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When the American author Herman Melville was writing his great novel Moby-Dick, about 1850, he was friends with Hawthorne. Both writers were concerned with “deep” meanings – those messages, themes, or concerns that lie below simple surfaces. Just as Hawthorne’s stories are impossible to pin down to one simple explanation, so are Melville’s, though even moreso. I have argued that Melville is actually the bolder, more Modern writer, taking risks when Hawthorne would play it safe. Hawthorne took traditional characters and mythologies – the Puritan man, the story of Adam and Eve – and made them complex and ambiguous, but Melville imagined new characters and new mythologies that no one had ever thought of before.
Both writers, but particularly Melville, usher in the period of “Modern” American literature: Faulkner would cite Melville as a particular influence. Flannery O’Connor would cite Hawthorne. All of these writers challenge American Exceptionalism in that they challenge the idea that any one, single perception is ever correct. American Exceptionalism provides a ready-made narrative of individual and cultural superiority that has at its core a Protestant Christian (Puritan) outlook. Hawthorne and Melville, meanwhile, challenge the idea that any single point of view is ever correct. They dwell in ambiguity and moral complexity, not because they enjoy being vague or difficult, but because ambiguity and complexity is more true to human experience than idealism and absolutism.
Written after Moby-Dick had been published and failed, quite miserably, as a commercial success (it had been accused of blasphemy on the one hand and incoherence on the other), “Bartleby” displays the author’s genius in a stripped-down form. Its action is very small: a lawyer’s office; a few copyists; a symbolic setting; one employee who refuses to do what he is told; that’s really it. Nevertheless, many themes arise: isolation and fragmentation; the efficacy (or failure) of communication and language; capitalism and property; ethical behavior (or lack thereof); the Christian Gospels and the Old Testament story of Job and with them persecution and oppression. Melville was fascinated with the idea of the persecuted individual. How should one act when one realizes that one is alone in the world? This is Young Goodman Brown’s problem as well. And moreover, how does one act when one realizes that death is inevitable, despite whatever “good” deeds one has done, and especially when one doubts the existence of god and heaven?
Remember, this is all against the backdrop of slavery and the Civil War, the rise of the women’s movement, and great industrial change, resulting in population surges toward urban areas and the development of a manufacturing economy built on the backs of poor, young men and women. America was experiencing a spasm of change, just as it is now, and these writers reflected this sense of confusion and turmoil.
Read “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” p.1076-1101.
Pay special attention to all of the instances of “walls” in the story, walls that are literal, verbal, and metaphoric. What walls does Bartleby actually face? What verbal walls does he face? What do the walls “mean”?
The mid-19th Century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne can be challenging because he may seem to go on for pages without much happening. He accomplishes this through linking together conditional statements and apparent asides that eventual accrue to a complex idea. By the time you reach the end of a Hawthorne story or novel, you realize that some radical transformation has occurred. Such transformations, however, are as much internal as external, entirely rearranging the individual’s relationship to him/herself and the community.
Read “Young Goodman Brown,” p. 987, “The Wives of the Dead” p. 968, and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” which can be read online here.
Hawthorne’s work, like Herman Melville’s, who we will read next week, tends to resist the myth of American Exceptionalism precisely because it is so hard to pin him down to any one theme or point of view. By contrast, James Fenimore Cooper, another 19th Century American author, publishing a couple of decades earlier than Hawthorne, creates a fairly static character – Natty Bumppo – around whom the world transforms. (These novels include The Deerslayer, The Last of the Mohicans, The Pathfinder, The Pioneers, and The Prairie.) Bumppo argues in favor of personal freedom and honesty over and against the corruptible and corrupting values of the “settlements”; he argues in favor of respect for the “red-man’s gifts,” even when his Christian values – his “white-man’s gifts” – lead him to reject practices such as scalping and holding multiple wives; and he consistently approaches his role as a hunter and a “warrior” with humility, thrift, and respect. Meanwhile, as he dearly holds these points of view, America is changing. The Indians are pushed off their land, killed, or die of sickness, and the white-man continually pushes westward, introducing his technology and his laws into a “virgin” land. In other words, Bumppo epitomizes the “exceptional” American. He is a hero.
In Hawthorne’s fiction, however, these tropes are reversed. Hawthorne’s characters are revealed as inherently flawed, and once they realize this flaw, they are transformed, even as the world around them remains relatively static. In fact, the “world” is often charged with the heavy weight of history, usually either Puritan or Italian. And in relation to this history, his characters experience some moment of awakening, realization, or initiation, after which they are left to manage the aftermath. This is certainly the case with “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (set in Italy) and “Young Goodman Brown” (set in Puritan Massachusetts), though the issue here is not simply history, but rather the entire allegorized or symbolic world. As these characters become aware of complexity, of relativism, of nuance, they are forced to consider a new perception, a new way of looking at the world, or else they die (literally or figuratively).
“The Wives of the Dead” is a good story to start with because it introduces many of the themes that he works with. Notice, for instance, his imagery related to shadows – cast by the fire, the lamp, or the moon. The “shadow,” for Hawthorne, represents the spiritual or emotional, as opposed to the material and the intellectual. Always, the characters in his fiction who are too rational or too scientific are doomed to destroy themselves and those around them. These characters suffer because they only exercise a single point of view. And dreaming often plays a major role in his works, since the dream-state is located between the waking and sleeping, the rational and the spiritual. “The Wives of the Dead” also introduces us to Hawthorne’s unique complexity and his psychological themes. Are either of the wives dreaming? If one is and one isn’t, how will that change their relationship in the morning? Or maybe the two wives, married to two brothers (one a landsman and one a seaman) represent two halves of one woman’s psyche, a psyche that is split between fantasy and reality.
To understand the literature that Hawthorne was working against, it’s very useful to consider the Englishman John Bunyan’s late 17th Century work Pilgrim’s Progress. This was standard reading fair for any child of New-England during Hawthorne’s time. In the section that you will find here, (scroll down to the 4th Section, “Vanity Fair”) the characters Christian and Faithful enter Vanity-Fair, where instead of purchasing the baubles and goods of this world, they seek to purchase “truth,” which lands them before a court on charges of disturbing the peace and spreading dangerous opinions. After they are tried, Faithful is put to death, though he is then speedily taken to the celestial city, or heaven, by the agents of god. The point here, as we are discussing Hawthorne, is that these “characters” are not really characters at all, but rather symbols, representations of ideas.
For Hawthorne, however, none of these symbols will entirely suffice. He does tend toward allegory, but he usually finds that these allegorical tropes are too empty to carry the weight of human experience. In Hawthorne’s fiction, every character who appears to be absolutely bad or evil is also rendered as containing what is good or divine, and vice versa. What appears to be simply symbolic is transformed into a metaphor. In “Young Goodman Brown,” then, Brown’s “baptism” into hell is also synonymous with his coming to consciousness, his awareness of uncertainty and complexity in the world. For Hawthorne, “sin” is something very similar to inhumanity – the inability to recognize the human in the other; the inability to sympathize or empathize – which is why the sins that devil the enumerates are all sins of “selfishness.” Brown’s ultimate sin is his misanthropy, and ironically, this is brought about because he can’t understand or accept the complexity of human experience. His misanthropy is selfish.
