The rubber band of our American common life is stretched to breaking. Our connections are tenuous, our politics polarizing, and our sense of civic housekeeping — where we provide for others for the common good — seems like a foreign language we studied in high school, but now retain a vocabulary of just a few words. When we find ourselves unable to speak across our divides, what can help us travel across?
Metaphors are ferries. The etymological roots of the word mean “to carry something over.” Think of it this way: on one shore a word or idea hops on and the ferry brings it across. On the other shore, the idea hops off and makes sense of itself in a new place where its shape might morph or shift. Metaphors are in the business of making the familiar strange again. They wake up our imaginations to travel new paths instead of the well-worn wheel ruts we often travel in our heads. They help us begin to see webs of relation.
The metaphors we use to talk about American identity are like overgrown ivy that we need to begin pulling off the brick of our common life, but they hold on tight. Once Americans had declared their independence from Great Britain, we quickly divided the world into two categories: us and them. We created stories where our heroes were frontiersmen pushing past boundaries of civilization and exploration, outsiders like Huck Finn who had to “light out for the territory,” and in the 20th century, astronauts and politicians who conquered frontiers. Our metaphors and stories of American identity are about the lone, intrepid male individual, defying the odds and conquering anyone or anything who gets in his way.
This language of exploration mutated and shifted into metaphors of war to define American identity. The language of war may be helpful when we are in actual wars, but when everything a person disagrees with is couched in war-like terms, we become fighters instead of problem-solvers. There have been culture wars, wars on poverty, a war on drugs and a war on terror. More recently, Trump called himself a war-time president, likening the COVID-19 pandemic to World War II. But things like poverty, incarceration, terrorism, and a health emergency aren’t things we can fight or quickly win. They are complex, systemic, and interconnected issues. When we use the language of war, we’re unlikely to pull back layers or ask leading questions. We don’t care about metaphors in wartime. War is a poor ferry. Its very nature is destructive. It can’t do what metaphors do best: by making the familiar strange again and the strange familiar, they open us up to new connections. Metaphors generate possibilities. War breaks those down.
There are better ferries if we are going to re-knit our common life.
Early National Stories
Nearly twenty years ago, I found myself in the National Library of Scotland reading about how much pork Scottish emigrants would bring with them on the journey to America. These guides to emigration were composed by successful emigrants, failed emigrants (who became self-styled ‘travelers’ or back-migrants) and sojourners in America. The emigrant is at the fulcrum of the pressures from both sides of the Atlantic: to either be a new convert to the land of plenty across the sea or to bemoan the lack of civilization amongst the Americans. These emigrant guides show us how one might create a personal and communal identity outside of local and national stability.
At a long table reading the books retrieved by a mechanism from underground vaults, I would sit hunched over eighteenth century guides to emigration, in which Scottish men detailed the merits of a particular place in which to settle, listed provisions to take and what time of the year to leave Scotland for America. Emigrant guides resist easy generic classification; a British reviewer called it “a vast mass of anecdotes, facts, declamations, pictures, quotations from noteworthy works…are thrown together by a sort of manual exertion…and then advertised for sale.” Many went through several editions and some were reviewed in prominent journals. Meant to be read by family and friends back home, and usually for a wider audience through publication, the guides walk the line between personal messages sent back home to pamphlets of propaganda.
But I wanted to know: when on the ocean journey did these emigrant writers begin to reckon with what it might mean to leave one’s homeland and go to another? When did they begin asking questions about what it might mean to be American? Would they, like the Puritans before them, have this sense in which traveling the Atlantic was like a baptism, an entrance into a new world? And, personally, what did these immigrants have to teach me about being in a place or being out of place? What, I wondered, are the threads that make up an identity, perhaps especially a national one?
