America—a relatively young nation composed largely of immigrants—is, in some sense, defined by its lack of definition: Gaiman writes that America is “the only country that does not know what it is.” As a country, the United States does not have a long history from which to draw its identity, and it does not have a single religion, language, culture, or heritage that can encompass or define it. In addition, the country is constantly changing due to immigrants bringing new cultures and ideas, and due to the American fixations on innovation and adaptation to change. For this reason, American Gods aims to reject sweeping and superficial definitions of American identity in favor of a more nuanced, flexible, and pluralistic idea of American life.
The American gods are Gaiman’s most comprehensive example of the plurality and fluidity of American culture. Immigrants bring the gods of their homelands to America, where those gods—just like the people who brought them—change and adapt to their new culture. One example is when Czernobog, the god of darkness in Slavic mythology, who demanded sacrifices with a hammer in return for protection, channels his godly penchant for violence into a job at the American industrial meat factories. In addition, modern gods, created in contemporary America, reflect the passions and quirks of contemporary Americans, such as the goddess Media who arose from the American worship of television. This means that, just as the American population is diverse and constantly changing, the pantheon of American gods is a shifting blend of Old Gods and New Gods, which suggests that American religion, like all of American culture, is so broad and fluid that it is impossible to define.
Just as Gaiman thoroughly rejects static and homogeneous definitions of American people and culture, he also pushes back against the stereotypical iconography of the American landscape. Gaiman suggests that to focus only on America’s most iconic landmarks—New York or Las Vegas, for example—is to obscure the diversity of American places and to miss the strangeness that makes America interesting and unique. Gaiman thus infuses the book with details about offbeat American sites (including House on the Rock and Rock City on Lookout Mountain) that really exist, yet are not well-known. Gaiman’s highlighting of eccentric, lesser-known pieces of Americana further complicates simplistic ideas of what America, or the American landscape, is. The sites that Gaiman chooses are also significant in that they have been created by the idiosyncratic visions of individual Americans—House on the Rock, for instance, was the passion project of an eccentric aspiring architect who wanted to leave his mark on his small Wisconsin hometown. Through this, and through the exploration of the ways in which individuals influence the characteristics of the gods they worship, Gaiman invokes another unique attribute of Americans: their belief in their own power to shape their lives and the world around them.
It is the combination of plurality and individual empowerment that explains the Buffalo Man’s observation that America allows for a creator but refuses to honor individual gods as they were in the old country. Indeed, Gods that arose in America are less like the traditional religious gods from the Norse, Germanic, African, or other pantheons and more similar to cultural heroes, such as Johnny Appleseed and Paul Bunyan. These heroes are fallible and humanlike—blurring the distinction between god and man. That Americans consider themselves to be godlike and their gods to be humanlike raises the question of whether American religion is characterized by the lack of divinity altogether, or whether everything in America is imbued with the divine. While Gaiman leaves most of his questions about America open-ended (he never defines what America is, or who Americans are), he does answer that one: when Shadow asks the Buffalo Man what to believe, the Buffalo Man answers “everything.” America is not one sacred thing, but all that is sacred.
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America ThemeTracker
Plurality and the Power of the Individual in America Quotes in American Gods
"Believe," said the rumbling voice. "If you are to survive, you must believe."
"Believe what?" asked Shadow. "What should I believe?"
He stared at Shadow, the buffalo man, and he drew himself up huge, and his eyes filled with fire. He opened his spit-flecked buffalo mouth and it was red inside with the flames that burned inside him, under the earth.
"Everything," roared the buffalo man.
The important thing to understand about American history, wrote Mr. Ibis, in his leather-bound journal, is that it is fictional, a charcoal-sketched simplicity for the children, or the easily bored. For the most part it is uninspected, unimagined, unthought, a representation of the thing, and not the thing itself.
"The land is vast. Soon enough, our people abandoned us, remembered us only as creatures of the old land, as things that had not come with them to the new. Our true believers passed on, or stopped believing, and we were left, lost and scared and dispossessed, to get by on what little smidgens of worship or belief we could find…
"We have, let us face it and admit it, little influence. We prey on them, and we take from them, and we get by; we strip and we whore and we drink too much; we pump gas and we steal and we cheat and we exist in the cracks at the edges of society. Old gods, here in this new land without gods."
"Okay. As soon as they say Odin's name, the reed transforms into a spear and stabs the guy in the side, the calf intestines become a thick rope, the branch becomes a bough of a tree, and the tree pulls up, and the ground drops away, and the king is left hanging there to die with a wound in his side and his face going black. End of story. White people have some fucked-up gods, Mister Shadow."
We need individual stories. Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, "casualties may rise to a million." With individual stories, the statistics become people—but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless…
Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.
A life, which is, like any other, unlike any other.
Soon, it seemed to her that they pretended that there never had been a place called St. Domingo, and as for Haiti, the word was never mentioned. It was as if the whole American nation had decided that they could, by an effort of belief, command a good-sized Caribbean island to no longer exist merely by willing it so.
"I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe… I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone's ass…”
"Would you believe that all the gods that people have ever imagined are still with us today?"
“And that there are new gods out there, gods of computers and telephones and whatever, and that they all seem to think there isn't room for them both in the world. And that some kind of war is kind of likely.”
Shadow was stretched out full length on the seat in the back. He felt like two people, or more than two. There was part of him that felt gently exhilarated: he had done something. He had moved. It wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't wanted to live, but he did want to live, and that made all the difference. He hoped he would live through this, but he was willing to die, if that was what it took to be alive.
“Call no man happy until he is dead. Herodotus.” Mr. Nancy raised a white eyebrow, and he said, "I'm not dead yet, and, mostly because I’m not dead yet, I'm happy as a clamboy.”
“The Herodotus thing. It doesn't mean that the dead are happy,” said Shadow. “It means that you can't judge the shape of someone's life until it's over and done.”
"You and I, we have walked the same path. I also hung on the tree for nine days, a sacrifice of myself to myself. I am the lord of the Aes. I am the god of the gallows."
"You are Odin," said Shadow.
The man nodded thoughtfully, as if weighing up the name. "They call me many things, but, yes, I am Odin, Bor's son," he said.
"I saw you die," said Shadow. "I stood vigil for your body. You tried to destroy so much, for power. You would have sacrificed so much for yourself. You did that."
"I did not do that."
"Wednesday did. He was you."
"He was me, yes. But I am not him."