Tuning Up - Winter 2019

Made for You and Me

This land has contained our best and worst impulses

By Edward Hoagland | December 3, 2018
Alamy

America, named for an explorer and ripe with visionaries from Johnny Appleseed to Thomas Edison, is a nimble word, as limber as its prairies and its plains. Greed and conquest have vied, however, during its checkered history, with melting generosities, from Ellis Island to Carl Sandburg and his master, Walt Whitman. Indeed, Herman Melville staffed his whaling ship with representatives of every race on earth. Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo. And the greatness of his book resides in all its bulk and blubber. We’ve got, here, big-shouldered Chicago and wide-chested Texas. Bayoued Louisiana and sequoiaed California. Flyways, highways, byways, a rhapsody of opportunity.

I once drove a Model A Ford from coast to coast on Route 66, sleeping days because the car overheated except at night. Three thousand miles on four cylinders, the Mississippi just the first great divide. I also rode flatcars long distances with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey—and once some bank robbers joined us, because they could. Hitchhiked from San Diego to Portland with old Wobbly organizers and the like. We contain, as Walt said, multitudes. I’m Dutch, you’re French, or African.

Why didn’t David Copperfield simply sail west? Steerage worked fine. Then pound the Golden Spike and stretch the Golden Gate. Rassle an alligator, eat a bushel of oysters. “Squaw men” blended with the Sioux to create two Dakotas. King Oliver and a Goodman created jazz, assisted by a Duke. And apart from excellence, a Ruth or a Rockefeller, we reward mere boasters to a point. In this motley country, self-promotion is accepted. One can wriggle and scoot free, see lovely mini-ranches from a speeding train, and the Corn Belt striped with soybean fields. Our flag is striped as well, and our history, with ignominies such as slavery and genocide. Yet the sum was better than its parts. The gunk of superpatriotism muddies our genuine, wholehearted love of hill and shore.

So what about it? We have a whirligig in Washington, a yo-yo in the White House, and clouds of climate alteration. Yet watch the trees leaf out next spring, and the birds that still return to nest in them—a skeleton crew, to my ears about a fourth as many as 50 years ago. We snoop and vacillate electronically much faster than was possible before but lose our baseline in the process, until we step outside for a breath of fresh air. Trumpisms throw me off-stride, to put it mildly. The horizon tilts off-kilter, as our electorate stumbles back toward Know Nothing days. The melting pot seems as much a myth as a cliché. Spinning our wheels, skidding a bit, we recite American Dream truisms and banalities, such as work hard, respect diversity, and succeed. A melting pot and private enterprise may seem nominally contradictory. Can you cook the rich man back into the stew? Immigration created us, but we remain leery of immigrants. Always there was prejudice against new groups, Irish or Italian, now Haitian, Russian, Salvadoran.

Buccaneering capitalism versus safety-net programs; we juggle both. With success, leisure has become a widespread goal. The workaholic has his weekend hideaway. Maybe the slipstream of the economy will boost us all a little, and the mythology of hard work, honesty, and forthrightness actually do it. Our experiments so often rescue us, whether breadbasket or inventoried in the cloud. We’ve always trusted that they will. A new continent making its own rules. We don’t grope for solutions, just believe they will appear. Inventors solve the problems, except of course the spiritual ones.

Now overweight with flab, we’ve gorged on our success. If the continents have all been discovered, we invent new strata in them—electronic or sociological. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. The Internet doesn’t dizzy us because we’ve been such multifarious creatures all along. A primate’s hands but steamroller minds, and wet behind the ears. We scare ourselves, nukewise, yet revel in self-praise, as the endgame of evolution. So grown-up, for example, yet still fascinated by breasts. Chubby as babies, half a century later we grow chubby again, and suck on cigarettes or a cigar. We like excellence, yet aspire to a level playing field. Each generation conquering the world anew.

More than most Europeans, we rebel against our parents year by year as a catapult over old walls, shedding stodgy prejudices, and rabid as sports fans. We need fandom as a vent. Our contradictions would chew at us otherwise. Black entertainers and sports stars pierce the ceiling that their brethren bump against. But prejudice is part of human nature as a survival tool, clan versus clan. Rivalry propels us but can prove toxic. It’s a seesaw tool, your friend a foe until a friend again. And politics is debate, never just the status quo. We believe in self-improvement. It’s in our DNA. In retirement you can stand pat, contemplate the quiltwork of your life, and let Social Security come to you. Land of opportunity, we’ve called it, and it was, till science busted certainty. But we do have new continents, discoveries nearly amuck, piling up on top of one another. I envy the young as well as pity them. In my 80s, I’ve had enough. But go at it, tadpoles. Grow legs and arms like amphibians always have before. Become a frog.

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