The Compulsory Power of American Dreams
by Sven Birkerts
Some background: I was born in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1951 to Latvian parents, both recently immigrated from displaced-persons areas in Germany where they had found themselves at the end of the war. Both sides of the family claimed artistic pedigree. My mother's father was a landscape painter trained at the Moscow Academy, while my father's parents were both literary intellectuals -- his mother a folklorist, philologist, and teacher, and his father the author of many books of psychology, sociology, and folklore studies.
While Latvian culture -- and the Latvian language in particular -- were sacrosanct in our household, my parents themselves were not, unlike many of their fellow Latvian-Americans, cultural preservationists. Rather, they saw themselves as riding the wave of emancipated modernism and were keenly attuned to the contemporary. My father, a highly ambitious young architect, worked at Eero Saarinen's legendary firm in Bloomfield Hills, sitting elbow to elbow with young designers like Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi, Cesar Pelli, and Charles Eames. Here was the gospel of the new, of an international language of form, even as, in my father's case, it was cut across with, if not at some level contradicted by, a deep rootedness in the powerful folk culture of the homeland.
Myself, I knew no division of loyalties-not consciously, anyway. My ruling obsession through all the years of my growing up was to shed every trace of foreignness -- otherness -- and to become a full-fledged American. And in this I suffered deeply and decisively. I knew so clearly what I wanted. I wanted to be cut to the pattern of the kids around me, in the neighborhood, at school. I wanted to be an easy athletic guy named Bob or Mark, or nicknamed "Chip," with a normal crewcut (I was cursed with thick curly hair) and acceptably normal-acting parents; I wanted the shine of a new Ford (my parents bought foreign cars), and an oiled mitt for playing catch in the yard with my Dad (who after all these years -- he is in his late 70s -- has never to my knowledge had a hand inside a baseball glove).
It was not a tall order, as dreams go, but I might just as well have asked to be a Ninja warrior or a gaucho from the Argentine pampas. For whatever things may have looked like from the outside, from my tyrannical perspective we could not even begin to fit in. We were strangers from a strange land. My father's name, not Jack or Ted, was Gunnar, my mother's, Sylvia. I was, God help me, Sven, though I contested the roll call every year on the first day of school and announced that I was Peter -- "Pete" -- which was my middle name. I could do nothing about the fact that we spoke Latvian at home, and that my parents had no qualms whatsoever about speaking the language when we were all together in public. I went through every family outing preemptively tensed against the inevitable eruption of the mother tongue. As for our house, it was all edges and glass inside, without a single concession to coziness. I kept my friends away.
As I ached with all my being for an American normalcy and blazed with ill-concealed shame at the slightest mark of our difference, I went through my days playing a role, imitating my fortunate friends, wearing one mask after another, simulating in my least mannerism, my every slangy turn of phrase, a belonging I never felt for a moment. "Hey Rick, are you guys gonna hang around here?" And: "Naw, I can't, my dad wants me to do some stuff around the house -- see ya." It was a complete charade, and it persisted, changing only its subtler inflections, well into my late teens, when the counterculture explosion suddenly made it permissible, even desirable, to be "weird" and "different."
From the first, then, my deepest sense of what it meant to be American was shaped by these fantasies of the unattainable other. There was nothing ecumenical, nothing remotely melting-pot, about any of it, no place for anything beyond stick-figure simplicity: the limber gods of the baseball diamond, their booster dads station-waggoning to games, their pert mothers hanging fresh-looking sheets on the line in the yard and filling shopping carts with hamburger buns and corn.
I was startled, years later, when I read Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (l969), to feel a deep jolt of recognition in Alex Portnoy's fantasies about the essence of goyishness, embodied here in his fantasies of the perfect shikse ice-skater:
"But who wants character? I want Thereal McCoy! In her blue parka and her red earmuffs and her big white mittens -- Miss America, on blades! With her mistletoe and her plum pudding (whatever that may be), and her one-family house with a banister and a staircase, and parents who are tranquil and patient and dignified, and also a brother Billy who knows how to take motors apart and says "Much obliged," and isn't afraid of anything…"
And:"I too want to be the boyfriend of Debbie Reynolds -- it's the Eddie Fisher in me coming out, that's all, the longing in all us swarthy Jewboys for those bland blond exotics called shikses…" In my case the energy of longing was identical -- it simply had as its target a whole imagined thing called Americanness. Though of course the imagined, the fantasied, is as real in its effects as any set of concrete circumstances.
