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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

December 7, 2010: Speak Now

The early 1850s have long been known, at least within literary circles, as the American Renaissance. For decades that designation was used because of the many classic texts by uber-canonical American authors that were published within a few years of one another: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables; Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Pierre; Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; Walt Whitman’s first version of Leaves of Grass; many of Emily Dickinson’s foundational early poems; and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s collection “Representative Men.” With the expansions of the canon in the 1980s and beyond, many other authors and significant works have been added to that roster—including Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; and Frederick Douglass’s first two versions of his autobiography—which has only cemented the sense of the era as a hugely productive and influential one in our literary history. I can’t disagree with that at all, but I would argue that the focus on written works has obscured a bit the fact that within a two-year period in this era (1852 to 1854) two of America’s most eloquent, powerful, and important speeches were delivered (actually three if we add in Sojourner Truth’s 1851 “Ain’t I a Woman,” about which I’ll have more to say in another post).
The historical contexts behind and specific details related to the two speeches and their authors could not be more distinct. When Frederick Douglass delivered his “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” on July 4th, 1852, he was already a very well-known and prominent voice in the abolitionist movement (so much so that he had been invited to give the speech as part of Rochester’s July 4th celebration), and as a result the speech was published soon afterward as a pamphlet; its text has thus remained pretty stable over the subsequent century and a half. By contrast, Chief Seattle, a leader of the Susquamish tribe in Washington State, was largely unknown in his own era, and his untitled 1854 speech at a meeting between various Northwest tribes and the new territorial governor only appeared in any written form thirty-three years later, when local leader and poet Dr. Henry Smith published a transcript in the October 29, 1887 edition of the Seattle Sunday Star; Smith had witnessed the speech, but it was given in a native dialect and so his version was at least a translation and quite possibly (especially given his literary career) an embellishment. Moreover, Seattle’s speech was for a time transformed as part of a late 20th century documentary film into a much more fully environmental message, with various lines, it was later made clear, added by a scriptwriter. In short, while we can feel pretty certain that we have an authentic version of Douglass’s words, there is and will always remain significant uncertainty about Seattle’s.
Such distinctions are important, especially given my earlier arguments about the dangers of propagandistic versions of history that don’t do justice to its complexities and details. But if we get lost in those details, it’s possible to lose as well a sense of the power that provides one of the central reasons for remembering the history at all—and both of these speeches are as powerful as they come, if in similarly distinct ways. Douglass uses a remarkable combination of irony and sarcasm, opening by calling out his own audience and occasion for having invited him, a runaway slave, to celebrate America’s Independence Day, and then moving into one of the most full-throated and impassioned attacks on every aspect of the slave system—including and especially the many ways in which the majority of Americans supported or at least enabled it—ever delivered in any genre. Seattle’s tone is far more elegiac, lamenting all that his tribe and all Native American communities have lost, and his critique of America’s actions and narratives is likewise more subdued but no less powerful, particularly in its closing images of all the ways in which, even if he manages to destroy all native communities, “the white man will never be alone.” What both do, better perhaps than any speech I have read or heard, is force their principal audiences far out of their comfort zone, making them engage with some of our darkest realities, their contributions to them, and ultimately, if most implicitly, how they might change both themselves and these realities.
That final point in particular is what truly distinguishes the speech as a literary genre—it represents a text that comes into existence in direct relationship to an audience, and that seeks more fully than any other work to do something to and for that audience.  And whatever these speeches did and accomplished in their own moments—a question that would, again, lead back into the very different contexts and histories around and of the two speeches—they can of course continue to speak to us, to connect with contemporary audiences and profoundly influence our own sense of American history and identity. More tomorrow, on the 1930s protest march that redefined American social and political activism.
PS. Two links to start with:
1)      A great site on, and including, the multiple versions of Seattle’s speech:
2)      Full text of Douglass’s speech:

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