Among the ways Contemporary American Literature course discussed late 20th century American literature is by way of looking at texts as “memory” texts, the self deemed not as an “empty self”, but as a “constituted self”, making sense of community, one that has a “collective history” and “a constitutive narrative” (Bellah, et.al.). How do these texts engage the American self and this “community of memory”, and how, and why, specifically does each do so?
The American self, like any other national self, may be identified by the history it has undergone. The past may be visited and from this visitation, the American self may figure its identity. This community of memory provides a clue to the way America emerged as a distinct entity as well as to the way it will direct itself in the future in its continued narration of itself as a nation. Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof captured the traditional American family during the context in which the play was produced. In such a family, lies, deceptions and hypocrisy are inherent owing to the milieu’s taste for consumerist materialism, rendering the family dysfunctional. Meanwhile, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also explored the previously mentioned dysfunctional family’s phony exterior that characterized 1950’s America, wherein success and happiness were measured shallowly by the possession of material things. Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” plays up the messianic complex of America, one in which it is ready to sacrifice itself for others, having turned into the world’s sole superpower such that it feels accountable to save others from sufferings and troubles. Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” analogizes America with an animal that is considered extreme even within the animal kingdom, alluding to the nation’s defiance against a global cloak of conservatism. Despite its isolation from other animals, the skunk that is America is a determined rebel from which trait springs its self-reliance. Rita Dove’s “Roast Possum” speaks of the Other America whose voice is presented through the shapeless and reticent histories of individuals disarticulated by the dominant America known to humankind. Meanwhile, Richard Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of this World” displays again the American messianic complex and materialism wherein the United States paradoxically gets to fulfill its spiritual mission by participating in the actual world for the purpose of putting things in order as well as by relishing the material world that can be ravaged anytime by war or any other form of disorder.
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