Chapter Two: The Expectation of Assimilation in American Gods

American Gods by Neil Gaiman is a difficult novel to classify. In the introduction to this dissertation, two questions were asserted to decide if a work is fantasy or science fiction; American Gods answers neither question definitively being set in “present day” and having both magical and technological problems. This novel points particularly to how the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror overlap; its genre hybridity is not only recognized, but has led to a television show and garnered American Gods awards in those genres: the Hugo, Nebula, Bram Stoker, SFX, and Locus awards (Gibbs; cover). This popularity allows Gaiman to incite philosophical discussion with a wide audience while purposefully borrowing from separate genres. This overlap of generic mechanics is seen most commonly in the sub-genre of magic realism, works which are “Neither exclusively comic nor horrific, nor even satirical, magic realism calls on all of these responses as part of a larger structure” (Strategies of Fantasy 127). Within works of magic realism are settings “that seem to be real, familiar, present-day places, except that they contain the magical characters and impossible events of fantasy” (Strategies of Fantasy 126). The contemporary world found in American Gods shows that the old gods are dying out and that new gods are rising, representative of shifts in ideological beliefs. The new deities, such as technology and media, are representative of “Americanized” ideals, thrive on new worship systems based around capitalism. The old gods, representative of beliefs and customs brought to America by immigrants, are dying as immigrants assimilate, losing those beliefs and customs to become “American.” The new gods are a secular pantheon led by Mr. World, the embodiment of an “Americanized” globalism. This globalism is welcoming to certain old gods, such as Easter, appropriating them into American culture through a rebranding which strips them of their old meaning. Uniting the old gods in a war for survival against the new gods is the embodiment of Odin: Mr. Wednesday. All of the struggle within the novel is framed through the eyes of Shadow Moon, an ex-convict hired by Wednesday to go on a road trip as his driver and body guard (Gaiman 40). With the character Shadow meeting embodiments of mythologies called gods, the novel fits the pattern of magical realism. Through his journey, Shadow witnesses the ideological struggle for a centralized American identity for a self-proclaimed nation of immigrants through a conflict between deities representing ideologies; in seeing this struggle discovers his own.
Some may even have a problem in classifying American Gods as a work of US speculative fiction since Gaiman was born and raised in England, though the author currently lives in the US as an expat and has for decades (De Bertodano). Rebecca L.Walkowitz, in studying the effect of migratory writers, analyzes the question “‘Where is English literature produced?’” which leads to the consideration that “the location of literature depends not only on the places where books are written but also on the places where they are classified and given social purpose” (Walkowitz 919). To ignore Gaiman’s American Gods as part of the American literary canon is to say that a work written in America about America is not American only because the writer was not born in America and to ignore the social insights which are held within. American Gods can be considered authoritative on immigration to America due to Gaiman’s experiences and the setting of the novel. In this way, American Gods is following an increasing trend in which contemporary literature, in an age of globalism, must be viewed as inherently comparative; “works circulate in several literary systems at once, and can—some would say, need— to be read within several national traditions” (Walkowitz 920). Gaiman’s insight comes both from an outsider, able to see the culture as a non-native, and an insider, able to depict American attitudes toward immigration in 2001 as an immigrant; this includes the process and expectations of assimilation. It is for these reasons that American Gods is classified here as a work of US speculative fiction.
While some migrants may consider themselves transnational, defined by David Bartram et al. as “The tendency among immigrants particularly in recent decades to maintain ties with their country of origin while also integrating in the destination country,” the new gods demand assimilation to American ideals (Bartram et al. 140). A study published in 2010 shows that American citizens consider citizenship to be ideology-based, that “an endorsement of a core set of transcendent and abstract national values,” such as “equality, liberty, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics,” is what makes an American citizen (Ditlmann et al. 395); the expectation to assimilate to these values is mirrored by American Gods. The idea of religion as a possible ground of conflict for assimilation mirrors what other research suggests, that immigrants may “abandon their native languages and ethnic traditions while retaining their religions” (Cadge and Ecklund 361). Representing this subversion of assimilation is the the old gods, who offer multiculturalism, defined as “An ‘orientation’ to immigration that embraces difference and diversity; it is in certain respects the opposite of an expectation that immigrants should and will assimilate” (Bartram et al. 102). The conflict between new gods and old gods is representative of this conflict around assimilation.
