Monday, April 27, 2015
April 27, 2015: Communist Culture: “The Palace-Burner”
[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On the masterpiece of a poem that destroys easy “us vs. them” narratives.
I made the case for my favorite American poet, Sarah Piatt, in one of my first posts, and did so in large part through her best poem, “The Palace-Burner” (1873). There are a lot of factors that make “Palace-Burner” one of the great American poems, including its exemplification of Piatt’s frequent use of a unique and multi-layered perspective that I named in my first book the dialogic lyric, an individual speaker’s perspective filtered through conversation and the shifts and evolutions it always produces. But at the top of the list for me would be Piatt’s incredibly sophisticated representation—through the lens of a mother and young son discussing a newspaper picture of a female rebel from the 1871 Paris Commune—of what I called in this post three crucial and interconnected levels to empathy: “connecting to seemingly distant others, working to understand those to whom we’re close, and examining our own identities through those lenses.”
This wasn’t necessarily the case in the 1870s (although given the immense popularity of Horatio Alger novels in the period, maybe it was), but over the century and a half since I would say that there have been few world communities with which Americans have had, collectively, a more difficult time empathizing than communists. Of course there are significant exceptions, both in terms of time periods during which that philosophy has seemed more appealing (such as the Great Depression, about which more in tomorrow’s post) and in terms of American communities who have been sufficiently disenfranchised from our dominant national narratives to see the wisdom of such alternatives (such as African Americans in the mid-20th century, on whom likewise more tomorrow). But when it comes to our overarching, dominant narratives, communism has been one of the most consistent “them’s” to our constructed “us” for a long while; we can see both sides of that equation, for example, in our consistent need to define the Soviet Union as “godless” in contrast to equally constructed images of the United States as a “Christian nation.”
There would be various possible ways to complicate and revise that kind of “us vs. them” narrative, including highlighting the many originating and influential forms and moments of American socialism and communism. But Piatt takes another, and to my mind particularly compelling, tack: creating in her poetic speaker a woman who seems thoroughly removed from not only communism but political conversations in general (especially in the “separate spheres” mentality that continued to reign for most middle-class American families in the period); and then giving that speaker the opportunity to consider whether and how she and a foreign communist woman might have anything in common. Neither the speaker nor the poem come to any easy or comfortable answers—empathy is neither of those things in any case—but they ask the questions, and that seems to me to an impressive model for all of us.
Next cultural communism tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?