Creating the American Experience Through Literature

America has long been known as the melting pot. As Americans we cling to our ideals that America is a diverse nation which offers possibilities to all those who land upon her shores. However, recent political attitudes have proven this understanding of America to be false, idealistic, and essentially unattainable; which leaves the question of “What is America?” unanswered. This question of what America is by no means a new one. It has been a question asked of citizens for centuries. In many ways, we have left it for our artists to answer. Through decades of literature, authors have shaped America and left, for future audiences, clues as to what America has represented. Through a variety of American texts, America has been divided into two categories; the first of which is the brutality of just how imperfect America is versus texts that attempt to inspire change into what America should and could become.
Although there’s no clear guideline as to how to write the American novel, through studying the novels that have had a lasting impact on American society, we can better understand the trends of the American novel. By breaking down each novel into separate categories such as characters, plots, settings, conflicts, and themes, we can understand how novelists and their works relate to one another as well as how they differ.
While the American literary scene has been a host of undeniably varied literary characters there are few that have permeated our society and left a lasting impression on readers such as Uncle Tom and Huck Finn which represent a struggle to create an individual voice to tell the story. Uncle Tom obviously represents change in the form of the black character being humanized. Until Stowe dared to do this, black characters were predominantly caricatures and stereotypes that people got more laughs out of than they did life lessons. Harriet Beecher Stowe drew from some of these stereotypes and transformed them into a human being. One example of such usage of stereotypes is the language of Uncle Tom and in fact, many of the black characters of the novel. While it is true that she does not illustrate them as an educated people, the fact of the matter is that at the time, they wouldn’t have had access to many forms of education. However, by carefully selecting the language that her African American characters use, she allows a lot to be revealed about them. For instance, Uncle Tom spends a majority of the book trying to get back to his family. Many instances, he reads scripture and prays to the Lord to deliver him back to his wife. This was particularly striking to readers at the time who were finally able to see that although African Americans may not be educated like them and speak like them, they were undeniably people. Stowe worked hard in developing black characters that were truly human and relatable to white readers to solidify her point that these were people as well. Huck Finn’s struggle is quite a different one. He’s told by the Widow Douglas that he should pray to God and be a respectful individual, but she also tells him that people like Jim don’t have the same rights as he does. Huck’s struggle is to define what is right and wrong for him rather than following what society tells him. “It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said” represents Huck’s struggle to define himself in a rapidly changing world. This struggle is indicative of many characters in American novels as well as the general overall plot of many of these novels.
While there is a great deal of controversy over what some of these books are saying, there is a uniting method of their telling as there are with many well recognized American novels. However, a majority of them focus on one of the two sides of the extreme. The first example, as had been previously discussed, is the example of the individual’s struggle to find his or herself in a World that seems to refuse to foster any true spirit of individualism. We see this evidenced in several of the novels although perhaps most notably in Dos Passos The 42nd Parallel. Mac struggles through most of the time he is featured in the book to express his ideals and his strong belief in Socialism, which are dismissed by the general public. Even when we do see characters that believe in the same things that he does, they are usually portrayed as weak individuals such as Doc or characters with little lasting influence such as Ike. The individual struggle is a crucial element of the American novel as well as of American life. These types of books encourage its readers to understand the struggle of the individual. As Americans it is our constant belief that we are a free nation, but some of these novels illustrate the confines that American society has built for its citizens. They encourage us to question whether or not we are as free and individualistic as we believe we are. However, there are also those novels whose characters serve a higher purpose than their individual stories. Although they are individual elements in the novel, their individuality is a blanket statement about an underrepresented group of people. Typically, these are the kinds of stories that have had more of a profound effect outside of the framework of the novel and effect change on a more societal level. The piece that comes to mind with this is Kerouac’s On the Road. Although the stories that take place are unique to Kerouac’s personal experience and his characters are based on people that he himself know, the book itself has become almost iconic. The plot is almost irrelevant to modern day readers who understand it as a daring piece on counter-culture. While the plot of the book is about a man roaming the country, over the years people’s personal interpretations of the novel have shaped it till contemporary readers can’t seem to see the simplicity of novel’s actual plot but rather read into it the societal influence that it has had on the American public since its initial publication. Regardless of the type of plot, true American novels have been focusing on man and womankind’s struggle to identify themselves in a World that relishes simplicity in defining complex human beings. For some, they found a way to identify themselves as individuals through their words and actions while others simply identified with a counter culture to show Americans that there were people like them out there. Both of these plot focuses stress understanding of the individual and/or his/her existence in the larger framework of society.