Largely, they didn’t have an answer for these existential questions of identity — at least not outright. (They did, after all, focus on instructing would-be emigrants about clothing, food, and where to settle). But they did hold a curious generic position: one that complicated some of the seamless stories we use when we talk about the meaning of America. The Scottish emigrant writer couldn’t unequivocally progress from Scot to American with an Atlantic crossing. He (and it was largely a “he”) had to make his experience accessible to his countrymen on both sides of the Atlantic, dually positioning himself and serving as a sort of translator between national experiences.
As some of independent America’s first storytellers, eighteenth century emigrant writers create an imaginative world based on their real-world experience of America but one that tenuously bridges the gap. Emigrants are in the American world, but not yet of it. Yet, they are also more of America than their readers.
As these authors engage with other emigrant-authors and critique other guides within their own, increasing focus on the emigrant leads to a surfacing of fears about emigration itself. The promotional ends of the guides mean that literal fears of the ocean crossing and overland journey as well as larger fears about identity formation and finding a community, continue to resurface throughout the guide, even as the authors focus on practical concerns. National identity is a tenuous construction.
The Emigrant Ferry
The story Americans might tell of our nation’s beginning as a land of opportunity and a land of plenty was and has always been complicated by actual emigrant experience. Emigration (especially from Britain in the 18th century) while it may have often been one-way, was portrayed as a rite of passage, a “crossing over,” and frequently borrowed language around Christian conversion and baptism. But the on-the-ground emigrant experience (even as it was filtered through a promotional literary form), complicates such a seamless notion of national identity. Westward migration where social structures must be created and a desolate, untamed wilderness effectively cut off a European emigrant from his point of origin. Without long-standing relational networks, the emigrant is poised for transformation — and in early American literature (both in the guides and fiction), it isn’t always clear in which direction these characters will be transformed.
Likely the first text to grapple and imagine with what it means to be American in fictional form is J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer published in 1782. Crèvecoeur himself, like emigrant guide authors, straddles national and cultural borders. Letters was published not in the author’s native French, but in English and published not in America, but in England. The author was known by both English and French names, and “transformed from a French lieutenant during the French and Indian War, to a loyalist British subject and farmer in rural New York in the 1770s, to a British prisoner, and to a French trade consul to the United States in 1784.” While the book’s naively optimistic third letter, “What is an American?” is often anthologized, the book’s narration and genre shift and change throughout, so that by the end of the book, Farmer James finds himself adrift generically, politically, and existentially. This is no uncomplicated love song to American ideals, but a tonal and generically shifting wrestling with what it means to be an American.
In that optimistic third letter, the fictional Farmer James answers what is this new man of America: “He is an American, who. leaving behind him all his antient [sic] prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds…Here are individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men…” How does one become American? Using metaphors from the soil or from religious experience, Farmer James writes of emigrants as “transplanted” to America, they are “western pilgrims” “melted into a new race of men”. James notes how this “new man” is sprung from nothing and the ideal of the American farmer is born: “The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new options…he is rewarded by ample subsistence.”
The worrying aspects of what it costs to become “this new man” grow as the text progresses. Letters provides a generic model that holds in tension an Enlightenment model of progress and shows its shadow side of disintegration as it progresses from confident, first-person documentary forms to a slide into a pseudo-Gothic mode. In other words, the form of Letters evidences the precarious project of what it means to be American, especially in the early years of the Republic. Form as well as content shift. The crux is Letter 9 when Farmer James sees a slave in a cage in Charles-Town: “I shudder when I recollect that the birds had already picked out his eyes; his cheek bones were bare; his arms had been attacked in several places, and his body seemed covered with a multitude of wounds.” The horror continues: “The living spectre, though deprived of his eyes, could still distinctly hear.” James offers the dying man a drink of water and walks away, stunned, horrified, and listens to arguments about the “necessity” of this sort of punishment. The letter ends. In a further letter, he finds a bit of hope in a cosmopolitan scientific community, but ultimately, James is left to narrate an increasingly evil world — one where his framework for understanding one’s place in the world grows increasingly untenable.