What a drama of self-hatred -- Roth's ethnic, mine -- what, cultural? Where did it originate? For me it was less a matter of overtly despising my origins -- though for many years I believed this to be the case -- than it was of somehow believing, "buying," the rightness of the images beamed at me from all directions -- from billboards and magazine ads, from our newly acquired black-and-white TV set with its streaming constant revelation of effortless American perfection, what we now all recognize as the kitsch of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, My Three Sons, and the like. Through my daily jarring collisions with what I was not, I built my picture of authentic exalted Americanness.
This desire to assimilate could not have served for much in my literary formation, as a writer, except insofar as it deepened my self-evolved intuition of difference, of being somehow deeply alien, of not truly possessing those "inalienable" rights advertised in the Constitution. And certainly this latter awareness became the seedbed of various writerly longings. But the sense of difference, especially when one is young, does not exult in itself. It looks for connections, corroborations, anything that will cut against the feeling of being separate. And when that is not immediately available in the surrounding world, one searches by proxy. I found what I needed in books -- almost right from the start. First via escapism and fantasy projection -- living vicariously the perfectly American lives of the Hardy brothers, Frank and Joe, or the various athletes and heroes who bulked up so convincingly in the boys' books I devoured.
But these immersions were as nothing compared with what happened in my early teens when the first reversal happened. My reading shifted, became literary. Through The Catcher in the Rye, then A Separate Peace, and Thomas Wolfe's Eugene Gant novels, I encountered the voice of alienated adolescence. Now the plots quite literally thickened, and I experienced a major, route-altering swerve in my orientation to things. Hearing the voice of Holden Caulfield was like coming home. I understood that I was not alone in my view of the world. The universe of print was suddenly alive with possibility. Reading, and by extension writing, became a mission of rescue.
My feelings of disaffection and difference connected directly with the expressed outsiderness of my new literary heroes, and when this combined with the tectonic shifts in American cultural life -- the bourgeoning of rock & roll, of hippiedom, of protest, of everything that would get brewed together as the counterculture of the late l960s -- a very different take on what had been my American "ideal" resulted. Now, indulging my frustration, my accumulated rage at the years of perceived exclusion, I inverted everything. The square-jawed, right-thinking American, my former ideal, was abruptly recast in my mind as the embodiment of the "hawk" mentality -- he (my heroes had all been male) became the target of my most withering scorn. I mocked the very figures I had so fervently admired before. At the same time, I struggled to make a place for all of those I had formerly ignored -- the minorities, the poor, all of those apostrophized by Allen Ginsberg in "Howl," my revisionist American Bible. I was drawn to LeRoi Jones' Blues People and Franz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth -- if only for the suggestion of the titles.
How has being American affected my thinking, my work as a writer? Better, maybe, to ask how being Latvian has affected my sense of what it means to be American. By young manhood, after the long frenzied interlude of the '60s, the most powerfully formative years behind me, I believed I had left that ancient vexation behind. I would even say I had stopped thinking in those terms, didn't question my Latvianness or Americanness. I had no room for the big generalities. I was too busy with the high-resolution immediacies of finding work, finding love, and trying to find a way to become a writer. The collapse of the counterculture and the prolonged sense of public ennui that followed had everyone tending their own gardens -- so it seemed.
But of course the issues, the questions never went away. I simply stopped seeing them. When they resurfaced, it was covertly, and it would be years before I realized what was happening.
The change, the awakening, came when I was in my late 20s. I was living in Cambridge, barely supporting myself working as a bookstore clerk, profoundly depressed by the collapse of a long relationship, and utterly stalled in my efforts to write fiction. If there was any light, any sanity, in my life, it was reading. Always a reader, I went at it with a genuine fervor during this period. Days, weeks, months marched by outside the window while I sat in a cheap sling chair in my little room in the apartment I shared with a young would-be poet, smoking cigarettes and reading novels. More specifically, I read foreign novels, novels in translation, European novels. I read Knut Hamsun and Thomas Mann and Max Frisch and Heinrich Böll and a dozen others, the more obscure the better. I found myself powerfully drawn to the settings of these novels, the moods, to everything that made them different from the domestic fiction I had been reading for years. I had no sense, though -- none that I recall -- of being drawn toward anything that felt like my own culture of origin. I just read and steered my daydreaming self through these strangely kindred atmospheres.
