Memories of the Future
W. Clark Gilpin
Narratives generate the most evocative representations of American national identity. Identifying narratives employ specific events and particular persons to portray a pivotal moment or decisive action that discloses the distinctive ideals and traits of character around which national identity coheres. The cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner provided a thought-provoking exploration of this point in an article for the journal Critical Inquiry, entitled “The Narrative Construction of Reality.” There, Bruner argued that the rhetorical force of a story lay in “the emblematic nature of its particulars, its relevance to a more inclusive narrative type.” Nonetheless, “a narrative cannot be realized save through particular embodiment.”1 And this embodiment frequently includes not only the retelling of the story but also its ritual reenactment. Thus, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem about the British bombing of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, during the War of 1812, which was set to music as “The Star Spangled Banner” and subsequently declared the national anthem by congressional resolution in 1931. Still later in this poetic narrative’s history, professional athletes have made it the object of ironically reverent resistance by kneeling when it is performed at the beginning of a sporting event.
“The Star Spangled Banner” is, of course, only one identifying narrative among hundreds in which Bruner’s “emblematic particulars” tell a story that purports to disclose the distinctive character of the United States. These stories are by no means the same. They accent different features of national history. They stage different casts of characters. And, as with “The Star Spangled Banner,” even what appears to be the same story has been interpreted quite differently over the course of American history. In what follows, I reflect on this multiplicity of identifying narratives in response to the essays by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and M. Cooper Harriss, who pursue two different avenues for exploring the power of narrative.
Sullivan has analyzed one such narrative from the legal history of the United States. In 1823, the Supreme Court adjudicated a complicated case involving title to some 43,000 square miles of land in Illinois and Indiana. As Sullivan explains, the suit, Johnson v M’Intosh, had numerous ramifications, especially concerning the title of Native Americans to land they occupied and the validity of earlier treaties with respect to Indian property rights. Chief Justice John Marshall, in writing the court’s opinion, employed a classic rhetorical strategy by presenting the case as no more than a culmination, which revealed the essence of the historical process from which it had proceeded.2 What Marshall termed “a history of America” led with a seeming inexorability to its fulfillment in Johnson v M’Intosh.
Cooper Harriss has focused his attention on American novels and the contemporary significance of a nineteenth-century category now seldom employed: the Great American Novel. A novel becomes a candidate for this category when its characters and the relationships among them point beyond the covers of the book to some quintessential feature of American society, its history, hopes, and travails. Henry James, for example, set up such a possibility by opening his novel The American (1877) with the scene of a tall, muscular man, “legs outstretched” and “eyes dazzled” as he sat on a “commodious ottoman” in the Louvre and surveyed both some magnificent paintings and the numerous young women who were assiduously painting reproductions for sale to the public. “And if truth must be told,” the narrator remarked, his lounging protagonist “often admired the copy much more than the original.” The narrator further commented that an observer “with anything of an eye for national types” would quickly have determined that “the gentleman on the divan was a powerful specimen of an American,” indeed such an observer might have felt “a certain humorous relish of the almost ideal completeness with which he filled out the national mould.”3 Like the legal case of Johnson v. M’Intosh, the crucial factor that sets in motion a narrative of national identity is the representational capacity James attributed to his fictional character.
Rather than pursuing a distinction between the facts of the law and the fiction of the novel, I find my response to the essays by Sullivan and Harriss to be guided by the British historian Timothy Garton Ash, who observes that the “adjacent territories of fact and fiction both belong to literature.” In considering the boundary between these territories, Ash reminds his fellow historians that “to create the literature of fact, we have to work like novelists in many ways. We select. We cast light on this subject, shadow on that. We imagine.” In analyzing any version of what Justice Marshall called “a history of America,” I want to foreground Ash’s dictum that “imagination is the sun that illuminates both” the literature of fact and the literature of fiction.4
A focus on literary imagination enables me to engage three aspects of our thinking—whether as citizens or as scholars—about narratives of national identity and in particular our thinking about “American exceptionalism.” First, such narratives establish corporate boundaries, determining not only which groups—their ideas, practices, and complexions—are relegated to the margins but also the criteria by which groups and individuals migrate into the identified group. Second, these identifying narratives create temporal trajectories. They draw on collective memories to build a beginning point in the past and, in light of a perception of contemporary circumstances, imaginatively project a possible future. Third, identifying narratives become more persuasive to the extent that they achieve a dual rhetorical goal. Persuasive narratives capture the reader’s attention by pointing out a specific event or pattern of events that the conventional narrative has overlooked or ignored. This explicit identification of a previously marginalized feature of the national narrative directly challenges any interpreter who would seek to retell the conventional narrative without taking into account the story’s newly highlighted facet. In our contemporary setting, for instance, individuals and groups are actively composing a variety of narratives that explain and assess public monuments to leaders of the Confederacy, but it would be extraordinarily difficult to write a persuasive narrative of the past century that simply ignored the construction and continuing presence of such monuments.
