The Contents of Our Character

By Lindsey, Brink; Ferguson, Andrew et al. | Reason, December 1995 | Go to article overview

The Contents of Our Character


Lindsey, Brink, Ferguson, Andrew, Fine, Gary Alan, Epstein, Joseph, Freund, Charles Paul, Hayward, Steven, Hood, John, Klein, Marcus, Linda, Chavez, Allen, William Barclay, Rahe, Paul, Postrel, Virginia, Rauch, Jonathan, Reason


Current debates over immigration pivot on the notion of the distinctly American character and culture: Can anyone, from anywhere, learn how to be an American? REASON asked a number of writers and scholars to recommend three books, with a couple of restrictions: one had to be a work of fiction, and one had to have been written in the past 50 years. We were seeking the books that would be most instructive to a new immigrant on those vexing questions: What is the American character? What defines American culture?

* Brink Lindsey

What has always been best and most distinctive about the American character is its sense of adventure. The immigrant knows this: That is what brought him here. Willingness (even eagerness) to take risks, to depart from old ways of doing things, to try the unknown - these represent the ideal of American dating.

This adventurous spirit achieved its best-known expression in the conquest of the Western frontier. An appreciation of this episode must transcend caricatures, whether of today's P.C. demonizers or yesteryear's whitewashers. A good place to begin is Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove (1985), the story of two former Texas Rangers who lead a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. It is a beautiful, funny, and immensely entertaining book, and it captures perfectly the reckless, rambunctious vitality that led the Western expansion. In particular, the richly realized character of Augustus McCrae is my idea of what a great American should be: lighthearted, good at his work, sociable but independent, practical but a dreamer.

The primary outlet for American adventurousness today is the workplace. Snobs of both the left and right deny that commerce allows for any largeness of spirit, but they could not be more wrong. Daring and competitive striving were traditionally aristocratic virtues; capitalism democratized them, and capitalism's development spreads the opportunities to practice them ever more widely.

An adventure does not require gun-fire or death-defiance; it needs only a formidable challenge, and the boldness to take it on and meet it. Richard Preston's American Steel: Hot Metal Men and the Resurrection of the Rust Belt (1991) tells the adventure of a steel mill - specifically, Nucor's opening of the first flat-rolled minimill. The drama of the story grips like a novel. Read this book to experience capitalism at its best.

Americans are the great pioneers and defenders of a social order based on capitalist-style adventure. And the growth of this order - the integration of millions of dreams and risks taken through the coordinating forces of the market - may itself be seen in the larger view as a grand collective adventure. The prize of this quest is described in Max Singer's remarkable Passage to a Human World (1987): the transformation of the normal human life from one mired in ignorance and poverty to one broadened by the possibilities of affluence.

In creating this new world, we are exploring the unknown - human beings have never lived like this before. It is a world well suited to American adventurousness.

* Andrew Ferguson

It's a sad fact that most great works of American literature are anti-bourgeois, anti-small town, hence, in some way, anti-American. A newly arrived immigrant unlucky enough to read, say, Sister Carrie or Main Street or Winesburg, Ohio, would take away an unmistakable message: "Go back!"

This doesn't make our great works of literature any less great, though, so choosing from them almost at random I would hand our new immigrant a copy, well-thumbed, of Spoon River Anthology (1915). This is Edgar Lee Masters's collection of poems about a small valley in Western Illinois, pre-World War I. Taking names from the headstones of a local cemetery, Masters wrote a poem for each townsman, and as you read along the tales interweave and overlap and fold back upon one another, exposing the inevitable small-town lies and hypocrisies but also - and this is crucial instances of grace and nobility and redemption. …

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