From the popular legend of Pocahontas to the Civil War soap opera
Gone with the Wind to countless sculpted heads of George Washington that adorn
homes and museums, whole industries have emerged to feed America’s addiction to imaginary
histories that cover up the often violent acts of building a homogeneous nation. In Ersatz
America, Rebecca Mark shows how this four-hundred-year-old obsession with
false history has wounded democracy by creating language that is severed from material reality.
Without the mediating touchstones of body and nature, creative representations of our history have
been allowed to spin into dangerous abstraction.
Other scholars have addressed the
artificial qualities of the collective American memory, but what distinguishes Ersatz
America is that it does more than simply deconstruct—it provides a map for
regeneration. Mark contends that throughout American history, citizen artists have responded to the
deadly memorialization of the past with artistic expressions and visual artifacts that exist outside
the realm of official language, creating a counter narrative. These examples of what she calls
visceral graphism are embodied in and connected to the human experience of indigenous peoples,
enslaved Africans, and silenced women, giving form to the unspeakable. We must learn, Mark suggests,
to read the markings of these works against the iconic national myths. In doing so, we can shift
from being mesmerized by the monumentalism of this national mirage to embracing the regeneration and
recovery of our human history.