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America/American - How to Conceptualize Transatlantic Otherness

Romanian Accounts on the US at the beginning of the 20th century *

by Dr.Mona Momescu

The beginning of the 20th century represented, to almost all cultures (either European or not) a period of assessment of their originality. Cultures that enjoyed the comfort of a long tradition, as well as cultures that had recently emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of multinational empires discovered the need of examining their identity; inventing various types of otherness was part of this sometimes unpleasant process.

In the case of the Romanian culture, this process followed almost the same pattern. The exceptions were common to all central and south-eastern European countries, as Larry Wolff pointed out in his famous account on Eastern Europe [1]. As a result of three turning-points in its modern history (the unification of the Romanian provinces in 1859, the rapid shift from a quasi-feudal society to a modern monarchy, the Independence War in 1877/78), Romanian culture vacillated between the imitation of foreign models and original manifestations. The main cultural models which left a visible trace were France,Germany (in western and northern Romania, as well as within the academe) and, at the very end of the 19th century, Belgium. Neither England, nor the United States provided what one might call "primary source" cultural patterns. However, they appeared in periodicals or books as references or terms of comparison quite frequently.

Later on, during the 20th century, America was to become an unquestioned and non-critically assumed form of otherness to Romanians, a kind of absolute other; that means that, be it positively or negatively connoted, it has preserved the position of a realm that seemed to reject judgmental reactions and invited mostly to feeling statements, according to the orientation of the political régime that used America as a reference or term of comparison. It would be hazardous though, to assert that America has been the other to Romanians in the process of constructing their national identity. Preoccupied to legitimate themselves among the modern European nations, Romanians seemed to discover America at the end of the 19th century.Not only as an exotic counterpart of the civilized Europe or as a confirmation of their own exoticism or picturesque among the European nations[2], but as a kind of confirmation of their own social status.

Most of the accounts on America (be those travel notes, social or political articles or literary translations) are contradictory. America was praised for its democracy, for a certain preoccupation for the leftist movement ( or so it seemed to some of the Romanian columnists of the time ) but it was at the same time criticized for its increasing industrialism; to a people relying greatly on the discovery of their tradition, this rapidly turned into a negative label of all activities that claimed efficiency and needed to get to a certain social impact.

I would also like to emphasize the idea that a certain national/regional identity cannot be drawn from the examination of the influences, voluntarily accepted or not, in an exclusive manner. Together with England, America did not represent a primary cultural or political model, as European countries such as France, Belgium or Germany did. As opposed to the European cultures which acted as models (i.e. imprinted their patterns onto the Romanian culture at large), the relation with America was by far more relaxed and friendly. The absolute other, remote and less known acted as a positive term of comparison and as a way of further stressing on the "Europeanism" of Romanians; both the US and Romania shared the complex of being "new nations/ new states". Looking at the new and sometimes difficult to understand America, Romanians at the beginning of the 20th century projected their European image against the undifferentiated mixture of people, religions, races that made America. It was a stereotype largely shared not only by "old" Europeans, but by almost all of the outsiders, for whom America was a short-term economic destination. It is needless to add that the confusion between the US and America was in its place, and survived a long period after that. For most Romanians, America designated the US; they seemed no to bother to operate the distinction between an administrative/political reality and a geographic reality. Not to mention that the distinction between North and South America rarely occurred to average speakers when they referred to America. It should have been common knowledge that America and the US were one and the same.

This is why I was not especially interested in registering the accounts of America (both as a remote post of civilization and as a federation) with scientific precision. I chose only a limited number of articles, heterogeneous in their intentions and also in the manner of conceiving the "new world" [3]. I mixed this material with what I call "samples of politics of translation" from the American literature at the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. As newspapers supplied the daily/weekly amount of "easy to digest" culture, their role in the shaping of the esthetic taste of the readers cannot be questioned. On the other hand, the translations had to appeal to a large number of readers. Thus they "epitomize" the image of America that matches the expectation of the average reader. That is why the examination of translations (actually what the journalists and writers of the times chose from American literature) provides valuable information on the features of America that seemed most appealing to Romanians as well as on the authentic way in which they "imagined" this remote other.

