Visions of America

Wendell Berry, one of the writers in Wesley Brown and Amy Ling’s anthology of autobiographical essays, questions whether Americans have yet “arrived.” This observation could well stand as the justification for the book. A companion volume to the same editors’ earlier anthology of fiction with the same general thematic interest, this collection of thirty-six essays and chapters from autobiographies focuses on the difficult and often dismaying experiences of people with roots in other countries and of rootless Americans. To call such people “mobile” is another way of saying that they have had a difficult time coming to terms with their own or their ancestors’ native place. They have not “arrived” because they are not even sure where they are going or, in some cases, where they will be allowed to go.

The book represents both famous authors such as James Baldwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald and obscure ones such as Monica Sone, one of the first Japanese Americans to write a book describing the experience of being interned (to use the polite expression) during World War II for the crime of having Japanese blood. Because many of these essays are actually chapters from longer books, they leave off with disconcerting abruptness. We are given the tensions of the Sone family’s first few weeks after Pearl Harbor, for example, but not the actual experience of the camp itself, for which we would have to track down Sone’s NISEI DAUGHTER (1953).

Few people will read through this volume without the urge to go to one or more of the original books from which the editors selected these vivid chapters. But the Brown-Ling anthology itself provides a sense of the great variety of dislocations which loom so large in the American experience.