A Brief History of American Literature

I've decided to try to read one author from The Norton Anthology of American Literature each week this year, and write about what I learn.  For all you non-English majors out there, The Norton Anthology of American Literature is like the Bible of literature.  It begins at the beginning, and goes to present day, containing excerpts from nearly all of the major authors throughout American history.  I am approaching this project like I used to approach reading the actual Bible...a little bit each day, until hopefully, by years end, I've read the whole thing.  When I finish an author, I write a little report on what I've learned.  Here's what I have learned so far...



Chapter 1: The Tragedy of Christopher Columbus

Today I'm beginning at the beginning, with the very first author, who happens to be Christopher Columbus.

I must admit, at the outset, that I have pretty negative thoughts about Columbus.  My boyhood idealization of the man who "discovered" America was shattered when I read A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn in college.  From that book, I learned how Columbus enslaved and killed thousands of Arawaks and other Native American peoples.  I was expecting the Norton selections to present disturbing records of Columbus' genocide, but instead I got two letters, written by Columbus himself, one in 1493, and the other in 1503.  The letters show a man who at first was filled with passion and wonder about the new world, but who over the course of a decade, spiraled into destitution and despair as he reflected upon his legacy.  The letters are tremendously sad.  As the Norton introduction to the letters states, "His series of four voyages between 1492 and 1504 produced a brief moment of wonder followed by a long series of disasters and disenchantments."

The first letter, written in 1493 to a Spanish court official named Luis de Santangel, is full of hope and wonder.  In it, he recounts his voyages among various islands in the Caribbean, each of which he claimed for Spain, and gave Spanish names, despite the fact that they were already inhabited and had names.  "To the first island which I found I gave the name San Salvador, in remembrance of the Divine Majesty, Who has marvelously bestowed all this; the Indians call it Guanahani," Columbus writes with all the conviction (and arrogance) of Divine purpose.

He describes the lushness of the islands: "All are most beautiful, of a thousand shapes, and all are accessible and filled with trees of a thousand kinds and tall, and they seem to touch the sky...in the interior are mines of metals, and the population is without number.  Espanola is a marvel."  At the beginning of his exploits in the New World, Columbus seems optimistic.

However, the years that followed would bring tragedy and death.  The Norton introduction explains: "Apparently friendly relations with the Taino Indians on the island of Hispaniola in 1492 turned sour as the settlers Columbus left behind demanded gold and sexual partners from their hosts; on his return there in 1494, none of the Europeans were alive."  On another voyage in 1498, finding new settlers in rebellion to his authority, Columbus was "Able to reach a truce only at the expense of the Taino Indians, who were to be virtually enslaved by the rebels...Columbus soon found himself under arrest, sent in chains to Spain in 1500."

Columbus's final letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in Spain, written from Jamaica, describes a weary and broken man.  "Of Espanola, Paria, and the other lands, I never think without weeping," he writes, "they are in an exhausted state; although they are not dead, the infirmity is incurable or very extensive."  In this final letter, Columbus seems mostly concerned with trying to salvage his damaged reputation.  The New World he had once described as a paradise had turned very quickly into something much darker.

"Alone in my trouble, sick, in daily expectation of death...my soul will be forgotten if it here leaves my body.  Weep for me," he writes.

While I hesitate to weep for Columbus, considering the well-documented horrors he intentionally or unintentionally brought to the New World, I can at least sympathize with him.  He may have been a monster, but we must remember that he did not see himself in that way.  He saw himself as a man.


Chapter 2: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

Continuing my leisurely jaunt through the Norton Anthology of American Literature, I came across an account of a man named Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who was one of the many Spanish colonizers who traveled to the "New World" in the 1500s.  Many accounts of the Spanish colonization, like the voyages of Columbus, are tales of unspeakable tragedy and sorrow, but Cabeza de Vaca's experiences were markedly different.  


Cabeza de Vaca came from a family of soldiers.  His family name (translated "Cow's Head") was derived from a hero of the wars against the Moors who used a cow's skull "to mark a strategic route through an unguarded mountain pass."  Alvar's grandfather was a conquistador of the Guanache people of Grand Canary Island.

Continuing in the family military tradition, Alvar fought in the wars in Italy and Spain before sailing with conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez's expedition to Florida, which encountered a hurricane, a mutiny, and ultimately shipwreck off the coast of present-day Texas.  There he was taken as prisoner by the Han and Capoque clans of the Karankawa Indians.

And this is where the story gets interesting.  Without weapons or food, Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions (two other Spaniards and a black slave named Estevanico, a native of Morocco), were forced to learn the ways of their Indian captors, to survive.  Alvar spent nine years among various tribes of the Southwest before making his way back to Spain, where he published an account of his travels, which was much more sympathetic toward the Indians than any previous account.


Cabeza de Vaca's account is cited as an early example of anthropology, as it is characterized by a desire to understand the customs and lives of the people with whom he lived.  The tone is, throughout, one of wonder and curiosity and filled with pathos and humanity:

"These people love their offspring more than any in the world and treat them very mildly," he writes, "The people are generous to each other with what little they have.  There is no chief."

Eventually, Cabeza de Vaca makes his way to the Avavares and Arbadaos Indians of inland Texas, and writes, "The Avavares always treated us well.  We lived as free agents, dug our own food, and lugged our loads of wood and water...such was our life there, where we earned our meager subsistence by trade in items which were the work of our own hands."  Evantually, Cabeza de Vaca gained a reputation as a successful healer, and became well-respected by a number of tribes.


This basic generosity and good relations between Cabeza de Vaca and the Indians ended in tragedy, when, in 1536, they encountered the Spanish slave trader Diego de Alcaraz and his men.  The Indians offered "all the corn they possessed" to Alcaraz and his men, who responded by capturing and enslaving 600 of Cabeza de Vaca's native friends. Alcaraz informed the Indians that "his group were the lords of the land who must be obeyed and served."  The Indians had a hard time believing that Cabeza de Vaca was from the same country as the slave traders.

Before the Indians were taken as slaves, Cabeza de Vaca writes, "To the last I could not convince the Indians that we were of the same people as the Christian slavers."

The term "Christian slavers" is meant to be ironic, and to show the hypocrisy inherent in such European practices.  Upon returning to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca hoped his accounts of his travels would "enact an enlightened American Indian policy."  Sadly, such was not the case.


Apparently, there is a 1991 film called "Cabeza de Vaca" which is about this incredible story.  I want to watch it.



Chapter 3: Native American Creation Stories

All cultures have creation stories, from Christians to Hindus to the native tribes throughout Africa and the Americas.  These stories of the beginning of the world give people a sense of shared heritage and purpose.  Today, in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, I read two Native American creation stories, one from Iroquois culture, and the other from Pima culture.  For centuries these stories were passed down orally.  It wasn't until the 1600s, when Europeans brought written language, that Native Americans began writing down their creation stories.  



The Iroquois Creation Story

The Iroquois narrative I read was written down by David Cusick, a Tuscarora, in 1827.  Because his command of written English was limited, I have decided to put Cusick's creation story into my own words.  Here goes:

In the beginning, before the earth existed, there were two worlds: a lower world inhabited by darkness and monsters, and an upper world of light and sky people.  In the upper world, a virgin sky woman became pregnant with twins.  While pregnant, she fell asleep and descended into the dark world.  While she was falling, a turtle decided to catch her on his back, so she would not descend into the darkness.  The turtle grew into a large island of earth, and the woman landed safely.

The sky woman suffered a lot, alone and pregnant in the lower world, and she died in childbirth.  One of her sons was good-natured and gentle.  His name was Enigorio (the good mind).  The other son was evil and devious.  His name was Enigonhahetgea (the bad mind).  

The Good Mind wanted to create a light in the dark world, so he made the sun, moon, and stars from his mother's body.  He also created creeks, rivers, animals, and plants on the Great Island (the Earth).  FInally, the good mind created man and woman in his image, and called them Eagwehowe (real people).  

While the good mind was creating all these wonderful things, the bad mind was doing some creating of his own, mostly to undermine and subvert his brother's work.  He made steep mountains and falls, and reptiles that would injure the people.

The two brothers decided to fight it out, to see who would have control over the earth.  It was a great, epic battle which uprooted mountains and trees and created great whilrwinds.  Finally, the good mind won by beating his brother with deer antlers.  The last words of the bad mind, before dying, were that he would still have equal power over mankind after death, and he became an Evil Spirit.

After the battle, the good mind repaired the earth and taught the people how to survive, and then he left.



The Pima Creation Story

The Pima people live along the Gila and Salt rivers in the desert of central Arizona.  The following creation story was written down in the early 20th century by Edward H. Wood (a full-blooded Pima) and his grand-uncle, Thin Leather.  It was published in 1911 in the book Aw-aw-tam, Indian Nights, Being the Myths and Legends of the Pimas of Arizona.  I have, again, put the account into my own words:

In the beginning there was no earth, only a being named Juhwertamahkai (The Doctor of the Earth), and he floated in nothingness.  Then he created a small bush, with ants to live on it.  The ants prospered and the bush grew.  


Next Juhwertamahkai created a buzzard man named Noo-ee, to help him with creation, but Noo-ee was not interested in helping.  So, on his own, Juhwertanahkai made the sun, moon, and stars out of stones and crystals.  He made mountains rivers, plants, and animals.  And then he sang a song:

Juhwertamahkai's Song of Creation

Juhwertamahkai made the world--
Come and see it and make it useful!
He made it round--
Come and see it and make it useful!

Then he created man and woman, and they were perfect for a while.  But then they ran out of food and started eating each other, and Juhwertamahkai was so unhappy that he let the sky fall on them and kill them.

Afterward, he created a second man and woman, but they started getting old and gray younger and younger, until the babies were gray in their cradles.  Juhwertamahkai was unhappy again, so he again let the sky fall on them and kill them.

He made a third man and woman, but they took up smoking, younger and younger until the babies in their cradles wanted to smoke.  So Juhwertahamkai made the earth fall on them again.

After making the fourth man and woman, Juhwertamahkai decided to let them be, for better or worse.  He re-made the world and left it as it is today.





Chapter 4: Christian Arrogance Among the Early Colonists

Today I read a couple narratives of early colonists of America: Thomas Harriot (who was a part of Sir Walter Raleigh's failed Roanoke expedition), and the famous captain John Smith, whose exploits in Jamestown earned him both fame and infamy).  One parallel I've noticed between these two men's accounts is a striking arrogance with regard to the "Truth" of their religious beliefs, and the "falseness" of the Native Americans' beliefs, with whom both men had dealings.

Here are some quotes from Thomas Harriot:

"Some religion they (the Native Americans) have already, which although it is far from the truth, yet being as it is, there is hope it may be easier and sooner reformed."

"Many of them have such an opinion of us, that if they know not the truth of God and Religion already, it was rather to be had from us whom God so specially loved, than from a people that were so simple, as they found themselves to be in comparison [with] us."

When the Native Americans began to die in large numbers due to European diseases, Harriot comforted them with these words: "Indeed all things have been and were to be done according to his good pleasure as he had ordained."

"Their opinions I have set down the more at large, that it may appear unto you that there is good hope they may be brought through discreet handling and government to the embracing of the truth, and consequently to honor, obey, fear, and love us."

Here are some quotes from captain John Smith:

"But now was all our provision spent...all helps abandoned, each hour expecting the fury of the savages, when God, the patron of all good endeavors, in that desperate extremity so changed the hearts of the savages that they brought such plenty of their fruits."

"But almighty God (by His divine providence) had mollified the hearts of those stern barbarians with compassion."

"If he have any grain of faith or zeal in religion, what can he do less hurtful to any; or more agreeable to God, than to seek to convert those poor savages to know Christ?"



Chapter 5: Native American Trickster Tales


I remember taking an American literature survey course in college, and reading mostly stuff by dead white guys (DWGs).  For many years, the "canon" of American literature was dominated by DWGs, but more recent scholarship has focused on uncovering works by Native Americans, women, and "minorities".  In the fifth edition of the Norton Anthology of American literature, there is a newly-added section of Native American Trickster tales.

In many Native American cultures, the figure of the trickster appears as something between a hero and a villain.  Trickster tales are "understood by the audience to illustrate and reaffirm, through positive and negative examples, culturally appropriate behavior."  The Norton introduction describes the multifaceted trickster in this way:

"A wandering, excessive, bawdy, gluttonous, and obscene figure--usually male but able to alter his sex whenever necessary…trickster is selfish, amoral, foolish, and destructive, a threat to order everywhere.  Yet trickster is also a culture hero and transformer whose actions in the earliest times--the time of myth when the earth was yet soft and incompletely formed--helped give to the world just that order which humans would historically come to know."

The Norton Anthology includes trickster tales from three Native American cultures: the Winnebago, the Koasati, and the Navajo.


Winnebago

The Winnebago speak a dialect of Sioux and lived around Green Bay, Wisconsin.  Their trickster tales were recorded in the 1956 book The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, edited by anthropologist Paul Radin, and also in Felix White Sr's book Introduction to Wakjankaga.  Wakjankaga is the traditional name of the Winnebago trickster.  I have, for the sake of brevity, put the tale into my own words.

As Trickster (Wakjankaga) was wandering, he met a little fox, who said, "The world is going to be a difficult place to live in and I am trying to find some clean place in which to dwell."  Wakjankjaga replied, "Oh, oh, my younger brother, what you have said is very true.  I, too, was thinking of the very same thing.  I have always wanted to have a companion, so let us live together."  So they traveled together and met a jay and a nit, who also joined them.

Together they found a beautiful place beside a river with red oaks growing upon it, and they built a lodge to live in together.  But when winter came, they all got very hungry, so they devised a plan to get food.  Trickster decided to disguise himself as a woman and seduce the son of a nearby chief.  So Trickster transformed himself into a pretty woman and convinced the chief's son to marry him.   But one day the chief's son's mother discovered the Trickster's true identity, so Wakjankaga and his animal friends all ran away.

As Trickster continued wandering, a little bulb in a tree called out to him, "He who chews me, he will defecate; he will defecate!"  So Wakjankaga ate the bulb, but instead of defecating, he broke wind.  And then he broke wind louder.  And then he broke wind so strongly that he was propelled forward.  Each time he broke wind, it was stronger, so that he began to be lifted up into the air.  He was propelled up into a tall tree.  Then, hanging onto the tree, he broke wind and it ripped the tree up by its roots.

Trickster came to a lodge and convinced everyone that a war party was coming.  So everyone climbed onto his back and he broke wind and the tribe was scattered.  Then Trickster wandered on, and he began to defecate, more and more, until he was covered in filth.  He was blinded by the filth and it was a tree who told him where to find water, so he could cleanse himself.

Koasati

The Koasati spoke a dialect of Muskogean and live in southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas.  Stories of their trickster, a rabbit named Cokfi, were recorded by anthropologists John R. Swanton and Geoffrey Kimball.

Bear invited rabbit (Cokfi) to dinner.  Having nothing to eat, bear cut some of his own stomach fat, cooked it, and served it to rabbit, who ate it.

Rabbit then invited bear to dinner and, having nothing to eat, he cut some of his stomach to give to bear.  However, because rabbit was scrawny and lean, this injured rabbit, and he was about to die.

So they went and found vulture, who was a doctor, to cure rabbit.  Vulture took rabbit to his house and, instead of curing him, ate rabbit.

When bear discovered this, he became so angry that he threw a knife at vulture and it pierced his beak.  This is why vultures today have pierced beaks.


Navajo

The Navajo are an Athapascan-speaking people who migrated to the Southwest around 500 years ago.  They learned farming and weaving from the Pueblo people.  Today, they are the largest tribe in the United States.  The Navajo Trickster is a coyote named Ma'ii.  The following stories come from a Navajo named Hugh Yellowman, whose story "Coyote, Skunk, and the Prairie Dogs" I have put into my own words.

Ma'ii (the Trickster/coyote) was trotting along when he came upon a prairie dog town.  The prairie dogs started cursing and yelling at him and Ma'ii got angry and prayed for it to rain, which it did, and Ma'ii was washed away.

Trickster came across Skunk and together they hatched a plan to get revenge on the prairie dogs.  Ma'ii told Skunk to tell the prairie dogs that he'd died in the rainstorm.

Ma'ii played dead and all the prairie dogs started dancing around his body and clubbing him.  As they were dancing and celebrating, Skunk sprayed his stink into their eyes and Ma'ii jumped up and clubbed them all to death, and cooked them in a fire pit.

Then Ma'ii convinced Skunk to have a footrace with him, to decide who would get to eat the prairie dogs.  Ma'ii started running, and Skunk hid behind a rock and doubled back and took the prairie dogs and buried them.  When Ma'ii returned, there were only four little prairie dogs left in the fire pit.  He flung them away in anger.  Skunk was sitting on a high perch, eating the prairie dogs, and dropping the bones onto Ma'ii, who only got to chew the bones.




