American Literature, American Culture

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Walter Benn Michaels


The Vanishing American

When Tom Outland discovers that his friend Roddy Blake has sold their collection of Indian "relics," he makes him an outraged speech that Roddy ruefully describes as a "Fourth of July talk" (245). The burden of the speech is that Roddy has failed to understand "the kind of value" the relics have to Tom; the Fourth of July part involves the accusation that Roddy, "like Dreyfus," has sold his "country's secrets" to a German. "They belonged to this country, to the State, and to all the people," Tom says, and "You've gone and sold them to a country that's got plenty of relics of its own" (245). Although Roddy thinks his mistake has been to sell Tom's "private property," insofar as the relics are a public "trust," he is more a traitor than a thief. And insofar as the relics belong to the "State" only because they belonged to the Indians whom Tom describes as his and Roddy's "ancestors," Roddy's lack of patriotism is really a lack of (what Tom calls) "filial piety" (251). Roddy has thought of their "find" as "no different than anything else a fellow might run on to: a gold mine or a pocket of turquoise," but Tom has come to think of it as a collection of family heirlooms, the "pots and pans that belonged to my poor grandmothers a thousand years ago" (243). In selling the relics, then, Roddy has betrayed his country by betraying his family, all the boys, "like you and me," Tom says, "that have no other ancestors to inherit from" (242). And Tom himself spends the rest of that summer on the mesa in an orgy of "filial piety" (251), reading the Aeneid and "tidying up" the ancestral "ruins," imagining himself as the pious Aeneas rather than as the unpatriotic Dreyfus.

This experience is not available to Roddy Blake, who can't read Latin and who persists in thinking that Dreyfus was framed; indeed, Tom's whole speech is, Roddy says, "away out of" his "depth." And Roddy is surely right to call attention at least to its peculiarity. The equation of "relics" with state "secrets" is odd, as is the more general preoccupation with ancestors. But the contrast to Dreyfus and the fact that The Professor's House was written mainly in 1924, the year in which postwar nativism climaxed in the passage of the Johnson Immigration Act, may help to dispel at least some of the oddity. The Johnson Act did not only limit the number of immigrants to 150,000 a year (as opposed to the approximately one million a year of the period immediately preceding the War): it did so (through the Reed Amendment) by linking the "annual quota of each nationality" to the "number of inhabitants of the United States having that national origin" (qtd. in Hutchinson192), thus requiring a "racial analysis" of the current American population and making everyone's ancestry an essential element in the future determination of eligibility for American citizenship. Giving a real "Fourth of July talk" to the National Education Association in 1924, Calvin Coolidge cited the Johnson Act as one of his administration's chief accomplishments in the effort, as he put it, to help "America . . . remain American" (28); from this perspective, the fact that Tom's patriotism takes the form of an interest in his ancestors recapitulates the newly official interest in everybody's ancestors.

But Tom's preoccupation with his ancestors is, in any event, less surprising than his claim that the ancestors in question are his. This is surprising not only because Tom is "a kind of stray" who has "no family" (185) and not only because whatever family he once had obviously wasn't Indian, but also because the Indians themselves belong to a "race" that Cather insists has "died off" (119). Her cliff dwellers embody absolutely the myth of the Indians as a "vanishing race" and Tom's claimed descent from them is not only false

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"The Vanishing American" by Walter Benn Michaels from American Literary History, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1990. Copyright 1990 by Oxford University Press. Reprinted by permission.

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