This is Where I Leave You

by

Jonathan Tropper

New York Times bestseller A Plume Book 2010 339 pages

This novel had me hooked and in stitches from page one. How rare is that? The novel opens by describing the personality of the narrator’s family and how they deal with life. I could immediately relate to the crass, harsh, hilarious and real way the Foxman family does family. The patriarch has died which becomes a framing device for the story. While Dad was sick he requested the family come together and sit Shiva for seven whole days. For years they have actively avoided bonding family time and none of the four grown children are looking forward to all this togetherness. Each sibling has a lot going on including spouses and assorted lovers. We get to peek inside each life, but we are always in the head of Judd, the narrator, whose life is completely upside down. Even though the situations are not obviously funny, Tropper gives Judd such a twisted sense of humor that somehow you laugh even when you are not supposed to. On the other hand, Tropper can be very nostalgic and heart-felt when discussing family, sometimes even waxing poetic. The story is told in the present tense and is counted by the time on the clock so that, in effect, you are also sitting Shiva with the Foxmans. This novel is full of belly-laughs that will make you want to read out loud to your friends. What follows are my favorite bits (I like to call “the best bits”) and chapter summaries.

1 “If we sound like a couple of callous assholes, it’s because that’s how we were raised” (2).

“Dad didn’t believe in God, but he was a life-long member of the Church of Shit or Get Off the Can” (3).

[Story being told by Judd who has an older sister (Wendy), older brother (Paul) and younger brother, Phillip. Their dad has finally died after a long battle with stomach cancer. They will gather for the funeral. Judd has been having a tough time even aside from his father’s death.]

2 “…trying to look like someone trying not to look bored” (10).

“You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone” (11).

[Judd and Jen are divorcing. They had met in college. Jen is sleeping with Judd’s boss and is pregnant. Judd and Jen were pregnant once. Still birth. You can tell Judd still loves her and is very hurt.]

3 “Because the thing of it is, no matter how much you enjoy sex, there’s something jolting and strangely disturbing about witnessing the sex of others. Nature has taken great pains to lay out the fundamentals of copulation so that it’s impossible to get a particularly good view of the sex you’re having. Because when you get right down to it, sex is a messy, gritty, often grotesque business to behold: the hairs; the abraded, dimpled flesh; the wide-open orifices; the exposed, glistening organs. And the violence of the coupling itself, primitive and elemental, reminding us that we’re all just dumb animals clinging to our spot on the food chain, eating, sleeping, and fucking as much as possible before something bigger comes along and devours us” (16-17).

[Margin note: No romanticizing here! Thank you for telling it like it is.]

“Naked men shouldn’t run” (24).

[Judd goes into gross, horrible and hilarious detail about the day he caught his wife and boss together in HIS bed. Now he lives in a cheap basement room and is somehow still spiraling downward.]

4 “…even as his ridiculous raincoat makes him stand out like a bloodstain against a sky the color of a dead tooth” (33).

[Father’s funeral.]

5 [After the funeral the extended family gather around the dinner table. Chaos ensues.]

6 [Judd recalling the first time he met Jen.]

7 “And as the room starts to fill with the first somber-faced neighbors coming to pay their respects, it becomes clear to me that the reason for filling the shiva house with visitors is most likely to prevent the mourners from tearing each other limb from limb” (63).

[In high school Judd and Alice lost their virginity to each other. Alice later married Paul and the brothers have had a rocky relationship ever since.]

8 [Judd escapes shiva for a short drive to pick Horry up from the store and take him home. Judd learns an old flame also works at the store. His interest is peaked.]

9 [First day of shiva finally ends. Judd listens to voicemails from pregnant Jen who wants to hurry along divorce proceedings.]

10 “There is nothing more pathetically optimistic than the morning erection. I am depressed, unemployed, unloved, basement-dwelling, and bereaved, but there it is, every morning like clockwork, rising up to greet the day, poking out of my fly cocksure and conspicuously useless. And every morning, I face the same choice: masturbate or urinate. It’s the one time of the day where I feel like I have options” (84).

[Judd’s relationship with his mother.]

11 [All the kids are giving Mom a “Dad” story but Judd can’t recall a time he had his dad’s undivided attention.]

12 [Mr. Applebaum is already scoping out the widow.]

13 [Judd is lonely and every woman in society has his attention.]

14 [Judd re-lives quitting his job when Wade was his manager.]

15 [Tracy is now competing with old school chums of Phillip’s. Judd puts in a good word for Horry’s independence.]

16 [Judd sees Penny who he had a thing with in college. They made a pact to marry by age 40 if they were both still single. Horry cannot live alone even though he desires independence.]

17 [Horry brought back a memory of a dog attack that Judd and Paul experienced as kids. Now Judd is dreaming about it.]

18 [Paul and Phillip finally go to blows and Jen appears out of nowhere. Will Phillip join the family business? Will Paul let him?]

19 [Judd sums up what sex is like after you’ve been married for years.]

20 “‘Please,’ she says. ‘Tell me what you’re thinking.’

