Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Reading Hughes Visitors to the Black Belt described that view the outsiders had on the black society without really knowing them and how the visitors are the "outsiders" In Sandburgs poem Chicago he describes the good and bad and those descriptions would be those of an outsider who does not know anything about the city of Chicago.
I cant truly say that I will look forward to reading more material from them two authors because there is something about their writing that pulls me in.
American literature is not my favorite thing on any day. I can think of only one American author who would fit into my personal top ten list, and it is quite possible that I am least familiar with American literature as compared to other categorizations. Despite my lack of interest and excitement about the reading materials of this course, I have learned from these American authors, even if I do not particularly enjoy all of their writings. Though I may not rush to the nearest bookstore for a complete set of their works, I thought Raymond Chandler’s story Red Wind was engaging and pretty fun to read; I enjoyed Frost’s imagery; and I appreciated T.S. Eliot’s profundity. I especially responded to the theme of redemption that can be found in Moore, Hurston, and Hughes.
Redemption is perhaps most clearly realized in Zora Neale Hurston’s story The Gilded Six-Bits, in which the protagonist Joe’s wife is unfaithful to him. For several months, Joe and Missy May struggle to reconcile with each other. Their marriage shrinks to less than a shadow of the loving relationship detailed in the first few pages. However, when Missy May gives birth to Joe’s son, Joe is able to forgive his wife. Both must sacrifice to overcome the deficiency in the marriage: Joe must relinquish his anger towards his wife, and Missy May has to acknowledge the grief that has come through her action. As a family, their lives are redeemed and knit back together.
Less overt are the themes of redemption in Langston Hughes’ and Marianne Moore’s poetry. In some ways, both hope for redemption in seemingly hopeless situations. Moore wrote In Distrust of Merits during World War II. Throughout the poem she questions the worth of the countless deaths of soldiers fighting in the war. She believes in the cause that they are fighting for,
“Fighting the blind
Man who thinks he sees…
That hearts may feel and not be numb.”
Moore acknowledges the promise inherent in supporting the soldiers, that “we’ll never hate black, white, red, yellow, Jew, Gentile, Untouchable.” Yet she still cannot quite believe that this makes the deaths worthwhile, since “we are not competent to make our vows.”
Moore has a moment of questing despair as she asks, “The world’s an orphans’ home. Shall we never have peace without sorrow? Without pleas of the dying for help that won’t come?” This is a clear example of the often overwhelming disconnect between the way things are and the way they ought to be, and Moore is understandably troubled by it. I am not trying to say that Moore is here expressing a distinctly Christian view or anything of that sort. Still, these few lines are a cry for the redemption of humanity.
In the end, Moore maintains her hope for all of the deaths to be redeemed, saying,
“If these great patient
dyings—all these agonies
and wound bearings and bloodshed—
can teach us how to live, these
dyings were not wasted.”
Hughes’ is similarly hopeful for future redemption in a different situation. Writing during a time of intense racial prejudice, Hughes’ poetry often expresses his dreams of a truly equal America.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes…
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
Hughes displays a sense of urgency, desiring the racial/social redemption of America to come quickly. “I do not need my freedom when I’m dead./I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread,” he reminds his audience, calling for attention and change in place of lassitude and complacency. Elsewhere, he openly states that part of being American is being interdependent whether we want to be or not, despite differences in skin color.
“You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Hughes hopes for redemption in the negative situation through social change and recognition of the parts that each of us play in each others’ lives.
American literature may not replace my other interests any time soon, and my top ten authors list has not been disturbed by this course. But I have learned through exploring authors I liked or did not like, understood or barely managed to stumble through. American authors of this time period had a great deal to say about justice, freedom, redemption, and morality. That we are listening 60 to 100 years later says a great deal about the importance of their words.
Monday, December 12, 2011
Whitman describes America in an idealistic way which many of us concluded was too wishful and self-contradictory. Yet comparing this author with Twain, the values and inspiration behind Leaves of Grass and Huck Finn matched up on certain levels. Each author wrote about freedom, power, principles and the common people. Each author clearly casts a vision for humanity, saying this is how we should be or this is how we should act. It is evident that many American authors such as Twain and Whitman saw themselves as the poets who can see and give a voice to what Whitman described as each person’s “kosmos.”
Similarly, the poets of the Harlem Renaissance saw themselves in such a way that resembled the earlier authors we studied. Although these poets can be studied and looked at as a uniquely separate part of American literature, they fully encompass what sets American literature apart. Their works include themes of motivation, overcoming difficulty, freedom and the realistic hardship of urban life. These authors also depict the struggle to rise up as a minority and fight for justice and equality—principles that our nation was founded on.
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you. (Hughes,”Freedom,” lines 15-20)
Hardship, struggle and motivation to rise above the circumstances proves to be a major theme throughout American Lit, no matter the time or author. In “Mowing,” Frost speaks of work as a good thing, something that makes living worthwhile. He declares that working and earning whatever it is that is desired is better than “the gift of idle hours” or “easy gold at the hand of fay or elf” (lines 7-8). The same pleasure in work is seen in Chaplin’s Modern Times and Sandburg’s “Chicago.”
We see that the concept of the American Dream is sought after continuously, no matter what race, time period or class. Chaplin’s factory worker raising his eyebrows and declaring that he will find a home even if he must work for it put a comical spin on the hard realities of the time. Sandburg speaks about the variety of craftsmanship in the city as he mentions the “hog butcher for the world, tool maker, stacker of wheat,” and so on (lines 1-2). But what makes this mindset different from that of industrial cities in other parts of the world is the peoples’ individuality and responsibility they must put on themselves in order to overcome their struggles.
The head note to Sandburg mentions that he “believed that the people themselves, rather than a cadre of intellectuals acting on behalf of the people, would ultimately shape their own destiny” (p. 1436). This is true for many of the authors that make up American Lit, even today. In recognizing this, I have come to appreciate American Literature as whole on a much deeper level, while also becoming more aware of what makes up the voice of America. Though skeptical and critical of American Lit to begin with, I came out at the end of this semester saying, “I, too, sing America.”
(Caveat: This blog post is full of cynicism. Read at your own peril.)
It seems to me that our 21st Century has strikingly little difference with the early 20th Century as portrayed in “Modern Times.” In fact, it's similar in at least three ways and there are tie-ins to poetry we've read all semester.
As the factory workers, we rely on technology, but instead of cogs and wrenches, we run on circuit boards and lasers. He who invents the next big “toy” that will revolutionize the American daily life will make millions at the expense of the materialist and the technology-proficient. The salesman cared little for the Little Tramp but only for the malfunctioning machine, and I wonder if it's all that different from how we treat people. We may not see the hard-working conditions in China or Thailand, but is buying low-priced products really all that different from the way the movie portrays the production line?
Just as the Little Tramp is chased for being too machine-like and not being able to stop himself from twisting washers – and anything that looks like them. Our equivalent is not the over-active or the hard worker but the couch potato, the 30-year-old video gamer in his parents basement, the teenage girl who can't be separated from her Blackberry without panicking. At least the Little Tramp was addicted to his work. Today, we are addicted to entertainment, fueled by technology, and we wonder why we're an obese culture. Seems like Chaplin was spot-on when he made a character that couldn't shut off. With cyborg implants on the horizon, it won't take long for some to actually become part machine in the name of progress and individual choice – or so they say now.
But back to the film. When the Little Tramp is released from prison, he asks to stay. With little to no work expect, a homey cell, and food provided at every meal, his unjust life as a prisoner turns out to be the best thing that happens to him. Until he meets the gamine, he's still striving to return to prison because it feels like a better life. He is jealous of the commodities provided, and that still happens today. Michael Moore's documentary “Sicko” revolves around the injustices of the healthcare system in America. In one part of the film, Moore takes a boat load of chronic patients with no insurance to the waters outside of Guantanamo Bay and uses a loudspeaker to demand universal healthcare for the American citizens with him, since the prisoners receive the healthcare they need regardless of the crimes they are imprisoned for. The criminal are still better off than the poor nearly a hundred years after Chaplin's film.
The theme of this movie also reminds me of Ezra Pound's “With Usura.” While Chaplin doesn't directly address the problem of debt and usury, the idea of the class gap is prevalent in both works. Chaplin blames the gap on modernization and exploitation of the little man while Pound focuses on the financial enslavement of the down-and-out man to those that already have money. Both men are commenting on the same problems we have present in our current society. The education gap is something that none of the authors have truly addressed but is becoming an increasing factor in the widening gap between poverty and wealth.
I will clarify: I don't hate technology. In fact, I believe it is useful and even necessary for our current culture. However, I found the themes in Chaplin's “Modern Times” to be striking with the same issues we have present today. Though we label our culture, literature, and philosophy as postmodern, I see very little difference between the modernity portrayed by Chaplin and the issues still in society.
First, of course, we have the scenes within the factory, and the dominating theme is the dehumanization of the industry. Each and every one of the workers has become “programmed” to fulfill his role in keeping the machines running. This programming prompts Chaplin to begin humorously harassing two women (and their buttons), and keeps the other workers from chasing him around due their fear of falling behind. Further denigrating Chaplin is the incident with the feeding machine, which demonstrates the administration’s patent disregard for his feelings, desires, pain, or emotion in general. He is not a person to them: he is an asset, a cog in the workings that is expected to stay in its place and do what it is supposed to. Not unexpectedly, Chaplin’s refusal to cooperate and decision to flaunt the rules results in his incarceration. He has become a broken cog, and of no more use to the company.
The second instance of commentary arrives during Chaplin’s arrest for being a communist leader, when he is taken away based solely on the evidence of him carrying a (presumably red) flag. The portrayal of the police in “Modern Times,” in fact, is very similar to that of the factory workers. Policemen are pieces of the government’s bureaucratic machine, rather than industry’s capitalistic machine. They carry out their duties with ineptitude and minimal attention, only figuring out who really stole the loaf of bread after several conversations.
Theft brings up the third major instance of social commentary. When unable to find steady work, Chaplin begins seeking for ways to get arrested, eventually succeeding by eating a massive meal at a café and having no way to pay for it. That his character would rather go to prison than live in free Chicago says a great deal. In one sense, it is an accusation that this rising capitalistic profit-driven economy is responsible for making workers suffer. This is also seen in the trio that breaks into the department store, and after recognizing Chaplin, tell him, “We’re not burglars. We’re hungry!” For all its progress, industry has primarily brought hardship.
Chaplin’s character, then, is essentially caught within a Catch-22: he cannot achieve the American Dream without working for the big companies, but it is simultaneously these industries that are killing the American Dream and making its attainment impossible to the common man. The System has them beaten, and it is leaching the life out of the underlings that keeps it going. Capitalism and bureaucracy, according to Chaplin, want automatons without emotions or free will to complicate things; they wants gears in the machine that can be dealt with easily and clinically.
As we’ve seen, Chaplin’s character refuses to take this lying down, and he seems to suggest that optimism and determination are the antidotes to the domineering power of the System. They may not be enough to achieve the American Dream, but they’re enough to survive and claim a little bit of happiness—and maybe that’s sufficient.