Monday, January 7, 2013
January 7, 2013: American Homes, Part One
[This AmericanStudier is about to move into a new home, with all the possibility and uncertainty that that transition entails. So this week’s series will highlight some AmericanStudies connections to ideas and images, ideals and limitations, of home. Add your responses, suggestions, and home-ly ideas for the weekend post, please!]
On the promise and perils of returning home after many years away.
The romance of traveling abroad, and finding ourselves anew (or perhaps finding new selves) there, forms a common trope in our national narratives. That’s particularly true, I’d say, of our images of artists and authors, as exemplified by the Roaring ‘20s expatriates whose European journeys continue to fascinate us (see Woody Allen’s engagement with them in the recent Midnight in Paris). We tend to engae much less frequently, however, with the other side of that coin: with what it means when such travelers return to their American homes. Literary and cultural critic Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s (1934) offers a particularly rich and complex examination of what that experience of return meant for those 20s expatriates, and more exactly of both the hopes and the fears that those Americans felt as they made their way back to their home.
Even more telling, and at the same time substantially stranger and more surprising, are James Fenimore Cooper’s contemporaneous, interconnected, yet dueling fictional representations of the same experience. In 1826, at the height of his first literary successes, Cooper took a job as a US consul and moved his family to France, where he remained, traveling through Europe and continuing to write, for the next seven years. When he and they returned to America, and to his childhood and lifelong home of Cooperstown, in 1833, he found the place after those years away at once familiar and yet changed, nostalgically comforting and yet threateningly foreign. Some of those shifts were in the community (Jacksonian Democracy was in full force, and the nation was indeed changing), while some were in Cooper himself (in his more mature and elite status, in his European-influence d perspective, and more). And as he did throughout his prolific career, Cooper responded to his experiences and the world around him by writing novels, in this case two that he published in the same year: Homeward Bound; or, The Chase: A Tale of the Sea (1838) and Home as Found (1838).
The latter novel was subtitled “Sequel to Homeward Bound,” and indeed the two works feature many of the same central characters. Yet on the other hand they feel hugely and interestingly distinct. Partly those are differences in genre and setting: the former is a seafaring adventure that takes its characters to multiple exotic destinations; the latter a comedy of manners set entirely in homes and social settings within New York York and Templeton (Cooper’s fictionalized Cooperstown). But the differences in tone go beyond those elements, and reflect some of the disappointment suggested by the phrase as Found, the gap between the idea of home (toward which the characters ostensibly move throughout Homeward Bound, although in reality they adventure around the world) and the reality of what is encountered when it is reached. That gap is perhaps inevitable for anyone returning home, especially after years away; but it’s also complex and troubling, given the importance that our homes hold in our identities and psyches throughout our lives. In any case, such experiences are likely universal, and Cooper’s novels, like Cowley’s book, can help us understand and engage with them in our own lives.
Next home connections tomorrow,
BenPS. What do you think? Responses to these ideas? Other images and ideas of home in America you’d highlight?