What is the American voice? Is it something calling out of Last of the Mohicans? Some spirit drifting between those great cities, and the giant open spaces, the high wheat plains of modern America? A little idea formed today, perhaps out of my own troubles, and need to connect again, that there’s some urgent debate to be had about what it really is to be American, in 2010.
You cannot define a country by an individual, turn an individual into a cliché of a Nation. Yet Britain and America are clearly ‘divided by that common langauge’, and often don’t seem to understand each other. PJ O’Rourke said yesterday that the Republican backlash is because to be dictated to by any government is not ‘the American Way’. I wonder what he would have thought of a writer being dictated to by his own American publisher. When I travelled though, and toured in schools, or at signings, met such warm people, there was often a sense of Americans being lost. Of unique lives becoming swallowed in the vastness, the shiny, commercially demotic pace of it all, and almost some innocence or immaturity, needing to reach out and find its parent.
Was it reaching out, when the Twin Towers fell, in the modern confusion about what is real, and what a sequence out of Godzilla, or some monstrous global fantasy? Or in the signs that came up on the internet, ‘Sorry World’, during doubtful elections, no longer so filled with doubt? Or is there some far deeper lack? Something essentially cultural, something being missed in the American Soul, in its widest sense, and equally perhaps around the World. Perhaps we are all and always a little lost, in the face of existence, and the human condition. I do not think many Europeans understand the definitions of the Republican-Democratic divide though, and with that emphasis on the Bill of Rights, and Founding Fathers, as if a country is still fighting the American Revolution.
That is what flutters in those military banners, over so many homes, what stiffens the back in School-Time allegiances to the Flag, something we do not especially understand here, fearing a kind of cultural brainwashing. So often the tendency becomes not One World, if such a thing is possible, but ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, as it did at my own American publisher, and coming out of a Second War tradition, for me, isolationism is a great country’s worst instinct, Roosevelt its greatest voice. It’s flip side is that, while being so caught between the highest, most innocent idealisms, and real hardball, Americans believe the propaganda that says ‘try to make the World American’, and it will all be ok. ‘Job Done’. ‘Mission Accomplished’. Mission Impossible, perhaps?
The idiot always says ‘we bailed you guys out’, yet the cynic would do well to read the sadness and cultural mishaps of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. America is a land of aggressive freedoms, energy, law, business, often hugely appealing to guilty Europeans, and has defined the modern world, in part because its driving spirit has been made by immigration from right across the world too. Or is that confusing America with New York, a land unto itself? Perhaps it was the sadness of so many of those Europeans, their quest for real freedom, that caused a kind of instant forgetting, the quickest desire to ‘move on’, and close a door fast on what is complicated, or even a truly original voice in the world. It’s why, for all our supposed ‘rights’, History taught in schools as ‘Social Studies’ in America, is the wrong approach. History is not there just to justify a present social model, but like literature, something independent, that contains the jewels of freedom and higher truth, beyond instant culture. In writing there, certainly storytelling, there is a tendency to encourage ‘World Building’ too, like a disconnected computer game, that does not breath in the real significance of cultural or imaginative archetypes, with enough depth. History is not just there to prove ‘we’ve never had it so good’, but an emotional, intellectual and imaginative in-breathing of the vast sweep of Man and Civilisations, out of which America was ultimately born too. That is real cultural depth.
So we look at America, often longingly, or out of a necessity of world capitalism, yet wonder why there were riots in New York, at the release of the newest PlayStation, and sense there’s an older, subtler consciousness in Europe, that needs to be heard in really linking global cultures, without fear or favour. We are shocked when we hear only 97% of Americans have passports, yet, in a shrinking world, know that how we travel is also how we can lose cultures to sameness. Is it geography, history, politics, or the stereotypes we carry in our own heads? That I carry, too much out of the pages of books: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Atticus Finch. Captain Ahab. Lee Scorsby. Colman Silk. Now I also carry the real people I got so close to in New York, and who did such unnecessary harm. But, even in a novel, a character only lives within the culture he or she can encompass, and really understand, or from which he or she is ultimately alienated. DCD