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The one thing every American shares is that we are immigrants, and this gives birth to our self-reliance, our willingness to risk tomorrow on faith, and our freedom from many of the cultural straitjackets found back in the Old Country. It’s all there in the art. All either necessary for immigration or fostered by it…

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway wrote.

In that book, nearly every theme that identifies our art as American is established and explored: migration, race, individualism, anti-intellectualism, optimism, religion, social-climbing, money-grubbing, and the comfortable informality that marks us as a people.

It’s as if Huck Finn were the instruction manual for how to be American. In that, Twain is just as clearly American as Debussy is French or Basho is Japanese. We often look to our art for clues to national identity. But although Twain gives us Americanness in concentrated form, most of the arts made on this continent, from Captain John Smith’s General History of Virginia (1624) and Anne Bradstreet’s poetry, all the way up to this week’s latest rap song, partake in certain common traits.

What are they? First, we need to eliminate some of the things we like to think are particularly American, such as patriotism or respect for the family. Every culture feels these qualities are particularly their own, but in fact, they are universal. Even such negatives as bigotry and racism have their American coloration, but they are evils found in every culture.

It needs to be noted, too, that what we admire in ourselves is not necessarily admired elsewhere. Americans are direct, which others often see as rude. We are informal, which others translate as slobbishness. We are optimistic, which can be taken as arrogance. We believe in individualism, which others see as selfishness. But there are six things that we can see as particularly American: migration, individualism, optimism, religiosity, informality, and expansiveness.

Migration

The one thing all Americans share is that we are immigrants.

Even Native Americans, although they hate to think so, came here from somewhere else, whether it is across an Arctic land bridge or up through a sipapu. It is the parent fact that gives birth to all our other traits. Even after our ancestors came here from far shores, we have never ceased from peregrinating. First, we moved West, populating the great wilderness. Now, we move away from home to college or career and find our parents retired to Florida and our siblings spread across four time zones. To Europeans or Asians whose families have lived in the same villages for centuries, we must seem utterly rootless.

So it can hardly be surprising that the central metaphor of Huck Finn is a journey: The book is many things, from its hero’s double negatives and “ain’ts” to his climactic choice to follow his instinct instead of his schooling about runaway slave Jim, but first and foremost, it’s a “road book,” marking the peripatetic nature of American life.

Much of our art reflects this continuous travel. From the moment we arrived on the Atlantic Coast we began moving west. As art, The Godfather speaks of the immigrant experience, but so does every Western ever filmed.

All the other traits we think of as American ultimately owe their birth to this constant moving: It gives birth to our self-reliance, our willingness to risk tomorrow on faith, and our freedom from many of the cultural straitjackets found back in the Old Country. It’s all there in the art. All either necessary for immigration or fostered by it.

Individualism

Make that “rugged individualism.”

We trust our own instincts, like Huck Finn, rather than the wisdom of the group. We are Mr. Smith in Washington, Gary Cooper at high noon, Ellen Ripley blasting aliens. The single most potent distillation of this individualism can be found in John Wayne, love him or despise him. But Wayne didn’t spring up ex nihilo; rather, he grew from the soil: He was originally Natty Bumppo, or Hawkeye, from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales: self-reliant, unschooled but wise and practical, with an unshaken faith in his own code of behavior. He’s Walt Disney’s Davey Crockett saying, “Make sure you’re right, then go ahead,” which is just a pop culture simplification of Henry Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.

Sometimes it’s shocking to realize how of a piece our cultural heritage is.

The flip side of individualism is our tendency to isolationism: “Good fences make good neighbors,” as Robert Frost ironically wrote. Going it alone is usually seen as a virtue. The downside of this self-reliance is our anti-intellectualism. We trust our own ignorance more than someone else’s knowledge. This is nothing new: It’s why Andrew Jackson was elected president. It’s Huck Finn fearing to be “sivilized” by his Aunt Sally. It’s why one of the most powerful political factions of the nineteenth century was called the “Know-Nothings.”

It’s a trait of national identity that we should never underestimate.

