Arguing with George William Curtis

I’d never heard of George William Curtis before this past Saturday. A quote of his popped up on my friend’s facebook wall, in what I assume to be a strange way of pepping himself up for the US/Ghana World Cup match. Apparently, Curtis – a contemporary of Emerson’s who shared his transcendentalist beliefs and New England roots – once wrote, “A man’s country is not a certain area of land, of mountains, rivers, and woods, but it is a principle; and patriotism is loyalty to that principle.” It strikes me that this quote goes a long way in explaining how America sees itself – and by extension how we see physical things like bodies and land.

Central to American identity are the abstract values – to reference Foucault again – of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Unlike most other nations, which are defined by the “land, mountains, rivers and woods” that Curtis dismisses so glibly, Americans have always tended to identify ourselves with “principles,” as Curtis terms them. Historically, of course, it makes sense. We couldn’t really identify with the land in the way Europeans did because then we might have to face the ugly reality that we stole all of it, which doesn’t do much for our self-image as benevolent, freedom-loving individuals. Besides, it’s hard to cobble together an identity based on physical features when your population consists of immigrants from all over the world. We couldn’t identify as explicitly with our land because of our unique historical context. So in the end, Americans had no choice but to rely on abstract values as their chief identifiers – it’s all that was left to us.

But is it possible that in this use of the abstract as primary identifier we have the seeds for both the raping of the land and the devaluing of our bodies? Within this view of the world, who you really are is something abstract. The importance of the physical is merely incidental, like the box that a gift comes in. The box may be necessary, but it’s importance is derived completely from what lies within. Further, is it possible that abstraction as identity leads to a completely arbitrary, impermanent, and malleable sense of the self? Consider the radical shifts in American culture in the past 100 years – isn’t that just a natural consequence of defining yourself with something intangible? Just look at the word “freedom” and how it’s used by different groups. It’s no surprise that America is polarized and politically dissonant, what else can you expect when everyone is free to define the source of our identity?

To put it most starkly, perhaps our current land crisis (and all it entails – the destruction of food culture, of ecosystems, the bland generalized cultures that result from a lack of commitment to a particular land) and our body crisis (and all it entails – a devaluing of sexuality seen in various forms of the sex trade, the marginalization of the family as creator and incubator of culture, the depression and eating disorders resulting from body image concerns) are simply the natural consequence of America’s abstraction-as-identity philosophy?

I’ll turn it over to the Mere O readers here, what do y’all think? How has America’s tendency to view itself based more on principle than on land shaped the way we view our land? And what about our bodies? Is our view of the body shaped by this same tendency?

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  • Micah

    Jake,

    I believe you are correct. Though it is difficult to demarcate and define the boundaries of national self-conception against geography, and each nation has some of both, America does favor abstraction. But let us start on the side of principles.

    Every nation needs principles of a sort, that is, a shared body of beliefs regarding how citizens should relate to each other, and how the nation should relate to other nations. A fine thing, and as I said, necessary. However, the matter at hand, if I understand you correctly, is that the US has never identified physically with its land, or has done so poorly. The benefit to a nation by this physical identification would appear to be a safeguard against the various idealisms that accompany overabstracted nationalistic thought. If thus conceived, the US is certainly not the only nation that has fallen prey to ungrounded (literally) theories. The danger of any political theory or system is its absolutist claims. And the more the claims of government are embedded with notions of inalienable and universal rights, the more authority such a government claims for itself universally. What balances these universal claims but physical boundaries? Physical boundaries can, if properly attended, remind the state that it is only one state among many, and so cannot prescribe the rules and reigns of other nations. But if physical limits are unimportant, then our concepts run rampant through the heady realm of ideologies, trying to crush all those quaint and (in our thinking) utterly wrong notions. After all, we want whats best for them: precisely our system.

    How the body fits into this scheme is more complicated. A democracy with partially free market economics and an (un)healthy advertising industry is a cacophonous space to learn a proper perspective of the body, in general or with respect to gender. The vast realm of societal influence available in the internet, which is in turn influenced by chaotic and vacillating social trends, offers a very shifty ground upon which to stand.

    But…I wonder whether the proper resolution is to be found in rejecting overabstraction with respect to the body. Or, that is to say, I would very much like to hear what a positive system of thought with respect to the body would be without abstraction. My intuition here is that the problem in our thought is that we do not begin with the right principles and so create a net of misleading beliefs. If that is so, then it seems the solution would be starting properly. But I do not wish to be overhasty. Can you clarify an alternative program to identity-as-abstraction?

    Thanks for your thoughts, as always.

  • William E. Woodward

    Although the United States has faced recent attack on its own soil — from foreigners like Osama bin Laden and Mohamed Atta, and citizens like Timothy McVeigh and Nidal Hasan — the nation continues to fight its wars in other lands, and perceives few risks to its existing borders. National Security Strategies, published by the White House on average every other year, reflect a Curtisinian perspective, spending many more words on values like freedom and democracy than on territory.

