Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, A New Literary History of America

Marcus, Greil and Werner Sollors, editors. A New Literary History of America. Belnap P of Harvard UP, 2009.

Summaries of Selected Sections

“The Problem of the Color Line”

This section briefly overviews the different viewpoints between Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. Washington’s work was a combination of a slave narrative and a rags-to-riches narrative that called for blacks to allow segregation and white supremacy until they had worked hard enough to prove that it should be eradicated; the work glossed over many important points about the struggles in the South during the Reconstruction years. Du Bois’ work made a detailed attack on Washington’s ideology and addressed the color line as the problem of the century. Du Bois created a black intelligentsia that previously never existed in the country, and he also worked to found and build the NAACP, leaving his position at Atlanta University in order to do so.

“The Invention of the Blues”

This section gives a broad overview of the blues as a genre, particularly focusing on the fact that we do not know who specifically created it and that, as the claim, the evidence for it starting in the Delta is largely anecdotal (can you feel my skepticism yet at this entry?). The entry includes W.C. Handy’s description of the first time he heard the blues and Ma Rainey’s description of the first time she heard it. They also discuss Samuel Charters being the first person to write a book on the subject, Country Blues, and how folklorists such as the Lomaxes went South and recorded numerous musicians.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”

This section details Irving Berlin’s start from humble origins to writing Broadway musical scores. He started as a singing waiter, and when Tin Pan Alley became successful, he tried his hand at it and was making a living writing coon songs, stereotypical and racist songs about black people and their wanton ways. All of these songs were ragtime music, and the press eviscerated the music. Then, Berlin wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and it was not only popular, it stayed popular. It changed the format of American popular songs, and the form would become the mainstay for a half a century. The song broke him out of having to write coon songs, and he was able to transition into a variety of songwriting and scoring. The most impressive thing about the song is that it persists in its popularity even today, and most people can sing the song if it is played for them.

“A Modernist Moment”

This section overviews the Armory Show in NYC, where artists in the Modernist period were displayed to the public, from Van Gogh to Matisse to Duschamp and Picasso. Art was bringing new perspectives on what art itself was; it was no longer meant for noble topics, but also for everyday and common topics. The Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden is also highlighted, with a discussion of how art brought together with striking workers made a statement about the time period as well as the economic moment, despite the failure of the performance to raise money for the strike. Finally, Poetry magazine, founded by Harriet Monroe and run by she and Ezra Pound, offered a revitalization of poetry in America, but also around the world as Pound inserted his thoughts on what poetry ought to be and Monroe searched for talent through an open door publishing policy: if it’s quality, we’ll publish it.

“Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues’”

This section suggests that we should take another close look at Mamie Smith’s blues recording, even though it is not considered an actual blues song among scholars and musicians. This suggestion comes because when looking at the history surrounding Smith and her recording, we can see that the song is important because it was a formal notice of a broken racial barrier: black people could now record their music for sale and entertainment. Sophie Turner, the white blackface performer, was actually the first white woman to record a successful blues song, and this is important because it may have been, if we look past appropriation, the first crack in the barrier to recording black music: since Turner’s recording was successful, they were less worried about recording black music. While Smith was a vaudeville performer who was never considered one of the great blues singers of the era, her song and musical choices are important for the racial barriers they maneuver and the racial issues the song codes into itself and the tone of the lyric.

“Jean Toomer”

This section provides a spotlight on Jean Toomer’s life and writing. He struggled to feel that anything he wrote was good enough to publish, even declining to be published in a landmark book of poetry. Those who knew him would describe him as a strange man. He would frequent salons run by James Weldon Johnson, and he would work odd jobs just long enough to know what it was like to work them before he quit to read and write some more. He was in Washington D.C. taking care of sick grandparents, who practically raised him, and he was going mad. He decided to take a job as a temporary principal at a school in Georgia, and it is there that he learned more about black communities in the South, which inspired his writing of Cane. Toomer himself was mixed race and had very light skin, meaning he was often mistaken for white but did not fit in there once his ancestry was known, but he also did not fit in the black community. Still, his work is considered the inauguration of the Harlem Renaissance, and was hailed again during the Black Arts Movement before and after his death.

