The contents of our character.
Current debates over immigration pivot on the notion of the distinctly American character and culture: Can anyone, from anywhere, learn how to be an American? REASON asked a number of writers and scholars to recommend three books, with a couple of restrictions: one had to be a work of fiction, and one had to have been written in the past 50 years. We were seeking the books that would be most instructive to a new immigrant on those vexing questions: What is the American character? What defines American culture?
* Brink Lindsey
What has always been best and most distinctive about the American character is its sense of adventure. The immigrant knows this: That is what brought him here. Willingness (even eagerness) to take risks, to depart from old ways of doing things, to try the unknown – these represent the ideal of American dating.
This adventurous spirit achieved its best-known expression in the conquest of the Western frontier. An appreciation of this episode must transcend caricatures, whether of today’s P.C. demonizers or yesteryear’s whitewashers. A good place to begin is Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1985), the story of two former Texas Rangers who lead a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. It is a beautiful, funny, and immensely entertaining book, and it captures perfectly the reckless, rambunctious vitality that led the Western expansion. In particular, the richly realized character of Augustus McCrae is my idea of what a great American should be: lighthearted, good at his work, sociable but independent, practical but a dreamer.
The primary outlet for American adventurousness today is the workplace. Snobs of both the left and right deny that commerce allows for any largeness of spirit, but they could not be more wrong. Daring and competitive striving were traditionally aristocratic virtues; capitalism democratized them, and capitalism’s development spreads the opportunities to practice them ever more widely.
An adventure does not require gun-fire or death-defiance; it needs only a formidable challenge, and the boldness to take it on and meet it. Richard Preston’s American Steel: Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt (1991) tells the adventure of a steel mill – specifically, Nucor’s opening of the first flat-rolled minimill. The drama of the story grips like a novel. Read this book to experience capitalism at its best.
Americans are the great pioneers and defenders of a social order based on capitalist-style adventure. And the growth of this order – the integration of millions of dreams and risks taken through the coordinating forces of the market – may itself be seen in the larger view as a grand collective adventure. The prize of this quest is described in Max Singer’s remarkable Passage to a Human World (1987): the transformation of the normal human life from one mired in ignorance and poverty to one broadened by the possibilities of affluence.
In creating this new world, we are exploring the unknown – human beings have never lived like this before. It is a world well suited to American adventurousness.
* Andrew Ferguson
It’s a sad fact that most great works of American literature are anti-bourgeois, anti-small town, hence, in some way, anti-American. A newly arrived immigrant unlucky enough to read, say, Sister Carrie or Main Street or Winesburg, Ohio, would take away an unmistakable message: “Go back!”
This doesn’t make our great works of literature any less great, though, so choosing from them almost at random I would hand our new immigrant a copy, well-thumbed, of Spoon River Anthology (1915). This is Edgar Lee Masters’s collection of poems about a small valley in Western Illinois, pre-World War I. Taking names from the headstones of a local cemetery, Masters wrote a poem for each townsman, and as you read along the tales interweave and overlap and fold back upon one another, exposing the inevitable small-town lies and hypocrisies but also – and this is crucial instances of grace and nobility and redemption. If nothing else, the book shows why Americans were so in a rush to urbanize. If we’d all had to stay in a small valley in Western Illinois, we would have gone crazy.
I would also force upon our immigrant friend a load of Mencken (probably the Second Chrestomathy, edited by my friend Terry Teachout and published in 1995), so that he might begin to glimpse the exuberance and wit the American language is capable of expressing. Along with the singular quality of his prose, Mencken’s habits of mind – the skepticism and hardheadedness and unfailing sense of appreciation and pleasure – are good habits for anyone caught up in the raucous carnival of American life.
And last I would hand him a copy of Wealth and Poverty by George Gilder (1981). I haven’t yet decided whether I agree with Gilder about the altruism that he believes lies at capitalism’s heart. But I probably should, for no one shows such an understanding of. both the mechanics and the morality of the marketplace. And as our new immigrant would soon discover about the American marketplace, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
* Gary Alan Fine
Ever since Adolf Hitler and his cronies wrecked the legitimacy of assessing the traits of peoples, writers have been properly wary of embracing too tightly the belief that nations have “character.” Yet, despite the mischief that some have made of it, a common-sense perception exists that different societies are fundamentally distinctive. National character feels right, even if definitive proof is difficult to come by.
We Americans treasure what has come to be called “American exceptionalism” – those features of who we are that we believe distinguish us from others: those nasty un-Americans. Dismiss any biological basis, any American gene; we have been melted in the same pot.
In recommending books that reveal this character one is tempted to name two distinctively American popular genres and leave it at that: science and Westerns – literatures that look forward and back. These literatures enshrine the American reverence for technology and for the land, and both within the context of a rugged individualism.
Beyond those categories, three volumes stand out for me as guides to what it means to be an American: for good and for ill.
Perhaps we should junk our current citizenship tests, and merely insist that all prospective citizens read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Each applicant could be required to explain how Huck Finn moved them. Any number of explanations would validate one’s Americanism. Set within a crucial period of American history, capturing the American tragedies of slavery and racial bigotry, depicting the importance of both community and individual initiative, and set on the intersection of regional cultures of the Midwest, South, and West, Huck Finn confronts the reader with the questions of what American society is and what it should and could be. Further, if one believes that one cannot truly understand a people until one can laugh at their jokes and cry at their sorrows, Huck Finn, alternatively raucously funny and mordantly sad, provides a test for becoming an American in one’s emotional response.
My second selection is a bit of a cheat. Trying to decide whether to chose Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) or his lecture/essay “Civil Disobedience” (1848) was eased by the fact that I have an edition that includes both. As readers of REASON recognize, the latter is a grand, radical libertarian paean to freedom – an American political tract that stands up against Marx and Engel’s contemporaneous Communist Manifesto. The former defines individualism in practice. If we do not choose to retreat to our own Walden, we experience the awareness vicariously through Thoreau’s clean prose and wild life. Could such an essay be written anywhere but America? Our wilderness is our freedom.
As a practicing sociologist, I cannot resist including a volume by a colleague: Joseph Gusfield’s classic and spirited study, Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement (1963). Gusfield takes as his case the battle over Prohibition laws: a lengthy straggle, unimaginable in many other industrial nations. For Gusfield, temperance is not really about alcohol, but about class, ethnicity, gender, and moral discipline. Lines are drawn between female, rural, Protestant residents of Anglo-English descent and more recent migrants to these shores: Catholics, urbanites, males, and “ethnics.” The battle is not over the bottle, but over the ballot and the economy. Significantly, Prohibition was enacted at about the time that immigration was sharply curtailed: The first experiment lasted barely a decade, while the latter exercise in exclusion lasted 40 years. The battles over immigration are as American as the battle over slavery. The Statue of Liberty may reflect a cherished American ideal, but statues don’t vote or march.
* Joseph Epstein
Democracy in America, the first book I would have our new American read, is one that surprises me afresh whenever I return to it by its powers of penetrating beyond the surface of social and political life. It was published in 1835, when its author was 30, and is based on information and observations he acquired when sent to this country to study penal reform in 1831, when he was 26. Tocqueville, though not himself an immigrant, provides a matchless model for anyone newly arrived in our country of the possibilities of astute social observation. Henry James advised that one try to be a person on whom nothing is lost. The young Alexis de Tocqueville was such a person and Democracy in America proves it beyond any question.
Chapter 19 of Part II of Tocqueville’s book begins: “The first thing that strikes one in the United States is the innumerable crowd of those striving to escape from their original social condition; and the second is the rarity, in a land where all are actively ambitious, of any lofty ambition.” Ambition, or perhaps following Tocqueville one does better to say “personal aspiration,” which for so long has been at the heart of American life, dictates my choice of a second book for my new immigrant: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). What Fitzgerald’s novel ought to make plain to the new American is that Americans, at their best, have been a nation of dreamers. Yet he or she should also know that these dreams frequently carry a price. Poor Jay Gatsby’s dream of recapturing and revising the past may not qualify as a “lofty ambition” in the Tocquevillian sense, but it has its own kind of grandeur. “Gatsby,” this novel’s penultimate paragraph reads, “believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning – ”
The third book I would recommend is Independence Day, a novel by Richard Ford that is less than a year old and that I myself have not even finished reading. But unless Ford blows it badly, his book seems to me to fit in handsomely with my other two suggestions, in being a work about American ambition, aspiration, and dreams. Its unlikely hero is a divorced father of two, of all unromantic things a real estate salesman, and the book is about what America does to dreams – not all of it, by any means, very nice, but much of it useful to know. It is a novel about life in this country at a time when the notion of progress that has for so long propelled so many American actions and beliefs has to be significantly qualified without being altogether jettisoned. To an attentive immigrant – or, for that matter, American-born – reader it has a vast amount of important information about the way Americans live now: about our hopes and fears and what it means to be an American at the end of the 20th century.
* Charles Paul Freund
The landscape of the American character is rather broad for the three small structures this assignment allows me to build on it. Let’s build then with three novels of this century: They throw big shadows.
If Americans are part cowboy, an important reason is Owen Wister’s 1902 novel The Virginian. Wister’s tale of cowboy life in Wyoming created the essential American myth – and hero – we have been revisiting ever since. Americans know this book whether or not they’ve read it or even heard of it.
Unlike his garrulous, socially humble dime-novel predecessors, the never-named hero of Wister’s novel is important for. his code, not his birth: His family is irrelevant to his character, as is his meager education. He is a man of deeds, not words, ideas, or culture, and he acts out of a powerful sense of duty. Never seeking violence, he must do what honor and justice demand. The trail runs true from The Virginian to Tom Mix, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne; even to Herb Jeffries, the Bronze Buckaroo of ’30s all-black movies.
When The Virginian appeared, Frederick Jackson Turner had already declared the frontier closed; the age of cities and consumerism had begun. What Wister shaped from a fading past was a folk-epic West where a man could mold himself free of artificial restraints: our American dream. His book, set amid the infamous Johnson County Wars, is also unalloyed propaganda for cattlemen; the 1980 film Heaven’s Gate told the story in class-struggle terms. Different audience.
By 1939, when Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep appeared, open trails had become mean streets, and down them walked private eye Philip Marlowe, maintaining his honor in a corrupt world. Chandler’s debt is to Hemingway and Hammett, but the spectacular world of American noir owes its greatest debt to Chandler.
Tough, mistrustful, knightly, Marlowe’s is the most distinctive of American voices, the clean if smoke-coarsened music behind a world of garish neon, too much booze, and dreams gone sour. A man of deeds, as is the American style, Marlowe is also a man of words, which he wields like bullets. That voice lives: You still hear it in Blade Runner and in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the basic text of cyberpunk.
The Big Sleep isn’t Chandler’s best book (Farewell, My Lovely is), but it’s a more revealing combination of American toughism and our cultural ambivalence toward cops, power, and wealth. It’s hard to mold yourself in an American city: They’re big, dirty, and full of phony restraints. You’ve got to know how to slip those restraints and still be able to look at yourself in the mirror when you snap your hat brim. Marlowe could. That’s why we still hear him.
Truman Capote once sniffed famously that On The Road by Jack Kerouac wasn’t writing at all; it was “just typing.” True, Kerouac’s 1957 book about his travels around the country is shapeless and undisciplined. But Kerouac wasn’t offering American picaresque. On The Road is a work of sensibilities: wild, cool, and beat. Kerouac was typing spontaneously amid a rising storm of generational discontent and self-absorption, characteristics that came to dominate postwar American (and not only American) culture and character.
Kerouac invented neither ’50s beat culture nor ’60s counterculture, though On The Road heralded the prose arrival of the former, and was an essential text of the latter. Indeed, the work of the beats must stand in for the largely missing literature of their hippie offspring, who channeled their juices into music.
On The Road isn’t a bad stand-in. Kerouac and his traveling buddies make their own highway frontier where they slip restraints Owen Wister never dreamed of. Melding with many Americas, black and Indian as well as white mainstream, they are the cool, slang-talking, bebop-thumping, messiah-dreaming products of what we now call cultural discourse. Cultural cousin to the young Brando and the thin Elvis, and a buzz in the ear of Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, Kerouac’s book implies the technologically possible placelessness that is the final American frontier: in his case, cars; in ours, satellites and computers. Beyond that, there is no national culture, and you’re not an American anymore.
* Steven Hayward
In one of his many encomiums to the Declaration of Independence, Abraham Lincoln hit upon the chief reason why it is possible for anyone from anywhere to become an American, while it is nearly unthinkable for an emigre to become a Frenchman or a German: One becomes an American by adopting its principles, especially the principles of equal rights expounded in the Declaration. But the political principles alone are not the sum of the matter. The “American Dream,” which connotes something more than merely political character, is similarly exceptional: The mere mention of the possibility of the Canadian Dream or the German Dream elicits a smile.
Hence, an immigrant to America should start with something like A. J. Langguth’s Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution (1988), which offers vivid portraits of the main figures of the revolutionary generation. In a more contemporary vein, Richard Rodriguez’s Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1981) offers a stirring account of the necessary but often brutal process of becoming an American.
The American Dream is in the end bound up with the nation’s principles, in ways which can be hard to discern today. All regimes are vulnerable to a kind of corruption specific to their principles: in our case, the attenuation of the idea of rights, along with an apolitical liberalism that overemphasizes comfortable self-preservation, constitutes a corruption of the civic virtue at the heart of the American Dream as the Founding generation understood it. There are a variety of difficult nonfiction books one might punish an immigrant with, but for a better impressionistic look at several aspects of these problems, a new immigrant would do well to read Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987).
* John Hood
New Americans deserve to know what they’ve gotten themselves into – not simply a country with defined borders and a common national culture, but a two-centuries-old experiment whose boundaries have yet to be determined and for which tumultuous change is itself a tradition. The American Experiment is unique in world history, but its goal is to satisfy a universal desire for human freedom and dignity. To a great and unprecedented extent, the experiment has proved a success. But the intervening struggle has often been a difficult one. New Americans – who in the future may well be called upon to defend and expand the freedom that is their bequest today – need to learn more about it.
The novels that make up James Fenimore Cooper’s The Leatherstocking Tales (1823-41) are an excellent introduction to the important American heroic concepts of personal freedom, audacity, and individual responsibility. That America is a frontier society has long been (correctly) taken as a given, and used by the modern left to justify abandonment of the country’s original political and economic principles – since, they say, the frontier no longer exists. That is absurd, of course, as any biotechnology executive or cybersurfing teenager can attest.
The Tales also help to chronicle the days of rebellion against oppressive government, an American Revolution that didn’t just end with the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. Contentious debates continued about how far government power should extend over money, trade, and the freedom of millions of human beings, culminating in 19th-century war and tragedy. At the same time, entrepreneurs such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, James J. Hill, and John Rockefeller faced enormous challenges and government-erected hurdles – in the form of subsidized and protected competitors – in their efforts to build a modern industrial economy. On these two subjects, I’d put a good history of the Civil War (say, by Shelby Foote) and the thin but indispensable volume Entrepreneurs vs. the State by Burton W. Folsom Jr. (1987) on any new American’s reading list. (Folsom’s book is also available in a 1991 expanded version titled The Myth of the Robber Barons.)
The 20th century has seen great tragedy as well as great accomplishment. For many Americans, the promise of freedom remains unfulfilled. Nevertheless, the amount of progress would be hard to overstate. Henry Grady Weaver, in his classic 1947 work The Mainspring of Human Progress, explains how the concept of freedom created the American society so many immigrants seek to join: “Why did men, women, and children eke out their meager existence for 6,000 years [of recorded history], toiling desperately from dawn to dark – barefoot, half-naked, unwashed, unshaved, uncombed, with lousy hair, mangy skins, and rotting teeth – then suddenly, in one place on earth there is an abundance of things such as rayon underwear, nylon hose, shower baths, safety razors, ice cream sodas, lipsticks, and permanent waves?” Immigrants, perhaps more so than natives, intuitively understand why Weaver’s simple question is so provocative. When they can answer the question as easily, their journey to America will be truly complete.
* Marcus Klein
America is the one nation in the world that is defined not for its immigrants but by them – and not simply as they might contribute one ingredient or another to the great American bouillabaisse, but by record of the adventure in itself of their finding a place in 20th-century America. It is an odd but demonstrable fact that in modern times the most subtle of definitions of American tradition and culture have come from the pens of those who have had that adventure or from their first-generation American children. Therefore for the new immigrant the most instructive books might well be accounts of his predecessors, and among such accounts it would likely be works of fiction that would be most instructive because fiction allows for complicated and sometimes contradictory feeling, for tentativeness of discovery and judgment.
For a hundred years and more the immigrant to America has been confronted by a country that is at once beckoning and hostile, at once welcoming and demeaning, at once a guarantor of liberties and a restrictor of the same, and which at once promises material opportunity and denies the same. Add to such bafflement of day-to-day life the drag, moral and familial, of the culture that is being abandoned and the sheer necessity of surviving in the new – there is material here for a rich and enlightening literature.
