Nora's Salon and American Identity

One of the passages I was drawn to from Nightwood was the description of Nora’s salon and Nora herself. Barnes writers that “The strangest ‘salon’ in America was Nora’s” and that at any time you would see “poets, radicals, beggars, artists, and people in love; for Catholics, Protestants, Brahmins, dabblers in black magic and medicine; all these could be seen sitting about her oak table before the huge fire, Nora listening, her hand on her hound, the firelight throwing her shadow and his high against the wall” (50). Even among this group of eclectic characters, “she alone stood out” (50). We are then told in what way Nora stands out: “She was known instantly as a Westerner. Looking at her, foreigners remembered stories they had heard of covered wagons; animals going down to drink; children’s heads, just as far as the eyes, looking in fright out of small windows, where in the dark another race crouched in ambush…” (50-51).

This passage points to two distinct narratives of U.S. identity that I think Barnes is interested in exploring in this transatlantic novel. Nora’s house (the land) is meant to parallel the multiculturalism of the United States and its “place at the table” as a globalized space where different cultures, religions, and people come together. Yet in this space, Nora stands out as distinctly American; she is described as signifying U.S. history, including the explorations of the West, native violence, and the abundant wildlife of the frontier. In this way, American identity is singled out from the American landscape creating an interesting national tension; is America American, or is it Multicultural? Nora’s American identity looms over her international “salon,” just as she looms over the lives of Robin, Felix, and Dr. Matthews in her transatlantic travel.


That's such an interesting way to paint her influence on the lives of others. That perspective makes a lot of sense, especially because those are very recognizable qualities of what is "American," especially to other's outside of the U.S. I'd be interested to hear more opinions on the question you pose about what America is, and how we map that.