Russell Banks- Dreaming Up America
Information about the book
Author: Russell Banks
Title: Dreaming Up America
Publishing House: Seven Stories Press
Number of pages: 127
Number of chapters (the author calls them reels): 8
Reel One- The earliest signs of an American sensibility
Reel Two- The power of words
Reel Three- Conquest of the imagination
Reel Four- Of man and machines
Reel Five- A very peculiar institution
Reel Six- The dark side only gets darker
Reel Seven- The shifting center
Reel Eight- What for,where to
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Russell Banks- Dreaming Up America
Reel One: The earliest signs of an American sensibility (p. 1-15)
Russell Banks begins his book by revisiting the traditional view of the colonization of America by the European immigrants. He mentions three distinct types of colonists according to their nationality: the English, the Dutch and the Spanish. He quickly lists the purposes of their arrival (Intrusion, perhaps) and the areas where they had settled colonies.
The English colonists established themselves in New England in search of religious freedom, driven my the Protestant belief that they were not just simply exploring a continent, but they were creating a new spiritual haven.
The Dutch colonists settled in the area which comprises New York, Manhattan and the Hudson Valley, primarily driven by economic reasons (to fish and to trade for beaver and lumber).
The Spanish colonists came to the Carribean area, in Florida, on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and deep into Mexico. They were eager to prospect for gold and they din not have any specific religious or political purpose in their endeavour.
Russell Banks ironically states that the colonization of America did not coincide with the beginning of America as this continent had been already inhabited. Banks hints at a possible backstage dispute between the colonists driven by spiritual intentions and those with economic ambitions. Banks does not develop further this notion of the internal conflict.
Then he adopts a seemingly leftist attitude towards the European settlers who may have wanted to exhaust the resources of the newly found continent. He also criticizes the fact that the European colonial powers took advantage of this „bottomless storehouse“ (I think that this attitude should have been assumed only by a Native American whose ancestors had faced the European invasion).
The author speaks of an early cultural awareness among the colonists, which occurred by the early 18th century when the economic and religious ambitions had merged and had allowed the building of an early American identity, a national culture. But these tendances were not applied to all parties involved in the process as there were still some conflicting values in the background.
Banks says that the making of an institutional American identity depended significantly on the type of governance or administration adopted by each of the three types of colonists.
The English colonies had a rather local autonomy when compared to the Spanish and French ideas of strict ruling from the home country.
Quite predictably, Banks goes on with his description by putting a light emphasis on the African (Rather African American) issue. He wants to do justice to history by blaming not only the South, but also the North for using slaves.
The African cultural values were more pervasive in the South, he says. Banks´s narration concerning this very aspect fails to explain why the African American values reached the great public only in the 20th century and why only by means of arts. (The African American community was still socially invisible even with a very large population among the inhabitants of America. Is this the so-called White Liberal Guilt Syndrome? Does Russell Banks behave like an authentic leftist US intellectual when he speaks more about the European colonists rather than about the African slaves brought to work the colonists´ lands? For me, he could say as well: Oh, yeah, the slaves...Hmmm, there might have been some Africans in the US, but I do not know how did they get there. Is this good for my Black reader?“)
The next thing he does is to develop the concept of the American Dream by stipulating the Spanish perspective (El Dorado, the city of Gold), the French view (Ponce de Leon´s dream of the fountain of youth) and the English Puritan ambition of building „Gods´s Protestant utopian city on a hill, the New Jerusalem“) (He fails to display as well the places assigned to the Native Americans and to the African slaves in these scenarios).
Furthermore he presents at large each perspective. The first dream, of a place where a sinner could become virtuous, far away from the tempations of the old and decadent Europe, the second dream, a place where financial realization at everybody´s hand, the third one is of a place where a person could be born again.
By late 17th century and early 18th century all the three dreams had merged when the colonies had started to undergo a process of a slow but sure coagulation around the English cultural hegemony (It would be perhaps very interesting to draw a brief analysis about the building up of the national identity in three cases: Italy, Germany and the United States of America).
When it comes to the institutional establishment of the United States of America, Russell Banks brilliantly pinpoints the order in which each European cultural value forged its way deep into the continent. Initially, the Puritan colonists built a white church, then the town hall, where anyone voted (Does he include women, African slaves and the „civilized“ Native Americans in this vague concept of „everyone“?), the schoolhouse, and the bank.
He underlines the competition between the Catholic priests (among the Spanish and French colonists) and the Protestant ministers (extremely active in New England). This is the point where politics and religion determined the forthcoming of the „American social democracy“ and „the representative government in America“ because God had been central to the US political and social discourse ever since.
The Independence episode is treated in an ideological manner by Banks: the already American subjects of the British Crown rebelling against taxes imposed without consulting with the local representatives of the American settlers.
Then the unity issue. Banks says that the US South and the US North joined hands in the Independence War because they acted pragmatically as only with combined forces they had succeded in overthrowing the English rule. Each side needed the other for it lacked what the other had: either the ideological drive (in the North), either the economic ambition (in the South).
What strikes me as an East European is the laxity with which Russell Banks speaks about the steps towards democracy in the US. This is where the US arrogance steps up. Banks seems to say that democracy could only be applied to the US because US citizens favoured by then an elitist movement which seems to be a pattern for most successful political movements.
Even if he tries to appear as objective, I strongly resent the way in which he mentions all types of discrimination in the voting system: based on wealth, gender and color of skin.
The author seems to say, just up to this point, that it did not matter that large communities were not allowed to vote, it really mattered that the new country was not an Aristocracy or a Monarchy. Perhaps realising that he has gone too far with his superiority over the „barbarian“ Europe. He praises the French influence regarding the establishment of democratic institutions int the US.
But afterwards, the nationalistic idea expressed by Banks is that the Americans were always the first and the best compared to their European counterparts.
He closes the chapter by praising, again, the brave spirit of the American soldiers fighting against the better-trained British invaders (Since I seem to have irony deeply encoded in my genes, I cannot keep telling myself that the above opposition also appears in this weird galactic, multidimensional war against the rude Muslim, but here the Hollywood parts of the „brave soldiers, laymen, farmers and mechanics“ should be given to Ossama Bin Laden´s „martyrs“).
The last paragraph of the first chapter does not qualify Mr. Banks for a leftist US intellectual. Because, after all, history is nothing else than the winner´s version of facts. And the losers are (must be) always bad and mocked at. (Remember the gladiators).