Part Five: The Single Hound
ADVENTURE most unto itself
The Soul condemned to be;
Attended by a Single Hound—
Its own Identity.
It is with this epigraph that I chose to begin my American Literature blog. Both seem to on a very liminal plain establish my plans and goals for both the blog and the quarter: an adventure in itself during the course of studying a defiant, persistent people and their words and stories, a “Single Hound” of the American pulse, searching for and trying to create its own “Identity,” it’s own oral tradition of story telling and writing, it’s own literature.
I find myself struggling in an attempt to tie all loose ends up; I’ve seen first hand the collective of an entire people struggling adjacent themselves, their gods, their demons and devils, and opposing forces and identities. They marched against indigenous beings, did genocide, almost fell to religious fanaticism, bore great guilt for their fathers, were held captive, conquered gender identity, became introspective and philosophical, survived slavery and redefined freedom, became lost at sea and survivors, wrote of fear and love. This is the essence of adventure for a quarter’s wroth of text. I begin to trace a thematic between the numerous works and find a single resolve: each of our readings is trying to retell a chapter of the American origin story, the “Single Hound” of an entire nation.
I can still remember our first reading, and how striking it was after discussion. Cotton Mather’s “On Witchcraft,” a devious dictionary of how to’s and what if’s should the God-Fearing Puritan find or encounter a witch. Of course, on first read, the document to me at least read as a religious nut’s propaganda away from the altar sermon, that kept those God fearing Puritans fearing God; after all the warning signs of witches were similar characteristics to that of a free thinker, and the open wilderness. Let’s think for a second, what are the inhabitants of the new world surrounded with? Wilderness and free thought! It was all starting to seem like a scam…from the prospective of a modern thinker. Luckily, discussion brought us back to the times of Cotton Mather, and we were able to embrace the terror, the real and genuine fear that the Puritan mind was faced with: true evil, Lucifer himself could come out of the untamed wild of the American continent. Thus begins an epic battle of good versus evil, and the people of New England are God’s frontline soldiers. This adds to a rich tradition of literary history: the beginnings of a motif of survival and self defense against insurmountable odds and evil. With “On Witchcraft,” which sets the standard for colonial thought, we are invited to take a glimpse at the original American survival story.
To follow, we read “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This text adds a new sensitivity to the feelings of American Literature: guilt. Hawthorne’s parable is deep with meaning and satire as he says my Puritan heritage is great within. However, he does not celebrate; he damns. He locates the distrust and fanaticism that comes out of the Witch trials he witnessed. Hawthorne is unique in having the opportunity to write about a generation of Americans as a newer breed; he is closer to a definite evolution of this new “America,” and its brand of writing. “Goodman Brown” is a cleverly written piece that begins a new chapter in the American story, a sort of build on the survival story comes an element of manliness and its struggle against evil. The pieces come together even further.
The next bit of American glory comes at an awful cost. We read a little further into our past from the eyes of the first Colonists to see an American war. It is not, however, the Revolution; but the genocidal betrayal of the Natives. In the context of both a moving documentary and “Woman’s Indian Captivity Narratives,” we witness the harm done to our land. Where the Natives are fighting to preserve their own oral tradition, we pave over it, forcing our culture in while desecrating theirs. Ultimately, the American Indian is irradiated, as is their culture. This conquest begins its own theme in the American origin story: a conquest, a power, an ultimate strength motif that never seems to disappear.
This is where I stop and consider: does this mean that in order to be “American,” I must bear the guilt of such atrocities done by the European settlers? I look at what is left of the Native culture: small reservations which are for the most part regarded as lawless and dangerous, dirty places. I have no real solution for what this means for us, just something I’ve been considering as the class ties together. Are these circumstances too grave to excuse with, ‘we learn from our mistakes?’
We move on throughout the year, and encounter a new kind of text: “The Conquest of New Spain.” Paired with an interesting and deep view of (a whole other brand of pure American entertainment) Wresting, the Conquest motif in the American story becomes all too prevalent, as does the importance of gender roles. Not only do we see this literature beginning to trace what an American is (powerful, conquistador, strong) but we begin to see what an American MAN is. Where the man is ignored, enter Eliza Wharton’s “Coquette,” which although does a poor job moving me as a reader, does an excellent job establishing the freethinking woman in both American literature and history. This important distinction will shape the rest of the class, as we no longer neglect gender roles in literature and culture.
Another interesting factor in “New Spain,” is the horrific gore and violence that we will later return too with “In The Heart of the Sea.” Our attraction to this is bizarre. On one side, you’ve got the butch American man and his need to do violence to assert his dominance, and on the other you’ve got a peevish sense of curiosity to try and understand the violence; particularly where it is embellished, exaggerated and loaded with hyperbolic symbolism. One must ask himself, how necessary is this gore? Hugely, if you want a piece of the American pie, apparently. Our story is soaked with blood and gore, and if you’ve seen the Patriot, you’d know that its heroic blood and gore. We celebrate a history of independence that was made of betrayal, genocide and a revolution. We nurture a history of violence, so it is natural to see the gore stories resurfacing and being retold in Americana.
However, this trend will take a moment to relax itself as we move into transcendental philosophy; the first time in our literature and history we find importance in embracing both our surrounding nature (instead of damning it, Cotton Mather…) and our own human nature as well. Emerson and HDT work leaps and bounds for the American mind; they alter our story from one of violence, conquest and rebellion to one of intellectual rebellion, mental conquest, verbal violence (in HDT’s case). They attempt to rewrite the myth of American man and woman, and although they fail to alter this tradition, they do create their own school of thought which warrants forever future students to read and study. They give academics a reason to examine the American Dream, and ask perhaps the most important question in the course:
What part of the American Dream is mine for the taking?
As we begin to watch everything fall into its right place, I sort of step back from pigeon holing my course work and ponder. How does it all relate? The struggles of a young American define what it is to be an American today. That is why we must study “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” because we have to be held accountable for our disastrous decisions, and we must make our own of what freedom is for us. We must invent our own form of hero story, one where oppression (be it sexual or political) is conquered and heroic blood is spilt on a virgin canvas. All of these stories and texts wrap together a ‘here’s what happened and here’s what’s next’ for America. And then we get Emily Dickinson.
She is the perfect way to conclude the class. She is in all ways an American woman. She, like Eliza has her own liaisons. She, like the conquistadors takes complete control over her life and is able to vanquish such things as being slave to the social conventions. She is wary of social convention. She is liberated. Perhaps she is engaged in a homo-erotic relationship with her best friend and sister in law. She is a poet, she is an American poet.
I look at ‘The Single Hound” again. How isn’t she talking about our nation? I can so easily see this stalking dog as a symbol for our nation. At birth, we are weak and feeble, afraid of oppressive forces, unknown cultures or demonic terrors. Then as we grow, we begin to scrap with other dogs, bearing our teeth and showing our dominance. Then we begin to age and lead a rich life, developing our own culture.
The nature of America is adventure, and this soul is forever ‘condemned’ to the wanderings of a “Single Hound,” an independent beast who at any time can survive, can bark at the moon and run and chase from adventure to adventure.
But above all, this creature has its own identity.
From this self aware, identity, the soul can flood with a self reliant pride: for it is aware of the culture it represents. American Literature is pure art; a collective of minds and thinkers that are all grasping at sweet repose, soothed by sleep and entertained by the idea of an American dream. She is a brave, curious mind to have such radical, revolutionary thoughts at time, yet timid to be so fair and just.
They say to let sleeping dogs lie, but I assure you, it is impossible to cripple her sense of adventure, most unto itself.