The Challenges To America’s National Identity
America was ‘founded’ in 1776 through the War of Independence against the British Empire. Since then the new world has known nothing but violence; from the elimination of the native Indian tribes to the onslaught of many military expeditions and wars. In this essay I will examine the fictional violence in Mark Twain’s, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and the factual violence in the Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglas. By looking at these texts, I will argue that American authors can never disentangle themselves from America’s violent origin. By examining further texts such as the 9/11 [Naudet brothers, 2002] documentary, The Song of Hiawatha and Samuel Huntington’s treatise Who are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity it is evident that American culture and identity intertwined with violence.
Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court follows the adventure of the protagonist Hank, whom travels back in time to Medieval Britain at the time of King Arthur’s rule. The novel is described as a satire of the British monarchy and the notion of chivalry. However, the novel also brings in to question American conceptions of capitalism and power through violence. Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court starts as a humorous satire yet ends with a deliberate scrutinization of autocratic power. The novel contrasts satirical humour to graphic violence, as Hank manipulates his way in to power with the knowledge from the 19th century. The character Hank tries to create the country is his own image by taking advantage of the lack of knowledge the Court has. The theme of slavery is evident throughout the novel, with Hank stating:
‘The most of King Arthur’s British nation were slaves, pure and simple, and bore that name, and wore the iron collar on their necks; and the rest were slaves in fact, but without the name. ’
When the novel was written slavery was outlawed, however but black people still faced significant prejudices in society. Under British rule, slavery had been legal in all 13 states and after the declaration of independence was continued in up to half of the states, until it was finally deemed illegal nationally in the 13th amendment. Twain, himself, hated slavery and through his writing, of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, he showcased the violence that came of the practice and subtly shows the reader how little progress has been made. By using the fantasy genre, he could escape the backlash from making an overly political novel. The novel supports the statement that American novelists cannot escape from the past of America. The impact of the violence of slavery on the foundations of America is significant and influenced Twain, to address the consequences the practice. Hank’s mission to create an equal state, without slavery, results ironically by capturing the king until he realizes slavery is wrong. However, the novels ending shows the clear clash between the medieval society and the modern society that Hank derives from. The Battle of the Sand-Belt alludes to the Civil war as Scott Dalrymple states:
The Battle of Sand- Belt as a parallel between Union and Confederacy: a clash between a chivalric, slave-owning, agrarian society and a modern, technologically advanced republic led by a general-president.’
The final battle is an onslaught of violence, with it being described as a ‘destruction of life’ (Twain, p.432). The novel address important parts of America’s violent history, questioning how far they have come since the country was founded. However, this is fictional representation of the American history and does not accurately portray the brutality of the country. By examining the Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, the reader is exposed to the first-hand consequences of the discrimination and enslavement of the African-American people.
The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass was published in 1845, in the same year ‘Texas entered America as a slave state’ . Slavery was not abolished till 1865, however in the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson states ‘that all men are created equal’. This was simply not the case as Thomas Jefferson enslaved over ‘600 humans during his lifetime’. The memoir was published and ‘within four months, five thousand copies were sold . In the memoir Douglass writes about his life born in to slavery and his eventual escape to North America as a freed slave. Douglass describes slavery as a brutality that turns humans in to animals as he says:
‘There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being and were all subjected to the same narrow examination.’
During his enslavement he not only faces extreme violence from his owners through beating but his humanity is taken away from him. As he works on their plantations, he compares slavery to theft:
‘I earned it; it was paid to me; it was rightfully my own; yet, upon each returning Saturday night, I was compelled to deliver every cent of that money to Master Hugh […] because he had the power to compel me to give it up.’ (Douglas, p. 99.)