“It’s an absurd request. Our minds, unedited by guilt or shame, are selfish and unkind, and the majority of our thoughts, at any given time, are not for public consumption, because they would either be hurtful or else just make us look like the selfish and unkind bastards we are. We don’t share our thoughts, we share carefully sanitized, watered-down versions of them, Hollywood adaptations of those thoughts dumbed down for the PG-13 crowd” (137).

[Jen comes to tell Judd that she is carrying HIS baby!]

21 [Judd recalling when he and Jen learned they had lost their first (and only) child. It led to the demise of their marriage.]

22 [Mom gives her input on her kids’ relationships then Paul decks Phillip to return the favor from the day before. Phillip drops the bomb about Jen being pregnant.]

23 [Judd visits Penny and they have a short skate holding hands. Phillip is cheating on Tracy. Dad’s death is starting to sink in.]

25 [Horry still has a thing for Wendy. Does she still think of him too?]

26 [Paul and his wife are trying to conceive and everyone knows it.]

27 [After a make out session with Penny in the pool, Judd calls Jen. Wade answers and doesn’t appreciate this late night call.]

28 [The crazy party in high school where Alice and Judd were going to make out but instead Judd gets kicked in the balls. Paul comes back to revenge his little brother, but Paul ends up being attacked by a guard dog owned by Judd’s attacker. The two brothers’ relationship has never been the same.]

29 “You can sit up here, feeling above it all while knowing you’re not, coming to the lonely conclusion that the only thing you can ever really know about anyone is that you don’t know anything about them at all” (188).

[Judd is accidentally electrocuted which brings forward a dad memory. He mourns with his mother.]

30 [The brothers sneak off during church service to smoke dad’s last joint. They accidentally set off the fire alarm.]

31 “Back when I lived with Jen, I had some friends. In the aftermath of our separation, Allan and Mike had met me for drinks and we’d all raised our glasses in agreement that Jen was a cheating bitch and I was the good guy here. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was actually my good-bye party. Jen would retain custody of our friends and I’d be wordlessly discarded. A few weeks later, as I circled the multiplex parking lot, I saw Allan and Mike with their wives, leaving the theater along with Jen and Wade, all walking in standard formation, talking and laughing in the cinematic afterglow, like it had always been just so. I tried to tell myself it was simply a chance encounter, but it was clear from their body language that they were all together, and probably not for the first time. It’s a sad moment when you come to understand how truly replaceable you are. Friendship in the suburbs is wife-driven, and my friends were essentially those husbands of Jen’s friends that I could most tolerate. Now that I’d been sidelined, Wade had stepped in for me like an understudy, a small note was inserted into the program, and the show went on without missing a beat” (214-215).

[Jen wants to talk but Judd is having none of it. He makes mischief in his old house when no one is there. He is practically raped by his sister-in-law Alice who has been trying for 2 years to get pregnant with Paul. Later, Judd goes on a date with Penny and for the second time says nothing about Jen being pregnant.]

32 [Judd dreams a sweet dream of his father who heals him.]

33 [Wendy and Judd talk about life. Why did Linda (Mom’s lifelong friend) stay the night?]

34 [Old high school friends come to visit during shiva. Their lives have all turned out pretty mediocre.]

35 [Visiting high school friends prompt an impromptu batting round in the side yard where Paul hurts his ravaged shoulder and Boner gets hit in the face with a ball. Have mother and Linda been lovers for years?]

36 [Judd lets all the older women know he DOES NOT want to be set up with their daughters.]

37 “She is waiting in front of her building when we pull up, looking edible in a T-shirt, short shorts, and tennis shoes. She could be nineteen. She could be my girlfriend. We could be going out to the amusement park, where we’d kiss on the lines, hold hands on the rides, and share cotton candy. I’d win her one of those giant stuffed animals and we’d carry it around the park with us like a badge of honor. Afterward it would take up permanent residence on her pink bedspread, where she’s lie across ti while we spoke for hours on the phone” (252).

“A kid with a name tag and a digital camera asks us to pose for a picture with the cheesy plaster palace behind us. There are countless pictures of my family at various ages in just this spot. If we pulled them out of all the messy albums in the living room bookcases, you could probably track the steady growth of our family, like annual pencil marks on the wall to show how tall you’ve grown. Dad isn’t in any of the Wonderland pictures, because he was always the one taking them, with this old Yashica he’d bought when he first got married, because why the hell would he pay for a picture he could take better himself? As a matter of fact, you’d have to turn a lot of pages to find Dad in any of our albums. The inadvertent result of being the default photographer is that he was relegated to the role of a bit player in the actual recorded history of our family. There are entire years of our lives where he doesn’t appear at all” (253).

“Sometimes, contentment is a matter of will. You have to look at what you have right in front of you, at what it could be, and stop measuring it against what you’ve lost. I know this to be wise and true, just as I know that pretty much no one can do it” (255).

[The last date with Penny.]

38 [Judd is having a moment with Jen at the hospital listening to their baby’s heartbeat when Wade arrives. He ends up arguing with both Judd and Phillip who ends up decking him. A bit of vandalism meets Wade’s car before the brothers exit the parking lot.]

39 [All the brothers are feeling quite beat up by their wives. They need a night off.]

40 “He sinks his teeth into every word, and they come out chewed” (276).

[The brothers go out but it was not the bonding experience they had imagined.]

