Tuesday, March 26, 2013
March 26, 2013: National Big Read Recaps, Part 2
[This past Saturday, I chaired my NeMLA Roundtable on a National Big Read. Each of the six participants shared interesting and provocative perspectives on his or her chosen book or author, and so I wanted to follow up those presentations with some further thoughts. Not least so you can add your take on these and other books and authors that all Americans could read at the same time!]
The nominee that raises, and embodies, some defining national questions.
The roundtable’s second presenter, Diana Polley of Southern New Hampshire University, nominated J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer. As Diana noted, Crèvecoeur’s book, which while generally treated as non-fiction could also be described (as she nicely put it) as the first American novel, represents in any case one of the first post-Revolutionary attempts to address—and still to date one of the most extended and explicit engagements with—the evolving and crucial question of what “American” means and entails.
Diana did a great job making the case for why it is precisely Crèvecoeur’s emphasis on questions, rather than any particular answer (of his or of ours in analyzing his work), that makes his book one all Americans should read. For one thing, those questions allow him to consider virtually every significant issue of the era (most of which remain salient today); for another, his opening question, “What then is the American, this new man?” is just as open and potent in 2013 as it was in 1782; and for yet another, thinking of American identity as a series of questions highlights as well the fraught, contested, and potentially mythic nature of our national community.
Diana likewise mentioned how much Crèvecoeur’s own life and identity highlight such American questions, and I wanted to drive home that level to the book’s appeal. As she noted, it’s possible to describe Crèvecoeur as largely foreign to America—he was born and died in France, and by the time he published the book he was living in London. But if do categorize him as an international visitor to the U.S., we’d have to do the same for one of the Revolution’s most influential voices: Thomas Paine, who was born in England and spent his final years in France. Which is to say, Revolutionary America wasn’t just international because of Lafayette, and transnational AmericanStudies goes as far back as America does. Crèvecoeur can help us think about all of that.
Next nominee tomorrow,
BenPS. Thoughts on this nomination? Other nominees for an Even Bigger Read?