Since we’re coming upon the patriotic months of the year, I wanted to talk a little about nationalism in literature. Yes, there is such a thing. The summer months in the United States are very patriotic. It may be something you’ve never noticed before but it’s true. In May we have Memorial Day. In July we have the Fourth of July. In September we have the recently minted Patriot Day. These are days to celebrate the heritage and sometimes suffering(Patriot Day) of our country.
I for the most part am not going to walk around with an American flag T-shirt at any point. I like the United States, but I am certainly not patriotic enough to go around wearing my country’s flag on my shirt. I know that’s probably a little sad, but you can show patriotism to your country without wearing an American flag T-shirt.
Nationalism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is, “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially : a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”
Let me explain this in terms that are a little plainer. Nationalism basically means you show pride and loyalty to your country. You might be one of those American flag T-shirt wearers or you might do this in other ways. For example, you could show nationalism by writing a song, creating a video or writing a book. There are plenty of other ways to do this as well.
On another note, the United States does not hold the monopoly on nationalism. There are brilliant people all around the world who have created beautiful works glorifying their home country. One person coming to mind now is the composer Bedřich Smetana. He was from what is now the Czech Republic. He composed various songs and operas. The piece I most closely associate with Smetana and nationalism is Ma Vlast(my homeland). This music is basically divided into six songs glorifying the land where Smetana lived. The most beautiful piece, I think, is Vltava or Die Molda( in German). The Moldau is a river that runs through Prague(which I seriously still have to visit some day). The song is so beautiful and you can really tell that Smetana was proud of his home country when you listen to his compositions. He was also a friend of Jan Neruda, a Czech poet.
Moving onto nationalism in literature; it’s everywhere. Whenever you read a book that you feel epitomizes a country or glorifies its past, that is nationalism. Think about the Grimm’s fairy tales being nationalistic in the way they celebrated Germany. Think about those writers that wrote about why their country should be free of a certain regime. It’s not the regime that makes the country. It’s the people and their traditions. Think about Pecos Bill being a purely American fairy tale.
As I was looking for examples of nationalism in literature, I came across Washington Irving. Washington wrote Rip Van Winkle. If you are not familiar with this tale, you should be. The short story is about a man named Rip Van Winkle, who finds that he goes into the woods one day and falls asleep for fifteen years. He wakes up and he has a long beard and sees that the world has changed around him. This tale has elements you might find in European folklore traditions, but it’s American. You also have to look at the way the United States was developing during the time. Things seemed to change in the blink of an eye.
If you really think of the big picture, the United States has gotten where it has quite quickly. Imagine all the ancient cities that other cultures have built upon for years. Jericho is the oldest city in the world. People have been living there non-stop for over a thousand years. Think about how old Tokyo, Cairo, and Rome are. The people who lived there three-hundred years ago had a foundation to build upon. Now think about the United States. It was true that there were a few cities and settlements in the states that had existed for a while, but nothing like what Europe, Asia and Africa had. Think about coming to the United States in the 1600s seeing literally nothing besides some trees, then going away and coming back in a few years to see a bustling city and sea port. That’s rapid progress. That’s a point stories like Rip Van Winkle were making. It seems almost bizarre to move so rapidly, but it’s also a matter of pride if you think about it.
People express their loyalty to their countries in their writing by encompassing the attitude and practices of their country. One person I would like to mention is Chinua Achebe, who did such an amazing job bring his homeland to life in Things Fall Apart. I also recently read Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. If that book does not contain nationalism, I must be a duck or something. Abraham did an amazing job bringing a little corner of Africa to life. He must be truly proud of his heritage.
I also have to point out that you don’t necessarily have to express patriotism to your country to be participating in nationalism. You can express patriotism to your nationality. I read a book called Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog. Mary seems like an amazing woman from what I’ve read of her book. While Mary is technically American, her nationality is Lakota. Her book is her tale about kind of losing her nationality then finding it all over again. She’s proud to be back in her heritage.
I also think authors like Amy Tan and Lisa See exhibit nationalism in their works. While neither of them were born in China, they’re keeping the traditions of their ancestors alive through their books.
I think choosing to write about your heritage even in fiction is a form of nationalism. If I were to write a book about people with weird last names who came either from England or Germany, that would be nationalism for me. I could also write about the United States and southern traditions and that would be another way I could express my patriotism in literature.
So, here you go, I’ve given you at least two separate ways authors can exhibit nationalism in their works. The next time you’re reading a book, ponder over whether or not that author’s work is nationalistic in any way. You might be surprised to find out the theme is more common than you noticed.