How Does Being an American Inform What I Write?
by Richard Ford
To break this logic I have to dream up an answer, not find one that's already there. This is generally the novelist's assignment: to go beyond the obvious toward the new, create a fresh awareness, add to the sum of available reality, crack open the frozen sea within us -- however you imagine the new to be achieved.
Two preliminary matters need disposing of right away, both pertaining to matters un-American. In reply to the question posed by the title How does being an American inform what I write?
I don't remember when I first realized I was an American. Pledging allegiance to the flag at age six. Registering for the Selective Service at eighteen. Joining the Marines at twenty. I'm certain, though, that long before any of these happened I was made quite aware that I was first, a Mississippian -- a Jacksonian in fact -- a southerner, a son of parents who were not themselves Mississippians, but Arkansans, and so slightly different from me. All these unique local identities, of course, presume me to be an American, since the Republic, the country and principles it embodies contain all the others. Thus, anything about me and my productions that I might attribute to being a southerner, etc., can also be attributable -- by radiating logic -- to being an American.
But when I was growing up in Mississippi, in the 1940s and '50s, the mood pertaining to the South's allegiance to the larger American nation was noticeably equivocal. The Depression and World War II were not long past. A cousin I knew was at Pearl Harbor (my family talked about it at dinner). The Korean War was under way. Communism was perceived as a threat to what most southerners felt was our national security, if not in fact our entire identity. My parents voted. Roosevelt and Truman were our Presidents. I pledged allegiance. America was ours, and we belonged to it -- at least for the purposes of preserving and defending it.
And yet, where other, important socio-political issues were concerned -- particularly race, voting rights, equal opportunity, free access to the American bounty, and that quaintly-American constitutional cornerstone called Federalism, known regionally as "states' rights" -- one felt that many in the South might've preferred to be attached to another mother country entirely: South Africa or Paraguay for many whites; France or Sweden if one were black. From any side of these life-bending issues, being an American, believing in the nation's expressed goals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, became tumultuous, disharmonious, debatable and occasionally dangerous to one's health.
Self-consciously acknowledging one's national identity and speaking it to oneself is, obviously, only one manifestation of having an identity. Indeed, much about our identity we Americans traditionally prefer to take for granted, in order to concentrate more intensely on the fruits of belonging. It's an implicit aim of our republican form of government that citizens not be so preoccupied with the mechanics and philosophy of citizenship, but rather that we concern ourselves with acting -- even if blithely -- as citizens. National identity is, thus, a means to the end of individual freedom, not an end to itself.
But for me, in Mississippi, in the South, in my formative years between 1950 and 1962, being an American and assuming my national identity, meant being pre-occupyingly (not at all blithely) immersed in an impassioned, publicly argued, and quite grave welter of sentiments and competing ideas about American citizenship. The heart of this debate was: How do I reconcile belonging in this country of my birth when this country seems bent on oppressing what I believe are my most fundamental and necessarily unalienable individual rights? To white segregationists, this supposed right was the one that entitled them to segregate those different from themselves away from themselves; whereas to blacks and integrationist whites the opposing right was the one that freed them to move wherever and associate however they pleased without fear of harm when they did so. In this commotion and in the disputation surrounding it -- a long disputation called the American Civil Rights Movement -- many people lost their lives in order that justice and right should prevail, which it did, if not perfectly.
I've never felt comfortable judging any attitude, persona, behavior, character quality, experience or belief to be "typically American." When I'm in another country and someone who reads my books asks me if a story I've written is typically American, I demur. And then I say: Think of flying over an American suburb in a helicopter, and seeing a man in a pork-pie hat out mowing his lawn. Surely, this would be the typical American. Who is he? (We might think we know.) But, when we come for a closer look, gently lift the hat off the man's head, we discover he's a Pakistani, an immigrant, or a third- generation Ghanian or Chinese-American. And the route that has brought him to his lawn, in this town, on this day dispels most notions of typicality and exposes its tendency to blur or exclude specific qualities that don't fit. Generality is in this way proved unreliable by specificity -- which is the point most great literature seeks to prove: We can see most clearly by looking most closely -- and we should.
Whether my experience growing up in Mississippi in the '50s could be said to be any more typically American than the Pakistani immigrant's experience is, of course, moot. I am, as he is, an American. Our experience is the American experience or part of it: tumult (in my case), a complicated and ambivalent experience of citizenry, national identity and divisive regionalism, all incompletely reconciled by a large political idealism which comprehends much while it attempts to oppress and coerce as few as possible. (Maybe I should agree that the immigrant and I have more in common than I imagined.)
And so, how does my experience inform the books I've written?
Better, probably, to say how might it have informed what I've written, since tracing literary expression from one side of the human imagination to the other, from the side where it's nothing but randomness and sensation, across to the side where it becomes something (a story), is speculative, often specious. Indeed, my own inadequate ability to distinguish my intentions from my actual accomplishments, my willingness to inflect what I've already written to "prove" an influence, and my entire authorial understanding of what I've written as distinct from a reader's understanding -- all these make me not the most disinterested or discerning of self-critics.
Therefore I feel safe saying only a very few things.
The Czech novelist Milan Kundera, in a letter to his American colleague Philip Roth, wrote that "the novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question.... In a [totalitarian] world built on sacrosanct certainties, the novel is dead." And so, consonant with my American experience (not at all totalitarian, but contested, complex, ambiguous, diverse, often disharmonious to the point of profound unsettlement), I have always tried to write stories and novels that testify to the nature of human kind as it is displayed by the purifying heat of adversity and disharmony and interrogation -- lovers seeking but failing to find intimacy, mutual understanding, sympathy, consolation; fathers and sons, sons and mothers viewing one another longingly but imperfectly across gaps of misunderstanding, struggling with inexact expressions of affection, trying to meet the other face to face in order to say what needs to be said. These were the circumstances -- tumultuous, rivalrous, thorny, proprietary -- under which I came to recognize what it meant to be an American: civil rights' struggles and Viet Nam, each of which divided families; the McCarthy purges, which divided the nation; the aftermath of the Depression, followed by world war and the prosperity of the Fifties.
As a second matter, I have -- and apropos of my native experience -- acted on the need and freedom to write about and adopt diverse personas, ones that aren't my own (women, other races, other nationalities, children) in an effort to answer the fundamental American question specifically posed by my citizenship: How are we so different, yet so alike? I've written stories so as to make such ambiguity tolerable, interesting, even pleasant and beautiful.
I have also engaged politics small, in the intimate, ground-level lives of its human participants. It was surely at that level, locked away in a small family, in a small American city, far from the centers of power and public rhetoric, that I first saw right and wrong enacted. Though, indeed, at some moment I couldn't have planned for, I left the South as a subject-home, following only my curiosity, and assuming that my local intelligence would translate to a larger American audience, and tried to take the entire country as my setting, and more hopefully as a subject.
And finally -- and in this I don't have to speculate about what informs what -- as a writer I've always trusted America to be a setting within which universally human events and actions and their motives and moral consequences can be portrayed and understood as important from any vantage point on the planet. American human experience, while not a model for the rest of the world, has seemed at least a plausible experience, and worthy of notice.
Ascribing one's influences is always heady, squeamishly self-important business. And I come to this end now bemused, thinking yes, had these influences not worked on me all these years, nothing of me or mine would be the same. Though, of course, nothing of me would be at all. You can't remove a crucial term from the equation and have the same equation. Popeye can't be a jet pilot or a bond salesman and be the Popeye we love.
Today there's a writer in Chechnya writing about the influence of, well...Chechnya on his body of work. And he's writing the same sort of things I've written, or better things. Good, I say. For if all these years of being an American have only readied me to realize my likeness, my kinship, my collegiality with someone I'll never know, made me able to live literature's most precious wisdom -- then being an American, and a writer no less, has served me very well indeed.