“If you are to survive, you must believe…Everything.”
Faith is certainly an integral theme in Neil Gaiman’s Hugo Award-winning fantasy novel, American Gods. The earliest immigrants arrived with little more than faith, and it was their belief in the new world that has made this country what it is. In what can only be described as postmodern urban fantasy, Gaiman has expertly invented a world where all gods, old and new, are very real. American Gods explores what it means to be American by mapping the legacy of immigrants, and how their religions and myths have shaped the country’s identity. Shadow, the main character of American Gods, is advised by the buffalo man, “If you are to survive, you must believe…Everything.” He is one of many spiritual guides Shadow encounters, and second only to Wednesday (aka Odin) in terms of importance. Although Shadow is reluctant to believe anything at the beginning of the novel, he soon has no choice but to have faith that what he’s experiencing is real. For immigrants, it is similar that faith imbues a drive to succeed despite finding themselves in alien territory.
Shadow is a reticent man who doesn’t outwardly grieve the death of his cheating spouse. He meets Wednesday after he’s released from prison. Because Shadow’s mind is grieving, he doesn’t notice the magical way Wednesday appears in odd places at inconvenient times. Airports. Bathroom stalls. Gin mills. It’s the reader who understands there are elements of magic at play. It becomes clearer and clearer that Wednesday is more than a man; in fact, he’s Odin, the god of Germanic and Norse mythology. He’s also a wise and confident con artist who’s able to trick Shadow into joining him on his journey, as a sort of bodyguard and reluctant coconspirator. In their travels, they come upon many old gods, such as Anansi, Thoth, Suibhne (leprechaun), and the servants of Dažbog. Shadow is stalked by the new gods, the novel’s antagonists, such as Technical Boy (god of computers and the Internet), Media (goddess of television), and The Intangibles (gods of the stock market). The basic premise is that, to save themselves, the gods of old must contend with the gods of new. It may sound simple, and in many ways, it is (this is a very entertaining adult novel); but, consider that these characters are metaphors for different sorts of American identity. No single American identity exists, or that was the belief Gaiman had when he wrote American Gods.
“Nobody’s American. Not originally,” said Wednesday, who is a man of few words with an authoritative manner. Everyone is an immigrant or descended from immigrants. Even Native Americans, such as Samantha “Sam” Black Crow, a hitchhiker Shadow meets on his way to Cairo, Illinois, isn’t American by Wednesday’s standards. She is both descended from white immigrants and descended from full-blooded Cherokee natives, but even her Cherokee father isn’t American, as indigenous people rarely define the lands that were stolen from them the same way Europeans do. Sam plays a significant role in the novel, but isn’t introduced until Chapter Seven. In many ways, these first chapters offer a metaphor for what it’s like to be an immigrant in the United States. As Shadow travels, he is new to the small towns he frequents, but people are kind and helpful to him. Gaiman admits that he found rural America, particularly the Midwest, to be the most American when researching this novel; perhaps, because Midwesterners are so welcoming and delightfully weird.
If Shadow is a metaphor for newly arrived immigrants, then it isn’t uncommon for immigrants to be aggressively questioned about their race. Shadow is a person of color, mixed-race; although, his race is left purposefully vague. His mother is suggested to be African-American, but neither his mother’s nor his father’s races are confirmed. His eyes are gray. His skin is described as both “coffee and cream colored.” Perhaps Gaiman chose to be ambivalent about Shadow’s ethnicity to depict how often people of color are questioned about their race, sometimes in a racist manner. For immigrants, their experience is sure to include random questions about their backgrounds either based on their skin color or accents. A surly prison guard asks Shadow, “And, what are you? A spic? A gypsy?” Shadow answers, “Not that I know of, sir. Maybe.” The guard responds, “Maybe you got nigger blood in you. You got nigger blood in you, Shadow?” Shadow’s motto in prison, and everywhere else, is, “You do your own time,” so he is not rattled. He is calm when he answers, “Could be, sir.” Not all questions about one’s heritage are malicious, as Sam Black Crow was curious about Shadow too. She asks, “You got Indian blood in you?” Predictably, Shadow responds, “Not that I know of.” Perhaps Shadow’s race isn’t defined because race is a social construct. Shadow’s anonymity in this way is a mirror held up to society, a way to ask people to stop defining others by the color of their skin. That isn’t to say that there isn’t room for classification in American Gods. Gaiman’s characters are classified, defined really, by their uniqueness, including what they offer and what they believe. The color of one’s skin is not an indicator of much really, as anyone residing in America is American, or not American at all as Wednesday asserts.
