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27 March 2012

Tomorrow I am giving a lecture at the University of Stavanger titled, “The Great American Novel.” Now before you laugh, you should know that the English beat you to it. They were laughing at the very idea of American greatness almost 200 years ago:

In 1820 Sydney Smith wrote in the Edinburgh Review:

In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? Or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? What does the world yet owe to American physicians or surgeons? What new substances have their chemists discovered? Or what old ones have they advanced? What new constellations have been discovered by the telescopes of Americans? Who drinks out of American glasses? Or eats from American plates? Or wears American coats or gowns? or sleeps in American blankets?

To be fair, the United States was only 44 years old in 1820, but beyond that, if this is the measure for greatness we should worship China.

I’ll be speaking about ideas of nationalism and how very important literature is to the concept of the “nation.” In my research I came across two paintings from the period of Romantic Nationalism that inspired much contemplation this morning.

Here’s the American painting first: It’s titled “American Progress” (what other title would do?) and was painted by John Gast in 1872.

"American Progress," John Gast, 1872,

Lady Progress leads the way, casting fear and shadows on the Native Americans, wild animals, and any others not in her path. She leads the trains and the stagecoaches in a parade towards modernity. If you have doubts about the relevance of this painting today, cast your eyes on the lines for the new iPad.

There it is folks: Progress! Head for the light. Keep your eyes on the shiny, white Lady Apple of Progress.

And then we have the Norwegian entry for the National Spirit Award:

"Bridal Journey in Hardanger" by Hans Gude and Adolpe Tidemann, 1848.

It’s not the absence of evil that I noticed first (no overt “You’re either with us or against us!” message), nor even the tranquil theme of a bridal party (although they are surely rowing over some poor plankton), and the idyllic setting of fjords and mountains didn’t immediately strike me either. (What could be more Norwegian, you ask? My choice scene would have been three people in their 70s getting drunk at the airport bar before their 7 a.m. flight to Las Palmas.)

But no, what struck me about the Norwegian painting is that it was painted by two men!

Samarbeid. Samarbeid. Samarbeid.

A Nation of “We.”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 March 2012 14:56

    I have a copy of the bridal painting at home. I was amazed at the size of the original!

    The I vs. We thing is probably one of the biggest cultural differences between the U.S. and everyone else. Even our professional sports teams have shining stars, but no one knows the names of the other players. Our conservatives think anything “we” is socialism and bad for America. They equate anything remotely socialist as government control and limiting “freedom” unless it gives them an advantage over everyone else. Basically, “I’ve got mine, screw the rest of you.” It is unfortunate as I remember we used to give a hoot about each other. Maybe I was dreaming.

  2. 27 March 2012 14:59

    P.S. Sorry for the rant. I should be happy we HAVE developed a culture of arts, despite the way things are. Must be the tenacity of the human spirit.

  3. mary permalink
    28 March 2012 12:51

    Your insight is truly amazing. I espescially love the line about the airport bar. And I would love to hear your lecture about the Great American Novel. I hope you include Steinbeck (of course!) and Wallace Stegner.

    • 2 April 2012 09:06

      Thanks, Mary. I did include Steinbeck, but also F. Scott Fitzgerald, Toni Morrison, Mark Twain and a host of others. I concluded with the fact that we are a nation “E pluribus unum” and to choose just one novel would be to shut out the multiplicity of voices in our nation (for example, many would say it’s “Huck Finn,” but that book has been deeply offensive and painful to the African American community.) So anyway, I gave some categories that *A* great American novel (and not *THE*) could fit in to: the American Dream, the quest for the mythological West, social criticism, novels of divide (racial, ethinic, socio-ecological, etc), and so on. I also talked about the fact that the U.S. sees itself as a nation in the making, an unfinished project, so it would be impossible to choose just one novel from the past — how could it encapsulate what we feel today is America?

      Well, that was it in a nutshell! 🙂

      • 3 April 2012 05:01

        Hmmm… great point about the “unfinished project.” To me, America is the center where cultures across the world converged making it virtually impossible to attribute one person or idea (or book) with all our goals and values.

      • 3 April 2012 10:48

        I totally agree, Tina!

  4. 29 March 2012 08:54

    I second Mary’s comment! This post is entertaining, interesting, and, as always, thought-provoking. I would *never* laugh at the idea of the great American novel, but, of course, I’m American. 🙂 I also recently finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and am now getting into Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, so have no doubt about the greatness of American writers. In the face of so much, and such constant, anti-Americanism in Europe (and the world), some of it very well deserved, I know, I find warm comfort in the open intelligence of Americans like Franzen and Chabon, and Bruce Springsteen (let’s hear it for The Boss!).

    I look forward to hearing about your lecture. I hope it went very well.

    • 2 April 2012 09:12

      Thanks, Michele! Teaching American Literature here has actually reinstated my love for the U.S. — which is a good thing! (Always important to come to terms with your home country.) America is such an amazingly diverse and dynamic country. When I talked about “Huck Finn” in the lecture I mentioned that Mark Twain was the first to write an entire novel in the vernacular, which really could not have been done under the nationalist projects of Europe. Although I’m not a big fan of “Huck Finn,” Twain was one of the first really American authors who signaled a strong break with the European traditions (the works of early American authors like Hawthorne and Melville are still fairly difficult to distinguish from British novels, at least as style goes.) I have a hard time putting my finger on it, but it’s a realization that n other country could have produced a Springsteen or a Twain.

      I enjoyed giving the lecture and hope everyone else enjoyed it tool! 🙂 Thank you!

  5. 3 April 2012 04:57

    Hahaha! Should I feel guilty for laughing? Trust me, I’m laughing WITH you. Two men painting a picture together is definately NOT American. New perspective for me:)

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