In “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Giovanni suffers a similar fate. He is a young man out to explore the world. He finds Beatrice, whom he idealizes, and when it turns out that to love her is to embroil himself in death and loss, he is furious. He wishes to keep the ideal while rejecting the actual. She actually offers him a life outside of the decay of the city and the pride of human longing – a kind of new Eden – but he is unable to embrace this flawed yet passionate love. Moreover, each character is rendered in at least two ways, so that they are not simply allegorical but are transformed into more real representations of human beings. This is evidenced for example, in the way in which Rappaccini is rendered as both God (the creator of the garden) and Satan (the poisoner of the garden). The fact that Rappaccini is both, and that he professes love for his daughter, completely problematizes any simple reading.
This story is also probably Hawthorne’s most overtly sexual work. The purple-gemed plant at the middle of the garden, set in the middle of the wet fountain, clearly symbolizes the vulva, which not incidentally is also the source of the most poisonous substance in the garden. However, before one simply assumes that Hawthorne’s characters are misogynistic or out-of-touch with their own femininity, it is also important to note that Hawthorne’s female characters, including Beatrice, are almost always braver and smarter than Hawthorne’s male characters. Indeed, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” in some ways reverses the tropes of the sentimental novel and stereotypical gender roles.
These poems demonstrate what I’m talking about when I argue that Hawthorne challenges American Exceptionalism by demonstrating that no one point of view is ever entirely correct or authoritative. In these poems, the speakers must consider the world from multiple perspectives, and each is incomplete. Perhaps by considering all of these perspectives, however, some semblance of what is “real” or “true” becomes possible.
Hoagland, Tony. “America.”
Komunyakaa, Yusef. “Facing It.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson is probably the public intellectual most closely associated with the development of American literature, certainly previous to the 20th Century. He was a critic and poet, but most importantly he was a lecturer who spoke and wrote extensively, and influentially, about the need to establish an American “character.” He envisioned the American as someone self-reliant, full of physical AND intellectual energy, a ground-breaker, a searcher for Truth, a believer in democracy and in the essential and equal value of all human life. Emerson supported women’s suffrage, and he was an abolitionist. He was also an early support of Walt Whitman, whose poems–full of energy, sensuality, soul-searching and democratic principles–reflect Emerson’s philosophy.
Read this recent essay by Sven Birkerts, which responds to Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” Birkerts uses quotes from Emerson’s essay to make an argument about art and the soul in our digital age. Birkert’s essay also makes the point that Emerson’s concerns are still very relevant today.
Walt Whitman put Emerson’s philosophy into practice in his verse, but Henry David Thoreau put Emerson’s philosophy into practice in a “practical” way – as a tenant at a small farm at Walden pond, where he lived simply and thought deeply.
Thoreau actually knew Emerson very well, and he sometimes lived in Emerson’s household. At Walden pond, Thoreau attempts to discover for himself the Truth, the “marrow of life,” which for him (as well as for Emerson) is a Transcendental search, which means that he expects that Truth will lie behind (or transcend) the material world. His hope is that by stripping away the distractions of the “real” world — as epitomized by the desire for wealth, power and influence and institutionalized in the State and the Church — then he will become closer to this Truth, which is embodied by the Oversoul (this is not “god” in the traditional monotheistic sense, but “god” in the sense of the “souls” of all people and entities united in “one.” Interestingly, this is Captain Ahab’s quest as well (in Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick), but Ahab approaches the issue from the perspective of rage and hatred. Read the section of Walden titled “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” (p.815-825).
The question of whether there is something more genuine and real (something more True) behind the materialism of our capitalist society is a persistent question. Much of American literature attempts to discover what is “real” underneath the veneer of the American character. This was blatantly the case with much of the poetry to arise out of the 1960s and 1970s, but more recently these two clips from the film The Matrix illustrate the degree to which the question of being “awake” is still timely.
Walt Whitman, whose first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, has been probably the most influential poet of American literature, followed closely by Emily Dickinson, who seems to have never intended to have her poems widely published. Why have these writers been so influential? The short answer is that they were real originals. There are many authors who write fine books, but at some level they can be understood as derivative of their precursors. Not so with Whitman and Dickinson.
Read Whitman’s Song of Myself, Sections 1-6, 11-12, 24, and 48-52. (Beginning on page 1240.)
Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is found in his book Leaves of Grass, which he revised and expanded throughout his life, adding and deleting poems as his sense and style evolved. The 52-section free-verse “Song of Myself” is an American epic. Its topic, as you can tell from the title, is the “Self,” and yet he does not mean this in any kind of “selfish” way. Rather, the speaker of the poem views his “Self” as co-existing with all of the people and experiences around himself. He is in the universe and the universe is in him, so that the study of the Self becomes not a narcissistic exercise, but rather an exercise in exploring everything and everyone. Take Section 6 for instance. (p. 1244-45). This Section begins simply enough with the question, “What is the grass?”, but in the course of answering the question, the grass becomes many things (in order of their appearance): a symbol of the “Creator’s” power; a symbol of equality; the “hair of graves”; the sprouting hair of men in the graves; the hair of old people and of babies; the lap where the mother sits, mourning the death of her child; and the tongue. In fact there is no answer to the original question; there is only a catalog of metaphors and translations, all pointing to the idea that nothing ever completely ends (or dies). In the particular, the material – the grass – Whitman has discovered the universal. He takes the material world, including his body, very seriously and sees in it the spiritual or soulful. In fact, the spirit or the soul transcends the physical world, which is only a mask for the power behind it. This is the philosophy of American Transcendentalism, of which Whitman was an adherent. (It’s also Platonic. Allegory of the Cave, anybody? Though Whitman and other Transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, also saw the physical world as immensely satisfying and redolent – a sense they did not share with Plato.)
Whitman’s sense of American Exceptionalism encompassed Democracy, Equality, Opportunity, and Brotherhood. His vision was not specifically Christian, though he used Christian imagery in his poetry. Winthrop would have found him a vile heretic. His sense of spirituality was more what we would call today “New Age.” His vision was not specifically male, either, or White. He wrote freely and highly empathetically about the experience of females, Blacks, Native Americans, and homosexuals (he was gay himself, though could not be openly so at the time). He believed America, at its finest, encompassed all of these perspectives. Like Thoreau in Walden, Whitman wished to “suck out the marrow of life.” Whitman did not specifically refer to the Transcendental “Oversoul” in “Song of Myself,” referring instead to the “always procreant urge of the world” and the “barbaric yawp,” but Thoreau and Whitman had in mind the same idea – a unifying, infinite, spiritual energy of which ALL things in the universe are a part.
As you read these Sections of “Song of Myself,” keep in mind a few things:
1. If you find what seems to be overt sexual imagery, you’re not wrong. This is a very sensual poem, and the eroticism – both heterosexual and homosexual – is deliberate. Whitman embraced sexuality as a necessary and joyful adjunct of life.
2. While it may not appear to be “poetry” in the traditional sense – there is no rhyme, no single meter, and there are what may appear to be random line breaks – the sounds of the poem are at times breathtaking. When I read this aloud to students, I usually find it quite tiring and difficult because there is so much sound in his lines. Try it. Read a page aloud and you’ll see what I mean. If you actually enunciate the words, you’ll here all kinds of sonic elements.
3. The imagery can also be astounding. The contrast of images in Sections and between Sections, the originality of the descriptions, the level of detail, are all extraordinary. What appears “simple” is really not.
Contrast Whitman with Emily Dickinson and you’ll have opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of style, though I think the same passion, which is ironic since Whitman was an active self-promoter, while Dickinson was famously reclusive and primarily shared her work through letters to friends. She never published a book while she was alive.
