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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Defining an American

It may be more difficult to define what or who an American is, what he or she represents, and create a paradigmatic figure out of a "typical" or representative American now more than ever before. One might say that attempting to define an American is an impossible task (even if accomplished to some incomplete degree) that would be limiting and narrowing in a manner that disenfranchises that majority of Americans.  The short answer, is that a representative American is many different types of people.  This symbolic American would have many facets including, but not limited to different: religions, cultures, languages, education levels, and economic statuses.  These are just a few of the major distinctions that humans make to differentiate themselves from others.  Creating this "us and them" sort of model may only be helpful to an individual seeking to firmly establish his or her identity, but labels leave little room for exceptions.  Given the endless combinations that the diversity of the United States can lead to, it is pointless to define an American. Certainly there may be similarities that most Americans share, but there are always exceptions.  The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.  Americans are many different shades of gray (much more than fifty) rather than black or white.

I bring up the question of this impossible definition because I want to address a revolutionary war era letter written by J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur.  In his Letter III from Letters from an American Farmer. Crevecoeur asserts that there is one type of American that has emerged so far from the newly minted republic- an agrarian.  While he does acknowledge that different ethnicities composed American society by noting that Americans are a "mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans have arisen," the author still insists that Americans are all of similar ilk.  

I understand where Crevecoeur is coming from in his letter and I can definitely understand his bias. The language of farming even comes through in his metaphors and verbs when he is not talking about farming specifically. However, I must contend with Crevecouer's assertion that Americans should be farmers and argue that this is not really how American society was back then, but merely what he envisioned for America. There is little room for economic diversity in this version of his America and American.  One might call it a utopia, I would not.  

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