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How Do We Americans Work Out Our American Identity? (Review)

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opednews.com Headlined to H2 12/26/11

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 25, 2011: My favorite author is the scholar Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), the only Catholic priest ever elected to this day to serve as president of the Modern Language Association (1978). I want to reflect on something he wrote as a way to lead into discussing Keith D. Miller's new book MARTIN LUTHER KING'S BIBLICAL EPIC: HIS FINAL GREAT SPEECH (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

 

In his new book Miller includes the complete text of King's last speech known as "I've Been to the Mountaintop" in Appendix A (pages 175-182). In his earlier book VOICE OF DELIVERANCE: THE LANGUAGE OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., AND ITS SOURCES (Free Press/Macmillan, 1992), Miller calls attention to King's composing practices, as he does once again in his new book.

 

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Now, Ong wrote the introduction to a book published by MLA in 1982: THREE AMERICAN LITERATURES: ESSAYS IN CHICANO, NATIVE AMERICAN, AND ASIAN-AMERICAN LITERATURE FOR TEACHERS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE (pages 3-7). As the subtitle indicates, the aim of the essays is to assist teachers of American literature in making courses in American literature more inclusive.

 

In connection with the aim of the essays in the collection, I want to speak of prestige. In this context, teachers of American literature are the gatekeepers of prestige. Now, if you want to object to prestige, you could say that prestige is elitist in spirit. There is an understandable point to this line of objection. However, if you want to object to prestige, then how far are you going to carry this line of objection? After all, this line of objection could be carried to the point of endorsing a know-nothing stance in life. But let's move on.

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The title of Ong's introduction to the collection of essays aimed at teachers of American literature is worth noting: "Introduction: On Saying We and Us to Literature."

 

First, we might ask this question: "OK, who's supposed to be saying "we' and "us' to literature?" Because the topic of the essays in the collection is American literature, Americans are presumably the ultimate people who are supposed to be saying "we" and "us" to works of American literature. But the works of American literature discussed in the collection of essays are works that have not previously be included in courses in American literature, the gatekeeper courses of prestige.

 

Naturally there are other sources of prestige in American culture, other than courses in American literature. But MLA is a professional organization set up to advance the study and teaching of literature. It is not set up to be some kind of comprehensive or sole arbiter of prestige in American culture. As a matter of fact, MLA and literature teachers in general are not the sole arbiters of legitimation and prestige in American culture.

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Whatever other sources of legitimation and prestige there may be in American culture, I like Ong's idea of saying "we" and "us." Put differently, how inclusive is my personal identity as an American? Am I as one American able to say "we Americans" and "us Americans" to the American experience of other Americans, including other Americans whose personal cultural background may be decidedly different from my personal cultural background?

 

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www.d.umn.edu/~tfarrell
Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)
 

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