“A Sublimer Sort of Clownishness”: Nationalism as a Joke

by Ira Wells

Ira Wells teaches American literature at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. He is the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism. His writing has appeared in American Quarterly, Los Angeles Review of Books, University of Toronto Quarterly, the National Post, and elsewhere.

One of the more notorious episodes in the annals of pop Canadiana took place in April of 2009, when CBC Radio personality Jian Ghomeshi attempted to interview Billy Bob Thornton. Thornton—part-time actor, part-time musician, full-time asshole—was apparently aggrieved by the fact that Ghomeshi, in his introduction, had described him as an “Oscar-winning screenwriter, actor, and director.” Thornton, who was touring with his band, The Boxmasters, wanted no mention of his movie career, and had apparently instructed the show’s producers “to not talk about shit like that.” Ghomeshi stuck up for himself by asserting that Thornton’s day job as a world-famous movie star was not exactly irrelevant context for the interview.

What followed was a weirdly passive-aggressive piece of performance art: Asked when the band formed, Thornton feigned bafflement: “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Asked about his musical influences, Thornton told a long, meandering story about how, as a kid growing up in Arkansas, he had entered a model-building contest sponsored by a magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland. The pièce de résistance, however, came when Ghomeshi asked Thornton about the atmosphere at his shows. Thornton said he was comfortable playing to raucous American audiences, “where people throw things at each other.” Up here in Canada, however—and here, William Robert Thornton pauses perceptibly, struggling to find just the right image for this distinctively Canadian concoction of reserve and reticence—“Well, it’s mashed potatoes and no gravy.”

“ … a disease for which I think the best name is prudery.’ 

The forehead-slapping arrogance and egomania of Thornton’s antic may strike us (us Canadians, that is) as somehow typically American. But the particular blend of humorlessness, self-righteousness, and self-pity that characterized the response was as Canadian as maple syrup. Thornton’s Massey Hall audience—channeling our native genius for resentment—tried to boo and hiss that piece of white trash right off their stage. (“Here comes the gravy!” bellowed one wit.) In the end, The Boxmasters cancelled the remainder of their Canadian tour dates. They have not released an album since.

What remains interesting about the whole Billy Bob “controversy” is how completely uncontroversial his actual remarks were. The worst that can be said of Billy Bob is that he regurgitated an old cliché about Canadians being boring, and clichés—by definition “overused and unoriginal” opinions—are uncontroversial by their very nature. Certainly, Thornton’s claim that Canadians lack a certain “gravy” would have come as no great shock to Northrop Frye, who himself contended in 1943 that his fellow nationals were afflicted by a “disease for which I think the best name is prudery”:

By this I do not mean reticence in sexual matters: I mean the instinct to seek a conventional or commonplace expression of an idea. Prudery that keeps the orthodox poet from making a personal recreation of his orthodoxy: prudery that prevents the heretic from forming an articulate heresy that will shock: prudery that makes a radical stutter and gargle over all realities that are not physical: prudery that chokes off social criticism for fear some outer group of Canadians will take advantage of it.

Let’s set aside the allegations (that Canadians tend to be intellectual prudes—or, in Billy Bob’s terms, that we are not a very saucy people) in order to think about what Northrop Frye and Billy Bob Thornton might have in common. To start with a perfectly obvious point, both men think that national differences matter. Both believe that, on a fundamental level, some people are Canadian and others are American, despite the unprecedented interpenetration of our cultures and populations and genetic material. They both believe that the qualities specific to our Canadian- or American-ness might explain our distinctive artistic heritages, political orientations, histories, and fates. Your nationality will help explain how you go about writing a poem, just as it will explain whether you throw things at rock concerts.

At the same time, we know that nations are imaginary things. As the historian Benedict Anderson famously argued in Imagined Communities, every nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” In Anderson’s historical-materialist account, the advent of nationalism was made possible by the Protestant Reformation (which helped dislodge Latin as the official language of church and state, and thus democratize literacy), the rise of print capitalism (which eventually flattened out the vertical power relationships that characterized feudal dynasticism), and, crucially, the invention of the printing press and the proliferation of print culture. National identity may be imaginary, but it is never immaterial; our national identities have always been shaped by our print cultures—by the shared stories we tell about ourselves.

