24 pages 48 minutes read

Anna Quindlen

A Quilt of a Country

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 2001

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Summary: “A Quilt of a Country”

The essay “A Quilt of a Country” was written by Anna Quindlen and first published on September 26, 2001, in the online edition of Newsweek magazine. Born in Philadelphia in 1953, Quindlen is a prolific journalist turned novelist who published extensively in the New York Post and the New York Times, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her column in the latter. Between 1999 and 2009, she contributed a biweekly column to Newsweek; this essay appeared as part of that series. Written after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it explores themes like Patriotism and National Identity, Multiculturalism in the United States, and American Exceptionalism.

Content Warning: The source material references terrorism, anti-gay violence, and racial and religious prejudice, including Islamophobia.

Quindlen opens her essay by positing her view of America as an essentially diverse country—a “mongrel nation” (1)—and introducing the metaphor of America as a patchwork quilt. She also notes a contradiction about the American psyche: that it is both individualistic and egalitarian. She enumerates examples of how the United States has often fallen short of its egalitarian ideal. Nevertheless, she suggests that the US possesses something “spectacularly successful” (2), though she does not yet reveal what it is.

Subsequently, Quindlen speaks of a “prideful apartheid”, i.e., ethnic divisions, in America. Despite what historians think, Quindlen suggests that this fragmentation, which she refers to as “Balkanization” (3), is nothing new. She draws from her personal history as a child of what was then considered a “mixed” marriage, between an Irish American man and an Italian American woman. She suggests that today’s enmity between, for example, Mexicans and Cambodians will sound as “quaint” one day as the differences between Irish people and Italians already seem. She draws on literature dealing with America’s mythologized past—e.g., A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—to illustrate her point that ethnic divisions have always existed.

At the halfway point in the essay, Quindlen posits a series of rhetorical questions about the “point” of such a heterogenous country. Other countries, she notes, have broken apart along ethnic fault lines. Various conflicts throughout the 20th century, such as the World Wars and the Cold War, galvanized the American populace against a common enemy. Quindlen argues that since the threat of the Cold War evaporated, there has been fear that internal divisions might overwhelm the country. However, in the wake of the recent terrorist attack on American soil, Americans once more have a common enemy to rally against.

The author praises the US for being a unique country in its multiculturalism. While avoiding “trying to isolate anything remotely resembling a national character” (6), she nevertheless explains what she believes to be the main influences and/or behaviors that shape the American psyche and its propensity toward unity. She believes that Americans as a whole fundamentally believe in two things: conquering nearly impossible challenges (according to the spirit of Calvinism) and equal opportunities/egalitarianism.

In the final paragraph, Quindlen tries to settle on a word to encapsulate American coexistence. She takes issue with the concept of tolerance, claiming that it is too “vanilla-pudding” and does not go far enough to promote unity. She is not satisfied with “pride” either, but she settles on defining patriotism as taking pride in the country’s ability to be so plural yet continue to exist as one. She references those who died in the attack on the World Trade Center, highlighting how, when their photographs emerge, their faces will represent the country’s ethnic diversity. She concludes by again invoking the metaphor of the “mongrel nation” (8), admiring the United States for its unified spirit and unlikely success.