Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Vrai Américain: American Identity in Giovanni's Room

When we read The Fire Next Time a couple weeks ago, I was immediately struck by James Baldwin's prose. He is very adept at utilizing the English language, organizing sounds and rhythms, and bringing the text to life. That was one of the first comments that was made on his work, an observation that it sounded like a speech and had a “voice.” Because I considered his to be some of the best writing that we had experienced in the way of technique, I took Elizabeth's advice and I went ahead and read Giovanni's Room.

First, this is a fantastic book and I agree that everyone should read it. Both the story and the writing are great and I think its social clarity is refreshing, especially considering that it was published in 1956. It's a pretty quick read, as well. The story revolves around an American, David, living in Paris who spends some time in a relationship with an Italian bartender, Giovanni. One of the elements that I found intriguing and relevant to our class discussion is David's inability to define what it is to be American. Throughout the story, David is reluctant to return home to New York. He is running out of money in Paris and his father refuses to send him more because he simply wishes for David to return and make a life for himself in the United States. At one point during David's relationship with Giovanni, he reflects on the fact that the way he lives his life in Paris would be illegal at home. He confesses that there is French prejudice against homosexuality as well, but the legal demarcation is important in repelling him.

One passage in particular stands out as David questions the factors that define an American while he is visiting an American post office. Baldwin writes, “I was aware that they all had in common something that made them Americans, but I could never put my finger on what it was.” Further along in the passage, the text reads, “I...resented being called an American...because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was; and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing.” This inability to accurately define oneself is unsettling to David. There is an underlying discomfort of being defined by America. And he eventually comes to a realization: “beneath these faces, these clothes, accents, rudeness, was power and sorrow, both unadmitted, unrealized, the power of inventors, the sorrow of the disconnected.” This implies that there is some sort of power inherent in the American identity – a power derived from building a nation perhaps. Or possibly from inventing the concept of a nation in America. The power is reinforced by some kind of deception. And this power gives way to sorrow – sorrow derived from the truth that there is no connection between Americans. Their unity is rooted within their disconnection and inability to solidify their bond.

Are these the true defining factors of Americans? Have they changed?

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