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The Pluralist Imagination from East to West in American Literature

The Pluralist Imagination from East to West in American Literature

by Julianne Newmark
The Pluralist Imagination from East to West in American Literature

The Pluralist Imagination from East to West in American Literature

by Julianne Newmark


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The first three decades of the twentieth century saw the largest period of immigration in U.S. history. This immigration, however, was accompanied by legal segregation, racial exclusionism, and questions of residents’ national loyalty and commitment to a shared set of “American” beliefs and identity. The faulty premise that homogeneity—as the symbol of the “melting pot”—was the mark of a strong nation underlined nativist beliefs while undercutting the rich diversity of cultures and lifeways of the population. Though many authors of the time have been viewed through this nativist lens, several texts do indeed contain an array of pluralist themes of society and culture that contradict nativist orientations.
In The Pluralist Imagination from East to West in American Literature, Julianne Newmark brings urban northeastern, western, southwestern, and Native American literature into debates about pluralism and national belonging and thereby uncovers new concepts of American identity based on sociohistorical environments. Newmark explores themes of plurality and place as a reaction to nativism in the writings of Louis Adamic, Konrad Bercovici, Abraham Cahan, Willa Cather, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles Alexander Eastman, James Weldon Johnson, D. H. Lawrence, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and Zitkala-Ša, among others.

This exploration of the connection between concepts of place and pluralist communities reveals how mutual experiences of place can offer more constructive forms of community than just discussions of nationalism, belonging, and borders.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803286337
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 01/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 192
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

 Julianne Newmark is an associate professor of English at New Mexico Tech.

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The Pluralist Imagination from East to West in American Literature

By Julianne Newmark


Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8633-7


The Early Emergence of Pluralism in Modern American Literature

In Randolph Bourne's 1915 New Republic essay "Our Unplanned Cities," he offers observations about American cities that can enlighten us as we begin this chapter's consideration of counternativist pluralism in New York City. Bourne, as an emergent pluralist, saw the physical realities of cities as keen reflections of the values embraced by a national people. He viewed architectural eclecticism negatively in the physical space of American cities. Interestingly, he would later chastise "Americanizers" for fighting against cultural eclecticism and for their insistence that immigrants abandon home traditions and adopt the ways of the Anglo-Saxon majority. In his 1915 essay, however, he contrasted German towns and their beauty with American towns and their "hideousness" and "unplanned" nature. In essence, German cities shine for their "beautiful and nobl[e] plan[ning]," and American cities, by contrast, are marred by "our eager pioneer development and our immigrant inundation," which have "thrown the attention to individualistic effort, to a competitive race" (277). The "gridiron streets and staring blocks," which we can see represented in the map that opens this chapter, offer us little "inducement ... to think of our cities as communal homes" (278). And here is Bourne's turn, which eventually leads him to a pluralist vision rooted in a metropole, specifically his "Trans-National America" proposal of 1916. Our cities can be our communal homes, our Utopias, he explains, and can offer us new opportunities for a cohesive, community-oriented America that embraces the human diversity that the nation has long had.

In urban planning, Bourne sees an alleviation of the ills that descend from the "chaos and ugliness" of our cities in their physical form (278). Such chaos and ugliness imprint many of the urban texts that I discuss in this chapter and are blights against which human forces struggle. Inasmuch as Bourne's endorsement of "planning" might have a certain quasi-eugenic overtone to some, he moves away from that dimension of his proposal toward a position that overtly embraces these chaotic energies in American cities as he offers his counternativist pluralist idea of a new America in his "Trans-National America" essay. What he hopes that cities can be—that is, planned spaces that are harmonized Utopias reflecting the best aspects of American culture—prefigures his proposal of 1916 of a radical cultural reconfiguration that rejects Anglo-Saxon nativism and endorses a new "spiritual citizenship" that moves away from "narrow national[ism]" ("Trans-National" 120). The "good life of personality" might be lived "in the Beloved Community" of a "future America," which perhaps might be exemplified by cities themselves (123).

