American Literature

Alright, so I am now officially finished with classes here and I think that it’s time that I paused to do a little reflecting on the experience–particularly that of American literature.

I will admit that I was initially pretty irritated to discover that I’d come to England expecting to study canonical British literature, and instead found myself not only without any Brit lit classes, but of all things with an American lit class instead. I’d come to read Dickens and instead was reading Dickinson. Based on the schedule of classes, that was just the way the cards fell. But, at the end of the day, I think it worked out for the best. I had a creative writing class, a Gothic lit class (which I thought was an appropriate touch to all the gloomy weather we have here), post-colonial literature, and, of course American literature. 

Post-colonial lit was interesting as many of the texts studied centered around the difficulties faced with displacement or loss of the “home” culture, making it particularly applicable to where I find myself currently. And creative writing was helpful as it offered me the opportunity to find constructive outlets for the many feelings I was facing–positive or otherwise. But of everything I took, the American lit course was by far my favorite.

I’ve never liked American lit. I took it in high school, and when I think back on it, I can’t think of a single book we read that I particularly liked. And I’ve been avoiding it ever since. So when I arrived here and found out that I would be in a class with a reading list almost identical to that of my entire junior year, I sighed and decided that at least, should things get really busy, I wouldn’t have to worry much about doing the reading. Worst case scenario, I don’t have a chance to reread the text, and just have to go by memory for the lecture. However, this never became a problem. In fact, most often, the American lit reading was the reading I finished first.

There’s something about being in another country that makes you incredibly self-conscious of everything about your own. Those who have traveled more than a couple thousand miles know that strange feeling you get when you open your mouth and realize that although everything you say sounds exactly the same as it always does, it all of a sudden sounds really strange. As obvious and as telling as an accent can be, the longer I’ve stayed, the more aware I’ve become of other things that distinguish Americans as Americans, and America as America. Because literature is often a venue to explore cultures and ideals, studying American lit in Britain was essentially studying American culture from an outside perspective.

I’ll never forget the week I reread Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Knowing that this is revered by Americans and non-Americans alike as one of the greatest American novels ever written, and a symbol of what America is, I was mortified to realize just what Twain had done. The novel was crawling with characters who were obliviously obtuse and repulsively racist, and I found myself thinking “Holy Cow–this is what we hold up as the epitome of American literature?! This, which portrays quite honestly the darkest time in our country’s history with some of the lowest, most racist, conniving, and uneducated characters possible? This is what others look at and see as America?” I’d say it was a moment of crisis, but that would be bordering on melodramatic. Still, it came close. And I had to reconsider all that I’d ever considered American.

After a lot of reflection, I came to terms with it. I realized that, dark as it may be, our past is a reality of who we are as a country, and that the whole theme in the novel of abandoning time-old traditions of the old world in favor of the new and free (i.e. abolishment of slavery… eventually) is something that is distinctly American. In fact, it’s one of the things that makes this country so great. The past, while an integral part of who we are, does not determine what we have the potential to become. For someone born and raised on this philosophy, it sounds self-explanatory, and maybe like the “natural” or “logical” order of things. However, I have definitely noticed that, even in today’s day and time, here the past plays a much larger role on the future than it does in the States. Class matters. I hear university graduates who are working on their graduate degrees say “I couldn’t do that. I’ll always be working class,” and part of me feels like I need to hug them and say “No, no you won’t. You’re special, too,” and the other part of me wants to smack them and tell them to “Snap out of it! It’s not where you came from but what you do with it that matters!”

Anyway, although my studies and my time here has taught me a lot about England, it has taught me even more about America. Many of those books I’d disliked in high school, I reread and loved. Or at least better understood. And the more I found myself reading these iconic books of American literature, the more I realized that I really do love my country, and (perhaps more importantly) that I am quite definitely an American. Up until this point, I had fallen under the notion that I believe many Americans do: that although I was born and raised in America, I’m not American–I’m an INDIVIDUAL! (because we Americans so love the idea of being individuals). Now I realize that they aren’t mutually exclusive, and that being American is actually quite a privilege. And out of all the things that I’ve gained of this abroad experience, one of the things I have become most grateful for is the sense of “roots” that I have developed.

Now, I have about five weeks until I return back home to the states. About three of those weeks will be spent in other foreign countries, starting with Spain on Monday (I’m DYING for some sunshine…). My apologies for the flagrant neglect of this blog as of late–turns out after having worked on writing essays all day, the last thing I would want to do at night is write some more. But now the essays are gone, and so are the excuses, so I’ll come back with pictures and other fun stories to share. 

Until then,

Amanda

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2 thoughts on “American Literature

  1. There was some Greek phIlosopher guy that maintained that nothing was constant in this world. He said something about no man being able to step in the same river twice- as both the man and the river have changed.

    Maybe the same is true for novels. They are never the same the second time around. Experiences that I have had alter my perception of the lit I read. I just finished Cannery Row for the umpteenth time, and I am finally starting to understand Doc. He sees death everyday but can’t face his own mortality. I can sympathize with him lately.

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