The subtext of American Gods is laden with philosophical questions. If no one is American, then what exactly is America? How is it defined if there’s no set paradigm to define it? If there’s no discernable culture, why are people so proud to call themselves American? Gaiman’s storytelling only gives a peek-a-boo glimpse of what’s beyond the veil of his psyche, but he does offer an enlightening point of view and a reason to research beyond the novel. His paramount point seems to be that Wednesday’s words, “Nobody’s American. Not really.” shouldn’t be taken at face value. It isn’t that nobody’s American, but rather that American people are more than just their land. This is a country defined by varying ideology, and myths brought here from near and far. America’s immigrant’s histories are as vast and varied as its landscapes.
Although not every person has a religion, every person has been introduced to religion, myth, and ideologies. Ideology is woven into the fabric of every culture across the earth, and someone from nearly every culture on earth lives in America. History professor at the University of Georgia, Jerome O. Steffen, wrote that myths “are essential to cohesiveness and unity.” He notes that “Not only do they explain the origins, the present state and future of cultures, they also provide spiritual links to supernatural designs which often contain definitions of uniqueness and superiority.” Gaiman’s gods are representative of these myths, which for centuries have defined good and evil, and who are so vastly different; much like the salad bowl that is America’s people.
Certainly, today’s America looks different than it did to those brave souls embarking Ellis Island, but not so different that people have gone sour. Ben Bodom, Information technology specialist at General Mills and an immigrant from Ghana agrees. He said, “When you go to rural areas, that’s when you understand what America is. The fact of the matter is that for them, everybody counts.” That’s the sort of faith, faith in an American spirit, that we all want to define in an existential sort of way, but also that we all so easily believe in because it’s true. It’s what we see and know even if it isn’t easy to absolutely define it as an American experience.
Gaiman includes some coming-to-America tales in his novel. These are breaks from the central plot, but there are messages in them. For example, Essie’s story includes a message of gratitude. Despite the extreme challenges of her existence, Essie is grateful and shows gratitude to the gods for what little she has. She doesn’t forget her gods, even when everyone else does. For this she is rewarded with life after death. In his essay, “How Dare You?” Gaiman explains what he wanted his novel to be before he wrote 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 when they came to America. And about what happened to the things they believed.” Essie’s beliefs could not be shaken even after untoward abuses and the deaths of her children, but she mistakenly believed she could imbue her beliefs onto her children born on American soil. She could not. Her beliefs became stories, fantastic fodder for young children, but hardly believed by anyone young or old. Things change when you immigrate, and that’s part of the American experience too.
Does Gaiman wonder if America can retain its goodness without stories to guide us? Not sure, but technology does not encourage people to have hope, to be courageous, and to treat each other with love and respect the way mythologies, books, and religions do. At least in American Gods, the new gods have undermined the old because the new gods are harbingers of a moral dilemma. Technology doesn’t threaten you that if you’re not good your god will punish you. Rollo Mays, an existentialist psychologist, ponders, “There is so much violence in American society today because there are no more great myths to help young men and women to relate to the world or to understand that world beyond what is seen.”
Is humanity’s close relationship to technology ruining the American experience? In January 2016, TIME Magazine ran a story titled, “Technology Is Destroying Our Inner Lives.” In it, author Carol Becker contends that people are addicted to their devices, or as she calls them our “systems of connection.” In American Gods, the new gods wish to prevail over the old ones. In reality, technology is such a distraction that people are spending less time communing with nature, meditating, and reflecting in a philosophical way on their existence. “If we do not make a Herculean effort to remain balanced within this imbalance,” wrote Becker, “we feel fragmented and often unhappy.”