“T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence”

This section discusses the writing and lives of T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence, particularly their crossing paths as Eliot moved to get away from America and its culture and Lawrence moved to it in hopes of a nationalist dream and pending publications. While Eliot had issues with his publication of Wasteland and the culture’s misunderstanding of his work and its seriousness, Lawrence was happy for the audience that would allow for his more sexual or deviant works to not just be published, but be popular. Eliot worked in finance during the financial dismantling of Europe after WWI, and Lawrence enjoyed freedom from discrimination with his German wife Freida in the USA. However, Lawrence became disenchanted with America the more and more he saw the treatment of Native Americans and the injustices; he came to the conclusion that the white American could never come to a cultural understanding with the Native American, and that similarly, he would always be Other from Americans as a European. Eliot would always call out and deplore dryness and sterility in writing as well as a nationalist spirit, while Lawrence would allow that nationalist spirit to create illusion.

The Great Gatsby

This section discusses the fear, dislike, and discrimination against new money in Fitzgerald’s work The Great Gatsby. Much as immigrants are discriminated against in America today, Gatsby and the other residents of West Egg are disliked by the East Egg residents, who are old, established money. The murder of Gatsby and the subsequent newspaper articles about how he deserved what he got are reminiscent of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, where the Italians were convicted of robbery and murder even though they most likely did not commit the crime. The fear of immigrants still looms, just like it does in Gatsby when Buchanan talks about the rising of the colored races to supplant white people. But much like the dream of Gatsby making it in America, what is inspiring about the book is the author himself. Fitzgerald embodies the opportunity available in America with his riches and success as a writer, a career that is not thought of as one that will lead to a prosperous life.

“John Dos Passos”

This section discusses how Dos Passos was both disenchanted by capitalism and communism in America, and how he, in his dissatisfaction with many things and growing his writing in his early twenties, went to Europe and then the Soviet Union and found a fellow writer who shared his ideas about how to structure his work. The rest of the section is dedicated to discussing the structure of the USA Trilogy, particularly The 42nd Parallel, and how the narratives cut off and come back and intertwine while the newsreels and camera eye biographies add a layer of complexity: on their own, they would have been gimmicky, but together, they create a uniquely layered complexity of American literature and life.

“Arthur Miller”

This section details the realist theater that is Arthur Miller’s legacy. Focusing particularly on Death of a Salesman, readers learn of his desire for people to feel that performance was immoral and to see how it conflicts with the American Dream even as it seems to uphold it. In fact, the illusion of the American Dream is also explored. Willy in the play is the ultimate performer, one who has cared more about what other people see and think than what he is actually building. As he breaks down, the rules of realism in theater break down: the scenes are regularly interrupted by music, which signal Willy’s entry into his memories, and all the other characters become supporting roles; when he runs out of memories and illusions, Willy breaks the fourth wall before killing himself. This and the other works of Arthur Miller, in their discussions of the problems of performance, set the stage for works like Sondheim’s Gypsy and Kushner’s Angels in America.

Gone with the Wind and Absalom, Absalom!

Coming out in the same year, these two novels would have very different successes, mainly that Margaret Mitchell’s work would become radically popular and well read, whereas William Faulkner’s work wouldn’t sell well and wouldn’t become a film. Yet they both look at the South and its problems. Mitchell’s work unveils the economic failures and class superiority issues in the South, but then by the end of the work has put the romantic lens back on the South; her book would be further romanticized in the film, and its success proves the obsession and enchantment of the American populace about the pastoral American South. On the other hand, Faulkner’s work sets out to dismantle the problems of racism and slavery that built the American South and continue to pervade its society. He discusses issues of miscegenation and racial hatred that blanket the South and points out the fact that America’s success was built on slavery. His work was prophetic in its dealings with what would later, in the 1970s, be hailed as a national dilemma.

