American Literature Identity What It Means to Be Essay

Total Length: 991 words ( 3 double-spaced pages)

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The Evolution of American Identity Through Literature

The diversity within the American experience, and as well within the canon of American literature, precludes the possibility of singling out two or even ten of the novels, poems, or short stories that best encapsulate what it means to be American. From the colonial and early national era and the fledgling formation of national identity through the struggles of emancipation from slavery and transcendentalism, onwards to the industrial and capitalist eras, American literature has provided an accurate reflection of the lives of individuals and communities that comprise life in different regions of the country. Geographic and cultural differentiations also help to expand what it means to be American, taking into account race, class, gender, and generation. Threads that tie together Americans throughout time and in spite of radical differences in worldview include staunch independence and self-reliance, coupled with a profound optimism. Trust in the democratic process is also a critical component of American identity, played out profoundly in the literature of the nation. Yet the setbacks and disillusionment of the twentieth century also reveals the dark underbelly of the American experience through novels that defined their generation. Taking into account the most defining features of American identity, two works from two different periods and from two vastly different authors that best encapsulate what it means to be American include Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

From a strictly literary perspective, Emerson’s “Self Reliance” functions as an essay or polemic in which the author expounds on his philosophical standpoint, whereas Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiographical novel.

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As such, the latter contains much more symbolism and metaphor than the former, which offers a more straightforward insight into what it means to be American. Like other seminal works of African-American literature from slave narratives onwards, Angelou’s text focuses on the theme of liberation: of knowing that freedom is possible and being willing to persist throughout oppression, trauma, ridicule, and all manner of demeaning circumstances in order to pave the way for a better America for future generations. Like Frederick Douglass, for instance, Angelou knew that the Constitution prohibited the maltreatment of women and women of color; the title of Angelou’s autobiography speaks volumes about her take of what it means to be an American. An American is someone who sings loud and proud in spite of being oppressed, knowing full well that the ideals of the society will prevail in the end. Compared with Angelou’s autobiographical novel, Emerson’s essay on self-reliance presents a starkly different picture of what it means to be American. Emerson writes from the perspective of someone who has never experienced discrimination like Angelou but like Angelou advocates the cultivation of inner strength, or believing in oneself and one’s convictions and never giving in. As different as….....

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Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. New York: Random House.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/selfreliance.html

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"American Literature Identity What It Means To Be", 30 August 2018, Accessed.22 January. 2020,
https://www.aceyourpaper.com/essays/american-literature-identity-what-it-means-to-be-essay