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The American Identity in Literature

Paul Barrett is a current fourth-year student at the University of Limerick, Ireland, majoring in English and History.

Race was a crucial issue in American identity politics in the 20th century

Race was a crucial issue in American identity politics in the 20th century

The American Identity

This article will discuss the representation of American identity, mainly focusing on the issues of race and religion. This is regarding the works of Quicksand, by Nella Larsen, and Terrorist, by John Updike. Both these works portray a view of America and its people from an outsider's perspective, which lends itself to fascinating insights into how America is portrayed by minority and isolated groups.

The historical context in which these novels were produced is also crucial in painting an accurate picture of the American identity described in the novels. All main characters come from different backgrounds; Ahmad is of Irish-Egyptian-American descent, Jack Levy comes from Jewish American background and Helga is a mixed-raced African-American. All characters are at odds with the traditional views on the conceptual American race and go against the grain in their religious values and beliefs.

Both novels explore difference, and it is in these differences from the norm that the characters express their interpretations of how to represent and define the American race and religious identity, which is often different from how others see it.

Firstly, a discussion of the historical context in which these books were published and how the idea of an American identity developed. While nearly eighty years separate the publication of these two works, the historical context of religion and racial issues in America have similar effects on the characters in both. The representation of American identity is encapsulated by one word; freedom. However, that would appear only to be the case with the traditional white, Christian identity, as the freedom to choose anything not in line with this is often met with disapproval and rejection.

On the contrary, however, some have said that even in the efforts of African Americans to assert their rights in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these movements were still rooted in traditional western Christian values and ideas. This has many parallels with the two works that will be discussed, as the various minority groups that the characters inhabit while trying to assert the traditional Western white Christian identity still plagues their own version of an American identity.

Quicksand, by Nella Larsen, explores the identity of a mixed-race individual and juxtaposes this with various American identities that Helga Crane encounters. “The United States…insisted on the exclusivity of race”. While Helga Crane can traverse social settings through her mixed-race background, instead of enjoying a dual identity, she suffers from having no complete identity. This leads to problems in an America that demands selectness. These problems manifest in a feeling of social segregation for Helga. Helga cannot find contentment with life like she cannot find contentment with place, like she cannot find contentment with her racial status. In Naxos, Helga tries to transcend the social boundaries of race placed upon black people. She will not accept the society’s attempt to whiten her black identity. However, she finds that she cannot succeed and that being part of this society means removing her black identity and accepting a singular white American Identity. While she endures racism from her white siblings as a child, in Harlem, Helga experiences the opposite kind of prejudice as she is forced to ignore her ancestry by her white hating friends like Anne who “…hated white people with a deep and burning hatred”. Helga’s disapproval of the Harlem way of life is a social commentary, on the dangers of race isolation and social ignorance of anything but one’s people’s identity.

Updike's Terrorist battles a very sensitive issue

Updike's Terrorist battles a very sensitive issue

The religious identity portrayed in Quicksand is twofold; the lack of religious enthusiasm shown by Helga for the first part of the novel, and the fervent religious attitude she must amalgamate to as she moves to Alabama. At the start of the novel, Helga passionately wishes to distance herself from any religious identity, “Helga shuddered a little as he recalled the some of the statements by some Holy white man of God to the black folk sitting so respectfully before him”. Helga here chastises the black congregation for blindly following the words of this white man. But this is superseded in Alabama as she experiences a resurrection in the arms of the black preacher Pleasant Green. However, in Alabama, Helga realises that once again the God that she worships is a white man’s God. Helga here has come full circle from Naxos and their adherence to the boundaries placed on them by white people, to Alabama where these same boundaries are followed by the black people and their white God. Helga, with her mixed-race identity problems, cannot reconcile a religious identity with either. She associates religious identity, with a white identity, which she does not conform to. In turn, her black self cannot accept religion due to the plight they have faced throughout their history with no help from God, “No one was interested in them or helped them”. For Helga, religion is a tainted institution that offers no redemption, which is damaging to black people. While the black people continue to worship a white God, a true black American identity can never truly be achieved.

Terrorist, by John Updike, epitomises the ways in which religion can encapsulate races of people, and, how religion can spread past boundaries of race. Religion can create identities of Americanism in the novel, both by embracing or denying it. Ahmad is defined by himself and others purely through his religious beliefs. Being a follower of Islam is his identity, God was ‘…closer to him than his neck-vein’. This contrasts with Jack Levy who, like his father and grandfather felt that they needed to abandon their Jewish Identity, in the hope of being accepted in an America dominated by a Christian identity. Despite not being a religious person, Jack is just as defined by his identity of being Jewish as Ahmad is of being Muslim. Throughout the novel, the characters of colour are portrayed as deeply religious, such as the Muslim Americans, and the black members of the church that Ahmad visits. To Ahmad and his teacher Shaikh Rashid, the American way of life and American identity directly insults religion and trivialises its importance in peoples’ lives. This contrasts with the indifference shown by white characters to religion. A distinctive feature of being white in this novel is lacking any religious faith or religious identity, which for characters of colour is their identity

Race in Terrorist is complex subject as the novel represents the animosities that races have, from white vs black issues to Middle Eastern and African American dissension. Race and religion are inextricably linked in the novel, as markers of identity. The issue of race in the novel plays with the idea of what it means to be Muslim American, and to what extent a person’s actions versus their look identify them as being American. The novel's representation of traditional white America is intentionally negative. Jack Levy is an adulterer, his wife Beth is lazy and overweight, and Ahmad’s mother Teresa is described as highly promiscuous and ignorant of Ahmad’s daily life, “I was afraid you would be influenced by the wrong people as you grew older. But look at you!”. On the other hand, the non-white characters particularly the Muslim Americans are described as pious, just and loyal to one another. It is through this disconnect of the races in the novel that the problems of terrorism arise. The faults of the white characters are seen by the Muslim Americans as reasons for violence, and the white characters unable to reconcile why anyone would want to attack the American way of life, “Why do they hate us?” The American identity of race is portrayed by the white characters in the novel as one of ignorance, both to their own faults and to the lives of their Muslim American counterparts.

Ultimately, the representation of American identity represented in the works discussed is largely a critique of the traditional white Christian identity. All the main characters are directly affected by this identity throughout the novels because they do not conform wholly to it. It is when the characters cannot settle their identity, like Helga and her mixed-race, and Ahmad and his diverse background, that these characters experience their hardship. The characters’ wish to be fluid in both their religious and racial identity is impossible in a world of American rigidity. America's religious identity is portrayed in both novels as a non-white phenomenon, with little religious adherences shown by any white characters in both works. Race ignorance is also a major issue that pervades both novels, be it the white characters’ obliviousness in Terrorist or the ignorance of the black characters in Harlem of Quicksand. The idea behind these novels representation of the American identity is that through the forced idea of one singular American identity of race and religion, and the ignorance of either group for the other, animosities and tensions are fostered that affect those left out of this identity and is also damaging to America as a whole.

Nella Larsen battle with her identity all her life

Nella Larsen battle with her identity all her life