“This is the very intrinsic-most American,” D.H. Lawrence wrote of James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer… Perhaps.
The question was put to me, “Is ‘California’ the quintessential American word.”
I like it. That’s a solid contender.
I’ll get to “California,” but first, let me first say this.
What we’ve got here is the richest, sweetest honeypot for barroom bickering there is. The wonderful thing is that one need not actually put any thought or consideration into what is (or is not) quintessentially American before blurting out the first thing that comes to mind and then furiously defending that hastily established position for the next three beers. That’s your right as an American.
Of course, there is exceptionally wide latitude for discussion on this topic.
Notwithstanding, there are a few generally agreed upon sub-category titleholders of quintessential American things that just aren’t up for reasonable debate – unless you’re just one of those folks who likes to argue for the sake of arguing:
The quintessential American actor: John Wayne
The quintessential American music: jazz
The quintessential American clothing: blue jeans
The quintessential American artist: Norman Rockwell
Polite society can agree on these. Fortunately, for the sake of conversation, most fields are not so easily resolved.
A good many have two lone, clear cut contenders perpetually battling it out for the #1 number one spot.
Barbeque and apple pie duke it out for food. The Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls battle for destination. The bald eagle and the buffalo for animal. The Fourth of July tries to stay competitive with Thanksgiving (which now officially includes Black Friday) for holiday. The battle for soda has never been close so Coca-Cola is forced to square off against Budweiser for beverage. For these categories, anyone can arrive at their position by coin flip and never technically be wrong or face significant bodily harm.
There are, however, some categories that are so contentious that to stake your flag in the ground one way or another is to declare war.
Think people. I cast my vote for Ben Franklin but a legitimate argument can be made for both Washington and Jefferson – and that’s just narrowing the field to founding fathers. A strong case can be made for Mark Twain (and of course, he securely holds the title of quintessential American author) as well as Woody Guthrie, MLK, and a good many others.
Athlete is also a tough one. Jim Thorpe, Muhammad Ali, Jordan, Tiger. Blood has been spilt over less.
There are also some quintessentially American things that don’t necessarily fall into one category or another but naturally need mentioning in a discussion such as this: John Deere, the rodeo, The Boy Scouts, Disneyland, Harley-Davidson, the Statue of Liberty, the NFL, the B-52 Bomber, Elvis Presley, Kentucky Bourbon.
It’s tough to dissect the American brand, but for a moment, let’s go down that road. There’s an undeniable element of intangibility that does bring some virtue to a first-thought-best-thought approach. The evanescence of “Americanness” will forever keep the question alive, but there are few things we do know for sure.
What we are looking for is the pure and essential essence of America. Something simple yet extraordinary. This American thing must be firmly rooted in the past with a connection to the future. There is 50/50 blend of tradition and progress. “Freedom” and “independence” are compulsory nouns to throw in the mix. It’s got to be ever present a with just a bit of self-awareness. Also, some bravado.
But the most quintessential American *word.* That’s the granddaddy of them all. “Word” encompassess all the other categories and then some. That word has a lot to carry on it’s shoulders. It must inspire. The phonology must be striking. (I doubt only one syllable will ever suffice.) The word must have what it takes to outlive even the nation itself. I’m looking for a word that transcends geography and time. It’s got to move people.
So in response I say, “California” is certainly not not the quintessential American word. It’s a worthy nomination, but I’m not sure I am ready to sign off on ‘California’ just yet. It’s sunny and all out here but the traffic is terrible, it kind of smells like urine, and it could fall into the ocean any day now.
As I think on it, allow me to throw just one more word in the ring for argument’s sake: