On mixture, identity, and performance across the American literary landscape.
I have both professional and personal stakes in a heightened national awareness of and engagement with racial and cultural mixture, as I wrote in this follow-up to my second book. But what really hit me for the first time this semester, as my American Literature II (1865-present) sections moved through our syllabus, is just how many of my favorite American novels focus on characters engaging with their own mixed heritages: Janet Miller in The Marrow of Tradition, Helga Crane in Quicksand (and more subtly Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry in Passing), and Tayo in Ceremony are all centrally connected to that kind of cross-cultural identity and experience.
Moreover, because my Am Lit II syllabus pairs those works with another text from their respective eras, I also thought a great deal this semester about the ways in which other, more seemingly culturally unified American identities include their share of mixture as well. Huck Finn, for example, is (at least by his novel’s end) a mixture of Pap, Tom Sawyer, and Jim; Jay Gatsby is a mixture of that self-constructed identity with James Gatz, the identity into which he was born; Gogol Ganguli mixes his parents’ Bengali immigrant identities with his own evolving ABCD (American-Born Confused Desi) status. I’m not trying to equate any or all of these characters—in the cases of Huck and Gatsby, at least, I would argue that their white privilege allows them to choose when and how to perform in a way that differentiates them from the others—but I saw, and appreciated, the parallels this spring.
Appreciating those parallels also allows us to consider just how much any American identity, whatever its internal elements, comprises at the same time an external performance. Gatsby, of course, literally performs that identity, with James Gatz always lurking somewhere underneath; but so too for example does Gogol perform the identity of Nikhil, to which he legally changes his name the summer before college (but which Lahiri’s narrator never calls him). Huck is constantly performing various identities (as a girl to gain information, as a fictional boy to navigate the feuding families, as Tom Sawyer in the closing section) in order to survive, but so too does Tayo perform ceremonies—both more traditional Laguna Pueblo rituals and Betonie’s more mixed ones—in order to bridge the different sides to his heritage and experiences. Which is to say: when the speaker of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” (which we also read in Am Lit II) describes her life and death as “an art, like everything else,” she’s damn right.
Next semester conclusion tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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