American National Character History Term Paper

Excerpt from Term Paper :

American National Character (history)

The Ongoing Search for an "American National Character"

This assignment asks the following pertinent and challenging questions: Is it possible to find trends amongst so much diversity? What characteristics are distinctly American, regardless of class, race, and background? What is problematic about making these generalizations and inheriting the culture? What have we inherited exactly? What problems arise with our ideals - and are we being honest with ourselves? Discuss individualism and the "American Dream." Are these goals realized and are they realistic? This paper seeks solid answers to these often elusive questions.

The search for a national character should be never-ending, and the pivotal part of the search that should be enlightening and enriching for the seeker of that knowledge may just be the inspiration from the books and authors springing into the seeker's mind along the way to discovery.

Who is presently engaged in a search for the national character of America?

Unfortunately, many young people today are not inclined to search for anything close to the character of America - they're too engaged in searching for that next fun party, or for that good looking person of the opposite sex who can attend the football game on Saturday, or hang out with at the mall. Or, the search might be for a reason mom should hand over the credit card for a cool shopping splurge at Dillard's or Target.

It may seem somewhat unfair to generalize, but it does seem upon careful scrutiny and observation of the pop and youth culture that's out there in America today, that the younger generation - the generation that is "GEN-X," "pre-GEN-X" and "post-GEN-X" - is obsessively self-absorbed, and even selfishly engaged in myriad forms of hedonism. Electronic games have become addictive for millions of younger people - and the thought of breaking away to search for an American character, even for an afternoon - would be repugnant to your average teen age boy of today (which is not to say there aren't bright, engagingly curious young people, but they are too few and far between, if you study the situation, if you speak to high school teachers, counselors, and others).

And beyond electronic games (3-D games, mesmerizing games that are often violent and even misogynistic), the youth in many parts of America are in search of cool Web sites (paintball, anyone?), raunchy Web sites (soft core or hard core? What's your preference?), Web sites with the latest electronic games. Youth live on cell phones (can one search for the American character using Verizon's "photo-phone"?), and youth live for food, fun, material goods, cars, movies, magazines, alcohol, and of course, clothes. Because the American family has become a much less cohesive institution (this has been documented by religions, journalists, social scientists and others), children are more often than not able to independently choose what they will do with their free time, how they will dress, with whom they will associate, and what they believe about the America that they live in.

In the meanwhile, probably the very few among us who truly conduct serious searches into the character of a people are historians, journalists, marketing consultants preparing advertising strategies for corporations, and of course, writers who are in search of story and character ideas, or, just enjoy discovery. One such serious searcher was Octavio Paz, who loved the search as much as the discovery. Indeed, Paz certainly was a man who enjoyed discovering ideas and thoughts worthy of his poetry and essays; in fact, Paz won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1990, eight years prior to his death.

Meanwhile, Paz' interesting book, The Labyrinth of Solitude, addresses "self-discovery" on page 9, while he writes about the fact that humans - all of us, in at least one moment in our life and times - receive a vision of "our existence as something unique, untransferable and very precious." He writes that "Self-discovery is above all the realization that we are alone"; and by that he means, during that moment of enlightenment and discovery, we humans (as adolescents) discover an opening in the "wall" between the real world out there and ourselves.

And the larger question asked by Paz is, "What are we, and how can we fulfill our obligations to ourselves as we are?" This is the question that is being asked for this paper; and in this writer's search for answers and for those seeking answers, Paz admits that he once had so serious and intense a "preoccupation" with the "significance of my country's individuality" that he began to feel it was "pointless." And so, he plunged into his work, believing that a nation of peoples could distinguish itself more by "our creations" than any "dubious originality of our character," which was, after all, in a constant state of flux and change.

Cowardly" is how he came to feel towards the questions he was asking about the "supposed character of the Mexican" - and later he understood that his obsession for analyzing the character of the Mexican was due to "an inferiority complex." To observe and ponder what Paz has said thus far in his book, is to realize that here is a man who truly cares enough about the meaning of North American life to "encounter my own questioning image..." while in the U.S. And while he was living in the U.S. (in Los Angeles), he actually was surprised by "...the city's vaguely Mexican atmosphere."

That atmosphere, which he discovered in his search for character in America, "cannot be captured in words or concepts." What he felt in Los Angeles was a kind of "Mexicanism" (at the time he was there the Mexican-American population in Los Angeles was a million persons; it's double that or more today) which was reflected in a "delight in decorations, carelessness and pomp, negligence, passion and reserve..." actually, he wrote, "floats in the air." Why the word "floats"? "Because it never mixes or unites with the other world, the North American world based on precision and efficiency." Indeed, this Mexicanism he alludes to, in search of character, "hovers" and is "blown here and there by the wind." Sometimes, it even breaks up "like a cloud," and other times this Mexicanism stands "erect like a rising skyrocket."

Also, this Mexicanism of which Paz speaks, "creeps...wrinkles...expands and contracts; it sleeps or dreams; it is ragged but beautiful," he continues, seeming to be attempting to find good in something he clearly views as bad.

While his search of the Mexicanism in California continues, he observes that the Mexicans "act like persons wearing disguises," and are "afraid of a stranger's look because it could strip them and leave them stark naked." Their sensibilities "are like a pendulum" - a pendulum that has "lost its reason and swings violently and erratically back and forth."

Why does Paz feel this way towards his own people? Why does his search for the character of his people - of his own culture, transplanted into southern California - reveal to him that Mexicans in southern California suffer from a "lack of spirit," and are forming gangs in the U.S. Maybe Paz was setting himself up for failure and disillusionment by conducting his search in the first place.

As to why his Mexican people seem to suffer a "lack of spirit," the answer is at least partly because, on page 14, Paz believes that "North American racism has vented its wrath on them more than once." That's a pretty heavy charge, to say that a culture has changed because the larger culture it has moved in with is racist. Paz describes the typical young Mexican living in southern California as a "Pachuco" - "they are youths...who form gangs" and can be spotted by their "language and behavior as well as by the clothing they effect."

The young men known as pachucos, Paz writes, "cannot adapt" to a "civilization which, for its part, rejects" them. Getting into the racial milieu, Paz explains that the "Negroes...oppressed by racial intolerance, try to 'pass' as whites and thus enter society. They want to be like other people," he continues. That said, as for the Mexicans, who have clearly not suffered as much as blacks, "instead of attempting a problematical adjustment to society, the pachucos actually flaunts his differences," which Paz terms "grotesque dandyism and anarchic behavior."

One trend here, in terms of the search for an American national character, would be individualism - no matter that the pachucos are not showing pride in their heritage, or behaving the way Paz would like them to behave, they are individuals, acting out, playing out the roles they have chosen while they reside in America.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

When discussing "freedom of the press" in Chapter 3, he makes clear he loves the concept more "out of consideration for the evils that it prevents far more than for the good that it does." Why does he say that? It's like saying some people in New…

Sources Used in Document:


Bellah, Robert. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.

New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Cochran, Thomas Childs. Challenges to American Values: Society, Business, and Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

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