Monday, March 28, 2011

March 28, 2011: Case by Case

Most of the time I’m very happy with and comfortable in my dual academic allegiances, my membership in the tribes of English and AmericanStudies. But there are times when the two worlds seem to bump up against each other a bit more roughly, and many of them can be traced pretty directly to distinct visions of how we can best analyze works of literature. From an AmericanStudies perspective, at least as it is too often deployed, literary works can help us to understand and analyze historical or social or cultural contexts; such analyses often depend on at least somewhat straightforward and even simplistic visions of the texts’ themes and meanings. But from a literary critical perspective, as least in what I’d call the best kind, literary works are rich and complex and need to be read and analyzed on their own, far from simple or singular, terms; only once such readings are well developed can a scholar then link a text to those broader contexts.
As my descriptions of them no doubt make clear, I side with the literary critical perspective on this one; a particularly good example of the need for such complex literary engagement is the late 18th century African American poet Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley was a slave who had been brought from Africa to the Boston area as a young girl, and in her shortest and most famous poem, “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” she writes about that experience in such positive terms—arguing that it “was Mercy brought me from my pagan land” and introduced her to knowledge of Christianity—that to an AmericanStudies scholar, especially one familiar with both the Middle Passage and the world of slavery, it can seem as if she must be deploying sarcasm or at least irony. But Wheatley’s conversion to Christianity was entirely sincere, and every other poem of hers, as well as all the information that biographers have been able to ascertain, makes clear that she means every word of “On Being Brought.” For the simpler kind of AmericanStudies use of literary works, then, Wheatley can only represent an anomaly, perhaps an illustration of a rare, kinder version of slavery (her owners provided her with an extensive education so she could be a companion to their daughter) or of the power of religious faith to overshadow even difficult experiences such as the Middle Passage.
But what the more complex literary critical perspective can help an AmericanStudier to see is the way in which Wheatley uses her optimistic voice and eloquence to articulate other, extremely sophisticated ideas in her poems. In the second half of “On Being Brought,” for example, she builds on the first half’s conversion experience to speak as a spiritual authority, overtly entreating her white Christian audience to remember that African Americans have just as much potential for salvation and grace as they do. And in another poem, “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” Wheatley develops, to a powerful British audience member, a complex, multi-part argument on behalf of the incipient American Revolution; an argument that includes, in its penultimate stanza, an extended depiction of the effects of slavery on the parents from whom a child is stolen. “Such, such my case,” Wheatley concludes, noting that her awareness of this side of slavery is the source “from whence my love of freedom sprung.” While her vision of her own identity and experiences remains an entirely positive one, she recognizes what and who she has left behind, and constructs their perspective here in service of both the community to which she now belongs and to humanity’s universal quest for freedom.
Those are only a couple of Wheatley’s many impressive poems, and in others—such as an ode to General Washington once the Revolution has fully commenced or an address to religious scholars at England’s University of Cambridge—she focuses on other themes and constructs other, equally complex and eloquent images. And that’s really my point here—the more we take a case like Wheatley’s on its own terms, and in fact analyze her works case by case to develop a sense of her writings and perspective and identity, the more strongly and successfully we can likewise analyze her relationship to her historical, cultural, and social contexts. More tomorrow, on another very inspiring and underrated public American woman.
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Full text of “On Being Brought”:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?

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