Attebery would describe fantasy in general as “one degree more fictional than fiction” (“Stories About Stories” 21). The magical realism of American Gods, then, is only half a degree more fictional than fiction, blending the elements of fiction and the speculative to distort reality just enough to allow mythological figures to walk through contemporary America. The magical realism methods within American Gods mirrors the conflicts of American views on immigration between assimilation and multiculturalism. On one hand, America is a nation of immigrants proud of their heritage; on the other hand, it is a place where assimilation, the death of “other” heritage, is inevitable. To illustrate this, Gaiman has mythic systems meet and clash: old gods standing as stereotypes outside of their original cultural contexts against new gods of capitalism and progress; Shadow’s lack of, and quest for, an identity is tied to this mythic struggle for a centralized American identity.
Gaiman’s blending of reality and mythology in the reimagined setting of the US evokes magical realism, a largely Latin American movement. What magical realism does, in brief, is incorporate fantastic elements into the real world, normalizing them alongside the elements of reality, which widens the borders of the real to incorporate the supernatural. According to magical realism specialist Christopher Warnes, this elevation of the non-real to real is done in order to “cast the epistemological status of both into doubt” and leave room for discussions of reality, myth, and spirituality (14). The discussions of American Gods take place in a version of America which, while appearing like the America of reality, has locations which do not exist or are altered to fit the narrative and, while having a similar history, has altered events to account for the existence for mythological beings. Setting the novel in a reimagined version of America offers a closer and more directed critique of American culture.
The history of America is changed within the novel through the stories told by the gods, inextricably linking immigrants and the old gods together. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett asks in her study on immigration and folklore, “Do Old World folk beliefs and magical practices come into conflict with American ways and recede?” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 42). This question is answered of the imagined America when its history is briefly stated by Wednesday during a gathering of the old gods,
‘When the People came to America they brought us with them. They brought me… and they brought you. We rode here in their minds, and we took root. We traveled with the settlers to the new lands across the ocean… Soon enough, our people abandoned us, remembered us only as creatures of the old land, as things that had not come with them to the new. Our true believers passed on, or stopped believing, and we were left, lost and scared and dispossessed, to get by on what little smidgens of worship or belief we could find’ (Gaiman 150).
The immigrants who come to America are depicted as bringing their beliefs and traditions with them, but either losing these aspects of their identity in assimilating to America or in later generations. Research on assimilation by Ruben G. Rumbaut shows that this loss of belief and tradition is “subtle and gradual, and the process is usually unconscious, so that the person is incorporated into the common life of the group largely unaware of how it happened” (Rumbaut 944); reflected in the novel as the slow loss of power in the old gods as the immigrant “other” transforms from foreign “them” into an American “us.” This history is depicted in the interludes from the main story called “Coming to America,” usually written by an Egyptian old god, Mr. Ibis. One of these stories, the story of Essie Tregowan, is an exemplar of Wednesday’s statement of immigrants bringing the mythological beings to America. As a girl, Essie takes an interest in stories and tales, learning to leave offerings to the “piskies and spriggans” to have a good life (Gaiman 104). After being forced to immigrate to America in 1721, Essie has children, whom she passes on her stories to, and their children after them. She is an old woman when a strange man in green appears. He tells her he is from her home in Cornwall, “‘but now I’m here in this new world, where nobody puts out ale or milk for an honest fellow, or a loaf of bread come harvest time’” (Gaiman 112). He makes it known that he has no problems with Essie, “‘although it was you that brought me here, you and a few like you, into this land with no time for magic and no place for piskies and such folk’” (Gaiman 112-113). It is he who comforts her as she dies. Though Essie, and others like her, told the stories from their home, the traditions and beliefs are lost on the other immigrants, citizens, and generations. The story of Essie shows an altered history which makes room for the existence of mythological figures in a magical reality and explains the process by which they are brought to America, but it also gives the first explanation of the difficulties for gods: there is something wrong with the land.