Chapter 6: William Bradford and Plymouth Plantation

Much of America's early history is shrouded in myth, and this myth is reinforced by the sanitized stories we like to tell ourselves on holidays like Thanksgiving.  As with much history, the complex reality turns out to be much more interesting than any myth.

Continuing my slow and steady trek though the Norton Anthology of American Literature, today I read some selections from William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation.  Bradford was a "pilgrim" on the Mayflower and he was elected governor of the newly-formed colony.  He was born in England to modestly well-off parents.  Around age 12 or 13, he was captivated by the sermons of the "Nonconformist" minister Richard Clyfton, who spoke against the church of England.  Eventually,  Bradford joined this "Separatist" community, re-located to Holland, and finally sailed on the Mayflower for the New World.  His history of the Plymouth colony gives fascinating insight into what life was like for the "pilgrims".


"Divine" Purpose

Given his strong religions beliefs, Bradford often compares the experiences of the pilgrims to the experiences of Bible  characters, like the Israelites and the apostles.  While his faith clearly gave him and his companions purpose and hope in very difficult times (half of the settlers died in the first winter), his faith also gave him a sense of moral and cultural superiority over the Native Americans, whom he refers to as "barbarians" and "savages".

The First Encounter

The first contact between the pilgrims and the Native Americans was not the happy "first Thanksgiving/"  Rather, it was a violent conflict, in which the pilgrims were victorious.  Bradford interpreted this victory (which mainly had to do with the fact that the pilgrims had guns and the Indians did not) as a sign of Divine favor.  He writes:

"Thus it pleased God to vanquish their enemies and give them deliverance and by His special providence so to dispose that not any one of them [the colonists] were either hurt or hit…Afterwards they gave God solemn thanks ad praise for their deliverance, and gathered up a bundle of their [the Indians] arrows…and called that place the First Encounter."

The Mayflower Compact

The famous Mayflower Compact, one of the first documents outlining government rule in the New World, was occasioned by the fact that not all the "pilgrims" who came on the Mayflower were Puritans fleeing religious persecution.  A Norton footnote explains, "Many of those who came to Plymouth with them [the Puritans] were not church members but adventurers looking forward to business success and making new lives in the New World."

The Mayflower compact, according the Bradford, consisted of "laws and orders, both for their civil and military government as the necessity of their condition did require, still adding thereunto as urgent occasion in several times, and as cases did require."  In other words, it was flexible.


Indian Relations

Bradford describes the first peace treaty between the pilgrims and the Native Americans, which was facilitated by the famous Squanto and Samoset, which is heart-wrenching to read in light of the violent history that followed:

1.) That neither he (Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoag) nor any of his should injure or do hurt to any of their (the Plymouth Colony) people.
2.) That if any of his did hurt to any of theirs, he should send the offender that they might punish him.
3.) That if anything were taken away from any of theirs, he should cause it to be restored; and they should do the like to his.
4.) If any did unjustly war against him, they would aid him; if any did war against them, he should aid them.
5.) He should send to his neighbors confederates to certify them of this, that they might not wrong them, but might be likewise comprised in the conditions of peace.
6.) That when their men came to them, they should leave their bows and arrows behind them.  (The treaty does not stipulate whether or not the pilgrims must leave behind their guns when entering Indian territory.)

Squanto, who served as interpreter and liaison between the Indians and the pilgrims, had a rather intense life.  He was captured as a slave by one of John Smith's men, sold to Spain, escaped to England, and sailed back to the New World in the company of an Englishman named Dermer, for whom he served as interpreter and liaison with a Native population who were (quite understandably) becoming increasingly hostile with the gun-toting European settlers like the pilgrims.


The First Thanksgiving

The famous first Thanksgiving is not recorded by Bradford as a specific event, but rather a (brief) time period when there was sharing of food and friendly relations between the settlers and the Native Americans.

Thomas Morton of Merrymount

Perhaps the most interesting (and least well-known) tale from Bradford's account is of a a man named Thomas Morton, who was hated by the pilgrims and loved by the Native Americans.  He was a lawyer, scholar, and social reformer who convinced the Indians of his area to oust the local slave-trading English lieutenant, and free themselves.

Morton set up a kind of proto-hippie utopian commune where there was equality and much merry-making, hence the name, Merrymount.  Bradford describes the liberal policy of Merrymount's residents, who would "keep no servants, for Morton would entertain any, how vile soever, and all the scum of the country or any discontents would flock to him from all places."

Bradford clearly did not like Morton, calling him a "Lord of Misrule," despite the fact that Merrymount was, by all accounts, a prosperous and fast-growing settlement.  Morton was also a writer and poet.  His book New English Canaan was harshly critical of the Puritans and their treatment of Native Ameriacns, and sought a more enlightened, tolerant policy.

The last straw came when Morton began selling guns to the Native Americans to protect themselves.  Bradford and other colonial leaders got together a militia, raided Merrymount, captured Morton, and banished him to an island off the coast of New Hampshire.  It was Bradford's, not Morton's, ideas that would prevail in the early American experiment.  



Chapter 7: John Winthrop and Religious "Liberty"

One of the great ironies of American history is the fact that many of the early colonists fled England seeking religious liberty; however, once they arrived, they did not extend the tolerance they sought to other inhabitants of the New World, such as Native Americans and, in some cases, other Christians who disagreed with them.


A classic example of this is the clash between John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, and Anne Hutchinson, an early female Puritan theologian who disagreed with Winthrop over some points of Christian doctrine.

Hutchinson was brought to trial for her "errors" and banished from the colony.  Winthrop writes in his journals, "Finding her to persist in maintaining those gross errors…after much time and many arguments had been spent to bring her to see her sin, but all in vain, the church with one consent cast her out."

Throughout the course of the lengthy excommunication trial, some of Hutchinson's followers were persuaded to abandon her.  Winthrop writes, "Many poor souls who had been seduced by her, who by what they heard and saw that day were (through the grace of God) brought off quite from her errors, and settled again in the truth."


And what was her gross error?  Basically, she advocated for "free grace" through Christ (apart from works), which is what most protestant churches today profess.

The Hutchinson trial demonstrates the fact that, for many of the early Puritans, what they sought was not religious liberty, but rather a land where their particular beliefs were dominant.  Of course, given the fact that such a monolithic religion cannot exist in a world of free-thinking humans, many such clashes and schisms continued to emerge, and continue today.

One of the defining features of American Christianity has been its tendency to divide over seemingly minor points of doctrine, to the point that today there are literally hundreds of Christian denominations in the USA, each convinced that their specific set of beliefs are the "truth."



Chapter 8: Anne Bradstreet: Puritan Feminist

Puritan Christianity is not a belief system that one would expect to foster feminism, but among the writings of the early Puritans in America, we find the poetry of Anne Bradstreet, who sailed with John Winthrop to the Massachusetts Bay Colony.


Bradstreet's father ensured that his daughter got a good education, and her poetry is a fascinating blend of classical learning, Puritan thought, and a testament to the strength of women.  In the early days of the Puritan experiment in the New World, women had to be strong.  Despite the fact that she was often ill, Bradstreet bore eight children, and her book The Tenth Muse was the first book to be published by a woman in the United States.

Her writings challenged the notion that women were only fit for domestic affairs.  In "The Prologue" she writes:

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue

who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet's pen all scorn I should thus wrong.
For such despite they cast on female wits
If what I do prove well, it won't advance,
They'll say it was stolen or else it was by chance.

Here Bradstreet speaks out against the idea that female poets are inferior, or derivative of, male poets.  Her epic poem "In Honor of That High and Mighty Princess Queen Elizabeth of Happy Memory" gives a "shout out" to one of the most powerful and influential female leaders of English history:

She hath wiped off th' aspersion of her sex
That women wisdom lack to play the rex (king)

In her praise of Queen Elizabeth, Bradstreet gives a litany of powerful women from history and literature: Athena (goddess of war, wisdom, chastity, the arts, and justice), Semiramis (9th century queen of Assyria who is said to have built Babylon), Tomyris (a Scythian queen whose armies in 529 A.D. defeated Cyrus the Great of Persia), Dido (fabled queen of Carthage), and Zenobya (queen of Syria).  Bradstreet places Elizabeth in this tradition of strong female leaders.



Despite her education and talent, Bradstreet lived in a world ruled mostly by men, and some of her poetry reflects frustration over the widely-held belief that her voice was not as powerful as a man's.  In "Contemplations" she feels a kinship with the mythic figure of Philomel, daughter of king Attica, who was transformed into a nightingale after her brother-in-law raped her and tore out her tongue:

While musing thus with contemplation fed,
And thousand fancies buzzing in my brain,
The sweet-tongued Philomel perched o'er my head
And chanted forth a most melodious strain
Which rapt me so with wonder and delight,
I judged my hearing better than sight,
And wished me wings with her a while to take my flight.

Despite the limitations and prejudices of her age, Anne Bradstreet's poetry survives, a testament to its enduring value and importance.



Chapter 9: The Captivity of Mary Rowlandson

One of the great paradoxes of early America is how a country founded on such hope and promise managed to wipe out and displace millions of native inhabitants.  In retrospect, we wonder, "How could they do that?  How could they live with such injustice?"

Part of the explanation has to do with ideology, and how early American colonists viewed Native Americans.  With a few notable exceptions, the Puritan settlers viewed Native Americans as inferior, heathen, savages.  When you dehumanize another, it becomes easier to commit atrocities against them.

Part of the literature of early America that fueled anti-Indian sentiment were so-called "captivity" narratives.  These were stories of white people taken captive during conflicts with Indians, who lived to write their stories.  One of the most well-known of these captivity narratives was the account of Mary Rowlandson, the wife of a minister from Lancaster, Massachusetts.  In 1676, she was taken captive by the Wampanoags and was ransomed after eleven weeks.  Her story, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, was, according to the Norton Anthology of American Literature, "one of the most popular prose works of the seventeenth century, both in this country, and in England."



Before getting into the text of her account, it's important to understand the context in which it was written.  In 1675, Metacomet (called Phillip by the colonists), chief of the Wampanoags, led his people on a series of attacks on the colonies, in a desperate effort to prevent further encroachment by the European settlers.  The conflict, which became known as King Phillip's War, ended a year later.  The Norton states, "By the time the war was over, in August of 1676, with Philip slain and his wife and children sold into slavery in the West Indies, the independent power of the New England American Indians had ended."  It is important to understand this context, the systematic displacement and death of native peoples, when reading Rowlandson's account, because she makes no mention of it.  When read out of context, the impression one gets of the Wampanoags is that they were indeed savage killers bent on destruction and death.  When read in its proper context, however, we understand the Wampanoags as people desperately trying to defend their homeland against an invading force.  Ultimately, unfortunately, the narrative that dominated at the time was Rowlandson's.


The narrative begins with an attack on Lancaster, in which many colonists are killed and Rowlandson and her children are taken captive.  In her account, Rowlandson refers to the Wampanoags as "murderous wretches," "the bloody heathen," "those merciless heathen," "a company of hell-hounds," "ravenous beasts," "those barbarous creatures," "those black creatures," "this barbarous enemy," and "inhumane creatures."

After she is taken captive, Rowlandson and her children are led to various Indian settlements around New England.  Because she was a Puritan, Rowlandson viewed her experiences in the context of the Bible, and employed a kind of interpretation of them known as "typology."  This involves the interpretation of current events in the context of Bible stories and passages.  Being a good puritan, and the wife of a minister, Rowlandson sprinkles her narrative with Bible verses, meant to mirror her own experiences.  Sometimes these comparisons make sense, and other times they are baffling.  When her house is destroyed and people in her town are slain by the Wampanoags, she writes, 

Oh the doleful sight that now was now to behold at this house!  "Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolation he has made in the earth." (Psalm 46:8)

In one way, it makes sense to quote this verse, because the Psalm was written in the context of Israel's Babylonian captivity.  Perhaps Rowlandson viewed herself as a kind of Isaraelite being taken captive by heathen Babylonians.  But the verse puts the blame for the desolation not on the Wampanoags/Babylonians, but on God, which is strange.

Despite her consistent portrayal of the Indians as "merciless heathen" the actions of the Wampanoags are far more humane than those afforded to King Philip's wife and children, who were sold into slavery.  Rowlandson is allowed to see her children, she is given a Bible to read, she is not made a slave, she is provided with food and shelter, she is not sexually abused, and ultimately she is ransomed back to her husband.  Interestingly, as the narrative progresses, we notice less use of terms like "savage" and "heathen."  

After she is returned to her family, however, she writes how she had been delivered from the "merciless and cruel heathen" into the hands of "tender-hearted and compassionate Christians."  The irony here is, of course, the fact that those compassionate Christians would continue to decimate the Native Americans with increasing efficiency.



Chapter 10: Edward Taylor: Poet-Preacher

Continuing on with my project to read the entire Norton Anthology of American Literature in one year (a project I have called The One Year Norton), I arrived today at the poetry of Edward Taylor (1642-1729).  Taylor was a Puritan, who fled England to escape persecution, attended Harvard, and ultimately became the minister/physician of Westfield, Massachusetts.  Very little was known about Taylor's life until the 1930s, when Thomas H. Johnson uncovered a huge body of his poetry in the Yale University library.


Taylor's poetry demonstrates an active and creative mind, steeped in literary tradition and religious faith.  Puritans were not, generally speaking, a creative lot.  But the discovery of Taylor's poetry revealed "work by a Puritan divine that was remarkable both in its quantity and quality."  The Norton Introduction explains, "Nothing previously discovered about Puritan literature had suggested that there was a writer in New England who had sustained such a life-long love affair with poetry."

Perhaps Taylor's best poems are the Preparatory Meditations, which were part of his preparations for sermons.  These are influenced by the "metaphysical" British poets John Donne and George Herbert, who used elaborate metaphors to explore abstract ideas like faith, love, the soul, grace, and God.  Each poem begins with a Bible text, and proceeds to use that text as inspiration for poetic meditation.  In "Meditation 8," Taylor's text is John 6:51, "I am the living bread."  Taylor envisions his soul as a bird caged in his body, unable to reach the bread of God's grace:
 "When that this Bird of Paradise put in
This Wicker Cage (my corpse) to tweedle praise
Had pecked the Fruit forbade: and so did fling
Away its food; and lost its golden days;
It fell into Celestial Famine sore:
And never could attain a morsel more."
The "Bird of Paradise" eating the forbidden fruit and thus encaging and starving itself recalls Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden, and being banished from paradise.  Humanity, in the Bible's narrative, will ultimately be redeemed by Christ, who calls himself "The bread of life."  Taylor concludes his poem on a hopeful note:
"This Bread of Life dropped in thy mouth, doth Cry;
Eat, Eat me, Soul, and thou shalt never die."
This particular poem was written on the occasion of communion, and so it is appropriate that Taylor meditates on eating the bread of Christ, as his congregation would during communion.  While Taylor's poems are often serious and deep on content, he sometimes displays a playfulness and self-effacing humor, as in Meditation 22:
"My quaintest metaphors are ragged stuff,
Making the Sun seem like a Mullipuff (fuzz ball)"
But the most moving of all poems included in the Norton, for me, is titled "Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children."  Taylor was married twice and had 14 children, many of whom died as infants.  In 17th century New England, the infant mortality rate was ridiculously high, and so Taylor experienced many times the bitter pain of losing a child, plus he lost his first wife.  This poem is a meditation on his pain, and contains a beautifully hopeful extended metaphor.  Taylor describes his marriage as a knot of two branches, and his children as flowers blooming off of them.  After the death of his first wife, he married again, and flowers bloomed again from this union:
"my branch again did knot,
Brought out another Flower, its sweet-breathed mate."
Some flowers grew to maturity, while others were pruned early, as infants, like his daughter Elizabeth.  Taylor writers:
"But Oh! a glorious hand from glory came
Guarded with Angels, soon did crop this flower
Which almost tore the root up of the same,
At that unlooked for, Dolesome darksome hour.
In prayer to Christ perfumed it did ascend,
And Angels bright did it to heaven 'tend."
As a Christian, Taylor believes his dead children go to heaven, and he envisions them as flowers ascending, even as they carry away pieces of his soul:
"I piecemeal pass to Glory
bright in them."
As 21st century readers, we may not share Taylor's religious beliefs, but we may appreciate how this faith afforded him a sense of meaning and comfort in the face of so much innocent and senseless death.  He acknowledges the pain and suffering:
"But Oh! the tortures, Vomit, screechings, groans,
and six week's Fever would pierce hearts like stones."
But the poet, Christ-like (or Buddha-like) lets go of his dead children, believing they will become part of something larger:
"I say, take, Lord, they're Thine…
Whether thou get'st them green, or lets them seed."
It's refreshing for me to discover a poet like Edward Taylor, because he defies the stereotype of the austere, stoic Puritan.  He was obviously a man of great sensitivity and clarity of vision, a brilliant poet, and therefore (probably) a brilliant preacher.  I grew up going to church and I've certainly heard my share of boring sermons.  Maybe if more preachers were also poets, interpreting and contemplating scripture with creativity and literary sensitivity, church could be a place of real inspiration.