Narratives and Borders
In The One and the Many (1997), Martin Marty engaged in historically informed advocacy for narratives of national life that would advance “America’s struggle for the common good.” Marty pointed out that American national identity was built on numerous archetypal narratives and that the perennial ethical question of the United States has been the relationships among these diverse narratives and among the groups that these narratives represent. He summarized two common designs for narrative construction: “totalism” and “tribalism.” The former presupposed “the idea that a nation-state can and should be organized around a single and easily definable ideology or creed.” This is a controlling narrative. “Set the songs for a country, determine its stories,” Marty concluded, “and you will have power.” Tribalists, by contrast, resisted the drive toward dominance reflected in a single creedal narrative, by exerting the countervailing power of their distinctive stories and arguing, instead, that “only the peoples and groups to which one naturally belongs, or chooses to belong, or even invents as new constructs, can provide coherence.” The central concern of Marty’s book was to understand how pivotal stories drawn from national life were “viewed on the one hand by those who seek a single American plot and on the other hand by those who stress subplots of the contending groups.”5
Marty’s effort to understand the viewpoints of both those who “seek a single American plot” and those who “stress subplots” leads to a third point of view that diverges from both of these perspectives. Speaking as a scholar, he finds more possibilities for advancing the national “struggle for the common good” through receptivity to the plurality of subplots: “if a goal of the humanities is to help the participant imagine what it is to be someone else, somewhere else, then the particularizing and idiographic approaches serve more honestly and are more helpful than those that homogenize.” Later in the book, speaking primarily as a citizen, Marty advises that if groups “tell their story and accent what gave integrity to their group life in the first place, they will not so readily conform” to stereotypes imposed on them and perhaps thereby contribute to “some chance that hearing and understanding can begin to occur” within a diverse republic.6 Marty’s stress on the listener’s empathic curiosity about other people’s stories calls attention to a crucial issue in the assessment of identifying narratives. Beyond the content of the narrative, how does the way the story is told invite the hearer to cross boundaries, in order to engage, challenge, supplement, and transform the telling of the story in its conventional form? In short, Marty critiques the boundaries set by identifying narratives in both their “totalist” and “tribalist” forms. As an alternative, he views the active interplay of multiple narratives, the continuous imaginative reconstructing of mythic stories, as the civic responsibility of all who would make a contribution to the nation’s never-to-be-finished identity.
Memories of the Future
Through identifying narratives individuals and communities seek to discern retrospectively the course of events that have brought them to the decisions they face in the present moment. From that retrospective interpretation, they coalesce the purposes, ideals, and values that direct them into the future. The moment of decision thus extends temporally; it occupies time. This extended present of decision-making shows itself in everyday language, when we speak of a judge “rendering a decision” based on the assessment of past occurrences or a person “making a decision” while taking into account its prospective consequences.
Both Sullivan and Harriss invoke two classic literary genres—tragedy and irony—in order to emphasize the power that retrospectively constructed identity exerts in shaping decisions in the present. In the case of Chief Justice Marshall, Sullivan notes the passive voice that Marshall adopted in his description of the steps by which the European “discovery” of America established title to the land. Marshall seems to have lamented the long, tragic sequence of events that set the early nineteenth-century American context, but these particular events now constrained his legal deliberations. Sullivan quotes Marshall’s summation:
However extravagant the pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited country into conquest may appear; if the principle has been asserted in the first instance, and afterwards sustained; if a country has been acquired and held under it; if the property of the great mass of the community originates in it, it becomes the law of the land, and cannot be questioned.
Caught within a present shaped by pretentious claims and their tragic consequences, Marshall accepted a way forward fraught with moral ambiguity. In an epoch of westward exploration and utopian experiment, his legal opinion expressed a narrative of national identity that presupposed an underlying pattern of historical inevitability.
