"Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and every circumstance, myths of man have flourished...It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into the human cultural manifestation." Joseph Campbell, The Hero with 1000 Faces
Cultural Literary Approach:
As people migrated to America from all corners of the Earth, they carried their stories and myths with them. The legends and religions of the immigrants are represented here in the form of ancient Gods and Goddesses. Gaiman's novel American Gods examines what it means to be American by looking at the cultural legacy of America through its mythical origins and how traditional values have evolved into contemporary ideals.
One question that Gaiman touches on in this novel that intrigues me is: What does it mean to be American? This is a question everyone in America might have been asked at least once. It often stumps us, as we are not really sure how to answer. Can you be American if you arrive on a boat with a Green card? Must you be born in America? According to one of the protagonists of this novel, Wednesday, "Nobody's American. Not originally." Alternatively, according to the American government, you are American if you were born in the United States or obtain legal citizenship.
Gaiman is from the UK, though he has been living here for several years. During the writing of this novel, he took a cross-country journey visiting many of the places that he writes about. He was getting a first hand experience of America. In reading Gaiman's An Introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition (2011), I got the sense that his travels were an exploration of American culture. Gaiman explains,
"I wrote the first chapter on a train journey from Chicago to San Diego. And I kept traveling, and I kept writing. I drove from Minneapolis to Florida by back roads, following routes I thought Shadow would take in his book. . . I did my best not to write about any place I had not been" (X).
Here we can see that Gaiman is distinctly writing about the places he has explored. He is experiencing American culture and sharing all of its mysteries, quirks and diversity as he experiences them.
Damien Cave and Todd Heisler, two New York Times journalists, took a similar journey. While writing their article called "The Way North", they traveled 3,500 miles along interstate 35 from Texas to Minnesota for 39 days expressly to ask everyone they came across, "What does it mean to be American?" Their goal was to understand how the central states of America are being changed by immigration. The answers they received were wide ranging. When asked, Kanwal Mehmud (age 24) answered, "It's diversity. Pakistan is all Pakistanis: they look the same, they dress the same. Here it's people from all different cultures, and I like that" (N.p.). Another response to their question came from a 14 year old girl named Natalie Villafranca. Her reply was:
"Being American is making a change, and making good changes. Being American is being welcoming, being caring about other people, being proud of the country. And it’s forgiveness. It’s not holding grudges on anything — I mean where’s that going to get you?”
I think it could be argued that our definition of what it means to be American is as varied as its inhabitants.
In an essay Gaiman wrote about American Gods called "How Dare you?" he tells us his vision for the book as he was imagining it:
"It would be a thriller, and a murder mystery, and a romance, and a road trip. It would be about the immigrant experience, about what people believed in when they came to america. And about what happened to the things they believed" (540).
All Americans' ancestors have immigrated here from somewhere else, with the exception of the Native Americans. This is a place where anyone can come to and become anything they want. Isn't that the American Dream? Another person interviewed by Cave and Heisler says, "Being American? There are all sorts of ways to do it here, but I think the concept is to have everyone get along together-to have a better understanding of different cultures" (N.p.).
The image at the top right of this page shows immigrants from 30 different countries taking the oath to become American citizens. In American Gods, the Gods and beings Gaiman writes about are primarily the Gods of the immigrants. Some of the old Gods in the novel include Shiva (Indian), Anansi (Caribbean and West African), Odin (Norse), Easter (The Saxon Pagan Goddess Ostara adapted to an American Christian holiday), Chernobog (Slavic), Ibis and Annubis (Egyptian), Mad Sweeney (an Irish Leprechaun) and and Salim (a supernatural creature called a Jinn in the myths of Islam). These are just a few of the countries that could be represented among the immigrants shown in this picture.
In American Gods, Wednesday explains how he came to America on a boat of Norse men who, upon landing, sacrificed a native person and dedicated it to Odin. Their power of belief was so strong, Odin arrived incarnate and stayed. Now the old Norse God has been all but forgotten. In the first chapter, one of the new gods known as the Technology Boy kidnaps Shadow briefly to attempt to find out what Wednesday is up to. Before he lets Shadow go, he tells him to tell Wednesday,
". . . He's history. He's forgotten. He's old. And he better accept it. Tell him that we are the future . . . He has been consigned to the dumpster of history while people like me ride our limos down the superhighway of tomorrow" (Gaiman, 49-50).
One of the primary themes of this novel is that Gods, weather new or old, need people to believe in them in order to survive. Many of the immigrants who have arrived in America will continue to observe their religions or beliefs, and others are here to escape their old cultures. When people forget about the old myths and legends from their home countries, what happens to them? The new Gods represented in this novel are social media, technology, internet, plastic, drugs, credit cards and freeways. Furthermore, even the Gods that survive into contemporary culture have lost meaning.
One of the Old Gods in the novel is Easter. American's celebrate Easter as the Christian resurrection holiday every year. Many people do not know that Easter has it's roots in the Saxon Pagan holiday that celebrates the great Mother Goddess who was known as Ostara, or Eostere. This holiday was not originally celebrated by people all over the world as the day Jesus was resurrected, but was originally celebrated by people of many ancient civilizations as the time of year associated with the Easterly rising sun and fertility.
"When you go to the rural areas, that’s when you understand what America is. The fact of the matter is that for them, everybody counts.” Ben Bodom, 57 Information technology specialist, General Mills. Born in Ghana, but moved to Wisconsin as a high school exchange student; lives in Minneapolis (qtd. in Cave, N.p).