American Literature as a Vector

Personally, the Jazz Age and the works of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Stein interest me the greatest, mostly because of their connections to the solo art of Jazz and its rhythms, in coordination with their sharp analyses of American culture. Yet throughout the trajectory of American Literature, trends of independence and defiance, as will as critical analyses of ourselves remained constant.

Beginning in colonial times, Americans have challenged and redefined conventions of literature. At first, American writers found inspiration in their religious differences with Europe, such as the Puritans and Quakers. After Independence, new American spheres of thought emerged separate from European romanticism. Emerson and the transcendentalists used their connection with nature to redefine religion itself. As the frontier expanded and swept westward across the continent, literary works such as those of Walt Whitman continued to reflect the natural roots of America, and the free-thinking independent frontiersmen. As Americans realized their national identity as independent of European influence, writers made literary declarations of independence through gothic rejections of European romanticism, especially such writers as Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson. These authors used unconventional poetic mechanisms and challenged the European themes of positivity to create an American literary movement.

As the question of slavery loomed larger and larger into the minds of Americans, with the nation on the brink of a Civil War, black and white writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and  Frederick Douglass used their own experiences as a part of the peculiar institution to reveal the ugly face of slavery. As the Civil War split the nation in two, writers responded by using their experiences within their specific regions to create diversity within literature which reflected the diversity of America itself. And as America waded into an industrial economy, society developed a great wealth disparity. Gilded investors and New York tycoons lived side-by-side with poverty-stricken factory laborers and beggars in the streets. The class conflicts were reflected in the works of such writers as Edith Wharton and Anzia Yezierska, who could only illustrate the society around themselves through realistically complex stories, characters and language. With the advent of the jazz age, writers such as Hemingway, Stein and Fitzgerald used competition to develop their own personal styles.

Finally, as the west and east coasts of America were connected with railroads, canals and bridges, the immigrant influx resulted in a reeling clash of class, race, and gender. Writers like M. Scott Momaday, John Steinbeck, Carlos Bulosan, and William Faulkner drew upon the social ills they saw around them to create satires and analyses of the problems in American society produced from the intense diversity of the nation. As America and the world become more and more intertwined, through the internet and modern transportation and communication technology, will American literature and culture become too intertwined with world culture to be distinguishable, or will American writers continue to defy global conventions and maintain the American identity?

“The Yellow Wall-paper” and 19th Century Sexism

On the first read, “The Yellow Wall-paper,” will give you the chills, but it does not at first appear to be an intellectual piece. “The Yellow Wall-paper” is more than just a creepy short story. On a closer, second read, you’ll get the chills from Gilman’s metaphors and symbolism, which reveal an allegory within the story for the abuse of women’s rights and their imprisonment in the domestic sphere. The narrator’s repetition of several key phrases, “what is one to do?” “but John…” and “creep,” illustrates how  imprisonment in the home affected women in the 19th Century.

At the time, women were assigned to the domestic sphere – housekeeping, cooking, and child-rearing – and men to the public sphere – finance, politics, science and intellect. Any woman who attempted to exit the domestic sphere into any part of a man’s role, especially intellect, was highly criticized, even ostracized. The inferiority of women during Gilman’s era is reflected in the narrator’s inferiority, as seen through Gilman’s repetition of the phrase, “What is one to do?”

In addition to her repetition, Gilman creates a tone of helplessness through the repetition of clauses displaying John’s position of power in his marriage. For example, the narrator tells her husband, John, that “there is something strange about the house… but he said what I felt was a draught, and shut the window.” John’s denial of his wife’s opinions and desires is a motif in the story, seen in phrases like “but John would not hear of it” and a constant reference to the things John has suggested the narrator do. This motif parallels the oppression women faced at the hands of men in 19th century America.

The effects of this oppression on the female psyche were sometimes ghastly. The repetition of the word “Creep” highlights this. The narrator’s anxiety, due to a combination of being bedridden and her fear of the consequences of disobeying her husband and doctor, is expressed through her hallucinations of women “creeping all around the garden” and behind the pattern in the wall-paper. Eventually she obsesses with and becomes, mentally and behaviorally, the women she sees. She creeps around her room, around and around constantly. This motion parallels the imprisonment of women in the home. Trapped in her room, as women are trapped in their houses, she can only walk along the walls, around and around, creeping so as to be unseen. Her imprisonment drives her insane, which is the underlying argument of the story.