    The August 1991 National Security Strategy of George H.W. Bush comes the closest to articulating the Curtis view of American interests: Our top interest and objective in the 1990s was to be “the survival of the United States as a free and independent nation, with its fundamental values intact and its institutions and people secure.” Territorial integrity is implied, but not stated or emphasized.

    Vital national security interests, according to Bill Clinton’s December 2000 “National Security Strategy for a Global Age” include “the physical security of our territory and…the safety of our citizens both at home and abroad.” That seventh and final National Security Strategy issued by the Clinton Administration was the last to put territory at the top of America’s security priorities. For all the talk over the past decade about the distinctiveness of a “post-9/11 world”, that 2000 document went to some length to describe “protecting the homeland”.

    The two George W. Bush strategies, published in September 2002 and March 2006, only use the word “territory” in a 2002 paragraph about Colombia(!), but the documents repeatedly reference “homeland security” and “homeland defense”, and trumpet the bureaucratic restructuring that created a Department of Homeland Security. Still, the emphasis is on “human dignity” and “open societies” and the “infrastructure of democracy”.

    The Obama National Security Strategy, published in May 2010, goes even farther in downplaying geography. The top of the list of enduring American interests is “the security of the United States, its citizens, and U.S. allies and partners”. Perhaps “territorial integrity” is implied, but the absence of the phrase is a little striking. Whether intended or not, the sentence subtlety suggests that the United States is more than a set of borders. Interestingly, the only place “territorial integrity” appears in the 2010 Strategy is a commitment to the “territorial integrity of Russia’s neighbors”.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

    I’d say that Emerson (and Curtis) are not the only people to look to in understanding the importance of land in the development of the American sense of identity and think that we have been shaped by the land (and have an identity closely tied to the land) more than folks like Emerson or Curtis would allow. For alternative views, read through John Pendleton Kennedy’s “Swallow Barn” or Robert Beverly’s “A History of the Present State of Virginia” for two Southern views of the land and its centrality to American identity. You could also look at the use of the land in paintings made by the Hudson River School, most notably Albert Bierstadt’s grandiose works, or the paintings by Andrew Wyeth (for something more contemporary). For some Northern views that relate the American identity to the land in which they live, pick up Charles Brockden Brown’s “Edgar Huntly, or the Memoirs of a Sleepwalker” or even Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and the interesting preface to it, “The Custom House.”

    Maybe the question is, “How Transcendentalist is America in its outlook?”

    • http://notesfromasmallplace.wordpress.com Jake Meador

      Tex – I like that final question and need to think about it a bit more. It sounds like you’ve read more on the issue than I have though, so how would you answer it?

      • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

        JAKE: Thanks for throwing the question back in my lap. I’m trying to figure it out myself as I finish up a course on American History Through Literature.

        From the sampling of books that I’ve read, I think that the Transcendentalists are only one voice in a very conversation and we can’t make too much of their claims when it comes to defining American identity, especially if their claims rule out the possibility of the land having a major impact (more major than the Transcendentalists had, anyway) on American identity. The frontier was a constant feature in American life until somewhere in the late 1800s or even early 1900s. You can’t really live next door to a big unknown in the shape of land and not respond to it in meaningful and identity-shaping ways.

        Of course, the land has had to yield to a variety of interpretations over the years and has been forced into the service of what Curtis might be referring to as “principles.” Although, I really think he had something other in mind than the relationship between human minds and the matter it encounters.

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Jake Meador

          Tex – It’s interesting you raise the issue of the frontier thesis, b/c I think that actually strengthens my claim that American identity tends to weigh more on abstract principles than material bodies and land.

          If the frontier thesis was that we were concerned with the land in the same way as writers like Berry, Cather, or (I’ll throw him in there just in case) Thoreau, then I think it would’ve died a long time ago once we ran out of land to see as “frontier.” But that’s not what has happened. The “frontier” was never about land qua land, but land as an idea – land as the gateway to freedom, the expression and enactment of the American dream. That’s why we still used frontier language in the space race of the 1950s and 60s and why we still use it today in discussing technology. (As a student of African history, I’m starting to develop an interest in connecting American interests in Africa w/ the Frontier thesis. If my guess is correct – that the frontier is more about “civilizing” or “redeeming” an undeveloped or previously unexplored realm, how do America’s philanthropic efforts in Africa fit into that picture?)

          • http://mereorthodoxy.com Tex

            JAKE: The point is not whether Americans (and all human beings) are motivated to act by principles: this is too obviously the case to be interesting, although it seems that you are left making this sort of point by pitting “principles” against “matter.”

