Questions, America

If you want to raise my ire in the classroom, just claim that facts and statistics are unequivocally better than any other kind of argumentative support. Personal or expert testimony are only ‘matters of opinion,’ to be avoided at all costs, at least according to many of my students.

In a week I’ll start teaching an American Literature survey course spanning the beginnings to 1865. The nearly four hundred years I’ll cover will begin, appropriately, with Native American creation tales. The anthology editors explain how instructors should attend to “the complications of approaching these texts across barriers of translation and dislocation.”


Duly noted. Native American culture should neither be ignored nor overly romanticized. (Despite how great a song Cortez the Killer is, it won’t be on the syllabus.)

The editors also explain how “we are rethinking, as a culture, nearly everything having to do with our relationship to these recovered materials: how to read them, in what sort of context, and why.”

That final ‘why’ leads to all sorts of surprising places for not only Native American literature, but for all literature. The question I’ll be using to guide the course is “What is American identity?” I’m just as interested, however, in asking “Why do we continue reading?”

I immediately see how my frustration at those who privilege facts and statistics over narratives stems from my appreciation for literature, yet when I examine this feeling further I see how stories have indelibly sculpted one of my core beliefs. Stories are never complete. They occur in time, with beginnings and endings, but we’re left to wonder about what happened before and afterward. Good stories leave us satisfied, but they still raise questions that we mull over, sometimes for days or years afterward.

“Why did he do that?” we ask.  Or, “That was how they thought about things back then?”

Writing gives us the best record of what happened to us, but it still leaves so much unanswered. We have built towering spires of knowledge about every facet of our existence, but these also begin and end, crumbling with time as we begin anew from their ruins. We focus on the chemistry while the alchemy blurs. The truth lies in continuing to ask and probe, continuing to wonder.

And continuing to tell stories.

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