In Call Me Ishmael, Charles Olson’s magnificent 1947 study of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the American poet writes: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America.” Using a common alternative title for the 1851 novel, Olson compares it to Walt Whitman’s self-published paean to his country: “The White Whale is more accurate than Leaves of Grass. Because it is America, all of her space, the malice, the root.”
For many years, I took Moby-Dick to be American only by technicality: Virtually all of the story takes place on the high seas, with a multiethnic mix of characters; the voice of the author seems more at home in the broader North Atlantic maritime Anglo-Hibernian realm, which by some measures reaches down from Nova Scotia as far south as Cape Cod, than in the depths of the American continent itself.
Melville’s true epitome of America, it seemed to me, was not Moby-Dick, but The Confidence-Man of 1857. This novel, whose events unfold almost entirely in the cramped rooms of a steamboat on the Mississippi River, is as claustrophobic as Moby-Dick is expansive, and as conducive to contraction and paranoia as its predecessor is to the free-ranging and unbounded assertion of will. The narrative is fractured, the principal character is of an uncertain metaphysical nature—though the reader is at least made to understand that he is vaguely malevolent. Nor is there any question as to the country he represents: America, a nation built up over the long 19th century by glossolalic preachers, carnival barkers, tonic hucksters, and other species of con man on the make.
If Moby-Dick is to be deemed American too, then, we might describe the two modes of American existence they reveal by reference to the two bodies of water that convey them: the oceanic and the riverine. In the one, your freedom of motion is boundless, provided you are not annihilated; in the other, you are seldom in existential peril, but must always worry about hitting the shallows.
Another central fact about life in America, on which Olson does not care to dwell, is that its space is not empty, even if the early theorists of English colonialism, notably John Locke, sought to represent the land inhabited by Native Americans as a terra nullius. Because they have no concept of private property, the philosopher reasoned, neither can they be said to have any property in land of which they might be dispossessed. Yet the ethnic cleansing of a continent certainly leaves its mark on the people who settle there, whether this is present to consciousness or not. For one thing, as Melville puts it in The Confidence-Man, “[w]here the wolves are killed off, the foxes increase.”
And the foxes would learn, too, not just to take advantage of the absence of the wolves, but of the suffering entailed in their elimination as well. Thus, one of the scams in The Confidence-Man is a fundraising campaign for the “Seminole Widows and Orphans Society,” which of course may or may not exist, even if plenty of Seminoles had certainly been widowed and orphaned.
Americans have been so good at do-gooding in part because there is so much harm to be undone. Such opportunistic displays of solicitude for the people we have harmed is mixed up with a deep, one might say metaphysical, conviction that to settle a territory is not so much simply to remove its first inhabitants as to assume their essence. The white-nationalist website Stormfront, for example, devotes significant space to “affirming” the identity of Americans with Native ancestry. My own white-supremacist uncle—radicalized, as far as I can tell, during his years living in Navajo country, though he has long since decamped to Scandinavia—used to insist that the Arkansas side of our family comes with an admixture of Native blood (the ancestry test Henry Louis Gates pressed me into taking proves that it does not).
Part of an explanation for this conviction is that unlike the French coureurs de bois to the north, Anglo-American settlers seldom gave themselves the freedom—and here I hate to use such a vulgar and clichéd expression, but in this case it really is what is at issue—to “go native.” Authors from J.G. Blumenbach in Germany to Henry David Thoreau in Massachusetts looked on the French-Canadians as half-“Indianized,” in terms of their lifeways, their footwear, their adaptation to the American ecology. The English walled themselves off, stressed their difference, and later, when they became Americans, conceived of mixture of blood as the only real path to true indigeneity.
James Fenimore Cooper’s protagonist in 1826’s The Last of the Mohicans, who lives in the woods and masters indigenous ways, insists repeatedly that he is “a man without a cross,” by which he appears to mean that he is of pure-blooded European ancestry. Almost two centuries later, Elizabeth Warren, who remembers at least something of the hybrid folkways of Oklahoma, will claim for her part that she is a woman with a cross. Though they have different strategies of adaptation to the social exigencies they face, both are positioning themselves against the background identity of a continent that is indisputably Native.
It is in the cities that were consciously constructed in the 19th century as American cities, after the massive territorial expansion of 1803, that we see our country’s hybrid identity most clearly. The East Coast, or at least the Northeast, has always in a sense remained a cluster of English colonies, while the region of the Mississippi and its tributaries, rebranded in more recent years as “flyover country,” is the place where things start to get weird—which is to say unmistakably American. It is with an eye to the frontier beyond the Mississippi that Whitman for his part protests against the Old World men of learning and science: “Your facts are useful, but they are not my dwelling.” And it is in a rural cabin in Missouri in the 1850s that the German immigrant Henry Clay Brockmeyer will find himself distracted, in his efforts to read Spinoza’s Ethics, by the sound of squirrels scuttering outside. He throws down the book, grabs his rifle, and rushes out, hoping soon to be able to make some more squirrel broth to carry with him in a portable jug when he goes into town for a regular meeting of the St. Louis Hegelians. This image seems to me to get at something profound about American philosophy: It is at bottom a philosophy of the “good enough,” of “there’s work to be done,” of “you don’t really expect me to learn Latin, do you?”
