A Finer Grain: Richard Rodriguez's Days of Obligation

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Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2002
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,018 words

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[(essay date spring 1997) In the following essay, McNamara discusses the various forms of cultural identity that Rodriguez describes in Days of Obligation, particularly the concept of double consciousness within San Francisco's homosexual community.]

The Mexicans, become Chicanos, act as guides on the visit to El Alamo to laud the heroes of the American nation so valiantly massacred by their own ancestors. ... History is full of ruse and cunning. But so are the Mexicans who have crossed the border clandestinely to come and work here.--Jean Baudrillard, America

"Remember the Alamo," children in Sacramento learned to say. Remembering what?--Richard Rodriguez, Days of ObligationDays of Obligation


When Richard Rodriguez personifies the United States in Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, he imagines a truck-stop waitress, "a blond or a redhead--not the same color as at her last job. ... Morning and the bloom of youth are painted on her cheeks." The bringer of new beginnings, with "one complete gesture [she] pockets the tip, stacks dishes along one strong forearm, produces a damp rag soaked in lethe water, which she then passes over the formica" (55). The trope of open road is a staple of American cultural criticism, from frontier legend to Jean Baudrillard's post-metaphysical musings, but this anti-maternal mother of us all, this pure product of American placelessness, is in the grain of another of Rodriguez's predecessors, William Carlos Williams.

The affinity between Williams and Rodriguez, is deeper than this one character: Days of Obligation and In the American Grain are concerned with the different cultures that share the U.S. and what they might create. For both authors "the American" is an Anglo Protestant. Writing during a period when "the general feeling against Puritanism ... slipped into high gear" (Gregory xviii), Williams did not undertake to do justice to the complexity of Mather--or Franklin, for that matter. He was not wholly without appreciation for the early settlers; as he tells it, in those first hard New England winters, the Puritans' "tight-tied littleness" bloomed into a "courage, close to the miraculous" (American Grain 110) that enabled their survival. Yet, he insists that their fear of a world that reveals human limits left its indelible mark on the nation's unconsciousness. The Puritan mission to subdue "'the Devil's Territories'" (83; quoting Mather) spawned Franklin, "Work[ing] night and day, build[ing] ... a wall against that which is threatening, the terror of life, poverty" (156). For Rodriguez, too, the normative American landscape is a product of the Puritan unconscious: from its gated suburban communities to its southern border, the disposition of space in the U.S. reflects the Puritan injunction to "Build a fence around all you hold dear and respect other fences" (Days 163).

Thus the "northern strain" (American Grain 68) and its pathology of success manifest in labor-saving devices that free their maker, not from necessity but from contact with the unclean things of the world. It makes a virtue of statistics: "The United States, without self-seeking, has...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100042321