Friday, July 2, 2010

Uniquely American Writing

by Scott Rhoades

With July 4th just around the corner, it's time to wax philosophical about American writing and what our unique strengths are. This post will contain some vast generalizations for which there are plenty of exceptions, but I hope that the general ideas will be mostly true.

For the longest time, American writers were considered an extension of British literary tradition. Early short stories, poems, and novels written in the United States mostly borrowed their themes and styles from the Brits, expanding British Lit into English Lit, but not bringing a lot of new material. In literary circles, it was often claimed that writings about some of the uniquely American situations, like the wilds of our as-yet-undiscovered country, written with the loose adventurous spirit of the colonies, were as crude as our society. Much of the early fiction reflected Puritan values or British society, or tried to cast American heroes into a model considered acceptable among the literati in an attempt to prove that our new land could be just as cultured as the Mother Country.

It must have seemed like an exciting, maybe even scandalous, novelty when European forms were adapted by people like Longfellow, Emerson, and Cooper, using American material such as Native Americans or colonial life.

Of course, there was also a large body of writing dedicated to the political atmosphere in the colonies and then in the young country, a tradition that, for better or worse, is still very much alive today.

But by the second half of the 19th Century, a strange thing started to happen. We started to break away. People like Whitman and Twain turned the traditions on their head and not only stopped trying to be British but started making fun of those old traditions in a most American way. Whitman broke away from traditional forms and themes and wrote from and about an American way of looking at the world. Twain, of course, mastered the art of combining the American tall-tale tradition with stories of life on the edge of the frontier, along with hot-button issues of his time like slavery. America had found its voice.

Besides writing stories based in very American cities and laced with very American characters, Twain did something else to help break us away from our Brit-Lit past. His travel writings, especially A Tramp Abroad and Following the Equator, lampooned the Old World traditions while at the same time making fun of the rude American in a delightfully American way. Few people have shown the American in all his glory and with all his warts like Twain did.

In the century since Twain was alive, American literature has grown and developed. If you think of something uniquely American, whether positive or negative, you'll find it reflected in our writings and our attitude toward literature. Whether it's our world-altering (and sometimes bizarre) politics, our often priggish Puritanical sensibilities and the unusual spiritual lifestyles that have grown out of them, our sense of wild adventure, our wide-open vistas, or our melting-pot culture, it is all reflected in our literature in ways seldom, if ever, seen before.

Look at adventure novels. The Brits and other europeans might have invented the adventure story with stories like Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers, but our American sense of adventure has transformed the genre to the point that, even in the old countries, it's not hard to claim that they are now following our lead. America was, and to some extent still is, the land of adventure, and our stories reflect it.

In recent decades, we've also seen an explosion of fascinating writing coming out of our mixed ethnic backgrounds. If there's an ethnic subculture in this country, it most likely has its own literary genre, beginning with Jewish-American and African-American lit and expanding into any hyphenation you can find, resulting in well-known works like The Joy Luck Club and The Kite Runner. This extends, of course, to our huge number of subcultures, ethnic or not, that make us richer because we have not fought as hard as other countries to subvert them, or at least we haven't succeeded, all because of our American brand of freedom. Freedom is certainly not unique to the United States, but I think it's fair to say that we have our own (if sometimes hypocritical) way of looking at it and we've been an example that others have followed in their own quests for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our attitudes spawn both stories and the conflicts that keep them moving.

To be certain, we still borrow extensively from our mother cultures. Modern writers are undeniably influenced by people like Austen, Tolkien, and modern writers like Rowling, but we usually bring something of our own to the genres. We didn't invent the horror story or ghost story, but where would the genre be without our Poe or King? Our influence on genres like Sci-Fi (arguably invented by the French writer Jules Verne) have been transformational.

Let's continue the tradition. Instead of trying, like early American writers often did, to write fine literature despite being American, let's write great stories because we ARE American. Let's take advantage of the story telling traditions that date back to stories told around the campfire or to pass time in the log cabin. And if you're new to this country, bring in your own cultural heritage and paint it with palette available only to those who have melded their traditional culture with ours. There are so many fascinating stories of the struggles to come to this new land and make a home in a land of dreams where the current inhabitants are not always very welcoming.

Because of the way American society is structured, we can break it down even more. Utah writers are different than New York writers. Utah County writers are different than Washington County writers. Those of us who are transplants to Utah, or transplants from Utah, have a different perspective than those who have stayed near their Salt Lake or Provo or Fillmore or Kanab birthplaces. We each bring those unique perspectives of the places where we've lived to the great American literary quilt.

We get to be a part--or create our own part--of the American experience. There are endless numbers of stories here, and we have the honor and responsibility of being the ones to tell them. That's kind of cool.


Anonymous said...

I like this train of thought. Coincidentally, I just wrote a short story about a girl in the Wyo. frontier. I think we have a need to express our heritage.

Scott said...

Thanks, Anon. Glad you like it. Another thing I didn't say because my post was going long enough, we don't have to write about the U.S. or Utah to write from our unique perspective. We could be writing about the g'rthi'blblnk society on the planet Lukafane and our own heritage will come through. Our own way of thinking will bring something unique and interesting to the body of literature that's never been there before.

Lisa J Peck said...

I loved this post. Your essay was very thought out and informative. I liked reading about how the tradition of writing has been influenced and not influenced. I also like how you celebrate each of us has something to contribute and there is room for many voices. Nice job!

Scott said...

Thanks, Lisa!

Julie Daines said...

Nice post, Scott. Very informative and interesting food for thought.