A historical tension lies at the center of the American nation. On the one hand, the nation’s founding documents express the universalist humanist principles of liberty and equality. On the other, those documents govern a country settled by a specific ethnic group, with a specific history and culture—English Protestants, with British traditions of law and justice and European art and philosophy—that once failed to live up to those principles. Can America’s background be reconciled with the idea of a universalist civilization?

One American who attempted such a reconciliation was the novelist Ralph Ellison. A self-identified “Negro,” born on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, Ellison—with African, European, and Native American features—embodied in his life the American ethnic archetype. He wanted to universalize the black American experience by linking it to the larger American story and, ultimately, to the human struggle itself.

His most famous work, Invisible Man, published in 1952, tells the story of an unnamed black protagonist who’s rendered unseeable by racism in pre-civil rights America. The novel is written in the cadence of the blues; Ellison, according to James Baldwin, was among the first authors to integrate the irony and humor of black American culture into literature. Invisible Man earned the National Book Award—beating out Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea—and it became one of the literary backbones of the early civil rights movement. It made its author a national figure.

In a 1978 essay, “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” Ellison recalls a music teacher at Tuskegee who admonished him always to play his best in any situation— “even if it’s only in the waiting room of Chehaw Station”—because “in this country there will always be a little man hidden behind the stove.” Ellison uses the metaphor to launch a meditation on American identity. In any American audience, he contends, the variety and openness of life here practically ensures that someone will have an artistic taste that matches that of the performer.

“As representative of the American audience writ small, the little man draws upon the uncodified Americanness of his experience—whether of life or of art—as he engages in a silent dialogue with the artist’s exposition of forms, offering or rejecting the work of art on the basis of what he feels to be its affirmation or distortion of American experience,” Ellison writes. What’s left is the “electrifying and creative collaboration between the work of art and its audience that occurs when, through the unifying force of its vision and its power to give focus to apparently unrelated emotions and experiences, art becomes simultaneously definitive of specific and universal truths.”

The little man also represents “those individuals we sometimes meet whose refinement of sensibility is inadequately explained by family background, formal education, or social status.” For Ellison, this “tends to transcend the lines of class, religion, region, and race—floating, as it were, free in the crowd. There, like the memory registers of certain computer systems, it is simultaneously accessible at any point in American society.” The little man senses that “American experience is of a whole, and he wants the interconnections revealed. And not out of a penchant for protest, nor out of petulant vanity, but because he sees his own condition as an inseparable part of a larger truth in which the highly and the lowly, the known and the unrecognized, the comic and the tragic are woven into the American skein.”

Americans, Ellison contends, have long resisted the truth of our essential interconnectedness. They “tend to focus on the diverse parts of their culture . . . rather than on its complex and pluralistic wholeness. But perhaps they identify with the parts because the whole is greater, if not of a different quality, than its parts.” Americans are all, in a sense, members of various minority groups, Ellison maintains, “and from such fragments we confront our fellow Americans in that combat of civility, piety, and tradition which is the drama of American social hierarchy.” Yet, this clash of styles and war of words—sometimes exploding into outright violence—is the very source of American cultural evolution and ingenuity.

After setting his sights on those who would take a false unity over our essential diversity, Ellison then defends the “melting pot” concept against the new cult of race and ethnicity that was emerging later in his life. “The proponents of ethnicity” writes Ellison, “ill concealing an underlying anxiety, and given a bizarre bebopish stridency by the obviously American vernacular inspiration of the costumes and rituals ragged out to dramatize their claims of ethnic (and genetic) insularity—have helped give our streets and campuses a rowdy, All Fool’s Day, carnival atmosphere.” Many of those who now disavow the melting pot in favor of an ethnic “salad bowl,” in which assimilation is a dirty word, deny to immigrant newcomers the cultural fusion that formed them.