Harriss turns to the twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to lift up the ironic recognition of moral ambiguity that is tacit in Marshall’s text. Niebuhr was part of a generation of academics (representing literary studies, political science, and social history as well as theology) that named American exceptionalism as a category of interpretation and subjected it to scholarly critique. His book The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959) analyzes “perennial patterns, recurring problems and varied, but similar structures of the political order,” because he had become convinced that “our generation” was tempted to stress the “novel perplexities” of the modern era, especially “the nuclear stalemate” of the Cold War. In so doing, his generation failed in the retrospective task and thus overlooked “similarities under the differences between ancient and modern societies.”7
Considering the long sweep of history, Niebuhr proposed that a government’s power or authority to gain compliance, induce obedience, and maintain order depended not simply on coercive force but also on prestige. Under this term, Niebuhr collected the various factors of tradition, custom, and history that encouraged uncoerced consent on the part of the governed. In the nationalistic empires of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, prestige included some universal value ostensibly transmitted through the history of the national culture but which, in Niebuhr’s view, “lost some of its moral prestige by that transmittal.” A nation’s assertion that it represented a universal value—whether presented in religious or secular terms—was, Niebuhr argued, always morally dubious because neither the value nor the community was as universal as the nation claimed. “We are not a sanctified nation,” Niebuhr concluded with respect to the United States, “and we must not assume that all our actions are dictated by considerations of disinterested justice. If we fall into this error the natural resentments against our power on the part of the weaker nations will be compounded with resentments against our pretensions of a superior virtue.”8 For this reason, Niebuhr concluded, “our age is involved in irony because so many dreams of our nation have been so cruelly refuted by history.” Marshall and Niebuhr lived in vastly different epochs of American history, but they might well have concurred in Niebuhr’s appraisal of the fate of an idealized national identity: “the recalcitrant forces in the historical drama have a power and persistence beyond our reckoning.”9
Narratives of national identity project not simply a creed but a way of life. In a nation composed of many national and ethnic heritages, the relations among those cultural inheritances requires, inescapably it would seem, a story that identifies their points of overlap. In the United States, many of the most rhetorically powerful narratives have confronted their cultural moment with a challenge that arises out of the generally acknowledged national history. In the twentieth century, Martin Luther King, Jr., was a consummate master of this art of imaginative retelling. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King responded to Southern ministers who criticized his “nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist.” Pondering the matter in his jail cell, however, King “gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist.” He catalogued a list of “extremists” that began with Jesus, the prophet Amos, and Paul. “Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist—‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist—‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’” The issue, King concluded, turned on the goal of extreme acts. Would it be love or hate? Would it be the preservation of injustice or advocacy for the cause of justice? “So, after all,” King asserted, “maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremism.”10
King’s famous letter from prison brings me back to Jerome Bruner’s analysis of narrative. Cultures, Bruner observed, have prescribed scripts, and “narratives require such scripts as necessary background, but they do not constitute narrativity itself.” A tale worth telling will give an account of “how an implicit canonical script has been breached, violated, or deviated from” in ways that resist and revise the conventional story. In this sense, the most consequential narratives of American identity—whether formulated in the courtroom or on the pages of a novel—are inherently disruptive and derive their influence from that disruption. As Cooper Harriss proposes, “the central irony (some may say tragedy) of ‘America’ rests in the notion that its subjective potential (‘who we say we are’) renders objective reality (‘who we are’) unbearable.” If this is the American circumstance, then multiple narratives continuously disrupt its present forms in a quest for “who we say we are.” John Marshall’s “history of America” will continue to be written—if it continues to be written—by those citizens, humble before a “recalcitrant” history, who are yet daring enough to be “extremists” in the telling of disruptive tales.
Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality,” Critical Inquiry 18 (1991), 1-21.↩
Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives (New York: George Braziller, 1955), 13-15.↩
Henry James, The Americans, Riverside Press Edition, ed. Roy Harvey Pearce and Matthew J. Bruccoli (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), 1-2.↩
Timothy Garton Ash, “On the Frontier,” in Witness Literature: Proceedings of the Nobel Centennial Symposium, ed. Horace Engdahl (Singapore: World Scientific, 2002), 57-68.↩
Martin E. Marty, The One and the Many: America’s Struggle for the Common Good (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 10-15, 43-44.↩
Marty, The One and the Many, 110, 224-25.↩
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires (New York: Scribner, 1959), ix-5.↩
Niebuhr, Structure of Nations, 20-32.↩
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Scribner, 1952), 2-3.↩
Martin Luther King, Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World, ed. James M. Washington (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), 92-94.↩