41 “Down in the basement, I wash some of Boner’s foam spray off the mirror to better study my reflection. My bottom lip is split and swollen, my eyes bleary, my cheeks pale and puffy. I look like a corpse pulled from the river a week after the suicide. It’s time for a gut check. I mean that literally. I pull off my shirt, which is caked with just enough blood and vomit to represent a much wilder night than the one I’ve had, and step back to study my torso. The overall effect does not match the image I cling to in my head. My belly is not yet what you’d call a gut, but you can see where the inevitable expansion will happen. I have no real chest to speak of; you’d miss it altogether if it weren’t for the two hairless nipples pressed on like decals. Broader shoulders would create the illusion of fitness, but I am sorely lacking in that department as well. The overall impression is lean but soft, and getting softer. This is the package, ladies. Come and get it.

“I lie down on the floor to do some sit-ups and promptly fall asleep” (285-5).

[Drunk Judd gets a punch and an apology from Wade who is leaving Jen. He just can’t do the step-father thing.]

42 [Another dream of Dad who is cradling Judd’s future baby.]

43 “The whites of his eyes are vaguely pink, like something ran in the wash” (295).

[Tracy knows it’s the end of the line with Phillip. Horry lays girls who don’t truly know him. Alice apologizes for raping Judd. Lina leaves after a heated argument.]

44 [Mom comes out of the closet.]

45 [The kids discuss their mom being bisexual.]

46 [Shiva is over. Judd drives home to a long talk with Jen. He is ready to work on forgiveness.]

47 [Mom and Linda get to tell their story. Mom was the one bringing them all together…not dad’s dying wish.]

48 [All the kids prepare to return to the lives.]

49 [Judd goes to apologize and say good-bye to Penny.]

50 [I never summarize the last chapter. That is a prompt to go read the book yourself!]

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

By

Allison Hoover Bartlett

Riverhead Books  New York  2009

262 pages excluding notes

I like the way Bartlett sets up the story. She speaks directly to her audience and first describes what made her interested in tracking a rare books thief. It sounds almost like she is setting up a master’s thesis; she first states her driving curiosity and why which sets us on a journey together. The language is straightforward yet sometimes repetitive. She narrows in on a notorious rare book thief named John Gilkey whom she interviews multiple times. She gets to know him and tries to figure out his motivations. I did not feel the need to summarize every chapter, but there were some quotes and reflections on the love of books themselves which I really enjoyed. What follows are the quotes and reflections Bartlett used that captured my attention. If you are a book fanatic, you will enjoy this read. Numbers at the beginning of an entry indicate the chapter followed by the chapter title. My own reflections I will place in brackets.

[Dude! You are not going to believe this!]:

From Anathema in a medieval manuscript from the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona:

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner…let him be struck with palsy, & all his members belated…Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

[So badass]

From A. S. W. Rosenback, twentieth-century book dealer:

I have known men to hazard their fortunes, go long journeys halfway about the world, forget friendships, even lie, cheat, and steal, all for the gain of a book.

[The book begins with a story of a borrowed book: the Krautterbuch. Referring to the book, Bartlett writes]:

My favorite remedy, though, is for low spirits. “Often we are missing the right kind of happiness, and if we don’t have any wine yet, we will be very content when we do get wine” (4).

[Prologue summary:

Introduction of the Krautterbuch, a book from the 1600s which was supposedly stolen from a library. The author speaks in first person and explains how this book set her on a journey.]

1  Like a Moth to a Flame

[This passage brought a tear to my eye because it so accurately describes the magic of becoming attached to a book.]

Walking by a booth with an impressive selection of dust jacket art, I heard a dealer say to a passerby, “don’t judge a book by its content!” I had read enough about book collectors before the fair to get the joke: Many collectors don’t actually read their books. At first, I was surprised, but having given it some thought, it’s not so shocking. After all, much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books’ physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories–we like to recall who gave books to us, where we were when we read them, how old we were, and so on.

For me, the most important book-as-object from my childhood is Charlotte’s Web, the first book I mail-ordered after joining a book club. I still remember my thrill at seeing the mailman show up with it at our front door on a sunny Saturday morning. It has a crisp paper jacket, unlike the plastic-covered library books I was used to, and the way the pages parted, I could tell I was the first to open it. For several days I lived in Wilbur’s world, and the only thing as sad as Charlotte’s death, maybe even sadder, was that I had come to the end of the book. I valued that half-dream state of being lost in a book so much that I limited the number of pages I let myself read each day in order to put off the inevitable end, my banishment from that world. I still do this. It doesn’t make sense, though, because the pleasure of that world does not really end for good. You can always start over on page one–and you can remember. Whenever I have spotted my old Charlotte’s Web (on my son’s shelf, then my daughter’s), I have recalled how it came to me. It’s a personal record of one chapter of my life, just as other chapters have other books I associate with them. The pattern continues; my daughter returned from camp last summer with her copy of Motherless Brooklyn in a state approaching ruin. She told me she’s dropped it into a creek, but couldn’t bear to leave it behind, even after she’d finished it. This book’s body is inextricably linked to her experience of reading it. I hope that she continues to hold on to it, because as long as she does, its wavy, expanded pages will remind her of the hot day she read it with her feet in the water–and of the fourteen-year-old she was at the time. A book is much more than a delivery vehicle for its contents, and from my perspective, this fair was a concentrated celebration of that fact.

