On two sprawling novels that’ll take you very far into other American settings—and our shared history.
Both Charlottesville, Virginia (where I spent my first 18 years of life) and the Northeast (where I’ve spent the subsequent 17) are, in their own ways, pretty diverse—Charlottesville first in its heavily bi-racial community and then second in all the communities and cultures that the University of Virginia brings to town (and third, more and more since I left, in all the refugee and migrant communities that have come as well); and the Northeast (Boston and Philly specifically) in most every way that big urban American centers are in this 21st century moment. Yet for various but interconnected reasons, I would argue that both places allow their present inhabitants to imagine a relatively stable and static, Anglo-centric, English-speaking local and (at least implicitly) national starting point and past, and then to add other racial and ethnic groups and cultures onto that imagined point of origin: Virginia’s narrative begins with Jamestown and John Smith, Boston’s with the Puritans, Philly’s with William Penn and the Quakers, that sort of thing.
Having spent almost all of my life in those places, it has thus come as a particularly significant and much-appreciated shock when I have traveled to places where it is literally impossible not to recognize a much more multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and even multi-lingual American past and point of origin. No place in our country forces that recognition more than New Orleans, but I think the whole Southwest is similarly impossible to narrate without locating Mexican and Native Americans alongside European/Anglo ones at every moment. And it’s thus no coincidence that two of the most multi-lingual and –vocal American novels center on precisely those two settings, although it is at least somewhat coincidental that they were published within only a few years of one another: George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1881) and Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don (1885). Cable’s multi-generational novel of New Orleans in the years after the Louisiana Purchase features almost as many languages and dialects as it does main characters; for example, its central perspective character is a German-American immigrant who befriends a white New Orleans doctor, a Creole street artist, and a mixed-race businessman within the first few chapters, and then falls in love with a French Creole girl who is lifelong friends with an African American slave (I could go on, but you get the idea). Burton’s novel focuses in a bit more specifically, on a couple of families (one Mexican-American, one Anglo-American) in a California dealing with (among other things) the aftermath of the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, gradual annexation into the United States, and continued battles between Mexican-American landowners, Anglo-American arrivals, the US army, and Native Americans over the region’s land; despite the somewhat shorter list of main characters, that plethora of contexts forces Burton to include a wide range of voices, including ones that speak English, Spanish, a mixture of both, and a number of Native languages (all, as with Cable, partly translated and partly reproduced in various dialect forms).
Both novels are huge and far from perfect in structure or style—both rely heavily on love triangles and sentimental romance, for example, to drive their plots and bring their culturally and linguistically divided and even opposed characters and communities together. And we’re talking 19th-century love triangles and romance; which is to say, neither book would qualify for the Beach Read series. But the things that make them difficult and long-winded also make them so American and so great, and at the top of that list would be their very multi-vocality, their inclusion of so many languages and voices and stories and perspectives to construct these communities (past and present) that are at the heart of our national identity. Both do so in part to force their audiences to engage with some of the darkest realities of America’s history: “the shadow of the African,” as one of Cable’s mixed-race characters defines it; the legacy of land theft and cultural discrimination and abuse; and many others. Yet both also believe in and embody the ways in which listening to each other’s voices and stories, languages and experiences, can precisely connect across our divided communities and cultures, and create more truly United States as a result.
Next Winter Reads tomorrow,
PS. You know what to do—nominations for Winter Reads, please!
12/10 Memory Day nominee: Emily Dickinson!
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