AMERICAN FICTION (LEVEL 3)
Reality invaded by dream (Borges)
How apt a title would this be for an essay on representing America? Answer with specific reference to ONE OR MORE texts.
The subject of our study hinges round a quotation by Jorge Luis Borges which encapsulates in a paradoxical phrase two notions which are essential to grasp the gist of American writing about America. This antithesis opposing and uniting the notion of reality and reality brings back to mind themes which have been largely pictured in American fictions and even more especially as a way of representing America itself: various myths and their realistic counterparts such as the American hero in opposition to the counter-hero, the myths of the Far West and the pioneering spirit opposed to the depiction of a cruel, urbanized, economic world devoid of any sentimentality or, more generally, the representation of an idealized past or of an impossible future in the realms of science-fiction as opposed to the description of present times.
Our study will not so much attempt to review the various realistic or, on the contrary, fantasy themes and representations of America than seek to account for the originality and specificity of American literature, if one can even subsume the novels of American writers into such appellation, and to elucidate the aporias of such a dichotomy. It will be based on the works of Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn), Jack Kerouac (On the Road) and Toni Morrison (Beloved).
The conflicting relationship of the two notions is echoed in the central verb invaded. The first part of this essay will focus on the American myth of America or the necessary representation of the American dream and contrast it with the undermining of American myths as can be found through the depictions of American society and people. This will be dealt in the second part. The contrasting of those two parts however reveals the ambiguous and complex notion of reality.
The United States of America is a young country in terms of its historical past and culture which had to be built in opposition to European substantial history and civilisation? This parallel was at first detrimental to the representation of America: it was first defined by what it was not, its historyless history and its cultural vacuum. As seen from the European soil, America was a blank space, a tabula rasa where men could create a world anew and being confronted with the challenging immensity of space, American authors had two completely opposite options: they could either rely on an already-existing culture, themes and style of writing namely British literature to convey a British vision of America or invent a radically new American literature along with the construction of American identity. In both cases, the aboriginal reality of America (the native population, the difficulty of settlement and building up of civilisation for example) was to be ignored, mystified, mythified or embellished but always distorted. American writers of the Genteel tradition in the 19th century (with the poems of Longfellow, and Lowell or the novels of Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving) represented the old mentality inherited from Europe, the code of Ladies and Gentlemen (the word gentleman being derived from the French gentilhomme). This tradition drew on the ideals of European romanticism which were to have a lasting influence on American literature as a whole, notably as concerns the idealisation of the past and the imaginary construction of utopian and quasi-Edenic places. In keeping with the romantic vision of place, the new land of America must be internalized, memorized and eventually personified so as to be represented, since places are only reflections of peoples minds, objective correlatives to use T.S Eliots famous phrase.
The first approach of the land is thus of an empty space because it is devoid of human presence. In the first chapter of My Antonia, Willa Cather perfectly depicts the infinite blank space that is the territory of America untamed, uncultivated by the new settlers: There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land_ I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside mans jurisdiction. As a result, just as the pioneers had to construct cities and progress westwards to conquer their land and nation, the American writers and thinkers had to construct an American identity, idiosyncratic features acting as landmarks in the artistic void of American culture. For example, Cathers novels hinge round the frontier myth which has been theorized by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893, after the assertion of the disappearance of the frontier line by the Census Bureau. For Turner, the deeper significance of the frontier lay in the effects on the American character. The frontier, he claimed, is the line of most rapid Americanization. It accounts for the presence and predominance of numerous cultural traits: that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism. In Cather too, characters are always shaped and defined in relation with landscape. She also puts a strong emphasis on past events, conveying, with nostalgic overtones, a utopian vision of the past bound with a sense of irretrievable loss.