The Bible itself is a brilliant literary text, full of poetry and adventure and tragedy and letters and parables.  As an English major (and now teacher) I can say I benefitted tremendously from my knowledge of the Bible.  Part of appreciating the Bible has to do with appreciating language and poetry, as Edward Taylor did.


Chapter 11: Benjamin Franklin, Savages, and Satire

Over the past few years, I've taken a keen interest in history, particularly local history.  I suppose one of my main interests in understanding history is the illumination it sheds on the present.  I am particluarly interested in suppressed history, and stories of struggle and discrimination.

One group of Americans who have, historically, experienced tremendous struggle and dicrimination are Native Americans.  For a detailed account of this, I recommend Dee Brown's book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  

Many of the discriminatory U.S. policies against Native Americans stemmed from a widespread sense of racial and cultural superiority by whites.  The more I research history, however, the more I discover notable exceptions to national prejudice.  I've written about Native American advocates like writer Helen Hunt Jackson and photographer Edward Curtis.

Today, while reading the Norton Anthology of American Literature, I stumbed upon another, somewhat unlikely, critic of prevalent racism against Native Americans...founding father Benjamin Franklin.   Perhaps the best example of this is his ironically-titled essay, "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America," which is a subtle and even humorous plea for cultural and racial tolerance.  And he was writing in 1784!


Franklin, a largely self-taught man, read voraciously works of philosophy, and one of his heroes was Socrates.  He seemed to enjoy calling into question prevalent ideas and attitudes, using a Socratic-type questioning, urging people to see things from the other's perspective.  He begins his essay with this thesis, "Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the perfection of civility; they think the same of theirs."  He proceeds to give a number of anecdotes which illustrate the absurdity of thinking Euro-American culture "superior" to Native American culture.

One example he gives involves the Treaty of Lancaster of 1744, between the government of Virginia and the Six Iroquois Nations.  The governmet agents offer to take a dozen Iroquois young men and "educate" them.  To which the Iroquois speaker responds, kindly and thoughtfully:
"We are convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us good by your proposal; and we thank you heartily.  But you, who are wise, must know that different nations have different conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be the same with yours.  We have had some experience of it; several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither now to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for hunters, warriors, nor counselors; they were totally good for nothing.  We are however not the less obliged by your kind offer, though we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them."
Here, Franklin turns cultural and racial superiority on its head, looking at it from the Native American perspective, and showing that neither is better, they are only different.  I doubt the Virginians took the Iroquois speaker up on his offer, however.


Another example Franklin gives is the story of a Swedish minister, who preached a sermon to the chiefs of the Susquehanah people, telling them of "the principal historical facts on which our religion is founded; such as the fall of our first parents by eating an apple, the coming of Christ to repair the mischief, His miracles and suffering, etc."  The chiefs listened courteously, as was their custom, and responded like this: "What you have told us is all very good.  It is indeed bad to eat apples.  It is better to make them all into cider.  We are much obliged by your kindness in coming so far, to tell us these things which you have heard from your mothers.  In return, I will tell you some of those we have heard from ours," and proceeded to tell the missionary their own creation story, of the sky woman who came down from the clouds to give the people the plants which have sustained them: maize, kidney beans, and tobacco.  The Swedish missionary responded, arrogantly, "What I delivered to you were sacred truths; but what you tell me is mere fable, fiction, and falsehood."  To which one of the chiefs replied, offended, "My brother, it seems your friends have not done you justice in your education; they have not well instructed you in the rules of common civility.  You saw that we, who understand and practice those rules, believed all your stories; why do you refuse to believe ours?"


Franklin ends his essay with contrasting descriptions of hospitality, as shown by whites and Native Americans.  He describes the hospitality experienced by Conrad Weiser, a government representative who visited the Six Nations.  Weiser called upon his friend Canessatego, who "embraced him, spread furs for him to sit on, placed before him some boiled beans and venison and mixed some rum and water for him to drink."  Canessatego showed his white guest respect and hospitality, which was the custom of his people.  As the two men shared a pipe and began to converse, the old Indian began to discuss his experiences visiting the towns of white people for trading purposes.  He tells the story of one Hans Hansen, who tried to cheat him.  Canessatego concludes his story, and Franklin concludes his essay, like this:
"If a white man, in traveling through our country, enters one of our cabins, we all treat him as I treat you: we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, we give him meat and drink, that he may allay his thirst and hunger; and we spread soft furs for him to rest and sleep on; we demand nothing in return.  But, if I go into a white man's house at Albany, and ask for victuals and drink, they say, 'Where is your money?' and if I have none, 'Get out, you Indian dog.'  You see, they have not yet learned these little good things, that we need no meetings [he is speaking of church] to be instructed in, because our mother's taught them to us when we were children, and therefore it is impossible their meetings should be, as they say, for any such purpose or have any such effect; they are only to contrive the cheating of Indians in the price of beaver."
Ultimately, Franklin's essay is ironic.  The term "Savages" is turned on its head, and could just as easily be applied to the white settlers as to the Native Americans.  The essay is a reasoned and concise plea for tolerance, reason, and compassion.  It is refreshing for me to find writings like this which demonstrate that, in every age, there are people who (through reason and compassion) are able to rise above the prejudices of their time.  Even way back in 1784.



Chapter 12: Samson Occom: Between Two Worlds

Today, I read an account written by a man named Samson Occom (1723-1792), a Native American (of the Pequot tribe) who converted to Christianity and became a minister to his people.  Occom's story is fascinating because he was a man standing, as it were, between two worlds at the very beginning of the United States of America--the world of the white colonists and the Native American inhabitants.


Samson Occom

Occom's autobiography, written in 1768, was not published until 1982, when it was discovered in the Dartmouth College archives.  Occom actually played a role in founding the school that would become Dartmouth.  In 1765, he traveled to Europe to raise money for his mentor Reverend Eleazer Wheelock's Moors Indian-Charity School.  Occom delivered some 300 sermons throughout England and Scotland and raised 12,000 pounds.  Wheelock promised to care for Occom's family while he was away, but when he returned he found them sickly and in extreme poverty.  Wheelock further betrayed his friend by using the money raised to move the school to Hanover, New Hampshire, where it would become Dartmouth College, which eventually excluded Indian students.

Reading Occom's autobiography, I get the sense that he was a sincere, hardworking, well-intentioned man who was ultimately betrayed by his Christian mentors.  Reflecting on this injustice, he writes:  "I believe it is because I am a poor Indian.  I can't help that God has made me so; I did not make myself so."

Despite this ill-treatment, Occom ministerd faithfully to his people and became an educator, teaching English for many years to the Montauk Indians of Long Island, New York.  Occom's story raises all kinds of interesting questions about the relationship between colonizer and colonized, between Native American and European culture, between oppressor and oppressed.  Did Occom play a role in the oppression of his people?  Or did he serve as a bridge between two worlds in perpetual conflict?  Did he do more harm than good?  These questions do not have black and white answers, but they are worth pondering.




Chapter 13: Hector St. John De Crevocoeur's "Letters From an American Farmer"

J. Hector St. John De Crevocoeur (1735-1813) was a Frenchman who immigrated to the American colonies in the 1750s, where he became a farmer, traveler, and writer of observations.  His "Letters From An American Farmer" are a series of writings that provide a unique glimpse into what life was like at the very beginning of the United States of America.


His first letter, entitled "What is an American?" paints a very flattering portrait of the new American experiment.  He sees a land full of possibility and promise that was unheard-of in Europe.  "It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing," he writes, "Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury.  The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe."

Crevocoeur describes a new class of people, "animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself."  Here, he is describing what appears to be a rising middle class, which was not possible in Europe of the time, due to all the old power structures.  Here, in the new land called America, a man may be the captain of his fate, if he is willing to work for it.


However, all of this optimism and American promise is sort of undermined by his letter entitled, "Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene."  For right in the midst of all this hope and optimism of freedom from the old prejudices and power structures of Europe, there existed a huge population of people for whom these ideas did not apply: the slaves.  Crevocoeur writes:

"While all is joy, festivity, and happiness in Charles-Town, would you imagine that scenes of misery overspread in the country?  Their ears by habit are become deaf, their hearts are hardened; they neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds."  This statement stands in stark contrast to the flattering picture he begins with, and Crevocoeur is clearly confused and disturbed by what he witnesses in Charles-Town.  

Even the Christian ministers are complicit in the horrors of slavery.  Crevocoeur gives the example of a clergyman who came into town and began urging his congregation to have more compassion for their slaves, to which one of the planters replied, "Sir, we pay you a genteel salary to read to us the prayers of the liturgy, and to explain to us such parts of the Gospel as the rule of the church directs; but we do not want you to teach us what we are to do with our blacks."  So the preacher, not wanting to lose his salary, complied.


This letter ends with one of the most horrific scenes I've read in a while, something straight out of a Quentin Tarantino film, or a particularly intense horror movie.  While walking through the woods one day outside Charles-Town, Crevocoeur came upon a black man in a cage, suspended from a tree, left to die.  He writes: "I perceived a Negro, suspended in the cage, and left there to expire!  I shudder when I recollect that the birds had already picked out his eyes, his cheek bones were bare; his arms had been attacked in several places, and his body seemed covered in a multitude of wounds."  Crevocoeur later learns that this man had supposedly killed his overseer, and this death by starvation and birds was his punishment.  Regardless of the circumstances, this image of a lone black man hanging from a tree, starving and wounded, deeply affects Crevocoeur.

Reading these letters caused me to reflect upon the America of the 18th century, its promise and its horrors, and the America of today, and how things have (or have not) changed.  Of course we do not have slavery today, but there do exist wide gaps between rich and poor  Despite all the problems (past and present), I still want to believe that here, in America, there is the promise of forging ones own destiny.  Of course, as a middle class white male, things are a bit easier for me than for others.


Chapter 14: Philip Freneau and the Paradox of American Freedom

Continuing my leisurely jaunt through The Norton Anthology of American Literature, I came today to the poetry of Philip Freneau (1752-1832).  Freneau was raised in a wealthy New York family, and went to school with James Madison, who would become president.  As a young man, Freneau had aspirations to be a writer, but business interests called him away from fully devoting himself to letters.  In 1776, the year the signers of the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that "all men are created equal," Freneau took a position as a secretary on a plantation in the West Indies, where he and other white men got rich off slave labor, just as men like Jefferson and Washington were doing in the newly declared United States.  Here, in these early experiences, Freneau saw (but perhaps did not fully realize) the paradoxical implications of American democracy.  It claimed to bring freedom to all men, so long as they were white men.  This paradox of freedom would haunt American literature for decades to come.

Philip Freneau

Despite his business activities, Freneau still managed to write poetry, and some even dubbed him the "Poet of the American Revolution."  His poetry deals with the paradox of American freedom.  In "On the Emigration to America and Peopling of the Western Country," Freneau envisions a free America that extends the length of the continent, successfully predicting the doctrine of "Manifest Destiny."  Freneau equates the monarchies of Europe with slavery.

"From Europe's proud, despotic shores
Hither the stranger takes his way,
And in our new found world explores
A happier soil, a milder sway,
Where no proud despot holds him down,
No slaves insult him with a crown."

The irony, of course, is that it was not just European monarchs who owned slaves.  The founders of America owned slaves too.  Freneau himself presided over slaves at the plantation in the West Indies.  For Freneau, it is in the American west that new possibilities for freedom exist, even perhaps for American slaves:

"O come the time, and haste the day,
When man shall man no longer crush,
When Reason shall enforce her sway,
Nor these fair regions raise our blush,
Where still the African complains,
And mourns his yet unbroken chains."

And yet the freedom Freneau envisions does not apply to Native Americans, who were seen as in the way of white American progress.  Sadly, the 19th century would witness a genocide where white men would indeed "crush" their fellow man.  Freneau seems blind to the implications of this new "freedom" in the west.

"From these fair plains, these rural seats,
So long concealed, so lately known,
The unsocial Indian far retreats,
To make some other clime his own,
Where other streams, less pleasing flow,
And darker forests round him grow."

Here, Freneau is predicting the removal of Native Americans from their lands, a process that was already well underway when these words were written, and would tragically continue for years to come.  The irony, again, is that Freneau's poem is meant to be optimistic, to envision a kind of utopian American future of freedom.  To a contemporary reader like me, however, with the hindsight of history, the poem is dark and foreboding.

In his poem "On Mr. Paine's Rights of Man," Freneau again predicts an optimistic future for white American progress.  He personifies America as "Columbia" (after Christopher Columbus), with all the ethnocentrism and devastation that implies:

"Columbia, hail!  Immortal be thy reign;
Without a king, we till the smiling plain;
Without a king, we trace the unbounded sea,
And traffic round the globe, through each decree;
Each foreign clime our honored flag reveres."

Again, Freneau is successfully predicting the global dominance that the United States would come to achieve.  Unfortunately, he sees this totally optimistically, and seems blind to the darker implications of this.  I almost agree that Freneau could be dubbed "The Poet of the American Revolution" because he represents (with varying degrees of self-consciousness) the paradoxical "freedom for white men" that was the guiding ideology of the founding fathers.

The land of "freedom"


Chapter 15: The Revolutionary Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was born in Africa, and was taken as slave to Boston in 1761, where she was bought by a wealthy tailor named John Wheatley for his wife, Susannah.  Though she was a slave, Wheatley was taught to read and write, and quickly proved to be something of a child prodigy.  In 1773, at age 19, she published her first volume of poems.  Wheatley was well-versed in classical Greek, Roman, and English literature, and her poetry reflects both her education, and her skill with language.  The exquisite quality of her poetry was a strong argument against negative stereotypes of both African Americans and women in the 18th century.  Her poetry deals with religious, literary, philosophical, and political themes.  She was an early advocate of the American Revolution, yet she was also keenly aware of the hypocrisy of the rhetoric of freedom, as she was herself a slave.  This idea is eloquently expressed in this excerpt from her poem "To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North America":

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancied happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labor in my parent's breast?
Steeled was that soul and by no misery moved
That from a father seized his babe beloved:
Such, such my case.  And can I then but pray
Orthers may never feel tyrannic sway?

This poem is amazing because it is both a call for American independence, and a stinging indictment of slavery, plus it was written to a government official for the English crown.  Phillis Wheatly is an important early American writer because she used her literary art to courageously challenge the social and political injustices of her day.  As the contemporary African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr writes: "Wheatley launched two traditions at once--the black American literary tradition and the black woman's literary tradition.  It is extraordinary that not just one but both of these traditions were founded simultaneously by a black woman--certainly an event unique in the history of literature."



Chapter 16: Charlotte Temple: America's First Bestseller

It is widely believed that early American literature was dominated by men, but the truth is more complicated.  The first bestselling novel in America was written by a woman.  It was called Charlotte Temple (or, Charlotte: a Tale of Truth), by Susanna Rowson, and was published in 1791.  Rowson was the daughter of a British naval officer stationed in America.  During the Revolutionary War, she moved to England, and then back to the States in 1793, where she lived out her life as a successful author, actor, and teacher.  

Susanna Rowson, America's first best-selling novelist.

Charlotte Temple belongs to a strange genre of fiction, popular in 18th century America, known as "seduction fiction."  It tells the story of a young British schoolgirl named Charlotte Temple, who is seduced by a dashing officer named John Montraville.  She leaves her school and family for this man and travels with him to America, where Montraville quickly leaves her and marries another.  Charlotte is left to die in poverty in New York, but not before giving birth to a child, who is taken in by her grieving parents.  It's a sad story.

Unlike most novels today, Charlotte Temple is overt about its "moral lesson."  Rowson prefaces the novel by telling the reader exactly why she wrote it: "If the following tale should save one hapless fair one from the errors which ruined poor Charlotte, or rescue from impending misery the heart of one anxious parent, I shall feel a much higher gratification in reflecting on this trifling performance, than could possibly result form the applause which might attend the most elegant piece of literature whose tendency might deprave the heart or mislead the understanding."

Thus, Susannah Rowson's purpose in writing Charlotte Temple is a conservative one.  She wants to provide a cautionary tale for young girls with the following lessons: "Obey your parents, obey your teachers, don't go out with strange men or you will surely die like Charlotte."  It's a strange message for a contemporary reader like me.  I find the novel's overt moralism makes it feel like a cheesy "after school special" or like one of those low budget "made for Christians" movies like Fireproof, starring Kirk Cameron.

The novel is valuable in that it gives a window into the prevailing values of 18th century America, which was very religious, conservative, and yet (ironically) intrigued by "seduction novels."  I also find it interesting that the "villains" in the novel all have French names, and Rowson often equates French culture with liberal depravity.  America is a country founded by highly moral religious extremists (Puritans), and a strain of strict religious moralism runs throughout our literature.  And yet, even in a "moral" novel like Charlotte Temple, there is an undercurrent of sexual desire and freedom from constraint, even if it is considered forbidden or dangerous.


Lucy Temple is the sequel to Charlotte Temple.  More seduction!


Chapter 17: Washington Irving and American "History"

When the United States became an independent nation in 1783, it didn't have much of a "national literature" to speak of.  There were, of course, Native American oral traditions galore, and many religious writings by Puritan settlers, but most of the literature taught in the schools at this time was Greek, Roman, and European.  America, being a young nation, didn't have the kind of literary history of, say, England, which stretched back hundreds of years.  

One of the earliest, and most popular of the new "American" writers was Washington Irving (1783-1859), who is still widely read and whose works have infiltrated popular culture.  He is most famous for his "Sleepy Hollow" and "Rip Van Winkle" stories, which combined fantasy, folklore, and American history.  When he was writing, however, America (as a nation) didn't have much of a history to speak of, so he drew from pre-American folktales to inspire his memorable stories, which made him a literary celebrity, and inspired countless other writers who would make up the fledgling canon of American literature.

Washington Irving

Ironically, in the early days of the American Republic, one of the most popular genres of fiction was the historical novel, and the most famous historical novelist of this time was Sir Walter Scott, who was British.  Irving loved the writings of Sir Walter Scott, and was greatly influenced by them, if not in style, then at least in content.  Irving sought to create a kind of "mythic history" of America, as Scott had done for England.

He began by exhaustively researching local history, particularly New York history, which at that time was not a very big city.  One of Irving's earliest popular works was A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, by Diedrich Knickerbocker (1809).  Diedrich Knickerbocker was a pen-name Irving used.  Irving's "History" was really a satire/commentary on politics and local figures.  It was not a "true" history.  But its existence raised profound, if comical, questions about the shaky difference between history and fiction.  The very popularity of the "historical fiction" novel indicated that Americans were uncertain about who they were.  Irving's "History" was a construct of fact and fantasy, and who was to say it was "untrue"?

In 1815, Irving moved to England, and it was there (ironically) that he wrote two of the most famous stories of American literature: "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."  These stories were part of a collection of stories entitled "The Sketch Book" which was published in 1819.

In Rip Van Winkle, Irving continued his fascination with the history of New York and, by extension, the history of the young American republic.  The story begins before the Revolutionary War, in a sleepy town at the foot of the Catskill Mountains.  New York was first colonized and settled by the Dutch, and so this town has a decidedly Dutch culture.

Rip Van Winkle is a kindly man, who isn't very "industrious."  Instead of working on his small farm, he prefers the company of his friends at the local tavern, or taking long walks in the woods with his dog, Wolf.  One day, on one of these walks into the Catskills, he encounters a strange company of gnome-like guys who are bowling and drinking a mysterious alcoholic beverage.  Van Winkle joins them, gets pretty drunk, and then falls asleep on the grass.  When he awakes, nearly 20 years have passed.

When he returns to his little village, things have changed drastically.  New York has become part of the United States of America, and the pace of life has increased drastically.  Everyone is obsessed with national elections and political debates.  Van Winkle takes a while to figure out what has happened, but ultimately he finds his (now grown) children, and the townspeople accept him as an odd eccentric who likes to tell old tales.

The story is entertaining as fantasy (and comedy), but it also feels like a commentary on how the Revolutionary War changed the culture of the colonies, for better and for worse.  How would the new nation, so interested in its bright future, remember the past?  Rip Van Winkle, the kindly villager, becomes "a man out of time."  While the story is fictional, it does reflect a certain truth about what was gained, and what was lost, when the United States became a nation.

Irving's obsession with history and national identity would continue throughout his life.  While serving as a diplomat to Spain, he wrote a lengthy biography of Christopher Columbus.  And his final work, which he thought would be his masterpiece, was a five-volume biography of George Washington.  Interestingly, however, it is not his "true" histories for which he is remembered, but rather his "fantastical" historical fictions.  Speaking for myself, I am equally interested in American history and fiction, and how the two intersect, and how the stories we tell ourselves about the past inform our current identities.  Washington Irving was also interested in these things.

Rip Van Winkle


Chapter 18: James Fenimore Cooper and the Vanishing Frontier

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) is a controversial figure in American literature, who is perhaps most famous for his novel The Last of the Mohicans.  I wrote a poem about him.  I call it "The Last of the Mohicans":

In a lot of American 
literature by white people
like The Last of the Mohicans
by James Fenimore Cooper,

Native Americans are presented
as a race whose time has ended.
despite the fact that there were, and are,
thousands of living Native Americans.

Their persistant, longsuffering patience,
their continued reality,
has no place
in our imaginations.

James Fenimore Cooper

Despite his inaccurate, and sometimes offensive, portrayal of Native Americans, Cooper did have some good things to say.  Writing on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, he dramatized, quite movingly, the conflict between nature (the wilderness/frontier) and the encroachment of "civilization" and industry.  A good example of this exists in his novel The Pioneers, in a section entitled "The Slaughter of the Pigeons."

The scene is set in central New York, in the fictional town of Templeton.  Many local inhabitants have gathered for a mass execution of pigeons who are migrating over their town.  This pigeon slaughter is considered a great sport, as thousands of the poor creatures are blasted from the sky.  One prominent citizen even brings out a small cannon, which he loads with duck-shot, and fires into the migrating flock.  The ground is littered with dead and dying pigeons.

Aside from pure sport, the supposed reason for this pigeon genocide is that the birds eat the wheat from the farmers' fields.  But the planting of wheat necessitated another genocide--a mass clearing of trees.  Many thousands of acres of trees had to be cut down to make way for people, agriculture, and industry.  In this area, many trees were also burned to make potash, which is still used to make fertilizer and other industrial products.  The overall vibe of the story is one of horror--the horror of desolation that the American settlers have inflicted on the natural landscape.  This devastation would continue unabated, and continues today.

Rather than lamenting the destruction of nature, however, the townspeople make a great sport of it.  They are almost giddy.  Young boys join in the sport of death.


Into this scene of death and carnage walks the hero of Cooper's novel, Natty Bumppo (aka Leatherstocking, aka Daniel Day Lewis from The Last of the Mohicans).  Natty Bumppo was the hero of Cooper's five-novel epic known as The Leatherstocking Tales (which included The Last of the Mohicans).  In this novel, he is in his 70s, but is still an able hunter and tracker.  Leatherstocking is a man of the wilderness, and he is appalled by the callous and wasteful behavior of the people of Templeton.  Natty gives a speech on the proper use of nature, which he learned from his native American friends:

"This comes of settling a country," he says, "Here I have long known the pigeons to fly for forty long years, and till you made your clearings, there was nobody to scare or to hurt them.  I loved to see them come into the woods, for they were company to a body; hurting nothing; being, as it was, as harmless as a garter snake.  But now it gives me sore thoughts when I hear the frighty things whizzing through the air, for I know it's only a motion to bring out all the brats in the village at them.  Well, the Lord won't see the waste of his creatures for nothing, and right will be done to the pigeons, as well as others, by and by."

Natty explains how it is wasteful to kill for sport, and that people should only kill what they need to live.  To prove his point, he raises his long rifle and shoots a single pigeon, which his dog fetches, and then he walks away, leaving the townspeople to their orgy of death and waste.

After the mass killing, an old Judge reflects mournfully on the slaughter of the pigeons: "Judge Temple retired towards his dwelling with that kind of feeling that many a man has experienced before him, who discovers, after the excitement of the moment has passed, that he has purchased pleasure at the price of misery to others."

This last sentiment is particularly profound, and could be applied to Native Americans as well as the whole of the natural world.  Much was lost when this land was settled and "civilized."  The advance of the white man came at great cost and misery to others.  This violation is one of America's great national sins.

Natty Bumppo

Chapter 19: Cherokee Memorials

The story of the Cherokee Indian Tribe, as with pretty much all Native American tribes, is one of great tragedy, suffering, and survival.  In 1829, gold was discovered in the Cherokee Nation, which was also in the state of Georgia, and white settlers began pouring in.  This discovery, along with the ever-expanding population of the United States, prompted president Andrew Jackson and the U.S. Congress to pass the infamous Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forcibly moved all Indian tribes west of the Mississippi River.  This included the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations.  Thousands of people were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands, in violation of previous treaties.  The Indian Removal Act directly caused the tragic Trail of Tears, in which tribes were moved, at gunpoint, by U.S. troops.  Thousands of Native Americans died en route. The Indian Removal Act is one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.

In the year before the Indian Removal Act, as the government was preparing to remove them, representatives of the Cherokee Nation delivered written petitions before congress, pleading for justice and humane treatment.  These written documents are known as “The Cherokee Memorials.”  The writings are elegant, thoughtful, and ultimately heartbreaking, as they fell on deaf ears and callous consciences.  Here are some excerpts from The Cherokee Memorials, delivered before the U.S Congress in 1829:
“We, the representatives of the people of the Cherokee nation, in general council convened, compelled by a sense of duty we owe to ourselves and nation, and confiding in the justice of your honorable bodies, address and make known to you the grievances which disturb the quiet repose and harmony of our citizens, and the dangers by which we are surrounded… our safety as individuals, and as a nation, require that we should be heard by the immediate representatives of the people of the United States, whose humanity and magnanimity, by the permission and will of Heaven, may yet preserve us from ruin and extinction.”
“It remains to be proved, under a view of all these circumstances, and the knowledge we have of history, how our right to self-government was affected and destroyed by the Declaration of Independence.”
“We still adhere to what is right and agreeable to ourselves; and our attachment to the soil of our ancestors is too strong to be shaken.”
“We now look with earnest expectation to your humble bodies for redress, and that our national existence may not be extinguished before a prompt and effectual interposition is afforded in our behalf.”
“It is with reluctant and painful feelings that circumstances have at length compelled us to seek from you the promised protection, for the preservation of our rights and privileges.  This resort to us is a last one, and nothing short of the threatening evils and dangers that beset us could have forced it upon the nation but it is a right we surely have, and in which we cannot be mistaken—that of appealing for justice and humanity to the United States.”
“Will you listen to us?  Will you have pity upon us?  You are great and renowned—the nation which you represent is like a mighty man who stands in his strength.  But we are small—our name is not renowned.  You are wealthy, and have need of nothing; but we are poor in life, and have not the arm and power of the rich.”
“As his neighbors increased in numbers, his power became less and less, and now, of the many and powerful tribes who once covered these United States, only a few are to be seen—a few whom a sweeping pestilence has left.  The Northern tribes, who were once so numerous and powerful, are now nearly extinct...Shall we, who are remnants, share the same fate?”
“The land on which we stand we have received as an inheritance from our fathers, who possessed it from time immemorial…This right of inheritance we have never ceded, nor ever forfeited.  Permit us to ask, what better right can the people have to a country, than the right of inheritance and immemorial peacable possession?”
“To the land, of which we are now in possession, we are attached.  It is our fathers’ gift: it contains their ashes; it is the land of our nativity, and the land of our intellectual birth.  We cannot consent to abandon it for another far inferior, and which holds out to us no inducements.  We do moreover protest against the arbitrary measures of our neighbor, the state of Georgia, in her attempt to extend her laws over us, in surveying our lands without our consent, and in direct opposition to the treaties and the intercourse law of the United States, and interfering with our municipal regulations in such a manner as to derange the regular operation of our own laws.  To deliver and protect them from all these and every encroachment upon their rights, the undersigned memorialists do most earnestly pray your honorable bodies.  Their existence and future happiness are at stake.  Divest them of their liberty and country, and you sink them in degradation…”
“Your memorialists humbly conceive that such an act [forced removal] would be in the highest degree oppressive.  From the people of these United States, who, perhaps, of all men under heaven, are the most religious and free, it cannot be expected.  Your memorialists, therefore, cannot anticipate such a result.  You represent a virtuous, intelligent, and Christian nation.  To you they willingly submit their cause for your righteous decision.”
Despite these elegant and passionate words, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, thousands of Cherokee and other tribes were forcibly removed, and thousands died…in “a virtuous, intelligent, and Christian nation.” 



Chapter 20: William Apess: Racism and Christianity are Incompatible

William Apess (1798-1839) was the first Native American to publish an extensive autobiography, A Son of the Forest (1829).  He was a descendant of Metacomet (aka King Philip), a Wampanoag leader who lost an early conflict between colonists and Native Americans, known as King Philip's War (1678).  Apess was born in Colrain, Massachusetts and had a difficult life.  At a young age, he was sold into indentured servitude, received six years of education, served as a soldier in the War of 1812, converted to Christianity, and ultimately became a traveling preacher, writer, and advocate for Native American rights.  Much of his preaching and writing was aimed at showing the incompatibility of racial prejudice and Christianity, both of which were widespread in the United States of his day.  In 1833, Apess published "An Indian's Looking Glass for the White Man," a powerfully eloquent condemnation of the widespread racism among self-professed Christians in America.

Apess's argument is a simple one: Racism and Christianity are incompatible.  "If black or red skins or any other skin color is disgraceful to God," he writes, "it appears that He has disgraced Himself a great deal--for He has made fifteen colored people to one white and placed them here upon the earth."

Apess quotes the Bible to prove his point: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matthew 22:37)…"By this shall all men know that they are my disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John 13:55)…"He who loveth God loveth his brother also" (1 John 4:21)…"If any man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar" (1 John 4:20).

Apess spends considerable time discussing the person of Jesus Christ, who was a Palestinian Jew, and likely brown-skinned himself: "If he (Jesus) should appear among us, would he not be shut out of doors by many, very quickly?  And by those too who profess religion?"  Jesus, Apess writes, "never looked at the outward appearances.  Jesus in particular looked at the hearts."

Unfortunately, in Apess's day, racism was widespread among white American Christians.  Slavery was in full swing in the south, and in the more "enlightened" north, Native Americans were continually mistreated, removed from their ancestral lands, and denied equal rights under the law.  Using the language of the Bible, Apess asks these rhetorical questions: "How are you to love your neighbors as yourself?  Is it to cheat them?  Is it to wrong them in anything?  Now, to cheat them out of any of their rights is robbery.  And I ask, can you deny that you are not robbing the Indians daily, and many others?"

Apess ends his piece with a hopeful vision of the future, when "the mantle of prejudice is torn from every American heart--then shall peace pervade the Union."


William Apess



Chapter 21: Lydia Maria Child: a Voice of Conscience for Her Generation

Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) was a relentless voice of conscience for readers in 19th century America.  In 1825, she wrote the novel Hobomok, which dealt sympathetically with interracial marriage between a Native American man and a white woman.   In 1833, she was an early voice of the Abolitionist movement, and published the book An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans.  She edited the abolitionist publication National The Anti-Slavery Standard.  


She was also concerned with the poor and homeless, and her Letters From New York dealt with issues of urban poverty.  She was an early advocate for women's rights, and published an early feminist text, History of the Condition of Women (1835).  She also wrote her own copiously-researched history of religion, entitled The Progress of Religions Ideas.  Child, like many progressive writers of the 19th century, was Unitarian.  

Lydia Maria Child in 1870

Chapter 22: Ralph Waldo Emerson: Scholar/Poet

In 1837, American essayist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered a commencement speech to the students at Harvard University  entitled "The American Scholar" in which Emerson directly confronts the difficult, frustrating, and often lonely task of the scholar.  I was comforted by these words, and felt like Emerson was speaking directly to me, in Fullerton, in 2014. 

Emerson doesn't pull any punches when speaking about the society of his day.  He describes "the sluggard intellect  of this continent" and speaks of "the love of letters among a people too busy to give to letters any more."  I get angry because I feel like no one reads any more, and people tend to be intellectually lazy, but Emerson felt the same way in 1837!  He speaks of the effects of modern industrial society upon the person of learning, how the fragmentation of labor jobs has fragmented the inner world of people: "The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters--a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man."  People have become fragmented, incomplete.  The soul of people has become "subject to dollars."

But all is not lost.  Into this world of non-readers and fragmented corporate/industrial workers, the American scholar must make his stand!  "Each age," Emerson says, "must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding."  Even if masses of people choose not to read, the world still needs readers and writers, if only to comment on and critique this generation, for the illumination of the next.  Books are not for memorizing and regurgitating, but are living documents of the human struggle to understand this world.  Books are meant to inspire.  

"Forget this," Emerson says, "and our American colleges will recede in their public importance whilst they grow richer every year."  It's fascinating how rising tuition costs make education seem, to students, like a business transaction rather than an invitation to explore.  Higher education has become more like a finishing school for corporate America than a place of sincere inquiry and the quest for knowledge.  

Despite this, in fact, because of this, the scholar must not only read and write and study, but he must act.  "Inaction is cowardice," Emerson says, and I heartily agree.  In this world of problems and apathy and war and consumerism and general ignorance, the scholar must stand, and speak, and act, and not waver in this responsibility.  

This is, needless to say, a difficult and often thankless task. The American scholar "must accept--how often! poverty and solitude.  For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own."  This will bring suffering, "the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed."

