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Common Cultures

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So, I’ve been thinking about Cheryl’s post.

And I do think it is true that, these days, a number of Western cultures have started to think as she indicated–to assume that there is not, and should not be, a common culture that everybody ought to be part of.

But I don’t think that that’s true of the United States.  If there’s one thing the US does very well, it’s cultural pluralism, as opposed to “multiculturalism.”  We take disparate cultures and turn them into just another way of being American.

In the process, we do impart a core set of assumptions–that’s a better word than “values,” I think–that tends to hold as the default position even when people verbally and explicitly reject them.

One of these is the emphasis on the individual–what matters about  you is not your “culture,”  but you, and whatever “culture” it is that you’re supposed to be part of shouldn’t get in the way of your self-determination.

I’m continually struck by the differences between my experience of Muslim students–even Muslim students who have immigrated here, rather than been born here–and what is endlessly portrayed in the European press. 

The most impassioned defense of the rights of gay people, including the right to marry, came from a Muslim girl from Albania, and a few weeks after she’d handed in that paper, she was defending a separation of church and state so extreme it would make the ACLU blush.  A young man from a Muslim family spent one of his papers denouncing Muslim clerics who advised against the use of vaccines.  I never did figure out what it was in Islam that would forbid the use of vaccines, and I suppose it isn’t general, since that was the first and last I heard of that as a specifically Muslim issue.

For the US, I don’t think the issue is if we have a common culture that all children should learn–with the exception of a few professional grievance masers, that’s understood–but just what should be included in it.

Some things are obvious–the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, for instance.  Others make the list by the sheer weight of years and masses of audience–Poe, Dickinson, The Scarlet Letter, even Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners at the Hands of an Angry God.”

Where things get stick is the point at which we begin to approach the present, and then there are questions that need to be answered and never are.  For that, I blame the complete idiocy of the modern university departments of English.

Let me back up here a minute to make an historical note:  back at the turn of the Twentieth century and into the Thirties, or even Forties, the first great waves of American literary critics (not reviewers) started to try to construct a framework for a peculiarly American high culture.  Yvor Winters, Cleanthe Brooks, Alan Tate, and a host of others worked hard and long to define the Americanness of American writing, especially fiction and poetry writing.

And they made a very good start.  They were, however, men of their time and place, and because of that they had a very restricted field of works to use in getting them where they wanted to go.

A lot of the books we were taught as children in school–Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, for instance, and the minor Hawthorne, like The House of Seven Gables–exist as part of the canon not so much because of their intrinsic excellence, as because they amounted to the only available material in a very thin field. 

There’s some wonderful work in that field, but there’s no really first-rate American novelist until Henry James (Melville, with the exception of Moby Dick, is much better in the novellas than in the long work), and there’s some seriously bad fiction in the mix.  Take, for instance, Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.”

But the other thing that isn’t there is any work by “minority” writers.  I’m putting the word in scare quotes for a reason.  It’s not their minority status that interests me, but their position as outsiders who had to integrate and become American.

As we march toward the 21st century, this literature of becoming is vast.  Almost every ethnic group to melt in the melting pot threw up a novelist or two to write about the life of somebody with one foot in each world and the difficulties such a person faces.

If Americans share a common culture, a very important part of that common culture is this very process of becoming American, both as individuals and as groups.  First generation immigrants look back to the old country.  Their children are pulled toward the old country by their parents and towards the new one by everything else around them.  Their children think of their “ethnic pride” mostly in terms of the great food you get every year at the Greek church street fair.

In this literature of becoming American, the African-American component is unique on two fronts:  first, because it arose among people who had already been here for generations by the time they got a literary voice; and second, because unlike all the others, it does not spend half its time denigrating the people still mired in the old culture.

If there’s a stereotypical plot for the child-of-immigrants coming-of-age  novel, it’s definitely got to do with how embarrassed we all feel when Mama and Papa act like such–well, old country hicks.  If you don’t believe me about this, go check out something like, say, Good-bye, Columbus.  Or any of the early novels of Philip Roth.

African-American literature has been singular in its concern for the people who get left behind by progress. 

I don’t mean that it’s nostalgic.  It’s not. Alice Walker has no interest in going back to living in the rural Georgia where she was grown up, and she doesn’t romanticize it.  What she does do–as does Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes, among others–is recognize that some people cannot get with the program, no matter how much they may want to.  The floodgates open, and suddenly there are places in the best colleges for people like you, jobs at the best companies, partnerships at the best lawfirms. All you have to do is be bright enough and brave enough and dedicated enough to take hold of them.

