In A Different Mirror, Ronald Takaki recounts an incident with a taxi driver as he heads to a conference on multiculturalism in Norfolk, Virginia. In a drawling accent, the taxi driver compliments Takaki on his English and asks him how long he had been in the country. Alter informing the driver that his family had been in the United States for over a hundred years, Takaki muses over the significance of the encounter. "Somehow," he writes, "I did not look 'American' to him; my eyes and complexion looked foreign" (1). And, more to the point, he adds: "I can understand why he couldn't see me as American. He had a narrow but widely shared sense of the past a history that has viewed American as European in ancestry" (2). Takaki's anecdote holds much import for those of us who teach from a multicultural perspective. It clearly illustrates the dogged Eurocentricity that informs perceptions of national identity and culture in the United States. Moreover, it shows that these ideas are not simply abstractions, but that they have an impact on the daily lives of US citizens, especially those who happen to be people of color.
As educators, Takaki's anecdote tells us that we still have a long way to go before the thinking behind such incidents is erased from personal and collective memory. Part of the struggle remains to rewrite excluded people back into the national and cultural narrative. As Takaki rightly affirms, "America has been racially diverse since our very beginning ... and this reality is increasingly becoming visible and ubiquitous" (2). Teachers and scholars of multiethnic literature are also involved in that battle as we raise canonical issues and proceed with the crucial project of recovering neglected writers and situating them in the canon. In what most people consider "American literature," there has also been the type of ethnocentricism exhibited by Takaki's taxi driver. The intellectual and literary version of this type of ideological construction is exemplified by what Nina Baym calls "the Originary Narrative." For teachers of multiethnic literature, the struggles to eliminate racist euro- and anglocentricity from all facets of our lives cannot be disassociated from the dislodging of this literary narrative from theory and pedagogical practice. But, as Baym demonstrates, it is a "story" as deeply entrenched as its more popular counterpart.
Baym traces the origins of "American literary history," as a field, to the cultural agenda of the American Whigs during the post-revolutionary period. (1) The Whigs were promoting, along with the early literary historians, a national type based oil what they perceived as the superior Puritan qualities and values of self-reliance, self-control, and, most importantly, acceptance of hierarchy. (2) With increasing immigration, the Whigs and similarly minded educators wanted to shape citizens along Anglo-Saxon, Puritan lines and they envisioned the study of literature as an efficient way to do it. Between 1882-1912, publishers, the most prominent being Houghton-Mifflin, cranked out "extracts in compilations" for the public school curriculum that
enunciated patriotic, moral, and Christian sentiments, and in true Whig fashion attributed the enlightened, prosperous, independent, intelligent, Christian, honest, hardworking, sober and moral American character--along with the republican institutions that such a character had created--to New England Puritan origins. (82)
That this narrative of the nation's literary development has origins in a nation-building project is not surprising, nor is the evidence that Baym provides for the persistence and entrenchment of this uncritical New England bias within the academy and its institutions. However, we must take notice of Baym's concluding assumptions and claims that present this Originary Narrative as an insurmountable barrier for literary historians, scholars, and educators. At the end of her essay, Baym states that there exists a "supposition that American authors necessarily articulate a New England vision" along with "the still functioning preference that they actually be of New England descent" (101, her emphasis). Baym seems to imply that these ideas, inculcated and ingrained into American minds everywhere, especially those teaching the "national literature," and more specifically those in the supposedly "foundational" area of "early American literature," are too strong to overcome. These claims can only appear odd to scholars and teachers of multiethnic literature. Who among multiethnic literary scholars and teachers would claim that ethnic writers "necessarily" articulate a New England vision? The increasing popularity of multiethnic writers--and the national and international recognition they are receiving--belies the claim that in the United States a New England hegemony completely dictates reading tastes. How critics and scholars respond to the narrative is another matter. More than anything, her insightful observations show how mostly white male literary historians have traditionally shared ideology that accommodates and glorifies their own subject positions, and that the entrenchment of these ideas speak more to the continuing exclusivity and power of the hermeneutic circle of critics that has influenced and shaped the field of "American" literature.
Nowhere in her essay does Baym use the available criticism on multiethnic writers to show how it could fall victim to the allure of the Originary Narrative. However, if we consider Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, published three years later, it appears that even multiethnic critics cannot resist having to respond to the Originary Narrative even if in opposition. (3) Thus, the Originary Narrative becomes the centerpiece of American literary study and intellectual thought because it is either being affirmed or subverted but never neglected. More to the point, I believe, is Baym's comment that behind the "tenacity" of the Originary Narrative lies such "human matters as inertia and vested interest," and the sobering thought that "whether or not it is a true account of the origins of American literature, certainly [the Originary Narrative] represents the origins of 'American literature,' the field of study" and to "escape it" …