Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Nature and Origin of American Fiction and Letters.

American fiction was born in a state of protest.  It was also Gothic at its core.  These are the two interrelated points I want to argue for in the essay that follows.  In many ways what I'm about to say next has little excuse for existing except for another two reasons.  The conclusions arrived at here were nothing else except the result of a long gestation period.  Something that happened at such a gradual pace that it was like assembling an entire picture puzzle without even knowing what you were up to.  Once the picture was complete, however, there was just no denying either the direction it pointed at, or the conclusions it lead you to.  The second part of the intellectual journey to the writing of these words is that it really was a simple case of reading a lot, and then noticing how a lot of important themes kept recurring in the works of different authors across a span of decades, and almost centuries.  The timespan I aim to look at in the following essay encompasses a reasonable short enough space.  It starts at the tail-end of the Eighteenth Century (when the Nation was founded), and culminates at the exact mid-point of the Nineteenth (when the Civil War took place).  It's focus won't be on any one literary name.  Rather I intend to take a series of short thematic looks into the writings of what I consider to be the four authors who did the most to help set what I have to term the defining keynotes of American fiction in stone.  These are the Names who helped mold the contours of what creative writing in the United States still remains even to this day and era.

That sounds like one hell of a tall order, I know.  Who the hell am I, anyway?  And what makes me think it's possible to say anything about early American fiction and its creators that would make any of it valid for study today?  In answer to the first question, I'm just some nothing bookworm who thinks (or hopes) he's discovered a pattern of literary themes and ideas that were shared out over more than one ink-stained wretch as the former British Colonies were busy transfiguring themselves into something most folk at least hoped was something approaching a United American state.  The answer to the second challenge is a bit more interesting.  In first noticing, and then deciding to make a careful study of four writers who seemed crucial to the construction of anything approaching a viable American literary identity, it soon became possible to realize that what I'd stumbled upon might just amount to something of a genuine, unremarked artistic legacy from the past.  One whose continuity extends from the Founding Era right up to this very moment.  The potentially good news is this may turn out to be a case where examining a legacy from the past doesn't amount to something like a outmoded institution that has worn out its welcome, and is better left abandoned.  On the contrary, what marks each of the authors under discussion here today is there seemingly admirable qualities.  Virtues (for lack of any better word) that prove more than compatible with the values of inclusion and equality of today.

And so, I repeat what I said right at the start.  The origins and nature of American fiction are defined by two things.  It's acute sense of moral outrage, and protest, coupled with a series of artistic tropes and practices that when placed together, give us the beginnings of a workable form of American Gothic letters.  As I've also said, there are precisely four writers who I believe best exemplify the neglected legacy.  In terms of brand name recognition, it's sort of like a half-and-half deal.  Two of them have something approaching a legitimate shelf-life, while the other two don't even register as a blip on the radar.  In the case of the latter two, that amounts to not just a real shame, it might also count as a form of criminal negligence.  With this in mind the shared themes and ideas we'll be looking at here today can all be found within the work of the following Names.  The are: Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Brockden Brown, and Phillis Wheatley.  I've decided against taking their efforts in any precise chronological order.  My reasons for doing this is because it seemed better to tackle each author vignette in terms of thematic importance, rather than having the importance of the ideas they helped express in their works get lost in the natural shuffle of a strict chronology of years

As such, I've decided to shape the chain of letters in terms of greatest importance, starting from the lowest level to the highest.  With all this in mind, I reckon it's time to get acquainted with the men (and one very important woman) who each helped to set the stamp on what American fiction can be at its best.

James Fenimore Cooper.

There's a certain stigma that attaches to more than a few names in the literary pantheon.  It happens to a select handful of authors.  The way it works is, regardless of whether their imaginary works are any good, they're doomed to this kind of infamy by the way they are treated by the academic establishment.  The way this happens tends to follow an eerily similar pattern.  Someone will come along, and write a few stories.  These authors manage to carve out something of a reputation for themselves.  Then some of them get famous enough to the point where the Ivory Tower starts to pay a lot of unwanted attention.  So they schools take these writers, select a handful of books, novels, and short stories that are deemed to be of "academic importance".  Then they become what are known as Set Texts within high school and college curriculums.  Then these writers are introduced to unsuspecting students in some of the worst ways possible.  They're never allowed a chance to catch the interest of the potential reader as part of any natural course of things.  The audience member isn't allowed to let their interest in a particular writer and their subject or particular genre gain the upper hand, and thus gain a genuine enthusiasm for the joy of a literary artwork.  Instead, the pattern repeats, over and again, doing no one any good.

You have names like Shakespeare and Dickens foisted on you at the most inopportune moment.  It always has to happen at that most important time in the life of any adolescent.  When the horizons, and hence the sense of possibility is just beginning to expand in a lot of important ways.  With a lot of personal changes taking place, the last thing most of us are going to give any sort of shit about is some dust covered name in an old book.  That's sort of how it was for me when it came to a name like James Fenimore Cooper.  I might not have fit all the details of the pattern, yet it was close enough for government work, so to speak.  Until I was forced to make his acquaintance in high school, I'd barely any idea he existed.  I might have heard his name tossed around, here and there.  Maybe something I'd read in the kind of books I was interested in reading back then, or else just a passing mention in a movie somewhere.  None of it gave me any real clue who he was, and so to claim I might not have been in the most receptive frame of mind when we were introduced is a bit like saying Steve Martin and John Candy had a difficult road trip to endure during the course of Plains, Trains, and Automobiles.

The first Cooper book I was ever forced to read was Last of the Mohicans, and perhaps the worst part about it all was the author's use of the language.  No one ever told me about the writing style Cooper utilized in constructing his secondary world of the early New England frontier.  I go in thinking I'm going to pour through a relatively normal piece of early 19th century American diction.  Something similar to the way Washington Irving builds up The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The kind of narrative description and dialogue, in other words, where you can tell it has this element of genuine power to it that is not just able to carry the story along, but also make it come off the page, to the point where it's possible for you to map out the contours of Ichabod Crane's adopted hometown, right down to the various social strata of the community, and how each class of citizen from poorest to prosperous almost segregates themselves into isolated yet interlocked segments, or sectors that go to make up the town proper.  Such is the effect that good writing can have on the mind of the reader.  It was also the least I thought to expect from Cooper when I was told to turn to the first page of Mohicans.  What I got instead won't sound believable unless I give you a few samples that suggest the quagmire I stepped into.

I'm going to have to go as easy as possible here.  I have to do my best to try and soften the blow for the reader, in others words, so we'll start out slow, before moving to the real literary offenses.  Here's the first, least offensive sample I can find from the novel.  “The Hurons hold the pride of the Delawares; the last of the high blood of the Mohicans is in their power".  Okay, not so bad, you know.  A bit grandiloquent, perhaps, and the fact-checker that lives in your head tells you to make a note and see if the writer's got his First Nations history straight, but style-wise, nothing seems out of order.  Let's move on, then, to a second quote.  This time, we'll turn the volume up just a smidge.  “I too can play the madman, the fool, the hero; in short, any or everything to rescue her I love".  Okay then, here we have our first off-note.  The sentence starts out okay enough, perhaps.  It sounds a bit like a scrap from Shakespeare, or someone like him.  However, it's the way the author flubs that closing line, "everything to rescue her I love", that give us a clear sense of something wrong.  When the off-note gets plaid, it wrings loud and clear, and our ears can't help picking it out.  It's as if we're reading from a piece of manuscript from the Bard's reject pile, or something.  So now, let's gear ourselves up for the real stylistic suck.  “In short, the magnifying influence of fear began to set at naught the calculations of reason, and to render those who should have remembered their manhood, the slaves of the basest passions".  Here, the mind has just one response to make.  What the fuck did you just say?  The writer is trying to describe a character losing his bearings, a crocking it up all at once.

The sad news is how Cooper is just getting started here, folks.  The same stilted, Pidgeon Elizabethan prose is the hallmark of the entire gosh-damned book.  It even extends to the way Fenimore pens the dialogue for his characters: "“Tis a strange calling!’ muttered Hawkeye, with an inward laugh, ‘to go through life, like a catbird, mocking all the ups and downs that may happen to come out of other men’s throats".  Here, however, may be the worst offender in this regard.  "“No! You stay alive! Submit, do you hear? You're strong, you survive. You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you".  That has to be, without doubt, some of the dumbest, most stilted lines any character in the history of fiction has ever had to utter.  No offense, it's just, I'd be ashamed to give anyone in my cast those words if I were the writer.  It just goes "ever on" like this, ad infinitum, from the first damn page to last.  You can even, if you want, extend this stylistic awkwardness to Cooper's manufacturing of what would go on to become his most famous creation, and the first example of the American archetype of the untamed wilderness frontier here, Nathaniel "Natty" "Hawkeye" Bumpo.  The name is as awkward and stilted for a Western hero as the rest of the artist's works, yet it's far from his worst creative sin.

