The concept of “the self” has been something that has plagued Americans since our revolution in 1776. Born in rebellion, we have been a nation that has praised our own dominance, bowed down to no one, and yet we continuously struggle with an insecure concept of the true American Self. We live in a nation of freedom, so they say, but we are imprisoned daily by a lack of identity. Ralph Ellison, in his novel Invisible Man, states: “Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are.” How true this statement should ring out in the ears of Americans. We are a nation the appears to have no sense of direction, and we have also lost ourselves as real beings – flesh, blood, bone – living in a broken world.
Even in the midst of brokenness, words written by shattered people can still help to heal the bleeding wounds that pour out over our society. In a world that is continuously growing, it is imperative to take time to reflect and listen to those who have come before us – those who have experienced life. For this, I think all Americans should tune their ears to a region of our country that has arguably experienced the most pain, loss, and suffering: The South. Writers such as William Faulkner, James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Cormac McCarthy, James Agee, William Gay, and Thomas Wolfe – to name a few – are writers that have dealt with a Post-Reconstruction South attempting to deal with identity flaws such as race, religion, law, and violence. The entirety of The South has been immersed in turmoil from the beginning of The Civil War until arguably present day. But through these struggles, The South has produced some of the most genuine truths in the American canon of literature.
“Because you make so little impression, you see. You get born and you try this and you don’t know why only you keep on trying it and you are born at the same time with a lot of other people, all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with string only the same strings are hitched to all the other arms and legs and the others all trying and they don’t know why either except that the strings are all in one another’s way like five or six people all trying to make a rug on the same loom only each one wants to weave his own pattern into the rug; and it can’t matter, you know that, or the Ones that set up the loom would have arranged things a little better, and yet it must matter because you keep on trying and then all of a sudden it’s all over and all you have left is a block of stone with scratches on it provided there was someone to remember to have the marble scratched and set up or had time to, and it rains on it and then sun shines on it and after a while they don’t even remember the name and what the scratches were trying to tell, and it doesn’t matter.” – William Faulkner (Absalom, Absalom!)
The first influential idea that was grasped by William Faulkner (among other Southern writers) was the concept of a loss of individuality. Coming with The Lost Generation, after the First World War, Faulkner began to see the world through a clouded lens that lessened the importance of the individual. Combined with The Civil War, Americans were beginning to accept the vehement presence of death in their individual lives, and the idea that the human is a natural wanderer, maintaining no consistent truths. The individual life did not matter because life was too fickle to place any value in. The irony of this movement towards the death of the “American Self” is that, in The South, a rare, grotesque humanism began to develop.
“In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again.” – James Agee (A Death in the Family)
The South, seen as a place for misfits, barbarians, and the unwanted in America, became a place that used the grotesqueness of its history to develop a new sense of the individual in America. The writers of The South used to the broken personalities left to wallow in the rubble and dust of the Confederacy, to reconstruct not only their region, but also the direction that America should go in. Agee, in his quote above, characterizes the idea in the south that, although we are indeed a nation made of rebels and misfits, we possess the ability to rebuild ourselves in the light of progress. It is important to learn from our haunted, torturous past, and proceed onward into the new light of day.
“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” – Flannery O’Connor (The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor)
With any progress, there is pain. As a country we have experienced this – The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, The Trail of Tears, The Great Depression, The Civil Right’s Movement. We are a scarred country, in need of healing. Our entire existence has been a progression, if you can call it that, to the current state of our nation. We have been a country through each tragedy that has reached for grace, and the movement of our nation has been painful. However, the pain we have experienced is no excuse to ignore the grace our nation has received. Although we appear to be as lost as we have ever been, we are a country that has been blessed. We are a fortunate people group to experience the ease and comfort that is foreign to other countries. And while we should never cease in striving for more, we must be appreciative of what we have received – the grace of living freely. As O’Connor asserts in most of her work: it is grace that has built us up as humans, and grace that will lead us forward.
So, in the grandiose (or dwindling) power that is modern America, we must continue to progress and learn from ourselves. We must not accept mediocrity and contentment as people, but push for a new humanism that will be our foundation. We must heed the words of our literary forefathers, and grow in the light of our new horizons. As Thomas Wolfe put it in You Can’t Go Home Again: “Toil on…and do not lose heart or hope. Let nothing you dismay. You are not utterly forsaken. I, too, am here–here in the darkness waiting, here attentive, here approving of your labor and your dream.”
And last but not least, from Cormac: “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.” – Cormac McCarthy (All The Pretty Horses)