Destroying to Save: Idealism and Pragmatism in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"

Article excerpt

In his report following the battle for Ben Tre during the Vietnam War, Peter Arnett quotes an American officer as saying, "'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it'" (256). The statement was quickly used by others to epitomize the inanity, insanity, and insidious contradictions that characterized the Vietnam War specifically as well as war in general. But the statement also epitomizes a phenomenon that greatly informs the American experience and perhaps even Western civilization, too: the tension between, the overlapping of, and the positive correlation between idealism and pragmatism. And it is my contention that a thorough examination, and the resulting understanding, of these two concepts within American discourse may make major contributions toward averting colossal tragedies such as the Vietnam War (not to mention our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan) and also toward breaking the deadlocks in our overly contentious and bitter public dialogue.

Certainly, the study of the literature of the United States has a role in such an examination as literature serves as both a repository and a conduit for a society's discourse. The first challenge, then, due to the plethora of relevant subjects, is with what text to begin. Taking something from early in the American literary tradition would, of course, be a logical approach. But instead, I would like to examine a more recent text, Alice Walker's "Everyday Use," for a few reasons. One, the brevity of the piece allows for an examination that is thorough but within the constraints required by the medium of a journal. And, two, the story dramatizes both the ordinary and the extraordinary in ways that help us to understand how the examination I propose informs the discourse across the spectrum.

Mary Alice Pagliasotti observes, "Like pornography, idealism and pragmatism deny easy definition but are recognizable nonetheless" (295). Reviewing the small amount of literary scholarship on the subject supports this observation. In his 1941 article, "Pragmatism and Idealism in Literature," J. Gordon Eaker writers, "pragmatism discounts the ideas that go beyond an immediate situation of stimulus and response" (458), and he also says, "idealism shows more clearly how art, with its greater selectivity and concentration, with a form more perfect than that which ordinary experience possesses, can be depended upon to hold up the pattern for conduct" (460). These definitions can be boiled down to this: pragmatism privileges existing circumstances and proceeds toward the most feasible and advantageous ends; idealism privileges what should be--the "ideal"--and pursues it no matter how lofty or ultimately unattainable. The persistence of both mindsets in the American imagination is generally accepted. Indeed, in his 1942 article, "The Value of Emerson Today," Floyd Stovall observes, "It has been often said that there are two sides to the typical American character and that these two opposite sides are represented by the idealism of Jonathan Edwards and the pragmatism of Benjamin Franklin" (442-43). Since these two approaches are taken as polar opposites, it comes as no surprise that they propose conflicting courses of action for a given circumstance. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that these two approaches are often utilized as rationales for conflicting ends. In any event, it is not unusual for our debates to be cast as one side's idealism against the other side's pragmatism.

Deconstruction prompts us to distrust the polarity of binary oppositions, however, and to consider how they may be distinct elements that are inextricably interconnected. Such interconnection means that binary oppositions have more in common than not. In the case of idealism and pragmatism, it is not that one is good and the other is evil but that both have the potential to be both good and evil. Or, perhaps more to the point, every idealistic pursuit involves pragmatic action, and every pragmatic pursuit implicates some ideal. …