[As another semester wraps up, a series on some AmericanStudies lessons I’ve learned from my courses and students this spring. Share some of your semesters, won’t you?]On the many sides to the defining role that crosses all cultural and national borders.
For the first two identities about which we read in my Ethnic American Literature course, the absence of their mothers served as a tragic introduction to the world’s darkest sides. Frederick Douglass opens his Narrative (1845) with the heartbreaking story of his only experiences with his mother (before her very early death), when she would walk for miles from the plantation to which she had been sold in order to lie quietly beside him for a time at night. Richard Wright opens Black Boy (1945) with a scene in which his mother beats him brutally, but I’m thinking even more about the later section where Wright describes her extended illness as his fullest introduction to the world’s overarching brutalities. For both men, these separations from their mothers could be read as intimate reflections of the social worlds—slavery and segregation—into which they had been born.
The course’s next two narrators, Mary Doyle Curran’s fictional Mary O’Connor and Michael Patrick MacDonald’s autobiographical Michael, are born into social struggles of their own; but for these two, their mothers provide instead powerful presences and groundings within those shifting and potentially threatening worlds. Mary ends the introductory first chapter by noting how much her mother’s voice and presence have stayed with her, despite a third-generation Irish American life that has taken her far away from her mother’s house. For Michael and his many siblings, the steady and strong presence of their Ma quite literally guides them through the Southie of Whitey Bulger, the busing riots, the crack epidemic, and the endemic violence against which Michael’s life and work become (in honor of his mother and all the neighborhood’s mothers) an activist protest.
One of the course’s culminating two novels, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), comprises to my mind the most extended and effective portrayal of mother-daughter relationships in all of American literature. Much of Tan’s focus seems specific to the Chinese American experiences, issues, and conflicts embodied by her immigrant mothers and their American-born daughters. But when we pair Tan’s book with the course’s other culminating novel, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1993), we see just how much such multi-generational American families and stories are defined by strong maternal influences—Erdrich’s Marie Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine are two hugely complex women in their own right, but taken together they produce and embody the worst and best of the novel’s Chippewa American communities—and in the book’s beautiful final images, Marie’s adopted daughter June Kasphaw becomes a defining maternal presence for her son Lipsha and another generation.
Next semester conclusion tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Literary mothers you’d highlight?
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