When the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, it was necessary for the American colonists to bear arms and defend their independence, their freedom, through force. After a lengthy war, Americans gained their independence, but they were immediately faced with an even greater challenge: consolidating an independence nation with an identity of its own. Reconciling individuality became the chief concern for the newly formed nation. All Americans needed to ascertain their own identity, and for the most part, they pursued it through self-reliance.
Each individual has capabilities; self-reliance implies becoming aware of those capabilities and capitalizing on them, even in spite of dissenting opinions/ideas from others. This fundamental ideal spilled over into all aspects of life in society, including literature. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, it can easily be seen that all of its major characters pursue self-reliance as a means of ascertaining their independence, and more importantly, their individuality. The story begins by presenting Huckleberry Finn and his friend Tom Sawyer. Huck’s father appears out of nowhere, and thinking about getting a hold of Huck’s money, he takes him and gets custody of the boy. Huck’s father does not love him, and based on the way that he talks to Huck and how he treats him, it is clear that his only interest is the boy’s money. Of course, Huck realizes that his father does not love him and is only interested in controlling his life in order to get a hold of his money. Therefore, he makes the decision to run away from his father.
There is more to Huck’s decision to run away from his home and his father, however, since his primary motivation is not keeping his money. Huck runs away primarily because he wants to maintain control of his life. He is a free spirit that wishes to decide for him what he wants out of life, and so he cannot stand to be controlled by anyone. This becomes abundantly clear when he states that he does not contemplate staying in one place, “but just tramp right across the country, mostly night times, and hunt and fish to keep alive, and so get so far away that the old man nor the widow couldn’t ever find me any more”. As he escapes he meets Jim, which was a slave in the house that he used to live before being taken by his father. The slave escapes because his master, Miss Watson, is about to sell him off to another household farther south, where conditions are more difficult. Of course, this is a sign of cruelty and unfairness towards the slave, but Miss Watson does not care about what happens to him or his family. She only cares about the 800 dollars that she will be getting for the slave.
Huck continues on with his journey to find himself, his individuality, with Jim. Both he and Jim are keen on finding themselves, their true place in the country that they inhabit. In the end, it appears that Tom cannot escape being subjected to an adult’s authority (being that he is only a child). Finding himself on his own, as Jim was freed by her old master, Miss Watson, upon her death, Huck makes the decision to once again flee and find a life of his own: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before”. Based on the way in which Huck behaves throughout the novel, it becomes clear that self-reliance is a major theme, one that reflects the desire of the American people once they have freed themselves from British rule. Americans no longer wanted to be colonists; Americans wanted to be citizens, which in principle implied their becoming freethinking individuals.
Another work that righteously reflects the American people’s desire of, and struggle for, self-reliance is Willa Cather’s Paul’s Case: A Study in Temperament. This short story revolves around Paul, a teenager who strives to fit in society and feel comfortable with his own skin. In other words, Paul is a teen who wishes to recognize his own individuality. In attempting to do this, he embraces self-reliance fully. Unfortunately, he is unable to exercise self-reliance in a positive way. Instead, he engages in a series of self-destructive actions and behaviors that ultimately result in his jumping in front of a moving train (thus taking his own life): “The sound of an approaching train woke him, and he started to his feet, remembering only his resolution, and afraid lest he should be too late… As he fell, the folly of his haste occurred to him with merciless clearness, the vastness of what he had left undone”. Paul, much like the first truly independent Americans (and much like millions of Americans today), sought to take full control of his life and solidify an identity of his own.
Third of all, upon considering works of literature in which the theme of self-reliance (and the American people’s struggle to ascertain their individuality), one may also fall back on William Carlos Williams’s poem entitled “Spring and all.” In this poem, Williams describes how nature shifts from winter into spring. However, this poem’s content can be related to the principle of self-reliance. Essentially, Williams’s poem is one of discovery, since the narrator describes how spring is discovered in the wake of winter. In describing the way in which small trees and bushes discover spring, the poet writes the following: “They enter the new world naked, cold, uncertain of all save that they enter” (Williams). Just like the trees and bushes greet spring naked and with uncertainty, so did Americans greet freedom and sovereignty after winning their independence from Great Britain. Just like the trees and bushes must find themselves in spring, so did Americans face the need of finding themselves in a world free of British influence. This poem also invites the reader to reflect on another fact: the changing nature of life. Throughout the course of life, man’s reality changes constantly. In other words, life changes all of the time, and this makes it even more important for people to be aware of their own individuality, of their true selves (their identities).
Seeking to contextualize these three works in the history of the United States of America, it should be clear that Americans have always strived to be clear on what their identities are. This has proven most challengies, especially when considering that the country was founded by immigrants. People from different areas of the world converged in North America, and so when the American colonies declared their independence. Given the diversity of the country’s inhabitants, strife proved inevitable, particularly between the white majority and the other ethnic minorities (namely African Americans and American Indians). Prejudice and racial discrimination became norm; during the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century these problems continued as the all ethnicities attempted to fully embrace self-reliance.
The ethnic confrontation took place on many levels; prejudice even manifested itself in the way that white people called black minorities (calling them names other than their real names). Calling a person by his/her name implies acknowledging his/her identity and recognizing the individual as an equal. This is particularly the case for African Americans, who have historically been discriminated in the United States (especially in the South). This is a sign of discrimination and it is made clear by the author that such type of discimination simply cannot stand. It becomes clear, then, that calling a person by his/her name is a prerequisite for equality.
The fundamental idea behind these works is for Americans to embrace their individuality and develop a style of their own. Not only does he speak in favor of American individualism, but also in favor of this ideal being spread throughout society so that all Americans embraced individuality and America could effectively break loose from Europe. Tied with individuality lies the idea of an American identity; America needed its own identity in order for society to develop. Finally, in order to harness individuality and materialize a truly American identity, it is important for there to be self-reliance. Each individual has capabilities; self-reliance implies becoming aware of those capabilities and capitalizing on them, even in spite of dissenting opinions/ideas from others. In other words, self-reliance implies confidence and courage to defend one’s own ideas and beliefs. If a person is not self-reliant he or she will never embrace individuality and will therefore never be able to establish an identity of his or her own.