The new immigrant might well consider Abraham Cahan’s novel of 1917, The Rise of David Levinsky. The title character, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, works hard and rises to become a wonderfully successful businessman, and does not thereby lose his soul. David Levinsky is a very long novel that is instructive because it is true to its ambiguities. Levinsky becomes sly and occasionally is brutal in his rise to riches, as is not an unlikely price of character for the sake of success in America, while at the end he is nevertheless faithful to his beginnings, balancing pride and guilt, with no clear end to his adventure in sight.
No end, in fact, to this literature that records the making of Americans, and therefore the making of America. But one might make special mention of Henry Roth’s novel of 1934, Call It Sleep, which illuminates the adventure by presenting it through the eyes of a child.
For that matter the black experience in modern America is not essentially different from that of the immigrant, and an account of it might provide him with another kind of illumination. The novel he should look at, without doubt, is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, published in 1952. While it is an angry novel, it, too, straggles with the guilt of abandonment of a prior culture. “I yam what I yam,” says the hero, to speak of more than his dietary traditions. But America nonetheless is this hero’s fatality, and his adventure consists of his becoming the American. “Who knows,” this narrator famously says to white America, “but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you.” Which is what our new immigrant will be doing, too.
* Linda Chavez
“Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” Thus begins The Uprooted by Oscar Handlin. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book, first published in 1951, turns the romantic story of our immigrant nation on its head, telling the turn-of-the-century immigrant story as it was actually lived, full of alienation and despair. The catastrophic journey to America severed the immigrants’ ties to a familiar world and dropped them in a place they could never fully understand, and which never fully understood them. But their pain was our gain. Their journey made us a far less parochial society and helped create the American Dream.
How The Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis is another classic of the immigrant experience in America. First published more than one hundred years ago in 1891, the book remains a powerful indictment of the slum conditions in which most immigrants lived at the turn of the century. Riis wrote the book while he was a New York police reporter. Although the book is often credited with sparking the first “urban renewal” project that removed the worst tenements, Riis’s main interest was in transforming the immigrants themselves into Americans. He was an early champion of teaching immigrants English, which he believed was the key to Americanization.
Next Year in Cuba by Gustavo Perez Firmat (1995) chronicles the bittersweet Cuban-American experience. Perez, like most of his compatriots, came to America as a refugee, not an immigrant. But because he was a child when he arrived, he could never fully identify either with his parents’ generation, who dreamed of returning to Cuba, nor later, with his own American-born children, who can imagine no life outside the United States. Perez is a man caught between two worlds, at home in neither. No matter how hard he tries to become an American – majoring in English in college and becoming an English professor in North Carolina, marrying an American woman, playing Bob Seger records and eating frozen yogurt – he still feels guilty when he plans to cast his first vote in a U.S. election. Next Year in Cuba doesn’t fit our sentimental wish to recast the immigrant’s story as one of unalloyed joy and quick assimilation, but it does provide insight into what Perez calls the one-and-a-half generation: “Wedged between the first and second generations, the one-and-a-halfer shares the nostalgia of his parents and the forgetfulness of his children.”
* William B. Allen
The first American to address the question of American character, in a context in which the separate existence of the United States was assumed, laid it out as a project of formation in accord with standards of liberty. That was George Washington, and no one can do better than to begin a study of America with a study of his extremely important writings. They are available in many forms, but perhaps that which is both most accessible and best calculated to offer a comprehensive picture is my own volume, George Washington: A Collection (Liberty Press). In it one meets only the first real American but the first America.
In the century after Washington many works labored at constructing the ideal picture of American character, many very worthwhile. None, however, contributes so meaningfully and constructively as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which shows character in the crucible of straggle and moral uncertainty. Harriet Beecher Stowe stole a conceit from Alexis de Tocqueville (namely the contrasts on opposite banks of the Ohio River) and turned it into the quo warranto of the nation, to be redeemed in its great War of American Union. Let no one deny: The story of America is the story of the ouster of slavery. America became what she was prior to that time, but she was unable to trust what she was until that matter was resolved. And no one else but Stowe made equally clear and compelling how America needed to resolve that question.
Finally, in our time, many elegiads, many screeds, and many anathemas contend for the prize of authoritative interpreter of America. But Americans require not so much secondhand interpretations as genuine challenges to take the question in hand themselves. Of contemporary works, none has worked that charm so well for me as Peter Brimelow’s Alien Nation (1994), which evoked from me the scream, “I was just joking (in my modern skepticism); please give us our old (American) man back!” For any who dream that a mere philosophical predisposition (“open immigration”) suffices to respond to the fundamental question – Is the American merely the human localized? – needs to suffer a little in thinking through how much America is worth to him. That is character building!
