Page 1

1 Introduction to American Literature Attendance register. We have studied Irish Literature and Romanticism together before, but this is the first time we have looked at anything American. What American literature have you read before? How would you characterise it? The course is entitled simply ‘Twentieth-Century American Literature’ – what we will be studying will be the various literatures of the American twentieth-century, poetry and prose, tracing particular the influence of certain modernist ideas and practices through those developing forms. In particular we will trace two central themes in modern American literary practice; the themes of Democracy and Domesticity [show slide]. What do these things mean? - Democracy: a system of government by the whole population (not by an aristocracy, nor by 49% of voters, or even 80% - everyone should be involved). It is also an idea more generally, and a way of thinking in various ways (some contradictory) that are paramount in the USA’s thinking about itself. The poets we will study this term will all, in one way or another, address democracy – some in support of it, others providing a critique of it, and others providing a critique of America’s failure to provide a government or society suited to democratic discourse. - Domesticity: home or family life. Where democracy provides the public selfhood of America, this will relate to Americans’ private concerns. Through this topic we will see American writers address the divide between public and private selves, as well as exploring directly the particular nature of American family experience and homelife. We will be reading selected texts from between the end of the nineteenth-century to mid-way through the twentieth-, all of which is included in the readers’ pack, which I will distribute now and will be available for you for photocopying – it is essential that you have this copied and distributed by our next lecture on Wednesday. What was America like during this period? - A superpower. - An imperial force. - The world’s cultural leader. In order to understand how American had arrived at this place, as well as what the background is of the literature that we will be reading, I think it is sensible to briefly review some elements of the American project from before the twentieth-century. Introduction I would like to begin, now, with an introduction to the topic of American literature [show title slide] in general, before moving on to some of the historical factors that lie behind the specific things that we will be studying this term. Throughout this course, and the other courses on American literature that follow, we will be looking, repeatedly, in detail, and with varying answers throughout, at two questions [show slide]:

2 - the first will be: what is America? - the second; what constitutes a distinctive American literature? Let’s look at these questions now. The first question - what is America? - Do you have any answers to this question? Geography - Two continents, or, for this course, however, we will be primarily interested in just one country that takes up (at the present day) much of a continent; the United States of America. A federal constitutional republic comprising of 50 states and a federal district – 48 contiguous states, two non-contiguous (Alaska and Hawaii) – though during the colonial period it was not defined in anything like this way, nor with this terminology. 1776 declares independence from Britain, though Britain does not accept this until 1783 – at that time just 13 states on the East Coast, though this would expand to 50 by the middle of the nineteenth-century [show expansion slide]. Demographics Now made up of around 312 million people, in 1776 about 2.5 million, in 1492 somewhere between 1 and 6 million. What kind of population is this / was this? A mixed population ethnically, religiously and culturally. [show slide of today’s races] What narratives can we see buried in these statistics? - Depletion of the Native American population; from 100% before 1492 to less than 1%. - Slavery. You will notice that the percentage of the population that is, even now, African American, is equivalent to the percentage of the population of slaves before the Abolition of Slavery [show slide showing developing population demographics during the first 70 years of the USA] – thus we can see historical factors clearly mapped out in the demographics of modern America. Also note that the slave population in 1860 was about the same as the entire population of 1790. We can also see, then, a very ambiguous beginning to the multiculturalism that is now such an integral part of American identity, with race relations beginning in the worst possible way and leading to centuries of conflict that still exist today. Religion


What about religion, what is the religious make-up of the USA? [show slide of religion in the USA in 2002] - Mixed, religiously. - Christianity dominant, particularly Protestantism in one form or another. Remember that this is a highly schismatic religion. Does anything surprise you about this list? - Not very many Muslims. - Not very many Jews. - Both sets of statistics make it clear that America is a more homogenous place than many people realise or suggest; white Protestants make up by far the largest portion of American society – the ‘melting pot’ exists predominantly only in large cosmopolitan areas such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco &c. Ideas To begin thinking about American thought, I would like you to suggest some words to describe it; nouns or adjectives. (Write on board) You do not have to believe in or agree with these ideas; think of things that are commonly associated with America by Americans or others. Here we have some possible, often contradictory concepts to think about: Freedom; freedom for whom, freedom from what, freedom to what extent? Democracy; again; who will vote? For whom? To what extent will there be real choice – just for government every few years, or on a local level – police, mayors, administrators, shops, sports and businesses? To what extent is it right / possible for the USA to attempt to urge other nations towards democratic systems? Capitalism; to whose benefit? For the rich? The USA? The world? Division; between races, religions, philosophies, financial. Racism; Equality; again we might question the extent to which this American Dream has really been achieved in the USA. The top one per cent of Americans in terms of wealth controlled 42.2 % of total American financial wealth in 2004. A division which is continuing to grow. Religious tolerance; as we shall see, this early concern of the American project has had its limits, right from the very beginning; the Puritans left England not so that they could live in a place where people in general were religiously tolerated, but so they could live in a society that was homogenously of one religion. Fundamental Christianity – the dominant religious experience of much of the USA, one that is conservative, illiberal and often much concerned with identity politics and stances that would seem contradictory to the ideal of personal freedom so important to American thinking about itself. Atheism – at the same time as the American project is clearly built upon religious foundations, it also has, particularly today, a reputation for godlessness. Imperialism – growing from a colony, it is, contradictorily perhaps, now unquestionably the world’s most powerful imperial force – though in a less honest, perhaps softer, manner than previous empires.

4 Cultural excellence / cultural imperialism – that imperialism is often fell in ‘soft’ ways; through cultural imperialism (perhaps through avenues such as this course, as well as Hollywood, the music industry and so on) and through the omnipresence of American industry around the planet; Coca-Cola, Pepsi &c. Corruption – political corruption, financial, moral, sexual, cultural. Can you think of any other ways? Many of these concepts have strong effects upon the period we will study this term. Ideology is so important to America and American literature; as we study we will learn that the USA is unique because it represents the self-conscious, purposeful creation of a cultural world, of a country and ideology. All other nations on earth up to that point had emerged through bloody struggle between aristocracies &c. – long historical processes through which national identities were created over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In the USA, however, this process did not happen naturally over a long period of time, and instead happened in a planned and self-conscious way. It had to happen very quickly, with the new American government after independence’s first, most pressing task to create the ideological underpinning of what America was to be – but it happened at the willing of a group of middle-class, free-thinking intellectual men. This is the first time a country had been ‘created’ in this self-conscious way. You might want to think of Ataturk creating modern Turkey as something of a parallel to this process. Both are revolutionary moments during which the values of a people are to be established. It is worth, briefly, studying this moment of self-creation for what it offers to our understanding of where modern America has come from. The sentiments behind America’s creation of itself emerge from something that we call ‘The American Enlightenment’. Does anyone know this word, ‘Enlightenment’? What does it entail? - Outgrowth of learning; the professionalization of the sciences and the arts, the codification of the cultural and scientific world as we know it in the 17th and 18th centuries. [show slide] What are the central ideas of this philosophical / cultural development? The Two Fundamental Characteristics of the Philosophy of Enlightenment are: 1) faith in the Reason and human rationality and the rejection of unquestioned tradition and pre-established institutions and thoughts; 2) Search for practical, useful knowledge and the power to control nature The manner in which we would look to organise society changes accordingly at this point; as is seen particularly in political actions like the founding of the USA and the French Revolution shortly afterwards. The individual becomes more importantThe French revolution stressed liberté, fraternité, Égalité - do you know what these words mean? Likewise, the American enlightenment is also generally associated with certain qualities, any idea what they might be? • Liberty • Democracy • Republicanism • Religious Tolerance We can see these as the political manifestations of those two central ideas of the enlightenment.

