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AMERICANNESS REDEFINED: FIGURING GLOBALIZED AMERICA AS HOME

Albena Bakratcheva

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      "Often rebuked, yet always back returning
      I place my hand on the hand

      of the dead, invisible palm-print
      on the doorframe...

      or I read the backs of old postcards
      curling from thumbtacks, winter and summer

      fading through cobweb-tinted panes -
      white church in Norway..."1

These are lines from an Adrienne Rich poem entitled "From an Old House in America". A little later in the poem this old American house would be referred to as a "northeast kingdom". Two spatial images would unexpectedly combine in order to form a metaphor of time, i.e. oldness. And dignity. And beauty. Perhaps even mystery. They would also combine so as to hint at questions like: What is old in America? How old the New World can feel itself to be? Does it necessarily have to dissolve into its newness mythology the real breath of oldness, or does it simply feel enchanted by it? The metaphor of time begins to gradually transform itself into a metaphor of timelessness, where nothing but beauty matters. The whiteness of the Norwegian church embraces in itself the oldness of the American house, thus figuring a notion of home as a global, transcendental eternity. Space starts meaning differently, its spirit touching the untouchable. Resounding, moreover, a distinctively American echo. Some 150 years before Rich Henry David Thoreau wrote in an essay: "The day is but a Scandinavian night." ("A Winter Walk"). And Thoreau's day did always belong to the temple of America. Just like Rich's does. Mystical beauty must have provided the link.

These thrilling Nordic-Western metaphors - in their own style and time, - revive an inherent impulse in American writing: the impulse of erasing the notion of time in order to focus on space, space being always entirely American. "Space and Time - America and England"2, another contemporary poet, Susan Howe, stated in a recent interview, referring to this very preoccupation with the "genius loci" of America and its globalizing potentials. Such a vision would endlessly transcend the local into global and the global into local, thus incorporating in itself everything unfamiliar and remaining familiar to everything at the same time. Metaphors, resulting from this kind of vision, always have something in common - they can be highly diverse, but do never split. They can rest on a touch of Scandinavian beauty and still preserve their American essence.

Moreover, they would always denote self-identification with the place, with America. "Trust the place to form the voice", Susan Howe continues in the same interview, making it clear that it is only poetry what breathes the spirit of the land and that there is no poetical voice, or identity, without adopting that spirit.

In his remarkable book on "The Puritan Origins of the American Self" Sacvan Bercovitch saw "American selfhood as identity in progress, advancing from prophecies performed towards paradise to be regained"3. He was referring to that long line of New England authors, who, like Cotton Mather, would envision "the American way spreading over the face of the earth" and affirm that "We have seen the Sun rising in the West"; or, like Samuel Baldwin, would figure the "Expansion of the United States into the Millennial Republic, and its Dominion over the Whole World"; or, like James Russel Lowell, would glorify "New birth of a new soil, the first American"; or, like Henry David Thoreau, would see the West as the Wild as the World and American wilderness as the preservation and the future of the world... These authors, like many, many others in their time, coming from a tradition of radical Protestant feeling, harbored deep within a HOPE FOR A MILLENNIUM, AN APOCALYPSE that transforms society and ends history. Moreover, they all pictured the New Jerusalem ON THE ACTUAL SOIL OF NEW ENGLAND. "... here, here in America, is THE HOME OF MAN", Ralph Waldo Emerson declared ("Fortune of the Republic"). What made this evident for him was not the men in America, but MAN AS AMERICA. Yes, this was self-identification, advancing towards paradise to be regained. And this paradise to be regained could be nothing but America's WILDERNESS.

It used to be a preoccupation of the self with the "genius loci" as America; it used to be the "genius loci" forming the voice of the self, the very self-identity in American writing. It has always been so. And still is. Though not quite. What has changed in this so very American, existential relation between the self and the place as distinctively American?

      "Walked on Mount Vision
      New Life after the Fall."4

This is the beginning of a recent Susan Howe poem. Every word in it breathes pure American air. It resounds Gatsby's belief in the green light; evokes an Emersonian vision of nature; makes Thoreau's different drummer audible; echoes the rhythm of transcendental walking beyond the visible; insists on newness, freshness, wilderness; takes back to Mather's "Magnalia" and the Puritan glorification of America as the New Jerusalem. So it could be considered as simply rephrasing the grand millennial tradition of New England. Had the poem followed the direction of the beginning. But it doesn't. What follows is:

      "So many true things
      which are not truth itself...
      In the machinery of injustice
      my whole being is Vision."5

So there is no more ultimate truth - be it transcendental, evangelic, not to speak of existential. There are only questionable truths. If the whole being is vision, it is mostly in terms of adequacy to the Fall of already fluid, confusing, evasive realities. Such a disposition can no more get coherence by resting on the apocalyptic impulse of drawing global timeless pictures of the Holy Land as America. The poem turns out to be a dialogue with this very impulse. As well as a metaphoric contemporary answer. Susan Howe deciphers the metaphor in the already quoted interview: "It would be hard to think of poetry apart from HISTORY... - she says. - The TALE and the PLACE are tied in a mysterious and profound way." Needless to say, that both the tale and the place are considered as entirely American.

