Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism / Edition 1

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Arguing that the contemporary commitment to the importance of cultural identity has renovated rather than replaced an earlier commitment to racial identity, Walter Benn Michaels asserts that the idea of culture, far from constituting a challenge to racism, is actually a form of racism. Our America offers both a provocative reinterpretation of the role of identity in modernism and a sustained critique of the role of identity in postmodernism.
“We have a great desire to be supremely American,” Calvin Coolidge wrote in 1924. That desire, Michaels tells us, is at the very heart of American modernism, giving form and substance to a cultural movement that would in turn redefine America’s cultural and collective identity—ultimately along racial lines. A provocative reinterpretation of American modernism, Our America also offers a new way of understanding current debates over the meaning of race, identity, multiculturalism, and pluralism.
Michaels contends that the aesthetic movement of modernism and the social movement of nativism came together in the 1920s in their commitment to resolve the meaning of identity—linguistic, national, cultural, and racial. Just as the Johnson Immigration Act of 1924, which excluded aliens, and the Indian Citizenship Act of the same year, which honored the truly native, reconceptualized national identity, so the major texts of American writers such as Cather, Faulkner, Hurston, and Williams reinvented identity as an object of pathos—something that can be lost or found, defended or betrayed. Our America is both a history and a critique of this invention, tracing its development from the white supremacism of the Progressive period through the cultural pluralism of the Twenties. Michaels’s sustained rereading of the texts of the period—the canonical, the popular, and the less familiar—exposes recurring concerns such as the reconception of the image of the Indian as a symbol of racial purity and national origins, the relation between World War I and race, contradictory appeals to the family as a model for the nation, and anxieties about reproduction that subliminally tie whiteness and national identity to incest, sterility, and impotence.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In 1919, activist and internationally acclaimed author Waldo Frank's Our America (AMS Pr., 1991. reprint) was published as an attack on the nation's middle class. Frank's "our" embraced his literary and artistic contemporaries. Over 50 years later, Michaels (English, Johns Hopkins) returns to some of the literary elite of the same period-Faulkner, Cather, and Hemingway-as well as to the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Indian Citizenship Act as the basis for defining his nativist modernism. This modernism led him to a reexamination of American cultural identity based along racial lines. His essay focuses on identity, i.e., what it is that makes us Americans. Although Our America is an important study in American culture, it is not an easy book to read, being aimed at scholars and specialists. Recommended for academic libraries only.-Boyd Childress, Auburn Univ. Lib., Ala.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822320647
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/1995
  • Series: Post-Contemporary Interventions Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 6.17 (w) x 9.27 (h) x 0.67 (d)

Meet the Author

Walter Benn Michaels is Professor of English and the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University.

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Our America

Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism

By Walter Benn Michaels

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-2064-7


Land of the Kike Home of the Wop

The Reverend Shegog's Easter sermon in the fourth chapter of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929) repeats and interlaces that novel's twinned fantasies about language and the family—about language, that the word can be made flesh and, about family, that endogamy can supplant exogamy—by invoking the Eucharistic miracle that turns the sign of Christ's blood into the blood itself and by reimagining a congregation as a collection of blood relations: "Breddren en sistuhn," the Reverend Shegog says, "I got de ricklickshun en de blood of de Lamb." In The Sound and the Fury, the desire to make words into things and the desire to sleep with your sister are inseparable or even, as is the case with Quentin's "I have committed incest I said" (49), indistinguishable. To commit incest by saying that you've committed incest is to make the words the thing; to say you've committed incest and thus to commit incest is to keep your sister forever in your family—"if I could tell you we did it would have been so and then the others wouldnt be so and then the world would roar away" (107-8). In The Sound and the Fury, these ambitions are doubly linked, first because they both involve a repudiation of arbitrary or conventional relations (between word and thing, between husband and wife) and, second, because the repudiation of those relations is everywhere deployed in defense of a tautology that will find its definitive formulation in the proposition "blood is blood and you can't get around it" (146).