But some people are not bright enough.  Some people are not brave enough.  And some people are just not young enough.

If English departments were still doing what they should be doing–where is Yvor Winters when you need him?–there’s be work out there tracing the various becoming-American novels and short stories and comparing and contrasting them. 

As far as I know, there isn’t.

But I do know that if you asked a hundred people on the street, they’d make that particular narrative as an essential part of “American culture” that they’d expect everybody to know at least something about.

So, to get back to where I started:  I don’t think the problem in the US is that we lack commitment to a common culture.

I think it’s that we seem to have allowed “majority rules” to trump every other possible consideration, in every single area of life.

And it makes me nuts.

Written by janeh

October 15th, 2009 at 9:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Common Cultures'

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  1. I’ll have to leave the main points of this post until I’ve got more time, but I think I know where the anti-vaccine thing comes from. North America is not the only place weird conspiracy theories take root and grow, and there’s one making the rounds in many of the poorer countries claiming that vaccines are an attempt by whites to cut down on the numbers of browns and blacks by sterilizing children. Or possibly the target is not just any brown or black people, it’s brown or black Muslims. This conspiracy theory has been identified as a problem in the attempt to eradicate the last remnants of polio in India, an important step in making polio, like smallpox, extinct in the wild.


    15 Oct 09 at 9:48 am

  2. One of the elements of literary studies that baffles me is deconstruction and all the other methods that veer off into politics. Not focusing on the work itself in its context but insisting that no meaning can be determined and we must read between the lines. Fortunately, my studies in English and American literature preceded all of this nonsense. Using their own particular schools of criticism, at least Pound, Eliot, Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom interpreted the literature and that I can understand.

    Critics interested in revising the list of works that comprise a common cultural body of knowledge miss the boat, in my opinion, by excluding works by James, Hawthorne, Dickens and so on that were initially included.

    I read an essay by a former doctoral student in literature who quit the program because his classes centered almost exclusively on criticism of the works and not the works themselves. Glad I missed all that.


    15 Oct 09 at 2:40 pm

  3. The anti-vaccine imams that I’ve heard tell of are all in sub-Saharan Africa, and it’s not that Islam forbids preventive medicine, but that the non-Muslim foreigners coming with their needles HAVE to be up to no good. I won’t call it paranoia, because Heaven knows enough foreigners have passed through sub-Saharan Africa meaning no good, or at least doing none. Still, the resulting suspicion helps keep polio alive.

    The main point: I think there is–well, as you say, not so much a common American culture as a common American set of assumptions. George Will has said that anyone who knows and accepts the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is an American, no matter how recently he arrived or where his parents were born. He didn’t make the corollary point–that those who can’t accept those principles have flunked the test, regardless of passport or ancestry. But that is, effectively, the sticking point. We may not like the term these days, but a Nazi or a Communist really was engaged in un-American activities by that definition of “American”–and we don’t have another.

    But I am NOT convinced there is an American literary culture. The division there is “all of humanity” “civilization” and “language.” After that, you’re down to genre or some measure of implicit assumptions–and I stand with Tolkien, Pratchett and Sayers, not Asimov, Phil Dick and Raymond Chandler. Mind you, I’m also with Leigh Brackett, Robert Heinlein and David Drake, not Michael Moorcock, Arthur C. Clark and E. R. Eddings. It is the quality of the work that matters to me, not the citizenship of the author. And I have no idea what a believer in “American literature” and “English literature”–or perhaps “British literature” in this context?–ought to do with Kipling and John Dickson Carr, both of whom lived and wrote in both the United States and Great Britain. Fortunately, I regard the distinction as too silly to be taken seriously, and don’t have to worry about it.

    Language matters a great deal. But a great work in any language is the treasure of all who speak it, and has nothing to do with the passport of the author.


    15 Oct 09 at 4:31 pm

  4. I value libraries enormously – and my usage of them and the value I mentally assign them would only go down with the imposition of a fee. I pay for them through my taxes and support of their book sales. I also tend to really dislike groups that charge me fees that aren’t obviously for goods or services. That is, I’ve paid a rental fee at a video store, but never a membership fee, and I don’t think I’ve ever set foot in a country club, much less paid one anything. I’ll pay my contribution to a private group’s room rental etc. costs, but not a fee for a business’s discount card or access to a warehouse-type store. That should be covered by their prices, should they persuade me to buy their stuff. Which I won’t, if they want to erect even a small financial barrier between me and them.


    16 Oct 09 at 8:44 am

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