Optimism

Against all reason and the evidence of history, Americans believe they can do anything. It is our “can-do” attitude, and you find it in the barking joy of Walt Whitman’s poetry and the songs of Oklahoma!. To others in the world, this makes us look naive and foolish; fatalism is not part of our makeup.

Which is why America is home to pop psychology and Doris Day. As a corollary, for Americans, the future only holds a better world. “Tomorrow, tomorrow,” Annie sings. “Make it new,” said poet Ezra Pound, and although he was speaking of literature, he could just as well have been speaking of Thomas Edison, the Chrysler Building, or Elvis Presley.

Take what you’re given and do something new with it. Never accept the past as the final word.

Religion

Many peoples are religious, but in America, religion is something else.

From the utopian religious communities of the nineteenth century to today’s fundamentalism, there is a glint of zealotry in American spirituality. Elmer Gantry would not be thinkable in France. We have gone through at least four “Great Awakenings,” in which we rediscover the old-time religion and the narrow virtues of belief.

It was, after all, religion that founded this country, whether it is Congregationalists in New England, Quakers in Pennsylvania, Roman Catholics in Maryland. Each of them came here for religious freedom, although they were perfectly willing to oppress any religion not their own. The separation of church and state in our Constitution is there not because we were an agnostic nation, but because everyone was so nuts on the subject and we wanted to keep from each others’ throats.

You hear the religion in the symphonic music of Charles Ives and in Negro spirituals. It echoes in Moby-Dick, and even the window behind the dour couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Informality

“I lean and loaf at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass,” Whitman writes in a poem of expansive informality, turning his back on the formal expression of European art: No villanelles for Americans, no Rime Royal. In Europe, you have Oedipus, in America, Stanley Kowalski. Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn in colloquial American English and even put a note about it at the beginning of the book. Take that, Henry James!

“Whatever is not of the street,” wrote novelist Henry Miller, “is false, derived, that is to say, literature.” And he wasn’t using the word as a compliment.

You can see it in the portrait of Whitman at the front of his book, Leaves of Grass: There he is, sleeves rolled back, collar unbuttoned, hips shifted comfortably, hat at a rakish angle. You could never imagine Tennyson like that.

Expansiveness

Everything in America is supersized, whether it’s fast food or our landscape.

In America, bigger is better: We drive SUVs and watch blockbuster movies. It’s a Texas mentality. Star Wars isn’t big enough; we need a director’s cut, added scenes, a DVD packed with extras. A movie isn’t a success unless it makes $200 million. And the TVs on which we watch those DVDs continue to grow; soon they’ll cover our living room walls.

One Marilyn Monroe isn’t enough; Warhol must print her by the dozens, just as Babe Ruth must eat hot dogs by the score. The tall tale is our national mythology, from Paul Bunyan to Jim Carrey’s face.

Of course, how could it be otherwise with the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Plains? Our very landscape calls out for grandiosity and grandiloquence. Over the top is America’s starting line, and the next frontier is our constant goal.

Oh, and Americans love lists!

Most American Americans

John Wayne: Love him or hate him, we can’t think of him as merely an actor. He has become an icon, the movie roles and the man bound into one, indivisible: the lone, laconic hero, man of action rather than words, graceful and bullying in turns.

Louis Armstrong: American as soul.

Eleanor Roosevelt: American as do-gooder.

Babe Ruth: American as appetite.

Thomas Edison: American as inventor.

Most American Movies

The Godfather Saga, Francis Ford Coppola, 1977: The conflated version of the first two Godfather films tells the immigrant experience writ large: family, business, love, loyalty, betrayal and the move west, told with the force and mythology of opera.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, John Ford, 1962: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Star Wars, George Lucas, 1977: Good vs. evil supersized.

Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick, 1939: History whitewashed.

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, 1989: Race will not go away.

American Contributions to Global Culture

The Constitution: Our “governmental instruction manual” has become a model for the world, and its first ten amendments have become the guiding principles of many an emerging nation. It’s more than merely political, it’s at the center of our culture, and the one thing the world really does want from us.