The Sound and the Fury repeatedly insists that what people and things do or mean is a function of what they are; it insists, that is, on identity as the determining ground of action or significance. In this, as the following pages will make clear, it is typical of the major American texts of the 1920s and in particular of those texts—ranging from The Professor's House (1925) by Willa Cather to the Immigration Act of 1924 and from The Rising Tide of Color (1920) by Lothrop Stoddard to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926)—that belong to the discourse of what I will call nativist modernism. Nativism, according to its most distinguished scholar, John Higham, can be defined as "intense opposition to an internal minority on the grounds of its foreign (i.e. 'un-American') connections," opposition that, while it may "vary widely" in target and intensity, ultimately expresses in each case "the connecting, energizing force of modern nationalism." But while the pages that follow will often engage the kinds of hostility that Higham describes—Quentin Compson's joke, "Land of the kike home of the wop" (76) is one example—my main focus will be less on the hostility itself (which will, in any case, prove to be only one of several affective stances made available by nativism) than on the changing conceptions of identity sometimes articulated by that hostility. I will argue that nativism in the period just after World War I involved not only a reassertion of the distinction between American and un-American but a crucial redefinition of the terms in which it might be made. America would mean something different in 1925 from what it had meant at, say, the turn of the century; indeed, the very idea of national identity would be altered. My use of the term "nativist modernism," as opposed to nativism tout court, is meant in part to suggest what I will describe as the distinctive nature of nativism in the '20s.

It is also meant to suggest that the nativism discussed here is simultaneously a modern and a modernist phenomenon. Although there are many different accounts of literary modernism, probably all of them acknowledge its interest in the ontology of the sign—which is to say, in the materiality of the signifier, in the relation of signifier to signified, in the relation of sign to referent. My point, then, in beginning this book with an exploration of the relation between a certain fantasy about the sign—that it might function, in effect, onomatopoetically, without reliance upon a system of syntactic and semantic conventions—and a certain fantasy about the family—that it might maintain itself incestuously, without reliance upon the legal conventions that turn otherwise unrelated persons into husband and wife—is to suggest the structural intimacy between nativism and modernism. Nativism, the social movement, will not, in other words, be presented here as the background of modernism, the aesthetic movement; rather, both nativism and modernism will be presented as efforts to work out the meaning of the commitment to identity—linguistic, national, cultural, racial—that 1 will argue is common to both.

So, while Quentin's joke, "Land of the kike home of the wop," makes one version of the nativist point—"America," as a congressman speaking in support of the immigration bill put it, "for Americans"—his desire not only to commit incest but to commit incest by saying he committed incest makes another. And this extension of the interest in "purifying and keeping pure the blood of America" beyond Congress's desire to exclude "unassimilable aliens" suggests not only the discursive range but the imaginative potential of nativist logic. "We have a great desire," Calvin Coolidge remarked, "to be supremely American," which is to say that, in nativist modernism, identity becomes an ambition as well as a description. Indeed, it is only this transformation of identity into the object of desire as well as its source that will make the dramas of nativism—the defense of identity, its loss, its repudiation, its rediscovery—possible. What we want, in other words, may be a function of what we are, but in order for us to want it, we cannot simply be it. Thus The Sound and the Fury's insistence that "blood is blood" will be doubled by strategies for making blood be blood; the insistence that the word become the thing, that naming your sister be a way of having your sister, must be shadowed by the failure of the word to be the thing and by the disappearance of your sister.

This is why the only word that the languageless Benjy responds to is "caddie," which he hears as a proper name—Caddy—and which signifies to him not the presence but the disappearance of his sister, Caddy. Proper names are imagined in The Sound and the Fury as at least ideally linked to their referents so that, for example, changing Benjy's name from Maury can be imagined as a good thing for Benjy's Uncle Maury, who will no longer be linguistically linked to an idiot, and a bad thing for Benjy, who will no longer be called by the name that is really his. "Folks don't have no luck, changing names" (36), says Dilsey. And since names are further imagined not only as uniquely designating a single person but as inseparable from that person—"long after" she's "forgot," Dilsey says, "Dilsey" will still be her name, and when her name is read in "the Book," all she'll have to do is say "Ise here" (36)—the word "caddie" appears to Benjy less as the use than as the misuse of her name; uttered on the land that was sold to pay for her wedding, it marks not the fact that she's "here" but the fact that she's not here. Which is why, hearing the word that he understands only as a name, and hearing the name as a reference to the absence rather than the presence of the person named, Benjy starts bellowing. And he can only be calmed by another sign for Caddy, the "satin slipper" she wore on her wedding day, a sign that signifies Caddy more satisfactorily than her name since, understood as virtually a part of her, it comes closer to making her in fact present, "here."