Dickinson’s poems are identified by number (she didn’t title them) based on which edition of her poems is being cited. Read the introductory notes about her (pgs. 1314-1317), and then beginning on page 1318, read poem 84, 241, 249, 258, 280, 324, 328, 341, and 435.
It’s almost a requirement that her works be read in relation to each other and not in isolation. Certainly, each poem succeeds in its own way, but the symbols or motifs that she introduces – such as birds, flies, and butterflies, or the various permutations of “Light” – speak to each other across the poems and enlarge their sense. As you interpret these poems, here are a couple of guidelines:
First, remember that the poems are lyrical; they are not meant to be read as narratives but more as collages of images and sounds that arrive at a certain feeling and tone; some are more literal than others, but in general, they are meant to infer, provoke, and emote, not define, subdue and rationalize; second, make punctuation your friend; use the dashes and the often inverted syntax to wring out multiple interpretations of each poem; if a phrase or line doesn’t “make sense,” don’t skip it, but view it in relation to the lines before and after and forget some of what you think of as “proper” grammar. Third, if you can’t “get” one poem, then read another; the poems speak to each other.
For instance, let’s look at poem 328, “A Bird came down the Walk.” The first stanza is actually fairly narrative; it describes the speaker’s observation. Notice, however, the irregular rhyme scheme and the capitalization. The second stanza is also narrative, though it gets a little more complicated with the lines, “a convenient Grass – And then hopped sidewise to the Wall/To let a Beetle pass.” Does she mean this literally? Whereas the first stanza was observational, this stanza begins to personify the bird as a human being. How would the speaker know that the bird does something because it is “convenient,” or that a bird would feel the need to let the bug “pass,” as if they were walking down a crowded street on the way to the store? Perhaps the speaker is using the bird as a metaphor for a person that she is watching. In the third stanza, you have the added detail of the bird’s “fear,” another anthropomorphic quality. In the fourth stanza, notice that the speaker is the “one in danger,” further suggesting that the poem is, at some level, about the speaker’s interaction with another person. The “bird,” however, refuses the speaker’s offer of a “Crumb,” which now can be understood as some overture on the speaker’s part toward this mystery person.
The imagery of the last six lines is pretty intense: flying, rowing, swimming, splashing, fish and butterflies are all invoked. The ocean is compared to the atmosphere in terms of its immensity and turbidity, and the “plashless” leaps of butterflies are compared to a rowboat moving across “silver” waters. The imagination and metaphoric dexterity here are astounding. The “bird” flies away so quietly and so speedily that no sign is left of the exchange. Even a butterfly “swimming” in the noon-time sunlight makes more commotion than this fleeting bird.
So what has happened? There is no one answer, and that’s okay. I think the poem is “about” someone the speaker knows, someone she has seen doing something he/she was nervous about. When the speaker confronts the person, the person refuses to interact with the speaker and “disappears”; but this is all conjecture. These poems are not math equations or even philosophical proofs. They are tones, moods, effects, and they are meant to provoke the reader. A paraphrase of these poems, such as I just provided, would never capture their real sense, which can only be rendered in poetry. Doesn’t music operate in a similar way. It has to be experienced. You can learn to talk about the craft elements, and you can learn to interpret it, but the experience of the original poem is key. As you read these, let them wash over you first, then try to figure them out second. They are actually extremely intelligent, and each element in each poem serves some purpose, however small.
There is a connection between the Whitman and the Dickinson, even though they sound extremely different from each other. I would argue that both are poets of the ecstatic moment. Both poets “feel” the world intensely and attempt to communicate that feeling through details and metaphors that push the reader to experience the world in a new way. They may approach ecstasy from opposite ends of the spectrum – Whitman through the urge to meld with everything (the procreant urge) and Dickinson through the awareness of Death and and disintegration – but Dickinson feels all the more strongly the more fully she contemplates Death. Both poets, in the end, arrive at a similar experience.
Ginsberg, Allen: “A Supermarket in California” (p. 1312-13)
Race has been an issue at the heart of the American experiment since the founding of this country, and it is still so today.
First, there was the genocide committed against Native Americans through outright war, the introduction of European diseases, and forced dislocations. (Remember Mary Rowlandson’s account of her Indian captivity? She was captured during what the colonist’s called King Philip’s War, which was a last-ditch effort by the Indians of the Massachusetts-Bay area to remove the English from their lands. Their effort failed.) Today, the worst poverty in the U.S. is found not in urban areas but on Indian reservations, particularly those in the American West. The legacy of genocide has not dissipated. Read this poem by the contemporary Native American poet Joy Harjo titled “When the World as We Knew It Ended,” which sets 9/11 within the context of Native American genocide. Indeed, beginning in the 1970s, there has been a resurgence of poetry and fiction written by Native American authors.
Beginning in the 17th Century, Black Africans were stolen and “imported” into America, where they acted as the economic engines upon which much of the country’s wealth was built, especially in the South, where slaves planted and harvested labor intensive crops such as tobacco, rice, and cotton. (Though this is not to forget that the slave trade enriched many Northerners as well.) The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery in 1865, was not the end of the story of course. Equal voting rights were not extended to Black Americans for another 100 years, in 1965. This is less than 50 years ago, well within the lives of many people living today.
We don’t have the time to consider all of this history, and nor is this the place, but we are going to read and examine some key associated texts and pieces of literature.
Barack Obama’s 2008 speech on race, delivered in Philadelphia during the 2008 campaign, is a fitting place to start in that it places this issue in a contemporary context. Please view the speech below. Some of you may remember this, but the speech was delivered during his first presidential campaign, and the pastor he refers to is Jeremiah Wright, a Black church pastor who had delivered sermons critical of the United States and its treatment of Black Americans. If you prefer to read it instead of or in addition to viewing the speech, you may do so here.
Obama specifically refers to the founding of United States and the divisive roll that race has played during that time. Do you think he’s correct to say that race issues are still important in America? How could this be true in a country that prides itself on “all men are created equal?” Read the draft of the Declaration of Independence that begins in your text on page 447 and note what was deleted from the final version. Note in particular the section having to do with the slave trade. Why do you think it was deleted and what was the effect of leaving it out?
Jefferson was the main author of the Declaration, and yet he was a slave holder himself. He held between 150 and 200 slaves s on his plantation at Monticello, in the mountains of Virginia, and it is very likely that he had children with his slave Sally Hemings (To read an account of the controversy by the Monticello Foundation, click here.) At his death, most of his slaves were sold to pay off his debts.
He wrote about slavery as an evil practice, and yet he could not fathom a way during his lifetime to bring about the end of the practice. As a highly educated thinker and an Enlightenment-era Rationalist, he tried to think through problems in a logical, fact-based (empirical) way. I point this out because the next piece I want you to read, a section of his book Notes on the State of Virginia (which is a survey of different facets of life in Virginia), attempts to “rationally” understand how Blacks are “different” from Whites. This section of Notes may be read here and is not in our text. Today, of course, we would argue that Jefferson is an ignorant racist. Clearly, his “logic” was not sound. What “facts” does he use to argue that Blacks are inferior to Whites? What does he propose to do with Blacks once they are freed from slavery and why?
Also read Frederick Douglass, From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which begins on page p.865. Please read the first 10 pages. Douglass’ account is the canonical (most traditional and well-known) narrative of slavery in the American South. When it was first published in 1845, he traveled to England, in part to escape the possibility of being re-captured and returned to the South as a slave. When friends “bought” his freedom, he returned to the United States. His narrative, along with others, were important to the cause of Northern abolitionists because they described life under slavery for a Northern audience. Douglass’ narrative is also extremely smart and well written, so it broke the stereotype of the “ignorant, child-like” Black man. What does he argue is the Biblical support for the institution of slavery? And how does he argue that this Biblical rationale is incorrect? How would you describe the “relationship” he has with his mother, and how does it effect him?
Also by Douglass: “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July.”
Compare the language of this Douglass speech to the language of Jeremiah Wright.
Also, read the first 10 pages of Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which begins on p.769. Jacobs’ account of her bondage is written of course from a female point of view. What particular hardships does she face that are different from those faced by Douglass?
Following Jacobs’ piece, read the poem by Frances Harper, “The Slave Mother.” (p.1231)
Also read Sojourner Truth’s “Speech To A Women’s Rights Convention” on p.638. The text in the anthology is taken from the first published account in 1851, which differs substantially from the 1863 text read by Alice Walker in this video clip. The speech read by Walker, however, is the more popular version:
Truth’s speech exemplifies how the concerns of the Women’s Rights movement and the Abolititionist (anti-slavery) movement came together in the mid-18th Century. Douglass, for instance, became a strong supporter of equal rights for women. After all, if Douglass was going to argue that it was wrong to oppress another because of the color of his skin, then it was obvious to him that one’s gender should not be a cause for oppression, either.
Stowe, Harriett Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Link here to Chap. 40, The Martyr
Stowe’s novel was hugely successful, becoming the most widely selling novel of the 19th Century. It is indeed a moving account and includes some fascinating characterizations. However, it is somewhat disparaged today as a sentimental protest novel at best and an act of appropriation and a source of Glack stereotypes at worst. In particular, the author James Baldwin argues in his essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” that Uncle Tom has been “robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex.” Stowe, he argues, has rendered her argument in biblical terms, rather than human terms. Tom is really no human being at all. He is Christ.
Lucille Clifton. Poems.
Clifton, who died in 2010, was one of my favorite poets. Her poems often concern issues of race and women, and she has a very direct, disarming, and thought-provoking style.
The American Exceptionalist view – the “city on a hill” and its assumption of moral (and later military) superiority – might have suited many colonists, but among those who were the first to point out the myth’s shortcomings and contradictions were women and slaves, who occupied a decidedly inferior position in early America. (Even today, women in general, as well as African-Americans, Native-Americans, and Hispanic Americans are all faced with lower incomes compared to white American males. According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. We’ll talk about slavery in another week.)
In the 17th Century, however, colonial women had not yet actively voiced their dissatisfaction with their political and economic positions. Such a voice would not be widely developed until the 19th Century, concurrent with the development of a fervent anti-slavery (abolitionist) movement.
Perhaps ironically, the first book of poems published by an English colonist was written by the Puritan Anne Bradstreet, though it was first published anonymously and evidently without her knowledge by her brother-in-law in London. It is a highly literary and accomplished body of work, but contemporary readers may find its themes – which are typically Puritan – less than satisfying. Read Bradstreet’s poems “The Author To Her Book” (p. 181) and “Here Follows Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our House” (p. 184). What is the extended metaphor Bradstreet uses in the first poem? What is her attitude toward her own work? In the second poem, what is the source of her relief? How does she rationalize the loss of all her worldly possessions?
The first American “best-seller” was written by another Puritan woman, Mary Rowlandson, and published in1682. Her “captivity narrative” – The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson – follows the events of her capture, captivity, and eventual return by a band of Indians during King Philip’s War in 1676 (“King Philip” was the name given to the Indian Chief Metacomet, the son of Massasoit, whom William Bradford writes about in his settlers’ chronicle Plymouth Plantation.) Read from the bottom of p. 196, “On the tenth of February …” through the Second Remove on p. 200, as well as the Fifth Remove, p. 204-05 and the Twentieth Remove, from the bottom of 222-the middle of 225 (numbers 1-5). The account is quite bloody and explicit. Note how biblical references are scattered throughout. This is a reflection of biblical typology, or a manner of rendering current events in terms of their relationship to biblical prophecies or associations. The Puritans saw everything in the world around them as a kind of sign from God, from the way a flower bloomed to how someone died. In the Twentieth Remove in particular, note how Rowlandson explains the inability of the English army to rescue her in terms of biblical types. God does not WANT her to be rescued, so he prevents the English army from advancing.
Rowlandson’s devastating account chronicles the extreme dangers and hardships faced by a woman on the colonial frontier, and some critics argue that it was influential in developing what would become a trope of American literature, i.e. the woman in mortal danger at the hands of the blood-thirsty heathens; the woman who must be rescued by the masculine hero – typically a cowboy/maverick figure. Author Susan Faludi argues that this gender dynamic has informed America’s response to 9/11. Her book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America argues that early American captivity narratives were essential in forming the tenor of American “maleness” and reinforcing the stereotype of the innocent, pure, physically fragile American woman. Read her editorial on the topic here. What do you think of her arguments?
The 1992 film The Last of the Mohicans is a horrid affront to James Fenimore Cooper’s novel of the same name. Nevertheless, I think Hollywood has illustrated Faludi’s point. View the trailer here. The film is even more sexist than the original novel, since the film wholly focuses upon Hawk-eye’s need to “save” his European girlfriend from the bloodthirsty “savages.” Cooper’s novel is actually more subtle by comparison.
Faludi refers to the 1956 John Wayne film The Searchers. View the trailer here. In the film, a young woman is captured by Indians and raised by them. The John Wayne character goes in search of her, and when he eventually finds her, he threatens to kill her since she has “gone native.”
Stephen Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds is interesting in this context, since so much of the film focuses on the protagonist’s attempts to save his vulnerable daughter from the blood-thirsty aliens, or as his daughter calls them, “the terrorists.” View the trailer here. What Faludi has done is to connect the dots from Rowlandson’s account of terror at the hands of “savages” through to contemporary ideas of Middle Eastern “terrorists.”
It was not until the mid-19th Century when, concurrent with the abolitionist movement, women began to challenge the patriarchal system under which they lived. Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in particular, became prominent voices in favor of women’s suffrage and civil rights. Stanton’s draft of the “Declaration of Sentiments,” signed by 100 attendees of the Seneca Falls Woman’s Convention in 1848 (including the freed slave Frederick Douglass, who we will read later), cleverly utilizes the language and structure of the Declaration of Independence to build a rational argument for women’s rights. Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century attempts to reply to men’s well-worn objections to women’s rights by pointing out the contradictions inherent in the male argument. Read Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, p. 629-32, and Fuller’s “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” p.727-33. What arguments do each of these women make to prove their thesis that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men?
Also read Fanny Fern: “The Tear of a Wife,” 1064; and “The ‘Coming’ Woman,” p.1071-72. Fanny Fern was a very popular New York female journalist who often wrote about social issues. If Fuller appealed to a highly educated audience, then Fern appealed to the popular imagination.
Optional: These two poems, from poets writing mainly in the 1960s and 70s, illustrate how modern American poetry by women has continued to address these issues raised by Fuller and Stanton.
Rich, Adrienne. “Diving Into the Wreck.”
Sexton, Anne. “The Room of My Life.”
Two main currents of English political thought were circulating in the 17th Century, when the Puritans began to settle Massachusetts Bay – that represented by Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and that represented by John Locke’s Two Treatises. I try to tease out the conflicts and contradictions of these thinkers’ ideas, in terms of their impact on American political thought, in the published paper you can find here.
The cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan. Note how the king is composed of and encompasses his subjects:
In Hobbes’ vision, we are born equal, but this state results in chaos and bloodshed unless we submit ourselves to a higher authority – the monarch in Hobbes’ opinion – who establishes safety and security and exerts an iron control over all aspects of our lives and conscience. He argues in favor of a patriarchal, hierarchical society, and while his argument is rendered in secular terms, one can see how the Puritans favored such a view. For despite the fact that they left England, in part to escape a “corrupt” church, with a monarch at its head, Winthrop and other leaders in Massachusetts Bay owed their lives and allegiance to God, who in their conception had established a hierarchical, ecclesiastical system on earth with the divine Elect at its head. The God of the Puritans had established moral law, to which all Christians had to submit. In effect, Hobbes and the Puritans had the same idea, though for Hobbes the monarch was in control, while for the Puritans, God – through a select group of male agents – was in control.
Puritans, such as John Winthrop, Jonathan Edwards, and Cotton Mather saw God as the essential “intelligence” behind everything, from the growth of crops in the field, to personal illnesses, to economic success (recall Anne Bradstreet’s poetry). Every act and event was a reflection of a great contest between God’s will and the will of the Devil, who tried to manipulate people to act against God.
Read about Edwards, p. 276-278, and read From Images or shadows of Divine Things, p. 304-305.
Recently, after the horrendous 2010 earthquake in Haiti that left hundreds of thousands dead, TV evangelist Pat Robertson blamed the earthquake on an 18th-Century pact the Hatian people made with the devil. View the clip here. While Robertson’s remarks blaming the quake on the Hatians for their lack of Christian values may seem extreme, it is not so far different from President Obama’s remarks that “but for the grace of God” we in the United States could have suffered a terrible earthquake like the one in Haiti. Whenever a political figure in the United States invokes the divine, she/he is channeling John Winthrop and the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay. (There is also an undercurrent of racism to Robertson’s remarks because of course black slaves in Haiti could not have freed themselves from French oppression without the help of the “devil.”)
The Puritan Cotton Mather provides a powerful reminder of what can happen when those in positions of authority presume to speak for or about God. His 1693 account of the Salem Witch Trials explains what happened in the courtroom as dozens of people, mostly women, were accused of being in league with the devil. Twenty people were eventually executed. Read the account of the trial of Martha Carrier here.
There is a strong counter-strain to the Puritan argument, however. Locke, the English political philosopher, believed people were equal and possessed of the faculty of reason by which they could determine their own fates. His concept of the individual rights of people, however, was grounded in the idea of property. One owned what one invested one’s labor in, transforming what had been dull or wasted into something needed and useful. According to Locke, God had given the Earth to men (he was sexist) to cultivate and to develop. As the indigenous peoples of the “New World” had not “developed” the land where they lived, then it was “free” for the taking, since the English would cultivate it, build upon it, and make it profitable. Governments, then, were formed by men of property who came together in order to ensure the security of each other’s fortunes.
The cover of Locke’s Two Treatises:
Aspects of both approaches may be readily scene in American history/literature and contemporary American culture. Locke’s conception of property and capitalism lies at the heart of the American economic system (along with Adam Smith’s), while Hobbes’ conception of an authoritarian state, requiring the allegiance of its citizens, continues to be an enduring paradigm as well. Consider the issue of “stop and frisk” police searches or gay marriage, in which the value of individual liberty is weighed against the perceived “interests” of the state, or consider the 2010 New York Times Magazine article on Christianity and American Exeptionalism, in which the values of absolutism (in this case, Protestant Christian fundamentalism) are at odds with the values of rationalism and pluralism (in this case, represented by scientists and history professors who argue in favor of a secularized public school system).
In the aforementioned article, the Texas State Board of Education’s argument is fundamentally flawed because while it assumes that Winthrop and other English colonizers such as William Bradford wished to establish a “city on a hill,” the argument ignores the fact that Bradford and Winthrop were also Hobbesian absolutists, both in terms of the way they exercised their authority and, more importantly, in terms of their conception of God. Winthrop, for instance, has a particular disdain for democracy, since it is counter to the theology of the Elect. In other words, if God is doing the “electing,” then is this really a democracy in any rational sense of the word?
The fundamentalist Puritan view did not hold sway for forever. Hector Crevecoeur, a Frenchman and an American colonist, in his “Letters From an American Farmer,” neatly summarizes the idea of the American Dream and the melting pot, whereby one can come to America from anywhere in the world, work hard, and become successful. His view is largely secular and not Puritanical at all. Read p. 429-433.
And other Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin, viewed religion in general and Puritanism in particular as essentially irrational and dangerous. Franklin was especially important in terms of describing the American character as self-reliant. His up-from-the-bootstraps story is among the most famous in American literature. Read excerpts from his Autobiography: 348-354 and 364-366. In the first section, he describes his self-education, which among other things suggests that “class” is a mutable as opposed to a fixed category in American life; and in the second section he explains how and why one may lead an ethical life without relying upon a supernatural deity to tell you right from wrong.
See also Franklin’s “Way to Wealth”, a summary of his aphorisms in Poor Richard’s Almanac, and his “Witch Trial at Mount Holly,” a spoof on the Puritans. See Cotton Mather’s “Wonders of the Invisible World” (noted above) to see what Franklin was satirizing.
Every nation has its own sense of self-identity. In America, we might call this the American Idea or the American Dream, and it is a narrative born out of many factors – historical, political, and economic.
One of the most prominent elements of this narrative is the idea of a “city on a hill,” which may be traced back to John Winthrop and a “sermon” he delivered to his Puritan flock before they landed in the “New World.” The settlement in Massachusetts Bay was not the first permanent English colonial settlement in what would become the USA (Jamestown in Virginia and Plymouth in Massachusetts were begun earlier), but the Massachusetts Bay Colony, centered around Boston, was arguably the most influential in terms of shaping what we think of as the American Idea.
For the sake of our discussion, I am going to refer to this idea as the myth of American Exceptionalism, particularly as this idea continues to represent for some the sense of America’s “superiority,” typically in terms of its “divine” mission – a mission most famously proposed by Winthrop.
Read first about John Winthrop and then read his “A Modell of Christian Charity,” p153-154; p.155-156; and p.164-166 .
View these scenes and read the links below.
This speech by former President Ronald Reagan to the National Association of Evangelicals on the “Evil Empire”:
What do you think about the setting of this speech and the use of the word “evil”?
This speech by former President George Bush following Sept. 11:
What elements of this speech are similar to Winthrop’s sermon?
Also, view this clip from MSNBC about the current debate over American Exceptionalism. (I apologize for the 30 second advertisement. Think of it as another element of American Exceptionalism, i.e. the godliness of commerce. After all, the purpose of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was to generate resources for the English homeland.)
Finally, read a counter argument at the web site Politico here. Not everyone believes that American Exceptionalism is true.
Before we begin a study such as this, it’s important to define the scope of our concerns, and perhaps the most obvious place to start is with the title of our course – “American Literature I.” Let’s look at each part separately and ask what is meant by “American” and what is meant by “Literature.” (The “I” is hopefully no trick, simply indicating the first of multiple parts, though the Roman numeral suggests a certain gravity.)
