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America the Possible? Seeing America First with Nathaniel Tarn By Katherine Kearney MaynardGo Back to the Table of Contents
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From within, and without, America is typically-and comically-portrayed as the embodiment of grossest materialism: the birthplace of mass production and mass consumption-the land where even the national product is gross. Yet the bedfellow of this materialism has always been a quintessential form of optimism. Where else are people made equal simply by declaration? Or slaves freed by proclamation? Or an entire society praised as “great” only in anticipation of momentous deeds yet to be accomplished?

This optimism revolves about the queer notion that what is new, unspoiled, pregnant with possibility, and wholly unbound by precedent, is somehow more tangible than the individual’s personal and cultural surroundings. Writers who champion this perspective often seem most distinctly America’s own. In literature, the freedom to be possible shows up in Huckleberry Finn, the majestic vision of Whitman, the individualism of Thoreau, and even in the respect for nature shown by Emerson, who envisioned the imposition of American industrial cities as places which merely held title to “the earth which is not theirs.”

At first glance, Nathaniel Tarn, a poet born in Europe and educated in England, seems an unlikely candidate for the league of American writers who embrace this vision. Tarn immigrated to America after having been the editor of Jonathan Cape in London, after having been a part of Andre Breton’s surrealist circle in Paris, and after having introduced and translated Pablo Neruda into English letters-an introduction which went far in assuring Neruda’s Nobel Prize. Yet Tarn, the European editor, was also a pioneer in his generation, seeing the link between literature and anthropology. He left Europe not only to see America for the first time, but to understand the American paradox-the juxtaposition of brash materialism on the one hand, and spiritual optimism on the other. It is this paradox that makes America one of the most exotic-and naive-cultures in the world.

Tarn’s collection of poems Seeing America First records the spiritual struggle to recover a vision of America as the New World. The struggle occurs on many fronts, and the collection’s title is rich in meaning. First, it is an ironic nod to a popular ad campaign touting travel in the states, and thus functions as an ironic comment on middle class provincialism, which is nothing short of self-imposed intellectual and emotional limitation. (And much of the volume would indeed shock an audience acclimated to greeting card verse and mini-series virtues.) Second, it suggests the urge to see, to understand, America and the New World as the unspoiled place it is beneath the lamination of malls, rusting industrial cities, suburban slabs and the psychology of consumerism. Finally, the phrase reminds us of the primary position America must occupy in a thinking and feeling person’s psychological geography. Before any understanding of the modern world can be achieved, one must see America first for what it is: the essence of the modern world.

The impulse to find the pure expression of modernity in America is perhaps inevitable among artists who, upon arrival, find a new landscape where little exists to recall a long civilized past. Unlike America’s first immigrants, however, Tarn is not burdened with the Puritanical sense of sin fostered by rigorous religious teaching. His delight in pleasure is undiluted. The paradox is that this delight, as it was for Whitman, exists wholly in the mind. The idea of the pure, the idea of Eden, the idea of pure sensuality unrestrained by vestiges of guilt-ridden past; these are the pleasures of the new world.


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