“This is a story that was never new and never gets old.”

Anderson’s account of the rise of nation states as “imagined communities” fits nicely with common sense. We “know,” regardless of whether or not we have actually seen them, that our nation must have finite borders, and beyond them must exist other nations—even if these borders exist primarily in the imagination (especially our northern border, a line which for most Canadians remains very nebulous indeed.) We “know,” furthermore, that despite all of the actual differences that separate Canadians—differences in social class, religion, values, ethnicity, and so on—there is some imaginative glue holding us together. Hence the trickiness of our subject: trying to analyze national differences is a little like trying to isolate the constitutive ingredients of different kinds of glue. You try to hold it at some kind of empirical distance, only to realize that the stuff is still sticking to your fingers.

But by the same token, the very word “imaginative”—which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “Not real; lacking factual reality; formed or characterized imaginatively or arbitrarily”—makes nationalism sound more impermanent, illusory, and fictitious than many of us instinctively feel it to be. For despite the “imaginative” (unreal, impermanent) nature of nations, it is remarkable how real, permanent, and material the specific manifestations of national identity seem.

The American “idea,” for instance, seems remarkably fixed. In 2011, Gordon Wood, the celebrated historian of the Revolutionary period, published The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. Wood’s basic argument is that “the United States has always been to ourselves and to the world primarily an idea.” The force of this idea—what Wood calls its “moral authority”—hinges upon Americans’ “devotion to liberty and equality, our abhorrence of privilege, our fear of abused power, our faith in constitutionalism and individual liberties”—in short, America’s “revolutionary heritage.”

But there was always a difference between the theory and practice of America. The Enlightenment idea of America (as devoted to liberty, equality, and so on) has always existed in uneasy tension with the day-to-day realities of a community devoted to the individual pursuit of wealth. As Wood tells us, “America within decades of the Declaration of Independence had become a sprawling, materialistic, and licentious popular democracy unlike any state that had ever existed.”

The “idea” of America has always included the spectre of its own imminent corruption and dissolution. These two opposing, but structurally inseparable strands constitute the double helix of the American cultural DNA: the first strand contains the Enlightenment ideals suggested by America’s “revolutionary heritage,” in which the U.S. is a nation of self-determining individuals devoted to an egalitarian pursuit of happiness; the second affirms that these same ideals inevitably terminate in a “sprawling, materialistic, and licentious” society devoted to the unfettered pursuit of wealth.

Both sides of this opposition are present (to varying degrees) in the nation’s literary heritage. Take, for example, the Puritan Jeremiad, which many scholars believe to be the first distinctly American rhetorical form. The Jeremiad—angry sermons that denounced a sinful, acquisitive, and profligate people who were falling away from God—nonetheless reassured listeners, offering evidence that early Americans were still exceptional, still the chosen people, still in a covenant with God. When the American idea finds expression in narrative form, its two constitutive strands appear to come into direct conflict. Is America an exceptional land of virtuous self-determination, a symbolic space conducive to the imaginative re-invention of the self? Or a putrid, cloacal cesspool of vice, depravity, and wretchedness?

The secular urtext for the investigation of this problem is The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which helped solidify the American archetype of the self-made man: Franklin describes how he “emerg’d from the Poverty & Obscurity in which [he] was born & bred, to a State of Affluence & some Degree of Reputation in the World.” The overt moral of the story is that you, dear reader—provided that you are willing to work like a cat burying a turd in a marble floor—may also transcend your humble origins and establish yourself as a distinguished personage.

Yet even here, in what might be considered one of the purest examples of the Enlightenment promise of cultural and moral self-recreation, we find shades of the counter-narrative. You’ll recall that Franklin’s Autobiography details his attempt to achieve moral perfection by systematically pursuing thirteen virtues: temperance, frugality, cleanliness, industry, and so on. But the reader is constantly troubled by the thought that Franklin is more concerned with the performance of virtue (as a key to social and financial success) than he is with virtue for its own sake.

