Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture

Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture

Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture

Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture


Nothing is "pure" in America, and, indeed, the rich ethnic mix that constitutes our society accounts for much of its amazing vitality. Werner Sollors's new book takes a wide-ranging look at the role of "ethnicity" in American literature and what that literature has said--and continues to say--about our diverse culture. Ethnic consciousness, he contends, is a constituent feature of modernism, not modernism's antithesis. Discussing works from every period of American history, Sollors focuses particularly on the tension between "descent" and "consent"--between the concern for one's racial, ethnic, and familial heritage and the conflicting desire to choose one's own destiny, even if that choice goes against one's heritage. Some of the stories Sollors examines are retellings of the biblical Exodus--stories in which Americans of the most diverse origins have painted their own histories as an escape from bondage or a search for a new Canaan. Other stories are "American-made" tales of melting-pot romance, which may either triumph in intermarriage, accompanied by new world symphonies, or end with the lovers' death. Still other stories concern voyages of self-discovery in which the hero attempts to steer a perilous course between stubborn traditionalism and total assimilation. And then there are the generational sagas, in which, as if by magic, the third generation emerges as the fulfillment of their forebears' dream. Citing examples that range from the writings of Cotton Mather to Liquid Sky (a "post-punk" science fiction film directed by a Russian emigre), Sollors shows how the creators of American culture have generally been attracted to what is most new and modern. A provocative and original look at "ethnicity" in American literature BLCovers stories from all periods of our nation's history BLRelates ethnic literature to the principle of literary modernism BL"Grave and hilarious, tender and merciless...The book performs a public service."-Quentin Anderson


Picture to yourself . . . a society which comprises all the nations of the world--English, French, German: people differing from one another in language, in beliefs, in opinions; in a word a society possessing no roots, no memories, no prejudices, no routine, no common ideas, no national character, yet with a happiness a hundred times greater than our own. . . . What is the connecting link between these so different elements? How are they welded into one people?

--Alexis de Tocqueville

[B]eing an American is not something to be inherited so much as something to be achieved.

--Perry Miller

In an early essay of the genre, What is American about America? the Boston Brahmin and Harvard English professor Barrett Wendell tried to explore the nature of the "national character of America." One of the central texts he chose (after arguing that the first Puritan settlers were already "American") was an excerpt from a reply, probably written by John Cotton, to an inquiry by Lord Say, Lord Brooke, and "other Persons of quality." the English noblemen had asked, according to Wendell, "whether, in case they should emigrate to New England with their families, their descendants could be assured of the sort of distinction which persons of quality would enjoy in the mother country" (Liberty 28). Here is the official reply, which Wendell considered "characteristically American":

Hereditary honors both nature and scripture doth acknowledge (Eccles. . . . [10: 17]) but hereditary authority and power standeth only by the civil laws of some commonwealths, and yet, even amongst them, the authority and power of the father is no where communicated, together with his honors, unto all his posterity. Where God blesseth any branch of any noble or generous family, with a spirit and gifts fit for government, it would be a taking of God's name in vain to put such a talent under a bushel, and a sin against the honor of magistracy to neglect such in our public elections. But if God . . .

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