As a general remark I may say that, to the modern Romanians at the end of the 19th century, America functioned as a "positive" term of reference for democracy and efficiency and as a "negative" reference when it came to excessive industrialism and promotion of the economical values at the loss of the traditional, humanistic "core culture". Even examining a limited material one can observe that the stereotyping of America followed approximately the same process as the intra-European modern stereotyping during the modern period.

Starting from the oppositional pairs mentioned before, we can reach the conclusion that the national character is contradictory in itself and that the mechanisms of self-representation include, at the deep level, "a pattern of Janus-faced imagemes, stereotypical schemata characterized by their inherent temperamental ambivalence and capable of being triggered into different actual manifestations" (Leerssen: 267). The idea is that whenever constructing the national character culturally, a group or an individual author representing a group tends to use thematic arguments and "a psychological underpinning and motivation" (Leerssen: 272). National character is not only a cultural construct that can be attributed to the writer or historian exclusively. The assumption that national character is not "source"-oriented, but is continuously shaped by the "target", the "audience" is also extremely helpful to my demonstration. The "target" population should be able to "read" it, i.e. to recognize in it their preexisting stereotypes (acquired at either group or individual level), to anticipate the type of representation.

When articulating a "national character" discourse, the most important effect is the verisimilitude effect, as he names it.

Being careful to preserve and activate a sense of the verisimilar, one is able to create an authenticity effect, absolutely necessary to such a discourse. As far as the representation of concrete otherness is concerned, there is a set of negative patterns that function in the same way, irrespective of the relation majority/minority, margin/center. The verisimilar can be translated as an authenticity effect, induced by using names of real ethnic groups in the same story, repeated infinitely. The same anecdotes are told about the Irish, the New Found Landers, the Belgians, depending on the concrete situation. It is thus obvious that the authenticity effect resides in a limited number of manifestations of what I call "the character of the other". These exist in the inventory of imagemes that account for the "Janus-faced" self-representation of a group. To put it differently, what appears as negative in the character of a group (usually ethnic) is exorcised by projecting the respective features onto the other. Likewise, the imaginary projection of a certain set of characteristics envisaged by the group as a way of being acknowledged or as a way to legitimate future actions transforms the Other into a model. Usually, this is unattainable and motivates the failures of and conflicts within a group.

All these "psychologisms" - as Leerssen names them - prove that the relation identity- otherness has more of an educational, psychological affiliation than a historical one; it functions best at the level of the audience that has also an active role in modeling both the "auto-representations" and the "hetero-representations".

The reception of America in the Romanian literary press during the aforementioned period shows that the so-called "oppositional" representations are entirely consistent with the mechanisms I discussed above. The remaining issues would be to see what were the characteristics that Romanians rejected in their "auto-representation" and consequently, what they attributed to America; it would be also interesting to see what were the ideal psychological characteristics or social goals that the young Romanian nation-state projected onto America and whether the latter was perceived as a "continent" or as a "federation". Usually, the continent was represented as "savage", "exotic", "untamed", while the federation was perceived as a melting pot and as an example of efficiency.

If we examine the literary magazines, in order to illustrate the theoretical pattern presented before, we can easily see that there are rather few articles on America before 1900 and they construct a rather exotic and/or picturesque image of the continent. One should not ignore the fact that Romania itself was subjected to an "exotic" reading, because of the oriental heritage and because of its "crossroads" geographical position. It was somehow natural that the Romanians tried to figure a type of otherness that was able to meet several requirements: it was remote, it activated the key-terms: "savagery", "violence", "cruelty", "injustice", "deceit" and it was the promise of a better life, of democracy, of social justice of development, which constituted exactly the desire of the newly born Romanian state.

A cultural review like Convorbiri literare registered several articles on America and translations from American literature into Romanian. For example, in 1880-1881 the revue published a so-called novel series written by N.D. Xenopol Pasurile unui American in Romania [The Adventures of an American in Romania][4]. The story in itself is not very interesting, as it does not differ at all from other contemporary attempts to "depict" the relation native/foreigner from a European perspective. Romanian literature has a tradition in this respect, beginning with Dinicu Golescu and following with the travelogues of N. Filimon, I. Codru-Dragusanu or the imaginary "travelogue" written by V. Alecsandri, Balta Alba. What I would like to emphasize is that the "foreign" character is caught in a fancy salon in Iasi, where he fails to understand the relations in the Romanian aristocracy of the time. Several national imagemes are activated here, as follows:

  • The "stranger", coming from a remote and quasi-unknown place is caught in the middle of a family dispute
  • The "stranger" cannot speak the language and he does not know the recommended behavioral patterns, either
  • The "stranger" is the representative of a "savage" and "new" land and of an efficient society

It is easy to see that the imagemes that are actualized here account for the main problems and complexes of the Romanian society at the time: from the point of view of the Western Europeans Romania was a remote and scarcely known country; its inhabitants carried the burden of being perceived as the heirs of the savage, unmapped Thracians, so they were outside the civilized area. Like the "American" in the story, they were very little understood because of their somehow "marginal" language and, like him, they had to use French as a lingua franca if they wanted to be part of the European discourse. And, as the "stranger" was not able to use the local behavioral patterns with competence, they had a tradition in being oriental in manners, instead of being Europeans and "savage" [5]. This similes prove that America functioned here as a rewarding term of comparison and at the same time, as a "smooth" manner of constructing the "auto-representation". As the negative behavior was transferred to the "stranger", the potential "positive" behavior was reciprocally appropriated by the speaking subject (the Romanian, in this case).

This is perhaps the simplest mechanism in representing America as otherness. The "European" attitude toward America, demonstrated by the group at Convorbiri literare can be motivated by their interest in promoting a theory on Arians, among which the ancestors of the Romanians could be counted. Thus, any culture or space that was lacking in tradition functioned as a form of otherness useful to their theories.

The profile of the translations from American literature published by the same revue shows the following: the writers who are perceived as democrats and promoters of the political left are preferred, along with those that prove a certain preoccupation for what is called the "national specificity". This is why starting with the two last decades of the 19th century writers like Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Walt Whitman began to draw the attention of Romanian translators and writers. Most of the translations were done using a French version, but they nonetheless proved the way in which Romanians constructed the American otherness. A publication that was engaged in a vivid polemics with Convorbiri literare, Vieata seemed to agree with their opponents when it came to American literature. The article The Nature of the Artist as It Appears in His Works [Natura artistului in operile sale] [6], written by I. Gavanescul showed that the literary work of Fenimore Cooper’s functioned as a pretext for an extended essay that has dealt with the differences between the shallow and decadent French literature and the vigorous and virile young American literature. Not only that the French literature of the time seemed insignificant and lacking in educational values as compared to American literature, but the former served only the sexual instinct, the coquettish and superficial ladies and did nothing but pervert the souls, while the latter modeled a healthy moral behavior of the youth.

It is obvious that the article was a sample of the confrontation between the imposed cultural model of the elite - the French model - and the quest of the national identity. According to the mechanism I discussed before, the success of Fenimore Cooper’s literary work was the result of the fact that he operated with "characters" and that his writings praised the vigor of the "heroes", as it happened in the Romanian folk tradition. The residual cultural heritage stocked by the oral tradition showed similarities with the situation of the pioneers and of the disoriented people in search of identity as they appeared in Cooper’s work. Although during the process of constructing its modern identity Romania was frequently represented as "feminine"[7], one can notice that the author of this article tried to transfer these "negative" features to the model (i.e. the French culture, which was "exaggeratedly sensuous", "preoccupied with sexual passions", "superficial"), while Romanians approved of a culture that seemed closer to their historical status and to their tensioned auto-representation. Simplicity, proneness to heroism and morality were the features that completed the oppositional pairs of the relation French literature- American literature. Thus, America functioned as a kind of intermediary between an imposed cultural model and a cultural profile willingly accepted. In addition to that, the new continent and its people had the reputation of efficiency and general wealth, which constituted the ideals of the young Romanian nation at the time. As compared to Paris, the wild America in Cooper’s writings was more familiar to the Romanians and it certainly proved an unquestioned generative power (while Paris was "the school of the perverted reproductive instinct").

Another cultural magazine that pleaded for the original "national profile" was Vatra, which promoted the same policy as Vieata. During its first year (1894), the magazine offered a large array of stories and poems translated from various foreign literatures. The American literature was represented by Mark Twain, with a famous story Broasca minunata (Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County). Twain also appeared during the second year with Parisianul and D-l MacWilliams si fulgerul together with E.A. Poe Inima tradatoare. The heterogeneous profile of the choices made by the Romanian translators cannot offer much information about a possible reception of American culture. The only comment that can be made is that they served the same purpose of a psychological profile, as well as a need for confirmation of the type of literature the editors of the respective cultural magazines envisaged. It was a "healthy", "moral" literature that needed to become a model for the young generation. That was why they preferred the short story, the anecdote and the heroic novels.

