I think a little biography is in order. My story as an American—and as a serious investigator of cultural memorials—began on July 4, 2005, at the Genesee Country Village (above), a living history museum in Mumford, NY. About a year earlier, I’d realized that my green card was up for renewal. I’d been living in the U.S. for 12 years by that point, and the administration costs for applying for citizenship weren’t much different from those required for a green card. I didn’t have any plans to move out of the country. And, in some not-quite-definable way, I was becoming more American. So I decided to go for citizenship. Genesee Country Village was the spot chosen by the federal government to swear in myself and about 30 other newby citizens.
The village is an interesting place, more so than I originally gave it credit for. As a mid-19th Century living history museum, it’s got all kinds of re-enactors in contemporary garb, playing cobblers, merchants, carpenters, etc. Aesthetically, it follows the pattern of New England-style villages that were once the norm in this part of the U.S. The actual village today consists of 68 original, renovated 19th century buildings that were moved from their original locations and rearranged in a plan resembling a typical Western New York village of 150 years ago. I’d visited it previously with my wife and in-laws, and thought it was nice enough. But on that July 4th, the location took on some extra resonance. Many hundreds of people had showed up that day to celebrate the Fourth, and by noon, most of them were packed into the small village “square” to watch us get sworn in by a federal judge—accompanied by, of all things, an Abraham Lincoln re-enactor. I couldn’t make my mind up whether or not his presence was a bit too schlocky. (Still, after the ceremony I introduced myself to him and we had a nice chat; he seemed like a decent chap.)
The whole thing struck me as an intruiging mixture of solemn officialdom and Disney World. Yet it somehow seemed to work. A big reason for why I think the occasion retained some resonance was that the buildings surrounding us were not fakey-fakey but original, genuine articles, albeit relocated and rearranged for this museum. They retained a crucial link to the past—a real American past, not a Hollywood reconstruction. In effect, I was becoming a citizen in what really was a proper memorial to America’s history. What’s more, as I looked around the Genesee Country Village on that Fourth of July, I realized just how limited my cultural references of America really were. This wasn’t a Wild West town. The best I could come up with was that the place looked like something out of “Little House on the Prairie,” which we’d had on TV in the 1970s and early 80s. That was closer to something substantive that I could get to grips with. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.