But can a “nation of nations” also possess a shared cultural history? Is the United States a country of cosmopolitan individuals untethered to group identity, or does it have a specific ethnic and cultural heritage that constitutes its group identity?

This tension is inherent to the prevailing model of American identity—multiculturalism—in which the white majority is instructed to melt into cosmopolitan universalism but minorities are encouraged to embrace their own culture and identity. This asymmetry has historical roots. When the United States finally openly acknowledged its history of anti-black racism in the postwar era, it damaged the nation’s sense of moral confidence and opened the door to such inconsistencies.

In his book The Rise And Fall of Anglo-America, political scientist and Manhattan Institute adjunct fellow Eric Kaufmann examines the shifting models of American identity and immigration throughout the nation’s history. Eventually, he observes, the dominant Anglo-American majority chose to reform itself against its own interests. It is extraordinarily rare in a nation with a dominant ethnic majority for that majority to relinquish its hold on cultural and political power willingly. Kaufmann’s essential insight is that this decision emerged from tensions within the Anglo-American ethnic consciousness. Anglo-Americans followed universalism to its natural conclusion and sought to erode ethnic particulars.

As an alternative to the current model of American identity, Kaufmann offers his own vision of liberal ethnicity, a reconstructed form of multiculturalism in which ethnic groups are encouraged to express and cultivate a cultural identity within the context of political liberalism—potentially resulting in the rise of a transracial ethnic majority composed of America’s oldest groups. “The key for future generations,” Kaufmann writes, “will be to unlock this cultural potential within a liberal, multi-cultural framework that safeguards the rights of those American citizens who choose not to identify” with this new transracial American ethnic group. Such an entity might seem like a lot to ask at the moment, but, in fact, “there is no ethnic group on the planet that was not created in humanity’s very recent past.” Perhaps over time, “a more powerful, mulatto ‘American’ ethnogenesis may take place,” incorporating “elements from the Anglo-Protestant, native black, and Native Indian traditions into a powerful expression of indigenous Americanism.”

The revival of a culturally vibrant American national ethnicity, on this view, would make the United States more appealing to outsiders, while injecting meaning and self-esteem into many American lives.

Such a cultural synthesis has long seemed elusive. At the beginning of the twentieth century, American writers and critics largely agreed that American culture compared poorly with European high modernism. Writers such as H. L. Mencken, Lewis Mumford, and Van Wyck Brooks saw American culture as puritanical, commercial, anti-intellectual, and lacking a sustainable tradition from which to draw. Brooks argued, in his 1918 essay “On Creating A Usable Past,” that America lacked such a past, but should invent one. As historian Alan Brinkley observes, these critics “experience[ed] a disenchantment with modern America so fundamental that they were often able to view it only with contempt.”

The call for a usable American past was answered by an obscure culture critic and historian named Constance Rourke. American culture did not need defending or excoriating, in her eyes; it simply was. It required only sustained articulation and study: a task fusing the historian’s act of reconstruction to the critic’s act of advocacy.

Born in 1885, Rourke specialized in nineteenth-century American history and popular culture. In contrast with young intellectuals who assailed American culture through its literature, “Rourke was scouring junk shops, estate sales, and oddball collections across the country for nineteenth century joke books, almanacs, handbills, and small-town newspaper clippings,” writes Jennifer Schlueter in her dissertation on Rourke. The measure of American culture was, to her, “human, not literary.” Rourke wrote a number of books on popular American figures, such as Davy Crockett (who carried “sunshine in his pocket”) and John James Audubon, exploring American psychology through its myths, legends, and folklore. Boasting a highly accessible prose style, Rourke rejected the distinction between elite and popular culture.

In Rourke’s analysis, the American character as presented in its popular arts is a native and original construction. It is not merely a pale reflection of European roots. It is mythical and fantastical, explicitly nonrealistic, and theatrical. Grounded in the popular, not the literary, arts—vaudeville, minstrelsy, burlesque, jazz, radio, and film—American culture is tethered to popular culture. This popular culture is, in fact, America’s “usable past.” Though it may at times be demonic, grotesque, excessive, multiple, diverse, wasteful, and antic, and thereby unfit for Europe, American culture, because it is linked with popular culture, is expressed, and should be analyzed, in the commercial arena.

