Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
First-Year Seminar

Academics

FYS Section A06. America is Elsewhere

Our title comes from Erik Dussere’s new book, America is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture. Dussere investigates the dynamic dialectic between the democratic autonomous self and society as a collective, which has always been at the heart and root of the American experience. It has always carried with it a distinctively gendered framework: the autonomous individual is the “authentic” male on the frontier or “out there” in conflict with the authority of society, which has been seen as female and “inauthentic” in many ways, almost the reverse of many European traditions. The “new”, post-1945 dynamic dialectic is that of the authentic, autonomous, democratic, male individual vs. the capitalist, commercial culture that has come to define the new American citizen as the ultimate mainstream consumer, a process begun between 1880 and 1920. Such authenticity, however, may not actually exist. In every case dissatisfaction and anxiety rule the immediate present. America has always been elsewhere.

The performance of authenticity has also become commodified, generic, and often formulaic in books and films, such as ones we will read and see, Into the Wild and “Brokeback Mountain.” We will begin with The Kite Runner, followed by The Book of Jonah, the new novel about a young Afghan boy’s coming to America and the clash of cultures and new spaces he finds himself in. Our books involve Harlem in the 1920s, a poor girl acting as a nanny in a rich New Jersey seaside town, a detective in search of a man determined to kill his son, a politician and his wife who may or may not vanish into the northern Minnesota woods, and a Pentagon “think-tank” expert self-exiled to the desert after the Iraq war. We’ll explore the yearning of the characters for “open spaces” and “authentic” retreats and sanctuaries that include sex, murder, racial identity, and euthanasia.

Samuel CoaleSamuel Coale
Professor of English