In the strictest sense Hawkeye or "Natty" has nothing on Davy Crockett, and it's still just the tip of the iceberg.  The entire stylistic practice of James Fenimore Cooper remains one of the most grueling experiences I ever had as a reader.  He's writing the kind of tales that call for the powerful prose line of a Jack London, and so instead he winds up giving the kind of wooden prose that even the sternest Victorian grandmother would be ashamed of.  You want to know what the most interesting part in all this is?  It still remains possible to say that if you pay close attention, you can just catch glimpses and snatches of a better work of potentially great literature being smothered under all the hollow mannerisms, waiting to tell itself.

Not only that, if you persevere (or in my case, are forced to be marched along through the damn thing, whether you want it or not) long enough, you also begin to get something of an understanding of what Cooper is up to with this abortion of a novel.  For every torturous line and narrative description, you'll sometimes come along bits and pieces like this: “The gifts of our colors may be different, but God has so placed us as to journey in the same path".  The interesting part is how you don't need a translator to grasp the message the author is getting at.  It's also kind of the point of the whole book.  That it turns out to be a surprisingly admirable one is the least expected part about it.  If you sit awhile and give that a bit of thinking over, pretty soon it starts to become clear why so many high school and college English course keep this guys "On the Books".  It's because no matter how stupid and clunky he is as a stylist, as a storyteller, Cooper turns out to be capable of spinning some very telling yarns worth hearing.  The only real shame is that the guy always needs a translator these days in order to make himself heard.  With this in mind, perhaps it's for the best if we keep Fenimore's literary failings out of the equation, and instead focus our attention in on the content of his works, as opposed to their mode of expression.  When we turn to this aspect of the novels and short stories, the results can sometimes wind up being a lot more admirable than they have any right to.

To give you an example of what I mean, the major antagonist of the Mohican novel winds up being written in such a way that he can never be reduced to the role of a simple, mustache twirling villain, much less anything resembling the stereotypical depiction of Native Americans like that found on TV shows such as F Troop.  Instead, the character of Magua is portrayed as someone who has been neglected and mistreated throughout his life, and is more than willing to explain this to others.  It gets to the point where one of the novel's two main heroes, Cora, begins to understand and sympathize a great deal with him, even if she can never agree to his schemes.  It's interesting because I'm trying to remember now how many other times I've seen or read something like that in a work of fiction.  The curious part is how I just don't seem to recall anybody ever having the guts to go there.  Cooper further makes the stakes of his story interesting by having the novel's secondary protagonist, Cora, be the product of an interracial marriage.  This intriguing ethical stance is compounded by the author being able to find enough inspiration to make her the book's moral center.  She's the one who winds up pointing out the reality behind a lot of the harsh truths Magua dishes out to the other cast members over the course of the narrative.  She also proves useful in helping the cast to survive first a dangerous trek through the woods, and later a confrontation between various tribes.

Bear in mind, Last of the Mohicans was the major literary bestseller of its time.  It's by no mean the first major American novel (that distinction belongs to someone else under discussion here; put a pin in that for later), however it was the kind of breakout success that goes a long way toward cementing the author's reputation in the pop culture mindset.  Granted, there's always a catch with this sort of setup.  The memory of pop culture is perhaps the most notorious in terms of its general unreliability, letting countless names and stories fall through the cracks when they might have deserved a wider audience.  It's the kind of artistic fate, in other words, that someone like Cooper should have fallen as a natural prey to.  Instead, you could still find his name and works getting an honorable mention every now and then, and of books like Mohicans, and the  Leatherstockting Series of which it is merely the most famous part.  These seem to be the narrative efforts that have kept Cooper's reputation alive.  Which leads us into the question of just what was his ultimate achievement as an author?  Rather, the real question to ask is how does someone like him fulfill the two requirements needed to make him a part of the main claim of this essay?  There are two criteria each writer has to meet here.  The first is that there has to be a clear through-line of ethical protest running through it.  And that the artist's fundamental mode of artistic expression has to be a Gothic one.

So how does an author of novels with titles like The Deerslayer meet all of those demands?  I think the person who can be of most help to us now is a critic by the name of Wayne Franklin.  So far as I've been able to tell, he's the closest anyone's ever come to being what you might call an authority on Cooper and his books.  According to Franklin:

"Almost single-handedly in the 1820s, Cooper invented the key forms of American fiction—the Western, the sea tale, the Revolutionary romance—forms that set a suggestive agenda for subsequent writers, even for Hollywood and television. Furthermore, in producing and shrewdly marketing fully 10 percent of all American novels in the 1820s, most of them best sellers, Cooper made it possible for other aspiring authors to earn a living by their writings. That was a rare prospect at a time when “American literature” still seemed like a contradiction in terms and when, even in England, many writers received little income from their work. Owing to this combination of literary innovation and business acumen, Cooper can be said to have invented not just an assortment of literary types but the very career of the American writer. So deep and enduring has been his effect that it is impossible to map the country’s cultural landscape without him. As much as the political “Founding Fathers,” Cooper left a documentary imprint on the national mind (xi)".

"Cooper was not without recognition among the later writers whose careers he enabled. Herman Melville, who by the 1850s was producing prose unimaginable at the time Cooper began writing, certainly paid him generous tribute. Born just when Cooper started writing his first books, Melville quite literally had grown up on them. He especially devoured the sea tales. Later recalling the “vivid and awakening power” they had exerted on his own young mind, Melville expansively declared in 1852 that Cooper was “a great, robust-souled man”—as true an estimate as anyone has yet uttered...Melville did not overlook the denigrations of Cooper’s talent and character that were perennial in the American press. But these, he concluded, had more to do with mere “fashion” than Cooper’s inherent worth or historical importance. Melville trusted that time would restore Cooper to his rightful place: “a grateful posterity,” as he put it, would “take the best care of Fenimore Cooper (xxi)".

"In his frontier fictions especially, it is clear, Cooper set the terms of American dreaming.  That he made his myths complex, full of concern for the fate of the leveled continent and the scattered native populations, meant, too, that he did not merely cheer on the wanton “progress” of Euro-American pioneers. This was part of what Lawrence did not see. Cooper apprehended the great energy that ordinary settlers expended in moving west, and the heroic visions that drove them. But he was never blind to the pettiness, the squalor, the wastefulness, or the injustice—all of which in fact show up precisely in those “glamorous pictures” in The Pioneers.  The sad slaughter of the passenger pigeons by the inhabitants of Templeton is a case in point. In Cooper’s youth, those birds had been legendary for the enormous flocks that darkened the sky all across the East; at his death, they were in precipitous decline because of overhunting, and in 1914 the last lonely individual was to die in the Cincinnati Zoo. D. H. Lawrence enthused about the “clouds of pigeons flying from the south, myriads of pigeons, shot in heaps”; Cooper to the contrary chose to direct his reader’s attention to the pathetic eyes with which the wounded birds, lying in those “heaps,” look up at Natty “as if they only wanted tongues to say their thoughts.” Judge Temple, whose own enthusiasm for the hunt dies in the victims’ pain, takes (the) hint: “I see nothing but eyes, in every direction.... I think it is time to end the sport, if sport it be.” Yet, to use a biblical formula Cooper knew and understood, even the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel: the judge thus recruits the village schoolboys to end the suffering of the birds by twisting off their heads. He will pay them, he promises, six cents per hundred on delivery of the trophies back in the village. By such means, Cooper insisted, does nature become “ours.”

Here, clearly enough, was the defining moment, the beginning point, of an American environmental conscience. Thinking back on his own youth, Cooper remembered the naive destructiveness of the earlier era and endeavored to set it right. His vision of a continent ravaged in its “settlement” called his fellow citizens—and the world—to imagine a better way of being on the earth. Thoreau, who read Cooper while at Harvard in the 1830s, imbibed the core myth from his frontier novels. When Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond in 1845, his hut by the water literalized Natty’s fictional home by the shores of Lake Otsego. At Walden, Thoreau was seeking what Cooper had urged Americans to imagine or discover—a relation to nature that did not destroy the wild but rather cherished and internalized it. In Natty, Cooper had shown the way.

"Cooper’s elegiac response to the crisis of Native American character and culture in the early nineteenth century was equally instructive. Far from complicit in the exterminations and removals that characterized his period, his tales traced native losses to the greed that caused them. The frontier as Cooper imagined it was no pageant. John Mohegan or Chingachgook in The Pioneers is, like the passenger pigeon, a doomed creature in response to whose fate the other characters reveal their essential values...