A defining feature of American philosophy has always been that it is pragmatic, adaptable, off-the-cuff, and blended into the realities of life. One might take this as equivalent to the concession that America simply has no philosophy at all, or that in its westward expansion it loses sight of philosophy at the same time as it loses sight of Europe. Such was indeed Josiah Royce’s conclusion when he wrote from Berkeley to William James at Harvard in 1888: “There is no philosophy in California.” But one might also conclude that this pragmatism is the realest sign of a small-n native American philosophical tradition, which is one that is also unmistakably big-N Native American. This was Scott L. Pratt’s argument in his surprising 2002 book, Native Pragmatism: Rethinking the Roots of American Philosophy, and one that also informs such cross-disciplinary works as the Łódź-born anthropologist Paul Radin’s 1927 Primitive Man as Philosopher, a study of Oglala Sioux intellectual traditions with a preface by John Dewey.
Pragmatism, among other things, properly understood, compels a deep rethinking of our understanding of “identity,” whether of objects or social groups. A thing has no settled existence as the thing it is prior to its uptake within a system of human or social uses. Another dimension of the small-n native American pragmatism that interests me arises in the social adaptability that can come from recognition of shared humanity and common cause.
When I moved to Cincinnati in 2001, that quintessentially American city was enduring one of its regular convulsions of unrest in the wake of police brutality. A curfew was imposed, and Mayor Charles J. Luken implored Cincinnatians to “stay in their homes and pray.” Such domestic atomization, and the unjust racial politics that led to it, often seem to tell the full story of our “inner cities” (such a tragic euphemism). But these always conceal a much more fluid reality flowing beneath the surface. It is in Cincinnati, notably, that the Irish-Cypriot writer Lafcadio Hearn married an African American woman and began to forge his public identity as an embodiment of universal humanity: He would move from there to New Orleans, and then to the Caribbean, and then to Japan, where he would die in 1904 under the adopted name of Koizumi Yakumo. The semi-anonymous underground newspaper Ye Giglampz, which Hearn founded after being fired from the Cincinnati Enquirer for illegal miscegenation, is a veritable charivari of anarchic revelry, exactly the sort of thing that Robert Mitchum’s preacher character fears most in the 1955 American film The Night of the Hunter, when his stepsons escape his wrath and head out, he suspects, to the city he calls the “Sodom of the Ohio River.”
I only lived in that Sodom for two years (now I live in Sodome sur Seine), but I often think about how poorly the mayor understood the place he hoped to control, the riots he hoped to quell in the Black neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine—a name that itself attests to the never-ending ethnic fluidity of our urban settings. The Hearnian spirit of Cincinnati was arguably better preserved by an earlier mayor more familiar on the national stage: Jerry Springer, whose vulgar and exploitative talk show, for all we might wish to condemn it on moral grounds, at least invited Americans, as we say, to “mix it up.”
In its most extreme expression, this celebration of mixture amounts to a sort of ecstasy: a rapturous motion out of oneself to claim identity with other histories and other realities. No one goes further in this tendency than Whitman, who claims—likely having read about the fossil discoveries in 1775 in Big Bone Lick, Kentucky, that gave birth to American paleontology—that he himself, personally, is “stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over.” This imagined identity with everything and everyone is part and parcel of the poet’s defense of his country’s burgeoning imperialism, his conviction that the United States would soon absorb Cuba, Canada, and beyond. The entire text of Leaves of Grass in fact, as Whitman puts it in one particularly obscene passage, may be read as the poet’s generative act, whereby he is “jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics.”
Such arrogance, such a presumption that we can work our way into realities that lie beyond our experience, is, I contend, both dangerous and necessary. It is dangerous because it threatens to drown out the first-person accounts of experiences from those who really have them, to “appropriate” the realities of others in a way that denies it to those who held it first. It is necessary because without it, we have only atomization. There can be no viable American identity without a bit of ecstasy, of getting outside of our own skin.
We have precious few exemplars of what this form of Americanness might look like today. It mostly filters through into the culture through samizdat channels, anonymous memes, organic efforts at preservation of American historical memory in the fragile but universal medium of the internet. I see glimpses of the ecstatic American style in everything from the “dirtbag left,” which emphasizes the common experience of the economically disadvantaged over the superficial differences of race and gender, to the Jewish and Catholic proponents of sincere interfaith dialogue at venues like First Things and indeed Tablet. I do not see any glimpses of it in the preeminent cultural institutions of the United States with a real power to shape civic identity, which have in the past years betrayed any pretense of a higher mission in favor of full-time devotion to the bureaucratic management of small differences.
It is in the mode of ecstasy that we might hope to move back out from the riverine to the oceanic, from the cramped rooms of the steamboat where dodgy characters are always seeking to grift us, in order to range freely as Americans.
The arrogant republic that Whitman envisioned—moving out beyond the edge of the continent and across the ocean to Hawaii, Samoa, the Philippines—might yet hope to transform its will to universality into the foundation of a more mature, post-imperialist conception of American identity. Among the innumerable passages in Moby-Dick that provide hints at what such an identity may look like (passages which I only began to notice after reading Olson’s interpretation of the novel), one in particular stands out. In the light of a candle at an inn in Nantucket, the narrator is examining the distinguished and honest mien of Queequeg, the Polynesian seafarer covered in tattoos, when he has this revelation: “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.”
Such an astounding claim of identity makes no sense at all in the empirical realm, and yet it seems to express a truth about America, and about the way it swallows up worlds and makes them its own. It is also a bit of evidence in favor of Pratt’s thesis concerning the “savage” origins of American thought (though Queequeg emerges from another geographical and historical template of “savage” identity), and a reminder of Jefferson’s attention to indigenous life-worlds in the construction of the American political experiment.
America’s appetite and digestive force are reason for great wariness, and for ongoing material and political reparations for real harms done. They are also a key to understanding the American character, and a reason for hope for the future, once we’ve found our way out of the narrow rivulets of identitarianism and back to the shining seas.
Justin E.H. Smith’s next book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear from Princeton University Press in 2021. You may subscribe to his newsletter at justinehsmith.substack.com.