America's greatest invention isn't the Internet or the cupcake or the cowboy hat.
America's greatest invention is itself. In 1776, the United States of America was declared into existence by delegates from thirteen different colonies. The new country had neither a state nor a nation. After defeating the British, it would have to build both. Building a state meant creating a functioning government. Building a nation meant creating a common identity.
How do you create a common identity among a postcolonial people with no history or traditions of their own? England and France and Spain had centuries of shared victories, defeats, myths, ballads. They had Beowulf and Shakespeare, Moliere and Napoleon, Ferdinand and Isabella. They operated under the assumption that Englishness and Frenchness and Spanishness existed--and still do. America, by contrast, had relatively little out of which a sense of nationhood might be constructed. Americanness would have to be invented.
Literature provided the perfect petri dish for this process. American writers tried to capture what made the country distinctive, by looking to its landscape, its language, its everyday life for inspiration. America had no national heritage of its own--no "ruined castles," no "primordial stones," as Goethe put it in a famous poem--but it contained plenty of other imported and indigenous heritages, whether Indian, European, or African. This complexity ensured that the literary invention of America would be a long, messy, contentious affair. It would be a series of experiments, with many failures and false starts along the way.
I wrote about one such experiment in my new book The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature. But there have many others, and I've included a handful below.
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