The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character….Where are their Foxes, their Burkes, their Sheridans, their Windhams, their Horners, their Wilberforces?—where their Arkwrights, their Watts, their Davys?—their Robertsons, Blairs, Smiths, Stewarts, Paleys and Malthuses?—their Porsons, Parts, Burneys, or Blomfields?—their Scotts, Campbells, Byrons, Moores, or Crabbes?—their Siddonses, Kembles, Keans, or ONeils—their Wilkies, Laurences, Chantrys?—or their parallels to the hundred other names that have spread themselves over the world from our little island in the course of’ the last thirty years, and blest or delighted mankind by their works, inventions, or examples?
—Sydney Smith, “Who Reads an American Book?” 1820
I knew I wanted to write something about monuments, and so I went back to the syllabus to try and find a way to connect my thoughts to the texts of the course. This quote, monumental in itself, immediately stood out to me. To me, this quote is trying to “define” American culture, to assign America a monolith identity or character. What makes this quote especially humorous to me is that Smith can only seem to understand American culture through his own critical lens. Smith’s quote suggests that the only indication of genius is a resemblance to the Great Figures who have come before. This perception seems counterintuitive to the way I think about genius, as a spark of something entirely new, but I can’t say it’s not a perspective I’ve encountered in academia.
In a survey class I took with Dr. Paku, we read an article that has really rattled the way I think about the literary canon. In her article “Dancing through the Minefield: Some Observations on the Theory, Practice and Politics of a Feminist Literary Criticism,” Annette Kolodny theorizes that the Great Literature we are taught to read influences the way we learn to judge quality literature. The books that students grow up reading—held up to be examples of quality, academic literature—teach readers to look for certain tropes or conventions that make a book superior. When a student recognizes those conventions in new texts, we associate these conventions with quality literature and are more likely to judge the text to be of a similar high standard. This becomes a problem when all the texts being taught in schools are white, male voices. Because of this, readers might not fully understand the significance or symbolism in the work of a non-white, non-male author, and this unfamiliarity is often interpreted to mean that the book is a failure. I can’t help but find a parallel in this ‘failure’ with Smith’s question, “Where are their Foxes, their Burkes, their Sheridans…” The existing literary canon teaches us how to judge new literature, thus ensuring that the same voices and conventions will continue to upheld—a monument for American literature.
Because of various events of the past few weeks, the concept of monuments has been on my mind. In class, we spoke briefly about the need to interrogate our cultural monuments, images and ideas that may have gone unchallenged for years. Right when I needed it, I found the poem “The Palace” by Kaveh Akbar which seems to be asking a question which shadows Smith’s: “America could be a metaphor but it isn’t… America? the broken headstone. / America? far enough away from itself… / To be American. What can be American?” In his exploration of what it means to be American, Akbar also seems to be considering the literary canon and the looming Great Figures that have come before. He writes, “Hello, this is Kaveh speaking: / I wanted to be Keats / (but I’ve already lived four years too long). / Hello, this is Keats speaking: / it is absurd to say anything now / (much less anything new).” As Akbar puts himself in conversation with Keats, he seems to reckon with the absurdity of trying to create anything at all, or to say something that hasn’t already been said.
I guess the irony of Smith’s inquisition of the American Book is that it’s so devoid of imagination; he can’t imagine anything that does not already exist. Maybe it’s that same lack of imagination that Akbar is exploring in Keats’ statement that “it is absurd to say anything now / (much less anything new).” I would like to think Akbar is not giving into this idea, but instead acknowledging the absurdity of trying to resemble Keats or anyone else from Smith’s list. His poem centers around the image of a palace burning down—“Any document of civilization is also a document of barbarism / says the palace, burning… There are no good kings, / only burning palaces.”—an image I can’t help but bring my own personal associations to. To me, the burning palace seems like a rejection of previous forms. If an institution can only place value on things it recognizes—as Smith does—it will simply self-perpetuate and recreate itself, until the idea of saying anything new seems impossible. It’s hard not to take this blog post in a hundred different directions, so I’ll just to say that I’d like to think that Akbar has entered into conversation with Smith. I don’t think that the answer to either writer’s question—What can be American? Who reads an American Book?—can be contained in a single structure.