A Quilt of a Country

by Anna Quindlen

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 602

"A Quilt of a Country" is an essay written by American writer Anna Quindlen for Newsweek in the immediately aftermath of the September 11th attacks. The piece is unconventional in style and form; it is part autobiographical, part persuasive, and part expository history. As is clear from this piece, Quindlen had decades of experience working as a reporter for The New York Post and The New York Times as well as Newsweek both before and during her career as a novelist. At just under a thousand words, Anna Quindlen's essay is brief yet poignant. It is equal parts a reflection on the history of the United States as well as a call to arms to its readers to recognize the nation's unique notions of individualism.

Quindlen begins by claiming that America is an "improbable idea." She addresses the paradoxes underlying the very founding of America, namely that all men are supposedly equal, but each supposes himself better than the next. Americans are stalwartly independent and self-righteous yet unwaveringly committed to egalitarianism.

Quindlen's second paragraph traces a history of the United States that attends to its successes but its failures: slavery, bigotry, and socioeconomic prejudice. Despite these grim facts, Quindlen rather provocatively insists that America contains something "remarkably successful" but does not yet name it.

The third paragraph quotes former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who himself identifies Americans' joint commitment to individualism and community. Quindlen seems to agree with Cuomo and other politicians who discuss an "apartheid" in American culture that results from citizens' clinging to ethnicity. Quindlen diverges from these present politicians in her assessment that these ethnic divisions (which she calls "Balkanization") are new. Quindlen discusses her own observation of ethnic prejudice between Irish and Italians during her childhood in Pennsylvania.

Midway through the essay, Quindlen rhetorically asks, "What is the point of this splintered whole?" She observes that Arabs and Jews, for example, claim to hate one another yet continue to live as citizens of the same nation in an unsteady harmony. In other countries, these populations might have splinted off and formed new countries. Quindlen observes that there was a widespread fear in the wake of the Cold War that this would indeed happen.

Quindlen attempts to answer this rhetorical question by citing a quote from a National Opinion Research Center survey—and with which most respondents agreed—stating that America does not have a national identity per se. However, this staunch commitment to living among a diverse range of religions, races, and ethnicity is itself demonstrative of American unity.

Quindlen's penultimate paragraph boldly ventures an explanation for why this unity persists. There is a "Calvinist undercurrent in the American psyche that loves the difficult," Quindlen begins. She suspects that even the most conservative Americans will admit that the Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American immigrants who ply their trades diligently in the United States are not unlike their own ancestors. Quindlen credits the late American writer and historian Studs Terkel for this point.

In Quindlen's final paragraph, she returns to the contemporary context in which her article was penned. Regarding what to call this unique quality possessed by Americans, Quindlen equivocates. She says that "tolerance" is too mild but "pride" and "patriotism" are too strong. Quindlen imagines photographs of all the casualties of the World Trade Center bombing together in a series. She contends that, if such a project were undertaken, these individuals' diverse features could trace a map of the world. Adducing language from her opening paragraph, Quindlen reaffirms that American is truly a "mongrel nation" which, like many "improbable ideas," is wonderful when it works.

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