Thursday, March 29, 2007

Chesnutt and despair

"The Wife of His Youth" saddens me. Chesnutt, in the works we've read, have all brought strong and conflicting emotions out of me. But the most common emotion is an everpresent sadness, bordering on despair, an undercurrent I feel throughout the works we've read. But "The Wife of His Youth" affects me the most. First of all, the "Blue Vein" society is a rather sad organization. It is a society of outsiders. They know enough that they won't want to be black. That's not a mystery or too surprising.

What is most sad and frustrating is their intense shame and unfulfilled desire to be accepted by white people. The result is that mulattoes, and really most people of mixed racial heritage that live in a post-slavery or post-colonial society, live in a zone between the world of the black and the white. They are living spaces of liminality. Their very ambiguity and in-betweenness leaves them room for creativity and adaptation. This may be part of a reason why so many very influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th century were mulatto. But this very in betweenness is also what alienates them so totally. And this alienation is incredibly sad to me. Either, as a mulatto, you are trying to "pass" or you are "choosing" to ally yourself with blacks. It's an incredibly frustrating state that combines all of the greatest psycho-emotional problems that arise in a racist society: self hatred, alienation, isolation, and despair. Chesnutt captures these feelings wonderfully in the "Wife of His Youth". Especially the final scene where Mr. Ryder's wife first approaches him and tells her story. It is a searingly painful scene, and it ends on such an ambiguous and sad note. It is an awful reminder of the strength of so many black people who survived the horror that was slavery and of their devotion and strength after slavery to try and make something of their hard lives. Even the ending of the story where Ryder acknowledges his wife and introduces her to the Blue Veins, I can feel nothing but sadness that it took so long for her to find him and that she had to live so hard for so long.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Flawed Boy

Twain clearly uses Huck's tale to showcase the flaws that lie within American society. But I believe that one could make an argument that Huck is a metaphor for America, also. He is a growing boy, an adolescent, in a hostile world, trying to find a way to define himself. This is a great description of the US during the early and mid-19th century. America was still very much a young country. It was still expanding westward and had yet to fully form its identity, as is evident by the intense conflicts over slavery. In essence, America was still a child, a growing child, but a child nonetheless, unsure of its place in the world and what it was about. This is Huck. A child growing into maturity, challenged by the world around him.

Twain takes this character and follows him down a path of growth; this is a path that is just as challenging, conflicting, and confusing as the path that America was on in her adolescence. The slow realization of Jim's humanity mirrors America's slow realization of the evils and hypocrisy that slavery embodies. Just like the call of abolition in the early 19th century, Huck comes to this realization slowly and with much resistance, but as the truth becomes more evident and damning, his realization growns at a greater rate until he is almost completely transformed. But even with this vast transformation, Twain shows that Huck still has a long way to go before he is a fully formed adult. Huck's choice to go off with Tom in order to "rescue" Jim still shows a very great amount of immaturity. His intentions are fine, but he goes about fulfilling them in an improper way.

Finally, Twain leaves Huck in his imperfect state so as to keep the reader wondering how exactly he will end up. Twain does not really resolve this question because he does not know what will happen to Huck. All Twain has is a strong sense of optimism and faith that Huck's goodness and ability to grow will lead him to become a strong, responsible, moral man. And this is the hope that one can only hold for his country.

Monday, March 5, 2007

It happens so very often for students when studying literature that they simply read a work, give it a surface exploration, and then move onto their next assignment without ever really being affected or influenced, not comprehending why they were ever asked to read the work in the first place. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is not one of those works. This entire piece is a testament as to why Whitman can be called a "master" without reservation. The one thing that makes this piece so great is the immense love and loss expressed by Whitman.