The evils of slavery and the coming horrors of war weaken Farmer James’ narration and grip on what he’d thought America was. Losing confidence in the national project, in human goodness, and in God, in his final letter, “Distresses of a Frontier Man,” he writes: “Why has the Master of the world permitted so much indiscriminate evil throughout every part of the poor planet, at all times, and among all kinds of people?” He concludes by leaving civilized society, unable to choose a side in the coming American Revolution because it, too, is fraught with evils like slavery; more than that, all of society seems futile: “but life appears to be a mere accident, and of the worst kind: we are born to be victims of diseases and passions, of mischances and death: better not to be than to be miserable — Thus impiously I roam, I fly from one errant thought to another.” His narration breaks down, taking a gothic turn,
Letters from an American Farmer gives America “its first moral geography”: where a character’s location signals and effects his or her status and existential condition. Farmer James is the first protagonist to “light out for the territory” like Huck Finn, to move westward and to a frontier when perceived or real evil becomes too much. He will be followed by pioneers like the fictional Natty Bumpo, Gold Rush prospectors, immigrants, those searching for fame in sunny Hollywood, and for those for whom space becomes the “final frontier” in the 20th century. Letters, then, are “at once a celebration of America, and its tragedy;” the book is an origin story of what America is, could be, and the costs of becoming “this new man.”
What are the metaphors we’ll use to speak about America? Is America the “land of the free”? Farmer James reminds us that we have a choice in how we tell our national stories: we can choose the unfettered narrative of bucolic scenes, that America is a land of plenty available to all, and push the evils of slavery under the rug. We can elide the experience of those like past or present immigrants as not really “American,” unless they are melted into a new race of men. Or, we can choose to hold together both the blessings of a nation and its evils. As Christian people, we have resources at our disposal to hold these two in tension. We have the grace of repentance for our sins of omission and commission, even for the sins of structures and institutions that, though we may not have been personally responsible for, we have borne their effects. But is leaving the only way? While we may not have a physical landscape to run to in order to start anew, we do have ways to temporally begin again. We can take a clear look at the stories we tell ourselves about national identity, how even our own early American literature complicates and questions what it means to be American, and we can look for ways to repent. This is how we might begin again.
Imaginative work like emigrant guides and early American fiction remind us that the stories America has told about itself are never as uncomplicated as we sometimes believe them to be. It is intellectually and spiritually lazy of us to tell ourselves stories about the nation that elide its evils. The form and content of our earliest national stories show the challenges of becoming American, perhaps because America more than any other country, was built upon an idea. American Christians, like those in-between figures like emigrant writers and Farmer James, hold to multiple identities too, being in the world but not of it. For Christians, our ultimate allegiance isn’t to a nation or constitution, but to the King of Kings. While we endeavor to be faithful citizens, rooted in our places and serving in our local communities and churches, it is as we hold hybrid identities and as we clearly state the progress, pitfalls, and sins of both ourselves and our nation, that we’ll offer metaphors to embrace the complexities of what it means to belong to a nation.
Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.
Much of the original research appears in my Ph.D. thesis: “Sympathy and Transatlantic Literature: place, genre, and emigration,” (Ph.D. in English, University of Edinburgh, 2013). ↑
See this helpful overview of war language as metaphor and as policy in TIME: Paul M. Renfro, “WAr has been the Governing Metaphor for Decadeso f American Life. This Pandemic Exposes its Weakness,” TIME, April 15, 2020, https://time.com/5821430/history-war-language/ ↑
Anonymous, rev. of Stranger in America by Janson, Edinburgh Review (1807): 103-116. 103. ↑
Susan Manning, ed., “Introduction,” Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (Oxford: OUP, 1997), vii. Subsequent quotes from Letters are from this edition. ↑
Stephen Fender, Sea Changes: British Emigration and American Literature (Cambridge: CUP, 1992) 12. ↑