Although I’ve been taught American history, literature, and culture since preschool, for some reason I hadn’t quite identified what defined America until I read Roderick Nash’s “Wilderness and the American Mind” in my Early American Literature class. From reading Nash’s work I realized that what characterizes America is wilderness, and that the term “wilderness” itself is a problematic word. As Nash writes in the first line of the prologue, “‘Wilderness’ has a deceptive concreteness at first glance. The difficulty is that while the word is a noun it acts like an adjective.” Interestingly, if you replace “wilderness” with “American,” his statement holds remarkably true.
Just as “wilderness” could mean either an uncivilized forest containing the absence of man, or an island visited as a hot vacation spot, the term “American” just depends. People question what constitutes American identity and often contemplate, cringe, or explain themselves when they’re called American. Merriam Webster defines “American” as “a person born, raised, or living in the U.S.” or in “North America or South America,” which appears to be an accept-all-points-of-view definition. This is so because every person in the world has a different perspective of what “American” means, which frequently results in confusion or even trouble.
Recently I had such an encounter with a girl from Europe who told me I look and sound native American. Being born of Polish parents, I was confused because I thought she meant I looked like the Native American Indians. In the U.S., children are taught that the term Native American refers to the original peoples of America who lived in the land before the Puritans took over, and that the term Indian was incorrect and refers to citizens of India. It wasn’t until I thought about our conversation later on that I realized she meant I look and sound like I come from generations of people living in America and like I’m not the first of my family to be born in America. In most other nations, people refer to being originally from a country as being “native” of it— only in America does “native” not always have that same meaning.
As for the word “American,” and whether or not I identify as an American—it depends on the context. When the girl said I “looked” American, I didn’t take it very well, because what does an American look like? We all look different! We sound different as well, but I understand that she means I don’t sound British or Australian, or have a Polish accent. I could identify as American simply because I was born and raised in the U.S., but usually I’m quick to mention my parents are from Poland and that I speak Polish too. Therefore, although “American” is a noun as Merriam Webster states, it is actually acts like an adjective, since one could be described as appearing like a person born, raised, or living in the Americas— or really just the U.S., because South Americans and Canadians are called according to the names of their nations— but not actually be it—whatever being American means.
Indeed, the terms “American” and “wilderness” are adjectives disguised as nouns.