Leave it to a president to remind America what it means to be American. It's an epic, imperfect thing regardless of your political persuasion. What a year it’s been! What a history we’re writing! And yet, presidents are not really about the past. From sea to shining sea our presidents stump for their vision of the American future, if only we would follow them there.
And there is that weighty word again, "American." As a noun it defines who we are: I’m an American, among other things. As an adjective it describes what makes us who we are: I value the freedom to vote. I value the freedom to read books and watch movies that interest me. I value stories that examine the vices and extol the virtues of our country.
In his 1999 film American Beauty, for example, director Sam Mendes delivers a dark-humored vision of suburbia in crisis. Trapped in the torpor of middle age, a man quits his corporate job and regresses to his salad days, smoking pot, working as a burger flipper and lusting after his teen daughter’s cheerleader best friend. The movie won the first Best Picture Oscar of the current millennium. Though I think these Best Picture Oscars are better, Beauty is memorable for its message: “look closer” at your life and the people in it, urges the movie’s prophetic trailer, because things are not always as they seem.
Oh, the power of perception. In her 2008 novel American Wife, author (Elizabeth) Curtis Sittenfeld tackles perception through the self-portrait of a docile middle-class woman who marries the loutish hard-drinking son of a rich political family. He ends up president of the United States and she the outwardly supportive first lady with an inner (read: hidden) crisis of conscience over his unpopular policies and war-making. The book is a roman à clef of Laura Bush and POTUS 43, but it gets at the private, uneasy complicities that arise in a marriage lived in the public eye.
American Beauty and American Wife are members of a large club of books, movies and TV shows that use the adjective “American” in their titles to illuminate facets of our country’s character. Considering our history and diversity, the American character is hard to pin down and driven largely by internal conflicts (see: De Tocqueville, Alexis). After all, next to Beauty and Wife, what are we to make of American Horror Story, one of the most popular TV shows on the air right now? I suspect it’s our past rather than our future that’s scary, no matter what politicians say!
For fun I identified more than 28 “Americans” in the Library’s collection and in a variety of formats (eBooks, audio, DVD). Check out the complete list in our catalog. The list includes the three Americans already mentioned.