Ignorance and Freedom in Huck Finn

Freedom. Millions of foreigners migrate to the U.S. to realize this dream every year. they come in search of jobs, socioeconomic security and education for themselves and their children. Every teenage student is told by parents, teachers, siblings, cousins, coworkers, tutors, more or less by everyone around them, that the only path to economic success and freedom is to get a college degree. Is freedom defined by literacy and education?

Mark Twain, the literary superstar of the 19th century, in his famous novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, may subtly be posing an argument against the need of literacy for freedom through the protagonist’s characterization. Huck Finn is not the greenest leaf on the tree, so to speak, but he thinks for himself. When the widow tried to explain the relationship of praying and providence to Huck, he tells us, “I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it — except for the other people — so at last I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it any more, but just let it go” (19). Huck’s illiteracy, and what his friends consider ignorance, actually free  Huck from mental boundaries.

Unlike Tom Sawyer, Huck’s imagination and frame of mind is not defined by the books he’s read. For example, Tom tells his newly made gang of bandits that they have to keep some people for ransom. Someone asks, “‘Ransomed? What’s that?'” and Tom responds, “‘I don’t know. But that’s what they do. I’ve seen it in the books; and so of course that’s what we’ve got to do” (16). Even if Tom doesn’t fully understand everything that he reads, he tries to emulate it though his entire being. He makes himself into the intelligent and strong ruffian which every adventure book follows, following his books as closely as Miss Watson follows the bible.

Huck Finn, however, can’t read books, and has the freedom to decide for himself whether or not Tom’s ideas for adventure are silly or based on lies. For example, after Tom tells Huck about genies, Huck says, “I thought all this over for two or three days, and then I reckoned I would see if there was anything in it” (22). After conducting an experiment involving rubbing a lamp and an iron ring, Huck concludes that Tom was telling lies. Huck, even with little to no education and illiterate, is smart enough to question and investigate Tom’s tall-tales. Huck, when faced with a challenging problem or a deep question, will go into the woods and mull it over. This is a characterization which can almost be called a motif. Through this motif, Twain suggests to his audience that free-thinkers are not necessarily found only in the well-educated and literate class of society. Illiteracy can free a person such as Huck Finn from mental bounds set in popular culture. Ignorance is bliss.

Whittily Dickman

Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, as two poets of the same era, expressed themselves through their poetry in starkly different style. Whitman, the first true american poet, pioneered free-verse. His poems, usually ten to 100 stanzas long, open the reader to every moment of consciousness. Whitman uses intricately woven verses to describe every scene in the dream expressed in his poem, “The Wound-Dresser.” From the speaker’s first steps on the battlefield, to every wound on every victim on the field and in the hospital, we see the world through his eyes.

In sharp contrast, Dickinson’s “Poem 340” exemplifies concise, economic placing of words to express meaning. She writes, “a Plank in Reason, broke, and I dropped down, and down.” Dickinson’s simple phrasing – with dashes interwoven – evoke a clearheaded focus that Whitman’s poetry does not. There’s no doubt, of course, that Whitman is a focused writer, but he tends to linger on every moment, whereas Dickinson’s poems, such as Poem 340, blow past the details and cut right to the core of her philosophy.

The Progression of an American Frontier

A hero embarks on an adventure into the wild unknown to come back a changed man. This is the basic plot of many if not most popular novels, movies and plays in America. The heroic quest is thematic to American literature, and has been a defining part of our culture since its birth as an independent body. The heroic quest and the masculinity associated with that notion has strong roots in the wilderness of the American frontier. The challenge of the frontier, therefore, played an essential role in creating the American identity. Although masculinity and heroism remain in our culture, has the frontier and its virgin inspiration disappeared?

