American Lives, American Issues

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9780130851345: American Lives, American Issues

Reflecting today's more personalized and openly contentious environment surrounding pluralism and diversity, this innovative anthology links autobiographical and argumentative writing in case-study fashion in order to explore the pros and cons of issues that arise in everyday life. Consists of two kinds of writings—essays about individual lives (autobiographies, human-interest stories) and argumentative or analytic essays (often arranged in terms of opposing viewpoints). Stresses the importance of individual experience and the connection of that vital experience to analysis, generalization and reasoned argument, and helps readers learn to develop and ultimately define their own sense of pluralistic culture today. Groups readings under personal narratives, American places, pluralism, gender, homosexuality, religion, and change in America. Begins each chapter with an autobiographical essay or a human interest story to help readers understand the play of ambiguity and complexity in actual experience. Presents an informal approach to the essentials of argumentative essays by providing a healthy interplay of well-articulated opposing viewpoints on a range of pluralistic and multicultural discussions, emphasizing specific conflicts in generalization and support, and encouraging readers to work out their own understanding of the validity of the respective arguments or analysis. For users who wish to hone their argumentative writing skills, or for general readers interested in a diverse compilation of essays on pluralism, diversity and multiculturalism.

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From the Back Cover:

AMERICAN LIVES, AMERICAN ISSUES is a distinctive reader that reflects the more personalized and openly contentious environment surrounding pluralism and diversity. This innovative anthology focuses on two kinds of writing—essays about individual lives (autobiographies, human interest stories) and analytic essays, which, in a case-study fashion, are presented as opposing viewpoints to help explore the pros and cons of issues that arise in everyday life.

The text stresses the importance of individual experience and the connection of that vital experience to analysis, generalization, and reasoned argument; it also helps students learn to develop and ultimately define their own sense of pluralistic culture today.

The text features:
  • Individual life essays at the start of each chapter with a life story—either an autobiographical essay or a human interest story—by a professional writer.
  • Argumentative essays that present differing viewpoints on a particular issue and emphasize specific conflicts in generalization and support.
  • Opposing viewpoints that present a healthy interplay of well-articulated arguments in pluralistic and multicultural discussions throughout each chapter.
  • Balanced viewpoints that cover a broad spectrum of views of American life and experience which emphasize both the successful and lapsed pursuits of liberty and equality.
  • Diverse readings that offer a range of different perspectives on American life with essays by Malcolm X, James McBride, Susan Lorber, Eric Liu, Clarence Thomas, and Beverly Tatum.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

This anthology of readings in American pluralism is designed for use in freshman composition courses or in courses devoted explicitly to pluralism and diversity. It consists of two kinds of writings—essays about individual lives (autobiographical, journalistic) and argumentative or analytic essays, often arranged in terms of opposing viewpoints. The combination is a familiar one in American literature, from Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, postulating Franklin himself as the model new American, to the Autobiography of Malcolm X, arguing for the transformation of black rage and white silence through the example of Malcolm's own conversions. American Lives, American Issues thus suggests that life-stories often raise argumentative issues for both readers and writers. Conversely, argumentative issues, to be truly understood, must be illustrated and tested by particular life-stories.

The distinctiveness of American Lives, American Issues lies in two areas: (1) the insistence on oppositional viewpoints even in the sensitive arena of multiculturalism and (2) the emphasis on linking of personal and argumentative writings rather than on their separation.


In the argumentative sections of this anthology, essays exhibiting opposing viewpoints about multiculturalism have been chosen because most anthologies on these subjects no longer exhibit the new complexities of the pluralism "primes" (race, class, gender) that figure in current discussions. (Indeed, we can now speak of "multicultural conservatism," as Angela D. Dillard does in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner New? Multicultural Conservatism in America; see her recent essay "Multicultural Conservatism: What It Is, Why It Matters," a sympathetic but ultimately skeptical account, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 2, 2001).

In an earlier era, it was necessary to shock readers into awareness of the ways in which the actualities of American life belied the high hopes of the American Dream (to choose a convenient symbol). We needed to know that assumptions from a white middle-class male perspective about the nature of social reality did not meet the experience of large numbers of other groups in American life. In one way or another, however, that task has been accomplished: laws have changed, attitudes have changed, TV commercials have changed. While some would argue that such changes are not enough—women still don't make the kind of money men do, racial discrimination may still persist, millions of Americans still face constrained lives and lowered life-chances; others would say that with artificial bars gone, it's up to individuals to improve their lot: government should not do more. The key term nowadays is individual "responsibility," the key philosophy of the moment is in some respects the libertarian one (consider Doug Bandow's piquant essay "Private Prejudice, Private Remedy" or Roger Pilon's provocative "The Right to Do Wrong," a defense of both flag-burning and private discrimination!).

