Dubious American License: The First in Flight

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The symbols, colours and slogans on vehicle registration plates are part and parcel of the United States iconography. While not everybody relates readily to Ohio's license plate motto "Birthplace of Aviation", everybody seems to know North Carolina's motto "First in Flight". (Although the Wright brothers came from Ohio they chose North Carolina as the site for their 1903 groundbreaking experiment.) With the open horizon as the obligatory conceit of the U.S. landscape, North Carolina's license plate projects a homonymic mis-association with the dominant motif of American popular cultural discourse recognized emblematically by Leslie Fiedler (1960:318) as the razzle-dazzle of escape. (1)

[S]trange! That she who arm'd the breast for fight, / Was now observed to be the first in flight.

([Anonymous] 1846: 234)

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Inasmuch as human beings are brought into the world without their consent, are put in circumstances not of their choosing and are unceasingly driven by the desire to improve their lot, all men may be legitimately expected to be dissatisfied with their station in life, current state of affairs and their particular society. Consequently, there has been migration and quest from the beginning of human history. The American tendency, however--both in the exploring (positive, vocal) and the diffusive (negative, mute) guises, motivated respectively by attracting or by repellent forces, both as a heroic and an antiheroic stance--looms so pervasively as to appear endemic, as though constantly energized by the spirit of the so-called New World.

A popular contemporary U.S. author (Ford 1996: 154) offers that the single most distinctive aspect about his country is the "innumerable multitudes" of individuals who strive to break away from their "original condition". Bayley (2010: 174) posits that the American imagination "dwell[s] perpetually in the possibility of leaving". Billington (1993:181) argues that if students of the United States of America were to agree about any one thing it would most likely be that the country has created "a nation of restless wanderers unlike any other in the world". This appreciation seems to draw on the germinal definition of the gist of Americanness as constituted by the willful abandoning of all established ways and manners. Begetting the New out of a vigorous defiance to the Old is a thesis borne out for instance by the famous "why should we grope among the dry bones of the past" (Emerson [1836] 1983a: 7) (2); or the nearly equally well-known "forward then and now and forever" (Whitman [1855] 1982a: 218). In the prelude to his narrative poem Western star, Stephen Vincent Benet (1943: 5) sees the story of America commencing at a congenial juncture of the place and the people, even before the mind may have actually become critically aware of itself: "And, if you ask me just what made them go, / ... I think it must be something in the blood. / Perhaps it's only something in the air". While Benet's is an extended poetic meditation, Beard (1879: 722) was in all seriousness prepared to attribute the New World restlessness to the alternations of extreme heat-cold and to the peculiar quality of the air: "Our habits and institutions, so far as they are distinctively American,--rapid eating, eager quest for gold, exciting revivals and elections,--are the product of a dry atmosphere and extremes of temperature combined with the needs of a new country and a pioneer life". In Beyond the horizon ([1920] 1924: 24), Eugene O'Neill offers: "It's more an instinctive longing that won't stand dissection. Either you feel it, or you don't. The cause of it all is in the blood and the bone, I guess, not in the brain". Nelson Algren ([1951] 2001:11) seems to have the last word when he observes with a broad sweep: "Yankee and voyageur, the Irish and the Dutch ... halfbreed and quarterbreed and no breed at all, in the final counting they were all of a single breed". …