After the West was completely settled, after the civilizing of California, Alaska and Hawaii, the concept of frontier left the ground. After the Wright Brothers launched the first biplane, soon followed by Boeing 767s and F-22’s, the American frontier left the atmosphere. Space became the new frontier, and the champion of space, the american hero, became the astronaut. Neil Armstrong became the living Natty Bumppo in the wilderness of space. Although Armstrong had no interracial side-kick, he was the same nature-conquering hero and model American that Natty was during the frontier era. As the frontiersmen’s race to the Pacific once did, the Space Race resulted in a rebirth masculine heroism. The perfect American was defined by his quest into the dangerous unknown. As the frontier heroes fought to conquer the obstacles of Native Americans, food, shelter and water, so the astronauts fought to conquer the obstacles of gravity and life in the vacuum.

With time, rovers became the robotic avatars of human astronauts, the most recent being Curiosity. But as we watch Curiosity traverse the Martian desert, we also watch the end of an era. With NASA’s final mission into space, what will become of the American frontier? Is there a frontier more wild and mysterious than space? If so, what hero would be willing to journey into such an unforgiving place?

The vigorously expanding population of the human race,the U.S. included, has long since surpassed any frontier rooted in the Earth. We have already leashed the ocean, the air, and gripped the wrist of space. Will the frontier be reincarnated through black holes, antimatter, the forth dimension, or through nano-chips and “The Cloud?” Or have we reached our climax, and are we destined to watch the planet fall into chaos and anarchy? If this is the case, the people will have no heroes at all, because the destiny of humanity and life itself will be the only frontier left.

Sexism and Hester, Then and Now

It seems every year, the freshmen a girls dress more and more suggestively. It might be the ever-progressive fashion, or the young women feel empowered with their new maturity, and enjoy showing that off. In either case, fashion is extremely affected by the social climate of our country. In the first half of the 20th Century, women were still kept in the home, and continued to have an oppressed social status until the Cold War era. I believe the more conservative fashion of that time period reflected the place of women. Their limited freedom included their clothing: there was little room for flirtatious self-expression.

In contrast, today women wear pants to work, or, failing that, tight mini-skirts and deep-V blouses. With increased social and economic freedom, women can and will wear what they want, show however much skin the want. Unlike the 1930’s, today a woman can earn enough money to raise a child on her own. Of course, not all women are fortunate enough to be able to do so, and although some if not many may earn less than their male counterparts, at least they’re not at home doing the dishes and hanging laundry all day.

To exemplify my point, portrayals of Hester Prynne in film renditions of The Scarlet Letter have changed over time with the status of women. In the 1995 version, Hester is the strong single mother that she is in the original. However, she openly and passionately questions the Puritan ideology which has jailed her, saying to Arthur Dimmesdale, “What happened between us has a consecration of its own, we felt it so! Have you not forgotten?”. In contrast, the  1934 version  follows a Hester who is not so much angry with her situation but passive. She accepts her sinfulness and punishment solemnly. The passionate 1995 Hester, when compared to the reserved 1935 Hester reflects the increased freedom of women.

Indeed sexism remains in our country, but it’s not as bad as it used to be. Of course, being a middle-class white male adolescent, I am infinitely biased on the subject.

The Scarlet Letter and the Yellow Star

I am a Jew. You can tell just from looking at my face: puffy, curled brown hair, brown eyes, prominent nose. If I were living in Nazi Germany, people would shy away from me in the streets. My parents’ shop would be broken into every month, we would have to wear a yellow star of David, with the word ‘Jude,’ on our breasts. It’s a miracle my family escaped to America.

The yellow badge that my people had to wear on their chests was a physical label, it promoted persecution. It was extremely similar to the badge that Hester Prynne is forced to wear in Nathaniel

Little Jewish boys wearing ‘Jude’ badges

Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Like the Jews, Hester is physically labeled for being an impurity in the utopia that the community wishes to achieve. She is a stain, a blemish that must be recognized for her evil influence. Because of the impurity for which she stands, like the Jews in Nazi Germany, she is outcast.

People no longer recognize Hester as a beautiful woman, but an ugly adulterer. The scarlet letter that she is forced to wear hides the human that she really is. Hawthorne uses the metaphor of looking into a convex mirror to illustrate this. Looking at Hester through this mirror, “the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden behind it” (97). This is how the community of Boston observes Hester, not through a looking-glass but a convex mirror, so that the only noticeable feature is her sin.

Likewise, through the physical labeling of the Jews, Nazi Germany did not see them as humans, not even as economically productive individuals, but as dirt, scum, pests. When the Nazis looked at their Jewish victims, they did not see their pleading faces, only the yellow star of David. The Nazis were looking through a convex mirror.

Although today there is not outright persecution and oppression of Jewish people, I am still conscious of my label. Sometimes when I introduce myself to peers, they might comment on my “Jew-fro” or ask if I speak “Jewish.” I nod and smile, politely say, “Yes, I am Jewish, and no, I don’t speak Hebrew.” That’s the end of the exchange, and we continue with our conversation. At least I don’t have to were a yellow star of David on my chest.

Surfing is a Religion

Taken last winter, when an unusually prominent sandbar had formed.

Logging Cowell’s is relaxing, exciting and physically, mentally and spiritually uplifting.

I am walking down my street clad in neoprene. It is still dark enough that if someone were driving behind me, they would only see a floating longboard. It’s 6:00 am. Cowell’s better be good. After walking down the stairs, I wade past the rocks and slip onto my board, gliding across the water. Something smells like urine, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the water turns out to be brown when the sun finally rises.

After paddling through the liquid glass into the lineup, I sit on my board, shivering through my rubber suit, and praying for a set. My prayers are answered, I turn, take a few strokes and push myself up, leaning into the face. The wave stands up with me, and I slowly walk towards the front of my board, then back, and swing myself up and down the face of the wave. The ocean is dancing beneath my feet, and I am dancing with it.

I kick off the wave and paddle back out. When I take my place again in the lineup, I realize there are more people out than I had expected. About fifteen of us are sitting here, shivering under West Cliff, watching the black morning fog slowly become ghostly pale.

Surfing this wave is completely different from surfing Cowell’s, and the resulting spiritual high is a more intense energy, for obvious reasons.

Almost everyone in my life knows that I am Jewish, but this is my real congregation. We have come here, at t

his hour, to worship our god, the ocean. There are many other congregations like this one, too many to count. And like the congregations of the Puritans, each one does not directly associate itself with the other. We all share a common god, and we all understand the basic principles of our worship: Paddle for a wave, catch it, stand up, feel the wave, talk to it, and dance with it. When you are done, thank the ocean, and paddle back out for another with a smile on your face.

In a way, we are like the Quakers as well. We do not have a leader. We do not believe in any regulatory system for worship, as the Quakers did not believe in the bible. We also do not need a middle man to experience our god, and when we are overcome with the spirit of the ocean, we shiver and shout calls of joy.

Although I consider the ocean to be my god, and surfing my mass, I am still Jewish. In fact, the god I worship is still considered to be the same god that my rabbis worship. That’s just how Reform Judaism works. Anything and everything is god, and if you feel inspired or awed by something, worship it.

Thirty Minutes in a Willow Grove

“There is no quiet place in the white man’s cities. No place to hear the leaves of spring or the rustle of insect’s wings” – Chief Seattle

Rusty-brown leaves crunch under my feet as I step across the bed of a dry stream. I have walked here, to this willow grove, from my house, and found the perfect crook in a tree branch to sit in. Although I am completely obscured from sight within these trees, I can tell from the silence that all the creatures know my presence. Branches wind their way up and out from the center of the grove. They wiggle and curl around each other, splitting into smaller and smaller branches all the while, becoming great fans; these are the arteries and veins of the trees.

The light in the sky is a bright yellow, from the setting sun. As the branches wave in the breeze, the overlapping layers of leaves filter the light into a great twinkling kaleidoscope. I admire this for several minutes until I become dizzy. Accompanying the swaying branches in which  I have entombed myself comes the sound of waves crashing on the shore, one after the other, like the breath of the earth. In, out, in, out, and the earth’s breath moves the trees of the branches, too, in, out, in out.

The planet on which we live is itself a living, breathing and feeling entity. As Henry Thoreau said in Walden, “The earth is… a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic” (244). When viewed from space, the only traces of human existence on this planet, the Great Wall among others, are scar tissue. Although the plants and animals paint the earth green, compared to the vast land we are all but ticks, each sucking a portion of the planet’s life-blood.