Folklorist Lisa Gabbert notes that landscapes can be performative in a similar way that Roman ethnographies were seen as performative in the previous chapter: landscapes hold power through narrative. While America is presented in the novel as a mythic land, Whiskey Jack, an embodied Native American myth, declares, “This is not a good country for gods” (Gaiman 556). The country is a vast but barren place for gods. In a narrative revolving around a road trip, the fantasy structure of “the quest“ leads Shadow from one mythologized location in America to another; locations which “gather together people, narratives, memories, and events to produce an emergent and synergistic reality” (Gabbert 146-147). This quest takes him to what the old gods consider “places of power,” usually roadside attractions. As Siobhan Carroll notes in her study into American Gods, “the roadside attractions that the old gods consider ‘places of power’ are commercial spaces that pretend to history, to local specificity, to uniqueness” which only goes against the new god’s places of power: shopping malls (Carroll 319). Where the shopping malls represent the temples to new gods of American assimilation, the roadside attractions are locations only important because people believe them to be. As a performative space, the roadside attractions contradict Wednesday’s statement: the old gods have not taken root in America. Without the history, place, and culture of the original countries, the old gods have no more call to power than the roadside attractions they consider hallowed ground.
The culture America is depicted as having difficulty defining a centralized identity. Mr. Wednesday tells Shadow that America “‘is the only country in the world that worries about what it is… The rest of them know what they are. No one ever needs to go searching for the heart of Norway. Or look for the soul of Mozambique” (Gaiman 128). Considering the United States is “A nation of immigrants, [whose] people do not share a common ancestry or site of origin,” its national identity is a location of struggle (Carroll 317). In a nation such as this, the old gods have to morph into something new in order to survive. The alterations of the new gods remove them further from the original cultural context they are meant to embody, leading them to become a kind of stereotype. On meeting Mad Sweeney, a leprechaun, Shadow asks, “‘Shouldn’t you be drinking Guinness?’” But Mad Sweeney responds, “‘Stereotypes. You have to learn to think outside the box… There’s a lot more to Ireland than Guinness’” (Gaiman 39). As the character who symbolizes Irish folklore moving to America, Mad Sweeney’s first introduction to Shadow reveals that Ireland is more complex and, therefore, so is he. However, this complexity is undercut when Sweeney admits he has been in America so long that he has lost his accent, among other aspects of identity. He is no longer a representation of Ireland, but a stereotype of American beliefs of Irishness: a man who drinks and fights. Much of Sweeney’s Irishness is lost so that he can embody what enough Americans believe Irishness is, to survive.
Important to science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other forms of speculative fiction are the traits handed down to them from their predecessor: myth. Not only does Gaiman draw from myths of various cultures, but he also creates the new gods to encapsulate certain contemporary metanarratives of capitalism, secularism, and progress; if “myth constitutes the base of the human culture,” as claimed by Irina Rata in her study of American Gods, then the fight between the old gods and the new gods within the novel is a battle for supremacy of thought, the dominant paradigm of America (Rata 35). The old gods seek to continue a status quo: a lack of centralized identity, of multiculturalism. All of the old gods, different as they are, representing their former nation’s heritage little as they do, seek to exist in a land where they cannot root themselves with history or culture. The new gods, increasing in power, seek assimilation to what political scientist Matthew Wright calls “normative content… the criteria individuals use to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’” (Wright 600). These gods are usually tangible gods, mostly representing the material world personified: Technology, Media, and World. While the study from Ditlmann et al concludes that Americans recognize citizenship as belief in a set of values, Gaiman depicts the normative content to be a unity around “American” ideas of modernization, westernization, and secularism. The call of the new gods is to lose the values which make the old gods “other” in order to be absorbed into the new god pantheon.