In The Reign of Wonder (Naivety and reality in American literature) , Tanner confirms this necessity for the American writers to adopt a different vision, more often than not an idealised or imaginary one: A major problem facing American writers was simply, overwhelmingly, the need to recognize and contain a new continent. The wondering vision was adopted as a prime method of inclusion and assimilation. This wondering vision pervades the entire American Dream which appears above all to be the dream of Americas identity. This is first rendered in the depiction of places. In Tom Sawyer for example, Mark Twain sets the plot in a little village he describes thus in chapter two: Cardiff Hill, beyond the village and above it, was green with vegetation, and it was just far enough away to seem a Delectable Land, dreamy, reposeful, and inviting., or in the beginning of chapter four, The sun rose upon a tranquil world and beamed down upon the peaceful village like a benediction. This description clearly embellishes its object, turning it into an idyllic, Eden-like place bathed in the sunlight of a benevolent God. This God, or to be more accurate the omnipotent author also seems to favour the protagonists of the story, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher and spare them of any trouble, however dangerous their peripeteia may be. Quite on the contrary, they are most rewarded in one way or another after each of their adventures and Tom is regularly celebrated as a hero by the whole village: Tom was a glittering hero once more the pet of the old, the envy of the young. His name even went to immortal print, for the village paper magnified him. There were some that believed he would be President yet, if he escaped hanging. It seems interesting to see that the hero of those idealistic adventures is himself in its fictional universe, constantly engrossed in imaginary constructions, fascinated by the adventures of fictional heroes too, soldiers, thieves, pirates The process of mise en abyme makes of Tom Sawyer the author and character of his own stories and its creative power of imagination can even have effects on him, the dream or fancies invading the fictitious reality: Tom was suffering in reality now, so handsomely was his imagination working and so his groans had gathered a genuine tone.
We can draw a parallel between Twains portrayal of Tom and the one Kerouac made of Sal Paradise in On the Road insofar as his story stems from a dream, an imaginary vision of what America is, how life must be lived, according this time, not to pirate adventures or Cooper-like novels of heroism but to the mythical fiction of America and more especially the pioneering myth of the discovery and conquest of the West. Sal acknowledges that his projects are grounded on an underlying dream, a certain vision of America. On the very first chapter he says: With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that Id often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off. Or, Id been poring over maps of the United States in Paterson for months, even reading books about the pioneers and savoring names like Platte and Cimarron This mythologizing of Americas geography and thus spirit is extended in the depictions of American people and especially of Dean Moriarty who in the eyes and words of Sal becomes an archetypal and heroic American figure: it was a wild yea-saying outburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming A western kinsman of the sun, Dean. It appears also interesting to note that Kerouac inscribes Sals mythologizing of his friend in the tradition of American writing since Sal uses a nostalgic tone and submits to the typical yearning for the past: he reminded me of some long-lost brother.
But the idealistic day-dreamers that are Sal Paradise and Tom Sawyer must have a realistic basis on which to graft their imaginary constructions. They this find realistic counter figures in the characters if Dean Moriarty and Huckleberry Finn. Twain and Kerouac went further than the traditional embellished and nostalgia-ridden representation of America. They attempted to bring back reality in the invading dream American authors had made of America.
Weve seen how authors had either Europeanized America or embellished and mythologized it. In both cases, America offered a dream which appealed to and included the ruling class only, that is to say white males of European descent. As a result, the American dream fostered by the dominant literature was an invasion of American aboriginal specificity and a distortion of the everyday-life reality experienced by the majority of the population. Therefore any literary attempt to transcribe the American reality could not but be at first a deconstruction of myths and fantasies created and imposed so far, an attempt to invade the American dream with reality.
Twain is praised as a central figure of American fiction and Hemingway even claimed that: All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. This affiliation with modern literature goes hand in hand with a rejection of American ornate and European-like writing of authors such as Sir Walter Scott or Fenimore Cooper. Twain even held Walter Scott responsible for the Civil War because he provided romantic images to which the South could adhere and be misled by. To the elaborate and sophisticated writing of such authors, Twain opposed a straightforward, vernacular language which found its perfect realisation in Hucks direct expression. The choice of a first-person narrator enabled Twain to transcribe a truthful reality. Huck can indeed be easily opposed to Tom Sawyer who, even if he is not the model boy of the village is accepted and praised by the community. Huck remains the outlaw and even if he is accepted by Aunt Sally or Widow Douglas, cant stand being civilized. Tom, on the contrary advocates style, he always consults books and follow their rules. His obsession with rules and style is epitomized in the end of Huckleberry Finn when Tom prolongs Jims captivity and postpones his escape for the sake of fanciful and stylized romance. The oppositions of Tom and Huck reveals two antithetical visions that can be compared to two opposite trends in American fiction: Toms point of view maintains the idyll while Hucks nave but clear vision challenges the mythification of American society. The choice of a young narrator is also helpful to represent reality, youth being nostalgically seen as the ideal period when the senses are discovering colour and texture for the first times, when life is envisaged simply and directly. Therefore when Huck encounters the Grangerford family, he is at loss to comprehend the logic and meaning of the traditional feud which is corrupted by romantic notions and in its reality is nothing more than murder. We can draw a parallel between the character of Huck and the one of Dean Moriarty in On the Road since they both represent free spirits, unencumbered by societys rules and restrictions. Their directness and sincerity is metaphorically conveyed by their physical nakedness: Huck, on the raft which is his home and Dean, in his house. He came to the door naked and it might have been the President knocking for all he cared. He received the world in the raw. Kerouac uses the adjective raw several times to describe America (the raw body of America itself) and this adjective could also be applied to his own writing, which as Twains transcribes the crude reality, its beauty as well as its defects.
