Sunday, March 6, 2011
An American Daydream
When I say “America”, what do you think of? What definition do you give me? I’m not vain enough yet to think I can guess your answers. Therefore I will give my own, and extrapolate that yours are similar to mine.
I think of the American flag. I think of patriotic songs, sung by enthusiastic children from sea to shining sea. I think of Toby Keith belting out “Courtesy of the Red, White, Blue”. I think of blue skies, and happy people. I think of picnics with sizzling brats and freezing Coke cans. I think of strong, proud looking soldiers in uniform. I think of a lot of beautiful words like “freedom”, “liberty”, and “unity”.
I’ve been wondering for some time what the people of the 1600s thought of America. History and literature has given me a fair idea, but I want to use my imagination for this post.
I see a poet, living in a dismal house in London, trying to get enough pounds for rent and bread to stay alive. This one’s a thinker. He knows about all the horrid wars that have gone on in the past, and all the Crusades and Inquisitions, and all the turmoil of the Anglican church, and everything else, and he doesn’t like it at all. His own life feels just as miserable.
Imagine what went through his mind when he heard about the new settlements in America. Can you see his eyes light up? He must have gone to his bed and laid back, and let the sounds of the streets outside dissolve. From curses and horse hooves, his mind shifts to paradise. He smiles. Like an infant. He can see it!
“Mountains… great mountains, rivers that are blue and never been touched with garbage, green forests that never met a logger- just rich, and wild, beautiful, and who knows how much of it there is? And there’s no civilization! It’s a virgin! It’s untouched! This is our chance! The whole human race! For centuries since Rome fell, Europe has been rife with war and oppression. Somewhere along the line, we fell off track, and these hundreds of years we haven’t been able to get back on. We can start again there. We know what we did wrong. We can make things perfect out there.”
Such a beautiful idea. It sweeps through his being, the way a wind blows through a forest and shakes all the trees. He trembles with excitement. He feels the pendulums of history moving, faster than ever, and pushing him along into something grand, and momentous. Whatever is going to happen on that continent, it must be huge.
The poet leaps from his bed, ablaze and more joyful than he’s been in years. He wants to throw open his door and cry out to the stinking, congested street, “Come with me! To America! Let us create paradise! Let us live the way we never did, the way we always wanted to!”
Can you feel the passion in his voice? I can, and I hope he made it to America, whoever he was. He’s not based on any real person, by the way. But think about that longing for utopia. That’s what drove the Puritans there, at least in part. If you’re skeptical about the sincerity of John Winthrop’s “city on a hill”, take a look at the strict Puritan society he helped create. It lasted long enough to tell us they were chasing something, and they were committed to it deeply.
The ideas of the Enlightenment must have gotten people on this track, too. My poet’s in the 1600s, about when the Enlightenment started taking off. Surely when people started asking questions, the last mellenia of history must have started looking sad. Voltaire had reasons for bashing the Catholic Church, didn’t he?
I for myself would have been ticked off after those Crusades. And the Avignon Papacy. And all the other human mistakes. I would have been disillusioned. America would have looked like the Elysium Fields to me. A chance to wipe clean the slate of human frailty and make a New World like the one that poet was dreaming about.
It hasn’t happened yet. America cut down its trees, threw garbage in its rivers, had a civil war, and is now killing its own children. My poet might fling himself off the Hudson Dam if he saw what America was like today. I’m not saying everything is horrible, but it certainly didn’t turn out the way he hoped for.
F. Scott Fitzgerald has some similar sentiments at the end of The Great Gatsby. He’s part of the reason I wrote this post. I’ll leave you with something he said right at the end.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”