What Makes an American Story?

This semester I’m teaching a class called “American stories.” I’m trying to explore the question of what makes a story uniquely American, and why so many genres that we are familiar with today, such as the noir story, the Western, the rags-to-riches tale, and others, seem to have formulated in America. It’s an exciting class to teach, and even as I teach it, I’m finding myself discovering new things about the way we tell stories and how being American has affected our expectations of a good yarn.

American Semiotics

Before we started exploring actual texts, we broke down a few lists of the images, symbols, and ideas that go into our notion of an American story. We need to have a firm grasp on the tropes writers rely on in America before we can study how they are critiqued, after all. To begin with, I showed students a Levi’s commercial from a few years back that I found absolutely fascinating. It’s here:

Like all jeans commercials, this one is showing a lot of young, pretty people running around with their shirts off. But it’s also quite innovative, and almost approximates art. For one, Levi’s is using Walt Whitman himself as the narrator; they are relying on a very old wax cyllinder recording of Whitman reading his own poem about America. The words themselves are deeply moving. On top of that, Levi’s is capturing some of the images that we have powerful emotional associations with, such as fireworks, children, fields of corn, tough urban landscapes, lovers, night skies. It has the word “America” flickering and half-sunken in a gritty dark lake, capturing a national anxiety about the current, troubled state of our country and the ideals we hold dear. It’s quite an extraordinary commercial, as commercials go, and it seems almost a call to arms to America’s youth, to stand up and make something of themselves.

After the jump: what all this means for our own stories.

How to use American tropes in our own stories

As I’ll discuss in future posts, many American writers very deliberately deal with the same images and tropes that the commercial deals with. But instead of celebrating them in an empty way as the commercial does, the writers want to critique and question them. They want to break them down, explore the anxieties behind them, and sometimes even mock their naiveté. The American ideal of the melting pot, for example, is mocked in stories like “The Godfather”, in which Italian immigrants are not allowed to assimilate but are instead shut off in ghettoed societies, forced to use crime to climb the social ladder.

You, too, can explore haunting American symbols in your writing and explore their value or truthfulness in society. Sprinkle images of the earth or cornfields or the flag in, and then explore and critique these images. Make sure your version of an American story is nuanced rather than jingoistic.


  1. One of the enduring myths of American society is the idea that we are all equal before the law — patently not true, but nonetheless an ideal to which we all aspire. My father was an attorney, and this one was one of his big “things.” He taught a course at CCNY law school at night for just that reason.America is the land of equal opportunity, but opportunities are more equal if you have money.

  2. mary brady says:

    Thanks a bunch. I just lost 15 minutes of my rapidly diminishing life watching ALL the Levi ads (sexy!), the Bukowski take-off of the Levi ads (I really dislike Bukowski) & 4 minutes &11 seconds of a ‘Rune’ game (dullsville! How can anyone get into those games?).

    Anyway, whenever I see the word ‘semiotics,’ I always try to remember what the hell it means. Once I remember, I think about the first book in which I met the word: Walker Percy’s “The Last Self-Help Book.”

    BLH, this book is an absolute scream. At least, I remember it being quite funny. Smack in the middle of this very funny yet profound book, Percy includes a section devoted to semiotics. He tells the reader that it can be ignored entirely, that the reader can jump ahead 75 pages & continue with the
    book s/he was reading–however, he does recommend the section be read.

    I hope you take a look at this book. I understand Walker Percy knew & hung with Shelby Foote, of all people, along with lots of other Southern writers. I tried reading more books written by Percy, but I did not care for them. They seemed very dull & ordinary, which surprised me given how entertaining “The Last Self-Help Book” was.

    Thus ends my contribution to this topic.

    L&K, MaryB
    I find I use The Marlboro Man in a lot of my stories, except he is older and doesn’t smoke. Well, he doesn’t smoke Marlboros, that’s for sure. But tall, thin, craggy-faced Texan-types are always showing up in my stories.

  3. mary brady says:

    Once is just not enough…

    I apologize for the odd paragraph attached to the end of the comment above. I wrote it in order to ‘link’ my rantings in some small way to the idea of American tropes/icons/images appearing in one’s writings. I understand that was the actual subject being discussed.

    I wrote the paragraph, then realized I had something more to say about something else, & just shoved it down for later use.
    Then, of course, I forgot it was there, since I could not see it.

    Again, I apologize to the many thousands who may have been puzzled by my inattention to detail. I am terribly sorry.

    Also, to BLH, I offer my apologies for seeming to dislike some of her favorite authors. In a matter of only several days,
    I’ve delivered several strongly worded opinions of “ho-hum” about Jose Saramago and, now, Walker Percy. Both authors have appeared on Ms. BLH’s “favorite book” lists. I happened to stumble across the Percy mention (faves of 2008) in just the last few minutes.

    I’m well aware that all my taste is in my mouth. Frankly, I wish I DID like more authors and had the eclectic taste & fiery passion for reading that Ms. BLH displays. I feel like a real philistine sometimes when I consider the wide range of her choices & the apparent raging speed at which she must read. I am envious.

    I have said quite enough. I really, really like this blog & I am very grateful I’m allowed to babble on here as I do. I get more out of it than you’ll ever know.

    L&K, MB

  4. John says:

    I long for an opportunity to use this, which I read in a newspaper several years ago, in a story: a tornado tore through Mississippi and caused some damage. Among other things, it knocked a mobile home into a catfish pond.

    Now that’s about American as you can get.

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