In order to survive, some old gods have answered the call of the new gods by assimilating, as shown by Easter, an old goddess, she tells Shadow and Wednesday that she is doing well with the rebranding of the new gods. However happy Easter seems at first, the illusion is broken when Wednesday asks their waitress if she knows the true origin of Easter. When she cannot answer, Wednesday tells Easter, “‘don’t tell me they worship you and keep your festival day. They mouth your name, but it has no meaning to them. Nothing at all’” (Gaiman 334). In rebranding, Easter represents immigrant beliefs and traditions appropriated by American culture, morphing and losing historicism to remain relevant. The alternative is violent elimination.
The call of the new gods is to give up the defined evil: all ties to a historic identity in exchange for material wealth. This call to eliminate historicism and ethnicity follows what Rumbaut describes as the worst aspects of assimilation, “patronizing ethnocentrism built into assumptions about immigrant adjustment that equated ‘foreign’ with ‘inferior’ and the ways of the ‘host’… culture with ‘superior’” (Rumbaut 927). This equation of foreign as inferior is the reason the old gods “are depicted as alienated by their displacement, doing odd jobs, and having peculiar lifestyles; they are caricatures, parodies of their original selves” (Rata 37). This existence, forced on the old gods by the cultural structures of the new gods becomes the defined evil for the opposing side of culture in this ideological civil war. The reader accepts this dictation of evil along with Shadow due to the typical construction of fantasy narrative: “In place of history’s ambiguities and cascading changes, fantasy typically offers changelessness and clear divisions of good and evil” (Stories About Stories 199). Wednesday takes Shadow from old god to old god on the road trip in order to force them into a final battle against the new gods. Shadow, as the protagonist, is expected to code as unambiguously “good,” so the reader also trusts Wednesday and the other old gods as “good, opposing evil” in the typical fantasy formula.
While the war between gods of both pantheons represent a battle for a central American identity, the protagonist, Shadow, must also deal with the lack of an identity. Shadow’s ethnicity and cultural roots are called into question time and again, starting with his time in prison when an officer asks “And what are you? A spic? A gypsy? …Maybe you got nigger blood in you. You got nigger blood in you, Shadow?” but Shadow avoids the question, both because he knows that the officer is trying to get a negative reaction and because he has little idea of his heritage (Gaiman 12). Shadow’s lack of heritage and cultural grounding causes him to have a lack of identity to root himself in, mirroring the lack of centralized identity for America. The two aspects of his life Shadow does try to root himself in, his marriage and his work, are taken away from him at the beginning of the novel when his wife and best friend, also his boss, die in a car crash. Shadow’s subsequent search for identity as he journeys with Wednesday deepens the underlying issue Carroll lays out: “What is at stake in invocations of a ‘real America’ is what, and who, gets excluded from idealized versions of the United States” (Carroll 308). The myths of identity in nation building are central to the novel and part of that is the decision of who is part of the culture and who is not. From the beginning of the novel, Shadow, as an ambiguously non-white ex-convict, is as much of an outsider to American culture as he is an insider. The battle which Shadow sees the gods taking part in is a battle deciding not only if he is more or less a full member of American culture, but if anyone is. While this ideological battle is mostly symbolized in the battle of the gods, Shadow, a mortal, is an active agent representing the human element in this ideological war. It is for this reason that both sides want to recruit him to their side. Rumbaut describes assimilation as “about seduction and not simply coercion” (953); this accounts for the tactics used by the new gods to lure Shadow into betraying the old gods, from promises of fame and power to actual sexual seduction. However, Shadow remains faithful to the old gods and completes his final promise to Wednesday, who is killed by the new gods. Shadow holds a vigil which both mimics the hanging of Jesus on the cross and Odin on the tree. A vision Shadow has reveals that Wednesday is his true father, making him a demigod.
