American Exceptionalism?

American Exceptionalism?

Elizabeth Gilbert is interviewed at Jacket Copy, the LA Times book blog, where among a number of interesting things, she has this to say:

You said before that it’s a youthful impulse to think of oneself as exceptional. You’ve traveled a lot — is that also an American trait?

Very. Very very very very. That’s something I’m seeing more and more, being married to somebody who is South American versus North American. He marvels at it. And he thinks, as many people do, it’s the best, and most shocking, thing about Americans. That sense of exceptionalism, and the honest and earnest belief that so many of us seem to share that we are in charge of what happens in our lives, that we can take agency and arrange it however we like. I think that people who live in cultures without quite so much privilege, opportunity or grandiosity have a little bit more respect for the workings of destiny, and the limitations that people can find themselves in through no fault of their own.

While I thought Eat, Pray, Love was often a very good read, it drove me crazy. There was something so American about it, so suburban and privileged and unexamined. I mean, really, we could all get over our heartbreak if we could take a year off to go around the world. For me, the book embodied all of the worst elements of the postive thinking movement (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America for example).

However, I’ve been sort of intrigued by Gilbert’s new book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, and I found her TED talk on creativity really touching, and, although I hate to admit it, sort of inspirational.

But where I started this thought, and what I want to circle around to, is that what annoyed me so much about Eat, Pray, Love is a quality I’ve seen in a few other memoirs, a strange sense of outrage that life has not turned out the way the protagonist thought it was going to. I think it’s what annoyed people about Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia (about Cleaving the less said the better), and that same whiny quality is what made me sputter at the Anne Hathaway character all through The Devil Wears Prada. There’s an odd unexamined aspect to the expectations these characters all have, that their lives will be special, that they’ll have beautiful things and live in cool places and that somehow they deserve to have it all work out the way they want to. That because they are white, and well-educated, and went to good schools, and were raised in nice suburbs by parents who provided a certain privileged standard of living, they should swan out into the world and find that life is what they want it to be. (To her credit, Gilbert’s crisis in Eat, Pray, Love is precipitated by getting all that and finding herself hysterical with unhappiness).

Now, I hardly live the rough life, but I had such a weird and unstable upbringing, during which there was plenty of privilege but never any money at all — and when I went out into the world,  it was made clear to me that there would be no help forthcoming from my parents, so I find the these writers’ struggle with their own expectations deeply strange. But from the size of their sales figures, I’m in the minority there. By a lot. And I wonder at this. Do most people really feel so pissy about their lives? I mean, I’m pretty grateful. I have a house. I have a car. I have a garden and a nice partner and good friends. I’m going to be really broke again because of the job thing, but even that looks like an opportunity to me right now (when I’m not lying awake nights worrying).  But I wonder about what this sense of exceptionalism says about us as a nation. When did we start expecting so much? And why do we think we deserve so much bigger a piece of the pie than everyone else?

10 thoughts on “American Exceptionalism?

  1. That’s the story of the founding of this country, isn’t it? People decide that where they live isn’t good enough, so they move to America in search of something better. It’s our mythology. — I do think that somewhere along the line people came to believe that life could not just be better, but be perfect; and there’s the folly.

  2. Tied into this very deeply, Charlotte — even among those who want “to do good in the world” — is the failure of the “donor model” in helping the unfortunate “other.” Debi and I listened to parts of Eat, Pray, Love while driving through Italy. Like you, I heard both charm and whininess. (And we were heading eventually to India, too — though perhaps in a different way than). Someone at our gathering on Saturday was mentioning exactly this — that Gilbert’s new book, and her New York gallery of art around the world — seems more grounded, more authentic. I’d be interested in finding out if this might be so. And I do want to listen to her TED address. So thanks for those links.

  3. ” . . . I find the these writers’ struggle with their own expectations deeply strange. But from the size of their sales figures, I’m in the minority there. By a lot.”

    I don’t think you’re in a minority among writers who read Eat, Pray, Love or Cleaved. Critics are rolling on the floor in agony re: JP’s latest. But, the sales figures are made up of people who are reading those books instead of watching CNN-Airport, or doing their algebra homework. Not-writers. Just people looking for a little entertainment, a story. And both Brown & Powell deliver that – pretty successfully if you gallop through, focusing on the sexy bits and forgiving the blunt force trauma to taste. It’s very easy, reading E,P,L, to pull Berg’s mantle of disappointment over one’s shoulders and snuggle in — it’s a nonfiction Judith Krantz plot! New Yorker with successful, creative independent career gets sad, and mad, and tears off on a soul searching globe trotting vacation-tantrum. Ends up in Bali with a new man. Whee!

    Cleaved is sad, successful New Yorker gets sad, mad and tears off on self-destructive whirlwind of knives and trashy sex – another middle class fantasy, being bad. And having it all turn out ok. That happens a lot, too, right?

    I can’t decide which is worse – Powell’s totally tasteless over-sharing or Berg’s opposite – the waspy, coy, quasi-intellectual taking aim at the same territory. Their navels.

    I see a tandem book tour in their future.

  4. As the first to comment, Jennifer, said: it’s part of the American mythology. I hate to say it, but I think it’s partly our (nominally) classless society. We all think we can ultimately come out on top. Alger Hiss and all, you know? As great as it is to live in a relatively free and open society (look at France – thinking of banning veils!), there is some psychological baggage that comes with being able to aspire to, but not necessarily achieve, lofty goals.

    To be perfectly honest, I’ve had this problem my whole life, but with a twist: I thought I would never get anywhere because I started out too low on the economic scale of things, so I didn’t try hard enough. I repressed any talents I do have. Now I’m coming to realize that, the goal doesn’t have to be being on top of the world, but being on top of my own world. I want to flourish and thrive in this life, through putting my talents to work and through other things that bring me joy (family, friends, etc.). Part of the process of discovering this has been reading blogs like yours, Charlotte, and other writings about living smaller, simpler, but perhaps more fulfilling, lives. Thanks for playing your part in helping me in that process.

  5. Wow — go off to the cabin for the evening and come back to find you all having a party without me — what a joy!
    Chris — I have an RSS feed (to Google reader or some other aggregator) but not an email one. Will check the WP plugins to see if I can get you something.

    The Julie Powell follow-up is a whole entry in itself — I’ve had the advance copy for months but found it so upsetting, and so unsettling that her editors didn’t help her out more, that I haven’t really been able to write about it. I’m sort of intrigued by the new E. Gilbert especially since she does seem to have learned something, and is charmingly self-deprecating about the earlier books’ success.
    And Chris, I hope you’re right, I like to think we’re all getting a little more grounded — it seems to me that that’s the opportunity in this downturn. To remind ourselves of what’s important. I’m already in a nest of weirdos up here, what’s the vibe like in California? Does it feel different?

  6. There’s a “mommyblog” which I’m sure you don’t read called Frog & Toad. She just wrote a post about how she overheard some 50-something women chatting about how whiny their daughters are, regarding childrearing. The comments are so interesting. Most people are saying either a> parenting IS harder these days! or b> it’s always been hard, it’s just that only now are we able to say it.

    My take is that we got surprised by how hard parenting small children is, because these days little else is physically difficult. Mentally and emotionally difficult, but not physically.

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