I’m not a patriot in the conventional sense. I don’t like parades, political conventions, baseball games or any activity that involves the collective, a gathering together with people I don’t know and probably won’t like. My understanding of patriotism is rooted in paradox: I feel loyalty and affection for a collective I refuse to join. That, of course, is quintessentially American.
What I’m talking about is not a nation-state or government or particular administration. Rather, it’s an unruly tradition, a crazy-quilt of individuals whose life and work inspire and instruct. Here’s a spontaneous list: Lincoln, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson, Twain, Henry and William James, Louis Armstrong, Faulkner, Charles Ives and so on. Except for its American patrimony, the list is heterogeneous, and you can formulate few useful generalizations about this crowd except that all disregarded the will of the crowd.
I started thinking about this while rereading Huckleberry Finn and trying to understand how Twain put the book together. By Jamesian standards, it’s an ungainly mess, like most of Twain’s books, but Huck’s voice, like Ishmael’s in Moby-Dick, is a triumph of pragmatism, a classic of American improvisation. There’s a passage in his posthumously published Autobiography that reveals something of Twain’s method, or non-method, at least after the fact:
“With the pen in one’s hand, narrative is a difficult art; narrative should flow AS flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands, its course changed by every boulder it comes across and by every grass-clad gravelly spur that projects into its path; . . . a book that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarter of a mile around . . . but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip, the how of it is not important, so that the trip is made.”
I recently re-watched Straight No Chaser, the documentary about Thelonious Monk, another name to add to the list above. Monk’s eccentricity is well known, and in the film we see him on stage, when not at the keyboard, performing a dance reminiscent of those performed by autistic children. His speech and behavior were peculiar but, more importantly, so was Monk’s music, both as composition and performance. He once said something that reminds me of the passage from Twain’s Autobiography: There are no wrong notes. Anyone familiar with Monk’s music knows the odd, unexpected, dissonant notes he invariably played. In context, they work beautifully – for Monk. In the wrong hands, wrong notes are wrong notes, a license for sloppiness and self-indulgence, as J.D. Salinger proved when he channeled Huck Finn and called him Holden Caulfield. The linking of Twain and Monk is apt. Huck’s language is riddled with wrong words that work perfectly. As he says:
“I went right along, not fixing up any particular plan, but just trusting to Providence to put the right words in my mouth when the time came; for I’d noticed that Providence always did put the right words in my mouth, if I left it alone.”