An American world literature for the Trump era

01/30/2017 07:22 am ET

It is a truism that Americans are an insular people. Having brought the world to us - its peoples and products, and in some of the most unlikely places - the rhythms of many Americans' daily lives feel largely isolated from direct contact with the world beyond our borders. We nominate our politicians, soldiers, and businessmen to venture out for us, coming to trust their accounts, and dwell little on the enormous consequences (good and ill) we exert on the rest of the world. 

It is our writers, both native and adopted, who perform a vital service that the politicians, soldiers, and businessmen do not. By venturing out for us, they hold America accountable for what we do and, often in the face of great suffering, don't do abroad. They remind us of our great fortune and ask us to consider what obligations come with it. Whenever we err from our founding creed of liberty and equality, they go outside to remind us that more than two hundred years later, and with no less a mix of optimism and cynicism, the world is still watching the American experiment. They remind us that we still have something to prove.  

Over the past three years Yale Professor Wai Chee Dimock and several of her students, including myself, have worked to compile an anthology of American literature that showcases the web of interactions our country and its literature has with the world. Creating an anthology is a unique creative endeavor - almost lawyerly in nature. Just like the lawyer who cannot invent the facts of a case, we as editors cannot will into existence a choice passage that has never been written. Nor could we rely on authors who were not American or did not make it their home - although a great many who do not fit that category have chronicled America with peerless insight. What we could do is methodically build a case in which the stories, essays, and poems we have selected act in conversation with each other and draw out new and unexpected linkages. Their concerted effect is one that attempts to speak to a greater truth about America's place in the world. 

Instead of the familiar intersections of race, class, and gender, this anthology organized itself around five unexpected themes in American literature: war; food; the rhythms of work, play, and travel; religion; and the human and nonhuman.  Tellingly, most of the selections have to do with war. Less obvious is the fact that not all of these selections directly involve the United States other than that the authors who bore witness to it made this country their refuge.

These works reveal an important, yet largely ignored aspect of American literature: its role as a catalyst of sorts.  Most Americans may never travel meaningfully abroad, but they will have at least encountered it in literature or film. The tale of the American immigrant who has escaped unimaginable violence or poverty, be it from South America, Africa, Asia, or old Europe, is more than a triumphal reassurance of our own prosperity. By bearing witness to unspeakable tragedy that America has not known, literature does its part to remind us that we are not destined to avoid such a fate and, in a modest way, helps to prevent it. 

Other sections of the anthology, such as the one devoted to literature in which food is central, may strike some readers as surprising. On closer inspection, an abundance of American literature uses the dinner table as a vehicle for preserving memory of one's culture in a new land. Indeed, food is central to one of our country's founding myths - Thanksgiving. Americans may not go to school or church or work together, but they do eat fried chicken together. When our restaurants are literally the most integrated places in American society - and a chief cultural export - it says something about the advantages and limits of food as a means of cultural exchange. Sections focused on writings rich in ecological or religious themes bring out other surprising insights about not just America abroad, but also who we are at home.   

Students of literature and history alike will find much to appreciate and question in this anthology, not least the idea of American exceptionalism. The broad sweep of this anthology will reveal a central contradiction in the American experience: while we may perceive ourselves as a nation apart, protected by two oceans and friendly neighbors, it is that very fact that draws us deeper into the world. Safe from invasion at home, we find our doors opened to refugees from around the world. Instead of armies, it is ideas that cross the oceans and wage war in the American heartland, fighting not just for the heart and soul of America but for that of the world. To understand American literature is to embrace it as inherently world literature. America is the refuge and battleground in which the world's stories converge. If we forsake that responsibility and close our doors, all Americans suffer.

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