Saturday, December 17, 2011
December 17-18, 2011: Anglo, American
The least obviously cross-cultural American community nonetheless represents one of the oldest cross-culturally influenced parts of our culture, and continues to provide new and powerful cross-cultural voices in our national conversations.
By far the most difficult chapter of Redefining American Identity for me to write, and for the same reasons the one I saw and see as the most significant, was Chapter 2, on the captivity experiences and narrative of the 17th century Puritan Mary Rowlandson. Each chapter presented its own unique complexities to be sure; but for every other chapter it felt relatively easy to connect my central thread and argument, that the identities and experiences of these exemplary individuals were thoroughly cross-cultural (thus revealing the defining cross-cultural American identity throughout our history and culture), to the specific text and figure and community on which I was focused. Yet I believed, and still believe, that such a definition of American identity can be genuinely valuable if and only if it can be connected to every American and every community—and thus I likewise believe that it was and is particularly important for me to argue that the culture and community at the heart of many of our traditional national narratives, Anglo-Americans, has always been just as cross-culturally influenced and transformed as every other American community.
If I succeed in making that case, there are obvious historical benefits: allowing us to see and understand and analyze Anglo-American communities and identities, from the different Puritan arrivals to the Jamestown settlers and then on down the centuries since, as profoundly similar to and interconnected with both the cultures with which they directly interacted (Native Americans, other European arrivals, African slaves, and so on) and the other immigrant communities and cultures that have come to constitute America. Yet there’s also a more contemporary and just as meaningful effect, which is to help us to see how 20th and 21st century British immigrants are just as cross-culturally transformed by their American experiences, and just as influential a part of our evolving cross-cultural identity, as their historical counterparts have always been. How much, for example, would a narrative of America’s evolving cross-cultural identity and national conversations in the 1960s and 70s be amplified by a clear sense of the role of Anglo-American immigrant John Lennon within them?
I have here two specific, contemporary Anglo-American voices and lives in mind: Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan. Hitchens passed away from cancer on Thursday night, and Sullivan’s “Daily Dish” blog has throughout the subsequent days hosted a series of tributes (by Sullivan, who was a longtime close friend of Hitchens, and by many others) to Hitchens. The two men are very distinct in a number of ways, and perhaps especially in their respective prose genres—Hitchens made his name through his controversial, combative, and always compelling books and long-form journalistic pieces on dense and difficult topics; while Sullivan is one of our preeminent political and social bloggers, his site featuring dozens of concise but consistently thoughtful pieces and links a day. Yet as my colleague Irene noted in her comment about Hitchens on Friday’s post, they are linked by their status as Anglo-American immigrants, bringing to our national conversations an explicitly cross-cultural perspective and an evolving sense of both their own and our national identities. Those conversations, and our nation, are more complicated and richer and, above all, stronger and more American for their Anglo-American voices and presences.
More next week,
PS. Any Anglo-American immigrants or influences you’d highlight?