This column ran in the Raleigh News & Observer on Oct. 14, 2001
The events of Sept. 11 were, of course, a giant wake-up call to America. By puncturing our splendid isolation, the terrorist attacks have reminded us how little we know about the far-flung lands where American influence is exercised and resented.
It is heartening to see the new sense of purpose and resolve that fills once-oblivious Americans as we try to understand the murkiest parts of the Muslim world. But it is not enough. As we look outward, we must also peer inward, using our new curiosity to correct the false picture we have of ourselves.
In particular, we must recognize and confront the deep pessimism that has informed so much that Americans have written about America during the last half-century. So many of our most celebrated novelists and cultural critics have described our nation in terms so dark and overwrought that they defy reality, reflecting America through a cracked mirror.
For example, here’s how New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani summarized the most lavishly praised novel of the year, “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen: “a harrowing portrait of America in the late 1990s — an America deep in the grip of that decade’s money madness and sick with envy, resentment, greed, acquisitiveness and self-delusion, an America committed to the quick-fix solution and determined to try to medicate its problems away.”
Franzen’s portrait of America in the 1990s echoes the one John Updike provided of the nation during the Reagan era in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Rabbit at Rest” (1990): “Everything falling apart, airplanes, bridges, eight years … of nobody minding the store, making money out of nothing, running up debt, trusting in God.”
Updike, in turn, was writing in the same spirit that informs the novels of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut and the social commentary of Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Noam Chomsky and countless other writers.
As historian Arthur Herman observed in his 1997 book, “The Idea of Decline in Western History,” many of the most influential writers in America and Europe see the West as “greedily materialistic, spiritually bankrupt, and devoid of humane values. [To them] modern people are always displaced, rootless, psychologically scarred and isolated from one another.”
I have read, enjoyed and even revered works by many of the authors mentioned above. Storytelling, William Faulkner observed, thrives on “the problems of human heart in conflict with itself,” with the emphasis squarely on the word conflict. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in his famous opening to “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Which is to say bad news is far more engaging than good. Art may be about truths, but they are chiefly the discomfiting ones. The best books should pose ideas that challenge our comfort and complacency. But it is also true that the America portrayed by Franzen and too many others borders on caricature. Perhaps he really believes we are a “greedy” nation “sick with envy.” Certainly we can do better, can be better.
However, the psychic isolationism that has so dampened our curiosity about the world has also led us to misunderstand our own nation. If we have learned anything since Sept. 11, it is the prevalence beyond our shores of fear and repression, ignorance, blind faith and the poverty that fuels it. Standing in stark contrast to the characteristics of American life, these facts should provide a context for understanding the quality of our culture and its achievements.
America is an imperfect land. We need artists to remind us of our faults. Literature should not be a vehicle of jingoism. But it should endeavor to give a full picture of the world. As we lift our eyes and see America not just vis-a-vis itself, but as a phenomenon of world history, we can recognize that, despite the costs of progress, our nation is also a pinnacle of the human imagination.
If our country — whose vast resources and freedom have given the world unrivaled breakthroughs in science, medicine and technology as well as a model of political liberty — is truly the sick and soulless land our writers describe, what hope is there for humanity? As Winston Churchill said of democracy, it “is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Now it is time for a more expansive view of America, one that more fully reflects what we have accomplished, despite the frailties of man. In “All the King’s Men,” Robert Penn Warren wrote: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the diddie to the stench of the shroud.”
If we take this pessimistic view as a starting point for understanding human nature — as a sign of what we’re dealing with, what we’re up against — then perhaps we can appreciate what America has achieved despite long odds. Let us hope that our writers will become as attuned to the ways we soar as they are to the ways we stumble. Only then can they repair their cracked mirror with clear vision.