[The author is most interested in the type of book thief that steals for the love of books. Gilkey is notorious. He says he will tell his story from prison.]

2  Half-truths

[The author’s first interview with Gilkey.]

3  Richie Rich

[Gilkey sees his book collection as a representation of himself. He wants to appear rich and cultured. He wants people to be impressed.]

4  A Gold Mine

5  Spider-Man

6  Happy New Year

7  Trilogy of Kens

In 1644, John Milton wrote: “For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

8  Treasure Island

9  Brick Row

10  Not Giving Up

11  This Call May Be Recorded or Monitored

Of having taken their lives, he said, “Every man must die, sooner or later, but good books must be conserved.”

12  What More Could I Ask?

13  And Look: More Books!

14  The Devil’s Walk

Afterword

From Warning written by medieval German scribe:

This book belongs to none but me

For there’s my name inside to see.

To steal this book, if you should try,

It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.

And ravens then will gather ‘bout

To find your eyes and pull them out.

And when you’re screaming

“Oh, Oh, Oh!”

Remember, you deserved this woe.

[Man, these medieval book lovers were not playing.]

Ordinary People

by Judith Guest Ballantine Books New York 1976

This is a classic and an easy read with short chapters. The writing is not flowery or dreamy although when someone is experiencing disordered thinking the writing reflects what that might look like with few punctuation marks and fragments of sentences. The story deals with difficult family issues. The story and emotions are realistic. There are no easy answers if there are any answers at all. We learn that parental love can come in many forms, but it can also not be shown at all. Accidents happen, emotions and behaviors become twisted, people lose their shit and those around them don’t know what to do with that lost shit. Trigger warning issues of accidental death, suicide and mental institutions.

What follows is a plot summary excluding the epilogue; that’s for you to get to. The numbers indicate the chapter.

1 We meet young Conrad Jarrett fresh out of the mental facility and having trouble starting his day.

2 Calvin Jarrett is the father. Being abandoned as a child makes it even more difficult for him to parent a teen with mental illness. (The chapters alternate between these two characters’ points of view. The novel is written, interestingly, in the present tense.)

3 We learn about Conrad’s school life. All his friends are seniors but due to his illness he is still a junior. He has trouble feeling normal although he is trying to get back to his old routine.

4 Calvin doesn’t think it wise to go on their annual Christmas vacation. He doesn’t want any trouble. We learn that another son, Jordan, (older brother to Conrad) is now deceased.

5 Conrad sees a crazy local psychiatrist who appears inept. Conrad says his older brother died in a boating accident.

6 Calvin, the dad, seems every bit as lost as his mentally ill son. He has no idea who he is or what he wants.

7 Conrad attempts an afternoon date with Karen, a girl from the mental facility. She doesn’t feel mentally safe and leaves quickly.

8 Calvin drinks quite a bit. The neighbors are curious about Conrad’s situation. Beth (Conrad’s mother/Calvin’s wife) doesn’t want to discuss the topic at parties (or generally in public). Calvin misses hearing both sons in the house. We learn Conrad has slit his wrists.

9 Conrad is actually getting something out of seeing this wacky psychiatrist, Dr. Berger.

10 Conrad quits the swim team; he doesn’t like those people. They are too mean and he is too sensitive; too raw.

11 Calvin thinking about his law partner’s life and marriage.

12 Conrad successfully visits with a cute girl. He recalls a ski trip with his brother.

13 Beth finds out Conrad quit the swim team from an outside source. He quit a month ago and his parents didn’t know. There is a big family freak out. Conrad feels his mother hates him.

14 Dr. Berger’s genius is slowly being revealed.

15 Instead of talking about their grief, Calvin and Beth simply fight.

16 Conrad gets his looks complimented. He is starting to gain positive momentum. His psychiatrist is very helpful.

17 Calvin is now the one seeking Dr. Berger’s help.

18 Bumbling through exams and asking out girls.

19 Calvin’s business partner is worried about him.

20 Conrad’s date goes well. They set up another for the following weekend.

21 Calvin evaluates his fears and how he is most motivated to be safe.

22 Conrad gets in a fist fight with an asshole in the school parking lot.

23 Conrad tells his dad about the fight. Mom doesn’t even notice Conrad is waiting up for Dad.

24 Conrad’s new girlfriend is experiencing family drama. His own parents are out of town and he has to stay with his grandparents. His grandmother is a ball buster. (You can see where his mom gets it.)

25 Calvin and Beth on vacation at her brother’s place in Texas.

26 Karen is a girl Conrad was in treatment with. She has killed herself. This sends Conrad into a tailspin thinking about his brother dying on the lake and about electric shock therapy in treatment. He calls his psychiatrist and is driving to see him.

27 Conrad has a bad night but he makes it through.

28 Calvin and Beth can’t get through a vacation without fighting. Beth feels her son cut his wrists to show HER how much he hates her.