"By giving prominence to the tragic fate thrust upon Native Americans in the process of frontier expansion, Cooper helped alter the sorry image of the Indian in the American mind. Tellingly, John Mohegan, retransformed into Chingachgook at the end of The Pioneers, dies a heroic death as a forest fire rages above the lake. His native language is on his tongue and the old vision lives again in his mind. While these restorations are symbolic more than actual, it is very clear that Cooper took pains to not leave Chingachgook in a drunken stupor at the book’s end.  Furthermore, unlike those who romanticized the Indian on the basis of little or no knowledge, Cooper based characters such as Chingachgook or Uncas on insights gleaned from remnant communities of Native Americans on the New York border, including actual Mohegans who had been displaced from New England in Cooper’s youth.  Later, eager to witness the oratorical prowess of Indian leaders for himself, he sought out midwestern chiefs when they visited the East. Long excoriated merely because they had stood in the way of Euro-American progress, Indians had enjoyed signally bad press in the colonies and the new nation...What Cooper did was to give figures like Chingachgook and Uncas both voice and dignity. 

Their disappearance from the landscapes of his tales did not express his wish: rather, it reflected his realistic assessment of what was actually happening to Indian life in its old, precontact form as settlers pushed west. As he mourned the fate of the noble forest that fell before the woodchopper’s relentless axe, he also lamented the destruction of Indian culture. For Cooper’s land developer father, the story of Cooperstown was obviously a story of possession; for his youngest son, partly because he saw it all slip from the family’s hands, it became a tale of dispossession.  Cooper’s own losses made those of the land and its prior inhabitants emotionally intelligible to him (xxviii-xxx)".  It's this ability to recognize the Other as just a Person, someone who is human, with a life of their own, that makes Cooper an eligible candidate for the list of Names that shaped that nature of American fiction.  His achievement, then, lies in being maybe not so much the absolute first author to explore the emerging character of the Nation in a meaningful way.  He's just the one who wound up creating major literary expressions of all the topos or images that would go on to define the early nature and content of the Country.  While Cooper is "stylistic" to a detrimental fault, it is the substance behind all the worn out mannerisms that give a sense of vital authenticity not just to Fenimore's stories, but also to what he's trying to say within them.  It makes him something of the heir to artists like John Ford, but also to writers like Mark Twain (no matter what the old smart aleck liked to think), Joseph Conrad, and perhaps even countercultural artists like Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey.  The fascinating thing is how Cooper was able to create a legacy worth being proud of, despite some very obvious stylistic flaws.

I'd argue that's enough to satisfy the first criteria of this essay.  Which just leaves the second question to answer.  How does someone who spent their entire career writing about the exploits of pioneers and Native Americans in the forests and prairies of America fit in as a writer in the Gothic mode?  The answer to that lies in part within the pages of an overlooked piece of filler with the unpromising name of Precaution.  It was written in 1820, and was meant as a clear, uninspired copycat of the type of manners and morals novel that Jane Austen made famous with books such as Pride and Prejudice.  In Cooper's case, the final result reads less like a novel with its own identity than something akin to an early American book-length pastiche of a richer tradition from the then burgeoning English novel.  Even the book's two main leads (Emily Moseley and George Denbigh) and their general plot situation (boy meets girl - both discover they come from families with troubled histories - a lot of coming together and breaking up - all resolved in the usual declaration of true love followed by a wedding) is more or less a cut-and-paste type of job.  To be as fair as possible to Cooper, he didn't have much to work with, and it's not like he was writing to his strengths.  Besides which, the Bronte Sisters wouldn't come out with books like Wuthering Heights until 1847.  Although that last point doesn't really excuse the lackluster approach the writer takes to the material.

The one noteworthy thing about this whole setup is that it contains, nothing all that major, just these little hints and glimmers of where his true strengths with this type of material might lie, and of the specific kind of story this could have been.  As Franklin explains in The New World of James Fenimore Cooper, it was a book the author wrote "with an ear peculiarly attuned to the hidden aspect of human feeling and experience, as if only this assault of narrative energy could force an entry for such things in the social world.  It is not the mere presence of the tale that matters, or marks Cooper's departure from the larger conventions of the period; it is instead the function and the effect of the...story that should concern us.  For it seems to come at the reader from an entirely different universe, and its very premises - about language, among other things - upset those of the novel.  The Gothic power it releases into a world defined by mannerly assumptions cannot be explained by Cooper, or by anything that the world itself shows us.  We pass abruptly from the security of a universe apparently ruled by moral tags to one in which private life seems chaotically amoral; from a universe in which the surface troubles of the children stem from the moral laxness of the parents to one in which...personal rightness, teachable values have far less importance than some kind of mysterious inner worth.  The conflict between these two views would have to be resolved in order to make Precaution a better book.  But as the work stands, it hints among other things, at Cooper's perennial distrust of the social occasion as a moment of truth, and hence, perhaps, his often obtuse handling of dialogue throughout his career.  And it hints as well at Cooper's later turn, in his American tales, toward physical action, history and the landscape as the means by which the self achieves definition (24-25)".

It's in these brief and fleeting moments of skewed perception, and hints of less than natural forces guiding human events and affairs that point toward the held out promise of one of history great "what-if" scenarios.  You get the impression that if Cooper had been more temperamentally inclined to follow the voice of his muse, he could have made himself into perhaps a fairly decent writer of Horror novels and short stories.  As things stand, it's a road never taken, yet the various hints we get here and there in books like Precaution, or the awkwardly titled The Wept of Wish-Ton-Wish.  As regards the latter title, Franklin remarks how "One can only conclude that Cooper was seeking to give the Romance of American expansion a perversely Gothic accent (123)".  It's this desire to focus in on the hidden within the ordinary, to expose American manners as a potentially ongoing series of hollow shells, that puts Cooper in very good company.  I think Stephen King was later able to give voice to Cooper's then nascent creative impulses when he noted that the Horror was never interested in what he called "the civilized furniture of...our lives (4)".  He described the good Tale of Terror as dancing or plowing right through such nonsense in search of bigger game.  What King also described as "phobic pressure points" where everyone in the audience is at their most vulnerable (ibid).

For what it's also worth, I'm pretty sure neither Cooper or Franklin was ever aware of this, yet this creative obsession with false fronts hiding a dark chaos is very reminiscent of the entire plot of John Carpenter's The Thing.  The type of barely sketched-in ideas that Cooper seems to keep coming back to has an eerily similar ring to the MO of Carpenter's amorphous, Lovecraftian shape-shifter from the stars.  He'd like nothing more than to write the kind of scenario in which a fundamentally hostile subject manages to infiltrate the politest sector of American high society, and then slowly begin to turn that world upside down, in order to expose all the hypocrisies that people try to hide from themselves through a series of Gothic maskings and unmaskings, and frightful revelations.  From there, the characters might learn a valuable lesson.  It may be possible to discern an order in the universe.  The trouble is what happens when you discover you might be on the wrong side of it?  Or that there are other elements outside, waiting to crawl in.  It's interesting to imagine Cooper penning a successful treatment of such an idea.  Whatever the case, I've started out this essay with Cooper because while he may not be the best writer in the list we have to examine, he does mark the best possible point of entry for the topic.  From here, it becomes possible to start scaling greater heights.

I have said that Cooper is not the best candidate for either the writer of the first American Novel, nor does he fit the category of the Country's first Gothic author.  These two interlocking honors belong to someone else.  And now, maybe it's the time to get to know who this esteemed name is.  And perhaps there is no finer irony than to claim both American fiction and Horror all began with a boy named Charlie Brown.

Charles Brockden Brown.

Here is the part where we begin to enter familiar territory, once more.  Charles Brockden Brown is something of a known quantity here, for anyone who bothered to read a previous article about one of his short stories.  The bare facts we were able to glean from that effort was that we seemed to be dealing with a very sharp and keen literary mind.  He's the kind of guy who's not afraid to take a dive into the deep end of the myth pool.  He doesn't seem to mind if his stories wind up trying to tackle a lot of the big questions, albeit always remembering the the first and last job of the artist always remains that of putting on a good show.  In other words, he sounds smart enough to realize that his career is nothing without the ability to entertain, before any other considerations.  We've gotten to know a bit about his literary techniques, then.  However, I'm not quite sure we've taken as close a look at the life and ideas that animated this author's craft.  We still have to figure out "What makes Chuck Kick the Football", in other words?  In order to do that, I think this is one of those cases where knowing a bit about the writer's background might go a long way toward figuring out why he wrote the way he did.  Why was Brown so drawn to the fiction of the macabre, and how does this grant him the title of America's first major literary phenomenon?  Furthermore, how can any of his writings be counted as a form of ethical protest?