The nave approach clearly undermines not only fanciful and sophisticated literary constructions but also the sham and meanness of a perverted society. In Beloved, Morrison offers a nave vision of reality through the rememories of Sethe especially but also of Baby Suggs. Naivety here is not so much linked with age as is commonly thought but it has to do with the discovery and appropriation of ones self. Baby Suggs refers to the experience of ignorance of her self as merely sadness replacing a sense of identity: the sadness was at her center where the self that was no self made its home. She never had the map to discover what she was like. The use of the word map appears significant since it establishes a link between country and identity. America thus appears as a place of exclusion, or rather where identity remains an elusive myth.
The problem of an elusive identity indeed does not apply only to narratives of slaves, deprived of their rights to be human under certain historical circumstances. This issue seems to be a recurrent concern of American fiction and is mostly expressed in modern novels. Jack Kerouacs account of a journeying on the roads of America doesnt so much confirm a sense of definite place and identity than reflect the characters constant and almost pathetic circumvention of it. On The Road could be seen as a parody of the traditional epic odyssey or of a Bildungsroman where life or experiences provide some knowledge or some lessons to the heroes. Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise do not get wiser as the novel goes, they re-enact the same events, or repeat the same mistakes: Dean marries several times and keeps returning to his previous wives or girlfriends. Sal alludes to this repetition when he says: With frantic Dean I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it. In the afternoon we were buzzing towards Sacramento and eastwards again. The characters journey is circular and circumscribed to America. The fact that Sal and Deans plan to go to Italy fails is quite symbolic since Sal is from Italian descent. Failing to go beyond Americas borders is perhaps failing to grasp ones innermost and original identity.
The concepts of reality or identity are perhaps too encompassing and restrictive to be applied to American fiction or to the representation of the American polyphonic and ambivalent reality. In On the Road Sal constantly alludes to the diversity of American dreams and the diversity of landscape which he especially evokes when reciting the names of all the cities hes been through, as some kind of prayer or as he states the endless poem, The dark and mysterious Ohio, and Cincinnati at dawn. Then Indiana fields again, and St Louis as ever in its great valley clouds of afternoon The discovery of journeying and of America begins with the discovery of its diversity and the intricacy of its roads which undermine the uniform notion of identity: It was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes. The various roads Sal journeys on, just as the ever-changing and elusive river Huck and Jim floats by can also be seen as a powerful symbol of Americas diversity of writings.
It therefore appears that the narrator of On the Road be a writer. The act of writing or of storytelling appears as the epitome of the representation of America. Deconstructionist theories have underlined the duality of words which are by nature polysemic and evasive. Derridas concept of difference based on the Saussurian definition of words as arbitrary signs reveals that words are always at a distance of what they signify. The evasive nature of Americas reality is perhaps then best alluded to metatextually, with a constant reference to fictitiousness. This is maybe how Twains foreword to Huckleberry Finn (Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished) should be understood: as a reminder of the inescapable fictitiousness of American writing. In Beloved, the blending of historical allusions and setting with the supernatural character of Beloved, who is considered as the corporeal figure of Sethes dead daughter, a ghost made flesh, therefore appears coherent. To use Hendersons definition of the novel, it is the act of historicizing fiction, in other words invading the American dream with the reality of Black history while depicting a reality haunted by the ghost of Americas elusive identity.
In conclusion, Borges quotation appears as a good pointer to the complexity, ambiguity and elusiveness of a representation of America. The three terms he uses namely the notion of reality, invasion and dream all account for what seems at first a conflicting dichotomy but which in fact hints at the essential intermingling of reality and fantasy in American fictions. Literature appears as the best medium to transcribe the interdependence of these notions. In his Notes on Lolita Nabokov had also alluded to it, explaining, after having written the word reality in between inverted commas: One of the few words that mean nothing without quotes.