Another important factor that highlights the feeling of specific cultures within the United States is the setting that the writer is addressing. For example, it is crucial that we understand the geography of our nation to understand how novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are affected by it. That being said, it is understood by many American authors that certain locations hold certain principles in high regard. Most American novels understand the diversity of landscapes and the role they play in the novel and as a result, certain locations are associated with certain attitudes. Novels that revolve around certain characteristics of American culture tend to have more direct references to the area in which they take place. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it’s essential that Huck and Jim know where Cairo is and that’s an integral part of how the story unfolds. Both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn deal with slavery and as a result are very explicit in their understanding of their location, or in the case of Huck Finn their lack of understanding. However, novels that take more abstract approaches to American ideals, such as On the Road and The 42nd Parallel, are less direct in their handling of geography. They focus more on experiencing the different places in America rather than naming them. As a result, they illustrate much different locations than some of the other books. They thrive on the idea that America is much grittier and less idealistic than portrayed in some other American works. Authors like Kerouac and Dos Passos choose locations that embody America’s imperfections, because America is, in fact, a less than perfect place. Dos Passos illustrates this disenchantment with America early on in the book when Mac and Ike first travel to Duluth, only to realize that Ike’s mother is gone and there’s nothing for them in Duluth. Although the town is never described in much length, even as Mac and the other characters change locations in the book, there is no real affectionate relationship between the characters and the land. The main motivation for changing locations and putting up with the rough conditions of their lives is for work and the promise that maybe, just maybe, something better might come along. This varies from Kerouac’s interpretation of America in On the Road. He too focuses on the fact that America is imperfect, but focuses on the unfair conditions of society, focusing on a more social level than the political platform that The 42nd Parallel worked with. His locations reflect his own state of mind more than anything else. He was inspired by the landscape he traveled, not the other way around as one could make a case that Dos Passos did. Kerouac’s accounts of real life, gritty locations are certainly embellished, but nevertheless, a more credible one as it was lived. Overall, On the Road uses its various settings to reflect Sal’s state of mind, whereas The 42nd Parallel uses the abstract location less directly. By illustrating America as done in many of these novels, it gives readers an idea of the relationship between one’s location and one’s state of mind (i.e. fears like in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and personal attitudes as in On the Road). This helps create a more truthful landscape that readers can identify with, or at least better understand.
This brings us to the next point. The concept of truth is by no means a bold, new one, but it remains important nevertheless. The concept of America has always been at war with itself. America as we imagine it versus America as it exists in all actuality are quite different things. This sort of inner conflict is central to the American novel. For instance, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe points out that the conflict over slavery is something that divides the United States. It centers on certain inalienable rights that certain members of society felt they had the right to revoke. This fuelled the debate between what it means to be an American. Can someone really be an American if they’re denied the rights of Americans or is living in the Land of the Free enough to grant you freedom? These are questions that are asked of several characters in some American novels, and the length of the novel is typically devoted to the search for an answer to that question. However, another cause of conflict is centered on self. One example is in Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, which centers on the events and effects of torture in Haiti. In many of these short stories, Danticat attempts to give a voice to these victims but show a complexity in the aftermath that illustrates these people as more than victims. In The Book of Miracles, a family thinks that they see one of the torturers in church at a midnight mass and the daughter is motivated to spark a confrontation. However, she discovers that the man they all thought to be a torturer isn’t who they thought he was at all. Still, the family struggles with the idea of forgiveness. They obviously were victims in this situation, but the struggle they have is to come to terms with the events that took place without reducing themselves to be merely victims. This struggle with one’s self is a staple of American literature, but conflict is not merely reduced to self. Kerouac highlights man’s struggle with society in On the Road. Sal’s inability to come to terms with what is expected of him and his pursuit to discover himself through traveling the country represents the ideology of many Americans. On the Road popularized the novel that asked Americans to question the roles society defined for them. It by no means began the struggle between man and woman against society, but in popularizing counter culture, he strengthened the voice of dissent. None of these conflicts are exactly new ideas, nor have they ever really been answered. Authors give their individual opinions on these age old conflicts, but it is not something that people felt has been discussed enough to be put to rest, hence the conflict rages on.
