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Nathalie Dessens and Wendy Harding
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1In 1782, when the republic of the United States of America was still in the process of being formed, a French immigrant to the new nation tried to define what it meant to be an American. If Americans reread his Letters From an American Farmer again and again, it is not so much because J. Hector St. John De Crèvecoeur resolved the question, as because it has remained pertinent for each generation of citizens:

What then is the American, this new man?... He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient 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. He has become an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. (Crèvecoeur 54-55)

2Crèvecoeur’s American was a person very like himself, someone defined by mobility and the desire for change, a "new man" in search of renewal. Leaving behind a repressive patria for the welcoming lap of the "Alma Mater", Crèvecoeur’s American farmer embraces the imperative to reinvent himself. His newly embraced identity stands in contrast to the one left behind. Indeed, Americanness lies somewhere in between an abandoned past and a still-to-be-defined future, and as such it is always in process and in posse, never fixed or final. With each new arrival, the process of becoming American has to be repeated. Each individual or group of immigrants has to find a place and forge an identity. Thus, if it has probably never been possible to locate an essential core of identity, if self-definition is an ongoing and interactive process for every individual and every nation, the American context makes the dynamic quality of self-definition readily apparent. The question of what it means to be American has never ceased and will never fail to be relevant. It is an unfulfilled but always ardently coveted identification.

3The essays collected in this volume make it clear that there could never be a single definition of American identity. More than two centuries have passed since the revolutionaries dreamed that a democratic government, combined with the bounty of land itself, would transform the many into one, creating a homogeneous mass out of the heterogeneous influx of immigrants. To begin with, identifications with earlier homelands are not so easily forgotten; they are worked into palimpsestic or composite identity configurations. Several of the essays collected here address the question of the connections between past and present in identity formation; they are gathered in the section, "Ancestors and new identities". Individuals and communities are rarely static in the United States; they interact with others in exchanges that may be cooperative or confrontational, but are always codefinitional. Although borders are designed to sharpen differences between nations and peoples, new hybrids are born out of the movements of people and ideas across them. These new configurations are the subject of the section on "Exchanges and Border Crossings". The interactiveness of identity formation is perhaps most evident in the construction of racial difference. In 1619, before the Mayflower landed in Cape Cod Bay, a Portuguese ship bearing African captives arrived in Jamestown (Painter 23). This event provides the incipit of a national history that has always been written in black and white, that is to say in contrasting and conflictual terms, so that the "darker brother" who raises his voice in Langston Hughes’s poem 1925, "I, Too, Sing America," has not always been allowed to eat at the same table as his "white" counterpart. The essays in our section on "America in Black and White" examine some of the ways in which Americans define themselves and each other relationally in racial terms. Finally, as citizens of a nation made up of separate states and diverse territories, Americans have always also contended with regional differences in forming a sense of who they are. North and South, East and West, are not just points on a compass; they are distinctive zones in the nation’s cultural mythology. The particular histories and geographies of America’s varied regions mold their inhabitants, so that regionalism has to be considered in any account of identity. For that reason, this volume on American Identities concludes with a section on "Regional Identities in Question".

4The "Ancestors and new identities" section opens with a beautiful article by Jean Bernabé, novelist, essayist, and professor at the Université des Antilles et de la Guyane, in Martinique, who revisits, twenty years after its publication, the famous theoretical essay he co-authored with Raphaël Confiant and Patrick Chamoiseau, Eloge de la Créolité (In Praise of Creoleness) which set out one of the best theoretical frames of Creoleness. His essay reminds us that America is more than just the United States and that a hemispheric perspective may strengthen our definitions of American identity. Bernabé reconsiders the book’s initial rejection of universalism in favor of diversalité, arguing that creoleness is not so much a repudiation of humanist values as a new form of "humanization". He concludes on the powerful and challenging idea that no American should have to repudiate his/her ancestors provided that everyone’s ancestors are shared. Fantasies of racial or ethnic purity make little sense in the American context, for the continent is defined by the mixing of cultures and peoples. Though ancestry can and probably should be viewed as a construction, claiming a particular ancestry remains important for both new immigrants and for native-born citizens of the United States. Molly Gilbert Chatalic examines the situation of one of the most recent immigrant groups, those arriving on American soil in the wake of the Tibetan diaspora. These refugees remain attached to the homeland that they have abandoned in fleeing persecution for the practice of their religion and their distinctive culture. In the United States, they tend to group together in communities that provide mutual support and shared values. Nonetheless, questions of identity become increasingly problematic for the generations born on American soil, and Chatalic examines the ways in which these children of immigrants remain connected to their ancestors, all the while forging their identities as Tibetan Americans. In a similar vein, Marie-Christine Michaud examines the Italian American community, mapping the various stages of their self-definition as Italian Americans, examining the interactions between the Italian past and the American environment. She concludes by remarking, instead of a decline of this identity, rather its possible zenith. Karine Plaquet reminds us that White Anglo-Saxon Protestants also engage in a tug-of-war between an identity they inherit from their elders and one that they invent for themselves. Her article examines three novels by John Irving, showing how the protagonists generally achieve self-definition through a combination of adherence to and transgression of community rules. Their relationships with the older generation are both respectful and agonistic. Together, these four essays centering on connections between identity and ancestry remind us how individuals have to define themselves in relation to the histories they inherit and choose to adopt and the projects that they embrace for the future. The Americas are an especially fertile ground for experimenting with these competing allegiances.