29 Everyone seems relieved to be home again.

30 Conrad has a girlfriend and they can discuss important things.

31 Calvin and Conrad discuss Beth and her leaving them. There are no clear answers and they’ll just have to be okay with that.

Epilogue

The Role of Fate in The House Behind the Cedars

Tiffany Akin

Dr. Menson-Furr

Engl 8328

27 Jan. 2010

 

Charles Chesnutt performs extraordinary feats within the story structure in The House Behind the Cedars: he creates deep and complicated characters, he grapples with social issues of race and prejudice, and he builds suspense throughout the story that propels the reader on to the next page.  One of the most interesting ideas that Chesnutt uses to create interest and drama within the story is the idea of Fate.  During the early part of the story the idea of Fate is more faint and abstract, but as the story deepens Chesnutt begins to use the word “Fate” at certain key moments in the story, leaving no doubt that Fate plays as strong a role as any human character in the story.  Due to the brevity of this format, we will only examine a few ways in which Fate twisted the love affair between George Tryon and Rena Walden in The House Behind the Cedars.

The relationship between Rena and George is the centerpiece of Chesnutt’s story.  The hand of Fate directs their relationship as early as their first encounter.  During the chapter entitled “The Tournament” the crowd is gathered to watch chivalrous men on horseback perform a series of skills of accuracy.  The crowd is going wild and the women are waving their handkerchiefs.  As Fate would have it, Rena’s handkerchief escapes her grip and it flies up into the air.  George spots the flying cloth and scoops it up with his lance before it even touches the ground.  The rider then returns the handkerchief to Rena which, unknowingly for the couple, binds the two of them together for life.  If George had not spotted the errant cloth or some other young man had made the same gesture, things would have evolved differently in both of their lives.

A second twist of Fate occurs at the end of the chapter entitled “Doubts and Fears.”  Rena has been discussing “coming out” with her brother and they decide to surreptitiously test the waters with Tryon by asking sideways questions regarding what he may feel about the black race.  Rena and Tryon are discussing marriage when she points at her nephew’s black nurse and asks, “Would you love me if I were Albert’s nurse yonder?”  Although Rena is referring to the color of the nurse, George receives the question in a totally different light; his answer in the positive refers to the nurse’s job, not her color.  While George feels it would be perfectly fine to marry a nurse and take her away from such drudgery, Rena thinks his affirmative answer means “it would make no difference with him…” (326).   This misunderstanding, or twist of Fate, prompts Rena to answer “yes” to George’s proposal and the next set of circumstances is set into motion.

A precursor to one of the most devastating twists of Fate occurs when Rena begins to have dreams that her dear mother is ill.  Rena has been preparing for her wedding to George, but at the same time she has a series of dreams in which her mother becomes more and more sick.  Due to these fateful dreams, Rena leaves on the eve of her wedding, headed to Patesville to nurse her mother back to health.  If she had not gone Molly may have died, yet Rena’s secret would have been safe… even more secure than when Molly was alive.  Later in the story Chesnutt refers back to the dreams:  “If she had not been sick, Rena would not have dreamed the fateful dream that had brought her to Patesville…” (398).

The most excruciating twist of Fate occurs when both George and Rena are in Patesville at the same time.  Both Judge Straight and Rena’s old friend Frank understand the relevance of having the two lovers running amok in the small town at the same time.  As the two men are busy trying to find and reign in Rena, she is fatefully running around town performing errands for her mother.  They cannot find her soon enough to save her.  Dr. Green and George are together in the doctor’s cart.  As the doctor hops down to perform some task he tells George that if he wants to see a good looking woman he should look inside the drugstore.  George does not even care that much but, just to pass the time, he takes a look.  The scene painted by Chesnutt when Rena steps out of the store is crushingly heartbreaking.  “She stood a moment as if turned to stone” (360).  If the hands of Fate had placed that young woman anywhere else that day she may have gotten away with marrying George and living happily ever after.  Yet would a life of hiding her heritage been carefree?  Perhaps that is to debate in another paper.

 

 

 

Slavery, Race, and the Making of American Literature

In 1820 the English critic Sidney Smith downplayed the emerging literature coming out of America and tied his critique to the practice of slavery: “Finally, under which of the old tyrannical governments of Europe is every sixth man a Slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy and sell and torture?” The paradoxical fact that a nation founded on the principles of equality would develop into a slave holding republic was not lost on writers of the early national and antebellum period. American writers began to concern themselves with slavery issues. Tensions between the realities of slavery and the ideals of freedom inform much writing of the period.

Thomas Jefferson, author of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, celebrated the democratic ideals while making clear that he regarded those ideals as best realized by whites. He presents black people as inferior to whites. African American writers regularly sought to counter such claims. Much African American writing of the period sought to abolish slavery, improve the condition of the free blacks, and challenge the hierarchical claims of the racial ethnologists by invoking (or reclaiming) the principles of the Declaration. [We can see in this example that two groups used the same document in different ways.] Others expanded the parameters of slavery and equality. Women reformers saw themselves as especially qualified to contest slavery, which they regarded both as a specific institution in the slave South and as one of many manifestations of patriarchal power.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was meant to humanize African Americans, but ended up in many ways having the opposite effect. She was hemmed in by stereotypes, not only regarding her subject matter, but against women writers in general. The spawn push-back. The debates on slavery exerted an especially strong influence on the literature of the 1840s and 1850s. If whiteness was the culture’s default and “superior” category of human existence, then, for many white writers blackness posed the threat (and sometimes appeal) of a dangerous otherness.

