Placement

One thing that I’ve often heard in a half decade or so living and working in Europe is that Americans have no sense of place. Sometimes the idea is asserted that crudely, sometimes equally crudely in a different form: America is too young to have real history, thus Americans have no sense of history and are lacking the deep rootedness of many Europeans. Sometimes it’s a bit more subtle: A great many Americans are visibly more mobile throughout their lives than a great many Europeans. People move away for jobs, for family, for love, and often enough just for want of a change. They’re clearly not making lifelong attachments, and thus not as attached to a place.

Put aside whether contemporary Europeans live up to what is claimed for them (and migration to London alone gives cause for doubt), there’s something to these ideas. It’s true and not true, and here’s something that Wallace Stegner had to say on the subject:

If you don’t know where you are, says Wendell Berry, you don’t know who you are. Berry is a writer, one of our best, who after some circling has settled on the bank of the Kentucky River, where he grew up and where his family has lived for many generations. He conducts his literary explorations inward, toward the core of what supports him physically and spiritually. He belongs to an honorable tradition, one that even in America includes some great names: Thoreau, Burroughs, Frost, Faulkner, Steinbeck – lovers of known earth, known weathers, and known neighbors both human and nonhuman. He calls himself a “placed” person.

But if every American is several people, and one of them is or would like to be a placed person, another is the opposite, the displaced person, cousin not to Thoreau but to Daniel Boone, dreamer not of Walden Ponds but of far horizons, traveler not in Concord but in wild unsettled places, explorer not inward but outward. Adventurous, restless, seeking, asocial or antisocial, the displaced American persists by the million long after the frontier has vanished. He exists to some extent in all of us, the inevitable by-product of our history: the New World transient. He is commoner in the newer parts of America – the West, Alaska – than in the older parts, but he occurs everywhere, always in motion.

(From “The Sense of Place” by Wallace Stegner, reprinted in Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs)

I’ll add one modest idea to Stegner. If you know where you are from, know where the shore grasses grow to just the right height, where the live oaks bend to the ground as they should, know when the sun rises in June and sets in January, what blooms when, what sports fit the season, what accent says this side of the river, when to bless the fleets going out and when to hope for the harvest coming in, if you hold a place so clearly in you, then you can be there anytime no matter where you are. If you know where you are from, you are free to roam without the danger of losing who you are.

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

4 thoughts on “Placement

  1. Welcome to Europe! Hope you enjoy your stay! Further discussion of Americans’ sense of place would probably be more appropriate in the “Not Europe” blogs to the left! You have a nice day now!

  2. I’d say it has plenty of relevance to europeans, but Doug, this one’s not political either. We already had Mat’s and Tobias most recent posts if we wanted to go for a non-political post. Very cool to actually “heed my call” anyway, didn’t really expect that.

  3. It’s too bad I was on vacation when this came out, I’d have loved to discuss this because my own impression is that the French sense of ‘pays’ (which meshes with Stegners concept of ‘placed’ people)…is largely a myth.

    As a personal example, my (paternal) grandmother came from Lorraine, my grandfather from Normandie (I believe), but my father grew up in Champagne. The first quarter of my life, I lived in Ile-de-France.

    Some of my earliest memories are of summers spent in the park around the ruins of the local chateau…in the shade of gigantic californian Sequoias.

    So what’s my Pays ?

    Chicago, I’d say. My parents and grandparents met in Chicago, and my ancestral links go perhaps a couple generations farther back. My house is down the street from the former home of a cousin. My prior apartment was in the same town (Oak Park) where my Grandfather lived through the Depression, and the prior apartment was adjacent to the towns where he was born (Plainfield) and grew up in (Joliet).

    Chicagoan though I may be, my own sense of identity is closer to ‘Expatriate by birth’. The idea of being ancestrally tied to the land is more sentimental than reality.

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