In the 1927 poem whose famous final six words are “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee,” Stephen Vincent Benét had spoken as much for a Roosevelt-reared Jewish boy like me as for a wellborn Yale graduate like himself with the poem’s guilelessly Whitmanesque opening line: “I have fallen in love with American names.” It was precisely in the sounding of the names of the country’s distant places, in its spaciousness, in the dialects and the landscapes that were at once so American yet so unlike my own that a youngster with my susceptibilities found the most potent lyrical appeal. That was the heart of the fascination: as an American, one was a wisecracking, slang-speaking, in-the-know street kid of an unknowable colossus. Only locally could I be a savvy cosmopolite; out in the vastness of the country, adrift and at large, every American was a hick, with the undisguisable emotions of a hick, as defenseless as even a sophisticated littérateur like Benét was against the pleasurable sort of sentiment aroused by the mere mention of Spartanburg, Santa Cruz, or the Nantucket Light, as well as unassuming Skunktown Plain, or Lost Mule Flat, or the titillatingly named Little French Lick. There was the shaping paradox: our innate provincialism made us Americans, unhyphenated at that, in no need of an adjective, suspicious of any adjective that would narrow the implications of the imposingly all-inclusive noun that was—if only because of the galvanizing magnum opus called the Second World War—our birthright.
Monday, May 29, 2017
… I Have Fallen in Love with American Names - The New Yorker. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)