In 1857, the Supreme court ruled in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford that blacks could never become U.S. citizens and were inferior to whites. That ruling, which robbed Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence of its ambiguities and potential, made clear that the debates on slavery and race were debates about the nation. Much of the black writing ideals had them fleeing America altogether.

Tecumseh  (1775 ?-1813)

Was called by some the Greatest Indian. Tecumseh was unwaveringly hostile to the white Americans who relentlessly encroached on the lands of his people. When Indians began giving away land, Tecumseh attempted to organize a multi-tribal resistance to the Americans. In 1811 William Henry Harrison decisively defeated the Prophet’s (Tecumseh’s brother) forces at Tippecanoe. Tecumseh as not present at the battle. The defeat left the Prophet’s followers disillusioned, and Tecumseh had no further success in bringing the tribes together in resistance. He fought on the side of the British in the War of 1812 and was killed at the Battle of the Thames. The brief speech here derives from the “captivity narrative” of John Dunn Hunter, published in 1823. Hunter taken captive by Osage Indian as a baby and lived among them as a youth. When he was about ten he heard a speech made by Tecumseh. We must treat the following speech as such, but John Dunn Hunter was very moved at the time and the contents seem to match what Tecumseh was going through at the time.

Speech to the Osages

The white man wants to take us down so we must all stick together. When the whites first came here they were so weak that we had to take care of them. “Brothers, the white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death.” They are not our friends. They want ALL the land. They want to kill us all. They cheat us, despise us and think we are not good enough to live. We need vengeance. Make the tomahawk fat with blood and drink the blood of the white people. We are brave, but there are too many whites. We need the tribes to band together. “If we all unite, we will cause the rivers to stain the great waters with their blood. ” If we do not band together then they will simply take us down one tribe at a time. They are trying to turn us against each other. God wants us to win. Why should we fear the whites? They are not fast; easy to shoot. God will help us if we work together to destroy them. “We must be united; we must smoke the same pipe; we must fight each other’s battles; and more than all, we must love the Great Spirit; he is for us; he will destroy our enemies, and make all his red children happy.”

Cherokee Women

In traditional matriarchal Cherokee society, women held authority within their families, supervised land usage, occupied political offices such as Beloved Woman (or Ghighua), and participated in diplomacy. Motherhood was an organizing concept used to ground women’s claims to power. The diplomatic rhetoric of Cherokee women often focused on the physical and emotional bonds between mothers and children as a compelling reason to sustain peaceful relations with rival powers. In this address of Sept. 8, 1787, to Benjamin Franklin, then serving as the governor of Pennsylvania and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, several representatives of the Cherokee Women’s Council ask Congress to pay attention to their desire for peace.

To Governor Benjamin Franklin

This side has smoked the peace pipe; hope your side will too. Consider that woman is the mother of All. We pull children from our own bodies; it is only right that people listen to us. I want to keep my children living in peace.

Logan  (1725 ?-1780)

Exact origins and identity of the man known as Chief Logan are not entirely clear. In English they called him John Logan. Agent of Virginia governor provoked a brief war in a bid for Indian lands in which Logan’s pregnant sister was mutilated along with her unborn child. This event was known as the Yellow Creek massacre and took place on the upper Ohio River. Afterwards, Logan was asked to attend a treaty meeting with Dunmore. He refused, but apparently sent a message that eventually was transformed into a speech in English known as “Logan’s Lament.” Not all points mentioned are factual. This speech was said to have been heard by a few who transcribed it, but the mystery surrounding the text deepens in light of the discrepancies between the historical facts as they have been uncovered and various statements attributed to Logan. He was later killed by his nephew who thought it a way to preserve his legacy. It remains unclear just how much of this speech represents the words that Logan actually spoke. It is the most famous instance of Indian oratory as a popular nineteenth-century American literary genre.

 

From Chief Logan’s Speech

Notes on the State of Virginia, Query VI

There is an introduction by Thomas Jefferson who says that in 1774 a robbery was committed by some Indians. The whites undertook to punish this outrage. Cresap and Great-house surprised a traveling and hunting party of the Indians, having their women and children with them, and murdered many. Among these families was Logan’s. This provoked his vengeance. The Indians were defeated. Logan disdained to be seen among the suppliants. He sent by a messenger the following speech to be delivered to Lord Dunmore.

Logan remained an advocate for peace. Such was my love of the white people. Col. Cresap, unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many.

Pontiac  (1720 ?-1769)

 

Pontiac was Ottawa and grew up in the Detroit area. Ottawa Indian meaning “commerce” or “to trade.” Strong trading and diplomatic alliances with the French. In 1760 the British defeated the French so the Indians were then refused supplies. The whites wanted to treat them as servants to the British Crown.

The Delaware Indians suffered at the hands of British, who had defrauded them of most of their lands. Neolin was a Delaware prophet preached the necessity of largely abandoning the things and manners of the Europeans. To persuade other tribes to join the Ottawas in resistance to the British, Pontiac is said to have given the speech printed here to an assembly of Ottawa, Huron, and Pottawatomi leaders in April 27, 1763.

