The Search for Identity in American Literature and Life

The search for an ancestral past is a major literary theme and basic human need.

Posted Aug 16, 2018

One of the most pervasive themes in American literature is “the search for identity.” Our earliest authors celebrated literary characters who separated from family, ancestry, and the past to head west. This was also a celebration of the severing of our European ties as we tried to create a national “American” identity. Later, it became a celebration of the westward movement and the explorers who left their families and ancestral pasts to pursue their dreams out West.

R. W. B. Lewis, one prominent literary critic, described this new cultural hero in his book The American Adam (1955) as “an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling. . . .” Cooper’s Leatherstocking character, Melville’s Ishmael, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and many others all evolved from this cultural and historical background. In the twentieth century, characters like Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye reflect this obsessive desire to distance themselves from their families and ancestry to go it alone.  The many immigrants in Willa Cather's "Prairie Trilogy" also abandoned their European ancestry to forge new identities on the Nebraska prairie.

For some time, however, we have seen a different pattern emerging in our national consciousness. Studies have demonstrated that Americans, more than ever before, are researching their ancestral connections as they sense that our national identity and values have changed significantly during their own lifetimes. They want—indeed, desperately need—to be more grounded in a continuance of ancestral connections.

This deeply felt need appears to be reflected even more in children who were never successfully integrated into their adoptive families. My recently published novel, The Sins of Rachel Sims, is a fictional account of a young woman who learns in her early twenties that the people she thought were her parents are not her biological parents. This triggers an obsessive psychological need to find “where she fits in” and to learn the identities of those who made her life possible.

Like my father, who struggled in his adoptive home, Laura Fielding in the novel wants desperately to be more than “an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling.” 

Dennis M. Clausen
Abandoned Minnesota Farmhouse
Source: Dennis M. Clausen