American Literature and Americanism

American Literature and Americanism

I finally received my grade for the journal assignment in American Literature class.
I didn’t include a works cited, as the assignment didn’t require it, but then I realized by posting on here, I suppose I must need one.

But for now, I’ll ignore it, and add a disclaimer here: I do not own the quotes used in my journal, and they belong to their respective authors and works.

American Literature and Americanism

        During the four years living in California, I remember standing, reciting the Pledge while placing my hand over my heart every morning before first period of a school day. I felt American as I recited the words. I felt part of America’s history as I studied it and read fiction based on American historical events. However, after moving back to Taiwan, my perception of America changed. Based on this ‘enlightenment’ and to understand what I thought now, I felt more driven to read closely and analyze three quotations in our handout over the others: Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, The American Legion and Putin’s plea to President Obama.

Turner’s quotation shows the Emptiness and Constant Motion theme, along with the importance of the Frontier in Americanism. Upon reading this quotation, I felt it accurately described Americans. For Americans in the West Expansion era, the Frontier equaled to Emptiness, for there was virtually nothing ‘advanced’ in the Frontier, only wilderness. Through American’s desire of constant motion, it brought out how they were also adaptable to primitive and harsh environments. This frontier shaped the Americans, molding them into resourceful, restless and inventive people. For Turner, the West was America’s Frontier. For the modern American, the world is America’s next Frontier. So, Americanism, to this day, seeps into cultures all over the world. The second quotation from The American Legion is similar to my impression of America as a child living in California. I believed America was the epitome of justice and freedom. As a result, I felt that any country that did not show the same qualities as shown in the Americanism Manual was unworthy. As an adult though, when I read this quotation before class discussion, I felt that Americanism, as described, really is “[…] a cause, a way of life”. It did not mean that countries that were different from America were unworthy; rather they embraced another kind of way of living. However, I would not say that all countries around the world should embrace the same sort of traits that Americanism glorifies, but rather, countries should feel proud of their own nation, just as how Americans feel the same for the US. This ‘way of life’, essentially equals to pride of one’s own country. Yet, Americanism has warped into a tool to dominate other countries. This brings us to the last quotation from Putin, based on the theme of Exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is the flip side of Americanism, because I believe Exceptionalism is what Colonialism is to the Europeans, just in different packaging. During class discussion, a lot of people brought up a lot of bad impressions about America. But I felt that their comments had missed what Putin was trying to convey: he was talking about America feeling obliged and entitled to ‘fix’ other countries due to Exceptionalism, but not necessarily because of Americanism. An American can embrace their ‘Americanism’, but that doesn’t mean they’d feel they are ‘exceptional’.

In my impression, America started out as something good, the nation where ‘American Dreams’ can come true. It symbolized not just an opportunity for a new life, but also a chance for independence, which was what a lot of colonialized countries wished for. Yet now, our common, general perception of America would be somewhere along the lines equal to ‘arrogant’ or ‘the policeman of the world’. How this came to be, I believe, isn’t as simple as believing America as an ‘old biddy who can’t stop poking her nose into other people’s businesses’. “With great power comes with great responsibility”, and I think this is what happened to America. America grew into one of the most powerful nations in the world after World War II, so countries all of the world must have expected America to step in whenever problems arose. After all, no other country could match America in military prowess. But now, there are other giants competing with America. This is a nice breeding ground for Exceptionalism, where America would believe they are unique and therefore not like any other country, especially the countries that have the potential to rival America in all aspects. In a way, Exceptionalism isn’t something that is directed to the world, rather it could be viewed as emboldening one’s self, or revalidating one’s position in the world. (Which could be what was President Obama was aiming for in his speech, yet Putin happened to take it in a more literal way, or an attempt at propaganda)

I feel the readings assigned for the compact course segment has covered several aspects of what Americanism is through multiple perspectives. The first is Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through writing about Nature, he points out the flaws in man’s nature and understanding of Nature itself. Mankind, in Emerson’s point of view, has become corrupted through advancement in culture, and lost the innocence that is similar to Adam and Eve’s innocence in the Bible. This is why Emerson says, “The problem of restoring to the world original and eternal beauty, is solved by the redemption of the soul” (535). At first, I felt Emerson’s call for redemption was similar to Europe’s Romanticism: a sense of nostalgia of the past. The past meaning the ‘innocence’ before man was cast out of the Garden of Eden. But upon re-reading “At present, man applies to nature but half his force…” (534), I began to think that Emerson wasn’t hoping for a ‘return to the past’, but rather looking back to the past innocence as a way to embrace and improve one’s future. Only through understanding Nature through the ‘transparent eye-ball’ would man be able to connect his Soul with Nature, thus embracing nature, living in it and learning from it. In a sense, it is similar to Americanism through the constant moving and rebirth process. The second work is Mark Twain’s “Concerning the American Language”. Even if it was written in a sarcastic, humorous way, Twain points out the importance of American language and English being two different languages, which then rectifies America’s independence from England. I’ve always felt that the examples Twain used were a bit laughable, since it felt more like giving the Englishman a hard time rather trying to give a serious debate or argument (which could be the point). I also felt that the American language is more ‘free’ in a way. There are no class distinction, less rules to remember, and more equality among its users, like how Twain points out in: “Your words ‘gentleman and ‘lady have a very restricted meaning…” (“Concerning”). It’s not surprising that Twain would use the American language to show what Americanism is about: freedom. (But it obviously comes with a price: intellectual debates on linguistics). The third work is Walt Whitman’s “Years of the Modern”. I feel the last two lines “The perform’d America and Europe” does not necessarily mean that they would be eliminated from the race of modernism; rather it could mean both nations are entering a new era. America at 1859 had just finished expanding to California, which could probably mean the ‘perform’d America’ is an America that will enter a new modernized time as a unified country. The fourth work is Ernest Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber”. This story shows us a perspective of Americans from an English man in Africa. Wilson symbolizes England in leading Francis, the American, and there is a kind of patriarchal pride from Wilson when seeing Francis enter manhood with a bang. In a sense, Francis does embody the ‘young, untested’ American man, because in the African wilderness and among its natives, Francis stands out like a sore thumb in his inexperience. I feel Americanism in this story stands as the young, untested nation among the untamed, African wilderness and England’s long history, and has to undergo challenges in order to grow. Yet the ending also implies that Francis and America should have stopped at hunting down the last buffalo before arrogance clouds their thinking. The last work is Silko’s Ceremony, which tells of Americanism from a half-Native American’s perspective. Out of all the readings, I felt a kinship with this story, because as an Asian who had lived in the States and once identified myself as an American, I could intimately experience Tayo’s anger and sadness at fully knowing the racism towards Native Americans. Americanism, as shown through Tayo’s veteran friends, isn’t just about adopting American habits or behavior. You also have to be accepted and respected by the ‘real’ Americans, the white people (which is ironic, because Native Americans were there on American soil first).

Personally, this course segment touched my sense of belonging in different cultures deeply. There are so many things I want to talk about in this journal that I had a hard time sitting down and begin typing. Among all of the themes, I especially liked the Frontier, as there’s always a sense of adventure. As for the readings, I liked Eliot’s The Wasteland. Even if I didn’t talk about that work in my journal, I loved the symbolism and having to ask the right questions in order to ‘heal’. I felt it is a piece of wisdom that not only could save Western Civilization someday, but also solve problems in our own lives, too. While some of the readings were difficult, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Americanism and the classic readings.


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