Twain’s classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has this idea at its core. The main characters are a white urchin child and a black slave—both of whom, in different ways, are repressed by “respectable” society, and continually find their opinions silenced. But they learn to rely on one another for survival. Through this experience, these two outcasts begin to empathize with one another, and start to see each other as fully human.
We see Twain’s commitment to this idea in a biting, outrageous speech he gave to the Mayflower Society, a group of people who gathered to celebrate their status as descendants of that first ship’s passengers. Twain began by deriding the early Pilgrims, saying they “abolished everyone else’s ancestors.” He goes on to dispute the very notion of “pure” heritage. “I have the morals of Missouri and the culture of Connecticut,” he told them, before claiming that his true ancestors are the Native Americans, the Quakers, the persecuted victims of the Salem Witch Trials and, finally, the slaves.
“The first slave,” he said, “brought into New England out of Africa by your progenitors was an ancestor of mine—for I am of mixed breed, an infinitely shaded and exquisite Mongrel.” By making his main characters a pair of outcasts, Twain dramatized the idea of a mixed, multifaceted national identity famously formulated by Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes)."
American literature can have its Aunt Sallys and Judge Thatchers, the novel suggests, but it must also contain the story of the homeless orphan, the subjugated slave. It just took my breath away. And I thought, this is my idea of what it means to be an American: to be an exquisite, many-shaded mongrel.
In The Republic of the Imagination, I follow this idea through Sinclair Lewis and Carson McCullers. And from there, it was very easy to hook up with James Baldwin, the writer I discuss in the book’s epilogue.
This idea of being of mixed origin was central to Baldwin, who called himself “a kind of bastard of the West.” Not by choice, but by force, he had been uprooted and deprived of all his ancestry. When the racists told him, you're not of us, you’re not like us, you’re not American, Baldwin said—no, you bloody bastards. You took everything away from me. I can't go back to Africa. I'm not an African and yet you don't allow me to be an American. I become an African American.
For Baldwin, to be black and American was to be painfully aware of the complicated, mixed nature of one’s heritage. “When I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa,” he said,
And this meant that in some subtle way, in a really profound way, I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries. I would have to make them mine.
Baldwin took the best from what was offered to him, and the origins didn’t matter—jazz and the blues, or Shakespeare and Bach, he took what he wanted. And this expanded the literary America.