But what does the scholar gain? "For all this loss and scorn, what offset?" Emerson asks, and then answers, "He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature.  He is the one who raises himself from private considerations and breathes and lives in public and illustrious thoughts.  He is the world's eye.  He is the world's heart.  He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever into barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history…it becomes him to feel all confidence in himself, and to defer never to the popular cry."

In short, the American scholar, despite the general apathy with which he may be regarded, can be a real American hero--speaking truth to power.  "The world is his who can see through its pretentious," Emerson says, "See it to be a lie, and you have already dealt it its mortal blow."  The task of the scholar is to shine a light on our darkness, through rigorous study, reflection, writing, creation, thought, and action.

Emerson ends with a battle-cry for scholars: "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds."  Though the road may be long and weary, the task of the American scholar is a noble, even heroic one, so long as the scholar remains true to himself, and never gives up.

Ralph Waldo Emerson says, "This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it."


While reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Nature," I underlined passages that spoke to me with particular eloquence and power.  Though Emerson writes in prose, his language is highly poetic.  I decided to turn the passages I underlined in "Nature" into a poem.  Here it is:

I am not solitary whilst I read and write, 
though nobody is with me.
But if a man would be alone,
let him look at the stars.
Every night come out these preachers of beauty
and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

There is a property in the horizon which no man
has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts,
that is, the poet.
Few adult persons can see nature.
Most persons do not see the sun.
In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man,
in spite of real sorrows,
all his impertinent griefs,
he shall be glad with me.

Almost I fear to think how glad I am.
In the woods, is perpetual youth.
In the woods, we return to reason and faith.
Standing on the bare ground--
my head bathed by the blithe air,
and uplifted into infinite space--
all mean egotism vanishes.
I become a transparent eye-ball.

I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.
The misery of man appears like childish petulance,
when we explore the steady and prodigal provision
that has been made for his support and delight
on this green ball
which floats him through the heavens.

A man is fed, not that he may be fed,
but that he may work.
Give me health and a day,
and I will make the pomp of emperors 
ridiculous.

The eye is the best of artists.
The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon.
We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.

To the attentive eye,
each moment of the year has its own beauty,
and in the same field it beholds, every hour,
a picture which was never seen before,
and which shall never be seen again.
Indeed the river is a perpetual gala,
and boasts each month a new ornament.

Every heroic act is also decent,
and causes the place and the bystanders to shine.

Nothing divine dies.
All good is eternally productive.
The production of a work of art throws a light
upon the mystery of humanity.
The poet, the painter, the sculptor,
the musician, the architect
seek each to concentrate this radiance of the world
on one point.
Man is conscious of a universal soul
within or behind his individual life, wherein,
as in a firmament, the natures of
Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom,
arise and shine.

These are not the dreams of a few poets, here and there.

Every object rightly seen,
unlocks a new faculty of the soul.
Every particular in nature,
a leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time
is related to the whole,
and partakes of the perfection of the whole.
Each particle is a microcosm,
and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.

"A Gothic Church," said Colerige,
"is a petrified religion."

Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us.

We are as much strangers in nature,
as we were aliens from God.
We do not understand the notes of the birds.
Infancy is the perpetual Messiah,
which comes into the arms of fallen men,
and pleads with them to return to paradise.

Prayer, eloquence, self-healing, and the wisdom of children.

The invariable mark of wisdom 
is to see the miraculous in the common.
To the wise, therefore, a fact is true poetry,
and the most beautiful of fables.

So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes.



Chapter 23: Nathaniel Hawthorne's Puritan Gothic Stories

Today I read some short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne (author of The Scarlet Letter), and I was struck by how dark they are (in a good way).  More specifically, Hawthorne is obsessed with showing the dark side of Americans in general, and Puritans in particular.  Most of the stories are set  in colonial New England, in a world inhabited by Puritans, the descendants of the Pilgrims.  The best phrase I can use to describe these stories is "Puritan Gothic."  

Hawthorne's stories usually begin in quite ordinary settings, but end up becoming violent, dark, and grotesque in some way.  In the story "My Kinsman, Major Molineux," a young man (named Robin)  from the country visits a small New England town, looking for his relative, Major Molineaux.  The young man is  kind, and somewhat naive.  He asks people if they know where he can find his "kinsman, Major Molineux".  Instread of welcoming this stranger, the townspeople treat him with utter contempt.  

Finally, Robin discovers his kinsman, the Major, stripped naked, being tarred and feathered by a mob of townspeople, for being a British sympathizer.   As a reader, we do not sympathize with the American "patriots"--they are portrayed as cruel, rude, and sadistic.  We sympathize with the young man, and his poor relative, who is being tortured and humiliated.  This is a common theme in Hawthorne's work, including The Scarlet Letter.  We find ourselves sympathizing with the people we are supposed to condemn, and condemning those whose side we are supposed to be on.  It's a brilliant exercise in empathy.

"Young Goodman Brown," perhaps the most gothic of Hawthorne's stories, deals explicitly with the dark side of Puritans.  It is set in Salem, Masachusetts, after the infamous Witch Trials.  The title character, Goodman Brown, leaves his wife and goes on an unnamed errand one evening.  Slowly, we discover that Brown is going to a satanic cult meeting in the woods.  However, instead of finding strangers there, he finds all the "respectable" people of the town--the minister, local politicians, pious women from the church, even his own wife!  It's a devilish initiation ritual involving torches and black robes.  On his way to the cult meeting, Goodman Brown encounters the devil, who explains that he has been a friend of the Puritans ever since they arrived in the New World.  "I have been well acquainted with your family as with ever a one among the Puritans," the devil says, and goes on to explain how he helped the Puritans commit many of their national atrocities, like the witch trials, and the burning of Indian villages.

The story devolves into increasing horror, and becomes a powerful meditation on the darkness and hypocrisy of the Puritans, who liked to think of themselves as God's new "chosen people."  Based on the crimes and atrocities they committed, they could very well be the devil's chosen people, Hawthorne suggests.  As a 19th century reader, I am supposed to side with the Puritans/Pilgrims, but in "Young Goodman Brown" they are portrayed as evil.  

What I think Hawthorne is up to in his writing is getting us, the reader, to think differently about ourselves personally, and as a nation.  Americans like to fancy themselves as the perennial "good guys."  Hawthorne, one of America's most famous and important writers, forced his readers to consider the possibility that we, as humans and as a nation, have the same potential for evil and corruption as anyone and any nation.  In fact, we have shown this evil historically, in our treatment of Native Americans, women, and many other groups of people.  Reading is an act of empathy and introspection, and this is a good and healthy thing to do, lest we become complacent and arrogant.


Nathaniel Hawthorne, American Gothic Writer


Chapter 24: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poetry as Empathy

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) was the most beloved American poet of his time.  He was a professor of literature at Harvard and a tireless advocate and popularizer of poetry in America.  His epic poems The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline were widely read, and established him as one of the pre-eminent American poets.

One unifying theme in Longfellow's poetry is empathy.  He often wrote from the perspective of people who experienced oppression and discrimination in 19th century America--giving voice to the dreams, stories, and struggles of slaves, Native Americans, women, Catholics, and Jews--basically, all the groups of people whom white Protestant Americans tended to view as "other."  Through his empathic poetry, Longfellow appears to be striving for a more empathic American conscience.

In "The Slave's Dream" (1842), Longfellow writes from the perspective of an African-American slave.  The slave dreams of riding a horse in his native Africa, where he is a king over an abundant landscape:

"The forests, with the myriad tongues,
Shouted of liberty…
He did not feel the driver's whip,
Nor the burning heat of day."

Through the poem, we (the readers) feel the oppression of the slave, and his dreams of freedom.  This poem is all the more radical, because it was written at a time when human slavery was in full swing in America.

In "The Jewish Cemetery at Newport" (1854), Longfellow describes his visit to a Jewish Cemetery in Newport, Rhode Island, and imagines what the lives of the people buried there were like--their struggles and dreams.  He wonders:

"How came they here?  What burst of Christian hate;
What persecution, merciless, and blind,
Drove o'er the sea,--that desert, desolate--
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?"

For centuries, Jews were a persecuted people, even in America.  Often, facing brutal persecution (usually at the hands of Christians), they had to flee to new places.  In this poem, Longfellow, empathizes with their plight (and hopefully his readers will too).  When you empathize with someone, it becomes more difficult to discriminate against them.

Longfellow's epic poem Evangeline tells the tale of a French Canadian woman named Evangeline in the 1700s, whose people are driven from their homes in the brutal Expulsion of the Acadians, when the British (and American colonists) forced these people from their lands, burned their villages, and sent them into exile.  

"Scattered were they, like flakes of snow,
when the wind from the northeast
Strikes aslant through the fogs that darken
the Banks of Newfoundland.
Friendless, homeless, hopeless,
they wandered from city to city,
From the cold lakes of the North 
to sultry Southern savannas."

This is a based on a  real historical event.  Evangeline wanders throughout America, looking for a home, and for her long-lost lover, Gabriel.  Her story is one of sadness and suffering.  The people of Acadie were catholics, and were seen as "other" by the majority of Protestant Americans in the 19th century.  Reading "Evangeline," we feel empathy.  We feel her pain and suffering, and the injustice her people have faced.  

In "The Song of Hiawatha," another epic poem based on a Native American legend, Longfellow writes:

“I am weary of your quarrels,
Weary of your wars and bloodshed,
Weary of your prayers for vengeance,
Of your wranglings and dissensions”

Writing at a time of persecution for certain groups in America, Longfellow sought to use his literary art to evoke empathy and compassion in the minds and hearts of his readers.  This, I think, is a noble goal for a writer, in any time or place.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow


Chapter 25: John Greenleaf Whittier: Quaker Abolitionist Poet

Who was John Greenleaf Whittier?  For residents of Southern California, he is "the guy the city of Whittier is named after."  But for readers in 19th century New England, he was much more than that.  He was born on a farm near Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1807 to a Quaker family.  Quakers in New England were a sometimes persecuted minority, and young John grew up with a sense that he was different from his neighbors.  

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)

Though born into relative poverty, he befriended noted abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison as a young man, who encouraged him to get an education.  Eventually he did, and went on to a career that included politics, abolitionism, and literature.  In his lifetime, he became a beloved poet, and a well-known opponent of slavery.  In 1833, he published an abolitionist manifesto called Justice and Expediency, in which he blended his Quaker faith and social justice.  He called for: "Immediate abolition of slavery; an immediate acknowledgement of the great truth, that man cannot hold property in man; an immediate surrender of baneful prejudice to Christian love; an immediate practical obedience to the command of Jesus Christ: 'Whatsoever ye would that man should do unto you, do ye even so to them.'"

Future generations, however, would remember Whittier more for his poetry than his politics or social views.  In his poetry, he focused on American village and rural life, and he struggled with "how to be true to the occasional beauty of rural life without portraying it in the sentimental manner that prevailed at the time."  In representing life poetically, he didn't want to be cheesy or overly-sentimental.  He wanted to capture things as they are, as he experienced them growing up on a small Quaker farm in Massachusetts.

Perhaps his most famous poem of this kind is "Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl," in which Whittier reflects upon and portrays a scene from his youth, in the small cabin where he grew up, in the winter.  It is a beautiful poem of memory, community, simplicity, and the power of storytelling.  My filmmaker friend Steve once said that movies are our modern-day fireplaces.  What he meant is that, back before television and radio, human beings used to sit around fireplaces and tell stories about their lives.  This tradition goes back thousands of years, and it is something that has largely been lost in our age of mass communication, or has been replaced by television and films.

Whittier's poem was written before these modern media, and it is about a group of family and friends sitting around a fireplace in a small house in Massachusetts, in winter.  The fireplace becomes a kind of sanctuary in the midst of the storm outside, and an important way for people to creatively understand their lives.  It is much more participatory than staring at screens.  It is how human communities interacted and took solace for generations.  Whittier writes:

What matter how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its show
Could quench our hearth-fire's ruddy glow.

The fireplace provides both a literal protection from the elements, and a metaphorical/spiritual protection from the difficulties of life.  Story-telling is important in this way:

"We sped the time with stories old,
Wrought puzzles out, and riddles told."

Each person, young and old, takes turns telling stories, from the educated local schoolmaster, to the uneducated uncle, whose folktales are perhaps equally important:

"Our uncle, innocent of books,
But rich in lore of fields and brooks."

The more educated schoolmaster speaks of current events.  The poem was written in 1866, just after the Civil War ended, and the local teacher is an abolitionist (as was Whittier):

"Large-brained, clear-eyed--of such as he
Shall Freedom's young apostles be,
Who, following in War's bloody trail,
Shall every lingering wrong assail,
All chains from limb and spirit strike,
Uplift the black and white alike."

When taken in its historical context, Whittier's poem is more than just a nostalgic "idyl."  It is perhaps a  call for brotherly love, for human communities to sit around hearth-fires and tell each other stories.  America was tremendously traumatized by the Civil War, and perhaps Whittier is suggesting that storytelling can be a healing act, that it can provide shelter and solace from the storms of nature and of life.




Chapter 26: Edgar Allan Poe Stands Alone

No other writer in 19th century America even remotely resembles the death-obsessed, melancholy, despairing, drug-crazed horror of Edgar Allan Poe.  Poe stands alone.  As one might expect from his writings, he had a hard life.  His wives and lovers were constantly dying, he suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, and he was a full-blown alcoholic.  He died at age 40 in a park in Baltimore, friendless and penniless.  But he left behind a collection of poetry and short stories that were revolutionary and timeless.

The first sentence of Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” beautifully captures the tone and spirit of the writer: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy house of Usher.”  Melancholy, dreariness, and bleakness define this story, and most of Poe’s stories. 

Unlike many American writers up to this point, who felt the need to have some kind of happy ending to their stories and poetry, Poe felt no such need.  His poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” are about the death of a lover, and they are both utterly hopeless.  “The Raven” ends,  

“And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor
And my soul from out that that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!” 

“Annabel Lee” is similarly hopeless.  The narrator describes how his wife became ill and died, and how this emotionally destroyed him:

"And so, all the night tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulcher by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.”

For Poe, as for many writers, his art became a way for him to deal with the pain and suffering of his life.   He looked, clear-eyed at the horrors of his life, and sought to capture that truth.  Ironically, even though Poe’s poetry and stories are bleak and hopeless, there is also a beauty to them.  It is the beauty of Greek tragedy.  When reading these awful stories, we experience a kind of catharsis, which (hopefully) allows us to confront, and deal with, the suffering in our own lives.
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)


Chapter 27: Abraham Lincoln: Self-Educated President

Abraham Lincoln was born in a backwoods cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky in 1809.  His father and mother were barely literature farmers.  Young Abraham received little formal education.  He was, essentially, a hick.  In 1830, he set off on his own and decided to become a lawyer.  He did not attend law school.  Rather, he educated himself by reading the major law books of his day, passed the bar exam in 1836, and became a lawyer.  Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, he was elected to various political offices, culminating in his election to the presidency in 1860.  It is, needless to say, astonishing that a man with almost no formal education, and no degree, could become the most powerful man in the country.

As president, this self-educated man was faced with the most difficult challenge America has ever faced--the Civil War.  It is even more astonishing the he rose to this challenge and, through his political skills and eloquent speeches, guided the country through these turbulent and bloody times.  He was by no means a perfect president.  Like all presidents, he was as complex as the times in which he lived, but what strikes me as I read through his speeches is the simple power of his writing, the clarity of his thinking, and how some of his words have become fundamental to how we, as Americans, see ourselves.

The famous "Gettysburg Address" has become so cliche that we tend to forget the context and content of that short, but powerful, speech.  It was delivered at the dedication of a cemetery, on the site of an especially bloody battle of the Civil War.  The speech is a meditation on death and life, and what they mean in the context of a war that was was literally ripping apart the United States.  In this speech, Lincoln plays on the dual meaning of the word "dedicate."  The cemetery at Gettysburg is "dedicated" to those who lost their lives in battle.  Lincoln writes:  "We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that this nation might live."  But the real "dedication," Lincoln explains, is for those who remain alive, "for us the living…to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."  The task of the living is to remain dedicated to winning the war, preserving the Union, and ensuring freedom for future generations, particularly for slaves.  Lincoln ends with these famous words:

"We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth."

In his second inaugural address, as the war neared its closing, Lincoln foresaw a time of healing after the great conflict.  His words attempt to provide a kind of guiding light forward, for a severely wounded and traumatized nation:

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan--to do all which many achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."

Within a year, Lincoln would be killed by assassination, but his words would live on--the words of a man from humble beginnings who went on to lead our country through its darkest hour.  I realize that Abraham Lincoln was a complex man with as many faults as any man.  But his words remain, and these words still ring true to me, as a representation of what America can be, and ought to strive for---a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.  