Becker argues that society could be losing touch with inner life. “What would it mean if the species were to completely lose the need and/or desire for privacy, solitude, time and focused attention? What if we were the last humans to be bothered by intrusions into our privacy? What would it feel like if our species evolved out the need for an inner life?” Gaiman clearly wondered the same thing as that’s a similar premise as American Gods; unfortunately for the real world, there is no Shadow or old gods to save us. Or, is there? Hasn’t all religiously motivated culture believed in something that could not be seen, touched, or tasted, but rather only sought after in a spiritual way? And, aren’t most ceremonies and holidays based on old beliefs, rearranged and reinterpreted to fit modern needs? The old gods are still here, in real life as it is in the novel, and the novel begs the question, why don’t we know them anymore?
Throughout American Gods Shadow and Wednesday attempt to recruit old gods to battle the new ones. In a meeting with perky and colorful Easter (Ēostre), it’s noted that her holiday is still celebrated each year. Children hunt hidden eggs. Parents give their children tokens of affection, Easter baskets. To the goddess Easter, this is people continuing to celebrate her. She doesn’t feel she needs to join them until Wednesday points out, “But how many of them know who you are?” No one is celebrating the spirit of the Germanic goddess Ēostre, but rather some decaying version of a holiday that was meant to celebrate the fertility of Spring. In an unreferenced cultural analysis of American Gods, the anonymous author wonders, “How might our country be different if we did teach our children to celebrate spring, and the sun, and the new growth of the Earth in Springtime?” Certainly, it could inspire them to take a break from the new gods (xbox, tablets, and laptops) to step into the sunshine and show penance for the bounty the earth provides.
The old gods exist in texts, but they could very well exist in conversation too. Conversation brought on by American Gods and other relevant literature that seeks to promote exploration, physical and spiritual, without the interference of technology. That isn’t to say that everyone should just hop on the nearest religious bandwagon, but rather that it’s important for all Americans to seek out spiritual experiences (however they may define them). Learn everything, and then cherry pick from that the experiences that bring you real unequivocal joy and challenge your mind in thoughtful introspective ways. In American Gods, it is explained that American culture is ever-evolving, and it takes work and effort for the architype to remain wholesome and good, and goodness can be defined by positive experiences. This could be regular tech-free hikes with an ADK team, quilting with friendly neighbors, or simply enjoying a meditative experience on one’s own. Whatever we choose to do, it’s important not to give the old gods more power than they deserve because that is sure to degrade the beautiful, ever-evolving American and immigrant experience into something sinister.
“All the myths I care about, or have cared about, will be in there, but there in order to try and make sense of the myths that make America,” wrote Gaiman in a 1999 journal article titled, Reflections on Myth. Because Gaiman’s characters, god and human, are so varied in personality, it can ultimately be determined that there is no one way to be American, and there is no one way to be an immigrant either. Everyone’s experiences are different, and in one way that’s what makes America unique, desirable, and ultimately good. The old gods can provide a pathway to that goodness, a reason to avoid negativity, and a reason to start worshiping nature in all its forms (including human nature) again. Gaiman said, “I wanted to write about myths. I wanted to write about America as a mythic place…” America has vast beautiful sweeping fields of land, impossibly deep gorges, sparkling great lakes, but it also has amusement parks, social programs, equality, Hollywood, shopping malls, and so much in between all that. America is mythical, especially to someone traveling half-way around the world to get here from a place that has very little comparatively. The American experience is all these things and more, it is as personal to one’s self as a fingerprint, and American Gods embodies that message.
Although the American experience cannot be defined in any tangible expression, it is a place that has historically welcomed immigrants. It’s a place where faith and diversity walk hand-in-hand, and where there is faith there is hope. As for Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel, American Gods, it has inspired this reader to stop lamenting her government, which has turned sour toward immigrants, and start expressing positive and hopeful energies that there will be a renewed invitation to the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Here’s to America, where the experience is yours to make.
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