Jorie Graham

The American Myth of Rebirth

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What is the founding American myth?

Jorie Graham

Jorie Graham is the author of 10 collections of poetry, including The Dream of the Unified Field, which won The Pulitzer Prize. She divides her time between western France and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard University. Graham is the first woman to hold the Boylston professorship in the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard, a chair with an illustrious lineage dating back to John Quincy Adams. She was the unanimous choice of a special interdepartmental search committee formed to replace Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who held the position previously.


Question: What is the founding American myth?

Jorie Graham: Well, our lack of - I think that we probably do have something that we do share as a myth that certainly Europeans would point to as a very grounding foundational American ambition, and that is the idea that everyone can make themselves from scratch, anew, in this country.

And that seems like one of the reasons that people in the imagination of America, as it exists in the rest of the planet, it continues to dwell in many people in other cultures that if they were to come to America they could escape the religious or class or cultural entrapment that they might feel in their own cultures and be able to reinvent themselves as if from scratch in the American wide-open freedom.

Of course, we know that that is an illusion, but it’s a very operative illusion.


Recorded on April 3, 2008