At first glance, these terms may seem easy to define, but what is exactly “American” about literature? Are we talking about literature written by Americans, about America, or somehow imbued with the “American Idea” (whatever that may be)? Can we consider literature written by indigenous peoples? What about literature written by British, French, and Spanish colonists? What about any literature written on the continent prior to 1787 and the adoption of the U.S. Constitution? What about literature written by slaves, who had no rights as Americans prior to the Civil War? If we were to limit ourselves, for argument’s sake, to literature written post-1787 by white people born in New York state, then we could include Herman Melville, but what of the fact that his first two novels take place in the South Pacific and not in America at all? Or what of that literature which is harshly critical of America, in terms of say its denial of voting rights for women? Is such literature “American,” even if it is vociferously “anti-American”? So our first major question is, “What is American about American Literature?”
And what of “Literature”? What exactly does this term signify? Most people would recognize a poem or a short story as a piece of literature, though we might disagree as to its quality, but what of religious sermons, personal diaries and travel logs? What of work that is never meant to be published? If everything printed is “literature,” then how do we determine issues of “value” – artistic or historical? If you examine a literature anthology utilized in American Literature II courses, you will find that it is almost entirely full of poems, stories, and plays – not so in this class, where our text includes many pieces of non-fiction. Does this meant that our definition of “literature” changes depending on what period of time we are considering? So our second question is, “What do we mean by literature?”
I think anyone who studies this material must answer this question for themselves, as I have done. But this is an open debate. Before you answer for yourself, however, view this scene from the Disney film Pocahontas. How would you characterize its depiction of Captain Smith and Pocahontas?
Is the Disney film art? Is it literature? It is drawn from the historical account of Captain John Smith, who was one of the leaders of the English colony at Jamestown. In the “true” account, however, Pocahontas, who is only 12, marries an Englishman named John Rolfe. She becomes a Christian, is taken to England, and dies there of disease at age 22.
Texts: Please read in your anthology.
1. Captain John Smith, p. 106-109
2. From The Generall Historie of Virgina, etc, p. 110-119
3. Jamestown through a Modern Lens (120-121)
Is Smith’s account “literature”?
We are moving from 17th and 18th Century “Enlightenment” Rationalism, which is marked by literature that favors argumentation, irony, sarcasm, reason, and order, to 19th Century Romanticism, which favors imagination, passion, social justice, and individualism. Read Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, p. 560-609.
In as single Post, write a 2-3 paragraph response to each question that includes quotations from the text (8-12 paragraphs total). Include your name in your Post.
1. What is the “bet” that “The Lord” makes with “Mephistopheles”?
2. Why is Faust dissatisfied and what is his immediate solution?
3. What does Mephistopheles promise to Faust, and why does Faust agree to Mephistopheles terms?
4. How does Candide differ from Faust?
In a separate Post, respond to one of your peers’ comments. Be critical and observant but respectful. Agree, augment, disagree, etc.
Andrew Marvell: “To His Coy Mistress” (1650s)
Alexander Pope: From An Essay on Man, Epistle 2 (1734) p.292
Benjamin Franklin: From Autobiography (1791)
John Locke: From Second Treatise on Government (1690), p. 382
Renee Descartes: From Discourse on Method (1637), p. 380
Immanuel Kant: From “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784) p. 390-91
Rudyard Kipling: “White Man’s Burden” (1899)
NYPL: “Candide” with Dr. Paul LeClerc
Voltaire sculptures in Louvre
Mel Brooks, History of the World, Part 1, “The Inquisition”
Patricia Smith, “The President Flies Over”
Pablo Neruda, “I’m Explaining a Few Things”
Lucille Clifton, “slaveships”
William Blake, “Chimney Sweeper”
What do you think of Candide as a character? What is his essential conflict? How does he end up resolving this conflict? In your answer, consider the point of view offered by Dr. Pangloss and the logical consequences of his philosophy.
At the end of the novel, what do you think Candide means by “cultivating our garden”? Is this an adequate response to the human suffering described in the novel?
To a large extent, what we are studying in this class is the evolution of a series of related questions: Who am I? How do I know? What is my purpose? We are starting this class with the short novel Candide, written by the French author Voltaire in 1759, because it addresses all of these questions in a really accessible way. But why did these questions come to the forefront in the 17th and 18th Centuries?
People have always asked these questions. Who among us doesn’t want to know if we have a “purpose”? But previous to this time period, there were ready-made answers. For most English and Europeans, the answers were relatively simple: I am a Christian; I know this because I believe in Jesus Christ and the Holy Roman Catholic Church; and my purpose is to glorify God and follow the teachings of the Church. Of course, if you were a Jew living at this time period, you were marginalized at best and persecuted at worst because, as a Jew, you did not fit this prevailing narrative.
But following the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century in which religious men, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, began to question the teachings of the Catholic Church, a series of devastating European and English wars broke out. These wars were ostensibly about religious belief, but of course they were also about political power. One of the main concerns of Enlightenment-period writers was how to contain this religious violence. How could people with different belief systems live together peacefully? they asked. On the whole, Enlightenment-period thinkers were NOT religious fundamentalists, but instead argued for religious toleration. Some were atheists.
One of the legacies of the Protestant Reformation was the development of printing and the relatively wide-scale availability of the Bible in the vernacular (English, French, German, etc.). Previously, the Christian Bible had only been available in Latin, which most people could not read. But with the development of liturgies in the vernacular, there was an explosion in reading and subsequent debate about issues of faith. There were also new translations of Greek and Roman texts, and people began to seriously debate what we mean by ideas such as “citizenship,” “democracy,” and the “rights of man.” And as European and English ships began to travel to Asia and America, there was also the development of a new, wealthy middle-class of merchants who wanted to grow and protect their investments. (In the 17th Century, the wealthiest State in Europe became Holland, which officially practiced religious toleration, as merchants realized that a great deal more money could be made by doing business with your Catholic or Protestant neighbor than by trying to kill him.)
All of these factors contributed to the development of the “Enlightenment” in the 17th and 18th Centuries. Enlightenment thinkers, who were now able to print and publish their ideas in the vernacular, wrote about politics, science, morality, economics, and all manner of subjects from a new, more secular (less religious) point of view, often openly criticizing the Church and the State. In short, people were emboldened to think for themselves. The legacy of this in the United States is the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which were modeled after the works of Enlightenment-period authors, especially the English writer John Locke.
But Voltaire was probably the primary Enlightenment-period author, and he challenged the State and the Church at every turn. Candide is a short chronicle of the life of a naive young man who believes that “everything is for the best” and that he lives in “the best of all possible worlds.” Such “optimism” is a reflection of a certain manner of religious thinking that goes like this: since God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then everything that happens in the world must occur for a “reason” – God’s “reason” – which we mere mortals may not understand, but which must be true and right; in short, God designed the world and he doesn’t make mistakes.
Through Candide, Voltaire argues the absurdity of this position. Horrible, horrible things continue to happen to Candide, who is forced to make sense of them, given the hypocrisy that he discovers at every turn. Candide is really revolutionary in its criticism of the State and the Church, which is why it was banned by the Catholic Church until relatively recently.
We’re going to read it not because it is (or was) controversial, but because it introduces us to what modern literature is largely about: individuals asking themselves serious questions about what it means to be alive.
For further background on the Enlightenment, I strongly urge you to read this introduction to the Enlightenment by Prof. Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University.
Candide has been hugely influential in pop culture, and you will find a modern musical, written by Leonard Bernstein on Youtube here. This is just the first part, but it’s pretty outrageous and worth a look.
Here is also a short Youtube video on Candide, delivered by the director of the New York Public Library. You’ll also find links to many other videos about Candide. Explore.
Before our first class meeting in Paris, you should read the first 15 chapters of Candide and be prepared to discuss.
