Now, in the twenty-first century, America has quite the oeuvre to back up Williams’ claims that its literary canon rests upon a newer foundation than its European ancestors. But what essentially separates the two traditions, we might ask? And in the question we have our answer, for what has been most clear in the development of America’s singular literature is its abandonment of essentialist thinking. We might say this is true for postcolonial literature in general, but through American literature also runs the vein of pragmatism – an anti-essentialism that tries to reach beyond the fragmentation of postmodern thought to be a philosophy workable in the world.
To illuminate the difference between America’s new paradigm and that of its predecessors, we might look to the children’s story, which is generally the first step of a reader’s initiation into the literary world. Differences between the American fairytale and its European counterparts may be many, but differences between American and European ideals as seen through the fairytale might provide the most insight into what makes the American fairytale (and ultimately the American paradigm) distinctly American. American pragmatism, perhaps our most developed and native philosophy (that is, sprung from American soil), is at the heart of America’s ideals on all sides of party lines.
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum and first published in 1900, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll and first published just a few decades earlier in 1865, work as two easy examples of the contrast between a uniquely American influence and European philosophical influences. I’ll start by giving a very simplified explanation of American pragmatism for those who may not be familiar with it.
What is American Pragmatism?
Early American immigrants confronted a physical and moral wilderness. Some underwent the transition from European rule to self-government, and it was many generations before the dust of revolutionary sentiment settled and American life became more established. The world these people coped with was much different from old Europe with its land deeds extending back for centuries and monarchies that only ever seemed to get replaced with new monarchies. The new world called for new ways of interacting and new ideas about good and bad, right and wrong. No philosophy captures the new epistemology and ethics better than American pragmatism, which caught the attention of academics in the United States around 1870 with the theories of Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, and whose expression reached its democratic fruition in the work of John Dewey from the late 1800s up through the mid-20th Century (that is, in my opinion, as a Dewey fan).
Dewey created a picture of an American pragmatism that originated not with him or his scholarly predecessors, but with the American people. This pragmatism subverted a philosophical tradition that for centuries had struggled with a search for objective Truth (even post-Cartesian philosophy sought to account for subjectivity in order to get past the subjective) to replace it with a new, instrumentalist understanding of experience. According to Dewey, there is nothing in experience to suggest an ultimate end or final cause, so any assertion that these exist in the form of a teleology comes from a preconceived notion of what experience will yield. Dewey saw rationalism (the idea that truth is independent of the senses, arising from reason alone) as detrimental to a proper, instrumental, understanding of experience. This view contrasted even empiricist anti-Cartesian thinkers like David Hume, who thought that Truth is discovered in the material world but is nonetheless immutable. Dewey, reflecting the spirit of American industriousness, wanted to get past traditional philosophy’s preoccupation with constantly reworking solutions to its own inner contradictions.
Pragmatism in the Land of Oz, Rationalism in Wonderland
I’m going to assume we all have a basic knowledge of the stories in question, but Wikipedia provides quick-and-dirty synopses if not. The books’ two central figures, the American child Dorothy and the British child Alice, are fine representatives of their respective literary and philosophical traditions.
When Dorothy makes her tornado-borne journey to Oz, she never for a moment questions the reality of her situation. Though the rational mind, even of a child, might never anticipate suddenly encountering a world so fantastical, when Dorothy’s immediate experience doesn’t play out the anticipations of her rational mind she allows her reason to instead be determined by her interaction and direct experience, unmediated by expectations of what experience should be and independent of her rational constructions.
The description of Dorothy’s ride in the cyclone says, “she stopped worrying and resolved to wait calmly and see what the future would bring." Eventually, she falls asleep. Alice, on the other hand, rationalizes her fall down the rabbit hole:
'I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. 'I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--'
When Alice runs out of calculations, deciding she must eventually land in either Australia or New Zealand, she begins to talk aloud to herself. Alice simply cannot contend with the world without the interference of rationality. When she encounters characters and situations that don’t meet her rational expectations, she rejects them, even trying to bully characters into meeting her criteria for rationality – like when the Mad Hatter gives Alice an explanation she doesn’t like and she responds, "Nobody asked your opinion." When she is asked questions her reason cannot grasp, she thinks of them as silly and pointless, even if they are important to the people around her, as when she says “I think you might do something better with the time…than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers."
Alice encounters different characters in different parts of the land just as Dorothy does, but where Dorothy meets the figures of Oz with a mind open to new experience, Alice subjects everyone and everything to judgments of right and wrong based only on formal rules, such as when she leaves the mad tea party proclaiming, “At any rate I’ll never go there again. It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in my life!" Her rationalism prevents her from assimilating new experiences into her understanding of the world.
Unlike Alice, Dorothy acknowledges her ability to impact the world around her experientially, and thus also acknowledges its ability to impact her. Instead of insisting on judging all situations, she throws herself into them, participates, and creates mutual bonds between herself and those she meets. She helps the scarecrow and the tin man, and while she judges the Lion’s frightful reaction to her dog Toto, her judgment is instrumental, serving the purpose of diffusing tension instead of being merely quizzical and self-righteous as Alice’s judgments are. This brings us to the two different ways in which Alice and Dorothy reason (for, although Dorothy is not a rationalist, naturally she uses reason to make decisions).