This speech is taken from Francis Parkman’s book, but the original documents cannot be found. Parkman said the information came from John McDougall, but did he actually hear Pontiac speak? Who translated the work? We do not know. Pontiac’s speech can be understood as a bicultural composite, on the assumption that there is a strong likelihood that he spoke words to this effect based on his knowledge of the Delaware prophet.

Speech at Detroit

A Delaware Indian set off on a search for wisdom and began looking for the Great Spirit. He encountered three paths. He climbed a vast mountain of dazzling whiteness. He saw a beautiful woman arrayed in white. She said to throw away guns, ammunition, provisions, clothing. Wash yourself and be prepared to meet the Master of Life. The man went on a difficult climb and later found himself on the summit where he was welcomed into the celestial abode. He was conducted into the presence of the Great Spirit. God said he made the land for the red people. Why do you suffer the white man to live among you? Their products make you weak. And as for these English,–these dogs dressed in red, who have come to rob you of your hunting-grounds, and drive away the game, you must lift the hatchet against them…but the French are cool. Don’t forget the prohibition to marry more than one wife and do not use magic!

 

J. Hector St. John De Crèvecoeur (1735-1813)

De Crevecoeur is a writer with a divided reputation and a mysterious and fascinating past. Crevecoeur rewards the reader’s close attention but only rarely provides firm conclusions about the author’s views and intentions. In “What Is an American?”–the most famous essay in his internationally acclaimed Letters from an American Farmer (1782)–Crevecoeur offers an idealistic portrait of the soon-to-be United States, one that resonated with later depictions of the nation as a melting pot and a land of opportunity. Farmer James, Crevecoeur’s persona in the Letters, is at his happiest and most hopeful here, and these qualities have sometimes been taken as his creator’s entire understanding of “the American, this new man”; however, the full text of the Letters tells a different story. It includes a shocking depiction of a slave suffering a brutal punishment; and it ends with Farmer James having moved his family to a frontier Indian village out of despair over the fratricidal violence unleashed by the Revolution. The complexity of Crevecoeur’s stance toward Revolutionary-era American society is greatly magnified by the uncertainties surrounding the author’s ultimate commitments. The uncertainties associated with the work itself are amplified by the differences between the English and French editions.

Born Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur in Caen, Normandy, he was the son of a minor nobleman. He came to reject Catholicism as oppressive, and perhaps for this reason he broke with his father as a teenager, sailed to England, and lived there with distant relatives. He traveled to French Canada and enlisted in the militia. He was wounded in the defense of Quebec during one of the major battles of the French and Indian War (1754-63). He later traveled to New York and was naturalized as a British colonial subject in 1765 and changed his name to Hector St. John. Sometimes he went by James Hector St. John, a moniker suggesting that he identified with his persona Farmer James. Crevecoeur traveled extensively in the colonies as a surveyor and a trader with American Indians. He married a wealthy Protestant woman, bought land in New York and settled into life on his farm. They had three children. In his first year at Pine Hill, Crevecoeur began to write a series of essays about America based on his travels and experience as a farmer.

He was arrested and imprisoned as an American spy in 1779, when he tried to sail from the British-held port of New York. Crevecoeur reached London in 1780 and sold his manuscript to a publishing house there, leading to the 1782 edition of Letters. There is evidence to suggest that the British edition was partially rewritten by an unknown editor to draw out its republican themes. He reconciled with his father then moved to Paris. The French translation of the Letters (1784) was recast more favorably toward France.

In 1783, Crevecoeur returned to the now victorious United States. He then learned that his farm had been burned in an Indian attack, his wife was dead, and his children were housed with strangers. After regaining custody of his children and moving to New York City, Crevecoeur was made French consul to New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. He was a great success as a diplomat. He later became an adopted member of the Oneida Nation.

Farmer James writes his letters in response to queries from an English visitor, who wishes to better understand America. The personal letter was a central genre in eighteenth-century literary culture, featured in epistolary novels as well as popular travelers’ and naturalists’ accounts, both factual and fictional. The American farmer was already a well-established figure in the political and social debates of the day.

Crevecoeur’s Letters engage the revolutionary-era debates over human nature and political organization vividly but unspecifically. He inserted himself into the same transatlantic debates over Americanness and its effects on humankind. Crevecoeur’s philosophical themes are woven through his work rather than presented discursively. This allusiveness distinguishes Crevecoeur’s Letters from the political writings of the day and lends the collection its lasting fascination.

 

From Letters from an American Farmer

From Letter III. What Is an American?

 

Begins lyrical and lofty in tone. The new continent is vast. Modern society, but different. No aristocratic families, no kings, no invisible power for the few. No great manufacturers employing thousands, few luxuries. Rich and poor closer to each other than in Europe. United by silken bands of mild government, all respecting laws, without dreading their power because they are equitable. Wants to convey the image that we are all equal and well taken care of. We have no princes. We are the most perfect society now in the world. We are a nation of immigrants. There never was a people, situated as they are, who with so ungrateful a soil have done more in so short a time.  