And I would argue here, that a process, that has been going on in American poetry, i.e literature, i.e. culture, in the last two to three decades, is that of a gradual changing in the very nature of the relation between the Self as American and the Place as America. In the very nature, that is, of being at home in America and of figuring America as home. It is also worthwhile pointing out, that this process has been going on simultaneously with, or presents another level of, the sheer recent interest in the United States towards all kinds of ethnic studies, native studies, racial studies, or border studies presently. The change I am talking about is grounded on an EXTREME GLOBALIZATION AWARENESS. What it presents is a side of a cultural self-preservation BEYOND, rather than against, globalization. It is the GLOCALIZATION IMPULSE in American culture itself.

The very term "glocalization" is an American neologism, of course. When he came up with it two years ago in his book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree", Thomas Friedman made it clear that "The whole purpose of glocalizing is to be able to assimilate aspects of globalization into your own country and culture in a way that adds to your growth and diversity, without overwhelming it."6. What Friedman obviously has in mind, is "a culture encountering other STRONG cultures", or globalization abroad, i.e. predominantly outside America. As well as inside America, as far as small cultures' survival is concerned. And although aware of the often undue synonymous usage of "globalization" and "Americanization", in cases like this Friedman is doing the same thing. Since he is focused on the issue of OTHERNESS; on the relation to what he calls a "strong culture". While the "STRONG CULTURE" itself remains taken for granted as a nonproblematic, stable, undisputable reality. (This is what usually happens when one is outside literature).

What I am suggesting here - borrowing the term mainly for the term's sake, - is that the "STRONG CULTURE" ITSELF has been recently and is currently UNDERGOING ITS OWN PROCESS OF GLOCALIZATION. This is a process beyond globalization in the general meaning of the word, a counterbalance that questions this very "strength". What it predominantly is with a certain trend in contemporary American poetry, comes in terms of a constantly kept dialogue with the global, millennial vision of America - with the very myth of America as "the new heavens and new earth" of John's Revelation. The self-place relationship is being revisited - and reexperienced. The place as Home as America is being rediscovered as the core of self-identity. Not any more as paradise to be regained, but already as a Story necessarily to be heard. A LOCAL STORY. A local story that needs trusting. So that the poetic Voice become TRUE. So that the Place become Home, America become Home. So that the (poetic) Self become rooted in the global insecurity all around.

What is also worthwhile pointing out here, is that such a poetic disposition inevitably tends to, or directly comes from, NEW ENGLAND. No wonder. Since, once again referring to Sacvan Bercovitch, "the myth of America is the creation of the New England Way". Where else could you revisit the myth?

Let us now consider how trusting the local story feels. How it means.

"I always have to look back into the past for some reason - Susan Howe says. - Where and how the English seventeenth-century voice becomes the seventeenth-century, the nineteenth-century and even the twentieth-century American voice.". This is how a book entitled "My Emily Dickinson" appeared; or a series of poems entitled "Thorow"; or a number of writings on Melville. "These... writers couldn't possibly be English - Howe would affirm. - Why? This is a question that I feel obliged to answer. So when you say PLACE doesn't matter, I think it does.". In an essay, clearly enough called "Notes toward a Politics of Location", Adrienne Rich states: "I need to understand how a PLACE on the map is also a place in history within which... I am created and trying to create."

      "The tests I need to pass are prescribed by the spirits
      of PLACE who understand travel but not amnesia...

      Ourselves as we are in these painful motions

      of staying cognizant: some part of us always
      out beyond ourselves
      knowing knowing knowing..."7

These lines belong to a poem entitled "The Spirit of Place". A New England poem, arising from Rich's deep identification with the countryside in western Massachusetts. Amnesia leads to nowhere; it is only the painful condition of being cognizant, that makes you truly alive. There is, of course, something in common here with the Thoreauvian drive towards keeping always on the alert. Cognizant of what? Aware, knowledgeable of what? Well yes, of the spirits of place. And they appear now to be many. Thoreau was pretty content with one and only "genius loci" to identify with; he was over too "healthy", as Sherman Paul proved him to have been8. And it is now "painful motions" that we are faced with. Are the spirits of the place also the ghosts of the place? Is the place being sensed as haunted? And dare we speculate here towards Ibsenian impulses? I have to admit I am tempted.

