Blake Snow

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What does “American” mean? Hampton Sides has a pretty good answer

Below is excerpted from Americana by Hampton Sides, which I recently enjoyed reading. 

A few years ago, I was passing through Marrakech on my way to the Sahara for a magazine assignment. One afternoon, outside La Mamounia Hotel, I was accosted, as all tourists inevitably are, by a “guide.” He was an intense young Berber with penetrating eyes and a brisk stride, one of those canny creatures of the bazaar. He wore a slick black suit.

“Hello, American?” he said, instantly sizing me up.

”No, no American,” I replied and walked on as fast as I could. Not that I’m embarrassed by my nationality, but I’d been told the guides assume all Americans are loaded. Besides, I didn’t want a guide that day, and this guy really seemed like an operator.

He looked puzzled. “American, yes? You need guide for the souk. We buy rugs now.”

I shook my head vigorously and picked up my step, but he persisted. “British. German, yes? Canadian?” I could almost hear his brain racing.

“I am Finnish,” I said. Someone had told me this always throws the guides.


“No. I’m from Helsinki, Finland. Fin-land. I speak a Finnish, no understand you.”

He walked alongside me a hundred yards toward the market without saying a word, thinking so hard that he seemed on the verge of a massive aneurysm. At last he made a pronouncement: ”No Finland. You are American. You need a guide.”

I was beaten down by his relentlessness. “You’re right,” I said. “I’m American, and I need a guide. Let’s go buy lots of rugs!”

And so we walked deep into the hot, loud maze of the Marrakech souk. He took me to shops and stalls that were doubtless owned by his various cousins. We haggled over cups of mint tea. Of course, I bought rugs.

Over the next few days, we became friends. His name was (what else?) Muhammad, and he was originally from a small village in the Atlas Mountains. After dinner one night, we went over to his tiny apartment, and he put on a Queen eight-track. We smoked a variety of hand-rolled cigarettes, talking far into the night. We argued about politics—he didn’t understand why America was so intent on running the planet, why we singled out Saddam Hussein, why we were always dropping bombs on countries we didn’t like. Still, he was fascinated by America, dazzled by its freedoms and its energy. “I will go there, someday,” he declared.

“Muhammad,” I said, zoning out (the cigarettes were good). “Right from the start, how did you know I was American?”

I had thought, stupidly, that Americans passed under the stylistic radar screen. That being American wasn’t so much a look or a manner as it was an absence of one. That we were a mutt race of people whose only real defining characteristic was our lack of defining characteristics.

But Muhammad had made a career of assessing people of all nationalities, and his instincts were razor sharp. “It’s in the eyes,” he said. “In the walk. The way you hold your mouth. Your hands, clothes. It’s everything.”

“But what is it?” I wanted to know. “What does an American look like?”

“Confident,” Muhammad answered. “Confident like you own the world. But open.”

The older I get, the surer I am that I have no idea what America “means.” The more I read and travel, the more jaundiced I grow toward anyone who claims to have “found” this country. The United States of America is such a glorious mess of contradiction, such a crazy quilt of competing themes, such a fecund mishmash of people and ideas, that defining us is pretty much pointless. There is, of course, a kind of faded notion of “Americana,” one that concerns Route 66, diners, freak rock formations, and the like—but even in its halcyon days this “roadside attraction” version of America was never an accurate or nuanced distillation of our massively complicated culture.

On the other hand, there are stories out there, contemporary stories, that have a certain quality of “American-ness.” There are scenes and places, wattages and personages, that belong—inextricably, unmistakably—to this country and this country alone. There is an American quality, a tone, an energy as instantly recognizable as I was to Muhammad. “Confident but open” may be as good as any description I‘ve heard for it.

We’re a supremely confident people, sure of our ways, proud of our machines, swaggering with our—a people confident enough to wage preemptive war on sovereign nations in defiance of world opinion. This confidence, perhaps rooted in our frontier past and in the licenses of our Constitution, scares the crap out of other counties, especially now that the United States has achieved a cultural and military hegemony without parallel in the history of the world.

But it’s a confidence that, more often than not, is also cut with an extraordinary openness to change, a youthful embrace of new ideas and new people and indeed, anything new. The two qualities feed off each other, I think: More than anything else, our confidence comes from our openness.

We’re still a country living on the frontier, it seems to me, only the frontier today is less geographical than it is social. Having pushed our physical borders, we’re now pushing the boundaries of how we live and organize our lives, lighting out for uncharted territory.

This tendency is best seen in our knack for spawning subcultures of every strain and stripe. I love traveling around America and falling in with various tribes: Harley bikers, Grand Canyon dorymen. Mormon archaeologists, high-end audiophiles, World War II veterans, ravers, cavers, spelling bee champions, Tupperware sales ladies, skateboarders. I love losing myself in group gatherings, tribal hideouts, and places of pilgrimage. Ours is a land of refined fanaticism. Anything we might dream of doing, we can find a society of Americans who are already doing it, and doing it so intensely that they’ve organized their lives around it. They buy the tools and toys. They build up a circle of friends in the group. They spend their vacations doing whatever the group does. They slip into the subculture lagoon, and by degrees of emotional and financial investment, they become submerged.

Over the past fifteen years or so, I’ve worked this vein of subject matter with a consistency of fascination that, looking back on it now, surprises me. Most of the thirty pieces in this book came about in the haphazard, give-and-take way in which magazine assignments usually evolve. The idea of collecting them in one place didn’t occur to me until last year, when I looked back and realized that I’d reached a kind of critical mass of material touching on the same broad theme—a theme that works and plays with a more modern notion of “Americana.”

I hope this collection captures something real and true about who we are, even if who we are is always changing. I hope also that in the final section of the book I’ve managed to convey some of the daunting challenges our country has faced, sometimes heroically, since September 11. 2001. If these thirty pieces have a consistent theme and voice, I hope it can be said that they’re “confident but open.”

As a writer and a citizen. I”m grateful to be living in this vast protean hulk of a country during these times—these scary, strenuous, intensely interesting times. Whatever we are, whatever we “mean,” there’s never been a country like us.

No offense to Finland, but I’m an American.