Crevecoeur writes of how much better this country treats her people. Laws protect people as they arrive and people are rewarded for their labors. People can buy land. Our government sets up the laws.

Crevecoeur sets out his definition of being an American. He mentions language, land, bread, protection and consequence. We all come from other countries and marry people from other countries. “He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men…” We can see our labors changing the world. Arts, sciences, vigor and industry. Incorporated into one fine system. We have new ideas and opinions. Simple subsistence. We are shaped through nurture and find little crime.

Crevecoeur describes different characteristics according to where people live. He mentions those that live near water, and those that live near the center of the country. More people are moving toward the center. The general indulgence leaves everyone to think for themselves in spiritual matters. He describes backwoods people saying they are the wildest bunch being the furthest away from the government. Where you live differentiates you from people living in other areas.

Various Christian sects introduced wear out, and religious indifference becomes prevalent. The nearer the church, the stronger the zeal. The strict modes of Christianity as practiced in Europe are lost. He gives an example. We do not care what religion you practice, so long as you are peaceful, who cares? Your religion doesn’t make you any better or worse than the next guy. “Their children will therefore grow up less zealous and more indifferent in matters of religion than their parents.” The fury of making proselytes, is unknown here; they have no time, the seasons call for all their attention. One may try a different religion’s church because it is nearby; others may stop attending altogether. Thus all sects are mixed as well as all nations; thus religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other; which is at present one of the strongest characteristics of the Americans. Zeal evaporates in the great distance it has to travel. It burns away in the open air.

Woods people have to keep predators away. The farmer becomes the hunter. Woods people experience a lawless profligacy. Their wives and children live in sloth and inactivity; and having no proper pursuits, you may judge what education the latter receive. Half civilized, half savage. They are lonely and eat wild meat. No place of worship. They adopt the moroseness of ferocity of a native, without his mildness or his industry at home. As hunters it is divided between the toil of the chase, the idleness of repose, or the indulgence of inebriation. If European backwoods men can become so wild just imagine the Indians!

This place is settled by freeholders, the possessors of the soil they cultivate, members of the government they obey, the framers of their own laws, by means of representatives. The idle may be employed, the useless become useful, the poor become rich by cleared lands, cattle, good houses, good clothes. New arrivals meet with hospitality, kindness and plenty. We seldom hear of punishment or executions. We have elegant towns, industry and freedom. We have rural districts, convenient roads, good taverns and many accommodations.

If you want to work we have bread for you. America will also provide for your children, which is every parent’s fondest wish. “Go thou and work and till; thou shalt prosper, provided thou be just, grateful, and industrious.”

 

From Letter IX. Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene

 

Charles-Town is a capital in the north and one of the richest provinces. Carolina produces commodities, has thriving industries and displays its riches and luxuries. It was build at the confluence of two large rivers. It have warfs, docks, and warehouses which are extremely convenient to facilitate this great commercial business. Inhabitants are the happiest and at the center of the beau monde. They have the richest planters with the best health and pleasure. Our space provides better health than the West Indians could ever dream. The growth of this town and province has been astonishingly rapid. The weather is temperate though sometimes when they have no sea breezes the sun is too powerful. There are elegant houses with sumptuous furniture and table settings. The three principal classes of inhabitants are lawyers, planters and merchants. The richest spoils are to them and nothing can exceed their wealth, power and influence. These men are more properly law givers than interpreters of the law. They have the skill and dexterity of the scribe with the power and ambition of the prince. We are a litigious society as well.

At the same time, scenes of misery overspread the country. They neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds. Here the horrors of slavery, the hardship of incessant toils, are unseen; and no one thinks with compassion of those showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans, daily drop, and moisten the ground they till. [See ninth edition page 647 for deeper discussion of a slavery.]

A clergyman comes in to soften hearts against slavery. The people got upset and asked him to stick to the bible. We try to conceive of slavery as not so bad since it has been known in all ages and all countries. Does the cosmic order abandon mankind to all the errors, the follies, and the miseries, which their most frantic rage, and their most dangerous vices and passions can produce? Everywhere one part of the human species are taught the art of shedding the blood of the other; of setting fire to their dwellings; of leveling the works of their industry; half of the existence of nations regularly employed in destroying other nations. This displays the violence of colonization. Man is neither civilized in nature nor in city. I prefer the country. Too many people equals more trouble. These are my melancholy reflections. While on a walk I perceived a Negro suspended in a cage and left to expire [649]. I gave him a drink of water. The reason for this slave being thus punished was on account of his having killed the overseer of the plantation.

 

From Letter X. On Snakes; and on the Humming Bird

 

While on a walk I came across two snakes, one pursuing the other. The aggressor was of the black kind, six feet long; the fugitive was a water snake, nearly of equal dimensions. They mutually tried with open jaws to lacerate each other. The scene was uncommon and beautiful; for this opposed they fought with their jaws. The black one pulled the water snake back from the ditch. Victory seemed doubtful, inclining sometimes to the one side and sometimes to the other. They both plunged into the ditch. The black snake seemed to retain its wonted superiority. It incessantly pressed down under the water, until the water snake was stifled and sunk. The black snake returned to shore and disappeared.