It is at this point that we reach place as a transcendental reality. Not any more emerging as a global eternity, but dissolving into a choir of local voices from history. And thus giving roots to the Self, a sense of Home on a different level. This is where Adrienne Rich starts talking of "Shapes of things: so much the same they feel like eternal forms"; Susan Howe climbs Mount Vision and sees "Original on the Otherside, understory of anotherword"; or Allen Ginsberg... Allen Ginsberg provides here a very interesting example, or rather, lays bare a symptom. The poet, who has always been beating the Whitmanian "genuineness" of his self-identification with America, the author of "The Fall of America", obsessed by "war", "bombing", "Machine chaos on Earth", in his later years finds himself enchanted by the serene tranquillity of the symbol of Maya - the beloved symbol of all romantics, or transcendentalists. Where should he reach at it but New England.

                  "Senses amazed on the hills,
                  bright vegetable populations
                        hueing rocks nameless yellow,
            veils of bright Maya over New England,
            Veil of Autumn leaves laid over the Land,
      Transparent blue veil over senses..."9

"THE FALL of America" has lost its hysteric social moralism, transforming itself into A FALL - a mild and gentle "Autumn Gold New England Fall"... The apocalyptic vision of before has found peace in "Maya-Time", in the "Gold over Connecticut River cliffs". And though "Maya-Joy in Autumn" is still experienced while "speeding 70 M.P.H.", the mood is already calmed down, attached to beauty. Since it is already LOCATED, inspired by a cosy touch of homeliness. The scope has been narrowed down to a specified place and - nonparadoxically at all, - this is what evokes transcendental impulses. The "Fall" pun thus acquires a significance of the sought for and finally found PLACE to be. This place is not simply pretty and peaceful; it also has its Story to tell; the awareness of Maya in New England and nowhere else resounds this very Story. And this is Ginsberg. The beating, bombing, raging, cursing, howling and whatever else not Ginsberg, the Whitmanian "I am America" Ginsberg, who in his later years appears capable of falling under the unique spell of a place. An American place, of course.

Let me now once again turn to Adrienne Rich and her poem "From an Old House in America". Since this is a poem internalizing the (hi)story of the place - the place as America, as home.

      "I am an American woman: ...

      I am washed up on this continent
      shipped here to be fruitful

      my body a hollow ship
      bearing sons to the wilderness...

      I never chose this place
      yet I am of it now."10

It is a choice made long ago by others; there is no more choice of place; what is left is the sense - and the cognizance, - of belonging to it. Many, many stories of the place resound in this American woman's voice. They don't necessarily endow it with a touch of oldness, since oldness is so relative. What they endow it with, though, is roots. And therefore strength. "My power is brief and LOCAL / but I know my power", a few lines later Rich would declare. What follows is LOVE. And when it comes to love, no arguments are needed. It is simply being of it, belonging to it, never forgetting America as storytelling Home and Home as storytelling America. Especially nowadays, when amnesia is threatening to enter and turn everything into fluid, voiceless, taleless, global everythingness. It is this trusting the place, the American place, that the poets I've been referring to explore and turn into a matter of self-identity. And of self-preservation too.

I am aware, that the issue I have been dealing with, - given the authors, I have assembled, - can be, has partly been and perhaps will be approached by people in the profession from other perspectives: Lacanian, Kristevian, feminist, gay-lesbian, etc., etc. I would rather consider these authors as an American South Jew, an American Russian Jew, an American half-Irish. And therefore as true Americans. Americans at home and abroad. But first of all Americans at home IN America. Figuring a NOVEL SACREDNESS of America as Home and of Home as America in the confusing, incoherent, evasive realities of postmodernity, of globalization itself.

 

 

NOTES

1. Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose. (New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993): 64. [back]

2. Susan Howe. The Birthmark. Unsetting the Wilderness in American Literary History. (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1993): 155-181. [back]

3. Sacvan Bercovitch. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. (Yale University Press, 1975): 143. [back]

4. Susan Howe. Singularities. (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1990): 49. [back]

5. Ibid. [back]

6. Thomas Friedman. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Understanding Globalization. (New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc., 2000): 295. [back]

7. Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose. (New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993): 99. [back]

8. Sherman Paul. The Shores of America. Thoreau's Inward Exploration. (Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1958). [back]

9. Allen Ginsberg. The Fall of America. Poems of These States 1965-1971. (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1972): 52. [back]

10. Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose. (New York, London: W.W.Norton & Company, 1993): 66. [back]

 

WORKS CITED

Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. Yale University Press, 1975.

Friedman, Thomas. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Understanding Globalization. New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc., 2000.

Ginsberg, Allen. The Fall of America. Poems of These States 1965-1971. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1972.

Howe, Susan. The Birthmark. Unsetting the Wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.

Howe, Susan. Singularities. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1990.

Paul, Sherman. The Shores of America. Thoreau's Inward Exploration. Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1958.

 

 

© Albena Bakratcheva, 2002
© Publisher LiterNet, 30. 11. 2002
=============================
First, edition, electronic.

The 27th International ASANOR/SAAS Conference: "America at Home and Abroad", Ostfold University College, Fredrikstad, Norway, September 20-22, 2002.