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12.09.12

Classics of American Literature

Lecture 1,2

Topics for Further Consideration:

1. Explain to what extent you think "self-made man" applies to the life and career of Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, is said to have created the concept of the self-made man. In his Autobiography, he describes his way from a poor, unknown son of a candle-maker to a very successful business man and highly acknowledged member of the American society. Franklin creates the archetype of someone coming from low origins, who, against all odds, breaks out of his inherited social position, climbs up the social ladder and creates a new identity for himself. Key factors in this rise from rags to riches are hard work and a solid moral foundation. Franklin also stresses the significance of education for self-improvement.

2. Defend Franklin against the criticisms leveled at him by D.H. Lawrence.

Franklin remains one of most successful and diverse men in American history. He was indisputably the country’s greatest printer, as well as one of its most successful journalists. In the field of science, he made important contributions to the study of electricity. As a Founding Father, he was instrumental in the cause of independence. Throughout these various careers, he wrote, producing an astounding number of news articles, essays, satires, sketches, hoaxes, proposals, observations, reports, aphorisms, bagatelles, and letters, as well as an autobiography that has become a classic of world literature. Indeed, Franklin’s literature may be his most enduring legacy. More than two centuries after his death, his words continue to enlighten.

American Passages Unit 1

What is an American? How does American literature create conceptions of the American experience and identity?

Literature has provided us with many ideas of what “American” means. It has preserved the oral traditions of the most ancient Native Americans, conveyed the revolutionary ideals of the United States’ founding fathers, and provided a vehicle for political, religious, and personal narratives that have both harmed and benefited the nation. Over the centuries literature has contributed to the concept of the "American" with cultural characters both fictional (e.g. Jay Gatsby and Tom Sawyer), and historical (e.g. Benjamin Franklin and the Puritans). These characters have come to stand for the best and worst of America, representing both heroes and villains.

Literature has preserved some of the best specimens of Americana, but it has also given a voice to those who would not otherwise be heard, to those who were considered to be on the outskirts of the American experience. The poet Walt Whitman, for example, used his poetry (especially "Song of Myself") to expand the idea of American identity by including men, women, slaves, young, old, and crazy alike into his vision of America, which was the same thing as "myself". Langston Hughes' powerful poem "I, Too" served to enlarge this idea of "myself" and America to include African Americans who had been treated as less-than-human by many of their fellow citizens. Literature helps bind us together, but it also highlights the differences between fellow Americans.

The more I read of American literature, the more I see the suffering, the injustice, the hatred, the misunderstandings, the bigotry, the sorrow, the hardship--the more I see all the things that tell us that the American Dream is an unreality, and even if it was real it wouldn't be worth pursuing--the more I am glad that I don't have to defend everything my country has done and is doing and will do in the name of "America." And yet I am proud to be an American, proud of my country's noble heritage, its fine ideals, its history, its philosophy, its future. I'm proud of the wide Southern porches, and the Kansas sunflower fields, and the Hollywood glamour, and the New York flurry, and the Wisconsin winters, and the Florida beaches. I'm proud of the melding, the varied inheritance, the vibrant combinations that come from a million different colors and tongues. What a contradiction! What a paradox! It's a problem as big as America herself. How to reconcile a country one doesn't agree with, and yet loves?

What is American literature? What are its distinctive voices and styles? How do social and political issues influence the American canon?

American literature is the written or literary work produced in the area of the United States and its preceding colonies.

Colonial Literature. American writing began with the work of English adventurers and colonists in the New World chiefly for the benefit of readers in the mother country.

The first work published in the Puritan colonies was the Bay Psalm Book (1640), and the whole effort of the divines who wrote furiously to set forth their views-among them Roger Williams and Thomas Hooker-was to defend and promote visions of the religious state.

The approach of the American Revolution and the achievement of the actual independence of the United States was a time of intellectual activity as well as social and economic change.

Trends in American Fiction. The connection of American literature with writing in England and Europe was again stressed by William Dean Howells, who was not only an able novelist but an instructor in literary realism to other American writers.

The realism preached by Howells was turned away from bourgeois milieus by a number of American writers, particularly Stephen Crane in his poetry and his fiction-Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and the Civil War story, The Red Badge of Courage (1895).

A canon is a list of texts that are generally considered to be the most important ones in a particular language or culture. Obviously, people will have different interpretations of what should be included in the American literary canon, but the critic who has done most to popularise the concept of the canon is Harold Bloom.

The American canon refers to works of American literature and poetry that are largely considered by critics and scholars to effectively represent the American experience or perspective within art. There are many different writers whose works are considered a part of the American canon, and lists of this canon usually mention only particular works. While Washington Irving is often considered an important and influential American writer, most canonical lists usually only mention a single work, in this case The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

How do place and time shape literature and our understanding of it?

American literature is the written or literary work produced in the area of the United States and its preceding colonies. For more specific discussions of poetry and theater, see Poetry of the United States and Theater in the United States. During its early history, America was a series of British colonies on the eastern coast of the present-day United States. Therefore, its literary tradition begins as linked to the broader tradition of English literature. However, unique American characteristics and the breadth of its production usually now cause it to be considered a separate path and tradition.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What are some differences between traditional Native American and European ways of seeing the world?

Native Americans in the United States are the indigenous peoples in North America within the boundaries of the present-day continental United States, parts of Alaska, and the island state of Hawaii. They are composed of numerous, distinct Native American tribes and ethnic groups, many of which survive as intact political communities.

Europeans created most of the early written historical record about Native Americans after the colonists' immigration to the Americas. Many Native Americans lived as hunter-gatherer societies and told their histories by oral traditions.

The differences in cultures between the established Native Americans and immigrant Europeans, as well as shifting alliances among different nations of each culture through the centuries, caused extensive political tension, ethnic violence and social disruption.

Native American traditions are rich and varied. Many American Indians define themselves not primarily as “Native Americans” but as members of a specific tribe.

Contemporary Native Americans have a unique relationship with the United States because they may be members of nations, tribes, or bands with sovereignty and treaty rights.

  1. What are some elements of the “oral tradition”? What are some of the ways in which traditional Native American and European storytellers might differ? What social issues appear in Silko’s Ceremony?

Oral traditions vary by region and tribe, and scholars have tended to examine the influence of the American Indian oral tradition upon contemporary American Indian written literature in two ways: (1) the content and (2) the style. When people explore how the content of the American Indian oral tradition has influenced contemporary literature, they usually turn to the stories and songs of American Indian peoples. These stories tend to focus on particular characters and to include standard events and elements. Some of the most common tale-types include gambler, trickster, creation, abduction, and migration legends. Contemporary authors can use these tale-types in their works: for example, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony retells Yellow Woman stories—a Pueblo abduction cycle. In addition to looking at the content of the stories, scholars have looked at the style of contemporary American Indian literature to examine the influence of the oral tradition. Oral style has been characterized as empathetic, participatory, situational, and reliant on repetition. In the oral tradition, repetition is crucial both for ceremonial reasons and because it aids in the process of memorization and provides narrative cohesion. To repeat words is also to wield a certain power. Perhaps most importantly, the oral tradition is tied to the land: as author and critic Greg Sarris explains, “The landscape becomes the bible and each stone, each mountain, each set of trees or a river, or a section of the river becomes a text, because they become a way of remembering stories, and stories associated with that place.”

  1. What part of the United States are Tapahonso, Ortiz, and Silko from? What tribe is each writer from? What part does World War II play in Silko’s Ceremony?

Ceremony is a novel by Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko. Ceremony follows the troubles of Tayo, a half-white, half-Laguna man, as he struggles to cope with battle fatigue after surviving World War II and witnessing the death of his cousin Rocky during the Bataan Death March of 1942.

After spending several months recovering from injuries sustained during his captivity at a VA Hospital in Los Angeles, California, Tayo returns home to his family's home at Laguna Pueblo. Tayo suffers from increasing mental instability and turns to alcoholism to escape his inner turmoil. Tayo eventually turns to traditional pueblo spirituality and ceremony as a source of healing.

All of Silko's work draws on her personal experience as a Native American. As she often points out in interviews, Native American culture is passed on through a profoundly communal process of storytelling. Silko bases her work on traditional Native American stories, using narrative techniques that emphasize their communal aspects, even in books authored by one woman. The oral nature of traditional Native American storytelling ensures that each version will be slightly changed, and updated. In this spirit, she affirms in interviews, Silko's works are a continuation, not a reinterpretation, of the traditional stories. Ceremony features the three most important figures in Pueblo mythology, Thought Woman, Corn Mother, and Sun Father both in their traditional stories and in updated versions. Tayo, the main character in Ceremony, is also a figure in traditional Laguna stories. All of Silko's works demonstrate her concern with the preservation of Native American culture, including traditions, languages, and natural resources, in combination with an awareness of the reality of cultural miscegenation (mixing).

• American Indian oral traditions link people to the culture, myths, and land. Traditionally, the oral storyteller is a human individual who relates the mythological to others. Contemporary American Indian written literature draws on oral traditions even as it translates them into European forms. These stories are necessary for the culture to survive in the era after European contact. A kind of "cultural contact," this written literature deals with the interaction of Native and European cultures and identities. This video focuses on three Native American writers from the Southwest: Luci Tapahonso (Navajo), Simon J. Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo), and Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo).

• Luci Tapahonso's poems "They Are Silent and Quick" and "A Breeze Swept Through" draw on and are a product of Navajo language, tradition, and landscape.

• Simon J. Ortiz's writing reflects a renewed transmission of Acoma Pueblo cultural memory, as in "My Mother and Sister." It also conveys the often fractured and besieged state of being a Native American today, as in his poem "8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH." These poems reflect the bicultural world of contemporary Native Americans.

• Like "8:50 AM Ft. Lyons VAH," Leslie Marmon Silko's novel Ceremony deals with the post-World War II experience of Native Americans. The novel attempts to reintegrate the shattered experience of its protagonist, Tayo, with the old stories and worldviews. The Laguna ceremonies must be adapted to cope with the current world, or else the old ways will die. In Storyteller, Silko demonstrates the ways in which language does not merely reflect the world, but can directly affect it.

• Native American literature is particular to tribal people in its invocation of the concrete power of language to heal and guide, but it is also like all American literature in probing what it means to be American.

Context Questions

  1. How do elements of a specifically Native American worldview inform the work of the writers featured in the video?

Contemporary American Indian writers creatively employ and adapt native traditions even as they address contemporary American Indian life, and therefore American life in general. Luci Tapahonso, Simon J. Ortiz, and Leslie Marmon Silko are three writers who draw on their different southwestern native heritages to keep the old ideas and cultures alive in the form of new, relevant stories.

There are several key regions in Native American studies: the Southwest, Plains, California, Midwest, Northeast, Northwest, South, and Southwest. The video focuses on the Southwest. I found a balance between information that is specific to the tribe of each author and information about qualities that are shared among American Indian peoples.

The definition of Native American literature is closely tied to what people think constitutes the essence of Native American identity. Three views stand out in this highly contested debate: those of legal bloodlines, cultural traditions, and bicultural production. As literary critic Kenneth Lincoln notes, one “working definition of ‘Indian,’ though criteria vary from region to region, is minimally a quarter blood and tribal membership”.

  1. How do the contemporary writers featured in the video draw on the oral tradition in their works?

Oral traditions vary by region and tribe, and scholars have tended to examine the influence of the American Indian oral tradition upon contemporary American Indian written literature in two ways: (1) the content and (2) the style. When people explore how the content of the American Indian oral tradition has influenced contemporary literature, they usually turn to the stories and songs of American Indian peoples.

Oral style has been characterizedas empathetic, participatory, situational, and reliant on repetition. In the oral tradition, repetition is crucial both for ceremonial reasons and because it aids in the process of memorization and provides narrative cohesion. To repeat words is also to wield a certain power. Perhaps most importantly, the oral tradition is tied to the land: as author and critic Greg Sarris explains, “The landscape becomes the bible and each stone, each mountain, each set of trees or a river, or a section of the river becomes a text, because they become a way of remembering stories, and stories associated with that place.”

  1. How do the tribe, landscape, and environment with which each writer is familiar affect his or her work?

The tribe, landscape, and environment with which each writer is familiar affect his or her work very well. When people explore how the content of the American Indian oral tradition has influenced contemporary literature, they usually turn to the stories and songs of American Indian peoples. These stories tend to focus on particular characters and to include standard events and elements. Some of the most common tale-types include gambler, trickster, creation, abduction, and migration legends. Contemporary authors can use these tale-types in their works: for example, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony retells Yellow Woman stories—a Pueblo abduction cycle. In addition to looking at the content of the stories, scholars have looked at the style of contemporary American Indian literature to examine the influence of the oral tradition.

Exploration Questions

  1. How much do you know about Native American history and culture? To what extent is it important for non–Native Americans to know these traditions? What do you gain by learning about them? What would you lose if you didn’t know them?

Native American traditions are rich and varied. There are over five hundred Native American languages, each one as different as English is from Arabic and as Arabic is from Swahili. Each Indian nation has its own myths, its own histories, its own personal stories. As Native American author N. Scott Momaday writes, “The voices are all around us, the three voices. You have the mythic and the historical and the personal and then they become a wheel, they revolve, they alternate. .

Dance played a very important role in Native American tribes. People danced for many occasions and ceremonies. Weddings, like the one on the image on the left, were usually very festive and Many tribes in many regions celebrated the harvest. One of the most important crops was corn, so the corn harvest was often celebrated through dance. Usually people danced and chanted to the beat of the drum. Dance was also used in many ceremonies such as the Sun dance and the Rain dance. Even shamans sometimes used dance to call the spirits to heal the sick and wounded. During these festivals the people painted their faces white to represent happiness. They danced, played games,and thank spirits for good harvest. Native Americans knew a lot about healing and natural medicine.

Native Americans were great storytellers. They had many legends. They told stories that taught lessons and were passed from one generation to another. These legends help save the culture and traditions of many tribes. Some legends talk about heroes. There are also stories about tricksters.

  1. What topics, styles, or ideas would you expect to see in a contemporary Native American written text? How do you imagine the text might differ from—and be similar to—literary works written by Americans with European, African, or Asian heritages?Would the absence of typically Native American concerns in a book by a Native American affect your judgment of that book?

Native American traditions are rich and varied. There are over five hundred Native American languages, each one as different as English is from Arabic and as Arabic is from Swahili. Each Indian nation has its own myths, its own histories, its own personal stories. As Native American author N. Scott Momaday writes, “The voices are all around us, the three voices. You have the mythic and the historical and the personal and then they become a wheel, they revolve, they alternate. . . . Myth becomes history becomes memoir becomes myth.” What unites these Native American cultures? What does it mean to study American Indian literature? To answer these questions is to begin to consider what it means to be American and Native American simultaneously. The definition of Native American literature is closely tied to what people think constitutes the essence of Native American identity. Three views stand out in this highly contested debate: those of legal bloodlines, cultural traditions, and bicultural production.

The Plains Indians believed in the Great Spirit. The Indians believed the Great Spirit had power over all things including animals, trees, stones, and clouds. The earth was believed to be the mother of all spirits. The sun had great power also because it gave the earth light and warmth. The Plains Indians prayed individually and in groups. They believed visions in dreams came from the spirits. The medicine man or shaman was trained in healing the sick and interpreting signs and dreams.

A Brief History of Native American Written Literature

The first native American literary texts were offered orally, and they link the earth-surface people with the plants and animals, the rivers and rocks, and all things believed significant in the life of America’s first people. The texts tie Indian people to the earth and its life through a spiritual kinship with the living and dead relatives of Native Americans. Coyote, raven, fox, hawk, turtle, rabbit and other animal characters in the stories are considered by many Native Americans to be their relatives. In the same way, the Plant People are related to Indian people. Oak, maple, pine, cedar, fir, corn, squash, berries and roots are viewed as relatives. The Animal People and Plant People participated in a history before and after the arrival of humans, and this history was kept through the spoken word. There was a similar relationship with the geographical features of the earth.

Telling a story and writing a story, even if they are the same story, remembered from generation to generation, are not the same way of preserving the story. The teller and the writer use different faculties of mind, and have different habits and disciplines of language, memory, tradition. Each has a different responsibility to the story, and to the listener or the page. The teller’s relationship to the story and the listener, both at once, is direct. The writer wrestles with the page, with the story, in solitude.

The history of literature written in English by American Indians parallels the history of white migration across the continent. White exploration and settlement were followed by the arrival of missionaries who converted Indians to Christianity and educated them in religious schools.

The first Native American writer to be published in English was Samson Occom (Mohegan, 1723-92). Although raised as a typical Mohegan boy, at 16 he began to study English, was converted to Christianity, became a schoolmaster to Indians and then served as a missionary among New England Indians. His 1771 A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian went through 19 editions.

The genre in which most Native American authors of the 19th and 20th centuries have written is autobiography. This choice represents a break with oral tradition because the personal narrative is not part of American Indian oral literatures. Many Native cultures consider talking about oneself inappropriate. William Apes (Pequot, b. 1797) published the first autobiography written by an Indian, A Son of the Forest, The Experiences of William Apes, A Native of the Forest. Written by Himself (New York, Author, 1829, expanded and revised 1831). His final work was the eloquent Eulogy on King Philip, which traces white abuse of New England Indians in the 17th and 18th centuries. After publication of this book, Apes disappeared from public view, leaving no record of his later life and death.

  1. Why do you think it might be important for these writers to incorporate the specifics of their own time and place into their texts? What would be lost if they did not incorporate such elements?

It is important for these writers to incorporate the specifics of their own time and place into their texts,because an idea would be lost if they did not incorporate such elements.

Many American Indians define themselves not primarily as “Native Americans” but as members of a specific tribe. It is important as you read the authors in this unit to remember that what you know about the Navajo and their religious traditions probably will not apply to the Chippewa, a people geographically, linguistically, and culturally separate from them. Some scholars have suggested, however, that Native American communities within a particular geographic region tend to be culturally more homologous because they are often from the same language family and because cultures are often shaped by the landscapes out of which they emerge. There are several key regions in Native American studies: the Southwest, Plains, California, Midwest, Northeast, Northwest, South, and Southwest. The video focuses on the Southwest; however, in the unit you will find information about the other regions.I found a balance between information that is specific to the tribe of each author and information about qualities that are shared among American Indian peoples.

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