            I originally took you to be suggesting that American identity was not influenced by the topography of the American continent so much as by the topography (metaphorically) of American philosophy and it is to this point that I continue to return. The frontier thesis included the idea of land as freedom or possibility, but that did not preclude the land from shaping the men and women who lived on it, nor did it preclude those men and women from loving that land, fiercely even, and identifying themselves with it.

            Through the Civil War era (at least!), Americans identified themselves with regions of the continent that were largely divided by the land and its use. North, South, and West all had distinct personalities that corresponded to the land. It is a huge simplification to reduce “country” to “principle” in a way that ignores the effect that land has on principle (and vice versa). Of course America is about freedom and democracy and opportunity, but it is about those things, to some great degree, because of the American land that sustained and maintained people who promulgated those principles.

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

    JAKE: I’ve never heard of George William Curtis either. It’s interesting to learn that he was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Unlike Curtis, their brand of American patriotism integrates both principle and land. For evidence, consider Emerson’s Nature and Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, The Maine Woods, and Cape Cod.

    I’m not a scholar of American literature, but I know enough to doubt your exaggerated claim that “we couldn’t identify as explicitly with our land because of our unique historical context.” Willa Cather’s prairie novels alone complicate the American relationship to the land, as I’ve been exploring in my blog posts. I also question whether “America’s abstraction-as-identify philosophy” is unique to our nation and not a hangover from the Old World.

    Lawrence Buell, Powell A. Cabot Professor of American Literature at Harvard University, would be worth consulting here because he’s a leading voice in ecocriticism with titles such as The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environment in the U. S. and Beyond, and The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Another valuable resource is The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm.

    • http://notesfromasmallplace.wordpress.com Jake Meador

      Christopher – Look closer at Cather. Yes, Alexandra relates to the land in a healthy, life-giving way. But she seems to the exception. Most around her relate to it as something they live on top of and that exists only to satisfy their desires for wealth, affluence, etc. Isn’t that one of the main reasons Alexandra is alone for most of the book? It’s precisely b/c her attitude to the land is so out of place in the United States that she has to fend for herself.

      I’d suggest that writers like Cather and Berry actually represent an atypical attitude toward the land amongst Americans. I wish there were more like them, but I don’t think many Americans see the land in the way they do. (I’m still trying to figure out how Thoreau – and American Transcendentalism, for that matter – fits into this picture.)

      Another point worth considering – Perhaps American identity grows more and more abstract with each wave of immigration? Stating the question more broadly, what is the effect of increased ethnic diversity on American identity?

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

    JAKE: Yes, I recognize that Alexandra Bergson represents an “an atypical attitude toward the land amongst Americans” but for that reason your exaggerated claim – ”We couldn’t identify as explicitly with our land because of our unique historical context” – needs to be complicated. Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination would help us explore this minority tradition further.

    Do I correctly sense that you’ve started reading O Pioneers? If so, I propose that you suspend your desire to mark on the narrative (like the pioneers) in order to be marked by the narrative (like the natives). The environmental criticism of O Pioneers! holds some interest, but its chief worth is the storytelling and aesthetic sensibility.

    Regarding your additional question – “what is the effect of increased ethnic diversity on American identity?” – I turn to Samuel Huntington’s last book, Who We Are: The Challenges to America’s National Identity. See the links below.

    WALL STREET JOURNAL
    Land of Hope and Glory
    William McGurn

    FOREIGN AFFAIRS
    Native Son: Samuel Huntington Defends the Homeland
    Alan Wolfe

    NATIONAL REVIEW
    Huntington’s Warning: Who Are We?
    Rich Lowry

    THE NEW YORKER
    Patriot Games: The New Nativism of Samuel Huntington
    Louis Menand

    Now it’s your turn to comment on the question I raise in my blog post from today. This is my pathetic attempt to get feedback ;-)

  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Jake Meador

    Tex – Sorry for the wonky placement on this comment, there’s something screwy happening below your last comment, so there’s no “reply” button.

    My primary point was that the American identity was shaped more by philosophy than geography. The question I’m curious about is how that shaped the way we view the land. But you’re right, framing it as “principles” vs. “matter” is unhelpful. What I’m really curious about is whether or not you could begin with a commitment to the land and build your principles from that. (Admittedly “commitment to the land” is a principle, but it’s a very basic one from which we’d construct more complex ones.) My argument is that Americans have begun with much more complex principles and viewed the land through that lens.

    EX: I think most Americans begin with the principle of the free market and then move on to looking at the land. Suddenly the land is being viewed primarily through, at the very least, a capitalist (and most likely a consumerist) lens. What I’d rather do is begin with “These are my people, this is my land. I belong to them and they to me.” And then develop an economic principle from that. It’ll still be largely free market, but it will be tinged with a concern to preserve and protect land and community, something that seems to be completely lacking in the consumerist approach that now pervades the American community. That is what I mean when I say we should begin with the land and development our principles from there.