But America was more than an isomorphic auto-representation. It was, as I mentioned before a new continent that was perceived by the descendants of one of the oldest populations in Europe: Romanians. In this almost unexpected way of "reading" America was also modeled by the massive emigration process at the beginning of the 20th century. Viata Romaneasca, well known for its leftist position, hosted a series of articles on the new continent. I will rely on two of them. One of them, published in 1907 by Stanislas Cihoski [8], Romanians and Hebrews from Romania in New York[Romanii si evrei din Romania in New-York] did not differ very much from the tone of Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting Pot[9]. It also used the syntagma melting pot in an original translation that turned it into a kind of "cauldron" into which the north-Americans are melted and "invented" from various ethnic groups. "New York is the cauldron into which the nations which compose the north-American nation are mixed. There a rapid transformation takes place, and from a conglomerate of various nations, there appears a perfectly homogeneous nation" (Cihoski, 284). Beyond the statistics, one can find a "refined" reading of New York that made the picturesque its most important features. The stereotypes through which the author of the article perceived New York at the turn of the century were the stereotypes that the Western Europeans activated when coming to a place as remote as Romania. He recorded the most important places in New York, and he showed a special interest in the so-called ethnic neighborhoods, such as Chinatown, the Italian neighborhood and the Jewish neighborhood. I will not discuss here the kind of political ideology Cihoski seemed to adhere to. I will only point out that he respected the most important issues of constructing the national identity of the studied groups: the neighborhood, the social profile of the inhabitants, ethnic food and ethnic shops. I will not comment on the opportunity of the term picturesque he associated to this "irregularities" in the homogeneous modern American profile. Beyond this refined European "reading" there lay a hidden desire for an almost unattainable model. Unlike the decadent and worn off Europe, America assured people of vitality and of a better life: "European life has long gained a kind of ultimate settlement that pigeonholes individuals from the moment of their birth, fencing their activity for good. Nationality, religion, social classes [...] the entire burdening past ties them, narrows their possibilities of activity.[...] Vigorous and willful natures feel stuffed in this milieu and they cannot but go to exile across the ocean, to the new world; there, those who feel they have the power of accomplishing great and daring things, find never ending natural resources, countries as large as the entire Europe and people who do not ask who you are and where you come from and who are able to understand and accept anything."(Cihoski, 283). Beyond this there are the dark sides of America, similar to those of Romania. First of all the author believed that America would never become a living place for Romanians; not only that the Romanian community in New York was rather insignificant in number as compared to the Hebrew community, or to other ethnic groups, but the weak interest of Romanians in learning foreign languages did not seem to help them, either. Moreover, the attitude of the American administration, which held Romania accountable for the situation of the Jews who lived in Romania is commented here: "What would you say, I asked the official, if we agreed to grant the Jews all the political rights you mentioned, as soon as the United States abrogate the laws against the Indians you parked in reservations [...]; and when they cease to kill the Black people in a savage way, according to the pseudo-law issued by Lynch".(Cihoski, 294)

The fragment above shows that the profound mechanism of culpability/innocence functions very well at the level of the auto and hetero representations. The mirror that is America gives the explanation for the excusable historical errors of the Romanians, and soothes the possible psychological complexes. Again, the comments are structured in the terms of "characteristics", "facts", "psychology". One of the reasons why Romanians would never find a hospitable home in New York was the inexistence of a cultural life of the community - acquiring a second identity is rather impossible if one does not have a stable primary identity.

The picturesque America also appears in the article Letters from America, published by Vasile E. Moldovan in Viata Romaneasca [10]. This time the new continent is no longer the realm of efficiency, social homogeneity and progress, but an old realm whose stifled traditions are melancholically understood by the representative of an equally traditional and stifled culture. His is the America of natural wonders, such as the Michigan lake and the old communities in Midwest (Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland).

