American Tensions, edited by William Reichard

American Tensions, edited by William Reichard

American Tensions: Literature of Social JusticeAmerican Tensions: Literature of Social Justice by William Reichard
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American Tensions, edited by William Reichard

In his 1782 “Letters from an American Farmer,” Jean de Crevcoeur, a French-American writer who immigrated in 1755, wrote that, “[in America] individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

The seductive simplicity of this idea caught on. Other writers latched onto the vision of American identity as the result of a great melting pot. In 1875, Titus Munson Coan wrote:

“The fusing process goes on as in a blast-furnace; one generation, a single year even– transforms the English, the German, the Irish emigrant into an American. Uniform institutions, ideas, language, the influence of the majority, bring us soon to a similar complexion; the individuality of the immigrant, almost even his traits of race and religion, fuse down in the democratic alembic like chips of brass thrown into the melting pot.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson called it a “smelting pot”, while Henry James saw it as a, “vast hot pot.” Israel Zangwill, who popularized the idea of the melting pot in his 1908 play of the same name, projected that America would be an increasingly homogeneous society bound together by its national identity.

American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice, is an anthology of fiction, essays, and poetry written in the last three decades that directly challenge this ideal. Editor William Reichard built the anthology around the idea of tensegrity, an architectural term coined by R. Buckminster Fuller to describe a kind of structural stability created by a balance of tensions. Through this analogy, American identity is the result, not of a trajectory toward sameness, but of the fragile, yet flexible cohesion created by, “isolated components in compression inside a net of continuous tension.”

If the experiment of “God’s Crucible,” had gone as planned, 21st century American literature should reflect those earlier writers’ projections of a uniformly-complexioned, homogenous national identity. Instead, the perspectives in American Tensions say otherwise:
“I think perhaps my identity, our place in time, the muddy river of reality, all this is bundled in shadow.” (Louise Erdrich)

”We were
afraid, and like a pack of hungry
dogs, we marked
each other – safety pins and blood,
scratched things like best friends
forever then vomited
bile into the mud.” (Nickole Brown)

“As the gods in olden stories
turned mortals into laurel trees and crows
to teach them some kind of lesson,
so we were turned into Americans
to learn something about loneliness.” (Tony Hoagland)

“Say help is coming, say help is coming,
then say that help’s running late.
Shrink from their clutches, lie to their faces,
explain how the levies grew thin.
Mop up the vomit, cringe at their crudeness,
audition their daughters for rape.
Stomp on their sleeping, outrun the gangsters,
pass out American flags.” (Patricia Smith)

“Make it like it never happened, the commercial promises.
Even if I glued the shards together, I would comprehend
The fissure webbing the porcelain, the pressure points of weakness,
Which is my undoing.” (James Cihlar)

“In spring I would lie down among pale anemone and primrose
and listen to the river’s darkening hymn, and soon
the clouds were unraveling like the frayed sleeves of field hands,
and ideology had flown with the sparrows.” (B.H. Fairchild)

“Now scientists are saying that crib death is caused by a virus. Nobody knows anything, Leroy thinks. The answers are always changing.” (Bobbie Ann Mason)

The writers featured in American Tensions are both established and emerging, some with many publications, some with only a few, but what binds them together is that they are embodiments of the legacy of that melting pot sales pitch. Their stories reflect that American identity may owe a great deal to the constant reminder that it is not an assimilated, uniform everyperson, but a “messy, fractious web of cultures, myths, relationships, and races.”

There’s a lingering irony here: the original ideal of the melting pot, though rallied around by politicians and romanticized in popular culture, was originally created by American writers. Appropriately, it is now being torn down by their descendants. Thirty years from now, a new group of American authors will pull apart the current viewpoint: which is, perhaps, the nature of the tensegrity Reichard is pointing out. Poet Nick Flynn describes it this way:

fill the trees above us, so many it seems
the leaves sing. I can’t see them
until they rise together at some hidden signal
& hold the shape of a tree for a moment
before scattering.”

American Tensions
edited by William Reichard
(309 pages/New Village Press, 2011)
ISBN: 978-0-9815593-8-4