They were walking down Flagler Street in Miami like they might any other day, nothing more than two men that appeared to be strangers. The fact that one was Black and one was Latino would give them little reason to acknowledge each other at all, unless one wanted to start a fight. This was just 5 years after the bitter McDuffie Riot that filled the city with acrid, chocking smoke for three days. But on this day, they shared a quick high-five as they walked past each other, an audible smack of comradeship that split the tension of a big city day. The reason for this was simple: the Miami Dolphins were in the playoffs, and both men were proudly wearing their white, aqua and orange shirts with Dan Marino’s 13 on the back.
That may not seem like a lot to build a common culture on, but it’s one Hell of a start. Two people who might otherwise be at least suspicious of each other had a moment together, plain in public, which put a lot of bad memories into a new context. There’s probably not a single sports team that will claim racial healing as one of its goals for the season, but when it works you just have to go with it. I certainly will remember it for the rest of my life.
Building a common culture has to start from cultural reference points that go beyond the usual divisions between us. The lines of race, income, religion, generation, ideology, and all the other silly things that we think stand between us have to have something that crosses them before we can talk about a common culture. Otherwise, all we have are the lines and not what we might call a nation.
Beyond sports teams, there are common cultural references that cut across the lines easily. Television and movies, such as Star Wars or American Idol often have an appeal that is so broad they can bring people together. But what’s needed for a real culture is more than just a reference point; we need to have a common language with icons that allow us to talk about complicated ideas easily. That is the value of literature in a society.
Literature always starts with the classics. Stories from the Bible, the ultimate classic, are easy ways to pull out an icon that everyone understands – as long as they know the same Bible. Huckleberry Finn has great icons for understanding and getting past the ravages of slavery, assuming the reader can get past the dreaded “N word”. Our changing and often hypersensitive world is leaving many of the classics behind as stories that divide, not unite.
Films can be a kind of literature, but even culturally important works like Do the Right Thing can become flashpoints to people who want to pick a fight. Since most movies that provide the icons we can use to explain our world start out as books, however, it may be enough to ignore film for now.
So what do we have in the way of books that provide a cultural understanding that cuts across lines and produces a common culture by developing a common framework or iconography? Doodly-squat, if we’re lucky. The last such work I can think of was Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s epic depiction of life in the 1980s that gave us Gordon Gecko and “Greed is Good”. Wolfe’s depiction of the time is now universally used as a shorthand for understanding the excesses that led us to today.
No one has even come close in today’s world. Many serious critics have declared literature dead in one way or another, meaning that no one is even trying to meet the cultural need for common frames of reference.
I used Bonfire of the Vanities as an example in part because it was written in chapter length installments in Rolling Stone starting in 1984. No one set out to publish a work of literary fiction, but one developed a following through the efforts of a magazine. The world of publishing demands a safe, proven work because of the high costs of printing, distributing, and promoting. This is reasonable, but the lack of a minor league to identify and develop talent that can produce literature has left the industry without its cultural purpose. Reading has become little more than another form of entertainment, and one that requires a lot of work.
A common culture that unites the USofA is certainly desirable to the extent that it is possible. Without literature in our lives, however, the best we can hope for is the comradeship that comes from being fans of the same team. While a high-five on a hot sidewalk can say one Hell of a lot, it’s not the same as being one people of one nation. That takes a common language, and that language requires something like literature. Why we don’t have that literature is something I’ll discuss next time.
Other posts in the series More Perfect Union:
More Perfect Union