The Answer to America’s Identity Crisis: Its Own Literature

If you’ve been paying attention you’ve no doubt sensed an American identity crisis brewing, if not in yourself personally then at least in the news. I suspect it may be a little anachronistic to say this crisis is “new” since it’s natural, in some sense, for politically polarized parties to possess differing visions of an American national identity. This is true, but it’s not as anachronistic as it sounds.

As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in a 2012 TED Talk, supported by data drawn from the research of McCarty, Poole, & Rosenthal (2015), our Congress is more polarized now than it was even during the era of reconstruction following the Civil War. The media similarly so: the narratives that run side by side in conservative and liberal news outlets are light years apart in their linguistic portrayals of current events. I suspect a lot of us are just as polarized whether we realize it or not.


We’ve all seen Trump’s vision of a national American identity. It was infused into his platform: Make America Great Again. You can see his vision of America delineated in his plan right on the White House website. Trump’s America is an America that wins, a pure America secure from the polluting forces of illegal immigrants and religious extremists, a profoundly wealthy America. It is to be revered: its allies bow, its enemies flee and surrender. It’s an appeal to exceptionalism, nationalism, strength, and the traditional values of a bygone era. And, as a contributor to the Guardian observed,

“…it is also an immature, isolationist, tantrum cry for a return to a mythical Fortress America that supposedly existed before Muslims and Mexicans and other “foreign” influences arrived on Main Street.”

Of course, it grapples with a competing vision of American identity. In the words of one of the Obama’s most repeated catchphrases in 8 years of office, “That is not who we are.” The former President used this phrase to defend his positions on immigration, torture, education, and healthcare. Michelle Obama used it in her 2016 commencement speech at City College of New York to assert her vision of American identity:

“Graduates, that is not who we are.  That is not what this country stands for.  (Applause.)  No, here in America, we don’t let our differences tear us apart.  Not here.  Because we know that our greatness comes when we appreciate each other’s strengths, when we learn from each other, when we lean on each other.  Because in this country, it’s never been each person for themselves.  No, we’re all in this together.  We always have been.”

So who are we then? The crisis centers, as always, around two questions so seemingly simple that elementary, secondary, and university students have been routinely discussing them in school for decades.

  1. What is Americanism? (What shared values drive American identity?)
  2. Who is an American? (What does it mean to “be an American?”)

In the study of English literature and language arts, where I come from, the canon of American Literature can be a little tricky to define because of these very questions. A canon like British literature is much easier. English identity is informed by thousands of years of history and genetic lineage. The tradition of English literature is begotten by similarly ancient literary traditions from the myths of Beowulf and King Arthur to Shakespeare, whose work still predates the Declaration of Independence by well over over a century and a half.

In defining the canon with the question, “What is American Literature?” the instinct of most students is to appeal to the empirically definable parts of the American experience: the birthplace or citizenship of the author, the geographical setting of the text, the place where it was published. After all, this rule generally works quite well for the canon of British literature.

Not so with American Literature. What it means to be ethnically “American” is a fluid concept. When pressed people will default to America as a person’s birthplace, but when asked about their “nationality” or “ethnicity” (a sloppy way to inquire about a person’s heritage, by the way) most go on to break it down in fractions or percentages: a quarter German, a half Scottish, an eighth South African, you get the idea. Embedded into our language of descent is the idea that no one, except the American Indian, is ethnically “American.”

Further to point, many of American Literature’s great authors were immigrants. Vladimir Nabokov’s family fled the Bolshevik Revolution for Ukraine when he was child. He studied at Cambridge and lived in Berlin and France, ultimately coming to America aboard the SS Champlain to flee advancing German troops in 1940. He was living in Ashland, OR at the time he finished writing Lolita, which consistently ranks among the best English-language novels of all time.

So we can throw the lineage or ethnicity of the author and characters right out. But also unlike Brit Lit, and to the same point, the canon of “American Literature” doesn’t have thousands of years of history to draw on. Well, it does, but pre-Revolutionary War history and literature doesn’t seem to count for much in Western tradition. American identity is sorely out of touch with the real history of its own continent, the continent whose name its founding immigrant settlers took upon themselves, preceding the last 250 years. So that one also goes in the bin.

What literary critics have found is that American Literature is best understood as literature that grapples with and interprets uniquely American themes and issues. This definition may be fluid, but it also much closer to the heart of the American experience. Far from explicitly defining Americanism and deciding who is or is not American, it simply offers perspectives on the American experience. It’s not a definition, it’s an invitation.

Going a step further, this resonates because it is the process by which we all come to define Americanism for ourselves. We feel American, or not, because of our stories and the stories of others. It is derived from narrative experience.

America is Atticus Finch’s defense of Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird. It is the vigorously independent and individualistic Self-Reliance of Emerson. It is Sherman Alexie’s father staying up all night to watch Jimi Hendrix play the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. America is the the conditions of the meat-packing plant in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and it is the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Our shriveling American Dream is at once Jay Gatsby’s Daisy and A Raisin in the Sun. Trump’s “forgotten millions” are Cannery Row‘s Mack and the boys.

I suspect that most of the American literary experience today is instead composed of brief up-to-the-minute news clips and tweets from the echoes of our own ideological chambers that together cobble a constantly changing image of American national identity. Perhaps if we indulge the timeless and classic stories of our own damn literature we’ll rediscover true Americanism.

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

“Who wants to be good if he has to be hungry too?” said Richard Frost.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, Chapter XXIII



Cover photo from a post by Matt Potter on his blog Afternoon Sufficed.


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