On the subject of “chastity,” for instance, he instructs us never to “use venery” to the detriment “of your or another’s peace or reputation.” In other words, don’t get caught. Franklin is more explicit on the topic of humility: he freely admits to never attaining “the reality of this virtue,” but hastens to add that he did have “a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.” He sums up his attitude toward virtue by relating a curious parable. Once there was a guy who bought a specked axe from a smith, and decided that he wanted the whole surface of the axe to shine as brightly as the edge. So the smith agreed to grind it bright for him if he did the hard part, which is turning the wheel. So the man turned and turned the wheel, trying to grind off all those nasty specks of rust. It was tiring work, and before long the guy wanted to give up. “No,” said the smith, “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by-and-by; as yet, it is only speckled.” “Yes,” said the man—“but I think I like a speckled axe best.”

This parable stands as Franklin’s final word on the pursuit of virtue. But what does it mean? Are we supposed to think that the man is lazy, or a jackass? (Whoever told him that getting a shiny axe was going to be easy?) Or has he learned something important about the value of accepting our (moral) foibles—perhaps even turning them to our advantage? After all, as Franklin recognizes, “a perfect character” might turn people off, resulting in your being “envied and hated.” If you’re really interested in rising up in the world, it might even be best to cultivate a few strategic speckles for the sake of appearances. Had Mitt Romney, that squeaky-clean Mormon, heeded Franklin’s advice, perhaps he would have stood a better chance against his Nicorette-popping opponent. Now the time has come to make a few meek, snuffling noises about the scope of our subject. Commentators make pronouncements about “America” at their own peril. America, as Martin Amis once put it, “is more like a world than a country”: you could as well make pronouncements about “people,” or about “life.” Large, declarative statements about “American literature” are equally futile: hundreds of thousands of novels have been published in America over the past couple of centuries. A new novel is published in America at the rate of one per hour. You think you can look at this shimmering welter of human culture and distill an “idea” of America? Lotsa luck.

“Of course, to talk about nations and nationalities as though they are real is to risk trafficking in clichés.”

Still, it seems to me that one can grant all of this while still appreciating that certain currents in the dreamlife of American culture continue to assert themselves with startling frequency. If you paid even the least bit of attention to American cinema in 2013, chances are you noticed The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, Pain and Gain, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Inside Llewyn Davis—each of which is centrally concerned with the fate of the American idea: to what extent are individual acts of self-reimagining still possible without desecrating the most basic values upon which the nation was founded? The narrative architecture in each of these cases is the traditional, up-from-poverty transformational saga: the quintessentially American life-script associated with a huge array of cultural icons, from Abraham Lincoln to Eminem, from John D. Rockefeller to Barack Obama, from Don Draper to Oprah. To borrow a phrase from Llewyn, this is a story that was never new and never gets old.

The “up from poverty” script has always seen a vast fortune as the natural payoff for the intrepid protagonist. But on or about April 1925, something changed. Up until then, the financial reward promised by the “up from” narrative was at least superficially tied to the moral strivings of its protagonist. Horatio Alger’s dime novels—in which a down-and-out street urchin recreates himself through prudence, doggedness, and a commitment to honesty—helped codify the genre. In The Great Gatsby, however, Fitzgerald didn’t even pretend that Gatsby’s greatness, and his spectacular financial rise, were a function of his moral exertions. Gatsby’s success is partly earned (through his formidable act of self-recreation) and partly pilfered (through his petty gangsterism). Gatsby’s immense, romantic capacity to re-imagine himself, to author himself anew—unbounded by strictures imposed by class, money, morality, history, or reality—ignites our capacity for wonder, at the same time that we “know” that James Gatz is a gauche huckster, a con-man, a two-bit crook.

Since Gatsby, there’s been no looking back. The great American “up-from” saga has migrated into mafia narratives (The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos), gangsta rap (“Get Rich or Die Trying”) and, more recently, the coke-fuelled tales of stockbrokers running amok. The Enlightenment strand of the American idea has been performing a disappearing act.

“ … a putrid, cloacal cesspool of vice, depravity, and wretchedness.”

But Fitzgerald’s accomplishment—and the source of Gatsby’s perpetual relevance—resides in the way his text illuminates a strand of the American “up from poverty” bildungsroman that was there all along. He tells us something we already knew. Of course there was always something a bit vulgar, a bit hucksterish about Franklin and the moral maxims he peddled. Of course there is something crass about the ways in which post-Protestant virtue so slickly aligned itself with capitalist expedience. Of course no one ever took this transformational self-made-man stuff entirely seriously (Franklin’s chubby fingers were crossed behind his back from the start). Which does not negate the fact that he was one of the chief architects of the most politically radical and liberatory political experiments in human history. F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously asserted that the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time.” What Gatsby reveals, however, is that the “two opposed ideas” are in fact not two ideas at all, but two sides of the same idea—the American idea.