* Paul A. Rahe
The United States of America is not a nation in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Nationhood traditionally implied a common natality – that the nation’s citizens were somehow of common birth. But, as Americans, we cannot even pretend a common descent: We hail from every corner of the globe; we exhibit every human feature; we come in every shade; and the naturalized are no less fully our fellow citizens than those born Within the fold. If the citizens of this country sometimes speak of the nation’s Founding Fathers, they do so by analogy: They do not trace their genetic or biological lineage to Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, John Jay, James Madison, and the like.
If our nation’s progenitors fathered a people, they did so by fathering an idea. This is not a nation of blood and soil; it is a nation of principle. As a people, we stand or fall by our adherence to the understanding of justice enshrined within the Declaration of Independence and reiterated in Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. We are less an imagined community of blood than a genuine, if contentious, community of faith.
That fact poses a problem for immigrants. They have to cross a great cultural divide separating the world that understands nationality in terms of birth and the world that understands it in terms of adherence to common first principles. To help them make that crossing and to instruct them in our peculiar ways, I would suggest the following three books: my own Republics Ancient and Modern: Classical Republicanism and the American Revolution (1992); Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, tr. George Lawrence (1969); and Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1975).
My own great tome may not be the best recent work on the American Founding, but it is, weighing in at 1,200 pages, the most comprehensive account. It sets the Revolution, our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and the quarrels that they inspire in the context of the history of self-government in the West, emphasizing what we owe to the ancient Greeks and Romans, what in our polity is peculiar to modernity, and what was achieved for the first time on these shores.
Tocqueville’s wondrous book was written by a foreign visitor to the United States for the edification and instruction of his own countrymen, and it has served for many generations to explain America to the Americans as well. It surveys virtually every aspect of American life – our Constitution, our laws, our customs, and our beliefs. It situates the myriad details within an understanding of the whole, and it analyzes dangers inherent within our regime that are far more ominous today than they were in the Jacksonian period. Where Tocqueville’s description no longer fits, it is generally because we have undergone a decline explicable in terms of his analysis.
Finally, Michael Shaara’s stirring novel, in relating the story of the battle of Gettysburg, brings home to its readers just what was at stake in our greatest. and most important war. No one can understand America without paying attention to the racial tensions that bedevil us, and no one can understand these without reflecting on the legacy. of slavery. Moreover, it is only with regard to our failure as a people to come to grips with the dilemmas imposed by the attempt to found and sustain a multiracial society that one can understand federalism’s demise and the difficulties that we now face in our quest to restore a semblance of local self-government. There are finer American novels than The Killer Angels – but I know of none better suited to the purposes of teaching our immigrant what makes us many and what makes us one.
* Virginia I. Postrel
The paradox of America is that we have built a history and tradition, a national culture, on the defiance of history and tradition, From William Penn, who would not take off his hat, to Rosa Parks, who would not give up her seat, we teach our children the stories of stiff-necked heroes. We make them read Romeo and Juliet, lest they overvalue ancient feuds.
Hollywood’s greatest cliche is the cop who breaks rules in the interest of justice. Rhett Butler, not Ashley Wilkes, is the hero of Gone With the Wind. Nobody thinks Huck Finn should return Jim to slavery or stick around to be civilized. We’ re not a by-the-book country.
This culture has political consequences; you can read about them in the first few paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. But for the immigrant, the personal will be more important than the political. Huck had no parents, no one who tied him to history and tradition, no one to question or grieve when he went his own way. Huck Finn is the great American novel, but it’s not on my list (in part because I know it is on others).
Start, instead, with a less-great novel, but a more relevant one: Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (1967), a tale of clashing cultures and a son’s choice of truth over tradition. (That the truth in question is Freudian psychology dates, but does not undermine, the story.) The milieu is Jewish the exotic world of the Hasidim and the more familiar one of the modern Orthodox – but the story is more generally American, limited to no particular religion or ethnic group.
In her novels of Chinese mothers and American daughters who love but do not understand each other, Amy Tan plays off the immigrant experience, while capturing universals. Every parent has a history, and every child a new life, that the other cannot truly grasp. America, with its defiance of history and tradition – its emphasis on individual life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness – makes the chasm between generations deeper and wider. The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) suggests what one gets for that price: a place of hope and second chances, in which even daughters are precious.
