David Haglund

Consider a novel about a New Jersey family rocked by the cultural upheaval that came to many countries in 1968. If you call that novel American Pastoral, you are bypassing both its local and its global resonance in favor of a grand American narrative in which your novel now participates.

Imagine if Melville had gone with An American Whale? Or, say, The American Sea Captain? Arguably no other novel has said as much about the United States as Melville’s Moby-Dick—but we don’t need the title to tell us that. There is something hectoring about such titles. American TeenAmerican RecordingsAmerican Gangster. Hardly a month passes without a new “American” opus at the cinema, in the bookstore, or on television.

Besides bullying us with their national import, these titles often reinforce the fairly exaggerated ideas we tend to have about the uniqueness of this country. There are many things particular to and remarkable about the United States, but let’s not get carried away. Capitalism is not uniquely American (sorry, American Psycho). Suburbs are not uniquely American (sorry, American Beauty—the movie, I mean; and yes, plastic bags float in the wind in other countries, too).