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.
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.