In her best-known work, American Humor: A Study of the National Character, published in 1931, Rourke looked at American identity through the optic of comedy. “Laughter created ease, and even more, a sense of unity among people who were not yet a nation and who were seldom joined in stable communities,” she wrote. A few decades after the Founding, “the American seemed to regard himself as a work of art, and began that embellished self-portraiture which nations as well as individuals may undertake.”

Rourke traces the American character to three comic archetypes: the Yankee, the backwoodsman or Native American, and the Negro minstrel (to use her language). The Yankee was a traveling East Coast swindler with manipulative savvy, the backwoodsman a swaggering and barbaric river boatman for whom strength and scale were an obsession, and the Negro minstrel—no doubt the most controversial of her types—was a black-faced Yankee, expressing outward joviality, while concealing underlying pain. “These three comic types held essential qualities in common,” writes Schlueter, before quoting Rourke: “All were tricksters of some sort. All were wanderers. All were resilient. All employed bravado. And, perhaps most importantly . . . These mythical figures partook of the primitive; and for a people whose life was still unformed, a searching out of primitive concepts was an inevitable and stirring pursuit, uncovering common purposes and directions.”

It is as if these figures rose up from the land itself. Of the Yankee, for instance, Rourke writes that he “seemed an aboriginal character sprung suddenly, long-sided and nimble, from the gray rocks of his native soil. Surely he was no simple son of the Pilgrim fathers.” These American archetypes were the shadow of Puritanism, the nation’s collective unconscious.

Rourke’s vision of an integrated American culture received new life from Ralph Ellison and his close friend, the critic Albert Murray. In his 1970 classic The Omni-Americans, Murray distinguishes Rourke from other American historians as someone who recognized the nation’s ethnically ambivalent essence. Murray thought that Rourke’s inclusion of minstrelsy in the development of American character shows how she never accepted the “fakelore” of white supremacy that uses race to demarcate culture. “Quite the contrary, her image of the American is a composite that is part Yankee, part backwoodsman and Indian, and part Negro.” These figures loomed large “not because they represented any considerable numbers in the population,” Rourke explains, “but because something in the nature of each induced an irresistible response.”

Rourke’s vision shows clearly in Ellison’s work, too. Throughout his numerous essays on American culture, Ellison developed a concept of a new American humanism that illuminated the particulars of American culture through a universalizing and humanizing light.

Ellison employed the metaphor of the blues. “The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.” The essence of the blues is to master human suffering by seeing it clearly. It is an embrace of the essentially dualistic nature of reality. As Shelby Steele explains in a 1976 paper, “By singing of pain and simultaneously laughing at it one faces the pain in such a way that it is transcended.”

In the epilogue to Invisible Man, Ellison’s protagonist embraces the paradox of being human as he determines to become part of the world. The book ends: “And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Despite his unique political status and cultural background, the protagonist is an everyman. The genius of Invisible Man lay in Ellison’s ability to portray the basic human struggle through the lens of black American life, and in the process to say something of the interwoven American experience.

The paradox of American history, the contradictions of American culture, and the tensions of American identity may be impossible to resolve neatly, but life involves an interplay of such opposites: sorrow and joy, life and death, good and evil, tragedy and comedy. As Ellison once said in an interview, “I think the mixture of the marvelous and the terrible is a basic condition of human life and that the persistence of human ideals represents the marvelous pulling itself up out of the chaos of the universe.”

In this sense, the American project speaks to the human experience. Each of us can access the American cultural whole through our own small part of it. “Our fate is to become one, and yet many,” says Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man. “This is not prophecy, but description.”

Photo by David Attie/Getty Images


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