Which works of literature feature protagonists who embody the American character? And what are some traits of a “typical” American?
Henry James, I think, tried to answer that second question in The American. After all, he didn’t name his excellent 1877 novel Christopher Newman Goes to France.
Newman is a “New Man” compared to Europeans living in an older civilization, as well as “An American in Paris” who’s wealthy, self-made, entrepreneurial, generous, mobile, confident, curious, open, honest, direct, unpretentious, unsophisticated (at first), and good-natured (most of the time).
Henry James was on to something there, but Newman is missing most of the negative traits that are also part of the American pysche (more on those traits later). Also, Newman is just one person, and obviously no single person is ever truly representative of an entire population. In addition, many people who aren’t American also had and have Newman’s traits. Finally, the American psyche may have changed quite a bit since 1877, so is Newman outdated as a prototypical U.S. personality?
That said, I still thought it would be interesting to name a number of literary works starring protagonists who might be thought of as quintessentially American. Then I’ll ask you to chime in, because the U.S. is a democracy, right? Well, sort of. 🙂
Doing this in roughly chronological fashion, I’ll start with James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels, published between 1823 and 1841. They star Natty Bumppo (under various nicknames such as “The Pathfinder”), who’s a noble example of the frontiersman/pioneer that’s so much a part of the American mythos. He does depart from “the norm” in certain ways, such as being friendlier to (some) Native Americans than most white men of his time and being much more talkative than the typical taciturn loner living in the woods of the 1700s and the prairie of the early 1800s.
The characters in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a 1985 novel set in the circa-1850 American West, remind us of more nightmarish U.S. traits: over-the-top machismo, land grabs cloaked in “Manifest Destiny,” the massacre of Native Americans, etc. We’re not talking Bonanza‘s Ben Cartwright here!
Staying in the 1800s but moving to Mark Twain, his co-authored The Gilded Age spotlights such character flaws as hucksterism and naked greed, and his Adventures of Huckleberry Finn focuses on loyalty, boyhood pluckiness, and racism in the South (and by extension everywhere in the U.S.). All of which reminds us of how Americans like and don’t like to see themselves.
More on the very American traits of bigotry and trying to deal with that bigotry can be found in the people populating Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, and countless other works.
Another 19th-century frontier was the sea, and various Melville characters reflect how some Americans thirst for adventure and “exotic” places — not only in Moby-Dick, but in Melville novels such as Typee, Omoo, Redburn, and White-Jacket. That author also addressed U.S. imperialism and colonialism in some of his works, but later novelists — such as Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible — would do that more explicitly.
Kingsolver’s hateful missionary Nathan Price is one example of how the U.S. is more religious than most other western countries. Literature does have sincerely spiritual characters, such as the proselytizing but well-meaning Jean Marie Latour in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, the Rev. John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Jim Casy in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the Quakers in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (with the latter two novels also displaying how some Americans strongly fight injustice). But then you have narrow-minded and/or hypocritical religious people in novels like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.
Lewis also took a stab at depicting the quintessential U.S. businessman in Babbitt, whose titular character is at first a conformist, money-obsessed workaholic but eventually exhibits the also-very-American traits of restlessness and dissatisfaction.
Joe Christmas of William Faulkner’s Light in August is also an intensely American character — uncertain of his ancestry, a wanderer who doesn’t put down roots, a man who reinvents himself, and a man who partly works “off the books,” as a bootlegger.
Another character with a bootlegger background is Jay Gatsby — whose ill-gotten gains, conspicuous consumption, and single-minded drive to enter high society help make F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby an emblematic novel of “The American Dream.”
The dream to come to America and adapt to the land of “rugged individualism” suffuses characters in immigration-themed literature such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
Again, the many traits mentioned above are by no means exclusively American (heck, look at religious hypocrite Brocklehurst in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and religious fool William Collins in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). But perhaps some traits are more pronounced in U.S. citizens — including the loud and crude yet endearing Chuck Mumpson, who has an odd-couple relationship with England-loving American professor Virginia Miner in Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs. Unsavory or downright corrupt political leaders can also be found everywhere, but a particularly American version is the Huey Long-like Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
The authors I’ve named are mostly U.S.-born, but of course many fiction writers from other countries have created American characters and looked at the American psyche. Two examples include Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, whose titular protagonist travels to the U.S.; and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, set in the early days of The Vietnam War.
Which literary characters and works do you think showcase American traits? And, in your opinion, what are those traits, anyway? (I realize several of you who regularly read and comment here don’t reside in the U.S.!)
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