America beams itself to the world from Los Angeles and Atlanta, my actual and ancestral homes – complicated, rambunctious, racially mixed cities grown by sheer will and ambition. They, and the vast regions of which they’re the capitals, are more characteristically American than the whitewashed, orderly New England popular with historically inclined pundits. The Puritans came from England; Pentecostalism was born in the U.S.A. The South and the West are the wellsprings of American culture.
So I exercise the editor’s prerogative to cheat, suggesting two wise observers of America from California and the New South: Richard Rodriguez, in Days of Obligation (1992), and John Shelton Reed, in My Tears Spoiled My Aim (1993).
“Some migrants to the South,” explains Reed, “make the South more Southern.” By defying their own history and tradition, leaving their homelands behind, immigrants reaffirm America, make it more American.
Yet, Rodriguez warns, “Our parents came to America for the choices America offers. What the child of immigrant parents knows is that here is inevitability.” Come to America, and you will have American children. They, too, will defy history and tradition – will defy your expectations – without thinking twice. It’s the American way.
* Jonathan Rauch
If I try to be honest rather than cute, all of my books for immigrants – Tocqueville, Emerson, Huck Finn, Mencken or King or JFK’s speeches – are too obvious to be interesting, and I have nothing new to say about them except that they are magnificent and essential. So the editor has given me an indulgence to say this: I would very much like to advise an immigrant to watch Star Trek.
Not – of course! – the emasculated Next Generation, but the simpler, less self-aware, much finer original. I can think of nothing that says more, more succinctly, about who the Americans believe themselves to be, or wish they were.
The gleaming ship is the Enterprise, though not (quite) the Free Enterprise. Its captain is authoritative but not authoritarian, grand but never above dirty work; he knows the rules as well as any lawyer, but he knows, too, how to run rings around Federation bureaucrats when a job needs to be done. On the Enterprise (what else would it be called?), there is no problem which ingenuity cannot crack. When other ships would be blown to dust as shields fail and engines strain, Captain Kirk and his crew bring off just a bit of the impossible by thinking fast and showing pluck. They have that most American of traits: the serene confidence that in the last extremity their luck will hold. God smiles on drunkards, America, and the Starship Enterprise.
The Enterprise is lucky because it is morally worthy, and morally worthy because it is innocent. Inside, the ship is the model of multiculturalism as multiculturalism was supposed to have been. People of every nationality and of several planets, united by the Federation’s creed, form a community naturally, painlessly, with no hint that quotas might be required to bring enough Asians or Vulcans aboard. Outside, distant star systems are populated by diverse peoples most of whom, if you just scratch the surface, are American or wish they were.
The starship and its Federation have a foreign policy: tough but tender, engaged but not imperialist. Explore but do not conquer, says the Prime Directive; engage but do not interfere. Captain Kirk is as Captain Columbus ought to have been. Yet noninterference does not for a moment mean nonintervention; staying out does not mean staying away. Contradiction? What contradiction? Where aliens can be enlightened in the ways of equality and justice, so they should be: preferably by example, rather than by force.
True, the Enterprise is strong, bedecked with phasers and photon torpedoes. But its real strength is not its weaponry but its mercy. No matter how vicious the provocation, the captain chooses mercy for his enemy; faced with a seemingly murderous alien, he applies understanding and modern medical care. Thus does the Federation earn its moral hegemony. Although the Enterprise holds the steel of science (Mr. Spock), it beats other corners, in the end, because its hard logic is subservient to its good heart. And so the universe makes way before the Enterprise’ as the world should have made way before Christ. What is America, after all, if not the light unto nations?
I am not sarcastic, not for a moment. The universe of the Starship Enterprise is silly but also exalted. Ronald Reagan thought that if the Soviet rulers could only see America up close, they would come around to its superior virtue. That is naive, yes; but also rather grand, and utterly American. The barrel-chested culture of Victorian Britain, brilliant though it was, could never have produced a Star Trek; neither could the scintillating, cynical culture of ancient Greece, or the bluntly brutal culture of imperial Rome, or any other imperial culture before America’s. I predict Star Trek will be watched 50 and 100 years from now. More than most books I can think of, it embodies the American aspiration: or, if you prefer, the American myth. It captures us, perhaps, embarrassingly well.
COPYRIGHT 1995 Reason Foundation