Oklahoma! and the Schism at the Heart of the American Psyche

Midway through the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!”, there’s a hoedown at which the cast sings “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends”:

The farmer and the cowman should be friends,

Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
One man likes to push a plough, the other likes to chase a
But that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends.
I’d like to say a word for the farmer,
He come out west and made a lot of changes
He come out west and built a lot of fences,
And built ’em right acrost our cattle ranges!
The farmer is a good and thrifty citizen,
No matter what the cowman says or thinks.
You seldom see him drinkin’ in a barroom,
Unless somebody else is buying drinks!
The farmer and the cowman should be friends,
Oh, the farmer and the cowman should be friends.
The cowman ropes a cow with ease, the farmer steals her
butter and cheese,
But that’s no reason why they cain’t be friends
Aunt Eller:
I’d like to say a word for the cowboy,
The road he treads is difficult and stony.
He rides for days on end with jist a pony for a friend,
Ado Annie:
I sure am feelin’ sorry fer the pony!
Aunt Eller:
The farmer should be sociable with the cowboy,
If he rides by and asks for food and water,
Don’t treat him like a louse, make him welcome in yer house,
But be sure that you lock up yer wife and daughter!

Recently, I was asked to edit a dissertation in which the author argues that there is an “emptiness” at the heart of the American collective psyche because we lack a unifying “mythos,” a shared idea of what it means to be American. It’s not the first time I’ve had someone say to me something like “white Americans have no culture.” I disagree with this; often I point to the phenomenon of American music, which has given birth to bluegrass, the blues, jazz, and rock-and-roll and its later variants, as an example of just how rich “American” culture is.

But as I thought about it before giving this author my feedback, I realized that she is right in a sense. Unlike other countries where most of the population comes from the country and shares a common history, language, and religion/rituals – a common ethnic background, in other words – Americans are a polyglot lot of immigrants from many different ethnic backgrounds, and we’re basically a new country. If one moves to France, one finds a strong national sense of self that has existed for a millenium; Japan’s history is easily twice as long and that of Greece, three times as long. Immigrants to those countries have to define themselves either as part of that culture, or something standing apart. But in the United States, there’s no pre-existing culture that immigrants had to adapt to, for the native population was not unified. The highly sophisticated consortiums of the Iroquois and their allies/enemies had little in common with the pueblo-dwelling Southwest tribes, the nomadic warriors of the Plains, or the seafaring tribes of the Northwest. There was no collective psyche to adapt to.

Human beings have always been nomads; our history is, overall, one of one group moving onto another’s land and either taking it over or being absorbed into the new culture (often in that order; the conquerers end up being co-opted into the culture they meant to displace). But usually, it’s a single ethnic group that moves in. In the case of North America, many different groups arrived within a couple of centuries. The majority of the earliest immigrants were from England, and that ethnic group did  take a dominant role – but subsequent influxes from other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa have brought with them strong voices that do not agree. The idea of the “melting pot” – that all these diverse groups would eventually merge into a new, cohesive group – has not come to pass, primarily because all of these different groups cling tightly to their own ethnic heritages (even if those cultures-within-a-culture have in fact changed greatly from what they were in the homeland).

So there’s no shared national identity. I wonder if we glorify World War II and the people who fought in it so much because it was a rare moment in which we did pull together as a people and send an archetypal figure out to represent us to other countries: The Yank soldier, that cocky, swaggering, heroic figure who swooped in to save the day while cheerfully ignoring all those crusty, rigid traditions of other cultures. The Yank, moreover, could be anyone: a white boy from the South, a feisty Irish immigrant to Boston, a young black man who’d never left Harlem before, a New York girl from a prep school, now getting her hands bloody as she worked tirelessly to save a wounded soldier, a Navaho “code talker,” even a third-generation Japanese man helping to liberate the concentration camps in Germany.

But The Yank has not managed to maintain his status as our national archetype. He needs an enemy to be valid, and although we’ve found several enemies since then to send him against, he doesn’t really help us much with problems at home.

That, I think, is because there’s another issue that the obvious one of different ethnicities has obscured. Those who voluntarily emigrated to the new land did not come as part of conquering forces (although in effect, they were to the native tribes they displaced). People emigrated for two reasons, and it’s here that we find the basic split in our national psyche: they came either to be free of the restraints they had to live under in the old country, or they came to possess land of their own.  So the victims of oppression, like the Puritans of England and the Jews of Eastern Europe, were seeking something very different from the Irish fleeing famine or the lower-class Chinese seeking opportunities for riches.

Thus we have two archetypal forces at work in our collective psyche: the drive to own, to possess, and the drive to be free. As the song puts it so well, the farmer and the cowboy are at war in our souls. One archetype is the hard-working, steadfast, provider who builds structures, especially fences; the other is the rowdy, free-living, “don’t fence me in” frontiersman. One is rooted in both past and future, devoted to leaving a legacy for generations to come, while the other lives entirely in the present and the pleasures thereof.  This split is so universal that it transcends even our political orientations; one can find the tension between possessing and being free of restraints at work in both political parties.

The dissertation I’m editing is actually about how African Americans – who were abducted here instead of coming by choice – are struggling to find their own place in a society that keeps giving them contradictory messages about what to value most. We’re a country of contradictions, all right. Will the farmer and the cowboy in our collective psyche ever find common ground?

In “Oklahoma!”, Curly the cowboy does eventually choose to give up his freedom to marry Laurie and settle down as a farmer. The play makes the point that farmers and cowboys have to learn to pull together if the Territory is to become a state in its own right. In other words, the farmer and the cowboy have to figure out what it means to be Oklahomans. We’re still figuring out what it means to be American.

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