The Matter of America

Rich Horton, who reads just about all the short sf published every year, has just posted his annual year-end summary for Strange Horizons; thanks as always for the writeup, Rich!

One thing that he said in passing caught my eye: he mentioned Oz, and then asked parenthetically, "is this our 'Matter of America'?"

I started to reply in a comment to his entry, but it started getting long so I figured I'd switch over to a full entry of my own.

For those who, like me, have never been quite sure what's up with this "Matter of [country name]" construction, take a look at Wikipedia's Matter of Britain entry. It turns out that a country's "Matter" is its legendary history; the Matter of Britain turns out to include (I didn't know this) a bunch of other stuff as well as the Arthurian cycle. The Matter of France is the Carolingian cycle--the French legendary history of Charlemagne, Roland, Bayard, and so on.

So although I love the idea of Oz as the Matter of America, after some further thought I think that idea may not quite work; I would expect the Matter of America to be centered perhaps on tall tales (Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, et al), or else on the loose network of legend that surrounds real American history as passed down in folklore. (Ideas like Betsy Ross sewing the flag; George Washington and the cherry tree; maybe even the notion of Columbus thinking the world was flat.) Or possibly fantastical literature set during the first century of the US as a nation: "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" springs to mind, and "The Devil and Daniel Webster." Oh, and (going somewhat further afield) what about superheroes? Should Superman be part of the Matter of America?

(I should note that when I say "America" in this entry I'm mostly referring to the US specifically. But "the Matter of the USA" doesn't have the same ring to it.)

A few other people have addressed the matter of the Matter of America online. For example, Debra Doyle says: "the Civil War is surely the heart of the Matter of America: It is the painful working-out in blood of the original sin of the Republic, the failure to deal with the problem of slavery; and the resolution by force of arms of the contradictory existence of sovereign states inside a sovereign nation." I think that's a fascinating set of ideas.

And John Clute once said, in a review, that "The Matter of America [...] is Catastrophe," but that was specific to the context of the book he was reviewing.

Speaking of Clute, the Encyclopedia of Fantasy's entry on "Matter" notes that a Matter "is understood by those who write or sing it [or their audiences] as the true STORY of that nation or culture. Whether it is factual is secondary. It is likely to contain or refer to a MYTH OF ORIGIN; it is likely to describe the father of the nation or culture as a HERO." (Terms in all-caps indicate terms that have their own entries.) That entry goes on to suggest that the Matter of America "is in essence a frontier myth."

Which might suggest that Westerns collectively comprise another part of the Matter of America. Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Custer's Last Stand, Cowboys & Indians.

And that reminds me to mention that there's an entirely different set of Matters of America from a variety of Native American perspectives. Perhaps some of them would involve the Fifth World. And it seems like any Matter of America, from a Native American perspective or otherwise, ought to include the stories of Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse, the Trail of Tears, and other aspects of the conflict between the US and Native Americans that have become part of American folklore, the history we tell ourselves and each other, in addition to being part of the history written in formal history books.

And surely immigrant history would have to be part of that folkloric version of American history as well. Irish and Chinese laborers. Building a railroad across the country (mustn't forget John Henry in the pantheon of American folk heroes). "Give me your tired, your poor." And so on. Oh, and the Wikipedia entry on folk heroes reminds me to mention Johnny Appleseed, Calamity Jane, Geronimo, Annie Oakley, Jesse James, Joe Hill, and Molly Pitcher. Among others.

More recently, I suppose Teddy Roosevelt and FDR have both become semi-legendary figures. The Rosenbergs, maybe? Elliot Ness? Watergate? Kennedy and King? Oh, and what about Betty Boop, and Mickey Mouse, and Rosie the Riveter--and, for that matter, Uncle Sam himself?

And although some might balk at including news so fresh in the category of legendary history, I do rather think that this year's election has something of an aura of legendary history about it already.

I know I'm getting carried away, and mixing up a bunch of different approaches and definitions. By the standards above, the Matter of Britain would include all sorts of much more recent stuff; it would be something more akin to 1066 and All That than to the Arthurian cycle. (And the above thoughts are kind of at the level of detail of a 1066 and All That-style outline of American history, too; there's a whole lot of important stuff that I'm leaving out.) So I'm over-, and probably mis-, applying the term. But I think it's a neat idea to play with anyway.

2 Responses to “The Matter of America”

  1. Farah


    Reading for the Clarke award, and as a US historian, I became very aware of how rivers seemed to be the locus of so many legends and narratives.

  2. lidryn

    Jed, thanks for leaving this little breadcrumb out on the trail… who will see this, who isn’t looking for it?
    The Matters are Western, i.e. European in origin: Britain, France, Rome. If the Matter of America falls in that context, I believe the overarching theme is the Migration: the settlement of America by the Europeans. I think the Civil War fits in well, especially if you distinguish between the Scots Irish in the South and the Yankee North. The forced migration of a substantial (and ultimately successful) group of Africans obviously plays a tremendous role. I wonder if the settlement of Canada can also be seen as part of the Matter of America?

    Actually, what got me thinking about this was the development of the Mormons, and their staged move West. This story begins in a conscious (self-conscious?) adoption of myth, and proceeds through marked clashes with existing beliefs. If the Matter of America is also intimately bound up with the encounter with the Native Americans, then there are many places where that theme comes to the fore.

    hope this helps!


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