(This paper was given at the Wheatland Conference on Literature in Washington, D.C., April 1987.)
“Rien ne vous tue un homme comme d’être obligé de représenter un pays.”
—Jacques Vaché, in a letter to André Breton, quoted as the
frontis-piece by Julio Cortázar in Hopscotch
Imaginative literature does not have a long history in the United States. It is not even as old as the country itself—this strange world always ferociously impatient to reach the twentieth century, bored with the notion of a peasantry, ready from Plymouth Rock for the Model-T, without an ivied ruin in its landscape. And proud enough to be young—its youth, as Oscar Wilde observed in his velvet wanderings to the mining camps, being its oldest tradition.
It was not until the nineteenth century that our fertile surroundings produced our handful of reassuring genius in the art of literature. Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Whitman, Poe, Emily Dickinson, each his own patron you might say, starting anew, giving a special visionary aspect to Ben Franklin’s assurance that God helps those who help themselves.
Had we not had the good fortune to bring the English language to the northern woods, there amid the tiresome Wampanoag, and the great American Indian King Philip to be drawn and quartered, dispatched in the diction and rhythms of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, our classics might today be greeted with the glazed condescension so familiar to the recessive languages of the world and to their masterpieces. It is just as well that the feudal-minded Dutch patroons, with their land grants on the Hudson River, for the most part mismanaged, that they did not, in this case, have the “business sense,” the aboriginal maize necessary to prevail. On the other hand, the spirit of Erasmus might have thawed the chilblains of Increase Mather. Everything indeed was, as we say, a tossup.
But here we are, speaking and writing English, feeling both the last born and yet the overburdened, self-appointed patriarch of the world family. To be a young patriarch is troublesome. It is to be a schoolmaster and to face much recalcitrance in the dormitories of an evening. It is ever burdensome and frustrating, also bankrupting, and offers little except the gratifying self-pity of the dutiful.
Here we are under the celestial protection of two oceans. This protection is one of those matter-of-fact realities scarcely worth noting. The oceans might be as pleasing and impractical as the Rocky Mountains after the wagon trains pushed through. But the oceans are deeply rooted in the American unconscious. Only a savage amount of nudging, shouting, and alarming can make the often exhorted American People feel threatened by insidious microbes and ideological poisons winging in from little islands and destitute countries to the south of us, to be carried on the vapors to Florida and on, on to California. No doubt the fear is cant. What we have is better called annoyance when the microbes are studied under the microscope of military …