American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Archive for December 2014

The Missing Years

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The FARMERS Almanac, for the Year of our Lord 1800; BEING ONE OF THE CENTURIAL YEARS, NOT BISEXTILE (click on image to see the text)

I’m preparing a syllabus for nineteenth-century American lit, one of several new reading-intensive surveys in my department, bridges between the lower-division methodology requirements (poetics, narratology, theory) and the upper-division seminars, and so I’m working with the Norton anthology for the first time in many years. To be more specific, I’m working with the shorter eighth edition, which I adopted in part because the students could use it again for a sister course, if I’m assigned one, in part because it makes a sturdy reference work. The full-length Norton is now a five-volume monster, and since I can’t imagine a circumstance in which a student would need to acquire all five, the shorter it was. I also adopted A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, so whatever else transpires next semester, the students will at least yield the benefit of a small library — those who don’t dump their texts for cash at the end. Can I say it? I hate that dump, and in so many ways: I hate that students want to be rid of what they study. I also hate that the campus bookstore abets their desire, pawnshop fashion. Most of all, I hate that the books get sold again, no matter how shoddy their condition, Can you learn from a book with wrinkled cover and dog-eared pages, plastered with stickers, marked by highlighter? Of course. But not with the same sense of clarity and purpose, not with the same joy as brought by a new text. A clean copy is like clean clothing; its newness becomes our own.

Anyway, I’ve been looking at the anthology again, struck as I ever was by the book’s lacunae but in a new way. Sure, the old gaps are there too: missing authors, disappearing genres, underrepresented groups. That sort of gap is inevitable, even in a five-volume monster, and I’ve nothing new to say about it in any case. What caught my attention this time was a gap in time. Do such lacunae matter in the same way? Are they equally regrettable? Does it pose a problem when periods of time are skipped over, whole decades scanted?

It took me a while to see that there were such lacunae. Though the book is organized historically, the primary division is by author, arranged in order of birth date. The sequence of works is more haphazard, even within the individual author selections. With Poe, for instance, born 1809, the poetry comes before the prose, which means that “The Raven” (1845) precedes “Ligeia” (1838). Both, however, come after Whittier’s “Snow-Bound” (1866), owing to the fact that Whittier, born 1807, comes before Poe. Sequencing is also made difficult by publication history. Red Jacket’s “Reply to the Missionary Jacob Cram” was delivered as a speech in 1805 and first printed in 1809, but taken in the Norton from an 1841 biography, The Life and Times of Red-Jacket, or Sa-go-ye-wat-ha. (The speech, by the way, is not slotted by author, which would place it nearly 200 pages later, but in a short thematic section, “Native Americans: Contact and Conflict.” There are a few other thematic sections, and some of them also contain work by authors with their own sections. Jefferson, for example, appears in the section with Red Jacket, then under his own name, and then in a section titled “Slavery, Race, and the Making of American Literature.” This too makes a knot of chronology since the sequence of Jefferson texts does not go from early to late.)

The historical structure of the book is not limited to author birth dates. The nineteenth century is encompassed by three sections: 1790-1820, 1820-1865, and 1865-1914. Not surprisingly, the long careers of individual authors transgress those boundaries, especially the one marked by the end of the Civil War. The postbellum section begins with Twain, but many of the earlier figures were still alive and still publishing when he first made his mark (the infamous Whittier birthday address speaks to that). What the book presents is a notion of historical progression, one that occasionally depends on a depleted sense of period. Whitman as a contemporary of Douglass and Melville he appears between the two men paints one picture. Another would emerge if his “Song of Myself,” which the Norton gives in the 1881 version, appeared between “Daisy Miller” (1878) and Huck Finn (1884).

If the 1865 border is ever transgressed, the 1820 border is just the opposite: scarcely approached from either side. The situation is of course somewhat different in the five-volume monster, but the shorter edition yields nary a work from 1800 to 1820, and things don’t really pick up until the 1830s. Oddly, the most distinguished of the exceptions on the early side, “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), is credited to the later: Washington Irving is the first figure in the 1820-1865 section, a fine example of how narrative supersedes chronology. Irving aside, the first two decades are a real hole. There’s a poem by Freneau, “On the Religion of Nature” (1815), and Red Jacket’s speech falls here. There’s also a Tecumseh speech printed in 1823, but credited to “1811 or 1812.” Scarcely a portrait of the period.

The 1820s do better, marginally, complementing the 1800-1820 selections with a somewhat larger number of texts: a chapter from The Last of The Mohicans (1826) balances even with “Rip Van Winkle”; Bryant’s “Thanatopsis” and “To a Waterfall” (both 1821) double the one poem by Freneau; and there are more Native American texts in the later decade, chiefly related to Cherokee history. One might also count Jefferson, though his Autobiography (1821) is given for its account of “The Declaration of Independence” (and appears with the offerings from 1790-1820). There is also an excerpt, a very brief one, from David Walker’s Appeal (1829). It’s not much, but more than what we get for the two decades before.

There’s one other meager period in the Norton’s nineteenth century: the 1870s. The meagerness here is strange given the figures active at the time. There are two poems from the decade: Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (1872) and Frances Harper’s “Learning to Read” (1872), and there are also two stories: “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1870) and “Daisy Miller.” Not so much a gap in the narrative as a pause.

And what does it all mean? That’s what I’m sorting out, in my head, as I prepare for next semester, putting together my own story of the century. Mine too will have holes, but probably not the same ones.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 28, 2014 at 9:59 am