There’s no denying that other commentators will offer up different or competing ideas of America. Some might argue that any single “idea” of America must be more closely tied to the issue of slavery and the ways in which America’s slaveholding past continues to haunt the racial politics of its present. Others might point instead to the frontier experience as something distinctly American. What you will not find, however, are observers of the situation who argue that there isn’t an idea of America—or that America is still trying to find its idea.

No, that’s an accusation that seems uniquely reserved for Canada. The Canadian character, as conventional wisdom often has it, is an absence of character; our national mythology is the absence of mythologies. Andrew Cohen summarizes this view in The Unfinished Canadian, wherein he writes, “Pondering ourselves is the occupational hazard of being Canadian. The Canadian Identity, as it has come to be known, is as elusive as the Sasquatch and Ogopogo.”

Not everyone agrees, of course. In Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto, Rudyard Griffiths maintains that this old chestnut about Canadians lacking a sense of national identity is wrong—perhaps even dangerous. To the contrary, he argues, Canadians have a powerful sense of identity: one rooted in shared values, institutions, and grand, national projects. Yet there seems to be something weirdly circular about arguing that the Canadian identity resides in an institution—say, the CBC—whose official mandate (outlined in the 1991 Broadcasting Act) is to “reflect” Canadian identity. The institution holds up a mirror to reflect a national identity that defines itself by holding up a mirror to its institutions. The CBC starts to sound like an institution whose entire raison is to promote itself (well, no argument there), and Canada sounds like a dog chasing its own tail.

Griffiths contends (quite rightly) that Canadians are exceptionally good at achieving our ambitious national goals. In practice, these goals have been large-scale, institutional mechanisms for conveying things: transnational railroads and highways and pipelines, for conveying people and resources; and an advanced broadcasting and telecommunications network for conveying ideas. The trouble is we can’t decide what ought to be conveyed. We’re all media and no message. We are potatoes who never learned that the purpose of potatoes is to move gravy.

Our official doctrine of multiculturalism represents just another version of the potato problem: it’s a mechanism for conveying other cultures, not a culture of its own. Our institutions are world-class; but institutions, in themselves, don’t command any affective force. When a coalition of slave-holding states attempted to secede from the Union, America fought the bloodiest civil war in human history to retain its integrity. When the PQ rattles their separatist sabres in Quebec, the Canadian response is a resounding “Meh.”

“ ‘Pondering ourselves is the occupational hazard of being Canadian. The Canadian Identity, as it has come to be known, is as elusive as the Sasquatch and Ogopogo.’ ”

Does Canadian literature offer a key into thinking about our national identity (or its presence as absence)? Maybe—although a difficulty immediately presents itself when you try to pick some sub-set of quintessentially Canadian literary works. Everyone can name the great American novels: Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Gatsby, and so on. But if you ask ten CanLit scholars to nominate the great Canadian novel, you may well get ten different novels. That’s not a bad thing: it just means that our publishers, editors, authors, and scholars have been less invested in tooting the same five horns, less worked up about consolidating an essentially Canadian canon of literary works. One explanation for this lack of consensus is that Canada is still a relatively new country: our literature hasn’t had the time necessary to congeal into a proper national mythology. James Russell Lowell said the same thing about the U.S. in 1849: “[W]e, who never had any proper youth as a nation, never had our mythic period either. We had no cradle and no nursery to be haunted with such bugaboos.”

As it turned out, the timing of Lowell’s pronouncement was rather unfortunate. Between 1850 and 1855, America saw the publication of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter and House of the Seven Gables, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Thoreau’s Walden, and Emerson’s Representative Men. Six years after Lowell had bemoaned the lack of a literary culture in America, there it was, more or less fully formed. Northrop Frye dismissed this hoary old excuse (that Canada is too “new” for a literary culture of its own) more than sixty years ago, when he snapped: “Savages have poetry: the Pilgrim Fathers, who really were pioneers, started writing almost as soon as they landed. It is only from the exhausted loins of the half-dead masses of people in modern cities that such weary ideas are born.”