Bourne's proposition that cities must be newly conceived of as "communal homes" might be understood as a physical plan for what would later become his broader description of a plural, transnational America, inspired by the heterogeneous New York City in which he lived. In fact, New York City had long been a launching pad for ideas of ideal urban and national social configuration, both spatially and concerning population. Bourne's pluralistic idea of the mid-1910s was a stark turn away from the nativist idea, which also had strong roots in New York City. It was out of New York City that the original nativist secret society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, emerged in 1850. As Philip J. Ethington explains, the members of this group, which was an original foundation of the Know-Nothing Party, "spread their lodges like wildfire from New York City" (112). Yet prior to configurations of nativism that became Know- Nothingism in the 1850s, nativism as a pointedly anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic movement gained significant traction, specifically in the 1840s. Howard Rabinowitz points out that the 1840s and 1850s were a period when "old line Americans felt threatened by rapid economic and social change," and thus their fears were made manifest in the "defensive nationalism we call nativism" (259).

Yet the defensiveness and the protectionist xenophobia of the Know-Nothings repelled many American intellectuals of the mid-nineteenth century, just as broader nativism would repel leftist intellectuals of Bourne's New York milieu seventy-five years later. In the mid-nineteenth century, those who stood against Know-Nothingism vocalized against the so-called Native American Party that sought a return to a "purer" America rather than an embrace of a multicultural, modern America. Ralph Waldo Emerson figured as a prominent early anti-nativist writer; he spoke directly against the Know-Nothings and the momentum their movement was gaining in the 1840s: "I hate the narrowness of the Native American [nativist] party. It is the dog in the manger. It is precisely opposite to all the dictates of love and magnanimity; and therefore, of course, opposite to true wisdom.... Man is the most composite of all creatures. ... Well, as in the old burning of the Temple at Corinth, by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals a new compound more precious than any, called Corinthian brass, was formed" (qtd. in Gordon 117). Here, Emerson extols the promise of intermixture, yet his vision of a melted compound is uniquely and resplendently new. It does not seem, in his comments, that he endorses a melting off (like the turn-of-the-century melting pot) but a melting in. Such an idea indicates Emerson's status as a forerunning counternativist of the Victorian era.

Even as Emerson vocalized his disagreements with American nativism of the Know-Nothing stripe, we cannot ignore his use of concepts and language (such as "melting") that would be associated with nativist movements in the next century. His intervention, one that allows him to be a forerunner of later counternativist articulations in the twentieth century, is his insistence that it is place that shapes people. "Race lacks essence" for Emerson, Christopher Newfield writes, because its features "undergo continual modification" (191). Race is secondary to place in making a people, and a nation, strong. And Emerson believed, as Bourne would later believe, that American cities would be the foundations of national strength and from them great American art (often a synonym for culture) would emerge.

As Richard Lehan notes, for Emerson "the past [had] relevance only if it [had] bearing on the present" (225). This claim makes Emerson's statement in "Self-Reliance" concerning the "worship of the past" salient in its connection to his attitude concerning American cities and the "descent" of culture in a nation: "If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old mouldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not. Is the acorn better than the oak which is its fulness [sic ] and completion? Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being?" (159). Emerson is concerned with literary art here, but as comments by Lehan illuminate, this conviction of Emerson's is foundational to his understanding of America as a New Jerusalem and its cities as cities of God: "If America was to become a new and higher culture ... it must cast off the precedents of Europe and come to terms with its own soil"—both urban and rural soil (Lehan 225). Yet the past must not be totally rejected; its best aspects should be kept. Bourne also considers this idea in his "Our Unplanned Cities" essay seventy-five years after Emerson addressed it. In the face of strident nativism in their time, both writers were interested in cities as the sites of a new American cultural formation that embraced the diverse "bests" of other cultures and civilizations.