Then I had my breakthrough. In the course of my peregrinations, I fell into the extraordinary world of Robert Musil's great epic of pre-war Viennese life, The Man Without Qualities. And now, along with the more familiar sensations of psychological kinship came something new. Reading began to tip me back toward writing. Only now it was not fiction that compelled me, but reflection. I experienced a deep compulsion to get closer, to annex my various feelings and reactions by writing about them.
I labored for long weeks over an essay on Robert Musil and his unfinished masterpiece. I read everything that had been translated; I read books about the culture of Vienna in the early decades of the century. I projected myself at that world with great intensity, imagining the narrow streets, the public gardens, the cafes, the ritualized social lives of the Viennese bourgeoise. I seemed to see it all so clearly, the rituals and tonalities of that old world. The only thing I didn't see was the obvious, and this did not come to me until, decades later, I was in the last stages of writing my memoir.
I mean: In living for so long inside this vividly imagined world, I was, in essence, connecting with the story-world I had grown up with. Musil's Vienna -- the times, the culture, the brooding baroque mise en scene -- was in many ways a filter for Riga, for the lives of my grandparents and, to a lesser degree, my parents in the childhoods I had dreamed for them. The images I drew upon were the images I had, in spite of myself, stored from the earliest days of my childhood. There was, I realized, a continuum, a direct flow of energy between everything I had absorbed of family lore, the photographs and postcards I had pondered (never mind my insistent desire to assimilate as a regular American boy), and the settings and atmospheres that held me in thrall in Musil's novel. That Europe was deeply familiar to me; it was an intimate saturation that compelled me in every way.
The writing of that first essay led to others, many if not most of them on European subjects, and one day -- ever slow about these recognitions -- I saw that I had staked out a particular literary terrain: I was the critic who would broker between American literary culture and the great richness of literature in translation, mainly European. My first book was An Artificial Wilderness: Essays on Twentieth Century Literature, followed, two years later, by The Electric Life: Essays on Modern Poetry. It was not until my third collection, American Energies: Essays on Fiction, that I was ready to take on the writers of my own culture.
I linger thus over my literary resume because it makes what suddenly seems like an obvious point, though one that I was oblivious to for years: that the whole path of my life -- writing life included -- has been profoundly conditioned, first by the determined rejection, and then the veiled acceptance of my culture of origins, and that this dynamic has been conditioned at the deepest root level by a very powerful, if distorted, sense of what it means to be American.
I am talking here about the primitive, almost pre-logical compulsion I felt as a son of recent immigrants to merge myself with the world I saw around me, a world which, owing to accidents (or fates) of place and time, took on an absolute aspect. Interestingly, though, it was not just my chimera. This America I sought mapped almost perfectly to the stereotype that is to this day prominent, if not dominant, in the global image culture: the prosperous, athletic, decent, white all-American. In buying the American Dream, which I did with such zealous intensity, I was really buying a fantasy spun for me by Madison Avenue.
It took the '60s to jolt me from those complacencies. Then, driven by the contrarian emancipatory energies of the counterculture and the encounters of experience, as well as by the recognitions of an ever-widening grasp of domestic and global reality -- I set myself against the tyranny of that stereotype. I fought to reject these most deeply planted residues, and flattered myself -- don't we all? -- that I had succeeded. And indeed, I like to think that whatever I now comprehend as American has everything to do with notions of ethnicity and diversity (obligatory buzz-phrase though it is), and that transformed awareness exerts pressure on my thinking and writing at every turn. But, truth be told, it is not formative in the same way; it is laid on top of the other, the visceral. I might wish this otherwise. A different core awareness, a less obsessive investment in these fantasies of WASP normalcy might have made my passage easier, less painful. Alas, intriguing as these surmises can be, they lead us exactly nowhere. We are shaped by what we dream, and there we have no control.