"The sun goes down peacefully and a golden stripe pierces the blue waters and faded into the port of Cleveland; it casts a rosy shadow onto the ships, onto the shore and onto Rockefeller’s palace, that looks out its thousands of windows towards the fog of the north, which enshroud the great plains of Canada".(Moldovan, 428)

This poetic description of the Midwest is only the background against which the historical crime is projected; this melancholic environment is pierced by the wailing song of an old Sioux native. Several historical anecdotes about the tortures undergone by Indians and about the displacement of the tribes and reservations add the "characteristics" of a more savage than the "civilized" place one imagined. This realistically constructed America followed the model of verosimility (vraisemblablei); recognizable features meant features (either "positive" or "negative") that followed the same mechanism as the "characteristics" developed when making the identity discourse on Romania. The article is less a plea against slavery than a romantic account of the fading folklore of the Indians. Although atrocities are mentioned and life on the reservations is rejected, the discourse focuses on the wailing song, captured on a gramophone disk by a missionary. The song was sold for a good price "to the whites", although "Our Lord Jesus Christ does not need such a sacrifice"(Moldovan, 432); Romanian folk artifacts were the subject of the same type of transaction at the time, being collected in the houses of well-to-do families who had nothing to do with folk art and where the respective artifacts did not belong.

The negative connotation of America can be found in a famous doctrine article of Romanian traditionalism published by Simion Mehedinti in 1908. Literary Americanism [Americanism literar][11] is a biting account on the Romanian literary institution at the time and it can also be interpreted as a pejorative perception of "America" as the society of ruthless industrialism. Again, it is a way of legitimating and denouncing the rising industrialism in Romanian, strongly disavowed by the supporters of traditionalism. Literature as institution denied the literature as loisir, a post-romantic way of conceiving literary practice. Far from being only a depository place of traditions, past experiences, etc., literature had to meet the requirements of the society. That was why Mehedinti defined the literary Americanism as "a wide industrialization of the writing process, accompanied by the enrollment of authors under the banner of money. The pens begin to be turned into ordinary tools, like the shovel, or others".

The mechanic transfer between the daily working process and the writing of literature shows that what was really rejected was the enrollment of Romania on the way of industrialism and modernization.[12] America thus turned into a menace, an outburst of detached capitalism, which stifled the humane and the sensitive.

This is an extra argument that may support the idea that the representations of America contributed the auto-representation discourse. All the fears and dreams were shared with and verified by this comfortable and remote other.

[*] The paper was presented at the Fulbright Conference in Bucharest, January 2002.

[1] Wollf, Larry- Inventing Eastern Europe, Stanford University Press, 1994.

[2] It is well known that most of the accounts on Romania, starting with the late 16th century, emphasized the exoticism or the picturesque of the Romanians, which later turned into the paradox of their national identity (see Heitmann, de Marsillac, even Romanian writers or historians that assumed a European discourse).

[3] I do not ignore the very useful accounts on America, written or transmitted orally by Romanian emigrants. These have been published in the recent period in Romania and, together with linguistic accounts and historical reference books can offer a scientific/ethnologic approach of the Romanian/American relations. My point is to see what where the most powerful imagemes that contributed to the making of an "America for everyone"

[4] Convorbiri literare, XIV, 1880-1881, 33, 157, 176.

[5] As compared to the intricate Byzantine ritual, modern European manners appeared as "savage" or at least "clumsy" or "inappropriate" to those who practiced the Byzantine rituals on a common basis. There is a famous story, written by a Romanian historiographer in the 18th century, Ion Neculce: the ambassador of Moldavia, who was invited to the Istanbul and, being offered a cup of coffee, he drank it "bottom up", like a glass of wine. He not only managed to cast himself to ridicule, but he was scalded with the hot coffee, to the laughter of his Turk homologue.

[6] Vieata, I, 1893, 21.

[7] Not only the paintings and other types of representations proved this, but an ethnologic discourse as that of D. Draghicescu’s demonstrated that the epithet "femininoidal" applied to the psychological and ethnic profile of the Romanian people operated a judgmental and negative "reading" of the national specificity of the Romanians

[8] ViataRomaneasca, II, IV, 1907, 282-95.

[9] Zangwill,Israel-The Melting Pot, Macmillan, 1939

[10] Moldovan, Vasile E. - "Scrisori din America" in: Viata Romaneasca, III, X, 1908, 428-32.

[11] Mehedinti, Simion, - "Americanism literar", in: Convorbiri literare, 2, 1908

[12] The reaction is not much different from that of European conservatists at the beginning of the 20th century and this was visible from early modernist representations of cities.