Emerson's attraction to the idea of an urban metropolis as a city of God within the American New Jerusalem enables his concepts concerning people in cities to link up to the larger discourse of American exceptionalism, particularly in the form of "Adamism." Roy Harvey Pearce offers a succinct definition of Adamism: "the nineteenth-century American's widespread conception of himself as an authentic Adam—a new man in a new world, somehow cut off from the past and rejoicing in the fact, since it means that he had to only look in one direction, forward" (104). Andrew Taylor suggests that this Adamist "Romantic ahistoricism" really positions Emerson quite close to the nativists he decried. Yet Emerson's stand against nativism in the Know-Nothing era is based on his disagreement with that movement's reliance on nostalgia and exclusivity. In Emerson, we see a dexterous use of the past in the interest of crafting a new future. The embedded reverence for new Adams in an America as a New Jerusalem reveals not his celebration of an actual or specific "old world" and its people but rather his belief that American national strength lies in America as a heterogeneous place that can uniquely realize powerful new ideologies.

As we see in the fiction and memoir writing of the first three decades of the twentieth century, a genealogy of pluralist thought can be traced back to Emersonian counternativism. Emerson's insistence on the role of place forecasts the work that later pluralists, specifically leftist intellectuals like Bourne, would contribute in the 1910s. As we will see, fiction writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar and Abraham Cahan, as with the philosophers Emerson and Bourne, were so concerned with teasing out the problems that faced a polyglot, multiethnic America that they sometimes fell into the rhetorical traps set by powerful nativist and assimilationist popular discourse. All writers considered here seized upon the idea that America had a unique capacity to be a new kind of place for a new kind of people; thus Adamist and other versions of exceptionalism populate their texts. The powerful cultural current of nativism was one they tried to navigate against, sometimes with success, sometimes without.

Nativists used pseudoscientific explanations for American exceptionalism in this period, and we can see traces of these debates in the texts of counternativists too. But for nativists, eugenic science was broadly applied, such as to justify domestic legislative attempts and imperial maneuvers beyond the nation's political borders. Concerning imperialist activity in Puerto Rico from 1898, Amy Kaplan notes that efforts to "[legitimate] the project of American imperialism" were rooted in paternalism and American paranoia, motivating factors shared by international military imperialism and domestic nativism (Kaplan 11). Concerns about ethnic purity underlie these colonial projects, and new eugenic science was employed to support such militarism abroad at the same time as it was used to frame home-front immigration debates. As Matthew Frye Jacobson reminds us, "the language and logic of biology" was deeply embedded in the discourse of immigration, particularly in efforts to identify which immigrant groups were "incapable of assimilation" (Barbarian Virtues 190). Immigration debates and legislation of the 1910s and 1920s remind us that, for nativists, "American citizenship ... was racialized at its core and at its inception" (191). As I have suggested about Emerson and Bourne, on the issue of race counternativist pluralists sharply parted ways with nativists; counternativists privileged place over race.

The fiction writers and memoirists I discuss in the remainder of this chapter can help us see the various applications of counternativist pluralist thinking to the city landscape and its interstitial particularities. As pluralism evolved as a reaction to nativism in the mid-nineteenth century, we can see its emergence in early twentieth-century imaginative writing as influenced not only by earlier seminal American writers such as Emerson and Walt Whitman but also by the leftist thinkers who were particularly shaped by William James's pluralist philosophy, such as Bourne, Horace Kallen, and Alain Locke. James's work, specifically 1909's "A Pluralistic Universe," affirms the transition from Victorian-era refutations of nativism, such as Emerson's avowed rejection of nativism (which is complicated by his somewhat contradictory attitudes concerning race), to the developed counternativism of the early twentieth century. As a necessary transitional philosophy from Victorian concepts of national wholeness to modern understandings of the possibility of national collectivity as perhaps inherently plural, James's pluralism, as Andrew Taylor writes, "serves as a competing model" to "late Victorians' (mis)understanding of social reality as ordered, stable, and homogeneous" (Thinking America 137). For the writers considered in this chapter, both immigrant and migrant, the urban cityscape of the early twentieth century presented clearly the obsolescence of the Victorian model of cultural order. For these writers, questions of pluralism become necessarily tied up with negotiations of place and with place as tied to national identity. Place engenders the negotiation, propels questions about selfhood and peoplehood, and enables the new idea that one might belong to multiple (plural) homes, or patriae, at once. The city allows for and reflects this heterogeneity. The imprint of the mobility and multiplicity of national identity emerges in certain multiethnic literary texts as decidedly questioning nativism's foundational (and foundationally monist) precepts.