The answer to all  these questions can be found be examining the familial background into which the artist was born, and how that may have proved to be the determining factor in his literary development.  Here's the part where I get to bring in a remembered piece of trivia that connects Brown to the author we've just finished studying.  During the course of going over some last minute research for this article, I stumbled upon the fact that James Fenimore Cooper "came from a Quaker background in the Delaware valley above Philadelphia (Franklin, The Early Years, 2)".  Charlie Brown, meanwhile, was a native of the City of Brotherly Love, thus making each writer unintentional distant neighbors, in a way.  Brockden's family were respectable enough Philadelphia merchants who could trace their genealogy in this Country all the way back to the original Elizabethan diaspora that eventually emerged, grew, and thrived with the discovery of what was then thought of as the New World.  Like many Quakers, then and now, Brown's family was a combination of the quiet, active, and nurturing.  When the Brown's fourth son Charles was born in 1771, there seemed to be no reason why the boy shouldn't grow up to enjoy all the normal experiences of an early-modern Nineteenth century boyhood.  What needs to be paid attention to here is the date of the author's birth: 1771.  On either his sixth or fifth birthday, the Declaration of Independence was signed.

When that happened, the nature of reality began to shift and change all around the Brown family.  It all looked very much like the America Revolution had begun.  This revolt from the British crown meant years of established custom and tradition was overturned almost with the literal stroke of a pen.  From then on, a door most people intuited might be there was flung open, and suddenly all the other possible ways of living a human life began to take shape as faint glimmers and outlines in the minds of the burgeoning American public.  It was a discovery that a sizeable enough majority of future citizens were willing not just to go along with, but also to fight and die for, if necessary.  Even so, the sense of change in the air could be frightening, just as much as it was electrifying and inspiring.  There is nothing like a revolution in political upheaval to set someone to thinking about their place and meaning in the grand scheme of things.  In the case of Brown's family, what you have is a study not so much of contrasts and contradiction, but rather one of irony.  When it came to the all-important question of casting off the yolk of the monarchy, Quakers on the whole tended to cast their lot with the notion that the individual conscience should be free to make its own decisions (whether for well or woe).  So by and large, they supported the Revolutionary cause.  The one element in their beliefs that cast them in a bad light was just one thing.  Quakers are committed pacifists.

You can tell where the irony starts to come into the picture, here.  At the very moment when the Country was making a call to arms in the name of freedom and the rights of man, even the most supportive among the Society of Friends was caught in the conundrum of how to support a cause they knew was just, while at the same time being able to maintain a commitment to an ethics of non-violence.  This highly personal conflict came to a very public head when the more ardent fighters in the cause of the Revolution began to fear that this moral commitment to pacifism might be a trick by the Redcoats.  A nice way for good old King George to either smuggle in troops, or else try and attack the morale of those fighting for Independence.  It was this minor and often overlooked eruption of the Paranoid Style in American Politics that caused a limited yet vocal and influential demand to have Quakers locked up as potential threats to the cause.  While there's no evidence that any of the major Framers ever thought there was any weight to these rumors, at the local level, "paranoia strikes deep", as that old Buffalo Springfield song has it.  Into the hearts of scattered townships it would creep, and it starts when you're always afraid you're about to be shot in your sleep by a bunch of guys carrying bayonets decked out in red.  The completion of the irony is that locking up a bunch of religious pacifists for no good cause didn't do a gosh-damned thing to allay these fears.  When the fog of war settles on you, it's all you can do to feel and crawl your way to daylight, and hope you come out on the other side intact.  This was the major shaping event of Charles Brockden Brown's early life and times.

As a result of the confluence of all these pivotal historic moments happening around and sometimes to Brown and his family, both during his birth as well as his formative years growing up, it makes sense to label the writer as a Child of one of America's First Great Instance of National Trauma.  It's a dubious honor he shares with the likes of Stephen Crane during the Civil War, or Tolkien in the trenches of France during WW1.  Each of these authors were shaped by the great traumatic events of their respective time periods as representatives of different points of the modern age.  Brown just had the luck to be the first one in line.  The particular point at which the traumas of the Revolution struck him and his folks was when those local paranoiacs had the Brockden Clan locked up under spurious rumors of sedition and giving comfort to the enemy.  The relatively good news is that this didn't last too long once the Framers at the top of the chain of command found out and put a stop to it.  However, it also left the writer and his family with a lifelong sense of just how well some things can spill out of control in any tense situation.  It also gave Brown an early exposure to what he always seemed to consider to be this unexorcised dark aspect of the National Psyche.  Throughout his life Charlie would be a tireless advocate for American Democratic principles.  That is also why, in a very ironic twist, he was often merciless to the Nation's faults within the pages of his fiction.

Here is where the similarities between Brown and Cooper begin to come into play.  Much like the creator of the Leatherstocking westerns, Brown's work is fixated on that same, shared idea of elemental forces at work within or underneath the cloak of everyday normal reality.  The major difference between the two authors lies not in their interests or respective outlooks, so much as how far one of them was willing to take this concern well into the by now familiar territory of Gothic obsession.  When I call someone like Brown a literary pioneer I'm not at all being facetious.  At least in terms of the prose novel, Brockden turned out to be the scribbler who wound up making the first real big strides in terms of defining what American fiction both was at its core, as well as how far it could go, or reach.  It just so happened that the type of story he was best at telling was the Tale of Terror.  Whenever Brown's still manages to get tossed around in any discussion of literature, it is always in connection with the Haunted Bump in the Night genre.  In fact, that's sort of where he first came to my attention.  I'd be pouring through studies of the Horror story, such as Steve King's Danse Macabre, or Bill Sheehan's At the Foot of the Story Tree, and there he'd be, tossed into the mix in an almost casual way, as if his being there at all was nothing more than a simple matter of course.  I guess it all amounts to curiosity catching up with me, sooner or later, because here we are discussing him now.  A bit of concentrated excavation reveals that all of what was said about him is true.

More than that, everything I've learned or read about the guy since then leaves me with no other conclusion than to chalk up Charlie Brown's success to the fact that he was the first American writer to make a successful effort at transmitting the machinery of the Gothic genre onto American shores and settings.  A good way to sum up his achievement is to claim that he was the one who came closest to being the initial Stephen King of his day.  Charles Brockden Brown, in other words, was America's First Literary Boogeyman.  This conferred title is bared out once you stop and take a look at some of the work he produced.  Peter Kafer can help prove this by the way he describes the plot of Brown's 1798 novel, Wieland.  The way that Kafer does this is by employing a strategy that sounds bold on the face of it, until you stop and compare the notes he's drawn up, and then you're stunned by how much of what he says makes sense.  Kafer starts out by talking not about Brown's Wieland, but rather Stephen King's The Shining.

"Central to The Shining is an interplay of visions, dreams, and imagined voices.  Danny possesses "precognition": the ability "to shine."  He can read other people's thoughts, and he knows things he hasn't actually experienced - including future things.  Sometimes he sees and hears these on his own; sometimes an imaginary friend, "Tony," pops up to tell him.  Jack, for his part, hears voices, the first of which, his dead father's voice, speaks to him in a half-dream.  But he comes to hear other voices too: among these the voice of the hotel itself and the voice of a former caretaker who hade murdered his and children there.

"And now my point: This is Wieland redivivus.  The American Gothic formula that Charles Brockden Brown devised in 1798 is alive and flourishing in 1977.  Haunted setting?  In Wieland, it a Pennsylvania wilderness community called Mettingen; in The Shining, it's the wilderness retreat in the Rockies called the Overlook.  Hero/villain?  In both stories it is a "good" middle-class family man who cracks because of a family history in which fathers pass destructive propensities unto sons.  Innocent protagonist victim?  In Wieland, it is Clara who undergoes two horrors, one when she is six (her father's death by spontaneous combustion), the other when she's in her mid-twenties and her brother turns lunatic murderer; in The Shining, Danny is "five going on six" and Wendy is in her mid-to late twenties when Jack takes up his bloody mallet.  Also among the Gothic devices facilitating the two stories: both feature a hero/villain who hears voices telling him "to kill."  In Wieland, furthermore, there is a ventriloquist who projects mysterious voices, one of which periodically warns Clara about entering dangerous places.  In The Shining, "Tony" periodically warns Danny about dangers.  And both novels use dreams and visions to set up the suspense.  Clara dreams about assaults to come; while Danny "shines" the gory horrors ahead.

"In both novels, too, American history plays a weighty part.  The history that hangs over The Shining is crystal clear to the reader.  It is Nixon.  Vietnam.  The corruption of post-World War II America.  King flags this again and again.  Early in the novel a character observes: "Federal government into everything these days, ain't it?  FBI opening mail, CIA bugging the goddam phones...and look what happened to Nixon.  Wasn't that a sorry sight (xvii-xviii)"?  From here, Kafer goes on to make a pretty convincing case of how all of the themes tackled not just by King in one of his most famous novels, but also in genre movies as iconic as Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street, and John Carpenter's Halloween and The Fog (xix).  It is also part and parcel of Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland.  Each of these later artists are drawing from a well whose foundations were first laid by Brown a long time ago.  It gets even better when you realize that Brockden later went on to write a second novel called Arthur Mervyn, whose plot deals with a plague outbreak that decimates the entire United States.  Imagine, in other words, a version of Stephen King's The Stand, only its set in the Colonial America of Ichabod Crane, and the Headless Horseman.  Charlie Brown didn't just give King his career, in other words, he went on to set a lot of its future patterns. 

