Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wrestling With the Big Conundrum

. . . Which sounds a bit unnerving, but oh, well. Here's some more food for thought, but it's not Thursday's Question, yet. It's kind of hard not to notice that just about every writer that we study, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson, is a New Englander, either by birth or by virtue of moving here shortly thereafter. What gives?

I have some theories, but that's all they are. I think the first one goes back to the Puritans' love for education and their need for an educated clergy. They didn't just let anybody preach who might have felt led to do so. Preachers had to have a college education, so they could rightly instruct the flock. As a matter of fact, one popular speaker at Old North Church (Second Church) was denied the pulpit because he had not been sufficiently educated.

These people founded Harvard, remember, when they were still swatting Native Americans with one hand and starving with the other. I don't think that education equals writing NOW, but it surely did then, and the New Englanders had the possibly correct view that before you could spill wisdom OUT of your brain, you had to put some IN.

In any event, there's an amazing group of writers I can find here in Boston and the nearby areas. In addition to our Revolutionaries, Franklin, Adams, and Hamilton, we will later find Nathaniel Hawthorne (a descendant of one of the Salem judges), Bronson Alcott and his daughter, Louisa May, Ralph W. Emerson in Concord, and his friend Henry David Thoreau. When we expand our writers to the Northeast, it includes almost everybody -- Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Washington Irving. The only person south of the Mason-Dixon Line is Edgar Allan Poe.

While I think the Harvard influence accounts for some of it, I suspect that the focus of attention in the southern states was different. For one thing, the communities south of Philadelphia were smaller (with the exception of Charleston, SC), and more agricultural. For another, people weren't as likely to be educated, or to own many books beside the Bible. Obviously there were exceptions, particularly in Virginia and South Carolina, but the general thrust of intellectual life in the south is not literary.

And there's this. If you're going to enslave people, you can't think about it too much. Slavery becomes a deterrent to intellectual growth, and that includes writing and literary effort, because it is very hard to support the inhumane treatment of humans, if one spends any time at all thinking about it. The northern colonies relinquished slavery pretty quickly, in part, at least, because they didn't have huge farms that needed armies of farmworkers. The south felt that it couldn't let go of the free labor. I'm not saying this was the only literary difference, but it has to be on the table.

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