After being on hiatus over the holidays and attending to many other projects, I now return to maintaining the ALCStudies Journal. As the New Year begins I am pondering the nature of character — my own and my adopted country’s. In America we say that someone is a character or has character — two very different things. We talk of characters in a movie or on television; and characters in writing; whether Cyrillic or Roman, Japanese or Arabic.
The Boston Review recently published a review of a book on the nature of the American character. The author argues that the question can and should be asked, anachronistic though it sounds in these days of diversity and divisive red-state, white-state and blue-state politics. He cites a predecessor of mine, Alexis de Tocqueville, who made many observations of American in the first half of the nineteenth century. From that era one could talk of other characteristic Americans like Henry David Thoreau or his near contemporary Abraham Lincoln.
For my money (which I say advisedly), P.T. Barnum, born one year after Thoreau in 1810, epitomizes the aspects of American character that have made the country what it is. Lapham’s Quarterly has an essay by Charles Baxter on Barnum and his lasting legacy. Much as Americans like to identify themselves with the idealism of Thoreau Emerson or Lincoln, it is Barnum’s no-nonsensive practicality and unsentimentalism that has driven the engine of progress through promotion. For Barnum they were the same. He originated much of the philosophy behind advertising and modern-day branding; from Carnegie’s Think and Grow Rich to Mad Men and Web 2.0. For in America, land of promise and opportunity, to believe a thing is to make it real. And if the promise and opportunity don’t quite match our need or desire (as for many they did not and do not still), Baxter states:
Barnum was very shrewd. He knew that spiritual peacefulness, a calm in the soul (we would also call it “self-possession”), was largely missing in the American experience… Barnum knew that America was a nation of believers who, thanks to their pragmatism, didn’t actually believe in much of anything, although they said that they did.
This is the genius of America and what it exports to the world: Don’t work too hard or wait too long achieve a thing. 1. Believe that it exists, 2. get others to believe it too, and there lies success.
And what of character? It becomes a malleable thing, a commodity in the service of that success in the free market. Be what others would have you be (on your resume or Facebook or Match.com), and the world will beat a path to your door and make you a star. (I recommend Kenneth Gergen’s The Self in the Age of Information.)
Having been born to an alcoholic mother and raised in an orphanage, I can attest my own character was long set more by nature than by nurture. A leopard cannot change it’s spots, and I am no star. We can, however, perhaps find better ways to brand and market the spots we are given. We did not create the market, but we can use it to achieve our ends, whether benign or nefarious. This is the promise and curse that Barnum and America have given the world.