The memoir was one of the most influential texts and urged on the abolitionist movement. It had such an impact on America that it ‘led to the Emancipation Proclamation brought by President Abraham Lincoln’ . Before the memoir was published, people did not believe that African-Americans were capable of being educated, the memoir changed the way African-Americans were viewed. It had a lasting impact on the country, it challenged novels that told the past history of America. In The Song of Hiawatha, the novel’s ending is now viewed as highly controversial as the chief Hiawatha gives over his land to the white men. It completely ignores the massacre and enslavement of native Americans. Fredrick Douglass’s memoir gives an accurate representation of slavery, by doing this he stops novelists from being able to manipulate America history by casting slavery in a positive light, much like what had happened in previous years with destruction of the native Americans. Therefore, his narrative of his life changed the way novelist wrote about slavery in America. The violence that happened during slavery and after it was abolished is still being debated in modern day. The Confederation statues are a constant reminder of the enslavement of over ‘4.4 million enslaved blacks in 1860’, proving that African Americans still face prejudice to this day . In 2017, the book Why I Am No Longer Talking About Race, was published to raise consciousness of the many race issues that still effect the black community. America novelist cannot escape from the history of enslavement as it is sowed in to their culture.
America has struggled with its national identity since the Constitution was written, at the Philadelphia Convention. The first president George Washington held the convention to revise the current government. Instead, supported by James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, a new federal government was born. America has been described as a melting pot, with many different nationalities, cultures and religions, therefore it is difficult to describe what an American is. Samuel Huntington’s treatise Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity challenges American identity, as a young woman describes herself:
‘When I was 19, I moved to New York City….If you asked me to describe myself then, I would have told you I was a musician, a poet, an artist and, on a somewhat political level, a woman, a lesbian and a Jew. Being an American wouldn’t have made my list.’
The feeling of national identity was not evident until the attack on The World Trade Centre on 11th September 2001. The attacks finally created a unity in the country that had not been felt before. Other identities were put aside as the country embraced America as a student describes the drastic change of heart with his American identity:
‘On Sept. 11, all that changed. I realized that I had been taking the freedoms I have here for granted. Now I have an American flag on my backpack, I cheer at the fighter jets as they pass overhead, and I am calling myself a patriot’.(Huntington, p1.)
The documentary 9/11 was originally supposed to show the journey of a Probationary Firefighter, however while on duty managed to film the first plane hitting the tower. This documentary was televised on March 2nd, 2002 on CBS. From there the Naudet brothers filmed the experience of 9/11 along with the firefighters that were trying to save the towers and the people trapped inside. It also showed the horrific aftermath of the attacks, which shocked the country as the firefighters tried desperate to go through the debris and save people trapped underneath. It showed that nationalities and race did not matter and that a life was a life saved. It also created resentment and anger towards the people that had caused this devastation and united them behind a common foe. After the attacks, President George Bush, spoke to the people as a nation:
‘I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here. We are in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them.’
George Bush announced that America would fight for its principles, and the War on Terror began with American troops invading Afghanistan. Through war, America has found its nationality. It could be argued that the Nation’s identity has only flourished while by at war with other countries, rather than creating a national identity at home. In fact, ‘America Has Been at War 93% of the Time – 222 out of 239 Years – Since 1776’ . In literature the rise of war novels along with the creation of the 9/11 novels, such as the Falling Man by Don Delillo, have become increasingly popular. The second amendment in the America Constitution states that ‘the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed’, showing that violence has been written in to the identity of America . For authors, it is impossible to disentangle themselves from their origin that seems to promote violence when it is written in to the Constitution, that explains what it is to be American.
As this essay has demonstrated, the ‘American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer’ which ‘has never yet melted’. From the beginning of the foundation of America, violence against its own people and abroad has flourished. The destruction of the native Americans is a symbol of their attitudes towards foreign communities. The manipulation of their history in The Song of Hiawatha simply degrades the act of violence further. In the novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court with the character Hank using violence to change the country to his image. The themes of slavery are also evident throughout the novel as Mark Twain furiously opposed the practice. Despite this the novel is fiction rather than fact and does not show the full extent of the prejudice the African-American community faced. The Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglass challenges the fictional depiction of slavery. The memoir tells the factual description of his life as a slave and how he became a free man. The memoir had a large impact on the country and played a part in the emancipation of slaves. Although even now, the black community still face racism in their country. It is difficult to pinpoint what being America is, rather than solving the problem at home however abroad conflict seems to be the only time when America is united. After the attacks on the world trade center George Bush announced the War on Terror, with public opinion supporting the campaign. Novelists in the United States of America cannot escape the nation’s history and culture of war and prejudice as it is what defines the country throughout history.
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