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Foreword This issue of TMR is full of American history and Americana—from an Indian legend to the Pilgrims to the Civil War to Elvis and Gone with the Wind. The English writer Charles Dickens found America both exhilarating and depressing. When Dickens first visited the United States after a lifetime of living mostly in London, he was so amazed while touring Boston that he let out a scream ofpleasure and at one point literally ran through the streets. No one was more capable of "taking in" a place than the vastly energetic Englishman, then still in his twenties and already famous. After his initial high wore off, however, and after a traveling itinerary that would have put any contemporary rock star into the hospital, Dickens felt different about America. By the time he got to Cincinnati and finally St. Louis, the young nation seemed too extravagant and temporary to him. Dickens was himself obsessed with money but he was tired of listening to people talking about it. To the dismay of his American fans, he wrote about such things in American Notes—and about crudeness, and the cant and hypocrisy he heard from businessmen and political leaders, all claiming to have a corner on virtue while they obviously busied themselves about their own interests . Our own writers have been extraordinarily nationally self-conscious. They want to understand not so much Everyman as the American— American heroes, American society, American rustics, American speech, Americans of varying skin colors, ethnic origins, and geographical areas, American women, American tragedies, Americans abroad, penultimate American stories and voices—at a quick glance we might seem to be a large public-relations factory stamping "Made in America about Americans" on our literature. It is difficult to tell whether the impetus comes from our writers or their reviewers and critics, but somewhere in the formula between them resides this urge to create emblems of America. Self-centered though it appears to be, our best writing of course renders anything but simple praise of America. From the start, American authors have concerned themselves with the dissatisfactions of materialism, with dropping out and seeking some higher union in god or godliness or with nature—a tradition as old as the writers of Plymouth Colony. American novelists, particularly beginning with the age of realism, write about characters who are tragically unable to align happiness and material success—Dreiser's turn-of-the-century struggler Sister Carrie or Fitzgerald's Jazz Age dreamer parvenu Jay Gatsby or any number of postmodern lunatics. And they write about provincialism and moralistic complacency, American style. How we sometimes imagine ourselves to be uniquely on the side of good, while "out there" the rest of the world is a patchwork of darkness and ignorance that would be fixed if people would do things our way. Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee time-traveler, applying his American know-how in dealing with English backwardness during the time of King Arthur, performs a final act of killing off a 25,000-man army with electricity, machine guns and dynamite. Americans in contact with people of other nations often demonstrate their openness and directness. We dispense with folderol. We say it like it is. This can result in our being disarming and at times dismaying to people of other countries. We are notorious for confessing and revealing at the drop of a hat. After all, we have nothing to hide. More than one great American literary work tests this innocent openness—or cherishing of our innocence—and finds it lacking. Henry James's early novels admired a refined sort ofAmerican forthrightness, in contrast to the mannered deceptions of some Europeans. His late novels, however , depict "innocence" as a self-blinding to avoid seeing one's own demons and desires—which can be as baleful as intentional malice. There are the hysterical "innocents," characters such as Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, the black marketer who believes that whatever is good for his own pocketbook is good, period, even contracting with the Germans to bomb his own base. Greedy. Provincial. Moralistic. Brash. Self-blinding. No important writer imagines that such adjectives apply uniquely to Americans. Yet...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 5-10
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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