The Reverend Shegog's sermon addresses this issue most obviously in its central assertion: "I got the recollection and the blood of the Lamb" (175). What it means to have this recollection and to have it through the blood of the Lamb has, of course, been a central issue in Christian theology. Does the bread and wine eaten and drunk "in remembrance" of Jesus symbolize Jesus (and thus remember him while acknowledging his absence) or does it embody him ("This is my body") (and thus remember him by making him present)? Is it like a word that functions in the absence of the referent or like a name that is supposed to mark the referent's presence or, even better, like a slipper, which can be imagined actually to make at least a little of the referent present? In the Reverend Shegog's sermon, through which the reverend himself "sees de blastin', blindin' sight" (177) and makes his hearers see it also, language appears to achieve the identity of word and thing that Caddy's slipper foreshadows.

The delivery of the sermon also makes a version of this point. Beginning in a voice that is "level," "cold," and "inflectionless," the minister ends in a voice that is "as different as day and dark from his former tone" (175). This new voice has "a sad, timbrous quality like an alto horn" and, in a description that seems to allude to the sermons of the Reverend Dimmesdale in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (whose "vocal organ," like "other music," "breathed passion and pathos ... in a tongue native to the human heart"), the Reverend Shegog's voice sinks into the "hearts" of his audience, "speaking there again" until "there was not even a voice but instead their hearts were speaking to one another in chanting measures beyond the need for words" (176). Just as, in The Scarlet Letter, the "heart's native tongue" conveys Dimmesdale's "feeling" by embodying it rather than meaning it—"The young pastor's voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken. The feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than the direct purport of the words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts ..." (53)—so, in The Sound and the Fury, the musical quality of the Reverend Shegog's voice produces its effect without recourse to the conventional symbols of meaning. Indeed, it is by making "words" unnecessary that the "chanting measures" in which his heart and the hearts of his congregation speak testify to the fact that he and they have been brought "face to face" (177) with Jesus.

Hawthorne imagines that words are not only unnecessary but also potentially dangerous; because they are a "grosser medium" than sound, they have the potential to "clog" the "spiritual sense" (172). So Dimmesdale's wordless eloquence shows how "etherealized by spirit" he has become, and his audience's wordless response—it "absolutely babbled" (175)—shows how truly they have understood him. The voice of the Reverend Shegog repeats this identification with the spirit and reproduces the Dimmesdale effect; "succubus like," it "consume[s]" his "body" (175) and elicits from his audience a series of prolonged "Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm"s (176) that match the babbling of Dimmesdale's congregation. The sermon's topic, the Eucharistic identity of sign and referent, is thus doubled by its formal repudiation of those conventions that, acknowledging the gap between sign and referent, are ordinarily understood to make meaning possible. If the word in Hawthorne must be etherealized in order to let the "spiritual" meaning come through, the word in Faulkner must be eliminated in order to let the thing itself appear. The Reverend Shegog's language "beyond the need for words" repeats the language of the Eucharist which, by making words things, makes them, as words, unnecessary: once the sign becomes the thing it need no longer function as a sign.

But this commitment to transubstantiation achieves its most explicit articulation in the effort to save Caddy for the Compsons, to "isolate her out of the loud world" (107). Quentin's claim—"I have committed incest I said" (49)—is an attempt through language to substitute the blood ties of family for the affective and/or legal ties of love and marriage. It picks up the linguistic fantasy of the word becoming the thing—"if I could tell you we did it would have been so"—and deploys it on behalf both of a Benjy-style preference for natural signs (the slipper instead of the word) and of Quentin's own commitment to replacing husbands and lovers with brothers—"and then the others wouldn't be so and then the world would roar away" (108). This is what it means for Quentin to call the little Italian girl he picks up "sister," and it is also what it means for the first word that the Reverend Shegog speaks in his transformed voice to be "Brethren." The linguistic fantasy of meaning without conventions turns out to be emblematic of a more thoroughgoing effort to empty the world of all non-natural relations. Every chapter in The Sound and the Fury involves the effort to replace arbitrary or social relations with natural ones, which is to say that every chapter imagines the disappearance of the sister, Caddy, as the introduction of the arbitrary, and so every chapter involves some attempt to keep her from going or to imagine her brought back.

