We didn’t discuss Berry’s essay much at all on Thursday, though I think that text is valuable– despite being so glib– for what it can tell us about the search for what in the old days used to be known as national character. Here’s a bit of a tangent: during the Cold War, when American Studies departments were being instituted in universities across the United States, the project of defining America according to its peculiar virtues (and, to an extent, vices) grew in stature. For generations up to that point various politicians, preachers, and writers had set themselves the task of explaining what it was that made America America. As early as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (granted, he was visiting from France) intellectuals had seen the US as exceptional in both its birth and its social dynamics. Taken to an extreme such speculation hardened into the nationalist sentiments of American Exceptionalism, which lifted the US above all other nations as the world’s (i.e. Western civilisation’s) last, best hope. On the other hand writers such as Constance Rourke took a more ironic, even self-deprecating tack, examining the mythologies which animate national identity. Her American Humor is a classic of the genre of the national character study and in another version of this course I might even use it. The point is, that Berry is clearly willing to undertake a panoramic view of American autobiography and in the process to generalize about Americans and American mores and institutions. Such an effort is a bit unfashionable these days, but interesting nonetheless because it offers us the opportunity to consider some of the well-thumbed cliches of national self-perception. Are Americans, as has so often been asserted, truly rugged individuals who lift themselves up by their bootstraps? Is America a massive (s)Melting Pot, forever at a low simmer, absorbing the foreign particles of immigrants into its eclectic broth? Remember what Utah Phillips said: America is a great big melting pot. All the scum rises to the top and everybody on the bottom gets burned. We don’t need to be quite so cynical, but the point is aptly made: as a model of social formation the Pot– like the Mixed Salad or the Mosaic– carries an implicit ideological charge. The way we think about things determines what we will think.
It’s important to remember the biographical documentary Can’t Be Satisfied as well, not only because it celebrates one of the world’s most gifted Blues musicians but because of what it tells us about the techniques of Life Narrative. Thursday we talked about the various methods in play in that film, including the use of testimonials, historical context, and performance. The story of Muddy Waters’ rise to fame and fortune (a favorite narrative deep in the American grain) is also an account of the nation at a particular moment in its development. Muddy’s life can tell us something about the multi-generational diaspora of the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans left the South to pursue happiness (and, not always successfully, flee Jim Crow) in the North.
On Tuesday we’ll talk about Smith and Watson’s chapter on the historical evolution of life narrative, Nelson’s somewhat dry but fascinating hypotheses on the nature of autobiographical memory, and two of Fearing‘s poems. The first line of one of them– “You will remember the kisses, real or imagined”– tells us something crucial about memory. Can you guess what it is?