Information, observations, and analysis from the James River valley on the Northern Plains-----
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The best background for understanding American literature and its most persistent and consistent themes is provided by Swedes. The film "The Emigrants," which was based upon novels by Wilhelm Moberg, captures and portrays the motives, aspirations, and vision of the people who came to America looking for higher estates in life than any offered in their home countries. We used to use this as an introduction to the themes of American literature in the survey courses .
Leaving one's homeland and family is not an easy or casual experience. The search for freedom, equality, and opportunity, however, is more powerful than the cultural and family loyalties that often offer only those lives of "quiet desperation," as Thoreau put it. America has meant breaking the bonds of tradition and braving a new world. While America has had its class and racial struggles, its movement has been relentlessly liberal. By "liberal," I mean the dictionary defintion: not limited to traditional ideas and dogma, but favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others, broad minded. This is the opposite of how the term is used by Limbaugh and his minions of mindless parrots.
Another work of literature that captures the essence of America is James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie.
This novel is constructed around the motives of various groups of people as they are arrayed in American history. There are friendly Indians and hostile Indians. There are people who blend native American and European culture. But a prominent group is those fringe people who move constantly westward as America becomes settled. They do not like the confinement and the restrictions of village or city life. They often are outlaws, but they are the people who keep pushing the frontier westward as they search for lives unhindered and unfettered by other people. Actually, most of the people in Cooper's social schematic equate freedom with the absence of social conventions and restraints and the need to live under the dictates and scrutiny of others.
Perhaps the definitive work on America as an agrarian democracy is Willa Cather's long short story "Neighbor Rosicky." A Hungarian tailor by trade, Rosicky emigrates to New York City, but soon finds the anger and meanness of the urban streets intolerable, so he homesteads in Nebraska. He finds a full life for himself, but is saddened to see his sons and daughters having to face the diminishments of human society that he managed to transcend. Cather sees the closing of the American frontier as an end to the liberalism that she celebrates as the source of creativity and opportunity in all her writing.
Cather and Cooper fit into the huge sweep of American works that comprise what some scholars call the Revolt from the Village. All American classic works are about people who search and often find accommodations of their talents and personalities by moving on. This is not only a literary notion. Anyone living in the Dakotas and upper plains knows well the tradition of "moving on" to liberal climates as the shaping force of their regions. Politicians call it the "brain drain" and the "flight of the young," as if it is some new social phenomenon, but it is, in fact, the tradition that built America and developed its frontiers.
When the social restrictions, the political attitudes, and the opportunities for personal realization become too oppressive and too sparse, people move on. However, nothing sets up howls of angry vituperation like the criticism of the atmosphere in places like Aberdeen and the rest of South Dakota. The first reaction of the locals is for them to say, if you don't like it here, leave. Of course, that is exactly what people, particularly the young, do.
And when one says that one would leave rather than live under the conditions that the conservative residents design for one, one is accused of moral and political treason or of intolerance. But leaving places that one finds oppressive is the American tradition. Americans know implicitly that nothing is accomplished by staying where one is to fight for rights and status. That is why the civil rights movement for African-Americans was actually carried out in the urban streets of Harlem, Chicago, and Detroit where people found and were able to enlarge the freedoms and opportunities that simply did not exist in the South. Those freedoms and concepts came to the South from the people who developed them in the North. And that pattern still operates.
Today's New York Times
has a front page story about how glum Democrats are at George Bush's reshaping of the Supreme Court with Sam Alito's imminent approval. To liberals the reshaping of the court so that the repressions and denials of status and freedoms that make up the conservative agenda are depressing. Regressing to social and economic privileges of a corporate aristocracy that longs for a system of feudal-type fealties seems like the end of America as we have come to think of it.
Last week when George Bush gave a speech right out of George Orwell's portrayals of totalitarian states which castigated critics of the war on Iraq as traitors--giving comfort to the enemy-- many Americans realized that the America of George Bush and his supporters is not the America that is reflected in its literature, its heritage, and its art. It is an America where the poor are dismissed as unAmerican and where incompetence and venality can rule without restraint.
When John Thune was elected to the Senate, we talked of following our children and leaving South Dakota for more liberal climes. The people of South Dakota endorsed values and practices that we find destructive and repugnant. We do not endorse anything that John Thune stands for. We do not wish to spend our lives with people who do. Just as the emigrants moved from the Old World, and young people have left their small-minded villages constantly for 150 years and more, our last best hope may be in joining that throng. And so it goes with the agenda of George W. Bush. We may have to brave new worlds to keep the liberal idea working.
This can mean moving to enclaves of liberal thought and moral values within the U.S., or it can mean moving to Canada or other places that still value freedom from repression and social and economic totalitarianism. In new appointments to the Supreme Court, a very slim majority of the people may realize their preferences. Others who see the end of American freedoms and opportunties may prefer not to participate in America's wars, its denials of the poor and dispossessed, its submission to corporate autocracy, and its repressions of personality.
The liberal idea of America will not die with the Supreme Court. America may die has we prefer to know it. But then it is time to move on in the American tradition. The America we served is not the America of corporate venality, obscene war, casually sacrificed lives, and privileged incompetence. We can reinvent and serve a real America, even if it means severing close ties with the land and the people.