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 . 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
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
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
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
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,
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"
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
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].
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
"stranger" cannot speak the language and he does not know the recommended
behavioral patterns, either
"stranger" is the representative of a "savage" and "new" land and of an
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"
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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,
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 .
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
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] 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. 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.
paper was presented at the Fulbright Conference in Bucharest, January 2002.
Larry- Inventing Eastern Europe, Stanford University Press, 1994.
 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).
 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
literare, XIV, 1880-1881, 33, 157, 176.
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.
I, 1893, 21.
 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
II, IV, 1907, 282-95.
 Zangwill,Israel-The Melting
Pot, Macmillan, 1939
Moldovan, Vasile E. - "Scrisori din America"
in: Viata Romaneasca, III, X, 1908, 428-32.
Mehedinti, Simion, - "Americanism literar", in: Convorbiri literare, 2,
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.