Several of you have written fine analyses over the last few weeks. Regarding the Grand Inquisitor, I think that what the Inquisitor argues makes absolute sense. Freedom necessarily leads to conflict; therefore, if one’s goal is to eliminate conflict, then one must eliminate freedom as we know it. This has been a common theme of political philosophy (as in Thomas Hobbes’ political tract Leviathan), as well as in Utopian and Dystopian (as in Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm and Huxley’s Brave New World).
Of course, one could have goals other than eliminating conflict. The Grand Inquisitor is logical, in my opinion, but only if one accepts the premise that bread and safety are necessarily in short supply and that people are essentially selfish and uninterested in the general welfare. I don’t accept these premises, though I might if I were truly deprived. Those in the worst situations are certainly liable to be persuaded by the Inquisitor’s logic. The sad fact is that the last 100 years provides ample evidence that the Inquisitor’s logic is enduring – Fascism, Nazism, Authoritarianism (as currently in Syria) and radical religious fundamentalism all have their roots in the Inquisitor’s argument that we are ready to surrender our freedom of conscience if we receive certainty in return.
Regarding Krapp, I think that what he regrets the most is the loss of his love. He keeps listening to the recording of himself, which he returns to at the end of the play:
Long pause. He suddenly bends over machine, switches off, wrenches off tape, throws it away, puts on the other, winds it foreward to the passage he wants, switches on, listens staring front.
–gooseberries, she said. I said again I thought it was hopeless and no good going on, and she agreed, without opening her eyes. (Pause.) I asked her to look at me and after a few moments–(pause)–after a few moments she did, but the eyes just slits, because of the glare. I bent over her to get them in the shadow and they opened. (Pause. Low.) Let me in. (Pause.) We drifted in among the flags and stuck. The way they went down, sighing, before the stem! (Pause.) I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.
Krapp chose to write his Magnum Opus (his great work), which amounts to nothing, just a few sales to libraries. What he has given up is love. Similarly, Gabriel, in The Dead, realizes that he is alone and loveless, though this is not because he has rejected his wife, but because he had never mustered any passion to rival the young man whom his wife had loved years ago. His realization is that he is alone, when he had thought that he and his wife had been happy. Krapp and Gabriel are the same, however, in the sense that both realize that their lives are empty.
To draw all this together, the history of Western Literature since the Enlightenment has been closely linked to the history of Western civilization; and how could it not? Artists and writers do not work in a vacuum. They reflect and refract the anxieties and desires of the day. From Voltaire through Dostoevsky, Joyce and Beckett, writers have explored the deep concerns of their time.
I want you to consider two additional pieces. The first is a poem by Ezra Pound, who Hemingway wrote about in A Moveable Feast. Here is the poem “In a Station of the Metro” (1926):
The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.
Here is a link to the poem as well. This would have been published about the time that Hemingway was in Paris, riding the Metro, and when Pound was there as well. You’ve all ridden the Metro. This poem is just a moment, an image, it is full of sound, and it reminds me of a Haiku (Pound was influenced by Asian literatures). What it captures for me is the stillness and the profundity of the moment.
The second piece is a short poem by Ranier Rilke, who was Rodin’s secretary and biographer. You can find it here. It is the last line of this poem that stuns me. It is a poem about a sculpture, like many that you saw in the Louvre (or in Rodin’s garden), and it certainly reflects the power that I saw in Rodin’s sculptures, particularly in the Burghers of Calais. What does he mean, “You must change your life”?
For your Final, write a 4-5 page essay in which you incorporate the readings from the second half of the semester, and in which you explore what the phrase “You must change your life” would mean to these characters and/or to yourself. You can use the first person. Incorporate as many readings as possible, but I suggest discussing Krapp and Gabriel in this context, since they obviously need a change. Discuss yourself. Do you need a change? Have you been changed by your experience in Paris? Obviously, this is a little open ended and less formal than a traditional literary analysis, but then this has been a unique experience. I want to see that you have engaged with the texts and can draw out some conclusions. E-mail me the finished essay as an attachment by Wednesday, June 27, at 11:59PM. Try to have fun!
The reading for this week is James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” which is found in his collection of short stories, Dubliners. You can find a link to the story here. Joyce is an Irish writer whose work, along with the poems of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, defined literary Modernism in the early 20th Century. He lived in Paris for part of his life, and Ulysses, his novel set on a single day in the life of Leopold Bloom, was published there by Sylvia Beech at her bookstore Shakespeare and Company. (Her store is no longer in existence, though it was located not far from the Shakespeare & Co. that we passed near Notre Dame and which is named after Beech’s original store.)
Whereas Dostoevsky’s work “The Grand Inquisitor” concerned a kind of “thought experiment,” Joyce’s work in “The Dead” is highly personal. The author’s primary character in this piece, Gabriel, is set to deliver a speech at the occasion of his aunts’ Christmas dinner party, and the story revolves around the experiences of the characters at the party and immediately after, when Gabriel and his wife Gretta are alone in their bedroom as the snow is falling outside.
What makes this story so important? As you read it, consider Gabriel’s transformation. He moves quite subtly from feeling as if he is the center of their rather insular universe to discovering that he is almost entirely unaware of who he is and how he fits into his life. It’s really a story about alienation and loss, but the events that trigger Gabriel’s realization are quiet and almost incidental. Consequently, these events feel like they could happen to anybody. Gabriel doesn’t go off to war and no one dies, but nevertheless, his world is profoundly shaken.
I wanted you to read this piece because, first, it’s an important piece of world literature, but second, because it represents the next stage in the evolution of thought that we have been tracing from Voltaire through Dostoevsky, both of whom asked big questions: “What is God?”; “What is Freedom?”; “How do I act ethically?” By contrast, “The Dead” implies that these questions are really without answer, and as a result, all we have is the individual (in this case Gabriel) who has to figure out how best to live in the world, especially when one realizes that one is quite alone. Gabriel feels deep feelings, but he is unable to express them to anybody in any kind of genuine way. This is the state of the “Modern” human being. There is a lot of similarly between Krapp’s Last Tape and this story.
When you have finished, please Reply three times.
1. Quoting from the story, cite at least three instances in which Gabriel is angry or embarrassed, either at himself of by something someone else has done or said.
2. Quoting from the story again, analyze two other characters that you didn’t already discuss in your first Post. Consider how these other characters help the reader understand Gabriel’s predicament.
3. Finally, considering the artwork you saw in the Pompidou, compare Joyce’s story to something that you saw there. Explain the connection. If necessary, feel free to go to the Pompidou’s web site to refresh your memory or scan your journals. Post a link to the artwork if you can.
What did we see as we moved from museum to museum? One key issue that we were tracing was an historic evolution in thought about the role of the individual in relation to the community. In the Louvre, if we consider the period from the Renaissance until the Enlightenment (roughly the 1400s-1700s), we saw A LOT of Christian-oriented paintings and sculptures and most of these depicted biblical scenes. The works that weren’t specifically Christian, such as the Mona Lisa, depicted scenes in which the character or setting was clearly defined and usually arranged in a harmonious, balanced manner. The scene might have been violent or grotesque, but the depiction was “classical.” In other words, there was always a clear narrative or point of view.
If you think of the Pompidou, however, which includes mostly 20th Century art, then you get an entirely different and even opposite picture. In the Pompidou, you often had to ask yourself, “What is it?” or “What does it mean?” The works there often seemed out of balance, dissonant, and lacking a clear narrative or point of view. If there were any works that referred to Christianity, they did so ironically. Characters and settings were sometimes so wholly contorted or fragmented that they made little sense in any “real world” way.
