Our literature came into a sense of purpose and identity after the Civil War, during the rise of the magazine as a widespread source of American writers. While there was an urgent need to see the United States as a unified nation, there was at the same time—among writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Kate Chopin, and Mark Twain–an interest in the variety of America's culture, history and geography that came to be called the Local Color movement. "Americana" is a plural noun—naturally so, since it celebrates diversity in the histories, dialects, and customs of different areas of the nation.
The personalities of individual places—cities and regions, for example—obviously change over time, yet persistent traits may either hang on or come back around. The West Coast has the "gold-rush" cities—from literal gold and natural resources to the "gold" of movies and the computer age. New York is an ever-evolving center of American wealth and power. Even in my lifetime, NYC has gone through at least three personalities—the lost, boring, getting-tired-of-itself late '50s through the downfall-of-the-American-metropolis '70s and '80s to the remarkably reborn, welcoming face of America. The temperament of the Bay Area has also transformed, from the post-'60s, post–Prop 13 '70s to a maturing place with a transit system and thriving economy. Yes, all the cities and areas of America have their problems, but one would have a hard time even in the grumpiest mood not recognizing the positive changes.
But what about the larger term "American"? Can a nation as large and varied as ours have a personality? Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, and other writers portrayed the American in different [End Page 5] ways throughout their careers. Their protagonists often seek a truer identity, love, or sense of meaning, partly due to the destructiveness of greedy materialism and social expectations. Much of the best in American fiction has been concerned less with practical or social realism than with self-definition and finding a true ethos. Theodore Dreiser's so-called Trilogy of Desire ends with The Stoic, in which Frank Cowperwood's lover Berenice achieves what Cowperwood had always wanted but failed to do, discovering a life of helping others. Somerset Maugham's mid-1940s novel The Razor's Edge captures an even more certain loss of interest in career and success. Its war-traumatized protagonist, Larry Darrell, drifts from the easy life of Chicago's nouveau riche to traveling alone in France, reading philosophy, and finally entering a spiritual path through Hinduism. Ralph Ellison's "invisible man" by the end falls into a period of soul-searching, breaking from even the most obvious practical need, the fight against racism. Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac turned away from straight living in their quest for human ecstasy and experience. One could go on—Richard Yates, Jonathan Franzen, Toni Morrison—many of our novelists continue to seek liberation from conformity to find some kind of truer or more valid selfhood.
During the latter years of the Gilded Age, one of America's important political and humor magazines, Puck, took up the charge against greed and absurdity in America's upper class, especially of New York. This issue's art feature, "Visual Burlesque," offers seven Puck cover illustrations by the Jazz Age artist Ralph Barton. Barton started working as a cartoonist and illustrator for his hometown Kansas City newspapers the Post and the Star, then got his break in the early years of the new century, moving to New York City. There he became a dandy, known as much for his taste in clothes, wine, and food as for his acerbic cartoons, caricatures, and illustrations.
The American disposition has long included an appreciation for hard work and persistence. No one better illustrates this than Kim Henderson's character Shar in her story "Soft." Shar is a single mother, recently widowed; she is a power-plant mechanic who has supported herself from an early age, proud of her ability to do hard physical work and survive adversity. She has "no idea what [makes] some people unable...