Abraham Lincoln 1809-1865

Chapter 28: Margaret Fuller: 19th Century Feminist

Margaret Fuller was, to quote Nathaniel Hawthorne, "the greatest, wisest, best woman of the age."  She was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1810.  Her father supervised her intense early education, and she was a child prodigy.  From a very young age "reading became a habit and a passion."  She could read Latin by age 6, and was steeped in classical and European languages and literature.  She was a lonely, bookish child, but her great learning and intelligence would make her an important American writer and activist.

As an adult, she became friends with prominent New England intellectuals, like Ralph Waldo Emerson.  She edited the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial from 1840-42.  In 1844, she was hired as critic for the New York Tribune, making her one of the first self-supporting American woman journalists.  In 1845, she published her most famous text Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which is one of the first truly feminist American texts, even before feminism was a cultural concept.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century is full of literary allusions, showing Fuller's breadth of learning and talent.  In it, she cites other important female writers who had spoken against the male-dominated culture in which they lived--writers like Mary Wolstonecraft and George Sand (the pen name of French novelist Amandine Aurore Lucile Dudevant) who "in breaking bonds became outlaws."  Fuller admires these women because they refused to fit into the confining gender roles of their society.  "Women like Sand will speak now, and cannot be silenced," she writes, "Their characters and their eloquence alike foretell an era when such as they shall easier learn to lead true lives."

Fuller seeks to inspire women to be their truest, fullest, and best selves, and not dependent on men for self-worth.  "I would have woman lay aside all thought, such as she habitually cherishes, of being taught and led by men…I would have her free from compromise, from complaisance, from helplessness, because I would have her good enough and strong enough to love one and all beings, from the fullness, not the poverty of being."

Fuller is not anti-men.  She believes men are as confined as women in their gender roles, the only difference being that men had more power in her society.  She envisions a new kind of male-female relationship: "partners in work and in life, sharing together, on equal terms, public and private interests."  She speaks of the great "fault of marriage" as it is often defined: "that the woman does belong to the man, instead of forming a whole with him."

While these ideas may seem ordinary to us, they were absolutely revolutionary in 19th century America, which was a very patriarchal society.  It was, to be sure, a man's world.  Fuller did not live a conventional life.  In 1846, she sailed for Europe to be a foreign correspondent for the Tribune, and even involved herself in the turbulence of Italian politics.  She died in a shipwreck on the voyage home from Europe in 1850, at age 40, leaving behind a legacy of radical, political, and literary writings that inspired future advocates of women's rights.



Chapter 29: Uncle Tom's Cabin: Writing Can Change the World

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, the daughter of a well-known Evangelical Calvinist minister named Lyman Beecher.  All of her brothers became ministers.  Harriet and her sisters became writers, educators, and social reformers: Catherine was a pioneer of women's education, Isabella became a suffragist and women's rights advocate, and Harriet wrote the most powerful anti-slavery novel in American history.

Harriet married a biblical scholar named Calvin Stowe, and she worked occasionally as a teacher and writer.  Two events happened in her life that focused her attention on the cause of abolitionism: 

First, The death of her son Samuel "infused in her writing the sympathy for people who were helpless in the face of great personal loss."  Sometimes, suffering opens people's eyes to the suffering of others.  In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe writes: "There are in this world blessed souls, whose sorrows all spring up into joys for others; whose earthly hopes, laid in the grave with many tears, are the seed from which spring healing flowers and balm for the desolate and the distressed."

Second, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which made it a crime for even northerners to help escaping slaves, "created in her, as in many other New Englanders, a sense of tremendous outrage."  Shortly after the passage of this Act, Stowe began working on Uncle Tom's Cabin, which would profoundly stir the conscience of the nation.



The novel, which was first serialized in the anti-slavery journal The National Era, was published in book form in 1852 to immediate success.  It sold 3,000 copies in its first day of publication, and 350,000 copies in its first year.  By 1860, it had been re-printed in 22 languages and became the best-selling book of the century, out-sold only by the Bible.  According to the Norton Anthology of American Literature, "The book helped push abolitionism from the margins to the mainstream, and thus moved the nation closer to civil war."

What made Uncle Tom's Cabin such a powerful anti-slavery text?  Abolitionists had been writing against slavery for at least 30 years prior to the novel's publication.  Why was this particular book so effective?  I would argue that at least three factors made the novel so powerful: 1.) It took an abstract issue and humanized it.  Readers could sympathize with the characters in the novel in a way that they could not sympathize with a political tract or essay.  2.) The novel powerfully demonstrated that human slavey was incompatible with Christianity.  Most Americans in 1852 (both northerners and southerners) were Christian.  3.) The novel showed how slavery diminished the humanity, not just of the slaves, but of the slave-owners as well.  Let me give a few examples to illustrate these three elements of the novel.

Humanizing the Issue

First, Uncle Tom's Cabin took an issue that was abstract for many people and humanized it.  Literature has this power.  Readers could sympathize with the plight of the slaves Tom, Eliza, Cassy, and other characters in the novel.  Uncle Tom's Cabin emotionally dramatized their suffering.  In chapter 7, entitled "A Mother's Struggle," the slave Eliza runs away from her master (along with her young son Harry) because she has learned that the master planned to sell Harry to another plantation.  This was a common feature of slavery--it tore apart families.  Eliza, the desperate mother, valiantly struggles to cross the Ohio river, to freedom, as she is pursued by men on horseback.  In a particularly memorable scene, she runs across the frozen river with her child:

"In that dizzy moment her feet to her scarce seemed to touch the ground, and a moment brought her to the water's edge.  Right on behind they came; and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice beyond.  It was a desperate leap--impossible to anything but madness and despair…The huge green fragment of ice in which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she stayed there not a moment.  With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake;--stumbling--leaping--slipping--springing upwards again!  Her shoes are gone--her stockings cut from her feet--while blood marked every step…"

In this chapter, Stowe does something quite unusual for a novelist--she directly addresses the reader, breaking the "fourth wall" to elicit sympathy and compassion for the plight of Eliza:

"If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, to-morrow morning,--if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o'clock, --how fast could you walk?  How many miles could you make in those few brief hours, with the darling at your bosom--the little sleepy head on your shoulder--the small soft arms trustingly holding onto you neck?"

Like Eliza, each of the slaves in Uncle Tom's Cabin suffers in ways that would move even a callous reader to sympathy.  Cassy is separated from her child and sexually abused by her master.  Tom is brutally beaten to death.



Slavery and Christianity are Incompatible

Uncle Tom's Cabin powerfully shows that human slavery is incompatible with Christianity.  While this may seem like a "no-brainer" for modern Christians, it was not so obvious for 19th century readers.  Most southerners, including slave owners, were Christians who went to church on Sunday and actually believed the Bible condoned slavery.  Stowe seeks to refute this in her novel.  In chapter 9, entitled "In Which it Appears That a Senator is But a Man," a U.S. Senator who voted for the Fugitive Slave Act has an extended conversation with his wife, who is outraged by her husband's vote.  "Now John," she says, "I don't know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate, and that Bible I mean to follow."  The senator tries to justify his vote by saying that it was for the "greater good" of preserving the union, to which his wife responds: "Obeying God never brings on public evil.  I know it can't.  It's always safest, all round, to do as He bids us."

Ironically, shortly after this little debate, Eliza and Harry arrive at the senator's house, seeking shelter and help.  This experience transforms the senator's thinking as the issue (again) becomes real, not abstract: "His idea of a fugitive was only an idea of letters that spell the word,--or, at most, the image of a little newspaper picture of a man with a stick and bindle, with "Ran away from the subscriber" under it.  The magic of the real presence of distress, --the imploring human eye, the frail, trembling human hand, the despairing appeal of helpless agony, --these he had never tried.  He had never thought that a fugitive might be a hapless mother, a defenseless child."  Seeing the real suffering human before him compels the senator to help her, to break the very law he had voted for, and to realize that he was wrong.

To further illustrate this theme that slavery and Christianity are incompatible, Stowe gives us the character of Tom, a devout Christian, and the most Christ-like character in the novel.  As he is being beaten to death by his master, Tom prays, echoing the words of Christ on the cross, "I forgive you with all my soul."  



Slavery Diminishes Humanity

Finally, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a powerful novel because it showed that the institution of slavery diminished the humanity, the soul, not just of slaves, but of slave-owners as well.  As Tom is being beaten by the brutal plantation owner Simon Legree, he says to his master,  "Mas'r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I'd give ye my heart's blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I'd give 'em freely, as the Lord gave his for me. O, Mas'r! don't bring this great sin on your soul! It will hurt you more than 't will me! Do the worst you can, my troubles'll be over soon; but, if ye don't repent, yours won't never end!” 

The utter depravity of Legree is itself a powerful demonstration of how slavery corrupts both slave and slave-owner.  In chapter 34, entitled "The Quadroon's Story," the slave Cassy tells her sad story to Tom, as she tends to his wounds after a brutal beating.  Cassy, like other female slaves, was sexually abused by Legree and this has caused her and others to "grow loathsome, till we loathe ourselves."  In a moment of powerful empathy, she asks Tom of her master, "God in heaven!  what was he, and is he?"  The implication is that no one on this plantation escapes the soul-crusing destruction that is caused by slavery.  This makes Tom's death all the more powerful.  In the face of great evil, he preserves his dignity, even in death, and he is an inspiration to Cassy.

In conclusion, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a brilliant piece of fiction, written with impassioned fury and empathy by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Some modern scholars have criticized the novel for some mis-representations of African Americans, and even for creating some racial stereotypes.  I believe the novel must be taken in the context of its time.  Despite its imperfections and flaws, the positive social impact of the novel is undeniable.  As a writer, I am inspired by Stowe's writing.  It shows me that writing and literature can actually change the world.



Chapter 30: When Wearing Pants Was Radical: The Feminist Writings of Fanny Fern

Fanny Fern (the pen name of Sarah Willis Parton) was born in Portland, Maine in 1811.  Her personal life was marked by domestic tragedy and struggle which would shape her later feminist writings.  In 1846, he first husband died, leaving her to struggle to support herself and two daughters.  In the 19th century, few professions were open to women.  She tried, unsuccessfully, to support her family by sewing, but found this impossible.  She re-married in 1849, but her second husband turned out to be, in her words, "jealous, tyrannical, and sexually repulsive".  In 1851, she made the radical choice to leave her husband, which left her (for a time) impoverished and socially ostracized.

It was this same year, 1851, that Fern began her career as a writer, using her experiences as a woman in the 19th century to express her ideas about the rights of women.  Her writings in the Boston publication Olive Branch made her a literary celebrity, and "an embodiment of the new American woman."  In 1854, she published the novel Ruth Hall: a Domestic Tale of the Present Time, which became "a sensation because readers knew it was in large part autobiographical and because it involved a new feminist heroine who struggled successfully for opportunities in a society where laws gave husbands rights over their wives' property."


By 1855, Fanny Fern was a household name and she secured a contract with the New York Ledger where she earned $100 per column--a huge sum, especially for a woman.  It was as a writer that Fern finally found the economic and social freedom she had struggled for.  In these columns, Fern used humor and satire to criticize the male-dominated society of her day, and to inspire women to not be silent about social inequality.

In an 1857 column entitled "Male Criticism of Ladies' Books," Fern begins with a quote from the New York Times which she finds particularly repulsive: "Courtship and marriage, servants and children, these are the great objects of a woman's thoughts and they necessarily form the staple topics of their writings and their conversation.  We have no right to expect anything else in a woman's book."  With her signature combination of humor and outrage, Fern blasts this sexist and condescending quote.  First, she argues, marriage and family are the topics of most novels, even by such esteemed male authors as Charles Dickens and Wiliam Makepeace Thackeray.  Second, she mocks the writer as someone "who knows as much about reviewing a woman's book as I do about navigating a ship."  She ends with a challenge to the critic-- "Write a better book!"

In a column entitled "Fresh Leaves, by Fanny Fern," she parodies the tone and content of a male reviewer of one of her own books.  "When we take up a woman's book," she writes, mockingly, "we expect to find gentleness, timidity, and that lovely reliance on the patronage of our sex which constitutes a woman's greatest charm."  Fern states directly what was a commonly-held belief, showing the absurdity of it.  The mock-critics are horrified by Fern's forthrightness: "We have a conservative horror of this pop-gun torpedo female."  Literary art, Fern believes, is meant to rattle people out of complacency, not to fit neatly into cultural/gender stereotypes.  Fern takes serious issue with critics who prefer books that "lull one to sleep like a stream of gentle music."  Her bold and frank writing defied these stereotypes.

Keep those ankles covered!

In another column entitled "A Law More Nice Than Just." Fern criticizes the ways in which women of her day are confined, not just in matters of literature, but in matters of life.  She begins by quoting a news article: "Emma Wilson was arrested yesterday for wearing man's apparel."  It is difficult for contemporary readers to imagine, but in the 19th century, women's clotting was strictly regulated by both law and custom.  A woman wearing pants was a "radical."  Fern's argument against such restrictions is a very mundane one--such laws prevent women from taking walks on rainy days:

"Everybody knows what an everlasting drizzle of rain we have had lately, but nobody but a woman, and a woman who lives on fresh air and out-door exercise, knows the thraldom of taking her daily walk through three weeks' rain, with skirts to hold up, and umbrella to hold down, and puddles to skip over, and gutters to walk round, and all the time in a fright lest, in an unguarded moment, her calves should become visible to some one of those rainy-day philanthropists who are interested in the public scrutiny of female anatomy."

When it comes to rainy day walks, men have it much easier.  Fern describes a scenario in which she decided to wear her husband's trousers on a walk: "Oh, the delicious freedom of that walk…No skirts to hold up, or to draggle their wet folds against my ankles; no stifling veil flapping in my face, and blinding my eyes; no umbrella to turn inside out, but instead, the cool rain driving slap into my face, and the resurrectionized blood coursing through my veins, and tingling in my cheeks."  Fern concludes with this statement on the rights of women to dress as they wish: "I've as good a right to preserve the healthy body God gave me, as if I were not a woman."

Through writings like this, Fanny Fern sought to show the world, particularly the world of men, all the ways (big and small) in which women were not equal in American society.  She focused her writer's gaze unflinchingly and courageously on the the inequality of women, and she sought, through writing, to open peoples' eyes to new, and freer, ways of thinking.

As I write this, I'm sitting on a bench on Birch Street in Brea, outside Ann Taylor Loft, a fairly conservative women's clothing store.  In the windows stand female mannequins wearing pants and skirts cut above the knee.  I'm struck by the fact that, if this was 1850, Ann Taylor Loft would be closed down by the authorities for being "radical."  It suppose this shows that what we consider "radical" changes drastically over time.  What was radical in Fanny Fern's day became, over time, normal modes of thinking.  I suppose the lesson is--don't dismiss the "radical" thinkers of today, for they may be the prophets of tomorrow.

Radical.


Chapter 31: Harriet Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Many American students read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and, with the release last year of 12 Years a Slave (based on Solomon Northrup's 1853 Memoir), still more people have become familiar with the peculiar horrors of American slavery, from the male perspective.  What the American public is less familiar with is the particular experiences of female slaves.  It is for this reason that Harriet Jacobs' 1861 memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is such an important document.  Reading Jacobs' narrative, the reader becomes acutely and painfully aware of the sexual abuse and family dysfunction that were common features of the female American slave experience.


Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813.  For the first six years of her life, she was unaware she was a slave.  The death of her mother, and a change of owners opened her eyes to her terrible position.  Despite the fact that her owner had promised her dying mother that she would remain with her family, Harriet was indeed sold.  Jacobs recalls this experience: "My mistress (her master) had taught me the precepts of God's Word: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself…Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.'  But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor."

Jacobs was sold to a Dr. Norcom, who physically and verbally abused her, and tried to sexually abuse her.  As a young woman, Jacobs fell in love with a free black man who lived nearby.  When she told her master of her desire to marry him, Dr. Norcom refused.  "I'll soon convince you whether I am your master, or the nigger fellow you honor so highly," he said, "If I ever know of your speaking to him, I will cowhide you both; and if I catch him lurking about my premises, I will shoot him as I would a dog.  Do you hear what I say?  I'll teach you a lesson about free niggers and marriage!"  When Jacobs tried to argue her case, the doctor struck her, and that was the end of it.  Regarding this tragic incident, Jacobs writes, "Why does the slave ever love?  Why allow the tendrils of the heart to twine around objects which may at any moment be wrenched away by the hand of violence?"  Here, we see another tragedy of slavery--the slaves were not free to love and marry who they wished, and this caused Jacobs to have to make terrible compromises and choices regarding love and sex.

As a defense against Dr. Norcom's sexual advances, Jacobs made the sad, but practical, choice of becoming sexually involved with a white lawyer in town, and bore him two children, occurrences which shielded her from Dr. Norcom's advances, but which also made her a pariah in the eyes of the community and her family.  When describing these events, Jacobs directly addresses her readers, particularly her female readers:

"But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely!  If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home sheltered by laws; and I should had been spared the painful task of confessing what I am now about to relate; but all my prospects had been blighted by slavery.  I wanted to keep myself pure; and under the most adverse circumstances, I tried hard to preserve my self-respect; but I was struggling alone in the powerful grip of the demon Slavery; and the monster proved too strong for me.  I felt as if I was forsaken by God and man."

