American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Shakespeare in a Log Cabin (Random Thoughts from a New Semester)

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Production photo for The Gladiator

Production photo for The Gladiator

I’m teaching a class this fall with the inherited title “American Romantics.” I have no idea what that actually means, but I’ve never been a letter of the law kind of fellow, so I’m approaching this course as a mixed-genre survey, not limiting myself to any single period style. Assuming that Romanticism is a style — I find these kinds of terms perplexing. Myself, I like a course name easily explained on the first day of class. American Vulgarians would be just about perfect.

Anyway, even Romanticists now teach and write about the entire period, so my approach is probably more doctrinaire than antinomian, even for those who find the label “American Romantics” meaningful. Or still meaningful, since it did hold sway for a generation. But no longer than that! Nineteenth-century American literature has never had a stable syllabus. Which is one of the things I like about it.

My own tendency has been to shift focus from a small circle of writers to a small number of decades, though a 15-week semester is far too short to accommodate more than a few writers anyway. But I try. That is, I try to give “period” precedence over “author.” A very slight precedence, one that is hardly sufficient for overcoming the vast precedence authors assume in our imaginations.

To bring decades alive, without letting history crowd out every other consideration — it’s hard! But one method I’ve found productive is using my students’ own preconceptions as a guide. Basically, we start with a speculative model, then read and research with an eye toward improving it. This time, for example, my students volunteered that antebellum writers (as they imagined them) were an urban, educated elite out of touch with the rural and largely illiterate majority. A hypothesis we’ll be testing throughout the semester, so I won’t say too much about it here. But since I did point the class toward the University of Virginia’s Historical Census Browser (a useful site for following through on one’s intuitions), let me offer a small factual correction to their characterization. According to the 1840 census, the first to include data about education, the ability to read and write was far more widespread than my students guessed. Here are the figures for Maine, which is where I teach:

Total population: 501,793
Total free whites: 500,438
Total free colored persons: 1,355
Total slaves: 0

Total white persons 20 or older: 234,177
White persons 20 or older who cannot read and write: 3,241 (1.38%)

And here are the figures for the neighboring state of Massachusetts:

Total population: 737,699
Total free whites: 729,030
Total free colored persons: 8,669
Total slaves: 0

Total white persons 20 or older: 403,761
White persons 20 or older who cannot read and write: 4,448 (1.1%)

In other words, more than 98% of the adult populations in those two states was able to read and write, at least to some degree. And though the figures are much worse in the South, even in those states the majority could read and write. I believe North Carolina had the worst literacy rate:

Total population: 753,419
Total free whites: 484,870
Total free colored persons: 22,732
Total slaves: 245,817

Total white persons 20 or older: 209,685
White persons 20 or older who cannot read and write: 56,609 (27%)

These statistics exclude, of course, the entire African American population, which was substantial, but even assuming a total deprivation of education the overall literacy rate for the state remained higher than fifty percent:

Total slaves over age 23: 80,444
Total free colored persons over 23: 7,998
Total white persons over 20: 209,685
Total adult population: 298,127
Adult population unable to read or write (conjectured): 145,051 (48.65%)

horton-markerIt doesn’t change the stats, by the way, but one person at least should be switched to the literate column: in 1840, George Moses Horton, “the colored bard of North Carolina,” was in the very midst of his extraordinary career — a slave poet publishing his work in the South.

In support of the literacy figures above, I shared with my class one of the best paragraphs in Democracy in America. It comes from volume 2, first published in 1840, so it appeared in print the same year as the census:

Although America is today perhaps less concerned with literature than any other civilized country, one does meet many individuals there who are interested in things of the mind and who, if they do not devote their lives to studying such things, nevertheless savor their charms in their hours of leisure. Most of the books these people want are supplied by England, however. Nearly all the great English works are reproduced in the United States. The literary genius of Great Britain still shines its rays into the depths of the New World’s forests. There is hardly a pioneer hut in which the odd volume of Shakespeare cannot be found. I remember reading the feudal drama Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.

Which is truly a great image to ponder: a French dignitary, aristocratic by birth, reading Shakespeare’s “feudal drama” — about Agincourt no less! — in a log cabin, learning at first hand that frontier citizens are not exactly a peasantry.

Tocqueville’s anecdote undermines one of my students’ theses, but it lends credence to another: that American literature was a cheap imitation of British models, a thesis more fully substantiated by one of the week’s readings, Robert Montgomery Bird’s pseudo-Shakespearean drama The Gladiator (1831).

— “Yes, but isn’t cheapness itself an American virtue?” —

That’s the question I wish I’d asked when the point about British models was first made. Though vulgarity would be a better word in this context than cheapness. Bird’s gladiator, I think, would speak instead of barbarism:

JOVIUS
There is something in the air of Thrace
Breeds valour up as rank as grass. ’Tis pity
You are a barbarian.

SPARTACUS
Wherefore?

JOVIUS
Had you been born
A Roman, you had won by this a triumph.

SPARTACUS
I thank the gods I am barbarian;
For I can better teach the grace-begot
And heaven-supported masters of the earth,
How a mere dweller of a desert rock
Can bow their crown’d heads to his chariot wheels.
Man is heaven’s work, and beggar’s brats may ’herit
A soul to mount them up the steeps of fortune,
With regal necks to be their stepping-blocks…

Two weeks down, thirteen to go.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

September 13, 2009 at 3:22 pm

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