It seems in the great battle of life, humans were granted the gift of consciousness and wit, technology, productivity. We have the power to turn great forests and plains into farmland, factories, power plants. We are devouring all other traces of competition, but in doing so we are making the designs for our own demise. We warmed the earth first with our breaths, then with fire, and now with engines. We were given a gift, the power to control the land, and we abused that power.

The birds have begun to feel comfortable with my presence, for I can hear a few chirps here and there, and a hop and a skip through the branches. There are only a few birds in this grove, and for the most part they are not excitable save for the odd ruffle of the wings. One flutters just over my head. I presume they are all of the same species, judging from their calls, save for one.

This bird did not chirp like the others but had a warbling sort of call, like, “dee-deedle-deedle-dee!” It had entered the grove in the same way I had, and the strangeness of its call alerted me immediately to its entrance. Hopping and fluttering down the length of the dry stream, it passed where I was sitting, stopping for little more than a few seconds and continued on out the other end, warbling all the way.

The hurried manner of this bird felt so contrasted with the peace of this grove. Maybe, upon entering, he was immediately bored with the slow-paced inhabitants, myself included. I can see myself as this bird, hurrying about in search of excitement and adventure. There’s always so much to do, it seems, these days. I become overwhelmed by a feeling of gratefulness. How lucky I am, gifted with this beauty, just five minutes from my home. And I am glad I took the time today to enjoy it, many days I do not, in all the rush of high school.

Although I have only been here for little over ten minutes, it feels like an hour. Time slows down when you don’t have anything to do, or when you have nothing to think about. In states of meditation such as this, my mind many times meanders through thoughts of the earth as whole, its breath shortening under the choke of human civilization. Cars and planes spin lines around the earth at absurd speeds, so much so that the landscape around us diminishes to a blur. Without appreciation of the land, we will lose connection, and without connection, there we cannot live as human beings.

In his poem, “Telling and Showing Her,” Simon Ortiz writes,

… Pick up the dirt
… Pick up the land
… Dirt you are holding
… Land you are carrying
You are holding your lifeYou are carrying your life…

The land, the earth, nature, we grew out of it. The land is our mother and we owe our life to her. It seems human society has forgotten respect, we’ve turned on our mother and abused her in her old age, taken advantage of her. I realize that is why I’ve come here. To show my respect, to make up for all the wrongs I’ve done to the land, the earth, our mother. I hope she forgives me. I hope she forgives us.

Nostalgia and an Ice Cream Truck

I hear, from my room, the sweet tinkling of an ice cream truck.

Last time I heard that music, I still thought girls had Cooties. Unable to resist, I would leap out of my room and run out the door, letting the jangling change in my pocket, my precious week’s allowance, tell my parents where I was going. I would return with the Sonic the Hedgehog ice cream pop, no matter how long I debated all the others. As I slurped my way towards the wooden handle, saving the gum-ball eyes for the very last bite, sticky blue syrup would slather across my face.

As I reminisce, I begin to reach for my wallet and step towards the door. The spell of the ice cream truck jingle hasn’t weakened, after all these years.

Before I can run outside to catch the truck, an ambulance’s wail mixes with the sweet notes of the ice cream truck. It sounds as if the flute and brass section of a marching band are tumbling down the side of a hill. After a minute or two, the ambulance finally fades into the distance,and the ice cream truck’s jingle returns, as happy and charming as ever.

But I turn and sit back down on my bed. How silly I would look, walking up to an ice cream truck. Me, a pimply teenager, alone, squandering his hard-earned money on a Sonic the Hedgehog ice cream pop. What if that new girl down the street saw, what would she think? Or the one who used to go to my school? Or my parents, my brother?

They’d think me a child, like everyone else. I sure look it, too. Big brown eyes, button nose, rosy cheeks, curly hair. A boy, that’s what I am. Well I didn’t do it. I didn’t run out the door for the ice cream truck, to come back with Sonic the Hedgehog stuffed in my face. But I wish I had.

I miss those golden times, when I could do whatever the hell I wanted without worrying about what others thought of me. I miss throwing rotten apples at the fence in the backyard, letting the coming storm clean up the mess. I miss hunting for lizards in the meadow, I miss dressing up like an earthworm for Halloween. I miss ice cream trucks and Sonic the Hedgehog ice cream pops, I miss tricycles and homemade pizzas, beach days and sand castles. I miss my childhood.