Regardless of whether you believe that much has or has not been done to remove the straitjackets of discrimination in their manifold forms (Manning Marable, page 281, is not so sure), the new challenges of an individualistic ethic and a zigzagging stock market will force both defenders and critics of the American Dream to reexamine their cases. Although Gregory Mantsios (page 304) for example argues that income mobility—the American Dream—is nothing but a "myth" perpetuated by a cynical media, Michael Cox and Richard Alm say its Mantsios's hypothesis that is the real myth about the rich and the poor and that the American Dream is alive and well (stop whining, they seem to be saying). In turn however, defenders of the Dream will themselves have to answer renewed objections from the next generation of critics. Thus when the conservative American Enterprise Institute explains that women really make 98 cents to the male dollar, contra the older feminist arguments of 74 cents, Ellen Bravo in Ms. magazine says that's just so much nonsense: the higher figure applies only to unmarried professional women and the rest do not benefit.

The Partisan Review, a mainstay of Left-liberalism since the 1930s, Robert Sidowsky faults Rorty for refusing to even consider conservative arguments about class, the American Dream, or the nature of human nature. Rorty's analysis Sidowsky charges, "avoids any reference to the contrary theory, familiar evidence or argument that alternative strategies of free market competition may generate rates of economic growth resulting in improvement for the masses of society." Rorty's image of American "chauvinistic militarism" as depicted by John Wayne is nonsense, Sidowsky says, and is belied by the contrary image held by most Americans "of the United States as a country which provides equality before the law or multiple opportunities so that the poor achieve the good life, if not for themselves, then for the next generation."

The stunning thing about Sidowsky's criticism is that it is angry not simply at Rorty's actual positions but at Rorty's failure to realize that there are new people on the block, new thinking about race, class, and gender, and that conservatives, neoliberals, and even liberals now offer analyses of social ailments in the body politic that cannot simply be ignored outright.

In this respect, American Lives, American Issues aims to present as much as possible of both sides of current issues in American pluralism. Indeed, for the reasons that Sidowsky outlines, refusal to engage with the opposition means a fallacious assumption that what has been achieved in America to date is inadequate, that "socialist" critiques of America ignore the nature of human nature and its dark side, or finally that conservatives have developed alternative evidences and arguments that counter those of the socialist Left.


Along with the insistence on oppositional viewpoints, American Lives, American Issues emphasizes the connection between life-writing and argumentation. But as Irene L. Clark notes in Writing About Diversity, this linkage has often been criticized:

Most textbooks . . . present argumentation as a completely
different genre from personal forms of writing, a sophisticated
"second semester" concept unrelated to the less formal,
more personal writing that students often engage in during
their first semester.

In particular, personal forms of writing have been criticized as either too easy or too hard (to write well) and as logically useless. On the first point, the personal essays included here have proven to be useful models in classroom settings, producing solid essays by the students who work from them. As to the second point, autobiographically based essays accomplish crucial argumentative functions: they help crystallize complex social phenomena; they make us realize the difference between what we say and what we do; they reveal the power of individual choice despite adverse social forces; and, finally, they impel us to investigate those crucial factors that distinguish one person's account from another's. As Irene Clark observes,

writing about any issue originates with the self and it is
difficult for students to formulate an opinion, develop a thesis,
and provide a convincing argument about a topic unless they
first explore their own perspective on it.

Suzanne Pharr's provocative essay "A Match Made in Heaven, Lesbian Leftie Chats with a Promise Keeper" (Chapter 8) offers a superb example of just how lives and issues intersect. A lesbian activist writing in the liberal magazine The Progressive, Pharr tells how she met up with a Christian Promise Keeper on a plane and shared an unexpectedly engaging exchange with him. In terms of conventional stereotypes of either a "lesbian leftie" or a Christian Promise Keeper (dedicated, as one source has it, "to keeping men as the spiritual headship of the family") you wouldn't expect any meeting of the minds whatsoever, but Pharr discovered that although she and her opposite number disagreed about feminism and religion—notably whether wives must ultimately accept a husbands' "headship"—they actually agreed on others and shared family experiences that helped them understand each other's values.

The issue that Pharr's story raises is whether people from opposite ideological camps can even talk with each other let alone understand each other's principles. The answer Pharr gives is most certainly a yes, especially when you talk to the foot-soldiers of the movement, not the leadership. She and her fellow passenger exchanged long-distance phone calls weeks after their trip. We ourselves can read Pharr's essay and identify with either or both Pharr and the Promise Keeper, and we can also be happy about the connection, limited but fruitful, that the two of them made. Here, the events in Pharr's account illuminate a broad issue involving communication and narrower issues of theology and organizational loyalty.


