In a recent edition of the New York Times Book Review, Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild, and Adam Kirsch, poetry critic for The New Yorker, responded to the question, “Why are we obsessed with the great American novel?” Both columnists argued that a novel cannot distill a single “American experience” for literary consumption. As Kirsch noted, “Greatness, Americanness, and the novel itself are now concepts to be interrogated and problematized.”
It’s obvious that there can be no single all-encompassing work of literature that captures every facet of American life. But our culture’s continued interest in what makes a literary text or its author “American” is one worthy of further inquiry. Why are some writers considered more “American” than others? What defines the “Americanness” of a poem or novel—its authorship, its engagement with our country’s culture, or its aesthetic style?
Historically, American literature was defined by its departures from European traditions.
The struggle for cultural independence from Britain continued long after the United States attained political independence from the country. Nineteenth-century writers labored to establish cultural foundations for what was still a country in its infancy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was arguably the most influential of these pioneers. Emerson encouraged his fellow writers to liberate themselves from the cultural and aesthetic constraints of the Old World, and he called for a new literature that immortalized the landscape and people of the United States. In his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” he argues that “it is for want of self-culture that the idol of Travelling, the idol of Italy, of England, of Egypt, remains for all educated Americans.”
The most famous answerer of Emerson’s call for “self-culture” was Walt Whitman. Whitman is widely considered not only the best poet America has yet produced, but also the most quintessentially “American” writer. His free verse represents a significant aesthetic departure from the meter-driven poetry of Europe at the time. He also took Emerson’s patriotism to heart. From his first poems onward, Whitman explicitly presented himself as an American poet writing the great poems of America.
Though the godlike confidence of Whitman’s poetic voice still strikes some readers as arrogant, the achievement of Leaves of Grass, which he amended and edited throughout his life, is indeed monumental. “Song of Myself,” one of the volume’s best poems, so thoroughly explores America’s people and geography that it gives the illusion that Whitman attained the impossible: a work of literature encompassing the entire “American experience.”
Whitman’s poetry is so steeped in Americana that it may never have taken off had he not felt the need to create literature especially for his country. But though patriotism fostered the talents of some of our greatest authors, the term “American writer” has since broadened to include figures like W. H. Auden and Vladimir Nabokov, neither of whom was born in the United States.
Russian by birth and upbringing, Nabokov nevertheless became one of the most recognizably American novelists of the 20th century. Humbert Humbert, the narrator and anti-hero of Lolita, is, like Nabokov himself, a European transplant navigating the American landscape. Nabokov’s acclaimed experimental novel Pale Fire consists of two texts by two fictional authors: a long poem by the deceased American poet John Shade and a madly comic commentary by his self-appointed editor, the Eastern European academic Charles Kinbote. Kinbote’s wild misinterpretations of Shade’s masterpiece have as much to do with cultural misunderstanding as they do with the character’s mental instability.
But for Nabokov, naïveté is more than just the butt of a joke. His self-consciously foreign protagonists provide us with an outsider’s perspective on America. Humbert’s panoramic narration of his cross-country road trip with the titular nymphet and Kinbote’s delusional footnotes contain insights about American culture that are as relevant today as they were in the middle of the 20th century.
Critical engagement with one’s time and place is essential for any major writer, and literature can provide us with insights into our cultural conditions that we cannot find anywhere else. So while we can and should praise writers for tackling American themes in their work, we need to be aware that great literature must also transcend the artificial limits of city, state, country, and continent if it is to be remembered. Writers learn from those who came before them, and inevitably must explore the work of authors from other nations if they are to develop an individual style and voice. In the end, art is an extension and embodiment of “the mighty imagination,” as the poet Wallace Stevens called it, a human faculty that truly knows no boundaries.