No, the real problem, for Frye, is that something in the Canadian experience had cautioned us against “audacity,” to use a particularly American word. This is what Frye meant by calling us a nation of prudes. Not sexual prudes, he was quick to qualify—one of the earliest caricatures of our national type (long since forgotten) was “the virile Canadian.” Instead, Frye means a “prudery that keeps the orthodox poet from making a personal recreation of his orthodoxy.” Of course, the poet who was most famous for making a “personal recreation of his orthodoxy,” was Walt Whitman—the very poet who (as Earle Birney confirms in “Can. Lit.”) is least welcome in Canada:

We French, we English, never lost our civil war
Endure it still, a bloodless civil bore
No wounded lying about, no Whitman wanted.
It’s only by our lack of ghosts we’re haunted.

Canadians are haunted by our lack of ghosts. Could there be a more succinct (and indeed a more haunting) expression of the Canadian non-identity? Since Henry James (of all people) coined the phrase, “The Great American Novel” has hinted at the scope of American literary ambition. Canadian literary culture sets the bar much lower, as is suggested by the title of what remains the single most influential account of Canadian literature: Survival.

Atwood’s story of Canadian literature is well known. She starts from the belief that “Canada as a whole is a victim, or a ‘minority,’ or ‘exploited.’” Canada is a victim for political reasons—for our history as a British colony, and our present situation vis à vis U.S. cultural imperialism. But we are also victims for natural reasons. In The Bush Garden, Northrop Frye argued that the “outstanding achievement of Canadian poetry is the evocation of stark terror. Not a coward’s terror, or course; but a controlled vision of the causes of cowardice.” Atwood takes this idea and runs with it. The Canadian experience of nature, she argues, established the symbolic co-ordinates of our national imagination. Where Whitman and Thoreau could sing of the beneficent, democratic potentiality of nature, in Canada—where the only “real” season is winter, where we spend a certain portion of each year trying to ignore the fact that nature is trying to kill us—writers have been less inclined to sentimentalize. No wonder Canadian literature doesn’t celebrate “greatness.” It celebrates:

hanging on, staying alive. Canadians are forever taking the national pulse like doctors at a sickbed: the aim is not to see whether the patient will live well but simply whether he will live at all … Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience—the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship—that killed everyone else. The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life.

Canadian literature survived, in other words, but in a permanently vegetative state. Our “creative” writing is still very much rooted in our inhospitable soil; our imaginations have suffered an unfortunate case of frostbite. If there is an “idea” of Canada, that idea is everywhere scratched and scarred by its sustained encounter with our fatal environment.

“ ‘… the greatest hotel on earth.’ ”

Over the past 30 or 40 years, CanLit scholars have moved far beyond Frye’s thematic criticism and Atwood’s survivalist thesis; in fact—as Nick Mount’s When Canadian Literature Moved to New York nicely illustrates—CanLit has moved beyond Canada. Scholars have ditched the Garrison mentality (the characteristic attitude of victims huddled in their stronghold) in order to explore Canada in an increasingly global, multicultural, and postcolonial context. (American Studies, in its recent transatlantic and hemispheric incarnations, has been doing the same thing.) A quintessentially “Canadian” text, from this more planetary perspective, might be something like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi—a “Canadian” novel with no apparent interest in Canada, its environment, its history, or its people.

Some might insist that Life of Pi’s implicit repudiation of the nationalist ethos is precisely what marks it as distinctive of the post-nationalist phase of Canadian culture. And yet the problem of “Canadian content”—to use a phrase that activates our particular national neurosis—is never far off. In his acceptance speech for the MAN Booker Prize in 2002, Yann Martel called Canada “the greatest hotel on earth.” Martel’s comment (which was not intended as an insult, even if it was taken as one) was just another way of saying that “Canada,” whatever it is, is more form than content. And what is the doctrine of multiculturalism, after all, if not an appeal for content—a call for submissions? We set the rules, but the party is strictly BYOC: Bring Your Own Culture. (Or better yet: Bring Your Own Canada.)