The theme of conflict as essential to the novel as a driving force, however, it is certainly not the only one. As previously discussed, the individual has a strong force on American literature. By illustrating strong figures in literature, authors solidified the importance of individuality as an American value. This was done from early literature even to contemporary literature. Early figures in American literature that epitomized this struggle for independence were vivid characters such as Huck Finn who rebels against authority figures such as Widow Douglas and even his own father, in an assertion of his own individuality. However, over the time, Huck has become more renowned as the voice of a struggling generation. One of the more modern individuals is Kerouac’s Sal Paradise. Sal embodies a generation’s struggle to break free of the constraints of society. His journey to discover himself through his travels directly challenged the roles that were laid out for the people of the time and forced readers to question their own. Indeed, the role of the individual is a crucial theme in the American novel. Another important theme is the theme of the reactionary versus the victim, which is seen in more active characters. Active characters are characters that do not let events simply happen to them, but they react to the situation. Most importantly, they are not defined by the events that take place, but they are acknowledged as shaping events in the character’s development. For instance, characters such as Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are the perfect example of these types of characters. When Eliza is faced with losing her son, she does not simply give up and accept her loss. Instead, she takes her son and makes a run for it. Slavery is something that makes up part of Eliza’s character, but she more depth and complexity than to be reduced to merely a slave. She’s a mother, a wife, and a friend to many, all notable characteristics before the reader looks at her as a slave. In more modern literature, this opposition of victimization can be found in the stories of The Dew Breaker. Danticat takes the time to flesh out how the events that took place shaped her characters, but she takes painful consideration to avoid rendering them just victims. In each of her stories, she shows how these people are victims of an injustice, but have not let themselves lose power over what has been done to them. They continue to live their lives after these torturers have tried to take away their humanity and reduce them to victims. It’s an empowering tactic that Danticat tries to detail in this novel. Conflict, independence, and the refusal to victimize the oppressed are all themes that are embraced by American authors. While there are a myriad of themes present in American literature, these three themes embody the struggle of both the authors and the characters themselves. However, these are all themes that are still extremely relevant in today’s political and social climate.
However, the fact of the matter is that the books referenced are all items of the past. This is not to diminish their importance, but rather to encourage readers to think of the future. While a great deal of progress has been made in American literature, there is always more to be made. To better understand these modern struggles, one must look to media outlets such as the news, which illustrates daily political and social struggles in our society. One topic which is still very relevant, and more than likely will be for quite some time, is that of equality. With debates raging over Proposition 8, it has become painfully clear that equality is not being offered to all. As a writer with a definite voice, change can be enacted using words. Writers have the strength and the talent to create change for the better. Especially seeing as how a great deal of successful American novels focused on the struggle of the individual for equality, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, there is still very much a need for change. By giving a voice to the gay community, a largely politically oppressed population, change can be written and hopefully carried out. Perhaps it is most important to ask people to question themselves and their norms. After all, in the end, when all is said and done, what unifies the great American novels is their ability, as a text, to argue. Certainly they all have their own voices and ways of going about arguing a point, Stowe used drama versus twain’s predilection for satire whereas authors like Danticat cements her argument in real life events, but they all undeniably forced their readers to question events, real or fabricated. In fact, one could even make an argument that the novelist’s ability can be judged not by their ability to phrase an argument, but rather simply to provide one. As a future writer, this should be one’s primary goal. There are plenty of issues and injustices that should be questioned. There’s never a lack of material for the future writers of America. As previously stated, America is an imperfect place. Start with that and see where it takes you.


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