There has been a lot of furor lately over the comments of Horace Engdahl, the lead judge of the group who decides the Nobel Prize, made several weeks ago about American literature, calling it too parochial, isolated, and ignorant in contrast to the greater cosmopolitanism of various European literatures. He later backpedaled a bit, saying that he was speaking of no particular author but just American literature in general. But aggressive debate has continued, with many Americans defending American literature and saying Engdahl knows nothing about it, while other critics (see for instance the ongoing discussion on Johannes Goransson’s blog) see in that defense a continuation of an American bullying refusal to engage with literature of other cultures and languages.
I’m not interested in taking a stand on American literature in some general way as much as I am in noting that American parochial anti-cosmopolitanism does indeed exist. In fact it has a long and particular history, one that in the literary furor nobody seems to be talking about in much detail.
For reasons that might seem obvious, early European settlers of America were themselves often anti-European. There’s nothing like desiring or needing to run from a place to turn somebody against it, and early Euro-American culture is full of Europeans who despise Europe, even while a whole range of other attitudes also remain possible.
In fact the rhetoric of colonial America often claims to be in absolute opposition to the principles of Europe. One of these basic principles has to do with cities. European cosmopolitanism was often seen by early Americans as the source of European moral and political corruption. In contrast, colonial Americans often defined themselves in terms of rural virtue. The good, independent farmer whose virtue comes from the land is a stock figure in American culture. Maybe no text defines this figure better than the 1782 book Letters from an American Farmer by John Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, a French aristocrat who came to America, changed his name from Michel Guillaume to John Hector St. John, and worked for a few years as a farmer before eventually returning to France and living out his days there, to some extent against his will.
What’s important to note about Crevecoeur is that Europeans can have pro-rural, pro-American, anti-cosmopolitan ideas about Europe too. The idea of rural virtue as an antidote to the decadent city is one developed by Europeans and their Euro-American descendants.
Nonetheless, much of American culture is based in the distrust of cities and remains that way to this day. For instance, one of the things that was so radical about the work of Walt Whitman that we might now forget is not simply that he celebrates American urban immigrant culture, but that he writes about the city at all. In the 1850s the city wasn’t considered by American poets to be a suitable subject for poetry, since the city lacked morally elevating principles. In fact cities are notably absent from most of early American literature, occasionally making an appearance in a book like Charles Brockdon Brown’s 1799 novel Arthur Mervyn, which discusses Philadelphia mainly as a vast gothic breeding ground of contagious illness, not to mention criminality and promiscuity.
Jane Jacobs, in her 1961 book The Life and Death of American Cities, details how the history of urban planning in America is founded in and determined by anti-urban attitudes. That is, the people involved in planning American cities up even into the 1960s did so from the perspective that the city was immoral and that good city planners should make cities feel more rural. Instead of building cities on the idea that urban spaces prosper when neighbors interact on the streets, American cities are often full of anti-urban spaces that try to foster an illusion of privacy but instead mainly destroy street life and turn streets into often dangerous, isolated places.
Another important element contributing to American isolationism is the literal geography of the United States, especially as that geography interacts with the history of the belief that U.S. rural democratic goodness is opposed to European cosmopolitan authoritarian corruption. Both the size of the United States and its distance from other countries that speak other languages mean that it’s more possible for people in the U.S. to grow up without interacting at all, or more than barely, with people who speak languages other than English. Certainly I grew up never hearing any language other than English spoken by anybody I knew well or even casually. I heard Spanish on several trips to Mexico and French once on a trip to Quebec. Although I took six years of French and two of German, I can barely speak a word of either of those languages. In the kinds of schools I grew up in, taking language classes was considered by other teenagers something for sissies, of course. But it also went hand in hand with comments about “When am I ever going to use any of this actually?” I had no opportunities to go to Europe as a boy (in fact I first went when I was 33) , and spending a few days in Mexico or Canada as a boy with my father hardly constituted any kind of major immersion in another culture. I’m not always sure whether people understand the degree of linguistic isolation that exists in many parts of the United States even now. Europeans, of course, other than the most isolated rural ones, are in general much more used to the idea of being around multiple languages. At their worst they tend to see American ineptness with other languages as a kind of moral failing, which in some ways it may be. But it’s also a result of a real linguistic isolation that Europeans don’t have in as significant a degree.
Add all these things together, and one has a country that to this day is often very resistant to the idea of influence from the outside world. Admittedly I find it odd to consider that American isolationist rhetoric hasn’t changed all that hugely in over 300 years, and that it hasn’t significantly changed as the United States has developed from a small country to the world’s predominant military power. But it hasn’t. Rhetoric about good country people is essential to ideas of American exceptionalism—the idea that the past and destiny of the United States make it uniquely the best nation in the history of the world. It’s really both astounding and not surprising, actually, to see some of our current candidates for president and vice-president use the same rhetoric about America and the outside world that they might have used several hundred years ago.
One last point. U.S. isolationism is not only subject to political manipulation, it’s also volatile. While the Republican party is generally more likely to call up this rhetoric and make use of it, isolationism now and then swerves to embrace a more democratic, populist perspective that has sometimes put liberals in office. Consider this: of the 70 to 80 percent of Americans who now feel that the war against Iraq has been a mistake, it’s still only the same 35 to 40 percent of us who feel it is a mistake because of what it's doing to Iraq. Another group of a similar size is more likely to believe that the war is a mistake because it’s a waste of U.S. money and U.S. lives in a country far away that we shouldn’t have cared about in the first place. In other words, if the war against Iraq does finally end, the fact that many U.S. citizens would prefer not to even know that a place like Iraq exists may play a significant role in ending it.