5If identity is defined through the interactions with origins and ancestors, it is also powerfully shaped by the exchanges with neighboring countries, and nowhere have the topics of borders and frontiers been as decisive as in the United States. These exchanges sometimes occur with close neighbors. Isabelle Vagnoux examines interactions with one of the most obvious neighbors, in the past as in today’s America, Mexico. Her article demonstrates that defining an identity is not always easy for people who only have to cross a border to come to the United States, and she provides novel conclusions showing that identity might fluctuate according to the border crossings and re-crossings. But exchanges may also occur between geographically remote cousins, as Anne Przewozny-Desriaux shows when studying the epistolary relationship between famous Australian and American linguists Sidney John Baker and Henry Louis Mencken. Her article reveals how these writers from two nations that were both former British colonies collaborated in affirming their distinctive linguistic identities. Candice Lemaire examines an exchange that crosses national borders as well as generic boundaries. Her essay looks at the way in which the American poet Robert Frost has been frozen into an iconic image of the traditional Yankee, in part through interpretations that fail to take into account the ambivalence of his work. At the same time, Lemaire argues that Frost’s poetry has not been wholly successful in crossing borders, since, in his own words, poetry "is what gets lost in translation". Nevertheless, her essay shows how American poetry paradoxically gains in translation when recited in Italian and in fractured English by actor Roberto Benigni in Jim Jarmush’s film Down by Law. The film re-poeticizes familiar tropes by defamiliarizing them; in the process it also renews definitions of Americanness. Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud’s essay on Eric Puchner’s 2005 short story collection, Music through the Floor also crosses generic boundaries in speaking of music as a structuring motif and a metaphor for the collection’s American community. Individual characters are associated with different musical refrains; in addition, this essay shows how their distinctive voices come together to create a rhapsody whose variations and contrasts express the complexity of Americanness, while, nonetheless, producing unexpected harmonies. Complexity is also a major feature of the composite, protean identities of the characters in Karen Tei Yamashita’s 1997 novel, Tropic of Orange. Brady Harrison examines the novel’s representation of individuals struggling to stay together in the face of the violent centrifugal pressures exerted by both global and local social and economic forces. In Harrison’s view the novel’s utopian impulse fights against countervailing forces. The mobility of bodies and identities offers a way to elude the violence threatening individuals and families; nonetheless, if movement offers hope for survival, it makes unity problematic.

6Although Crèvecoeur’s conception of the American took no account of any other origin than the Euro-Americans, race has been a determining factor in the definition of American identity, as Toni Morrison reminds us in playing in the dark. Four of the articles in this collection focus on the role that racial definitions play—for both blacks and whites—in the construction of identity. Matthew Kritz looks at the reception of Norman Mailer’s controversial 1957 essay "The White Negro", in an attempt to see how the contradictory currents in Mailer criticism address the complexity of the author’s project. Kriz is sympathetic to the early view that the essay is a fictional creation in which Mailer caricatures the African American male in order to create his own personal myth. At the same time, he acknowledges how later critics, more attuned to the ideological underpinnings of Mailer’s construction of white masculinity, problematize Mailer’s mythic self-portrayal. Placing Mailer’s writing within the American tradition of literary rebellion, as well as in the more immediate context of the cultural wars of the 1950s and 60s, Kriz reads the essay as an attempt to define and alter American masculine identity. Joseph Lewis examines cultural projections of race—what Toni Morrison describes as the Africanist presence in American culture—in an article treating three very different texts. Lewis begins by looking at the curious manifestations of monstrosity in George A. Romero’s 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. In the film a black hero helps save the town from invasion by horrific creatures arisen from the dead. The hero becomes monstrous in turn when white vigilantes lynch him. Lewis compares the film to Stephen Crane’s imagining of black subjectivity in a similarly ambivalent hero-turned-monster in his novella, The Monster (1898). Both heroes are victims who also, ironically, inspire fear in the supporting white characters. Richard Wright’s novella, The Man Who Lived Underground (1942), offers a response to racist stereotyping by progressively moving outside the conventional ideological boundaries of darkness and lightness. The novella’s hero plays with the cultural conflation of fear and the black male image in order to denounce it. The problem of escaping from racial and gender stereotypes is also confronted in Immaculada Pineda’s discussion of contemporary African American theatre. The female protagonists of Suzan-Lori Parks’s In the Blood (1999) and Kia Corthron’s Breath, Boom (2000) submit to such severe and sustained violence that the only form of subjectivity available seems to be the role of either victim or victimizer. The plays denounce the extreme social circumstances of poverty, unemployment and crime, that shape individual and group identities through the (de)forming pressure of violence. Violence so determines the black female protagonists’ sense of self, that by the end of each play violence becomes part of their identity. Finally, Anne Stefani’s article revisits an essential period in American identity definition: that of the Civil Rights Movement. Through a study of the interaction between Southern and Northern black activists, she shows how their encounter within the movement helped them shape a new vision of America’s African American identity. By showing the differences between North and South but by acknowledging the importance of the interactions between the two regions in the self-definition of some American groups, this article already leads us towards a rethinking of identity along regional lines.