I think Kafer makes the correct judgment call when he claims that "(the) past hangs over and corruption suffuses the world of Wieland (ibid)".  However, I think he also makes an unforced critical error by claiming that Brown is being too damned genteel for either his own good with the characters and story.  To my mind, the author doesn't so much as flinch or pull so much as a single punch.  While the Gothic machinery that Brockden has set in motion may sound melodramatic, even that can't be said to make all that much of a difference from the kind of theatrics that any of King's protagonists have had to put up with in his work.

Granted, it's always possible to claim that the image of a bunch of kids fighting a monster in the shape of a scary clown leaves a better impression than the sight of one man going insane, committing a murder, and then bursting into a hellish pillar of fire.  The only major different between these two attempts, however, rests in just how far each author is willing to go in terms of the scale of the shock effects for their respective books.  King's "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" approach is the one we're most familiar with now.  Charlie Brown, on the other hand, harkens back to the more sinister, unspoken, and haunted silences that menace the pages of authors like Arthur Machen an Shirley Jackson.  I don't see it as a case of Brown having a less is more approach.  Instead, it's just a question of going with whatever the story demands.  In his case, it results in fictional writings where there is always the sense of hidden layers to reality that keep affecting the plots and character's of Brockden's novels.  A related theme to this over-arching idea is the notion that sometimes in order to change a  dark, Dionysian situation into a sunnier, Apollonian one, the protagonist and those around him must be willing to acknowledge all the hidden aspects of life and themselves, and then see if they are willing to both confront, and, if necessary, accept the full nature of reality.  That, in essence, could sum up any number of writings done by either King, or Brown.  It's also interesting in that this appears to have been the ultimate idea a writer like Cooper was always striving to arrive at.

Nathaniel Hawthorne.

With Charles Brockden Brown, we've reached the point where the quality of the writers and their artistry has begun to improve, and its only gets better from here.  If there's any writer who can be said to be a major structuring influence on the nature of the modern Horror genre, even as we still know it today, then aside from the overlooked contributions of Brown, that award would have to go to Nathaniel Hawthorne.  To sum up the man's achievements, he's the one who gave us a lot of what we now consider to be the classic genre trappings, and settings.  These include elements such as a rural and isolated setting, such as haunted mansion with a tragic history, or else the notion of the small town with a dark secret and sinister past.  Also, much like Stephen King, Hawthorne was a regional writer, who often chose to set his stories within and against the sometimes literal confines of the Yankee New England background, of which the author himself was an inescapable part.  King and Hawthorne are united by the fact that they are both shaped and molded as products of the fundamentally Gothic experience of the Colonial American Northeast.  Each of them can be described as a pair of Yankee scribblers with an unconscious, instinctive, sometimes almost visceral sense of the Country's past, and of the sometimes malign influence it can exert on events in the present day.

This is a knowledge King and Hawthorne seem to have gained in very similar ways, through the imbibing of the history, customs, manners, and mores of their respective regional social milieus.  For King, this background knowledge came courtesy of the state of Maine.  For Hawthorne, the real life setting that placed a permanent stamp on the nature of his writings was twofold.  It was his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, and its Puritan legacy.  It has to be emphasized just how much of a truism it is to claim that Hawthorne (like King) maintained an acute, lifelong awareness of the ways in which the past can haunt the present.  Nowhere did this awareness carry a more personal sting for Hawthorne than when it came to the dark and troubled past of his own family tree.  He spent the vast remainder of his life in Concord, but he was born and grew up, of all places, in his native province of Salem, Mass.  For those new to history (and yes, it happens everyday, like the proverbial newborn babe), Salem is the location where the infamous Witch Trial Hysteria took place.  The history of Salem, and even more so the Puritan legacy of which it is merely the poster child can almost be considered its own topic at this point in my mind.  And yet it is writers like Hawthorne, King, Brockden Brown, and Poe who have done the most not just to concentrate a working idea of this legacy, but also to help sustain the memory of it right up to the current moment.  I'd argue it's possible each of them has done us a service in that regard, no matter how grim the subject matter may be.

What guys like Hawthorne and the others just listed have made me understand is the extent to which it's possible to speak of the Puritans as an embodiment, or living symbol of America's original sin.  For guys like Hawthorne,  the original Plymouth settlers, his own family among them, are akin to a whole brood of serpents invading an arcadian paradise.  Taking their first step and leaving an initial footprint on the shore is like injecting the earth with a kind of toxic poison.  Something that spoils the land, and makes it turn bad.  The effects of such an invasion are often envisioned as devastating.  To give an idea of how the writer might have viewed such historical events, if it was ever possible to imagine the original, untamed forests of the U.S. as having its own version of dryads, wood nymphs, or Ents, then if they started out as any kind of decent sorts, it would be the Puritans who taught them how to whither, and turn mean, and insane.  That's to say nothing of the real life story of how the Puritans treated to the First Nations who were pretty much responsible for helping them stay alive during those harsh New England winters.  It was the Wampanoag tribe, or People of the Light, who were willing to extend a hand of friendship to the original Plymouth colony.  All they got for their troubles was the eventual dispossession of their own lands and sometimes even their families.  The forest that the tribe used to think of as home was slowly taken and transformed into something a lot less hospitable.  For Hawthorne, America's original founding is the story how Arcadia was transformed into the dark woods and forests that have come to dot the American Gothic landscape.

The funny thing is how even here, in a natural place which can be used to help make human monsters, Hawthorne still managed find room for leftover places of enchantment.  If there are witches, ghost, ghouls, and demons haunting the forests of his secondary worlds, then there is also still the possibility of stumbling upon an actual wood nymph every now and then, with the Bowers of Bliss still untainted by the dark magic of the European settlers.  If all that sounds over-dramatic, then all I can say is that it's symbolic manner in which Hawthorne regarded the Nation's history as he both experienced and was molded by it.  The fact that this notion turned out to be not an isolated incident, but rather one that kept getting re-experienced over and again by each of the major writers who came after Hawthorne (a roster which includes all of the names alluded to above) goes a long way towards being able to say that at least the old bastard was onto something.  He is best described as the great chronicler of American guilt.  Each of his writings tackles the Puritan legacy at the heart of the Country, and sets it up as a poisonous tap root, or origin point from which every other fault, crime, or moral failing that has marked and marred the U.S. has ever sprung.  The central idea here seems to be that even once the original American serpents had collapsed, the initial frame of mind that created them in the first place has never really left.  Every time you hear an item on the news concerning topics like abuse, public corruption, or hate crimes, you're dealing with those same ghosts.

It is, to put it mildly, quite the theme that Hawthorne wound up tackling through his fiction.  The idea of Puritanism as the Country's original sin is something that winds its way through every single piece of fiction he ever wrote.  It's a topic I've discussed once before.  The writer's most famous imaginative explorations of this trope can be found in books like The Scarlet Letter, and The House of Seven Gables.  Those are novels whose main cast are always caught up in the toxic environment of their New England surroundings.  The story of the former novel concerns one woman's desire to find some means to break away from the hypocritical closed-mindedness of the Puritan era Boston society in which she was born and raised.  The good news is in the end, she manages to do just that.  The skill with which Hawthorne narrates the plight of the story's main character, Hester Prynne, and her struggles to either find or create a new life outside the confines of the Plymouth mindset marks The Scarlet Letter as perhaps one of the greatest expressions of social protest ever created in the annals of Gothic fiction.  It's not the first one ever penned (that honor still belongs to Charlie Brown), however it was the first example of a distinctly American expression of the Gothic novel to ever achieve a genuine form of critical acclaim and popular mass audience appeal.

A close look at the book's reputation on Google Trends reveals that it's popularity is still able to maintain a healthy charm and fascination for readers well above 50% of audience awareness and praise.  I think a lot of that is down to the way Hawthorne's story was able to tackle a lot of issues that still carry a great, and sometimes dangerous amount of weight with the American public more than 150 years after the novel was first published.  These include topics like social ostracization, the abuse or mistreatment of women, and the evergreen problem of racism.  Like I said, Hawthorne isn't the first writer to tackle these issues, Brown and Cooper beat him to that punch, yet his efforts seem to have been what allowed this type of story to achieve its first taste of something close to public respectability, at least as far as the American novel is concerned.  This trend of being able to expose the dark side of the American Dream was continued by Hawthorne in what might be the first Haunted House story ever told in the United States.  Note, I am making a minor distinction here between any narrative revolving around the grand, old trope of the Ghost, and Hawthorne's novel.  The honor of first major American specter to make his big artistic debut on these shores belongs to Washington Irving's Headless Horseman.  That account concerned a haunted stretch of road nestled away within a deep, dark woods.  Hawthorne, meanwhile, seems responsible for giving the Country's readers their first homegrown House of Spirits with a Dark and Troubled History.  Much like the story of Hester Prynne, House of the Seven Gables deals with the the crimes of the past catching up with the present.

