Huckleberry Finn is the closest we have to a national hero. We trust the story of a boy with no home and who is restless as the river -- The genius of America is that it permits children to leave home; it permits us to be different from our parents. But the sadness, the loneliness, of America is clear too.
What is Rodriguez telling us about a central feature of the American Character, and about tensions within our core values? What reasons, what causes, might contribute to this national tendency? Which authors and/or other course materials support your ideas?
There is a tension within the American character. On the one hand, we pride ourselves so our individuality. On the other, we seek to conform, fit in, be a part of the 'melting pot'; but we are forever lonely.
Individualism has been an intrinsic part of the American myth. It is seen in the rugged terrain of our huge country and though the voices of exemplary American philosophers such as Emerson who stressed self-reliance and the need to be ourselves. Self-sufficiency, self-determination, and elf-efficacy are all components of the narrative of individualism that America has always promoted. The individual, more or less, stands by himself. The country is huge. It is a jungle. America -- it is said -- is a land of opportunity. To profit from that opportunity, however, one has to be independent, unique, original, self-sufficient, and go it alone.
On the other hand, this does provide a modicum of sadness and loneliness which can be evidenced by the fact that huge numbers of Americans seek therapy, whilst others fall into depression. Clinical depression is vast in this country. For immigrants who come from socially-supportive countries and families and are forced to 'Americanize' themselves, the American experience can be doubly intimidating and scary.
This is brought down poignantly in Richard Rodriguez's book Hunger of Memory where he describes his Americanization from child of Mexican immigrants into his wider society. The process was a rough and painful growing evolvement where he sacrificed all -- Catholic background, family roots, social warmth and cohesiveness -- to be this ideal scholarship child and to be a 'perfect American.
America has many dichotomies. One is the fact that it lauds individualism whilst it applauds altruism -- and actually people do evidence the need for social support and conformity as we see demonstrated by the herd instinct and tendency towards community.
Another ambiguity is that observed by Rodrigues where he writes that:
"Americans like to talk about the importance of family values, but America isn't a country of family values; Mexico is a country of family values. This is a country of people who leave home." (229)
For people who straddle two or more cultures -- they come from one but are forced to live the American way of life in order to be successful -- the result can be schizophrenia and struggle.
Rodriguez' autobiography details and laments this struggle where his growing evolvement into American society got him increasingly detached from his roots and created conflict between himself and his parents. He himself found frustration and agony in trying to bridge the gap between his Mexican rots and parents whom he adored and the need to 'make it'. His transformation into the perfect American brought him nothing but agony and the dram that he expected at the end of the tunnel, of academic success and reputation was merely an illusion. The echoes of loneliness resound through the essay from Rodriguez's early childhood endeavors to educate his parents and make them more American to his descriptions of him sitting in the vast library reading rooms grappling with some arcane literary topic. The Mexican experience, he writes, was closer to real life and meaningfulness than was his American experience, vaunted though it may be. The Catholic nuns meant good but he felt that they robbed him of his childhood and of communal warmth and roots.
His parents whom he was indirectly taught to despise (for their 'uncouth' manners and superstitious ways) were, he recognized as an adult, inspirational figures who were more real and worthy of admiration than many of the paragons of academic and corporate American society whom he met later. His mother, failed secretary though she was, was exemplary of diligence, dedication to children and family, loyalty, integrity, and faithfulness. His father demonstrated similar qualifications. They may have been simple, but Rodriguez, as adult, considered them to be more worthy and inspirational than many of his so-called Americans who he had been educated in school to model.
At the end of the day, literary and academic knowledge meant little to him. He felt he had exchanged a warm and meaningful cradle of roots for a cheap vapid bowl of soup.
It seems as though, America -- contrary to its protestations for the reverse - does still place a huge degree of pressure on its immigrants to 'Americanize' themselves. Whilst this pressure is certainly not as huge or as pressing as that in the '50s or before that, nonetheless immigrants know that to succeed, they have to speak the English language fluently and adopt American mannerism and culture.
We see this in Rodriguez's instance where the nuns persuade his parents to speak English amongst themselves. Rodriguez noted correlations with the drop of closeness in his family. As the family rise in middle class status, they begin to lose their Mexican informality.
In high school, Richard himself becomes renowned as a prodigy who has absorbed numerous books. (However, as he noted, pressure again drove him to memorize them -- to repeat them per rote, rather than to understand them. He lamented this long into his adult life; this too shaped his views on education). Richard was gloried in a local newspaper, and the covert pressure on him -- and his parents -- to Americanize intensified.
The American culture sucked him in. He encountered wealthy, influential people who helped him climb the Ivy-clad ladder to success. He published articles, and lived the "life of the mind." In the end, he felt that the allure and pressure of the so-called American 'dream' robbed him of an authentic genuine family-bound existence.
It is striking that Ole Rolvaag's, Giants in the Earth bears similar experience. The family too has a tough time integrating themselves sin American society. The family battles snow storms, locusts, poverty and hunger and they do so within the framework of loneliness, separation from family and longing for the old country. The old country provided warmth and support; in the new, the family finds themselves facing estrangement from heir children who struggle to fit into America in order to survive and make it. The dichotomy, therefore, is this: to survive and succeed, America preaches -- and shows -- which you need to, leave your family and roots and make it on your own.
Literature, time and again, bears this out. One of the most disturbing immigrant memoirs is that produced by Anzia Yezierska, "Bread Givers" where she describes her endeavors to find her place in American society. This was an enduring struggle and when she finally felt that she made it, she realized that it was at the cost of giving up her Jewish heritage and identity. She too felt the consequent loneliness, and this loneliness is a theme that is explored in many of her works.
Lawrence Levine, (Black Culture and Black Consciousness) and Gene Yang, (American Born Chinese) were two other authors who explored this same topic form their particular ethnic backgrounds. In all, we encounter the same themes of individuals trying to make it in their American environment -- but doing so necessitates that they relinquish their identity- Americanize it - in order to fit in and succeed. The result is inevitably a rootlessness…