Reading About the U.S.

How does one get a grip on a country as large, diverse and full of contradiction as the United States? It’s a question that probably crosses every Fulbrighter’s mind at some point during their stay. As we navigate unfamiliar streets and campuses, it’s easy to fall back on filtering all we see and hear through the generalizations and platitudes picked up from pop culture and stale small talk. And just when we think we’ve unraveled the mysteries of our new hometown, one glance at a map reminds us that it’s just a dot in a country 322 times bigger than our own. If one doesn’t have the time (or courage) for a Kerouacian road trip, one can nonetheless still rely on that valuable alternative and supplement to firsthand knowledge: books.

During my first months at The New School in New York, I was fortunate enough to take a course that felt like a literary journey through the United States. Every week, around fifteen students would gather on the 9 th floor of a massive building on 5th Avenue and discuss a selection of essays, memoirs, travelogues, character studies, and pieces of journalism. Most were written by American writers, from the 18 th century up to the present day. The course was meant as an exercise in cultural criticism: we were to analyze and write works of serious non-fiction for a general audience. But for me and the Danish, Korean, Egyptian, Romanian, and Chinese students following the class, the readings were also a valuable introduction to the United States’ complex history, different landscapes, and distinct intellectual tradition.

From Joseph Mitchell, the legendary New Yorker profile writer, I learned about the “herds of big gray rats” that roamed through Manhattan in the 1940s and how the ascendancy of the automobile drove Roma immigrants from the American countryside to its crowded cities. Joan Didion took me on a moody tour of Hawaii, with its boisterous sailors walking on Honolulu’s main street and the specter of Pearl Harbor haunting the crystal-clear waters. A memoir by Mary McCarthy described what a Catholic girlhood in Minnesota looked like, while social reformer Frederick Douglas’ autobiography gave a harrowing account of slavery in the American South. During the long sessions in a sweltering classroom, our small reading group discussed everything from Thomas Paine’s incendiary 1775 pro-independence pamphlet to a bizarre piece that compared American and European funerary practices. And one week, I made the thrilling discovery that the civil rights activist and author W.E.B. Du Bois had lived a few blocks from my room in Sugar Hill, Harlem.

Together, these readings produced a dizzying panorama of a nation that can perhaps only be grasped as a plurality of places, voices, and experiences. If anything like an overarching American ‘national character’ exists, it continues to perplex and intrigue me. But this kaleidoscopic overview gave me a better sense of the disparate histories, localities, individuals, and conflicting tendencies that have shaped it, just as it offered a tentative legend to better decipher my immediate surroundings. The texts were also a reminder of how much our education and canons are determined by where we grow up and go to school: on the other side of the Atlantic, I had only heard of these American writers in passing. Already, my Fulbright experience has also moved me into new intellectual territories, introducing me to a legacy of American thought which I can draw on long after my visa has expired.

– Florian Deroo
2017-2018 Fulbright grantee at The New School