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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 24, 2011: I’m on a Boat

Took the ferry over to Martha’s Vineyard today for my Granddad’s funeral, and so got to thinking about some of the most significant boat trips in American literature, history, and culture. Here are four of ‘em, in chronological order:
1)      The Pilgrims Hang On (1620): William Bradford opens Chapter 9 of his Of Plymouth Plantation—the chapter in which he’ll document the Mayflower’s arduous journey—with a pair of contrasting and (to him) very symbolic anecdotes. In the first, an unfriendly sailor who has been making fun of the Pilgrims in their seasickness is suddenly and with justice laid low by illness and dies; in the second, a young Pilgrim named John Howland falls overboard but hangs on to a rope long enough to be saved. It’s easy for a modern reader to focus on the former, on the great pleasure which Bradford takes in recounting the Lord’s vengeance on the sailor, and on what that can reveal about the Puritan mindset; but the latter anecdote is far more telling. Whatever we think of the Puritans, there’s no question that they took a remarkable leap of faith at every stage of their journey; practically every line of Chapter 9 reveals just how uncertain and fraught and seemingly hopeless that journey felt to the community, both on the boat and (even more so) when they finally arrived at Cape Cod’s rocky and wintry shores. But like John Howland, they hung on, and saw their journey through to a very successful completion.
2)      Taking the Amistad (1839): Thanks to one Mr. Spielberg, the Amistad case has likely become nearly as famous in American history as the Pilgrims’ voyage. I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment on its accuracy or storytelling, but I think there’s no question that the story is a unique and very compelling one. Not only because it represents one of the only documented occasions on which the captives on a slave ship (a Spanish one, in this case) overthrew the ship’s crew and took control of the vessel themselves; but also and even more compellingly because of two results when the slaves were recaptured (by a US Coast Guard vessel) and brought to the States. For one thing, abolitionists sued for their release and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that since the international slave trade had been abolished, the slaves were being transported illegally and so were free. And for another, the freed slaves lived for a time in Farmington, Connecticut before returning to Africa, and there, according to a piece written half a century later for the Farmington Magazine by Charles Ledyard Norton, became a vibrant part of the town’s community.
3)      Helga’s Round Trip (1928): There are many ways I could describe Helga Crane, the protagonist of Nella Larsen’s novella Quicksand: she’s the mixed-race daughter of a West Indian immigrant father and a Danish immigrant mother, struggling to come to grips with that heritage; she’s a proud, beautiful, and very refined (and picky) young women struggling to find a place and a man with whom she can connect; she’s quite a bit like Larsen herself, but presented by Larsen’s third-person narrator with both sympathy and critique, in complex mixture. But the best single word for Helga would have to be “mobile.” Every three or four chapters she moves to a new place, and the most dramatic such moves are her trans-Atlantic journeys: first away from New York and the Harlem Renaissance and to her mother’s relatives in Copenhagen; and then, a few months later, away from that somewhat ideal but ultimately too foreign world and back to New York and her destiny in the text. These journeys not only reveal a good deal about both the lengths to which Helga is willing to travel to try to find a place she can belong and the breadth of her cross-cultural American identity, but about Americans’ increasing ability in the early 20th century to travel that interconnected world.
4)      A Steamer and a Rowboat (1974): I’ve written before here about one of my favorite American films, The Godfather Part 2. As I wrote there, one of the film’s greatest strengths is in its juxtaposition of the flashbacks to Vito Corleone’s immigrant saga and the present-day narrative of his son Michael’s consolidation of his identity as the new Godfather. And one of the most striking contrasts within that juxtaposition has to be between the boat trips that open and close those respective stories: Vito’s American experience begins with his arrival in New York Harbor on an epic steamer, the Statue of Liberty rising above to promise him all that American life and opportunities can mean; Michael’s narrative in the film closes with his brother Fredo taking a ride out onto the family property’s lake in a dingy rowboat, the closing tableau and gunshot (the latter heard after we have cut to Michael in his solitary and tragic power) signaling all that the family’s American story has become.
PS. Five links to start with:
2)      A piece on Farmington and abolition; the Amistad section starts around page 12:
4)      The final seconds of Godfather 2:
5)      OPEN: Any boat trips you’d add to the list?

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