“ ‘It’s only by our lack of ghosts we’re haunted.’ ”

Canadians have enjoyed the benefits of not having any obsessive national dreams. Historically, our lack of grand ideas has allowed us to be a little bit more pragmatic, and a little less dogmatic, than our southern neighbours. One of the side effects of the American Revolution (according to Gordon Wood) is that, in addition to providing America with those lofty Enlightenment goals (liberty, equality, the abhorrence of privilege, etc.), the Revolution also gave Americans a “messianic sense of purpose in the world. In short, the Revolution made [Americans] an ideological people.”

Some might argue that the absence of an ideology is the Canadian ideology, which is fair enough. But there’s no denying that America’s “messianic sense of purpose” and “ideological” nature has come at a terrible cost for Americans and non-Americans alike. The U.S.’s leadership class habitually demonstrates a keener awareness of the nation’s own mythology than of any sort of empirical or strategic reality. What’s more, the violent assertion of American ideology over empirical reality is sometimes taken as a point of pride. In 2004, the journalist Ron Suskind interviewed a George W. Bush “aide” (internet scuttlebutt would have you believe it was Karl Rove) who said that people like him (Suskind) lived

“in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernable reality … That’s not the way the world works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too.”

Canadians—who lack a Revolutionary heritage and the ideological euphoria it provides; who are a little less inclined to chant and roar and speak in tongues; who are a little more circumspect about our ability to create our own reality; and who have not, in our recent past, pointlessly laid waste to a major Arab nation, incurring the wrath and resentment of great swaths of the world—must settle for being part of the “reality-based community.”

Of course, to talk about nations and nationalities as though they are real is to risk trafficking in clichés. One of the curious things about clichés, like nations, is that they are both “imaginary” and fixed. Sure, the image of the polite Canadian, the tedious Canadian, the Canadian who apologizes because you stepped on his toe—it’s cliché, but it’s not going anywhere. In February 2014, the American author Gary Shteyngart made some comments about Canadian literature that caused a tempest in a Tim’s coffee pot. Shteyngart, who had helped judge the Giller Prize in 2012, said, “Out of a million good entries, we found four or five really good ones, but people don’t take the same damn risks!”

“We are potatoes who never learned that the purpose of potatoes is to move gravy.”

Yes, we’ve heard it all before, Gary: Billy Bob Thornton, and the long procession of ugly Americans before him, beat you to it. “Canadianism” refers to a tasteless (or is it slightly bitter?) cocktail whose main ingredients include boredom, obsequiousness, and self-righteousness. As for a working definition of “Americanism,” you can’t beat the one formulated by Ambrose Bierce: “The ability to simultaneously kiss ass, follow your boss’s orders, swallow a pay cut, piss in a bottle, cower in fear of job loss, and brag about your freedom.” (Bierce published those words in 1911. See what I mean about these nationalist clichés being fixed?) So if Americans are bellicose braggarts, Canadians are risk-averse prudes and bores. And who would deny it? The most influential study of our literary culture is basically a book-length discussion of the weather. You couldn’t come up with a more boring approach to literature if you tried (Survive? I’d rather not.).

Relax, I’m only kidding. In talking about nationalism, you can’t get very far from clichés and jokes. James Russell Lowell was wrong about the pace of change in U.S. literary culture, but he was basically right about his central concept. “Nationality,” Lowell claimed, “is only a less narrow form of provincialism, a sublimer sort of clownishness and ill-manners. It deals in jokes, anecdotes, and allusions of such purely local character that a majority of the company are shut out from all approach of understanding them.”

When someone tells you a joke, you might laugh because you get it; you might laugh harder because you don’t. Alternatively, you may not laugh at all, either because you don’t get it, or your brain interrupts and stops you from laughing at something you shouldn’t. Our response to jokes, in other words, defines if and how we fit in; it determines the shape of our belonging. The particular exclusions and inclusions of nationality operate through the logic of jokes. Nationalism without the jokes would be like a meal without wine, as the French say—or, as one Southern redneck put it, potatoes without gravy. Nationalism deals in clichés and jokes because nationalism itself is a joke, and is best treated as such. The question is, do you get it—and do you laugh?


Ira Wells teaches American literature at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. He is the author of Fighting Words: Polemics and Social Change in Literary Naturalism. His writing has appeared in American Quarterly, Los Angeles Review of Books, University of Toronto Quarterly, the National Post, and elsewhere.