Nationalism in Contemporary American Literature
Kalista Pang (Malaysia)
According to Gellner's theory of nationalism, this phenomenon permeates the entire history of society (Gellner, 1983). All forms of individual and collective consciousness and dignity, as well as economic and international relations are affected by the feeling of national identity and belonging to a particular ethnicity. Each country has individuals who represent the Zeitgeist – the spirit of the particular time and space. When nationalism is conveyed through literature, the authors articulate the ideas of the collective consciousness instead of writing fictional stories of romance, family, and individual struggles. The tone of this literature is often allegorical or political, and it presents a broader perspective on the nation it comes from. In America – the country of diversity, multiculturalism and pluralism, it is nearly impossible to distinguish figures we could call national writers. Nevertheless, the period between 1825 and 1860 was characterized by distinctive American works that awakened the sense of ‘literary nationalism' (Frederick, 1959). The writers of this era focused on the uncertain future of the young nation that was struggling with political issues like human rights and slavery. Although it is difficult to identify the signs of nationalism in contemporary American literature, the voices that convey individualism are perfect representatives of this country's culture and identity.
In most European, Asian and African countries, the great national writers offer a broader perspective on the life, politics, culture, and spirit of the nation. Orhan Pamuk presented the issues of secularism and fundamentalism in modern Turkey through his novel Snow, and he amazed the entire world with the depiction of life and art in the Ottoman Empire in My Name Is Red. Milan Kundera is a renowned Czech writer, who dissected the issues of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in The Joke and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Salman Rushdie is another great example of a national writer, whose work gets into the very essence of the political history of India. One may notice that writers who convey nationalism through literature have been the usual winners or perennial contenders for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In Europe, Asia and Africa, the national identity is regarded as an essential and integral part of the ‘self'. According to the representatives of essentialism, nationalism is a timeless category imposed by nature or given by God. Pierre L. van den Berghe believes that nations and ethnic groups are natural continuations of the family and the wider group of relatives (1981).
The view of an individual being at the center of concentric circles that are encompassed with the ethnic group and nation has never been popular in America. In the country of diversity and democracy, the issue of nationalism is regarded with connotations of homogeneity, exclusivity and xenophobia. For that reason, not many American writers have tried to live up to the revolutionary and democratic promises of their country. That is why the period between 1825 and 1860, when the writers of this country finally started developing the distinctive American voice, holds an exceptional value in our literary history. The works of James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and William Cullen Bryant can fall into the category of literary nationalism, which distinguished the works of this part of world from British literary traditions. These authors emphasized the place of the country's natural landscape for the development of a universal ‘national' character. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman and Herman Melville were the most notable representatives of American literary nationalism. These writes were still inspired by the main themes of European Romanticism, but they adapted them to the standards, customs and demands of the new nation.
Theodore Dreiser was one of the few writers who managed to maintain the spirit of nationalism in literature beyond that period labeled as ‘American Renaissance'. As a representative of naturalism in literature, Dreiser depicted the believable reality of the American citizen, focusing mostly on the lack of a firm moral code. In the literature of the 20th century, American nationalism means recognition, autonomy and equality. However, popular writers are not drawn towards these issues because the average reader demands easy reads. Contemporary literature can be viewed as a form of therapy for personal purposes. The New York Times bestseller list rarely includes works that cross the boundaries of fiction and depict the national identity of the American. In this country, we do not perceive literature as an inseparable aspect of our daily culture. Twain, Emerson, and Thoreau are rarely the point of discussion outside academic circles. All forms of art in our country are mostly based on individualism, which is why the writers of this culture are rarely encouraged to expand the scope. However, the individual, enterprising spirit of our modern literature is not necessarily bad. Such form of writing attracts a greater audience and serves as a representative of the current literary tastes. At the very least, the presentation of individualism in literature conveys a national characteristic that's unique for this part of the world.
The national literary culture enables the people from a particular country to understand their legacy and the way they relate to the rest of the world. The sacralization of the national feeling leads to racism, fascism and other destructive ideologies. However, a healthy dose of national culture and vibe in the literature allows people to identify themselves as part of the society they belong to. American literature has been developed upon the base of the British literary culture and sensibility, but the writers from the American Renaissance era managed to develop a distinctive voice. Our contemporary literature is mainly influenced by Hollywood trends and people's preferences for fun reads, but that's not necessarily a bad trait. We need to understand that this style reflects the distinctive voice of American people, which is surprisingly individualistic and worthy of respect.