LIT331 - Some Final Notes

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We have arrived at the end of our course and I would like to leave you with some

final notes on the texts we have read. Looking back, we see a general distrust of

the European influence and of modern industrial society.


What, then, is literature for? How does it become instrumental in the making of an

identity?


In the texts we read, we viewed the function of literature and how it contributed to

the creation of an American identity. How? Literature expresses the values of a

society. We read literature to get at culture, and vice versa. In other words, the text

bears the social milieu it springs out of.


We explored what scholars also referred to as an American cultural mythology --

a tradition that first took place through writing (historical and political) and later

through the literary (the imaginative such as fiction), and that recorded the mind

and the psyche of a fast changing country. The authors we read either celebrated or

condemned what they saw. Most had a deep desire to make things better and

searched for something more or for something else. And so you may want to think

of how each text, in its own unique way, represents the struggle for something new

and something other. Reading these texts is not only about seeing these

experiences, time periods, cultures, emotions, and events unfold. It is also about

seeing each author's effort to come up with new ways of narrating compelling

experiences unfold through formidable historical, political, and literary periods in

America.


This is what the texts gave voice to:


- The birth of an American identity and cultural ideology were marked

by the Puritan origin of the American self.

- The story of the American literature moved from a sacred, urban, town-based

culture to the creation of a true American identity born out of the country, the

pastoral, and a more secular experience. In Crèvecoeur, the American farmer is

depicted as a kind of prototypical America.

- We began with the literature of settlement in which barbary and civilization go

hand in hand. The explorers were writers sending letters back to their patrons. The

age of discovery was also the age of the text. The Europeans brought a discourse of

wonder to the New World, a language of conquest and discovery, a genre of

personal narrative.

- Puritan innate depravity haunted the literature of settlement. Holding the Bible

as the highest work of literature, Puritan discourses were limited to sermons,

histories, and biographies. Fiction, at the time, was nothing more than a collection

of lies.

- The idea of the American emerged more clearly with Emerson's call for a

cultural and literary independence from Europe, a spirituality unmediated by

organized religion, and a belief in one's thought (self-reliance). The literature of the

past is inscribed and noble, but each age must write its own books. For Emerson,

the soul is forever changing, in contrast with the Puritan belief that man is born

damned. Emerson is considered the prophet of authentic American individualism,

uniqueness, and non-conformity. Transcendentalism was built on an

impoverished Enlightenment. Remember that the Enlightenment viewed the

world as knowable, rational, and comprehensible. This had far-flung effects, one of

them being the idea that politics and the human psyche could be understood with

almost a mathematical-type precision.

- An enfeebled Enlightenment also gave way to Romantic modes of thinking,

promoting imagination and inward life, separate from all other disciplines (such as

history or philosophy). What this means is that the novel too can teach us

something, and can do so in a more compelling way. Irving used history and

transformed it into literary prestige. The introduction of literature destabilized the

historical discourse. In Irving and Thoreau, nature is linked to an exploration of

the imaginative (the literary) away from a bustling world.

- Nature is also a world full of magic and full of the supernatural. It is a world in

which things that are wrong manifest themselves in an unsettling way.

Unlike Stowe for whom there was no deeper psychology and only Christian

salvation, Poe and Hawthorne used the Gothic (a deeper psychology) to probe and

explore man's depravity and inward torment. In Gothic texts, the woods are a

psychologized landscape in which features of the wild are likened to a character's

mind. What civilization covers up, ultimately emerges in the wilderness. One could

say that while Emerson looked to the Heavens, Poe and Hawthorne looked down

into Hell.

We ended with Hawthorne's haunting and haunted tale of sin, vengeance, and

passion set amid a culture of spectatorship and punishment. Hawthorne called The

Scarlet Letter a romance in order to distinguish it from the novel which tended to

mostly depict domestic life. You may not agree, but it is often thought of as a love

story, albeit a tragic one.

“There is only one thing that every individual can do—they can see to it that they feel right.” "Uncle Tom's Cabin", Chapter XLV.

“You ought to be ashamed, John! Poor, homeless, houseless creatures! It’s a shameful, wicked, abominable law, and I’ll break it, for one, the first time I get a chance; and I hope I shall have a chance, I do! Things have got to a pretty pass, if a woman can’t give a warm supper and a bed to poor, starving creatures, just because they are slaves, and have been abused and oppressed all their lives, poor things!”

"Uncle Tom's Cabin", Chapter IX.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe

According to legend, Abraham Lincoln greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862 by saying "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

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Henry David Thoreau

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers - (314) BY EMILY DICKINSON


“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -


And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -


I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet - never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.

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Emily Dickinson House

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Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind. Absolve you to yourself and you shall have the sufferage of the world."

Essays, Series I (Self-Reliance)