I would argue that the Rodin museum and the Orsay lie somewhere in between the Louvre and the Pompidou and represent the transition between the two.
Why? What does this change signal? One thing at least that it tells us about is the problem (and rewards) of freedom. You know that in France, in 1789, the Revolution brought about the end of the monarchy and the introduction of democracy. Even though this was a turbulent and uneven transition, the idea that the individual (you and I) deserve the right to exist as independent agents of our own destiny – outside of the demands and strictures of the church or the state – represented a fundamental shift in the way people thought of themselves. This revolution in thought was taking place in England and America as well. Of course this revolution in thought, the movement toward a conception of the “Rights of Man,” was incomplete. Only white men laid claim to their rights originally, denying them to others, but the die was cast, to use a cliche. Once the church and the state fell as external arbiters of control, then it was only a matter of time before “everyone” felt empowered to assert their basic human rights. (We are still dealing with this revolution in America, as gays and lesbians are struggling to obtain their basic human rights.)
So why is freedom a problem, in this context? Freedom is a problem because it forces the individual to take responsibility for their actions and to confront the world on their own terms. And this is scary as hell. It’s much easier to drink cheap beer and watch reruns of The Office than to confront the emptiness of your own life and seriously consider your place in the cosmos.
Besides that problem, an argument could be made (and has been made) that the relative elevation of the individual and devaluation of the institutions of church and state have actually destabilized society. If you have no church to believe in and no monarchy to pay allegiance to, then you’re more or less on your own. Into this breach, some have argued, stepped various authoritarian movements – Fascism, Nazism, Communism/Stalinism – that provided at least some semblance of order and meaning. Of course, such movements also provided World War. This is a simplification, but the English critic Isaiah Berlin has argued, I think convincingly, that the cult of individuality that has evolved in the West since the time of the Enlightenment has engendered totalitarian movements, movements that have harnessed the “collective power” of individuals against those who seemed less than “human.” The artwork in the Pompidou reflects the sense of fragmentation, chaos, and violence that has been unleashed since Voltaire wrote Candide.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” poses a question. Is it better to choose “freedom,” especially since freedom results in inevitable conflict, or is it better to choose “safety,” even if in order to achieve that safety we must give up our freedom. This is a question that we have to deal with every day.
As we move out of discussing works that arise of the Enlightenment, we are faced with the crises created by Enlightenment ideas – individual liberty, scientific discovery and exploration, Protestantism. Voltaire’s response to the old order, the old narrative – the aristocracy, the church – is primarily satirical, at least in Candide, but his solution is arguably conservative, or at least not revolutionary: tend your garden. This solution places the nexus of the argument squarely on the shoulders of the individual, but this individual is not a revolutionary in the Marxian sense. Candide is no revolutionary.
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” (1880) which is a chapter out of his novel The Brothers Karamazov, while specifically concerning the Roman Catholic Church, is about this problem of freedom. If we are all essentially equal, if there is no authority over us determining how we are to live and providing us with basic necessities, then how are we to satisfy our needs without killing each other, without anarchy? The English writer Thomas Hobbes, in the 17th Century, argued that we cannot. Such lives of freedom are “nasty, brutish, and short,” he wrote in Leviathan; consequently, we require a ruler (a monarch) endowed with absolute power who can maintain order and provide for the well-being of the masses. Hobbes believed that we must even give our freedom of conscience over to the monarch, who will then decide what “we” are to believe. Is it possible to “love” the monarch in such a system?
The Inquisitor argues that Christ offered freedom of belief to all humanity, essentially viewing all people as equal before God. The Inquisitor argues that by refusing the devil’s temptations, Christ was asserting that one’s love of God cannot arise out of fear or manipulation, but out of free choice. After all, is it love if one is forced to it? The problem, the Inquisitor argues, is that given freedom, humanity will revert to Hobbes’ chaotic state. We will destroy each other. The Inquisitor’s solution, then, is to provide the “millions” with the things they crave – bread, moral certitude, and universality. The church will demand absolute obedience, but in return it will provide the “millions” with peace, the peace of innocent children. In this way, the Inquisitor argues, the church is actually more benevolent than Christ himself, who misjudged human nature and assumed that we are essentially “good” when in fact we are essentially “bad.”
This solution, however, is not simply to be dismissed as the solution of a corrupt church. Rather, it is the solution offered by every narrative – political, economic, and religious – that seeks to tell the “millions” how to live. Karl Marx’s narrative in The Communist Manifesto (1848) is another example of a narrative that seeks to justify a certain “will to power.” And in this sense, it is the same narrative as that developed by one of the “Founding Fathers” of liberal democracy, John Locke. Locke argued that we are all naturally free, but he further asserted that capitalism and competition were right and natural. Marx would agree with the first part of this argument, but he would argue that capitalism and competition are finally barriers to real freedom, the freedom of the proletariat – the “millions” – from the oppression of the bourgeoisie. Such freedom, however, became a kind of oppression of its own, at least as practiced in the former Soviet Union. But in relation to the “lies” offered by the Inquisitor, the narrative offered by Marx seems almost refreshing.
In any case, what is clear is that in the 19th Century, Western and Russian literature were trying to deal with the problem of the proper relationship between the individual and society. Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) is also about the problem of the individual who is free to make choices. In the case of Krapp, the play’s protagonist, he realizes that he has made the wrong choices. (You can also view the complete play on Youtube. It’s really strange and worth viewing.
Krapp has made audio recordings of himself every year for many years on the anniversary of his birthday. The play takes place on a night when he is about to make a new recording. First, however, he listens to recordings of himself from previous years. What this means is that you have narratives within narratives. You have Krapp in the “present” day listening to, fast-forwarding, and commenting upon the Krapp of the “old” day. The old Krapp often makes predictions and decisions about the future that the present-day Krapp no long believes in or knows are untrue. This predicament sums up the conflict at the heart of much of modern World literature: In a world in which all the narratives (of family, of church, of state, of everything) have been challenged or fractured, then how do we answer the big three questions: Who am I? What is my purpose? How do I know?
Once you have read the “Grand Inquisitor,” and Krapp’s Last Tape, please Reply three separate times. First, answer the question, “What do you think of the Inquisitor’s reasoning?” Quote from the text in your answer. Second, answer the question, “What does Krapp regret the most and why?” Quote from the text in your answer. You can answer these questions by simply replying to this Post. Third, reply to another of your peer’s comments with a substantive, thorough, respectful, reasoned argument. You may agree or disagree with the other student, but explain your reasoning.
Considering the Louvre, Orsay (and/or Orangerie), and the Pompidou, analyze what we have read in terms of the art we have seen. Write a 5-7 page, double-spaced essay in MLA style. Use Candide, Hemingway, and at least two of the poems from our packet in your response. Use your journal responses as appropriate. DUE BY JUNE 5 AT 11:59 PM. E-MAIL ME YOUR EXAM AS AN ATTACHMENT TO THE E-MAIL ON YOUR SYLLABUS.
Describe your reaction to one or more pieces in the Pompidou museum? Did they surprise, anger, shock, disgust you? Why?
Compare Van Gogh’s portrait of a starry night (La Nuit Etoilee) with Rimbaud’s poem “Drunken Boat.”
Compare and contrast the two portraits of the absinthe drinkers by Degas and Picasso. How do they differ from the works in the Louvre?
Compare and contrast Candide, Pangloss, Martin, and Cacambo in terms of their philosophic outlook.