7Interactions between North and South are at the origin of Aurélie Guillain’s re-reading of Faulkner’s work. She reinterprets the fluctuating ethnic and regional identities of young white Southerners who are confronted with the social and cultural context of the North. In politics as well as in fiction, those different contexts serve to redefine identities. Moving away from Reagan’s well-known Southern strategy, Françoise Coste studies his "Northern strategy", and the way he targeted the white ethnics to widen his electorate in his pursuit of the American presidency. North and South are essential elements, historically but also in today’s America, to refine and redefine an identity. The West, however, has not been left aside, and the last three articles perfectly illustrate its prevailing role. Through a powerful historiographical study, Nathalie Massip shows how the image of the West has changed through history. Turner made it the origin of American exceptionalism. In the 20th century, historians set to writing a regional history that isolated the West from the rest of the nation. Recent historiographical revisions, in turn, have shown that it was rather a crossroads, that it has been defined by a series of encounters and exchanges and that those exchanges with east and west and north and south could be used to redefine American identity. O. Alan Weltzien’s consideration of Western identity can be situated within this revisionary framework, although it also makes a case for the continuing importance of place in constructions of identity. Weltzien considers Neil Campbell’s argument in The Rhizomatic West (2008), which disputes essentialist claims about place and instead proposes Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome as the most appropriate metaphor for Western patterns of transience and habitation. Although acknowledging the determining role of national and global exchanges, Weltzien argues for the ongoing psychological and literary validity of place and proposes the palimpsest as a more appropriate metaphor. The American West remains a region of both roots and routes, settledness and motion. Pascal Bardet further explores this protean West by drawing a challenging parallel between the identity construction defined by novelist Rick Bass in his representation of the Yaak valley and that designed by the gated communities that are currently being developed in Montana. In different ways, each is imagined as a self-contained enclave in which to protect or construct identity.

8This volume cannot hope to cover all aspects of the question of American identity, this complex, multiple, evolving, fluid individual, regional or national character that keeps being explored and redefined. It does, however, demonstrate the centrality of the issue in all aspects of American culture and life. Drawing from history, sociology, literature, literary theory, political science, cultural history, and linguistics, it encompasses many different aspects of this definition, showing that identity is best defined through relation and interaction rather than through opposition and confrontation and suggesting that the hemispheric perspective might be a good way of further redefining American identity.

9Just as this volume was about to go to press we received the sad news of the death of Maurice Levy, a much loved and admired Emeritus Professor from Toulouse-Le Mirail and one of the founders of the journal.  His intelligence, warmth and generosity will be greatly missed by his friends and former colleagues, though his legacy will endure in his work and that of the many students who benefitted from his guidance.  We gladly dedicate this volume to the memory of Maurice Levy and conclude it with a gathering of tributes to him.

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Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau, Rapahaël Confiant, Eloge de la Créolité, Paris: Gallimard, 1988.

--, In Praise of Creoleness (traduction anglaise), Paris: Gallimard, 1989.

De Crèvecoeur, J. Hector St. John Letters from an American Farmer [1782]; New York: Fox, Duffield and Co, 1904.

Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf and Vintage Books, 1994.

Morrison, Toni. playing in the dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating Black Americans: African-American history and its meanings, 1619 to the present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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Bibliographical reference

Nathalie Dessens and Wendy Harding, « Foreword », Caliban, 31 | 2012, 7-13.

Electronic reference

Nathalie Dessens and Wendy Harding, « Foreword », Caliban [Online], 31 | 2012, Online since 16 March 2015, connection on 17 February 2020. URL :

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About the authors

Nathalie Dessens

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS.

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Wendy Harding

Université de Toulouse, UTM, CAS.

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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