There may be a thread or fundamental truth that runs through the entirety of American literature. From the earliest American writings to present day publications, American writers are almost always concerned with individual identities in relation to the larger national identity. Even before America won its independence from Britain, Americans struggled with this concept. Look at Jonathan Edwards’s Personal Narrative, written in 1739, or The Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin, written in 1791. Edwards is looking at his relationship to God, other Americans, and the land itself, wondering what is the best way to serve all three oft these entities. Franklin is attempting to create an identity for himself through his, almost assuredly exaggerated, life stories, while cultivating a new American identity for other to follow through his philosophies of success. Struggling with one’s identity within a larger national identity may be as American as apple pie.
This pattern continues today and is prevalent in more modern American writings as well. John Okada’s No-No Boy and Jack Kerouac’s “The Vanishing American Hobo,” two seemingly very different portraits of America, published within three years of each other in 1957 and 1960 respectively, both contain a thread of a confusion of self-identity as it relates to a larger American identity. These two works not only view the relationship between self-identity and country, but also delve into what happens when a country does not accept the identity that an individual has chosen for himself or herself. In No-No Boy, Ichiro and many other Japanese-American characters in the novel must create new American identities for themselves in the aftermath of Japan’s defeat in World War II. In “The Vanishing American Hobo,” Kerouac explores what it means to have the nation tell you that your way of life is no longer valid, nor acceptable nor, in some cases, legal. One work deals with the creation of a new American identity and the other contemplates the attempted eradication of an American identity. As both works deal with issues of identity, these two pieces, even though they present America through different contexts, are more alike than dissimilar. This speaks to how through the embracement of ever-increasing diversity, America becomes more and more what it was created to be and should have always been.
In No-No Boy, many of the characters must struggle with their identities after Allied victory in Japan. Each character must decide how they will cultivate their identity. Will they craft it out of the culture and heritage of their mothers and fathers? Will they form their identities from the country they are currently living in, for the Nisei, the only country they have ever known? Or will they strive to create a new American identity during the hangover of the Second World War? This study will analyze one character each that responded “yes” to the above three questions.
Ichiro’s mother falls...