“The act of the passing generation", Hawthorne claims, "is the germ which may and must produce good or evil fruit in a far-distant time; that, together with the seed of the merely temporary crop, which mortals term expediency, they inevitably sow the acorns of a more enduring growth, which may darkly overshadow their posterity (5)".  In this case, the entire plot centers around the aftermath of a public lynching.  The way it comes about is best expressed by the two interwoven terms of greed and covetousness.  Once there was an old Puritan by the name of Col. Pyncheon, who was very desirous of a particular plot of land that overlooked the very seaside spot where the original Plymouth settlers took their first step onto the shores of the new world.  It may not mean anything to you or I, however to a good covenanted soul such as the Colonel, there would always be something about just such as spot that was forever ideal.  The trouble, however, comes in the form of the property's original owner, a certain Mr. Matthew Maule.  This enterprising gentleman has set up a house and farm for himself and his family, and shows no eagerness to part with something he's built with his own two hands.  None of the bribes and offerings the Colonel makes can sway the diligent landowner from his purposes.

When it became clear enough to the Colonel that the obstreperous Master Maule would not be swayed from his self-made perch, the well-to-do Salem Magistrate simply shrugged, knowing that there were other ways of getting what he wanted from the land, even without the permission of its owner.  Here is where I believe the author's own words can do the story of what happens next better justice than I ever can.  "Old Matthew Maule, in a word, was executed for the crime of witchcraft. He was one of the martyrs to that terrible delusion, which should teach us, among its other morals, that the influential classes, and those who take upon themselves to be leaders of the people, are fully liable to all the passionate error that has ever characterized the maddest mob. Clergymen, judges, statesmen,—the wisest, calmest, holiest persons of their day stood in the inner circle round about the gallows, loudest to applaud the work of blood, latest to confess themselves miserably deceived. 

"If any one part of their proceedings can be said to deserve less blame than another, it was the singular indiscrimination with which they persecuted, not merely the poor and aged, as in former judicial massacres, but people of all ranks; their own equals, brethren, and wives. Amid the disorder of such various ruin, it is not strange that a man of inconsiderable note, like Maule, should have trodden the martyr’s path to the hill of execution almost unremarked in the throng of his fellow sufferers. But, in after days, when the frenzy of that hideous epoch had subsided, it was remembered how loudly Colonel Pyncheon had joined in the general cry, to purge the land from witchcraft; nor did it fail to be whispered, that there was an invidious acrimony in the zeal with which he had sought the condemnation of Matthew Maule. It was well known that the victim had recognized the bitterness of personal enmity in his persecutor’s conduct towards him, and that he declared himself hunted to death for his spoil. 

"At the moment of execution—with the halter about his neck, and while Colonel Pyncheon sat on horseback, grimly gazing at the scene Maule had addressed him from the scaffold, and uttered a prophecy, of which history, as well as fireside tradition, has preserved the very words. “God,” said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy,—“God will give him blood to drink (5)".

Within the space of a single paragraph, Hawthorne has mapped out and shaped the contours of what has remained the nature and face of the American Horror story.  It's a model that has been followed, added to, yet never truly modified since Hawthorne set pen to paper.  All that heirs like Poe, Lovecraft, Bradbury, Matheson, Serling, King, Hitchcock, Romero, Carpenter, Spielberg and now Jordon Peele have done is more akin to workmen adding a new wing, room, or gable to the original edifice which was first plotted and built by Hawthorne all those years ago.  Nor does there seem to be anything wrong with this setup.  To my way of thinking, no artist has to worry all that much about keeping things original, so long as he or she knows they've got a good story on their hands.  None of Hawthorne's heirs can be said to have made any great strides in terms of originality.  Nor do they ever have to concern themselves with such illusions.  Most of the creatures and haunts that stalk through each of their respective or shared secondary worlds is little more than a rehash of the sort of material you'll find waiting for you if you choose to pour through records of old world folklore.  It isn't the novelty of the nature of the Horror at the heart of the Gothic story that counts, merely the quality with which it is told.  Each of the artists just listed are smart enough to know that the story is the boss, and work with it.

Phillis Wheatley.

In saving the best for last, I'm indebted to a number of sources.  The first of them is The Odyssey of Phillis Wheatley by David Waldstreicher.  His biography is a bit more than serviceable though their are one or two passages that I'll swear are in need of re-thinking.  In spite of a few eyebrow raising glitches, it seems destined to to become the standard biographical study.  It's from Waldstreicher that we get some of the best information on a forgotten name in the history of U.S. letters.  It's there we learn that Phillis Wheatley was an African girl taken from her homeland as young child, perhaps almost as a baby, and transported to these shores under the heading of "property" by the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  It's difficult to know just how young the author was when she had her old life unjustly wrenched away.  In all her years as an African-American, she could recall just one, single image from what she guessed must have been her childhood.  Rather, it was pretty much all that was left of the childhood she used to have.  It's very much as Waldstreicher outlines in the early pages of his life of the writer's mind.

"The slave narrative, so crucial in exposing what New World slavery had become, did not yet exist: Wheatley's generation created it.  Our ability to know or extrapolate Wheatley's African story through firsthand testimonies is bound by the claims of enslavement, much as our ability to understand the next generation of the enslaved is indebted to their struggle against what they began to attack as a peculiar institution.  Only one story she told of her African past was recorded.  It's the only story that survives of Phillis before she was Phillis, passed down in the Wheatley family to Susanna Wheatley's grandniece, Margaretta Odell, and published in her Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley in 1834.  Odell had been told that "she doesn't seem to have preserved any remembrance of the place of her nativity, or of her parents, excepting the simple circumstance that her mother poured out water before the sun at his rising (12)".  After that, there was nothing.  The rest was just one big, blank slate so far as Phillis was concerned.  She had a life, there was that one fleeting glimpse of a life that might have once been hers.  Then it was gone, just like that.  Now, here she was.  Her next memories probably being no more than the harsh conditions of being a prisoner in the slave galley of a ship bound for the harbor of Boston.

On the opening page to one of his novels, Stephen King opines that, "People's lives - their real lives, as opposed to their simple physical existences - begin at different times (3)".  If there's ever been any truth to this assumption, then it's interesting to observe that the real life of Phillis Wheatley (no record of her original African name appears to have survived) begins with her first sense of self-awareness, and it's as the captured slave of human traffickers who probably didn't even see her as someone who was there.  All they left Phillis from her original past was just the single image of a woman (maybe her mother) pouring libations out into the early dawn.  The rest no longer existed, in the strictest sense.  It reminds me of the claims made by scholar Richard Slotkin.  In his book, Regeneration through Violence, he talks about how the experience of Colonial trauma by enslaved or oppressed peoples (both Native and African-American) didn't just contribute to a lot of the great myths that the first Puritan settlers wrapped this Country up in.  It could also serve as a kind of change agent, one that transfigured the oppressed from one state of life to another.  I don't think it was until I read about how Wheatley had so much of her previous life taken away from her that she couldn't recall who she was that it began to make sense.

Because of this, I'd like to take this moment to make a note of the moment Phillis became self-aware, both of herself, her general situation, and what it all meant on a personal and collective level.  The reason for doing so is to add one more third, and final claim to this essay.  American fiction was born in a prison cell.  The rest of Wheatley's life is the story of how American fiction managed to free itself through the perennial medium of pure artistic expression.  I am being dead serious here, by the way.  Nothing anyone else can say is going to shake me from this outlook.  What we talk about with the poetry of Phillis Wheatley is nothing less, so far as I'm concerned, than when the distinctly American voice began to assert itself for the first time in the history of World Literature.  This is how it happened.  Once she was unceremoniously escorted to these shores, Phillis found herself officially listed as the bought property of one Mr. and Mrs. John and Susanna Wheatley.  They were the ones who brought her to their home, and it is here where everything about Phillis' story gets interesting for me.  This is also the point at which my musing on the subject wanders off into the realm of historical speculation a bit.

So far as their neighbors knew them, the Wheatley's were little else beside a, not wealthy, yet well-to-do and respectable enough merchant family.  The husband John was the owner of a successful tailoring business.  While Susan appeared to be the stereotypical picture of the old-fashioned housemaker.  Other than their "newly acquired servant and maid", the only other occupants of the household were the couple's son, Nathaniel, and their daughter, Mary.  For all intents and purposes, you've got the setup of a typical Slave Narrative.  Someone is reduced to a less than human status, and then they are made to work at the beck and call of artificially created superiors.  It's the expectation that the Wheatley's conform to this pattern of oppression which makes what they did next for Phillis all the more remarkable.  Rather than treat Phillis as a slave (or a thing, in other words), instead the family...all joined in to help give her an education.  The entire development stands out to me.  Because for all intents and purposes, it's an example of members of the slave-holding community going out of their way to be "off-script".  The Wheatley's didn't just teach Phillis to read or write, either.  When they saw she was beginning to develop skills such as a seemingly natural penchant for wordplay, alliteration, and rhyme.  Where other masters would see this as a sign to go, "Okay, fun is fun, and done is done", then take all of Phillis's writing materials away, the household encouraged the girl to develop her craft.

