themselves to pluralism will be distinguished by having a permanent conversation on the theme of strangers coming together.

How shall we judge nations that eschew such a Biblical discourse?