Expressions of selfhood in classic American fiction: Readings from a Chinese cultural perspective

Date of Completion

January 1989


American Studies|Anthropology, Cultural|Literature, American




American culture dictates an interpretive framework--an approximate, yet palpably ethnocentric "angle of vision"--which its members struggle to interpret, apply, and adjust. Even if they remain unaware of the full dimensions of this paradigm, Americans reflect its influence.^ Classic American fiction by Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Henry James, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, among others, reveals two vital aspects of this cultural paradigm. First, these classic works often debate explicit pronouncements about "the American," including declarations of national mission ranging from the Puritan "errand into the wilderness" to nineteenth century visions of Manifest Destiny; corporate themes such as "democracy," "individualism," or "the frontier spirit"; and most centrally, the myriad personal ambitions that fall within the expansive embrace of "the American Dream." All of these pronouncements are readily identifiable as "American."^ Additionally, classic American fiction illuminates recondite aspects of America's cultural paradigm in paradoxical fashion. Even when Americans attempt to transcend parochial definitions of "the American," they build their putatively transcultural conceptions of "the self" and its relations to the nonself upon the culture-specific sensibilities of time and place. Thus, American perspectives on transcultural selfhood often reveal more about subjective American concerns than about objective human universals.^ In particular, American discussions of the "elementally human" tend to focus on the culture-specific controversy over human perfectibility, which in turn builds upon the culture-specific assumption that earthly existence is ordinarily imperfect, unfulfilling, and therefore "abnormal." Although Americans disagree, often furiously, over these issues, they reveal themselves as Americans by agreeing to debate these issues before all else.^ This culture-specific "axis of debate" becomes apparent when American literature is examined from the perspective of a culture that does not mandate such terms of debate. Chinese culture--which developed in practical autonomy from American and, more generally, Western culture--provides one such fruitful perspective. Readings from a Chinese cultural viewpoint resolve some of the most vexing questions about American literature and society posed by readers in China and the United States. ^