One of the great insights of Jacobs' narrative is that slavery "confuses the principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible."  Many slave women were sexually abused by their masters, and had no redress or justice to protect them.  The cold, sad reality was that it was actually profitable for masters to rape their female slaves, since the law dictated that children of slave women were also slaves.  Jacobs writes of Dr. Norcom: "I had seen several women sold, with his babies at the breast."  So slavery not only compromised the morality of women, it also disrupted normal family relations, as mothers were often separated from their children.  When Jacobs gives birth to a daughter, she laments because "slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women."

When Dr. Norcom sold Jacobs, she escaped and took refuge at her grandmother's house, where she lived for seven years, hiding in a tiny storage room, with rats, mice, insects, and barely any light.  Her literal "ray of hope" during these years of hiding was a small hole bored in her compartment, where she could see her family, and could see life.  

Finally, she escaped to the north, where she was taken in by the family of Nathaniel Parker Willis, a popular writer and editor.  Even in the north, however, her position was perilous.  With the recently-passed Fugitive Slave Law, she was not safe from slave-catchers.  She lived in the shadows, like an undocumented immigrant today.  "I was thankful for the blessings of my lot," Jacobs recalls, "yet I could not always wear a cheerful countenance.  I was doing harm to no one; on the contrary, I was doing all the good I could in my small way; yet I could never go out to breathe God's free air without trepidation in my heart.  This seemed hard; and I could not think it was a right state of things in any civilized country."  Jacobs even fears going into churches, for fear of being caught and sent back to the south:

"There I sat, in that great city, guiltless of any crime, yet not daring to worship God in any of the churches.  I heard the bells ringing for the afternoon service, and, with contemptuous sarcasm, I said, 'Will the preachers take for their text, 'Proclaim liberty to the captive, and the opening of prison doors to them that are bound?  or will they preach from the text 'Do unto others as ye would they should do unto you?'"

Finally, Cordelia Grinnell Willis, wife of Nathaniel Parker Willis, was able to purchase Jacobs' freedom, and eventually the freedom of her children, occurrences which brought great rejoicing, but also contemplation.  Jacobs recalls seeing the bill of sale of her purchase, and marvels that a human being could be sold, as property, even in the "free" north:

"The bill of sale!  Those words struck me like a blow.  So I was sold at last!  A human being being sold in the free city of New York!  The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion.  It may hereafter prove a useful document to antiquaries, who are seeking to measure the progress of civilization in the United States."

With her freedom, Jacobs began working on her Narrative, but had difficulty finding a publisher.  Finally, noted author Lydia Maria Child agreed to write a prefece, and to serve as editor, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was published in 1861.  The outbreak of the Civil War made its abolitionist message less pressing, and the book sank from notice until the 1980s, "when interest in early writings by African American women, and superb biographical scholarship by Jean Fagin Yellin, restored the book and its author to view."

Jacobs ends her narrative with these words:

"It has been painful to me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage.  I would gladly forget them if I could.  Yet the retrospection is not altogether without solace; for with those gloomy recollections come tender memories of my good old grandmother, like light, fleecy clouds floating over a dark and troubled sea."

Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)
Chapter 32: Why Thoreau is Still Relevant

It was a happy coincidence that the same week my classes were reading a chapter about Orange County-based television programs (like The OC and The Real Housewives of Orange County), I happened to be reading Henry David Thoreau's book Walden, or Life in the Woods.  As we discussed the rampant materialism and consumerism of these television shows, there was, running through my mind like streams of living water, the words of Thoreau: "Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."  As we watched clips of the "Real Housewives" arguing about designer hand bags, within their gated communities of wealth, there arose the image in my mind of a lone man, in a New England woods, planting beans in a small garden, observing the changing of the seasons, and writing, alone, by lamplight, one of the great masterpieces of American literature.  In today's contemporary, consumerist America, I wold argue that Thoreau's Walden is as relevant and important as ever.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

Henry David Thoreau was born in 1817 in Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there nearly all his life.  He was an educated man, having attended Harvard, and acquainting himself with prominent literary figures of his day, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.  As an over-educated young man, Henry struggled to find a career that satisfied him.  He worked as a teacher, a land surveyer, a day laborer, a pencil-maker, a lecturer.  He also wrote in his journal obsessively and read voraciously, everything from Greek and Roman classics to contemporary novels.  Ultimately, he abandoned the notion of securing "a good career."  According to the Norton Anthology of American Literature, "His whole life, after the period of uncertainty about an occupation in his early manhood, became a calculated refusal to live by the materialistic values of the neighbors who provided him with a microcosm of the world.  By simplifying his needs--an affront to what was already a consumerist society devoted to arousing 'artificial wants'--he succeeded, with minimal compromises, in living his life, rather than wasting it, as he saw, in earning a living."

Thoreau's most fruitful years were spent, as he writes, "in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself on the shore of Walden pond in Concord, Massachusetts."  He lived there for over two years conducting, as he called it, "an experiment in living."  He grew his own food, mended his own clothes, and spent his time roaming the woods, thinking, writing, and living.  Thoreau saw that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation," toiling away for someone else's benefit.  He considered the notion of "spending the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it" to be contrary to human flourishing.  He sought instead "to live deliberately…and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived."  Thus, he went to the woods and lived on his own terms, and gave the world a masterpiece, born out of his own experience.

So why is Thoreau relevant to modern American society?  He provides us with an alternative way to think about our lives.  Instead of toiling in "quiet desperation," never truly following the deep impulses of our heart, he showed that it is possible, and quite cheap actually, to follow our dreams, whatever they may be.  Most of the things we think we need (a car, a nice house, fashionable clothing, the latest electronic gadget) we do not actually need.  All we really need is food and shelter, and these things can be got cheaply.  The rest is up to us.

Thoreau is relevant because he was an early environmentalist, not just in theory, but in practice.  In modern, industrialized societies, people become disconnected from the natural world, and become complicit in its exploitation and pollution, simply by the products we consume and the way we live our lives.  Thoreau urges us to return to nature, to place ourselves back in the natural world of which we are a part.  This involves adopting a radically simpler and slower pace of life than we have become accustomed to.  Modern society and industry continue to seriously harm the earth, and Thoreau challenges us to disengage from the evil machine, and listen again to the wind, and the birds, and the seasons.

But wait, you might argue, all that sounds nice and dandy, but its just not practical.  Well, guess what, Thoreau did it!  For Thoreau, a philosophy detached from practical life was useless.  Thus, he put his philosophy to the test and lived it…and so can we, each in our own way.  If nothing else, Thoreau's Walden is an exhortation to stop, slow down, examine our lives, and see how we might live more authentically, beautifully, and more in accord with nature.


Chapter 33: Frederick Douglass: From Bondage to Freedom

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 in Maryland.  He never knew his father, though it was rumored that his master was his father, and had raped his mother.  He was separated from his mother as an infant.  As a child, young Frederick witnessed his aunt being brutally beaten and whipped on numerous occasions.  He writes in his Autobiography:

“I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he (the master) used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back until she was literally covered with blood.  No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose.  The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest.  He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.  I remember the first time I ever witnessed this horrible exhibition.  I was quite a child, but I well remember it.  I shall never forget whilst I remember any thing.  It was the first of a long series of such outrages which I was doomed to be a witness and a participant.  It struck me with awful force.  It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass.”
In 1826, when Fredrick was eight years old, he was sold to a Mr. and Mrs. Auld in Baltimore, and became their house servant.  His new mistress began to teach him to read, but the master quickly forbade this.  His argument was this: “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do.  Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world.”  But young Frederick came to see the immense value of reading and, through various clandestine and creative means, taught himself to read, with the help of some local white children.  Learning to read, and to think critically, made young Frederick even more acutely aware of his horrible situation as a human slave.  He writes:

“As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing.  It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.  It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out….I often found myself regretting my own existence, and wishing myself dead; and but for the hope of being free, I have no doubt but that I should have killed myself.”
In 1832, Frederick was sold to a plantation to work the fields, and his life became almost unbearable.  His new master would literally starve his slaves, and horribly mistreat them.  What was especially distressing to Frederick (a Christian) was the fact that his cruel master was also an extremely devout “Christian”.  His master would often invite local clergy to his house for lavish dinners and, according to Frederick, “While he starved us, he stuffed them.”

As Frederick struggled under the weight of this bondage and mistreatment, he sometimes quarreled with his master.  Because of these disagreements with his master, Frederick was sent to work for a man named Edward Covey, who “had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves.”  Mr. Covey, like the previous master, was “a professor of religion—a pious soul—a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church.  All of this added weight to his reputation as a ‘nigger breaker.’”  Living with Mr. Covey, Frederick was whipped regularly.  “I lived with Mr. Covey one year,” he writes, “During the first six months of that year, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.”
Sometimes, during brief moments of rest between long, grueling work days, Frederick would watch the boats sailing in Chesapeake Bay, and ponder the possibility of freedom:

“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!  You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!  You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!  O that I were free!  Oh, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing!  Alas!  Betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll.  Go on, go on.  O that I could also go!  Could I but swim!  If I could fly!  O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!  The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance.  I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery.  O God, save me!  God, deliver me!  Let me be free!  Is there any God?  Why am I a slave?  I will run away.  I will not stand it.  Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it.  I had as well die with ague as with the fever.  I have only one life to lose.  I had as well be killed running as die standing.  Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free!  Try it?  Yes!  God helping me, I will.  It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave.  I will take to the water.  This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom...There is a better day coming.”

An important turning point in Frederick’s life happened one day when, as his master attempted to beat him, he fought back: “I resolved to fight; and, suiting my action to the resolution, I seized Covey hard by the throat; and as I did so, I rose…We were at it for nearly two hours.”  In the end, Frederick won the fight and, as he writes “This battle with Covey was the turning-point wthin my career as a slave.  It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood…I felt as I never felt before.  It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.  My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and now I resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.  I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping me, must also succeed in killing me.”  After this fight, Cover never whipped Douglas again, and never took the matter to the authorities, afraid it would tarnish his reputation as a “slave breaker.”
In 1834, Frederick was sold to a Mr. Freeland, who was somewhat less brutal than Mr. Covey.  While living with Freeland, he started a “Sabbath School” for local slaves, where, using the Bible, he taught them to read.  As this small community of slaves became educated, they began to devise ways to escape to freedom.  After one failed attempt, Douglass succeeded in escaping in 1838, and moved with his young wife Anna to New Bedford, Massachusetts, a more progressive area of the country.

It was in New Bedford that Douglass became acquainted with the noted abolitionist Willian Lloyd Garrison through his newspaper The Liberator.  Garrison soon recognized Douglass’s skills with language and public speaking, and soon he was speaking regularly at abolitionist ralleys, and was working on his autobiography, which was published in 1845, and eventually sold over 30,000 copies.  Frederick Douglass, the former slave, used his experiences of suffering to speak out for freedom and justice, and  became a lifelong champion of human rights. 

Chapter 34: Walt Whitman's Vision of the American Poet

Today, I read Walt Whitman's preface to his epic poetic work Leaves of Grass.  In it, he gives a kind of manifesto of what an American poet is, and can be.  The preface itself is a beautiful work of poetic prose.  As I read it, I marked passages that I found particularly powerful, and I have compiled them into a poem of my own.  Here is my distilled version of Walt Whitman's version of an American poet:

His spirit responds to his country's spirit…
he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes.
The expression of the American poet is to be transcendent and new
He is the equalizer of his age and land…
he supplies what wants supplying
and checks what wants checking.

If the time becomes slothful and heavy,
he knows how to arouse it.
He never stagnates.
His brain is the ultimate brain.
He judges not as the judge judges
but as the sun falling around a helpless thing.
As he sees the farthest he has the most faith.

The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality.
He is a seer…he is individual.
They expect him to indicate the path
between reality and their souls.

This is what you shall do:

Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks,
stand up for the stupid and crazy,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants,
argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people…
go freely with powerful uneducated persons
and with the young 
and with the mothers of families,
read these leaves in the open air
every season of every year of your life,
reexamine all you have been told
at school or church or in any book,
dismiss whatever insults your own soul,
and your very flesh shall be a great poem
and have the richest fluency
not only in its words
but in the silent lines of its lips and face
and between the lashes of your eyes
and in every motion and joint
of your body.

The known universe has one complete lover
and that is the greatest poet.
His love above all love has leisure and expanse.
He drags the dead out of their coffins
and stands them again on their feet…
he says to the past, "Rise and walk before me
that I might realize you."
He learns the lesson…
he places himself where the future becomes present.
You shall stand by my side and look 
in the mirror with me.

Great poets will be proved by their unconstraint.
A heroic person walks at his ease 
through and out of that custom
or precedent or authority that suits him not.
Nothing is finer than silent defiance
advancing from free forms.

The message of great poets 
to each man and woman are,
Come to us on equal terms,
Only then can you understand us,
We are no better than you.

It is that something in the soul which says,
Rage on.

How beautiful is candor.
All faults may be forgiven of him
who has perfect candor.
All that a person does or thinks is of consequence.
The coward will surely pass away.
The proof of a poet is that his
country absorbs him as affectionately

as he has absorbed it.



 Chapter 35: Walt Whitman: Poet of Freedom and Democracy

These days, words like "freedom" and "democracy" have been corrupted by political misuse.  Today, in America, freedom is often associated with "free market" capitalism, which is synonymous with global exploitation.  Democracy is, in the wake of the Iraq war, something we impose on foreign nations as a means of control.  The meanings of words can be corrupted into things which often mean the opposite of what they originally meant.  This evening, I finished reading American poet Walt Whitman's epic poem "Song of Myself" and two words kept creeping into my mind as a read it--freedom and democracy, not as they are understood today, but as they truly are, in their purest and noblest sense.  For Whitman, freedom has nothing to do with capitalism, and democracy has nothing to do with globalization.  For Whitman, freedom has to do with ecstatic personal experience, with total uninhibited living of human life.  For Whitman, democracy means accepting, even loving, the profoundly diverse people who inhabit our communities, and valuing their voices and experiences as much as our own.  Reading Whitman, for me, had the effect of breathing new life into those tired and often misused words -- freedom and democracy.  Let me explain.

Whitman's poem "Live Oak, with Moss" is about freedom, particularly sexual freedom.  Walt Whitman, perhaps America's greatest literary treasure, was gay.  "Live Oak, with Moss" is about celebrating love between men.  To write explicitly about romantic love between men, in the 19th century, was incredibly badass, and a defiant expression of personal freedom.  He describes a tender scene of love and longing and companionship with his male lover:

"And when I thought how my friend, my lover, was coming, then I was
happy;
Each breath tasted sweeter--and all that day my food nourished me more--
And the beautiful day passed well,
And the next came with equal joy---And the next, at evening, came my
friend.
And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters roll slowly continually
up the shores
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me, whispering
to congratulate me, -- For the friend I love lay sleeping by my side,
In the stillness his face was inclined towards me, while the moon's clear 
beams shone,
And his arm lay lightly over my breast--And that night I was happy."

Later in the poem, Whitman has a dream in which the tender love between men (not necessarily sexual) becomes a beautiful vision of democracy:

"I dreamed a dream of a city where all the men were like brothers,
O I saw them tenderly love each other--I often saw them, 
walking hand in hand.
I dreamed that was the city of robust friends--Nothing was greater there
than manly love--it led the rest."

In his poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman extends this grand vision of democracy and brotherly love to all the diverse people of New York.  He speaks of solidarity and shared human experience, across distances and generations.  He speaks directly to the reader:

"I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many
generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I
was refreshed,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I
stood and was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemmed
pipes of steamboats, I looked."

For Whitman, an essential element of democracy is empathy and compassion, and this is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in his poem "The Wound Dresser."  During the Civil War, Whitman was not a soldier, he was a male nurse, dressing the wounds of the countless soldiers hurt or killed in battles.  In this poem, Whitman, who had previously written almost propagandist poems urging war, realizes that the real fruit of war is death.  Here, democracy is not about winning battles, but about the connection between human beings, and the shared experience of pain and grief.  He writes:

"Aroused and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers failed me, my face drooped and I resigned myself
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead...

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go...

One turns to me his appealing eyes--poor boy!  I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save
you...

The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand."