Thus even Jason, who (unlike Benjy) has never slept with Caddy and (unlike Quentin) has never said he slept with Caddy, indeed who hates Caddy, nevertheless finds himself in the position of articulating the rationale of the commitment to Caddy. Lured into the woods and left stranded with a flat tire by Caddy's daughter, Quentin, and her boyfriend from the carnival, Jason can't believe that she would let her "own uncle be laughed at by a man that would wear a red tie" (146). The point is not that there is any affection between Jason and Quentin—"Let's forget for awhile how I feel toward you and you feel toward me ..." (146)—but that kinship makes affection irrelevant—"I just wouldn't do you this way. I wouldn't do you this way no matter what you had done to me. Because like 1 say blood is blood and you can't get around it" (146). Who Quentin is should count more than how she feels and should thus determine what she does; "blood is blood" expresses the priority of identity over any other category of assessment and makes clear the position of the family as bearer of what I will call identitarian claims.

It is this position that 1 mean to emphasize here and that I regard as crucial in the development of American modernism. My point is not that the family as such is an object of interest in The Sound and the Fury; even less is it that the psychological relations among the members of the family are the object of interest. Rather, by insisting on the importance of family in The Sound and the Fury, I mean to suggest the way in which newly revised categories of collective identity—and, in particular, of collective national identity—began in the 1920s to occupy what I will argue was a central position in American culture, which is to say, first, in the idea of what an American was and, second, in the idea of what a culture was. The significance of the family is that it was in terms of familial relations (as opposed, say, to economic relations or regional or even generational relations) that the new structures of identity were articulated. America, A Family Matter was the title of Charles W. Gould's nativist polemic of 1922. And, although Horace Kallen's Culture and Democracy in the United States (1924) was directed against nativism, Kallen shared Gould's model of national identity; according to him, the very idea of "nationality" was "familial in its essence."

Thus, even though The Sound and the Fury may, at first blush, seem an extreme and even perverse instance of the defense of the family, both its strategies and its goals are, in fact, typical of American writing in the '20s. The long first section of Willa Cather's The Professor's House (1925) is called "The Family," and it is entirely animated by the impossible vision of Rosamond St. Peter saved for her father and sister by having married Tom Outland, who was "like an older brother," instead of the "foreign" Louie Marsellus. By the same token, it's "family life" (130) that is invoked by Tom Buchanan in his attempt to keep Daisy from Jay Gatsby, and if The Great Gatshy (1925) seems, like Daisy herself, to be "pretty cynical" about "family life and family institutions," it's worth remembering that the "natural intimacy" between Tom and Daisy proves in the end more resistant than anything in Cather or Faulkner to the threat, embodied in Gatsby, of what Tom thinks of as miscegenation. And even in a novel where no one is related to anyone else, like Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926), the defining characteristic of familial identity—"breeding"—here transformed into the defining characteristic of the Hemingway aesthetic— aficion—operates to reproduce the structure of The Professors House and The Great Gatsby: Brett, like Daisy from Gatsby and Rosamond from Louie, must be saved from Robert Cohn.

What's wrong with Cohn is, put negatively, that he has no breeding, no aficion, or, put positively, that he's Jewish. In this, of course, he is like Marsellus, whose "foreign" status is racial, and he is not unlike Gatsby who, although he differs from the Buchanans (and from Nick Carraway) in belonging to a different class, is persistently understood by them as belonging to something more like a different race; this is why he provokes in Tom diatribes against "intermarriage between black and white" (130). Indeed, in The Sound and the Fury Faulkner contrives to mark even Quentin's otherwise anonymous man in the red tie as racially other; this is what it means for him to be one of the show people who take money from the farmers without, Jason thinks, giving anything in return. Having "brought nothing to the town" (118), they occupy the same position in Jason's imagination as the cotton speculators in New York, the "dam eastern jews" who "trim the suckers" on the market and leave the farmer himself with nothing but "a red neck and the hump in his back" (116). "I have nothing against the jews as an individual," Jason says, "It's just the race. You'll admit that they produce nothing" (116). Blood is blood; by way of his nonproductivity, the man with the red tie turns out to occupy the position of the Jew, and keeping women in the family turns out to be identical to keeping them from the Jews.


Excerpted from Our America by Walter Benn Michaels. Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Land of the Kike Home of the Wop,
Nation or Empire?,
The Rising Tide,
The Vanishing American,
A Family Matter,
The First American,
Difference Not Inferiority,
My Country, Right or Wrong,
The Psychology of Imitation,
Aboriginal America,
Our America,

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