In “A White Heron,” by Sarah Orne Jewett, the main character, little Sylvia, dupes the hunter by playing on a couple of the assumptions he holds. With the skill of Wall Street’s slimiest grease basket of a lawyer, she manages to convince him that she couldn’t find the one notable feature in her home area that would ever get an example of parasitic scum like himself to even visit. She does this by playing on the assumption that no back-country bumpkin would ever pass up a quick buck, that no little girl would ever lie to a dashing young man, and that no American could ever value the ecosystem in her backyard over the ecosystem in her balance sheet. Through guile and deceit that are paradoxically linked to a sense of virtuous integrity and interdependence with nature, a nine year old manages to wipe the shit-eating smirk off the face of a wealthy hunter/taxidermist. This character is an early example of the American literary movement to defend natural resources from being sucked up by capitalist greed, capitalizing on the capitalist tendency to capitalize on those it perceives as foolish and gullible.
“… and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact,” is the realization that flooded through Frederick Douglass like a dopamine rush the day he fought one Mr. Covey to a standstill in retaliation to Covey’s abuses, in that instant freeing his mind from slavery and resolving to one day achieve the same thing for his body. In what could be called the climax of his life narrative, Douglass proves to himself that he can no longer be subdued by the devilish, invisible, omnipresent, soul-stifling constraints of slavery. The will to become free ate away at the chains in Douglass’s mind at an early age, with his inquisitive thirst for knowledge being piqued when he first started to learn how to read, and thus began the process of young Frederick overcoming the hurdles placed before him by Southern life. He gradually began to see through the hollow manipulations of the slaveholders, and began to conceive how slavery wasn’t a word for the natural condition of Black Americans, but a phenomenon that had deep implications for all aspects of life in the South, permeating and degrading all who came into contact with it. In his defiance against Covey, a spiritually hideous figure who Douglass compares to a serpent, almost the Devil of slavery incarnate, he makes a definite commitment to pursuing freedom. He achieves this freedom in a sense, in that moment, by setting the terms for his fate and casting away the old narrative of the strong, slave-holding White in control of the dumb, lowly Black slave in favor of his own, personal narrative. So for him in a sense that moment in time was the true beginning of the free man Frederick Douglass, and it was in that moment where his Narrative begins.
Bellowing across the ether and deeply penetrating readers’ hearts, Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is an emotionally, sexually charged celebration of the world and a poignant invitation to feel all of the infinite possibilities offered by love. It’s a barbaric yawp, a call to embrace the ancient, a call for all to hear “The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind.” Walt cries for all to feel as he feels the unknowable, omnipresent truth that pervades everything and everyone, calling on his fellow humans to join together in eternal love, almost a written Beatles song, long before anyone could have ever conceived such a thing.
In equal measure he conceives of “The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations, Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;” perhaps gazing into the war that was to come, and to all of the horror that he was to witness, yawping as much in mourning and poignant remembrance for better times as he is for a better future, with a pained tone akimbo his cheery exultation of frolicking naked in the grass out in the woods. This celebration for all that has been and ever will be resounds in “Song of Myself,” a yawp echoing back to a more barbaric time, with a character that’s never really changed over the years.
“Sea breathing broad and convulsive breaths, Sea of the brine of life and of unshovell’d yet always-ready graves,”
In one of many metaphors present in Whitman’s cosmically ebullient and explosively American regurgitation of the self, he describes the ocean as drawing enormous breaths, a strikingly accurate portrayal of the currents and tides that produce movement and waves in the sea. Like pretty much everything he writes in “Song of Myself,” Whitman sees a much grander meaning to the simple characterization of the tides, which hold place for his conception of the ebb and flow of cosmic energy, and of life, described here as “briny,” which we can take to mean as dirty, constantly shifting, full of life and mystery. This vision of the interconnections between all things, and the flow of this omnipotent life current, is detailed throughout “Song of Myself,” and hearkens to Emerson’s Transcendentalist revelation in “The American Scholar,” with Whitman practically applying this essentially American exuberance for life into the Romantic era.
“Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.”
Emerson’s exploration of the process of writing a book, within his greater exploration on the effect of books on the scholar, ends with this little beauty, whose trickery lies not in its structure, or any of the words used within it, but in the vagueness of its subject. By this, I mean I can bet that in the greater context of the section, it through everybody for a loop the first time they read it simply because of the repetition of the word “it” in the paragraph-long metaphor of the world, and the writer’s perception of the world, as “it,” seemingly a malleable object due to all of the transformations it goes through being related by the writer. By the time the reader arrives at this last sentence, beginning as a logical, almost mathematical final explanation of the great “it,” they’re focused on keeping track of what just “it” really is to them, and are, for a moment, baffled before heaving to look back over what they read one more time.
This is a collection of my thoughts on various works of American literature, my name is Jack, and I will do my best to break down and analyze various themes and styles throughout American literary history. I am from Moorpark, California. I am an avid surfer and hiker. I hope these posts will help shed insight on the common threads within the makeup of American literature!