Whitman's greatest poem, the poem which he worked on for most of his adult life, was Song of Myself, and this is his greatest expression of freedom and democracy.  For him, freedom means total personal freedom to live, and think, and love both himself and others.  He would take long walks around New York, and in the woods of New England, soaking in the life of nature and of other human beings.  Here are a few excerpts which express the kind of freedom Whitman had in mind:

"I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked…
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and
meeting the sun…
I am satisfied--I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night…
I believe in you my soul…
tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away…
I wear my hat as I please indoors or out…
I exist as I am, that is enough…
O unspeakable passionate love…
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a 
miracle…
A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of
books…
We found our own way O my soul in the calm and cool of the day-break…
Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?
My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision…
Inland and sea-coast we go, and pass all boundary lines…
A call in the midst of the crowd,
My own voice, orotund sweeping and final…
Not words of routine this song of mine,
But abruptly to question, to leap beyond yet nearer bring…
I tramp a perpetual journey…
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods…
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy…
Shoulder your duds, dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth, 
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go…
I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself…
You must inhabit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of
your life…
I do not say these things for a dollar…
There is that in me--I do not know what it is--but I know it is in me…
Do I contradict myself
Very well, then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)…

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

To me, that is one of the best expressions of human freedom: I SOUND MY BARBARIC YAWP OVER THE ROOFS OF THE WORLD!  Total freedom of expression, feeling, and experience was what Whitman was all about.  And equally important for him was democracy, not as a political system per se, but as a real acceptance of everyone's voice, of the ever-diversifying population of these United States.  For Whitman, democracy had to do with relationships between human beings, relationships rooted in empathy, compassion, and a shared journey.  There are huge swaths of "Song of Myself" in which Whitman simply lists ordinary people doing ordinary activities, but the way he describes it, it is so ecstatic and poetic that you see the beauty in everyone.  That, I suppose, for Whitman, is democracy, to see and feel the beauty in everyone, and to walk beside them, and understand how it feels to inhabit their shoes.  I will end this little essay with some quotes from "Song of Myself" regarding Whitman's vision of democracy:

"I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest
the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable
down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints
on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a
Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Canadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off
Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan
ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their 
big proportions)
Comrade of raftsmen and coal men, comrade of all who shake hands and
welcome to drink and meat;
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfulest,
A novice beginning yet expedient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailer, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest…
I will not have a single person slighted or let away…
In all people I see myself…

I give the sign of democracy."

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)


Chapter 36: Life in the Iron Mills

"You want something…to lift you out of this crowded, tobacco-stained commonplace, to kindle and chafe and glow in you.  I want you to dig into this commonplace, this vulgar American life, and see what is in it.  Sometimes I think it has a raw and awful significance that we do not see."

--Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills

Here in America, the "land of freedom and equality," there has always been a darker underside.  There has always been, and continues to be, social injustice, inequality, human rights violations, and corruption.  For all that is good in this country, there is plenty of bad.  In response to this, there exists a proud tradition of a kind of art which may be called "social realism" --  art, literature, music, and film that seeks to directly confront this "underlife of America," to show people things they may not want to see, but must see if there is to be any hope of justice and equality and freedom.  Examples of "social realism" include the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange, the novels of Upton Sinclair, the murals of the Chicano movement, the songs of Bob Dylan, etc.  For these artists and writers and musicians, the goal was to shine a light on our darkness, so that we might see the problems more clearly, reflect deeply (and painfully) upon them, and hopefully take greater responsibility for our fellow humans, suffering some injustice.

One of the earliest pioneers of "social realism" in American literature was Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910).  She grew up in Wheeling, Virginia, an industrial town.  Her father, an English emigrant, was a businessman and a book lover, and instilled in his daughter a love of reading and writing.  By her 20s, Davis was publishing anonymous reviews of new novels in the local paper.  In 1860, she completed her first short story--the one for which she would become most famous, "Life in the Iron Mills."

The story is, to quote one scholar, "one of the most overwhelming reading experiences in all American literature."  In it, she describes, in brutal and poetic detail, the sad, hard lives of iron mill workers, the "Masses of men, with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning; skin and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and ashes; stooping all night over boiling cauldrons of metal, laired by day in dens of drunkenness and infamy; breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body."

Occasionally, Davis breaks the "fourth wall" and directly addresses the reader (just as Harriet Beecher Stowe does in Uncle Tom's Cabin):  "I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me--here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia.  I want you to hear this story.  There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries; I want to make it a real thing for you."

One night, as a mill worker named Wolfe is toiling away in the hellish darkness, the mill owner and some of his buddies wander by, and sort of abstractly discuss the problem of social inequality, which is so obviously illustrated by the workers.   The owner expresses capitalist logic: "I wash my hands of all social problems--slavery, caste, white or black.  My duty to my operatives has a narrow limit--the pay-hour on Saturday night."  Meanwhile, the workers continue to suffer.  The owner and his buddies notice an iron sculpture of a woman, with an outstretched arm, which Wolfe had made, and they are puzzled.  The owner regrets that his workers have human feelings.  "if I had the making of men," he says, "these men who do the lowest part of the world's work should be machines,--nothing more."  A doctor friend wonders aloud, "Who is responsible?"  As Wolfe stumbles home, exhausted after work, he muses aloud, "It's all wrong--all wrong!  I do not understand.  But it'll end some day."  

After being accused of stealing money from the mill owner, Wolfe ends up in prison, where he dies.  The story is tragic, but like all great tragedy, there is a kind of catharsis.  Not all stories have happy endings, and perhaps we can learn more from those which make us sad.  Sad endings force us to reflect internally.  If there is a "lesson" to be learned from "LIfe in the Iron Mills," it is an increased awareness of the inequality inherent in our economic system, and a heightened sense of social responsibility.  To the mill owner's question, "Who is responsible?"  one need only look in the mirror.




Chapter 37: The Theology of Huckleberry Finn

I just finished re-reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  What struck me, this time, were Huck’s insights on religion and theology.  He is a not-very-educated Southern white boy who is about 14 years old, and it is the 1840s.  Because of his ignorance, youth, and personality, he is very honest about the “Christian” society he inhabits.  Here are some of Huck’s insights on various religious topics.  The italicized passages are my own words, giving a bit of context…

At the beginning of the novel, Huck is living with an old widow and her sister, both of whom are very religious.  They try to teach Huck about religion, with little success.  Here are a few examples.  Huck is the narrator...


On hell…

“She told me all about the bad place [hell], and I said I wished I was there.  She got mad then, but I didn’t mean no harm.  All I wanted was to go somewheres; all I wanted was a change, I warn’t particular.  She said it was wicked to say what I said; said she wouldn’t say it for the whole world; she was going to live so as to go to the good place.  Well, I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind I wouldn’t try for it.”

On heaven…

“She went on and told me all about the good place [heaven].  She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever.  So I didn’t think much of it.  But I never said so.  I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight.  I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.”

On Moses…

“After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.”

On prayer…

“Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it.  She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it.  But it warn’t so.  I tried it.  Once I got a fishline, but no hooks.  It warn’t any good to me without hooks.  I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work.  By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool.  She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.”

“I set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think about it.  I says to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for, why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork?  Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuffbox that was stole?  Why can’t Miss Watson fat up?  No, says I to myself, there ain’t nothing in it.  I went and told the widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was ‘spiritual gifts.’  This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant—I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself.  This was including Miss Watson, as I took it.  I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it—except for the other people; so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go.”

Eventually, Huck runs away from home and ends up in the company of a runaway slave named Jim.  The two travel together on a raft down the Mississippi River, like outcasts from society.  Having been raised in a slave state, Huck has been taught to believe that it is his moral duty to turn in runaway slaves, but he can never bring himself to do it, because Jim is is friend.  Ironically, in doing right, Huck believes he is doing wrong.  At one point, Huck has an opportunity to turn Jim in…

On right and wrong…

“Then I thought a minute, and says to myself, hold on; s’pose you’d a done right and give Jim up, would you felt better than what you do now?  No, says I, I’d feel bad—I’d feel just the same way I do now.  Well, then, says I, what’s the use in learning to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?  I was stuck.  I couldn’t answer that.  So I reckoned I wouldn’t bother no more about it, but after this always do whichever come handiest at the time.”

At one point, Huck and Jim get separated, and Huck ends up staying with a family called The Grangerfords, who are locked in a very old feud with a neighboring family called The Sheperdsons.  It’s basically a fictional version of the old Hatfields and McCoys feud.  Among the many ironies of Southern culture at this time was the fact that people could be devoutly religious and full of hatred for their fellow man.  The Grangerfords and Sheperdsons attend the same church, which leads to this humorous scene…

On hypocrisy…

“Next Sunday we all went to church, about three mile, everybody a-horseback.  The men took their guns along, so did Buck, and kept them between their knees or stood them handy against the wall.  The Shepherdsons done the same.  It was pretty ornery preaching—all about brotherly love, and such like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of roughest Sundays I had run across yet.”

Eventually, Huck and Jim are reunited and resume their raft journey down the Mississippi.  Having all this time together, they get talking about various questions of existence…

On creation…

“It’s lovely to live on a raft.  We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.  Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they just happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many.  Jim said the moon could a laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn’t say nothing against it, because I’ve seen a frog lay most as many, so of course it could be done.”

Toward the end of the novel, Huck is faced with another chance to turn Jim in which, according to his southern upbringing, was the right and legal thing to do.  Huck is racked with guilt because he can’t bring himself to turn in his friend.  Again, what is ironic is that, in the society in which he lives, he is made to feel guilty for doing the right thing.  This last passage is one of the most beautiful in all of American literature, in my opinion…

“You can’t pray a lie”

“It made me shiver.  And I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of boy I was and be better.  So I kneeled down.  But the words wouldn’t come.  Why wouldn’t they?  It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him.  Nor from me, neither.  I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come.  It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double.  I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all.  I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it.  You can’t pray a lie—I found that out. 

So, in an effort to do the “right” thing, Huck writes a letter to Jim’s owner, telling her where he is, and then this happens…

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and knowed I could pray now.  But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how I near I come to being lost and going to hell.  And went on thinking.  And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me all the time: in the day and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking and singing and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.  I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around and see that paper.

It was a close place.  I took it up, and held it in my hand.  I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it.  I studied for a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell” — and tore her up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said.  And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming.  I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up on it, and the other warn’t.  And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again.”

What makes this passage so beautiful and sublime is it shows how a 14 year old boy can arrive at a wisdom that eludes his elders.  It shows that society does not have the final say on morality.  And it shows that true morality comes not from some authority, but from human relationships of friendship, love, and solidarity.



Chapter 38: W.D. Howells on "The War Feeling"


 


W.D. Howells (1837-1920)

W.D. Howells was editor of The Atlantic Monthly from 1871-1881, and was one of the preeminent literary critics of his day.  He was also a prolific novelist, publishing several works like The Rise of Silas Lapham, A Traveler from Altruria, and The Shadow of a Dream.  Howells was a champion of literary realism, as opposed to the more romantic works of novelists like Sir Walter Scott.  He sought to investigate and criticize prominent social values of his day.  In his short story "Editha" (1905), he "explores the double moral failure of a society and of an individual who has been corrupted by its worst values."

The story is set at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War (1898)--a war which I had to look up to remember what it was all about.  Basically, it had to do with American imperialism vs. Spanish imperialism, and resulted in the United States' acquisition of The Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam.  In hindsight, it was not such a glorious war, but rather a war of conquest.  In "Editha," Howells examines the popular mindset at the time which lead young men to sacrifice their lives for a cause that turned out to be, morally, pretty murky.

The story begins, "The air was thick with the war feeling, like the electricity of a storm which has not yet burst." Having lived through (at least) three American wars (Iraq part 1, Iraq part 2, Afghanistan, and the nebulous "Global War on Terror"), I am well aware of a certain popular mindset, fostered by the media, which allows people to "get on board" with something as terrible and complex as war: black and white thinking, super-patriotism, equating war with religion, and oversimplification of complex issues.

The story follows a romance between a couple named Editha and George, whose courtship "was contemporaneous with the growth of the war feeling."  They are caught up with the jingoistic/simplistic ideas that equate war with romance, an idea fostered by the media, politicians, and even popular literature.  As a true realist, Howells clearly abhorred such a gross idealization.  Here are a few quotes from "Editha" which illustrate the simplistic reasoning of "the war feeling":

"She was conscious of parroting the current phrases of the newspapers, but it was no time to pick and choose her words."

"There are no two sides any more.  There is nothing now but our country."

"I call it a sacred war."

"God meant it to be war."

"If we cannot be one in everything we better be one in nothing."

"There is no honor above America with me."

Each of these phrases contains logical fallacies, but critical thinking is not a part of "the war feeling."  Though George has misgivings, he ultimately enlists and goes to fight the "enemy."  He is killed in one of the first battles.  Near the end of the story, Editha goes to visit George's grieving mother, who gives a scathing indictment of "the war feeling" and its tragic consequences:

"No, you didn't expect him to get killed.  You just expected him to kill some one else, some of those foreigners, that weren't there because they had any say about it, but because they had to be there, poor wretches--conscripts, or whatever they call 'em.  You thought it would be all right for my George, your George, to kill the sons of those miserable mothers and the husbands of those girls that you would never see the faces of.  I thank my God he didn't live to do it!  I thank my God they killed him first, and that he ain't livin' with their blood on his hands!"

After a brief period of questioning her ideas, Editha sits for a portrait artist, who sketches her in a very lovely and idealized way, dressed in her mourning clothes, and the two get talking about "the good this war has done," and this allows Editha to rise out of her reality, and "to live again in the ideal."  It's a powerful visual depiction of how tragedy and moral complexity can get subsumed by simplistic idealism.

W.D. Howells was often criticized by later modern writers for being too "19th century" and too "Victorian."  But this, too, is an oversimplification.  His stories like "Editha" show him wrestling intelligently with themes that are as relevant today as they were over a century ago.  A story like "Editha" pushes us to question "the war feeling" whenever and wherever it emerges, because it is the enemy of important critical thinking, and usually has tragic consequences.

U.S. Military propaganda from the Spanish-American War.

Chapter 39: Ambrose Bierce: Death and Transcendence

Ambrose Bierce (born in 1842) led a fascinating life.  Born in Ohio to devoutly religious parents, he had only one year of formal schooling at a Kentucky military academy.  At age 19, he enlisted in the Union Army and fought for the north during the Civil War, surviving such bloody battles as Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Franklin (He was wounded twice and captured once).  His civil war experiences would have a profound effect on his later literary career.

Ambrose Bierce, American author.

After the war, he worked for the Treasury Department confiscating rebel property, a job that gave him great sympathy for his “enemy.”  In 1866, he moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a journalist for over 20 years.  In California, Bierce befriended other western literary talents like Mark Twain and Bret Harte.  His column (“The Prattler”) in William Randloph Hearst’s newspaper The San Francisco Sunday Examiner allowed him to develop his unique writing style, which combined gallows humor and bitter satire.  In 1913, late in life, he disappeared into Revolutionary Mexico, and his death remains a mystery.

Bierce never wrote a novel.  His preferred literary medium was the short story, for which he is regarded as a master.  His most famous published book is Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, which deals mainly with his Civil War experiences.  Recurring themes in his stories are war, death, horror, madness, ghosts, and fear—all shot through with profound irony.  Bierce was a pioneer of “gallows humor,” and his best short stories, according to The Norton Anthology of American Literarture, “like Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway after him, converted the disordered experience of war into resonant and dramatic fictional revelations.”

Bierce’s most well-known story is called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”  It’s a story told from the point of view of a southern planter and slaveowner named Peyton Farquhar, who is captured by northern troops during the Civil War, and is set to be hanged from Owl Creek bridge in Alabama.  Just before he is hanged, Peyton’s senses become heightened.  He hears “a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil.”  It is the ticking of his watch.

When he is pushed from the bridge, the rope breaks and Peyton falls into the water below.  As he struggles for air and swims desperately to safety, dodging his captors’ bullets, he experiences profound moments of transcendence, as if his proximity to death has given him a newfound appreciation for life.  This beautiful passage describes his sensations:

“He was in full possession of his physical senses.  They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert.  Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.  He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck.  He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf—saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig.  He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass.  The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon-flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat—all these made audible music.”

 As Peyton finds his way to the shore of the creek, away from his executioners’ bullets, he is like a man reborn:

“He wept with delight.  He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it.  It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble.  The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms.  A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of aeolian harps.”

He runs through the forest, all the way back home, where he sees his wife.  Just before embracing her, “he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!”  As it turns out, this whole experience of escape happened in the split second before his death.  Time and space were slowed and amplified.  The story ends, “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge.”

This shock ending is typical of Bierce, and gives the story an added intensity—something about the thin line between life and death, and the moment of illumination, like a religious experience, between these two states.  It’s also significant that Bierce portrays a sympathetic southern character.  This story, like many others he wrote, is not about politics.  It is about human experiences that transcend the mundane and artificial constructions of society.


4 comments:

  1. Your article is pure gold! Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge :)
    Have a nice day!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I'd like to see you do a fuller examination of Henry David Thoreau, particularly about his influence on recent generations and how they interpret his philosophy. For a title, I'd suggest Walden: Today, or perhaps, Thoreau Up.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Writing a good essay isn't easy and it's the fruit of hard work. For help you can check essay writing expert. Check out, please Evolution Writers I think they are the best

    ReplyDelete
  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete