In these very odd and curious political times, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about patriotism and its relationship to writers.
Some critics see literature as an art for its own sake, simply an aesthetic object. Karl Marx viewed it as a tool of the dominant class, who use it to brainwash the proletariat into voting against their own interests. Simone de Beauvoir thought literature expressed the history of patriarchy, and men had used it to define women as secondary and inferior. James Baldwin felt that the protest novel was catharsis: by reading about awful things and feeling indignant about them, we could absolve ourselves from actually doing anything.
A majority of the time I agree with all of these authors because the nature of literature is hard to pin down. However, I cannot completely agree with the view that literature can cloister itself away from its time period, culture, and society.
Do I think that literature can transcend these things? Without a doubt. However, I don’t agree that literature can exist for its own sake, exist solely as a thing to be viewed, read, studied, admired, and critiqued. This is because I do not think literary progenitors, authors, can exist for their own sakes.
To put it another way, I don’t think writers can fully exorcize from themselves the ghost of place, the specter of patriotism that loves, adores, and admires its surroundings.
Unfortunately, we’ve been somewhat conditioned to see patriotism as bombastic spectacle, unabashed, unwavering, and untethered love for one’s country. We recognize patriotism as the thing that posts vitriol on social media, burns a football jersey, airbrushes national flags on white tee shirts, screams in the face of protesters, and sees scapegoats in different faces.
But patriotism has always linked us to the environment, the place around us. Patriotism is love of country and specifically love of one’s home. I haven’t lived in my hometown for over ten years, but I still remember walking along the streets to the bodega to get quarter water and blow pops. Old friends and I reminisce about the cold nights we spent at marching band festivals trying to make our families and teachers proud.
Even though I don’t live in that place anymore, my formative years still do, and so no matter where I am, I will never exist a part from that town. The same goes for other writers as well. Whether we lived in a small town on Long Island or near the shores of the Potomac, we love places, and we feel pride and ownership over them.
It’s for these reasons that I think, without meaning to be so, writers are the most patriotic.
They are the ones who remember the hills in Pennsylvania and how the sun looked as it settled to bed behind them. Writers recall the pressure of snow under their feet during the winter of 1996 and the crystal wind that whipped their scarves across their faces.
Willa Cather is the one who remembers what the Great Plains were like in the 1800s. Mark Twain recalls the muddy Mississippi River. Zora Neale Hurston knows the humidity of Florida. Jessie Redmon Fauset recollects the pulse of Harlem and New York City.
These writers and others that came after them were patriotic; they knew places and loved them.
They sought to immortalize those environments in literature and to ensure that they would continue to exist no matter how the tides of politics moved.
This is not to say that our writing becomes wholly political just because we live in a specific place during a specific time period, but our relationship to our place of birth or the place we call “home” cannot be completely severed.
We love places. We love the spaces we exist in. We can’t get rid of the specter of patriotism, our pride in having lived or been raised in a certain environment. It could be that this is partially due to our own desire to stay alive, in the present tense.
Though my hometown, as I knew it, is now so small it can only fit inside a few choice memories, a few romanticized vignettes, I still find aspects of it in my own fiction. No, my writing is not autobiographical, but it I find that it absorbs the accent, pitch, tenor, and personality of my hometown.
Writing about places, being patriotic, keeps the time and place that created us alive. The ghost of place doesn’t fade into obscurity or become a relic of a deceased age. In writing, place is present, still living, even if the ones that lived there have moved on.
Any honest PhD candidate will tell you that our work can be isolating. Even though a great deal of our work involves interaction (teaching, office hours, comparing notes with colleagues, attending lectures, and sometimes venting with other students about how we never have enough time), the majority of our work requires great stretches of time spent alone.
I’ve always loved the etymology of kindness, which comes from kin—those to whom we are bound by choice or genealogy. And yet I often find kindness is most difficult to practice with my family—those who have witnessed just how unkind I can be.
Last summer, the book project I was in the midst of was mapped out on a drafting table in my writing space: sheets of paper with lists and quotes, photographs and maps, excerpts from 19th century books on gold mining.
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