The American literary establishment is crying foul. The comments of Swedish Academy permanent secretary Horace Engdahl suggesting that an American is unlikely to win the Nobel Prize in Literature this week have provoked great patriotic upswellings. Engdahl suggested that the U.S. literary establishment is “too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”
Did this observation give us pause, make us hesitate, push us to ask for clarification? Indeed not. Americans don’t take insults like this easily and the media took a quick break from following Sarah Palin’s every utterance to chatter about the dis from these upstart Europeans. But, you know, Horace Engdahl might just have something there. We do translate too little of world literature – complaining, apparently, that such works would not sit well with the American literary sensibility. We do not really, as a culture, betray much curiosity about the world.
Perhaps this literary dust-up is a reflection of the larger change of power in the globalized theater of culture. American letters, like American military and American corporations, are used to dominating the world, lecturing the world on the proper way to do things. Our arrogance, narrowness, and provincialism are well known not only in Europe but in the Third World, which appears to be stirring and less than grateful for the beneficent gifts we have bestowed. Lately, however, with the US bogged down in an endless war in Iraq, with the economy tanking, people are beginning to wonder: perhaps it is not a unipolar world. Perhaps China, Russia, the Latin American alliance, Europe, and, yes, Africa, are beginning to call their own shots. This is true economically and culturally. Those ingrates!
Critic Adam Kirsch on NPR’s Talk of the Nation complained that recent Nobel winners have been decidedly “anti-American.” Harold Pinter declared that President Bush is liable for arrest for war crimes; Doris Lessing declared that Americans mourn the September 11 attacks but are blind to similar pain they inflict on others; José Saramago, Dario Fo, Günter Grass were all decidedly of the left. Again, I’m not sure how Kirsch slices his identity. But I will say that I am American and I agree that Bush should be arrested for war crimes; and I’m on the left. He betrays the very problem of our literary establishment: they conflate American rightist loyalty with being American.
And who would our literary leaders have us rally behind as the American candidate for the Nobel Prize? Who else but Philip Roth? And a fine nomination that is, I would say. Roth embodies the essence of American literature. A skilled stylist, he is also a perfect example of American narcissism, of the privileged who bemoan their victimhood. And isn’t that white American culture to a T? The richest country, the ones who have devastated the environment, the ones who have armies wreaking havoc all over the world, the ones with the greatest caloric intake and the most income per capita – and we always seem to feel put upon, under attack, and aggrieved.
Of course, Americans have won in the past. Notable was Toni Morrison, whose 1993 acceptance speech should be read again and again by the current literary establishment. If there are to be other Americans up for consideration, they will probably need to come from the globalized, the marginalized, the displaced and diverse people who possess the critical eye to say something important about the U.S. I would imagine that might be Edwidge Danticat from Haiti, Jhumpa Lahiri from India and London, or Junot Diaz from the Dominican Republic. Yes, they are the Americans with a story to tell, the story of the 21st century which may yet redeem us all.
Rick Ayers is in advanced studies in the Language, Literacy, and Culture program of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education. He received his Masters in Education Mills College (1997) and has taught at Berkeley High School since 1995. He was cofounder of the Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) small school in 1997 and was lead teacher until 2006. He is co-editor of the series Between Teacher and Text (Teachers College Press) and of the book Zero Tolerance: Resisting the drive for punishment, A handbook for parents, students, educators and citizens (2001, New Press). He is co-author (with Amy Crawford) of Great Books for High School Kids: A Teacher’s Guide to Books That Can Change Teens’ Lives (2004, Beacon Press), author of Studs Terkel’s Working, a Teaching Guide (2000, New Press) and co-creator (with students) of the Berkeley High Slang Dictionary (self published 2000, North Atlantic Book published, 2003.) He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008 Rick Ayers
This post originally appeared on Beacon Broadside