Source Text: Marguerite S. Shaffer’s See America First.
“Since the eighteenth century nationalistic Americans, anxious about the status of the New World in relation to Old World civilization and tradition, looked to the American landscape with its abundant natural resources and its magnificent scenery to compensate for America’s lack of an ancient past. The vast wilderness of the American continent became pristine nature, uncorrupted by the hands of man and reflective of God’s immanence. Scenic and sublime wilderness in America offered a natural legacy representative of American exceptionalism and even superiority over Europe that moved beyond human accomplishment and into God’s realm.” (73)
One of the things that stuck with me throughout See America First was the redefining of national value through making natural places gifts from God.
In more practical wording: by having no (white) history to draw upon (wars won, inventions, culture, etc) to show national value, the American people turned to natural landmarks as signs from above that their new country was blessed–as were they, for being citizens.
I’ve been thinking about this idea quite a lot, examining American mottos, songs, and ideals as I come across them, checking for both surface and subconscious meanings that underscore this belief. And, really, it’s everywhere–that both God and America are innately linked, that God has blessed America, that America is better than other countries because of God, and that rural life is most blessed because of closeness to said godly blessings.
It’s an odd little chain you can follow all the way down.
If you look at Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” song from 1940, you’ll find three major things:
First, I don’t think any of us need to look this song up. We know the title, we know the song. It stuck. It’s not a national anthem, but we know it nonetheless. It’s an American song, embedded in our culture’s psyche. Mimetic.
Second, the lyrics:
This land is your land, and this land is my land
From the California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.
This verse, the most well-known verse of the song, details the boundaries of America west to east, with highlights on unique natural features. (The following verses also speak of natural features.) But what strikes me is the last line: “This land was made for you and me.”
We were not made for the land (though we were–Darwinism, adaptation, etc), the land was made for us. Consciously made for us. A greater force created this land, the Redwoods, the Gulf Stream, for us. Us, of course, meaning Americans.
Third, I have never heard the last stanza. Have you? I wasn’t taught it in school. I think the stanza failed to stick. I think we, as a culture, have totally consumed the five stanzas but have discarded the last as it does not feed into the idea of a God-blessed country. (The common people are hungry, there is a church that is not providing for its parish, etc.)
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.
Though this was a protest song, we have collectively forgotten the protest part.
It makes me wonder if we, as a nation, will ever be able to uncouple the concept of America and that of God. It makes me wonder what other bits of marketing and cultural insecurity/need for nationalism have hung around, influencing us hundreds of years down the line.
Why do we need to believe we are blessed as a culture? Why do we need to have these stories told to us? And why must we retain only the bits that confirm us as special?
“Through a multi-staged process—beginning with a publicity campaign that redefined the parks in national terms, moving through a process of nationalization where the state officially sanctioned the parks as national tourist attractions, and culminating in a crusade for preservation which transformed the parks into sacred national landscapes—the parks were infused with national value.” (128)
“[The parks] came to represent the essence of the nation, and the act of touring allowed the individual to experience and possess these sacred national landscapes, actualizing his or her membership in the nation.” (128)
“In effect, the cultural production of the parks as national assets sought to officially confirm the nation as a God-given entity embodied in the unique natural landscapes scattered across the continental United States. Defined as ‘primeval’ wilderness, these landscapes suggested that it was not democracy or progress alone that begot the nation. The nation was not a product of the forces of history. Rather, it was preordained, innate, divine. By thus ‘inscribing the nation into the nature of things,’ the process of incorporation, subjugation, and exclusion that marked the transformation of the United States into a modern nation-state could be disregarded.” (128)