Unsurprisingly, given that this semester I’m taking one course about the works of Herman Melville and another about those of William Faulkner, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about “America” as a culture distinct from that of Europe. America’s relationship to its cultural heritage is, to put it nicely, ambiguous. Now, I don’t have a grand theory of America to propound here, but I do have two concepts that I think are important to understanding how America understands itself.
First, I want to discuss “transcendental homelessness,” a term Georg Lukacs invents in his Theory of the Novel and defines as “the urge to be at home everywhere.” My professor used this term often to describe Melville, and I think it applies well to America as a whole (incidentally, Melville seems to me in many ways the quintessential American author). Americans are transcendentally homeless, because they want everywhere to be like America. Compare this to the concept of “American exceptionalism” that we hear so much about. “Exceptionalism” means that America believes it is somehow special, the culmination of history, but I think it is more the case that America has a hard time coming to terms with itself as a specific place in a specific time, preferring to see itself as an incarnation of a universal ideal to which all other countries ought to aspire. I am reminded of Melville’s constant references to Anacharsis Cloots, a participant in the French Revolution who said that the Revolution had to apply not only to France, but to all the world.
The other concept I want to apply to America is “uprootedness.” I mean for this to stand in opposition to the idea of “rootlessness” that sees America as a complete tabula rasa, placing man anew in the state of nature (credit to Therese of Inklings, who talked about this earlier this week). If “rootlessness” means America is cut off completely from the Old World, and represents a new beginning, then “uprootedness” means that America is based in the Old World, but because it was transplanted to the New, continuity could not simply be taken for granted. Every continued tradition had to be consciously continued, and that consciousness implied a reevaluation and modification. Look, for example, at the American South (the focus of Faulkner’s work). Its traditional structure was an attempt to remain in continuity with the aristocratic Old World, but it was necessarily a conscious imitation, not an unconscious continuation; while it “died” with the Civil War, it had hardly existed before that. Or look at the attempts to create a “city on a hill” in Puritan New England, a subject Melville is interested in; it was in some ways a conscious break from the Old World, but in more important ways a continuation of certain Old World religious ideas.
These two concepts are complementary, I think; one deals with America in relation to the rest of the contemporary world, the other with America in relation to its heritage. And both of them involve not a separation of America from the rest of the world, but an uneasy connection, an ambiguous bond. What I find really fascinating is that both Melville and Faulkner lead me to this same thought. It’s perhaps the strongest common thread I can find running throughout America, both North and South.
Incidentally, these are the books we read in the two respective classes; I highly recommend everything on this list, but italics I use to indicate particular noteworthiness, and the most important work on each list I bold.
- The Piazza Tales: The Piazza, Bartleby, Benito Cereno, The Lightning-Rod Man, The Encantadas, The Bell-Tower
- The Confidence-Man
- assorted poetry (mostly from Battle-Pieces; particularly good are “The Conflict of Convictions” and “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight”)
- Billy Budd
- The Unvanquished (not Faulkner’s best, but a particularly easy read)
- Absalom, Absalom!
- As I Lay Dying
- The Hamlet
- Go Down, Moses