Archive for April, 2014
Just in case you thought that the references were exaggerated that I made last week to popular culture and elements from Anti-Tom literature, you might be interested to read this Wikipedia entry for a failed Disney film called “Song of The South”. Sometimes, reality outdoes fiction; sometimes, it’s the other way round… and sometimes, they complement each other in the most surprising ways.
This week, we began reading Harriet Ann Jacobs’ Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl (1861).
When thinking about the sort of highly particular autobiographical writing that Harriet’s text reflects, an important thing to recall is that the so-called slave narratives, part of a larger family of captivity literature, appealed and relied on on certain important reader expectations. Particularly, the willingness of the reader to identify with the ideals and values of the protagonist and—in contrast—to reject as barbaric and undesirable the ideals and values of the captors. This was the ‘formula’ that underlies the captivity literature of C16-C18 European tradition and that brought great success and popularity to this literary form. C19 US Slave literature, of course, turns this formula on its head, and the American readers were faced with the uncomfortable position of identifying with a protagonist whose dignity is undermined by the society to which almost all of those readers belonged.
That is, there is a rhetorical, stylistic device at the heart of such writing that has a very specific purpose: it moves the reader towards a sense of identification in which what is paramount is the shared sense of humanity. But wait!! If you start attributing humanity to a slave, you’re in trouble: once you’ve accorded the status of human to such a person, the entire edifice of slavery comes crashing down. In fact, it’s only possible to sustain such a barbarous attitude if you can somehow convince yourself that these poor individuals miraculously belong to another level of existence. They don’t. They never did. They never will. They are, as the image above shows, our brothers and sisters (even today, ladies and gentlemen, even today…). Recall that they are as fully human as you and me, and that’s the end of the story. Slavery cannot be justified. Game over.
The simple yet overwhelmingly powerful key to all is the power of language. Why? Not simply because the slave narrators can tell their story and are given a voice to compensate for the silence that was traditionally imposed on them. Not simply because, in telling this tale, Jacobs can contribute directly and very eloquently to the great debate on the abolition of slavery, though this is of enormous value to the slaves. But, above all, because by telling this tale, Jacobs is enabled to restore the human dignity to herself and her people that slavery has intentionally taken every opportunity to destroy. Her journey from Silence to Story is the journey back to dignity from inhumanity. For all of us, this is the deeper value of Harriet Ann Jacob’s extraordinary work
Happy Saint George’s Day!
Here’s a C19 US poem that you might enjoy on this special day: If you were coming in the fall
Last week, we began looking at the poetry of Walt Whitman, and, in particular, his Song of Myself. There are several things that need to be said about Whitman as initial observations, all of which covered in class but which are worth repeating here.
The first is to recall that Whitman is traditionally seen as a sort of bridge that connects Transcendentalism on the one hand and Realism on the other, not simply chronologically but—far more importantly—formally. That is, his writing often palpably reflects a number of concerns that pertain to Transcendentalism, but also creates the sort of images and ideas that we associate with the literary realism of the later C19.
As far as Leaves of Grass is concerned or, more specifically, Song of Myself, what has frequently been suggested about Whitman’s writing is that it is the poetry of the emerging America, the poetics of democracy, a vital celebration of multiplex freedom. The critic Harold Bloom calls Whitman “the imaginative voice of the nation”.
Well, perhaps. But we also saw that Whitman’s writing is complex, opaque and seemingly chaotic, ranging across a vast area of subject matter without any apparent purpose.
How can we balance these views and come to a better understanding, however initial, of what Whitman may be proposing? Let’s begin by recognising that, whilst his writing clearly eschews the formal constraints of traditional poetry, most obviously as regards rhythm, rhyme and stanzaic organisation, there are nevertheless very ‘poetic’ dimensions to his writing. In Song of Myself, we observed that the text is:
Very particularly, despite what would appear grammatically to be an immense obsession with his own self, it soon becomes clear that the “I, me, my, mine” of the poem in fact has a transcendental significance, pointing at the multiple, collective individualities of the nation. These are as disperse and differentiated as the content of the poem, but they relentlessly reinforce the underlying message of unity from diversity. That is, they are a poetic expression of E Pluribus Unum (“From the Many, One”), a phrase on the Seal of the United States and often used as the unofficial motto of the nation.
This points to an implicit political objective underlying the whole poem, which is that it is a celebration (a “song”) of national unity, a unity that is powerful and forceful precisely because of its undeniably vital individualism. Indeed, this is even a way of looking, textually, at the poem itself: an apparently disconnected series of poetic utterances that actually work together to create a united effect.
Once again, we see that a writer reflecting on the social currents that were driving the United States towards the destructiveness of the Civil War produces a work that has a transparently political message: inclusion, acceptance and understanding are the means by which the nation will be strengthened; the alternative is incomprehension.