Dorothy’s emotional logic vs. Alice’s formal logic
We can’t accuse the whole of the European philosophical tradition of being bound up in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but Carroll, as a mathematician and logician, instills the story with a rationalist outlook that grows directly out of foundational metaphysics and Platonic epistemology, in which reason always prevails. The problem with this tradition, according to Dewey, is that if we commit our reasoning to working within the confines of the mind we inevitably encounter impassible contradictions that we can bandy about ad infinitum. And although we also encounter contradiction in the material world, solving a problem of experience is instrumental whereas solving a problem of reason’s constructs serves reason alone. So when Alice and the Hatter go back and forth about the formal fallacy in saying that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same as “I sleep when I breathe," Dorothy would probably realize she could argue about language and logic all day and it wouldn’t help a bit in her practical goal of getting home to Kansas.
Dorothy applies formal logic when it is practical (e.g. her conclusion that if she finds the Wizard she can ask him how to get home), but she interacts with the world as the world demands. When she meets the Scarecrow, she doesn’t hesitate to interfere in his situation to help him. While Alice cries foul at characters’ mistakes in formal reasoning, Dorothy only cries foul when a character commits an error in emotional logic – that is, an error in effectively interacting with the world for the good of all, as Dewey asks us to do. She is bound by loyalty to people, promises, and decency, which aren’t a matter of rules to her but a matter of goodness. Alice, on the other hand, is bound by the rules of etiquette (though her efforts to uphold these usually fail) and argumentation.
The pragmatist’s approach to the world is more outward-looking than inward-looking. While the pragmatist wishes to make the best use of her powers of reasoning as much as anybody, she thinks these are best used by putting them into practice rather than by playing word games. Like a pragmatist, Dorothy doesn’t spend time wondering who she is or what she must accomplish. She is defined by her interactions with the world and with others, and doesn’t waste a moment looking for an essential self.
When Alice is asked again and again who she is, she never seems to know and always turns to thinking about it. “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then,” she says. This problem of personal identity in a changing world is one of the old metaphysical conundrums. But it’s a question of first philosophy, or origin: Alice always wants to know why things are the way they are (she asks “Why?” throughout the entire book), and she seems to think that by discovering why they are she can understand exactly what they are. But Dorothy’s question is always “How?” Dewey asks us to throw metaphysical questions aside and replace them with questions of application. Alice’s questions about first causes don’t pertain to her immediate situation. Dorothy, however, asks questions that are answerable. When the Witch of the North calls Dorothy a sorceress, the little girl wastes no time correcting the woman, but listens for critical information instead. Again, we see that she readies herself for the situation at hand.
Perhaps one might think that Alice seems the more adult character because of her appeals to reason. When the Scarecrow asks Dorothy why she wants water, she responds, “To wash my face clean after the dust of the road, and to drink, so the dry bread will not stick in my throat," whereas Alice “always [takes] a great interest in questions of eating and drinking” in terms of sustenance. But, seeing as Alice’s over-active reasoning faculties constantly prevent her from adapting to her environment, we might look at Dorothy’s simplicity as sensibility. After all, Dorothy’s life in a laboring-class family up until the story opens has been one in which thought arises out of necessity. Alice’s thoughts, however, arise out of idleness. The plot of Alice’s adventure, a dream, begins because she is bored. Maybe it is her aristocratic lifestyle that allows Alice to view logic as a fine pursuit, while Dorothy’s life teaches her a different set of priorities. It’s difficult to survive alone in the wilderness, and American pragmatism called for the sort of unity Dorothy achieves with her companions. She knows she wants to get home, but, as we see in the story, this is because
Aunt Em will surely think something dreadful has happened to me, and that will make her put on mourning; and unless the crops are better this year than they were last I am sure Uncle Henry cannot afford it.
So Dorothy’s self-conception (of her wants and goals) comes out of her interaction with others, who in turn mutate their goals to fit her presence in their lives. This is Dewey’s sense of community. When Dorothy is captured by the Wicked Witch of the West, the story says,
Dorothy went to work meekly, with her mind made up to work as hard as she could; for she was glad the Wicked Witch had not decided to kill her.Dorothy does what she must to survive. When her long-term goals are not attainable, she turns to goals that are (in this case preserving her life).
Certainly there are instances in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where Alice acts pragmatically, such as when she continues eating cakes until she finds she is the right size. But to act pragmatically isn’t necessarily to act as a pragmatist. Dorothy is at all times pragmatic. The gatekeeper to the Emerald City locks green-tinted glasses onto her face but claims that the city she is about to enter is itself green. Yet when Dorothy emerges from the city, removes the glasses, and discovers that her dress, which appeared green in the city, is now white, she never questions the strange trick of the green glasses, because it just isn’t a useful thing for her to question. But when she meets a girl made of China who asks not to be chased for fear of being broken, Dorothy needs a reason to behave contrarily to her desire to run. The answers she seeks are not the semantic and mathematical truths Alice seeks, but are instrumental truths.
I make no claims that Baum intended to create a pragmatist hero. But his American heritage and circumstances made it inevitable that Dorothy should embody American ideals. Recognition that America’s literary culture is distinct is no new idea (beginning well before Williams’ observations about stilted British critiques, e.g. in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson), and its uniqueness is documentable far beyond the differences between such easy marks as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But in an age when patriotism has become so sinisterly interlaced with imperialistic nationalism and ethnocentrism, the optimistic sort of patriotism in American literature reveals a struggle for autonomy from the perspective of the underdog in the margins. That is, Williams’ harsh treatment of British literary criticism responded to that tradition’s tendency to exclude American literary innovation from its picture of literature. It was patriotic from a submissive position attempting to equalize, unlike today’s war-mongering patriotism that derives its pride from domination. American literature in its distinctness, then, may be a place to look to reformulate a concept of American identity not reliant on established power and dominance.