Counternativist Collectives in Bercovici, Johnson, and Dunbar

Cities foment tension between the individual and the group, between the past and the future, between "Americans" and whoever might be "other." Paul Gilroy says of African Americans (and Caribbean people in the late twentieth century) that these figures "repeatedly articulate a desire to escape the restrictive bonds of ethnicity, national identification, and sometimes even 'race' itself" and to change into "something else which evades those specific labels and with them all fixed notions of nationality and national identity" (19). This invocation of the desire to "escape the restrictive bonds of ethnicity [and] national identity" hearkens to Bourne's idea of a transnational alternative to reductive bordered national identity concepts, such as those that define nativism. Singular, or monist, conceptions of cultural and platial appropriateness lie at the heart of nativism. In nativism, mobility and multiple patriae threaten; in counternativist pluralism, they become foundational characteristics of a new America.

Konrad Bercovici, James Weldon Johnson, and Paul Laurence Dunbar took as their textual focus Harlem, or the area of Manhattan that would come to be known as Harlem. Perhaps surprisingly, these authors consider not only the promise of a pluralistic vision but also the struggles and possible failures of urban pluralism. Bercovici and Johnson conclude that there is a unique potential in ethnic (and cross-ethnic) solidarity, as particularly rooted in a place, whereas Dunbar's assessment is ultimately less conclusive. For all three authors, place plays a central role in constructions of identity, notably in the formation of new urban identities that strive to repudiate the limited vision offered through nativism's conviction that national identity inheres in race.

Johnson (1871–1938)—the widely known African American songwriter, lawyer, poet, novelist, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and professor—imagined New York City, and ultimately Harlem, as a site of counternativist resistance, as well as of difficult rebirths, as the protagonist of his The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) reveals. Bercovici (1881–1961), a Romanian immigrant and journalist whose works are infrequently studied today, was also greatly influenced by the evocative platial power of New York City. He crafted local-color-heavy meditations on New York City's many ethnic enclaves that can serve as contemporaneous adjuncts (with useful perspectival differences) to the descriptions offered by Johnson and, before him, the foundational African American poet, novelist, and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar. Dunbar (1872–1906), whose The Sport of the Gods (1902) I consider here, usefully complicates the urban optimism of Johnson and Bercovici. Johnson addresses the tragedies that befall his focal subjects, a migrant African American family, in both the rural South and in New York City. By revealing with bleak pessimism that strident racist nativism coexists with the multiethnic integration and interaction he depicts in macabre terms, Dunbar presents neither conciliation to nativist segregationism nor forthright pluralist integrationism as tenable social solutions at the turn of the century. Yet what unites Dunbar with Bercovici and Johnson (and what makes this perhaps unlikely trio a useful one for us to examine as a group) is the direct attention Dunbar pays to the issue of what it means to establish a platial nativity, even as he questions the plausibility of a new, specifically urban nativity that is functionally plural.


Excerpted from The Pluralist Imagination from East to West in American Literature by Julianne Newmark. Copyright © 2014 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Maps,
Introduction: Social and Cultural Milieus of Pluralism in the American,
Literary Imagination,
1. The Early Emergence of Pluralism in Modern American Literature,
2. Counternativist Pluralism in the American Southwest,
3. Transnational Pluralism and Native Sovereignty,
Conclusion: Against the New Nativism,
Works Cited,

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