Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Where to Start?

If we're going to be honest, first semester American Lit begins arbitrarily. What defines literature as American? When does it start? If we're going to be all legalistic about it, and sometimes I'm tempted to do this, we'd say it starts when the Revolutionary War ends. Before that, we were just a bunch of colonies and many people considered themselves Europeans.

The trouble is, we've got roughly 200 years of writing happening on American soil before the Revolution, and a bunch of that was Puritan in origin. You can say what you like about them, but those Puritans wrote continually, often asking God how they'd sinned to deserve America. We can't ignore that, because people have been asking those questions ever since.

Then there's John Smith. I'm tossing him to the wolves this semester, because he wasn't in any sense "American," and he didn't live here very long at all. When he WAS here, he managed to piss off everyone from the Queen to the cabin boys. I don't know if that necessarily disqualifies him to write about America, but it might disqualify me when it comes to reading about it. Plus, he had a horrible tendency to, well, lie, especially in order to make himself look better. I think we can skip him.

What do we do, you might ask, with the literature of the natives? Shouldn't American literature start with the people who were living here first? Yes. It should. We have to set forth here, however, one of the important dicta of literature in general. We'll call it Rule One: If it's not written down in a form other people can recognize, it didn't happen. Perhaps a subset of the rule would read thusly: If you are going to rely on oral tradition to pass along your culture, find a way to keep somebody who speaks your language alive. Otherwise, you will suffer the fate of the people who lived in America before the Europeans got here. I'm certain that they had an elaborate and sophisticated literature, but it was oral. Thanks to the Europeans' certainty that God was not on the side of the natives, nobody made it out alive, and the oral culture was lost.

Several versions of "authentic" American Indian narratives have cropped up, but alas, all of these, and I do mean ALL of these, are suspect. Just after the Revolutionary War, some people in the new nation began to idealize the natives and, belatedly, embrace their culture. (Thank you, Rousseau.) The problem is, no reliable sources for the native oral traditions existed, so the romantics made up what they thought the stories might have been like. Often they patched together traditions from many tribes and areas, to create a pastiche of styles and stories that are to real literature what a McDonald's hamburger is to real food.

I'm being flippant here because otherwise the magnitude of the loss overwhelms me. We can imagine how creative, interesting, and educational the literature of the native Americans was, but we can't experience it, and we will never be able to. It's gone, and we who study American Literature are stuck, particularly for purposes of this semester, with the history that is written, we all know, by the winners.

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