Shadow’s visions not only give him a sense of heritage, but also the revelation that the entire war between the gods is a con orchestrated by Wednesday and Loki, masquerading as Mr. World, who says that “the outcome of the battle is unimportant. What matters is the chaos, and the slaughter” as it would empower them as gods of war and trickery (Gaiman 549). This reveals that the entire conflict is a literal power play and undermines the nationalist rhetoric spewed by both sides as well as the “reading conventions of fantasy novels” in which evil and good are unambiguous opposites (Carroll 318); it follows closer to the science fiction narratives in which the “skeptical hero” unmasks “fraudulent gods” who are “vindictive and unworthy of the human worship they lay claim to” (Strategies of Fantasy 120). The beliefs personified are sent into battle and the only one who has the ability to save them is the one outside the system, the mortal man, Shadow. Like many science fiction texts, “the gods can be defeated but at the loss of some intangible value” (Strategies of Fantasy 120). While there is a sense of loss, with Shadow even mourning Wednesday’s death, the battle intended to undermine identity claims enables Shadow to realize identity is a negotiation of aspects of the self. This reflects what scholars of religion and immigration have examined in their studies, how “identities are many-sided, fluid (shaped by historical and social contexts), and overlapping” (Cadge and Ecklund 363).
By stepping outside the system through his temporary death, Shadow gains the insight that the new gods have the same fear as the old gods, “They were afraid that unless they kept pace with a changing world, unless they remade and redrew and rebuilt the world in their image, their time would already be over” (Gaiman 581). While the vigil empowers Shadow, he does not return to life as a savior or deity, but chooses to embrace his humanity as he talks down the gods from their war, “I think I would rather be a man than a god. We don’t need anyone to believe in us. We just keep on going anyhow” (Gaiman 584). Shadow ruins the plans of Wednesday and Loki by ending the conflict in peace. Shadow, and the other gods, realize their own agency in their identities. When Shadow returns to Czernobog, willing to honor the deal to be killed by him, the old god allows Shadow to live, “‘Because of you, things are changing. This is spring time. The true spring’” (Gaiman 628). After this, Shadow ventures outside the United States, stepping outside the system to see it more clearly, similar to his vigil on the tree. In his travels, he goes to Reykjavik, Iceland and meets their embodiment of Odin. The two Odins, while they share some commonalities, are clearly distinct. This Odin is not a con artist or a beggar, but a man who expects his orders to be followed as he demands Shadow to do magic tricks for him. Icelandic Odin asks Shadow if he will return to America, to which Shadow replies, “‘Nothing to go back for’” except “as he said it he knew it was a lie” (Gaiman 634). Shadow recognizes the need to return to America because he is American. Though the research of Ditlmann et al. shows American citizenship is considered as endorsing values, legally it is ascribed “jus soli,” to all born in its borders as “citizenship runs ‘through the soil’” (396). If the quest arc may be considered as complete in the novel, it is in Shadow’s acceptance that there is no solidified identity at the exclusion of parts of the self, but that identity must be a continuous, living process which negotiates the separate parts into one. Gaiman’s reimagined America does not have a singular identity and to attempt to forge one would eliminate and exclude the heritage brought through immigration which created the nation in the first place.
Suman Gumpta’s research into literary studies and globalization treats works of literature as anthropological artifacts of cultural work,
It is in the presumption that literary fictional texts can serve as evidence in a similar fashion as empirically based political or social observations. It is presumed that the processes represented within and implicit around fictional works, which can be discerned by a reader or interpreter, convey a reality or veracity about their geopolitical locations that is as germane as, say, statistical data or sociological field work or political reports (Gumpta 873).
Setting American Gods in a version of America reimagined as a mythological space allows for the realities of the immigrant experience to be expressed. As a work of speculative fiction, the novel follows the practice of making the real into the mythic in order to create a world view for the reimagined America which reflects the real metanarrative which expects immigrants to assimilate to normative ideals in order to become part of the community. The complicated struggle for identity in a nation of immigrants is symbolized in a literal war between gods from the immigrant countries and new gods of secular capitalism. The aspects of identity are negotiated symbolically as Shadow moves to accept the mythic while embracing his humanity, negotiating peace between the ideological gods of America.

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