Love. A word and idea much abused in literature and art. Every two-bit poet that has picked up a pen has written about love's ambiguousness, its amorphality, and limitless bounds, but Whitman gives love an honest and fuller view. What allows Whitman to so successfully navigate around love is his seemless weaving of two events, occurring simultaneously, into one coherent work. Whitman is standing in a yard, looking at a lilac bush and remembering his fallen comrade and friend. At the same time, Whitman is describing the journey of his deceased friend's coffin to the graveyard. He is able to take the pain associated with memory, connect it to the scent of the Lilacs, and let that memory follow his friend on his last journey into the earth. As we follow the coffin in Whitman's dream, the reader is thrown into the spectacle, choked by the all encompassing sadness "Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land.../With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,/
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the/unbared heads,/
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,/With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising/strong and solemn..." The sense of loss is absolute and total. It is not possible to not be affected. Whitman's use of atmosphere, the universality of the despair, and his own sense of loss that joins everyone else carries the reader forward on a wave of raw loss.

And yet, Whitman does not allow this mood to overrun the poem. He keeps everything well contained and organized, directing the reader through his own sadness, without letting the sandess of the situation wash away everything. He's able to do this effectively by referring back to the lilac, his memories, and the dooryard. We learn that our narrator threw a lilac sprig onto the coffin of his deceased friend, and we learn why these lilacs mean so much to him. This realization is incredbily subtle in its power. We now understand why he hurts when he sees the lilacs bloom, and yet, we can all relate to this phenomonenon so there is not a real, jarring surprise through the revelation. It is done with sensitivity, it takes our attention from our direct, raw sadness and takes us only half a step away from it, but far enough to come back to the present and understand why our narrator feels the way he feels.

Finally, it is this tenderness for the reader, this regard for our own feelings that demands that I see Whitman for the master that he is. He takes us along a very, very painful journey, and he allows us to cry and to scream and to moan, but throughout the work he is right there with us, stroking our back, comforting us, guiding us down a path where we may once and forever let go.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Whitman as Warrior

"Beat! Beat! Drums" stands as a testament to Whitman's desire to crush the Southern rebellion absolutely. But there is no mention of emancipation or slaves within the work. I think that Neely's assertion stands, at least nominally, for Whitman does not make an explicit statement on slavery or the Emancipation Proclamation in the work. But, I hesitate to say that Whitman did not care about Emancipation at all. When looking at works of Whitman's, such as "Leaves of Grass", that predate the Civil War, then it becomes clear that Whitman believed firmly in justice and liberty and hated anything that stood in the way of these liberties. In fact, Whitman repeatedly mentions the role of poets in the battle for liberty. He believed it was the responsiblity of artists to expose the inequities and injustices of the world, to help to spur action and be an example for people to follow.

"Beat!Beat! Drums" holds none of this sentiment. There is no mention of liberty, freedom, or the obligation of poets to expose the actions of the unjust. Instead, the poem is an ode to the destructive power of war. Whitman encourages war to run through the country with no regards to anyone. He wants there to be no peace until victory is won. Let no farmer work, let no bridegroom have peace, let no one be comfortable while this war wages.

At the same time, I do not find this work to be the work of a "mystical nationalist", if only because reconciliation and union are not big themes in the work. This poem is a song praising the destructive power of war and asserting the necessity for sacrifice and ruthlessness. When Whitman says that no one shall practice their everyday routine, it is a message to the world that says everyone must sacrifice for their side and fight. At the same time, it exhorts the forces of war to disrupt the lives of the enemy, to destroy their lives. This is not a poem that expouses reconciliation and common brotherhood. This is a poem that demands the absolute destruction of not only the enemy's army but of the enemy's way of life. This poem does not carry the sense of someber, tragic necessity that infused the speeches of Lincoln like the Gettysburg Address or hist Second Inaugural. Instead, Whitman succumbs to an all consuming bloodlust that overrides any sense of "mystical" nationalism or reconciliation.

So, while Whitman does not explicitly mention emancipation in this work, he also does not mention or subscirbe to what I would describe as a "mystical" nationalism. This work is an ode to destruction, death, and interruption. There is no overriding sense of nationalism here, only violence. Whitman is caught up in the moment of war, blind to the greater contexts, revelling in the simple chaos and destruction that accompanies it. So, I must respectfully agree and disagree with Neely's assertion, at least in the context of this one particular work.