Jazz: From which all popular music ultimately derives.

Hollywood: America’s secret plan for world domination.

Technology: The physical evidence of the can-do spirit.

Coca-Cola: Las aguas negras del imperialismo.

Most American Novels

Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain: The Great American Novel, filled with everything, good and bad, about ourselves: race, individualism, anti-intellectualism, optimism, religion, social-climbing, money-grubbing and our comfortable informality.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac: An essential national theme takes center stage.

Beloved, Toni Morrison: The evils of slavery haunt even the freed.

The Leatherstocking Tales, James Fenimore Cooper: The invention of John Wayne.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald: Money, glamor, celebrity, and loss.

Most American Plays

Angels in America, Tony Kushner: The hugely ambitious “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” takes on more American themes than anything since Huck Finn: politics, sex, generations, religious revelation, Reaganism, bigotry, and forgiveness; so expansive a single night can’t hold it.

Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller: The underside of the American dream.

Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein: Gushy, American corn-pone classic.

Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams: Torn T-shirts and sweaty thighs.

Fences, August Wilson: Black view from Pisgah.

American Classical Music Compositions

Three Places in New England, Charles Ives: The crusty New England composer reinvented classical music to make it more American: loud, brash, nostalgic and patriotic at turns, and finds its subject in landscape and history.

Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin: Jazz, Tin Pan Alley, Chopin, and Carnegie Hall.

Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland: Shaker hymn goes mainstream.

Symphony No. 3, Roy Harris: The type of the American symphony.

New World Symphony, Antonin Dvorak: Is the Most American Symphony written by a Czech?

American Architecture

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson: Just as equivocal as its owner and designer, this icon from the back of the common nickel is both paean to Europe’s classical past and the American’s love of invention, gimmickry and nature: Palladian windows and a moose head.

Chrysler Building: American industrial dynamism with grace.

Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland: Architecture as play-pretend.

Fenway Park: So cranky we actually love it.

Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright: Built over a waterfall like a diving board.

American Poems

Song of Myself, Walt Whitman: The “good gray poet” could not have arisen anywhere else; he is completely American, from his deification of democracy to his catalogs of diversity to his “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Closest thing we have to a national epic poem.

Poems, Emily Dickenson: Nothing more American than her quirky New England eccentricity.

Howl, Allen Ginsberg: “Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!”

Mending Wall, Robert Frost: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

American Visual Arts

American Gothic, Grant Wood: This iconic painting is more enigmatic than the Mona Lisa: encomium of hardcore American values or satire of Midwestern provincialism? Conservative or avant-garde? He’s not telling.

Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley: Art ripped from the headlines, circa 1777.

Marilyn Monroe multiple, Andy Warhol: If one is good, a dozen must be better.

Dogs Playing Poker series, Cassius Marcellus Coolidge: Now, that’s OTT!

Freedom From Want, Norman Rockwell: Turkey, potatoes and lots of corn.

American Popular Music

Shenandoah: A folk song of undetermined origin, this is the quintessential song about migration and loss; with its odd strophic form and nineteenth-century sentiment, it borrows elements from Irish shanties and African-American blues.

One O’Clock Jump: Count Basie and swing.

Born to Run: Rebels on wheels, a la the Boss.

Hound Dog: Elvis frees America all over again.

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot: The suffering of a people, caught in the throat.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Mr. Nilsen’s personal websiteThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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3 replies to this post
  1. In your eloquent catalog, I would add but that we are sometimes an ornery and prickly people, “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a-hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” — John Wayne in _The Shootist_.

  2. In early May 1865 Gen. Richard Taylor surrendered his small army to Gen. Canby in southern Alabama, A General officer with the still thick accent of the fatherland lectured Gen. Taylor, That he and all Southerners would learn what it means to be an American. Here we are 150 years later. Not much change.

  3. Nurtured by the unleashed spiritual forces of freedom, the immigrant reaches maturity when identity changes to pilgrim, having settled in the promised land.

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