American Lives, American Issues has the word American twice in its title, partly because it's intriguing and quasi-alliterative, partly because it touches on a key idea, that there is something arguably unique about the American experience. In the Preface to Americans, the historian Edward Countryman puts it in terms of simple personal experience:

One result of my long stay among the British Countryman
writes was to learn that I never would be one of them, however
great my taste for "real ale" and fish and chips doused in
salt and vinegar, however adept I am at driving on the left.

But what does "American" mean in more positive and scholarly terms to Countryman? Good historian that he is, Countryman rehearses the many different and "colliding" histories that make up American history at large (e.g., African enslavement, white colonization and the fight for independence, Tejano "lost possibilities," and so on) and then insists on a return to the spirit underlying all of them, that of Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence:

all the stories he writes) circle around the mixture of hope
and disappointment of Thomas Jefferson's proclamation that
"all men are created equal." All the people in all the stories
have found themselves living in a world of disruption and
transformation. All of them have tried to form meaningful
ties with other people in the same plight so they could
establish patterns that would give their lives sense and cohesion.

Thus, says Countryman,

If I, a white American, would understand what shaped me, if
I would not be a stranger to myself, I must understand people
who may not look like me but whose history is fundamentally,
inextricably, and forever intertwined with my own.

As Countryman implicitly recognizes, there is a historical factor to American identity because the idea of being "American" has changed with the times, both in the long history of the past, from the eighteenth century to the present (melting pot assimilation, pluralism or acculturation, and racial separatism for example) and in the most recent present, where immigrants (legal and illegal) and refugees from many different lands have complicated the racial/ethnic/national mixture of Americanness, and where subgroups within once seemingly monolithic groups (Asian, African, Hispanic) now complicate a once simple picture of black versus white racial identity and make us realize the more complex situation created by many different and specific groups—Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Pakistani, Indian, Cuban, Tejano, Chicano, just to name a few.

(An opposing viewpoint warning: from the position of conservatives like John O'Sullivan in the National Review or talk show host Don Feder, speaking to the Christian Coalition, or even the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in The Disuniting of America, Reflections on a Multicultural Society, such "hyphenated" Americanness—such extreme "multiculturalism"—is suspect, a denial of the "unum" in our country's motto—"Out of many, one"—"E pluribus unum." What do you think?)

In the matter of "lives and issues," it thus becomes possible to ask where you fit in within the rubric of "American"? What has been your experience? Unambiguous or complicated? Hope fulfilled or disappointment realized? Where do you fit in terms of "assimilation"? Do you side more with those who want more "pluribus" or more "unum"? Is there a difference between you and your family on any of these issues? You and your friends? You and your home neighborhood and your new neighborhood of college or university? You will want to read the essays in this anthology and write your own analyses of them, to see if they accord with your experience or not and to determine whether or not the authors's generalizations need modifying in the light of your own understanding of American culture or society.


People write best when they write from their own experience or when they face conflicting views and must sort out why they prefer one view over another. These are the motivating principles behind American Lives, American Issues. However, writing from experience isn't as simple as it sounds, because it depends on how good an observer and meditator the writer is. These difficulties can be overcome by using good models of personal writing and by reseeing one's experience from alternative viewpoints. Therefore, the text is arranged in terms of a broadening progression from individuals writing about what happened to them to journalists and scholars concerned with interpreting individual experience from larger social and theoretical viewpoints.

Chapters 1 and 2 offer models of writing about specific incidents (Chapter 1) and geographical locales (Chapter 2): the focus is on producing well-told stories about specific cultural encounters. The model that has been used is Marianna DeMarco Torgovnick's "On Being White, Female, and Born in Bensonhurst" with its twin encounters at the center—the death of a black youth in the Italian section of Brooklyn and Torgovnick's own defiance of gender taboos in the Italian old men's club-a pairing of anecdotes that usually produce a rich crop of essays about discrimination encountered and (sometimes) discrimination overcome. From those students who don't take up the issue of discrimination, thoughtful essays about family and home matters, usually generational, reveal many of the same fault lines as the racial/gender encounters can be created.

Chapter 2 on place and geographical locale is designed to enlarge students' perceptions and writing opportunities from the directly personal to the more objective possibilities that writing about a place encourages. What can be said about our neighborhood, city, or rural area is often easier to write about than writing directly about our feelings or conflicts with others. Students, responding to the challenge of such essays as Dorothy Blew's account of life on a rural dairy farm in the 1950s, Esmeralda Santiago's account of being transported from rural Pue...

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