Greater Than All the Parts

The Last Discovery of America.
By Richard Rodriguez.
232 pp. New York:
Viking. $24.95.

”History begins for us,” wrote William Carlos Williams, ”with murder and enslavement, not with discovery. No, we are not Indians but we are men of their world.” Since 1982, in three books that can only loosely be called memoirs, Richard Rodriguez has considered the implications of Williams’s aphorism with a meditative patience that offers a compassionate vision of our society and its complicated past. With his new book, ”Brown: The Last Discovery of America,” Rodriguez completes his trilogy, published in 10-year installments, that attempts to redescribe the American predicament through his own carefully examined experience. He writes: ”Some readers . . . take ‘race’ for a tragic noun, a synonym for conflict and isolation. Race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed.”

Rodriguez was born in 1944 in San Francisco, to working-class immigrant parents whose intention was to aim their children squarely at the mainstream. He grew up in Sacramento, graduating from Stanford in 1966 and going on to graduate school at Yale, experiences described in his first book, ”Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez” (1982). His early work gained notoriety for its forcefully stated position that something was amiss in the way the United States was pursuing redress for the wrongs of the past: Rodriguez worried that programs like affirmative action were helping those who needed help the least, namely middle-class people of color and white women, while ignoring, for example, ”a slightly educated Mexican-American who lived in a barrio and worked as a menial laborer, never expecting a future improved. Worse, affirmative action made me the beneficiary of his condition. . . . The strategy of affirmative action, finally, did not take seriously the educational dilemma of disadvantaged students. They need good early schooling!”

”Hunger of Memory,” and Rodriguez’s second book, ”Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father” (1992), were much more, however, than political tracts. They were finely etched traceries of grief and self-exploration, excavations of what had been lost in his journey as a self-described ”scholarship boy” toward the highly educated and, at times, strangely alienated scholar and writer he would become — stranded between the strict family who no longer understood him and the elite campus culture to which he had not been born. This was a Horatio Alger story, but unlike any that had previously been written; both the starting point and the place of arrival were rigorously analyzed, and nothing put under more scathing scrutiny than the writer himself — his own ambitions, embarrassments, dreams and shame.

”Brown: The Last Discovery of America” continues in the method of the first two books, drawing together chapters that resemble essays but are more like the individual voices in a fugue, connected by motifs and melodies that echo back and forth in patterns, through this book and through the rest of Rodriguez’s work. The recurrent strands of his thought — family, religion, education, race, sex, California, America, Mexico — gain new resonance each time and stand, in the end, for the complexity of a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

The first chapter of ”Brown,” ”The Triad of Alexis de Tocqueville,” takes the reader through the labyrinth of Rodriguez’s on-again-off-again-on-again love affair with African-American culture, where he has looked for surrogate models of ways to interpret his life as a Mexican-American. ”I cannot imagine myself a writer, I cannot imagine myself writing these words, without the example of African slaves stealing the English language, learning to read against the law, then transforming the English language into the American tongue, transforming me, rescuing me, with a coruscating nonchalance.” He uses Tocqueville’s famous tableau of the fawning slave, the proud, elusive Indian and the white child destined to inherit history, as a starting point to interrogate his own place, or lack thereof, in this country. He has identified with, yet felt estranged from, all three.

The next general movement of the book delves directly (or more directly, as Rodriguez never approaches anything head-on) into the idea of what it means to be Hispanic in America. ”Poor Richard” is an examination of American ambition generally and Rodriguez’s own aspirations, through the lives of Benjamin Franklin, Richard Nixon and the history of affirmative action; the theme is amplified by the next chapter, ”Hispanic,” which parses the origins, present and future of that invented term, and ponders the spread of its constituent cultures throughout the United States. ”The Third Man” dissects Rodriguez’s feelings on his own ethnicity, linking them to some hard thoughts on the real and enduring differences (and conflicts) between Hispanics and African-Americans — he is aware that the true inclusion of African-Americans is the key to his ultimate thesis: ”The notion of African-Americans as a minority is one born of a distinct and terrible history of exclusion — the sin of slavery, later decades of segregation, and every conceivable humiliation visited upon a people. . . . To say, today, that Hispanics are becoming America’s largest minority is to mock history.” If ”brown” is to be the American future, then ”black” must be part of the mixture.

The third movement of ”Brown” opens and extends the foregoing discussion. ”Dreams of a Temperate People” is, among other things, a lovely remembrance of Rodriguez’s father — so strong a presence in the first two books — laced through a meditation on North America; ”Gone West” is a stunning essay in which Rodriguez describes how the old metaphor of the West, of innocent California, ”dissolves into foam at our feet.” America, he writes, ”is fated to recognize itself as intersection — no, nothing so plain as intersection — as coil, pretzel, Gordian knot with a wagging tail.” These two essays are examples of Rodriguez’s accomplishments as a writer, at times overlooked in the dust-ups created by his provocative ideas.

This book, and the trilogy, are brought to a close by ”Peter’s Avocado,” a rumination on the dangerous and delicious possibilities of individualism in the United States: Is it possible that the freedom individuals in America have to love each other, coupled with the infinite potential outcomes of those erotic attachments, might lead to a future containing hope and reconciliation? Is the true ”postmodern” future of our country brown, in terms of culture, thought and skin color? ”Brown” keeps circling around the possibility of this (re)discovery, and just when the reader thinks Rodriguez’s hopefulness is veering perilously close to a species of naïveté, he undercuts himself (and the reader) with an awareness of just how difficult this discovery will be. He observes that he is speaking about brown ”not in the sense of pigment, necessarily, but brown because mixed, confused, lumped, impure, unpasteurized, as motives are mixed, and the fluids of generation are mixed and emotions are unclear, and the tally of human progress and failure in every generation is mixed, and unaccounted for, missing in plain sight.”

In the end ”Brown” comes back full circle to ”Hunger of Memory.” Rodriguez writes, ”I passed many adolescent hours at the Clunie Public Library in Sacramento, looking — I couldn’t have said what I was looking for — I was looking for a brown history of America, I was looking for the precedent that made me possible.” In the years since, he has written some of those books and put them in that library, placing himself and his family there. The Mexican-American Rodriguez — in his attempt to dissolve the boundaries of race, class, country and soul — enlarges our understanding of another American pilgrim, the patrician T. S. Eliot: ”We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time”; and of another, the African-American Ralph Ellison: ”Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Anthony Walton is the author of ”Mississippi: An American Journey.” He teaches at Bowdoin College.


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