If "The Common Ground," as it is called by its participants, makes a contribution to teaching and learning about cultural diversity, it is based upon the belief that the study of American literature must recognize the opposing claims of commonality and distinctiveness. While these counter terms do indeed reflect a tension that can threaten to collapse discussion into divisiveness, at their best they become the opposing yet positive and complementary terms that can stimulate a candid conversation about wa ys of defining and understanding the sense of identity and community that have shaped the American experience. The project's approach encourages a re-examination of the applicability to our current debates of the traditional motto, E Pluribus Unum .
"America," says the narrator at the end of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, "is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain....Our fate is to become one, and yet manyThis is not prophecy, but description." "The Common Ground" recognizes this defining trait of America by choosing as its shaping structure the concept of pairings. The various seminars we offer each summer for high school English teachers have reading selections that are organized by pairing works that have long been included in the "canon" with significant works written by minority authors. For example, we pair such works as:
Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography with Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life;
Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God with Kate Chopin's The Awakening;
Walt Whitman'sSong of Myself with Rudolfo Gonzales's I Am Joaquin;
Henry James's The Europeans with Luis Chu's Eat a Bowl of Tea;
Leslie Silko's Ceremony with Willa Cather's My Ántonia; and
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird with Thulani Davis's 1959.
The implications of the pairings run in two directions. The more obvious point is that the great America experiment in democracy has always been, as Catherine Stimpson has discussed it, a "cultural democracy" comprised of a diversity of voices.1 Although this view of America has been thoughtfully established by the scholarship of the last twenty years, it is still not uncommon to find at the high school level special units on African American or Mexican American literature. The danger of this practice, well-intentioned as it may be, is that it segregates these works of art from the usual surveys of "American literature" and runs the risk of suggesting to the students that they are being studied for social or political reasons rather than for their literary merit. The simple but powerful concept of the pairings is designed to underscore that all of these voices and all of these literary works together constitute the American literary tradition, a tradition characterized by its inclusiveness. As Diane Ravitch points out, "Paradoxical as it may seem, the United States has a common culture that is multicultural."2
The implications of the pairings also move in a counter direction, however. Because the works are often widely separated by chronology, as well as by setting and narrative subjecttake, for example, the pairing of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultimathe first task is to discover commonality amid obvious dissimilarity. This is particularly true when the grouping is a kind of discordia concors, an apparently violent yoking to gether of works such as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and Denise Chavez's The Last of the Menu Girls which share an elegiac view of an American past. The critical thinking set in motion by the pairing leads the teachers to focus on what binds the works together. The process affirms the simple truth that the poet William Wordsworth once expressed: "We have, all of us, one human heart." There is a danger, however, if we come away from the study of multicultural literature with only this simple truth. Truth may be simple, but great literature rarely is.
American literature reflects two very different impulses. On the one hand, it presents us with overarching myths of America and the American experience, myths that bind us together. It reflects democratic ideals that celebrate the values of community and commonality. It encourages us to walk together a common ground.
But many of our characteristically American works of art are written in the spirit of inquiry and questioning. They challenge the myths that no longer match the actualities of experience. And they also challenge the easy and comforting understanding we have of universality by reminding us of the case of the individual, by suggesting that to get to the universal we usually have to work through the particular and that the particular is often different and distinctive rather than common.
As a way of introducing this point of view, we sometimes ask participants in "The Common Ground" to read Laura Bohannan's essay, "Shakespeare in the Bush."3 Bohannan, an American anthropologist, was invited by members of a West African tribe to join them in telling stories. She chooses as her story the plot of Hamlet. She is prepared to explain some details of custom, but she believes that great tragedies are universal; their themes and the motivations that drive the plot will always be clear anywhere in the world. She turns out to be right, but in a way she never expected.
The tribe members easily understood Hamlet, but their interpretation was very different from Bohannan's. Almost from the beginning of her tale, they interrupted to question and disagree with her about most of the key elements in the story. They were not at all bothered, for example, by the event that sets the tragedy in motionClaudius's marriage to Gertrude. It is only right, they argued, that the younger brother should marry his older brother's widow and become the father of his children. This central event reinforced for them the universality of Shakespeare's art, and they tried to explain to Bohannan the mistakes in her flawed interpretation of the play. They were quite happy to chide the anthropologist, saying, "We told you that if we knew more about Europeans we would find they really are very much like us." The tribesmen scoffed at the notion that Hamlet's father is a ghost because they don't believe that any individual part of our personality survives after death. They also explained Hamlet's madness as the result of being bewitched by Claudius, who wants to kill him. And although no one may kill his father's brother, because Hamlet is mad, they found no fault in his murder of Claudius. The story made perfect sense to them. It is understandable, they told Bohannan, because we all share a basic humanity.
As she reflected upon the experience, Bohannan learned that the one human heart by which we live is not the entire issue and that we run the risk of misinterpreting the universal by misunderstanding the particular. In discussing the novels, plays, and poems on the reading lists of "The Common Ground" seminars, we have found it important to resist the easy temptation to conclude that studying multicultural literature reveals that "we're really all alike." Difference and division are not the final vision either. They are, however, often the necessary point of departure that we must recognize if we are to see American life honestly and see it whole.
The University of Houston has hosted "The Common Ground" since 1989, and it has become one of the largest university-school collaboratives in the country. The hope of the participantsboth the high school teachers and the university teachersis that they are building a community of peers, whatever the differences in the forums in which they work. We realize, however, that the real common ground is the "community of books" that we study. They constitute a community not in the sense of a monolithic or monovocal entity but in the sense of a dynamic process in which the texts constantly interact, allow for exchange of ideas, and exert a reciprocal influence on one another.
The American literary tradition(s), we believe, is based upon the twin values of continuity and change. It is a living tradition. It includes long-venerated books that cast far shadows, but it also allows and encourages the inclusion of significant new works of art. It is a vital process that must never eliminate the possibility of surprise. It remains "one, and yet many," with all the tension, complexity, and richness such "doubleness" contains.
2. Diane Ravitch, "Multiculturalism: E. Pluribus Plures," The American Scholar 59 (1990): 339.
3. Laura Bohannan, "Shakespeare in the Bush," Natural History 75 (1966): 28-33.