And that was off note too.  It was, in fact, the sort of development that was typically frowned upon by all of the other families in the Wheatley's neighborhood.  Even in households that didn't own any slaves, the basic expectation was that African-American servants were expected to be treated as something akin to errant children who must be "corrected" at best, or else as a human form of cattle be done with as thou whilst, at worst.  No more, no less.  In fact, the general situation that all white families and homes were expected to conform to was summed up years later in a novel by Science Fiction author John Wyndham.  In his book The Chrysalids, there is a plaque hanging somewhere in a character's house with this inscription on it. "Keep Pure the Stock of the Lord; In Purity Our Salvation; Blessed is the Norm; Watch Thou for the Mutant (King, 41)".  Such was the mindset of the upscale Boston neighborhood in which the Wheatley family and Phillis found themselves.  The Puritan families that birthed Boston might have turned to dust for the most part, yet their somehow gnostic, tyrannical  outlook still held town, and in some ways all of Country in their iron grip.  So here was the family teaching Phillis how to not so much to follow "The Norm", as to take and shatter it into something less than dust and ashes.

As Waldstreicher tells his readers, the Wheatley's didn't just teach Phillis how to read and write, they also allowed her the space necessary to do something extra.  She was allowed to see if whatever magic it is that exists inside the pages of a book could go more than just some ways toward giving her a genuine artistic outlook.  The result was that by the end of this education, the family no longer had a new servant on their hands.  They'd let Phillis be nothing less than a human being; a young lady with a mind of her own.  Or in other words, as the slave owners of the time might have phrased it if they'd ever heard and understood the word, a "mutant".  That's hardly a fitting or right word for the last writer under discussion here today.  She was allowed to be an artist, is all.  Her forte was verse instead of prose, poetry rather than the novel.  However, it's a very dangerous mistake to believe she was ever anything like a minor Colonial talent.  By the end of her life, Phillis Wheatley had more or less become a candidate for America's first official-"unofficial" African-American Poet Laureate.  Before we get into why this is so damned important, there's still one question lingering in the air.  Why would a respectable Boston family purchase themselves a slave, only to then set her free?  For that's what happened to Phillis eventually.  After a surprisingly quick passage of time, she was granted her official freedom from the human trafficking market.  It even came with official paperwork and letters of certification.

Her story is kind of a fairy tale if there ever was one, and all of this was later reflected in her poems to an overwhelming extent.  It's just that even historians like Waldstreicher are still left wondering what made the Wheatley's do it?  Why take a slave, and then set her free?  Here is where my own two cents worth of pure speculation comes into play.  It stems from the knowledge that (just like Charlie Brown and James Fenimore Cooper) the Wheatley's were in fact a Quaker family.  Where I branch off from most of the other scholarship around them is with the suggestion that this background might account for the way they treated Phillis.  It all begins to make at least a plausible kind of sense if you go with the notion that the Wheatley family was sympathetic to the cause of the Abolition of Slavery, and that their taking of Phillis into their home might have all been part of not just an individual scheme to give one African girl her rights as a human being, but also perhaps as part of a Colonial Era version of the Underground Railroad.  Rather, I wonder if the Wheatley's might not have been part of a similar effort long before the more recognized Railroad began to lay down its own tracks.  What if, in other words, it was families like the Wheatley's, along with a growing number of former slaves and sympathetic or Friendly households who were the ones to lay down the initial rail lines that other could build upon?

Like I say, this is all pure speculation on my part.  A lot of the history of Phillis's time with the Wheatley's is very much that of a closed and lost book.  Yet even this is interesting to if you take into consideration that of course at a time in which human trafficking was not just the lay, but also the governmentally mandated law of the land, that the very idea of Emancipation, Abolition, and Liberation would have no real choice of success unless it was all kept under the quietest possible wraps.  That way everything could appear legal and above board.  African-Americans could fight for their freedom in ways that would help them avoid all the numerous familiars punishments that were meted out to slaves trying to break their bonds, up to and including the hangman's noose.  Abolitionists, meanwhile would create the "appearance" that they were "obeying" the "law", while all the time following nothing else except the dictates of sanity.  For the record, so far as I have been able to discover, the first major declaration against slavery in this Nation can be traced back to the year 1688, during the course of a meeting of the Society of Friends, not too far from the same Philadelphia neighborhood where Phillis spent the rest of her life.  My theory (and that's all it is) is that this first stand against oppression, however meager, was enough to start something important.  Like planting a useful harvest seed in good soil.  By the time Phillis arrived on these shores, she was taken in by the Abolitionist network.

It was the Wheatley's who were sent there to act as both her shelter, then her sponsors, and finally as the artist's patrons.  The rest is a history still worth telling.  In terms of her artistry, Phillis's poems display a remarkable blending of familiar elements with a new mode of aesthetic expression.  According to Waldstreicher, the 18th century "classical revival provided her with a way of talking about her experience as an enslaved woman without talking about it directly. In Homer, the traffic in women is perfectly ordinary and yet akin to the original sin: a rupture that makes and unmakes the world. It is the job of the poet to knit the world back together, and maybe free herself in the process, like the singer at the end of The Odyssey who receives a pardon, perhaps because, in the end, he is as indispensable as the hero (6)".  The historian isn't joking in his claims there.  It really does seem as if Phillis managed to use her grounding in the turn of the century poetic revival as a vehicle not just for self-expression, but also a platform to champion collective emancipation.  Elsewhere, Wheatley utilizes the influences of Homer, Virgil, and Alexander Pope to issue a very daring challenge in the form of a question.

This is how Waldstreicher phrases it, "
Greeks, Romans, Britons, Africans. Can they be similar? What might this mean?...More important, she takes control of the references, the presence of the ancient, for the reader of the newspaper who could not have missed that the poem had been written by a “Negro Girl.” The preface stresses her race. The poem itself places Africa, and her, in a shared ancient world that is at once past and present, a place where even she can speak with authority.  The boldness of address, the claim to share the ancient world on equal terms, is hidden by the seeming imitation, the classical references. But not enough—not nearly (5)".  Nor does it seem as if she ever wanted to entirely conceal the larger goal which she seems to have begun to work toward almost from the very start.  If there's any validity to the idea that American letters began in a state of moral revolt and protest against injustice, then no better candidate can be found to prove such a claim than Wheatley herself.

Once she was given no more than the simple stationary articles of pen, paper, and ink, the first thing she did with it all was to try and prove one of those items could be stronger than any sword wielded by a tyrant or enslaver.  Or to put it another way, once she was given the materials she needed, the first thing Phillis did was nothing more than to use the written word to help fashion a key to her jail cell  

Perhaps the greatest poetic expression of her goal of using artistic creativity as a means of reaching for freedom can be found in a powerful work with an ironically dull and bureaucratic sounding title.  It's header is no more elaborate than To the Right Honorable, Earl of Dartmouth.  The work itself is a good example of a particular type of verse sub-genre known as the poem of praise.  It's a mode of expression which is probably all but a dead letter as of this writing.  The reason for this is because the idea of any peer of the ruling class nobility being allowed to have themselves lavished with flattery in the form of either short or extended couplets and rhymes is one of those notions that had their day long ago with the waning of the Renaissance.  Examples like Wheatley's signal the sub-type in the midst of its last gasps as time and taste had already begun to carry it away.  Here, however, the poet manages to get some good use out of what was by then a hoary old trope.  She seems to display an literary debt to works in a similar vein, such as the Elizabethan tributary efforts of Edmund Spenser, and Will Shakespeare.

The twist that Phillis gives to this antiquated style of address is to take its basic formal outlines, and then turn it all on its head.  Thus we start out with what sounds like a note of mere poetic commonplace: "Hail, happy day, when, smiling like the morn/Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn/The northern clime beneath her genial ray/Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway".  The entire thing sounds like no more than a mere Elizabethan survival.  In actual fact, the writer has done such a good job of putting the reader off their guard from the very outset, that it is made deliberately easy for the reader's eyes to glaze over the crucial passage where the poem's message begins to shift gears and genres.  "Elate with hope her race no longer mourns/Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns/While in thine hand with pleasure we behold/The silken reins, and Freedom's charms unfold/Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies".  The rest who choose to pay careful attention will note that the poet has departed from the typical style and content to be found in regular congratulatory poetry.  There is praise of a sort going on here.  However, Phillis isn't directing a shred of it toward the ostensible title beneficiary of the poem.  Instead, she bestow the poem's laurels on the more difficult topic of human freedom.