5 And they will be the values that those Americans attempting to find values appropriate and adequate to the great, utopian project of founding a nation would attempt to enshrine in the founding documents of that nation. The Declaration of Independence A useful document to look at at this juncture is The Declaration of Independence; the document upon which the whole country was founded, both legally and culturally – and in that sense perhaps the beginning of American literature. It is a legal document as well as a kind of literary text. Drafted by hired lawyer Thomas Jefferson, this is how The Declaration of Independence begins: When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

What is the attitude that Jefferson and the Congress are expressing here? How is this an Enlightenment document? - Argument rather than force – ‘decent respect to the opinions of mankind’. The combination between the ‘Laws of Nature and Nature’s God’ is also typical of this period – thus the metaphysical and the physical are to be combined and apprehended as part of one continuity. The ‘Declaration’ then proceeds to its most famous lines: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it; and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

[Go through this extract – pointing out the Enlightenment aspects of each of the statements] That truths can be self-evident is an extension of the philosophical discussions of John Locke, and an intense refutation of that most un-enlightenment concept, the Divine Right of Kings. What do we think about these as rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? • • •

Life – we all die, does he mean ‘health’? Healthcare? A National Health Service? Liberty – is liberty even possible at all? Hegel: “When liberty is mentioned, we must always be careful to observe whether it is not really the assertion of private interests which is thereby designated.” The Pursuit of Happiness – no guarantee of happiness here.


Can you think of any problems that might arise from this? The Declaration goes on to list a series of specific allegations against George and his government – and we should remember that these three ‘unalienable rights’ are at least partly reactions to British interference. The fact that it was a co-written document with many signees illustrates the spirit of cooperation at the beginning of the USA. A fundamentally different mind-set from British foreign policy. This, then, is essentially the beginning point for an American cultural identity – it gives perhaps the beginning to the answer of the question ‘what is America?’ The rest of the texts we will study will in various senses all be trying to answer the same question as Jefferson was when he wrote the Declaration of Independence – it will be a constant throughout the four courses you will take with me. We are, however, literature students, and we must broaden this question to include literature. We will now address the second question that should be considered throughout our study of American Literature:

-what constitutes a distinctive American literature? What does this question mean? The central problem here is that American literature shares a language with English literature, and, until the mid-19th-century, and for some, beyond then, it was considered a branch, a relatively minor branch, of English literature. How can we decide if a literature is distinctively American or not. - We can probably decide that it will be at least some of these four things a) written by an American b) written in America c) written about America d) written in an American style (as there is no specifically American language) As an example of what might possibly constitute this distinctively American literature I would like us to look at one poem by the American poet William Carlos Williams. Read poem – any words that are difficult?


William Carlos Williams ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ (1923) so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.

Written by an American poet in America. What is the poem about? Show image of chickens and wheelbarrow. What depends on the wheelbarrow? - the farm - a family’s livelihood - the chickens - therefore; community - therefore; the region - therefore; the USA SHOW SLIDE RE WILLIAMS’S EXPLANATION OF THE POEM How is this American? - Direct style / no rhyme / meter or anything; free verse - eschews traditional English rhyme forms - poetic techniques; no metaphor / simile or anything like that - eschews traditional English poetic subject matter Show his own explanation of the poem – about community / races existing together / equality. How does this connect with the values we saw espoused in the ‘Declaration of Independence’? Equality / fraternity are emphasised here. The enlightenment’s control of nature is emphasised. America’s dependence on such processes for its community and sustenance also.


Conclusion Part of our project, then, for this course and the courses we will take together over the coming years, will be to try and understand how such texts and ideas relate to one another; how the ideals of Jefferson are defended and critiqued through centuries of an America dealing with numerous difficulties, including becoming the world’s most formidable military as well as fundamentally influencing culture and the dissemination of culture throughout the world.

Introduction to american literature