Americans: Insular Enough

Nobel Literature Committee Permanent Secretary Horace Engdahl recently upset many Americans with his comments about our literature, claiming US authors are "too isolated, too insular." Some are clearly finding fault with his statement.

The thing is, what if he's sort of right. While it's extremely difficult to determine how many US citizens hold passports, many have surmised that the figure is at most 25% of the national population. Determining how many Americans speak another language is another staggering task. We are an extremely patriotic nation but this allegiance comes to the detriment of our world knowledge.

I have to even admit that I'm guilty of this, especially as it pertains to my knowledge of literature. I'm about three weeks from taking my GRE general and literature tests and I'm thinking about how much I never did care for British literature. The other day, my mother was watching a film about Graham Greene and his love affair and I realized that I couldn't recall any works he'd written. Yet despite how ignorant I feel about the issues and literature of the world, I graduated with general and departmental honors. I'm still a rather sharp thinking and writer (it's weird throwing modesty aside momentarily while talking about my ignorance). I can still hold conversations on literature and criticism fairly well. But in three weeks, I'm not sure what ground I'll hold in a test on literature from all over the world, especially European literature.

When one looks from Engdahl's perspective, perhaps this is a fault of America, but we're certainly not a perfect nation. It's a fault resulting from our size and our hegemony. When the size of our country is larger than the entire European continent, it's a little difficult for us to focus on more than our own culture. It was perplexing enough for me to go through college as a Texas in Georgia and adapt to New Yorkers. My best friend is from Maryland. My legacy in my paper's section balances his time along the Pacific Coast. My sage is from Ohio. It's difficult enough to have to realize that these different locales are all distinct with their own dialects and cultures. The US is such a diverse place is a rich and varied history.

The US could produce a Californian like John Steinbeck. It can produce an orator like Marylander (I like to think of him as a Marylander) Frederick Douglass. It can produce an Ohioan like Toni Morrison. It can produce the freakish mind of Washingtonian Chuck Palahniuk. It can produce the attentive mind of North Dakotan Chuck Klosterman. It can produce the Texan folk writer J. Frank Dobie.

While it may be our fault for not relating to the rest of the world, many nations in the rest of the world are compared in size to my home state. It may seem arrogant for me to say this but... we're big and currently we're in charge. If Malaysia was the most powerful nation on earth, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't be giving much mind to Papua New Guinea.

In fact, there has never in the 107 year history of the Nobel Prize in Literature has there been a winner from the Pacific Isles. Perhaps the committee is too isolated, too insular.


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