And What Does “An American” Look Like Also?

I had pointed out the other day that I believe as writers it is our sacred duty to provide future English literature students with Ph.D. dissertation topics. ;-) While doing that, I had linked to a New Yorker article. However, I had not discussed its actual contents:

How America Learned To Hear Itself Talk

It is another in the perpetual quest to pinpoint the advent of “truly American” storytelling. In any such effort, Washington Irving is usually immediately discounted for being “too European” – mostly because he had spent so much time living in Europe. James Fenimore Cooper is said to have owed too much to “imitating” Sir Walter Scott.

In reviewing a new literary history book by Ben Tarnoff, a New Yorker writer notes how Tarnoff argues “native fiction” really began to come of age with Mark Twain:

Twain earned local notoriety cranking out newspaper columns in Nevada and San Francisco, …. but in 1865 he had his nationwide breakthrough. “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” which Twain had heard improvised by a backwoods forty-niner during a prospecting trip, is a somewhat inexplicable comic anecdote about a man who gets cheated in a bet about his pet frog. But the point of the story is all in the telling. Twain assumes the voice of a grizzled, plausibly drunken old miner who buttonholes an unfortunate visitor and weaves his way through the shaggy-dog tale. Something about the story, Tarnoff writes, “spelled the beginning of the end of the old guard in American letters: the decline of a genteel elite that looked to Europe for its influences and the rise of a literature that drew its inspiration from more native sources.”

It is self-evident that as authors we are always products of our time, place, circumstances, and life influences. Impacted by all that, we share on our pages what we desire to explore. In doing so, we hope readers will want to join us for the trip.

Yet the diverse (and that’s likely too narrow a word) cultural origins of the U.S. beg this overarching, much larger question: Has there ever even been a line which we might confidently point to and decree that, to its other side…. over there, yonder, that’s where a “native fiction” comes into existence? Apparently, some are sure it may be located. “The truth is out there,” so to, uh, speak.

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Whenever I stumble on any search for an “essential Americanism,” I want to slam my head repeatedly against the nearest wall. We might just as well also ask, “How long is a piece of string?” I had casually addressed that reality in this exchange in my book:

“You must take more after your mother,” [Isabelle] replied. “You look more Italian. And you may not have any French, but you look a bit French.”

“French? Come on!” he reacted in disbelief.

“Really. You would not be out of place in France. You don’t look American,” she expanded.

James paused and let her observation sit for a moment. “Okay, I’ll play,” he asked finally. “So what does an American look like?”

Indeed, and what does “an American” happen to “sound like” either? The argument seems to be Irving’s writing of Dutch New York was not really “American-sounding.” Neither was Cooper’s tale of the 1757 frontier.

Likewise all others. Ah, but Twain decades later having his characters employ his take on “American living speech?” Well, “Huck,” that clinched it?

Hmmm. Interestingly, in an 1895 “satirical” effort Twain directly attacked Cooper’s work. It was undoubtedly a brave literary endeavor …. given Cooper had been dead since 1851. One suspects luckily for Twain the hotheaded Cooper was safely no longer around to shoot “satire” back.

Much the same might well be said for scholars and publications in the early 21st century too. Even to dare suggest that his writings were not as “American” as anyone else’s? To James Fenimore Cooper…. whyyy, gosh darnit, thems wuz fightin’ worrrds. :-)

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UPDATE: April 26: Christian Science Monitor:

….author Mark Twain wrote in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” that his hero was “literally rolling in wealth.”

“Literally?” Hmm. Wonder what James Fenimore Cooper would’ve thought of that?

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