She shines supreme, while hated faction dies/Soon as appear'd the Goddess long desir'd/Sick at the view, she languish'd and expir'd/Thus from the splendors of the morning light/The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night/No more, America, in mournful strain/Of wrongs, and grievance unredress'd complain/No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain/Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand/Had made, and with it meant t' enslave the land".  Here the author begins to expand the poem's horizon.  It's no longer a mere generic, abstract song of freedom, but one with a very specific application.  Phillis is eager to make the recipient of this poem aware of how the nature of freedom applies to the context of the emerging American democracy.  The way she does this is by clothing the poem's existential subjects in the garments of Classical imagery.  This was and in some sense still is the standard practice for how poem are told and narrated.  Almost all of the major works of poetry, from as far back as Homer, all the way up to T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, or even Maya Angelou find recourse sooner or later to various and sundry figure from world mythology.  I almost want to say it has to be classified as the major hallmark of poetry in general.  It has its prose analogue in the novel format, though it's more apparent in verse.

Phillis's use of her mythic material is skillful in her careful framing of the work's allusiveness.  She speaks of freedom as a "Goddess long desir'd".  This is a literary reference that might have been commonplace back in Wheatley's day.  It's also one of those poetic tropes that might take a bit of explaining now.  All she's done is create an allusion to the Classic, Greco-Roman figure of Astraea.  In the old Mediterranean myths of Olympus, Astraea was known as the goddess of justice.  With this knowledge in mind, it becomes easy, almost natural to see how audiences both ancient and modern would equate such a figure of justice with that of freedom.  The best possible exercise of the former quality should, by rights, result by a natural process in the latter.  It had better, anyway, that's all I'll say right here and now.  What's interesting about Phillis's use of the myth of Astraea is that this is yet another example of the writer turning an established trope on its head.  Scholar Frances Yates once wrote an entire book on the Elizabethan use of the character of Astraea in Renaissance literature.

In particular, she's able to demonstrate how the goddess of justice was pretty much appropriated by the British crown in the service of propping up the very same Empire that the American Colonies were now trying to escape from.  Therefore Phillis's citing of her in the poem to Dartmouth signals and represents an about-face.  It's less a case of the author "re-purposing" or co-opting Astraea, so much as it is the character being allowed to have her original dignity back, after long years of abuse.  This deliberate coupling of freedom and justice is all brought to a head in what remains the key passage of the entire poem.  "Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song/Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung/Whence flow these wishes for the common good/By feeling hearts alone best understood/I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate/Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat/What pangs excruciating must molest/What sorrows labour in my parent's breast/Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd/That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd/Such, such my case. And can I then but pray/Others may never feel tyrannic sway".  There are a number of things going on in that passage.

So far as anyone has been able to determine, those verses all belong to the first African-American author that we know of.  Nor is that all.  When Phillis Wheatley published her first collection of poetry, it became one of the first examples of an American bestseller.  The most remarkable fact in this case is that it happened to a girl who was also still a trafficked slave when she composed all the lines quoted above.  That grants the circumstances of composition a greater sense of weight than they would have had if a white author had made them.  By putting pen to paper, Phillis was very much putting her own (very relative) safety at risk.  The Address to Dartmouth isn't really anything else except an argument that freedom and equality be granted to the African-American slaves of the Country's first states.  Many of them were also helping to birth the new Nation.  Phillis wanted to make sure that America was conceived in liberty to its fullest extent.  She just wanted to be treated like a human being is all.  She was also willing to take her life into her hands in order to reach that goal, even in the threat of death.

It helps to keep something vital in mind, though.  The Dartmouth poem is perhaps going to remain the most famous creative expression Wheatley ever made, however it was also just one of many such instances in a long campaign.  Phillis kept this line of argument up even after she'd managed to secure her own personal freedom.  It's the urge, desire, and dream the animates her poetry from the first line to the last.  I think the best summation I've ever read about her accomplishment was summed up some time ago by Paula Loscoco, when she speaks of "Wheatley as a major writer who uses...poetry to develop what she calls a "sov'reign...verse" ultimately answerable to her vision of" an American Democracy "comprised of Britons, Africans, and Native Americans, including women (7)".

As for what kind of effect her attempts to realize this vision might have had on the burgeoning U.S. at large, I think David Waldstreicher can help tell summarize that part of the story.  "Despite being only nineteen years old at time, Wheatley shaped her book’s publication and reception. She gained her freedom as a direct result of that project. She was the only black person to illicit personal responses from the likes of Lord Dartmouth, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Their public responses mattered because of how the problem of slavery had already come to be part of the imperial controversy. She became, in other words, a political actor as well as an artist and a celebrity. She was an inspired participant in the new movement against slavery and the most famous African in North America and Europe during the era of the American Revolution (6)".  I'm afraid I'll have to consider this more than reason enough for claiming her as the origin point for the ultimate nature and content of the American Literary Tradition.

Conclusion: The Meaning of it All.

So far, this damn thing has been nothing more than a trip through a catalogue of names.  It's enough to make anyone wonder just what's the point of it all?  The best excuse I've got for this essay is that it is no more than the result of reading a lot, and then having enough time on my hands to think over the material presented to me.  All that happened is I had a chance to become acquainted with all of the names we've just gone through.  My only excuse for going further than that is because each of them was good enough to impress me with what they had written.  No more, no less.  The thing is, if you read a lot, and like to think over what you've read, sometimes it's kind of funny.  Because you begin to notice the ways that some, in a fact a lot of the most famous names in literature have of citing their influences, and utilizing the ideas and notions of earlier writers in their work.  A corollary of this phenomenon is the way that a lot of authors write in such a manner that it's possible to classify them as members of informal collectives, groups, or literary "movements.  This is almost like a naturally occurring phenomenon, though it's a lot different from natural selection, or anything to do with all of that.

The best term I can come up with to describe is that we're dealing with what might be called an "alliance of sympathies".  In other words, whatever phenomena it was that brought Wordsworth, Coleridge and the rest of the Romantic Movement together seems also to have been in operation within the writings of all four writers examined above.  The reason why it's been so difficult to spot until now seems down to the fact that none of them has ever been thought of or viewed as writing under any kind of shared artistic banner.  If it's possible to speak of Hawthorne, Cooper, Brown, or Wheatley as a type of writing collective, then it's not one of the most obvious literary groupings out there.  Not only was each writer composing in different decades spaced apart from one another, the question of Harold Bloom's world famous "anxiety of influence" is difficult to trace  among each of them if you don't know what to look for, or how to pay careful attention.  I'd like to close out this essay by suggesting how each of these authors were united by what I'd label as an "influence of theme".  They may not have known each other on personal or professional levels, yet each was unified by questions of National character.

What I mean by that is the over-arching theme shared out amongst all of the writers under discussion here today always tended to focus in on the morality of America as a Nation.  There's an overriding concern with questions of conscience and ethics in the works of Cooper, Charlie Brown, Hawthorne, and Phillis Wheatley.  In particular, their concerns hinge on the matter of just how far you are willing to treat the next person you meet as a human being?  Furthermore, are you willing to extend what might be termed the courtesy of humanity toward another person, even if the color of their skin, their place of birth and background, or even their way of speaking isn't necessarily the same as yours?  It's question that's been troubling the National Conscience as of late.  So it was remarkable for me to discover that hoary old standbys of English Lit. 101 (such as Cooper and Hawthorne) or the work and efforts of a barely recalled pioneer (like that of Wheatley) could have ever come anywhere close to maybe providing contemporary readers with a lens, or way of trying to get as stable a handle as possible on the chaos of the present moment.  It really does seem to me that the works of each of these authors, in particular Phillis's efforts, could go a long way towards providing us with an outlook for our times of trouble.  

More than that, I'd like to close out by suggesting that when taken together, they each, when combined, help to sketch out an idea of the true beginnings of Modern American Fiction, whether in prose or verse.  Each author's works contains themes, ideas, and tropes that have gone on to become defining features of the way this Country tells its stories.  It's also just possible that they have gone on to have a larger shaping hand in the way we record our History than we have perhaps just even begun to understand.  For instance, if it's possible to make a case that Cooper is the one responsible for how we think of the Western and Naturalist dramas, from Mark Twain all the way to John Steinbeck.  And if Hawthorne has become the architect of the haunted house that has become the modern Horror genre.  Then perhaps its possible that between them, Charles Brockden Brown and Phillis Wheatley are the ones to infuse this Country with the creative expression of its often imperfect, yet always striving social conscience.  These are the true hands that built America's fiction, in other words.  The one's who together helped create the best possible idiom for our arts and letters.  I'd argue that the best value to be found in viewing these authors as the four foundation stones of our National fiction lies in the way they suggest that the origins of United States literature is something you can be proud enough to have.

No comments:

Post a Comment