American Narratives and Identities: A Primary Source Activity

For my new introductory course in American studies, which began last week, I wanted to explain the concept of American cultural narratives—a term fundamental to my framing of the course—through a discussion activity rather than a lecture. So for our second class meeting, I prepared a slate of four primary sources for us to examine together.

I wanted this discussion activity to establish (or begin establishing) several ideas at once:

  • Concepts of American national identity take the form of shared narratives.
  • Narratives of national identity and of personal identity are interrelated.
  • Contrasting, even contradictory, narratives of American identity are nothing new.
  • Narratives can be read in sources that do not appear to take the form of a story.

To make my argument for these ideas—or ideally to help my students make the argument on their own—I combined a simple slideshow of images and a stack of photocopy handouts. I entitled the slideshow “The Stories We Tell: Setting an Agenda for Study.”

In class, to set a scene, I explained that we were going to be visiting the era of the American Revolution today. In some cases, we would be focusing on the region around Philadelphia, the new (sometime) national capital, which also happens to be the city in which our course is happening in 2020.

Source 1: Winthrop Chandler, Homestead of General Timothy Ruggles, 1770

I wanted to begin with a source that might shake up preconceptions a bit, and which would require virtually no background historical knowledge.

This overmantel by Winthrop Chandler, a significant figure in the early history of American landscape painting, depicts an estate near Worcester, Massachusetts. It was produced a few years before the Revolution. Giving my students that background information, I projected a high-resolution copy of the painting and dimmed the classroom lights.

I asked my students first to describe their overall impressions of the painting. Then we talked about specific elements of the painting that tell us something about the lives of the people depicted in it. We compared, for example, the gnarled old tree in the right foreground with the neat rows of young trees in the center, drawing conclusions about the farm’s age and the economic activities conducted there. We talked about the likely habits of people who lived in two facing houses, with no other houses nearby, but with tiny buildings visible on the horizon.

My students did an excellent job reading this deceptively simple American landscape as a story about a set of (relatively genteel) colonial American lives in the 1770s. Having accomplished that, they were ready to move on to a famous written text.

Source 2: Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, 1782

Yeah, you know where this is going. Is it an enormous cliché? Bien sûr. But is it a good text to read in the first week of an American studies course? Absolument! It’s the sort of text that, if it didn’t exist, mid-20th-century U.S. political scientists would have had to invent.

I handed out a one-page excerpt (edited for clarity) from Letter III in Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer—the “What then is the American, this new man?” essay. As far as I can recall, this was the first time I’d ever taught the essay in an undergraduate course.

I gave students a few minutes to read the handout. Then we talked about it. Students quickly pointed out not only Crèvecoeur’s emphasis on newness and prosperity, but also his use of the word “melt,” which immediately summoned to their minds the familiar (later) image of an American “melting pot.”

We talked about how familiar Crèvecoeur’s understanding of Euro-American immigration is, how modern it seems. I pointed out that Crèvecoeur’s answer to his own question takes the form of a simple story: the American is a poor European who crosses the Atlantic and becomes rich.

We also talked about who is implicitly or explicitly excluded from Crèvecoeur’s narrative: anyone belonging to the nations that were in North America before Europeans came, and anyone transported to North America from somewhere other than Europe, and anyone who would not qualify to be a male head of household.

We moved next to a source designed to set up a direct contrast.

Source 3: Mary Cooper, needlework verse sampler, 1789

This one is a bit of local context. Mary Cooper belonged to an elite family of Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. (They had long controlled a local ferry service. The neighborhood of Cooper Point and the Cooper Street that still runs perpendicular to the Camden waterfront appear to be named after them.) As a twelve-year-old girl, Mary produced this verse sampler in a Philadelphia school run by Ann Marsh. It now resides in the collections at Winterthur in Delaware.

I provided this context, and pointed out that in 1789, a new national government for the United States was taking form under the new Constitution. I made sure my students understood the basic idea of a needlework sampler, and I pointed out some features of the text written on this one, since they probably would not be legible to students in the back rows of the room. Then I asked my students what kind of account Mary Cooper was giving of herself.

Students easily pointed out that Mary was highlighting the importance of her religious faith; the importance of her family (with her parents, three siblings, and a third relative all identified by name); and her household skills as a growing young woman. They also cleverly observed that this sampler tells a story of personal growth over time: the sampler displays the student’s achievement in school, probably over a term of years.

How much that narrative of a girl’s personal identity constitutes a national narrative, of course, is a more complicated story. But it’s still a narrative—a culturally sanctioned and standardized narrative—for a kind of American life that doesn’t quite fit Crèvecoeur’s pattern.

Finally, we moved to a source that presents a more deliberate contrast in an explicitly American narrative.

Source 4: Benjamin Banneker, letter to Thomas Jefferson, 1791

I handed out another one-page edited excerpt, and I explained to my students some of the context for this message from Benjamin Banneker to the then-secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson. I discussed Banneker’s mathematical and astronomical brilliance, explaining that he sent this text as a cover letter for a pre-publication copy of his almanac, seeking Jefferson’s endorsement.

Students quickly pointed out the remarkable fact that Banneker confronts Jefferson with his own words from the Declaration of Independence (themselves a kind of creation narrative for human rights) and with a narrative about how Jefferson and other American leaders failed to uphold their own professed principles with respect to African American enslavement.

We also talked about the interesting way Banneker tells an implicit story about himself: He identifies himself with the enslaved (who are “my brethren”) even though he himself was born free, and he demonstrates his intellectual accomplishments with a tangible artifact in order to prove what is possible for people of his race.

(That brings me to another reason I wanted to use this source, besides its explicit use of the Declaration: I wanted the first early African American voice included in this course to belong to a person who was born free. That’s not out of a desire to obscure the bitter reality of slavery—after all, this text is about slavery—but out of the conviction that my course should avoid reinforcing our schools’ simplistic narrative for black experience and black personhood in early America. I want my course’s narrative of blackness to begin with freedom, wherever the narrative may need to go from there.)

All in all, I think these four primary sources worked very well together as a way to begin examining the concept of cultural narratives for American identity. The discussions were lively enough, in my class of a dozen students, that we ran out of time to get to a very short lecture I had prepared to cap off the discussion. So that’s where we’ll begin this week.

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