“Jelly Roll Morton Speaks”

This section deals with Alan Lomax being encouraged to invite Jelly Roll Morton to talk about his songs and older music and to sing and play for him to record. Lomax was initially reluctant given his interest was not in a popular jazz singer of the past but of folk music, but when Jelly Roll sat down and sang a song Lomax requested and then started to give a history of it and his life and how Jazz was created in Storyville, Lomax recognized the importance of recording Morton’s story. He spent weeks recording Morton talking and singing, and it was the birth of oral history, using sound recording to allow people to tell their own stories free from transcription and the pauses that inevitably come with that.

“Billie Holliday, ‘Strange Fruit’”

This section describes how Billy Holliday, more of a Jazz singer than a blues singer, was able to instill the blues throughout her work in the way she sang her songs and what messages she communicated through them. Her work, much like her life, embodies the suffering and the lives of African Americans that exist in the lyrics and notes of blues music, and even more so in the fact that there is no reasoning or scapegoat for the suffering described. The blues were a way for Holliday and many others to both rid themselves of the blues and describe and embody their experiences as they sent messages to the next generation.

“Up from Invisibility”

This section discusses Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and its themes, particularly on communism and African American cultural elements. While Ellison insisted the book was not autobiographical, this section posits that perhaps it was at least somewhat autobiographical given Ellison’s time at Tuskegee, move to New York, his support of Communism and Stalinism for years, and his later renouncement of those viewpoints. In 1939, Ellison worked with old documents that contained information about African American history and folklore, and this greatly influenced his work; while the work has many blues and jazz tropes, it also contains a lot of folklore which embodies the ideas and tropes expressed in stories and characters such as Brer Rabbit and other trickster figures. He refused to allow his writing to be defined by victimhood and suffering, and instead focused on the rich traditions that would bring African Americans up from invisibility.

“Tennessee Williams”

This section focuses on how Tennessee Williams inserted grand emotional performances and personal experience into his plays. Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire was a combination of two of his lovers, and he admitted to all his female characters being some embodiment of his sister, mother, and even himself at the time of writing. People have said that Blanche is essentially Williams on stage with the theatricality and the sexual theatricality. Williams was always openly gay, something that was a big risk in the time period, and his work deals with homosexuality in ways that could have had his plays banned from screen adaption or seriously revised for screen adaption. His work was very open about sex during a time when such discussions were rarely, if ever, public. Yet Williams would be criticized by LGBT people and activists for his work being constructed around heteronormative tropes; he would always defend his work as being for a broader audience than just LGBT communities. All of his work is set in the South, and much of his work deconstructs the myth of Southern Aristocracy, as can be seen with the loss of Belle Reve and the falling apart of the Southern Belle Aristocrat.

“The Birth of the Cool”

This section discusses the Aesthetic of the Cool, the idea that an artist should be able to do very difficult acts while making it look as if it takes no effort at all. While some form of this idea exists across time and cultures, the phrase “Cool” was slowly brought into use in regard to jazz music. Miles Davis was the catalyst for this idea, with his focus on blending instruments together and using instruments like the tuba and French horn over the tenor sax in his band. His trumpet melodies float over the accompaniment and blend with the other instruments in ways that jazz as “hot music” did not. He also did not perform like other jazz musicians, even turning his back upon the audience while he played. Even though Miles Davis’ first records did not sell well, they are considered landmark records for the era. And even after Davis was done with his ideas and had moved onto new ones, his work had influenced jazz permanently.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

This section discusses the life of Malcolm X as he wrote his autobiography. He had been regularly denounced as a hate monger and demagogue, and he had even been exiled from Elijah Muhammad’s sect of black-centered Islam. Alex Haley had written a short bio piece on him for Playboy, and then he was invited by Doubleday to work with Malcolm X to write his autobiography. Haley’s work was rejected after Malcolm X’s assassination, but Grove Press picked it up. It is now firmly established in the literature canon, but that poses problems, as it is not simply a work of social science or literature, as it combines postmodern narrative elements into a work of nonfiction, something that had never been done before. There are also questions about narrator reliability given that Malcolm X upheld lies and then recanted them later in the narrative when he revealed Elijah Muhammad’s sins. Foucault calls this type of narrative parrhesiastes, where a speaker uses the most direct way to tell what he believes regardless of the full truthfulness of the tale being told.

“Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker”

This section discusses these three authors in relation to each other and the women’s movement of the 1970s. They told stories of black womanhood, a part of life that was a gaping hole in literature. They provided stories about what it was like to be a black woman in America, and showed the trauma that chased them in the South and in the North; but they also showed unique and strong women who had interesting stories to tell for their own sake, stories worth telling. They received criticism from all sides for the way they portrayed the black community and particularly black men, but they persisted in telling their stories. They also paved the way to the rediscovery of black female artists, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen, from previous generations.

“Toni Morrison”

This section discusses Morrison’s work in the framework of her being put on the cover of Newsweek. She was the first black woman to be featured on the cover since Zora Neale Hurston, and she was the first black author to be chosen for a Book of the Month club book since Richard Wright. Her work, with so many central black female characters, speaks to a new literary tradition that told untold stories, stories about pariah women who live a life outside of religious and community rule structures. Yet while her work, fictional and nonfictional, deals with many important racial issues, she has not become a public figure like James Baldwin did, who she claims as her main influence. She has done more than write amazing prose. She, as an editor for Random House, has helped a great number of African American authors bring their work to the public eye. She has won many awards, culminating with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

Amy Tan, “Two Kinds”

Tan, Amy. “Two Kinds.” 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology, Third Edition. Ed.

Beverly Lawn. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

 

Summary of Work
Jing-Mei Woo introduces her mother as a woman who believes that people can be anything they want in America, that it is a land of opportunity and fresh starts. Her mother came to America after losing everything in China, her husband and children. She works as a maid in the US, and regularly brings home magazines containing information and stories about people’s genius children. She tests her daughter regularly for genius, starting by trying to make her Shirley Temple (ending with a terrible haircut that has to be cut off in a male, Peter Pan style, to save it) and ending with determining her daughter will learn to be a piano prodigy. By that time, Jing-Mei hates her mother and what she is putting her through, wondering why she won’t just let her be herself, ordinary. Her mother trades cleaning for piano lessons with the deaf Chinese man down the hall. When Jing-Mei learns he is deaf, she decides not to worry about making mistakes as long as she keeps with the rhythm. Since she practices over at the deaf man’s house for two hours a day, no one hears her making the mistakes.

Then, she hears her mother talking to a neighbor about how good of a piano player she is, and she decides to end that idea once and for all. When her parents put her in a talent show (by this time, they’ve saved up enough money to buy her a secondhand piano), she determines that even though the piece they’ve chosen for her, Pleading Child, is not hard, she will not work to memorize it or practice very hard. At the performance, she starts out beautifully, but then doesn’t know the right notes because of her lack of discipline and practice, and she humiliates herself and her parents. The only person in the crowd clapping is her deaf teacher. Her parents make her stay the whole talent show and talk to people afterward. A young chess prodigy who is her neighbor tells her she is not a genius, further humiliating her. She determines that this performance was the end of it, and she’ll never have to play piano again.

However, the next day, when four o’clock rolls around, her mother insists that she practice, dragging her over to the piano. She says she doesn’t want to play, and her mother tells her that she must because there are only two types of children, those who are obedient and those who follow their own path, and the only type of child in her home is obedient. Jing-Mei says that she wishes she weren’t her mother, and when that doesn’t get under her mother’s skin, she says she wishes she were never born or dead just like the rest of her family. This breaks her mother’s heart, and she never insists her daughter play piano again. Years later, she doesn’t get As in school, then doesn’t get into an ivy league college, and then drops out of college. Her mother never talks to her about the piano. Then, when Jing-Mei is in her thirties, her mother offers her the piano. Jing-Mei finds this to be some sort of offering of forgiveness. She never takes the piano, but does admire it. She tells her mother that she’s not sure she could even play it, and her mother says she’s sure she could, but the issue is the same: Jing-Mei never tried. When her mother dies, and she starts cleaning up her mother’s things for her father, she has the piano tuned and refurbished. Then she sits down and pulls out the old sheet music, and she finds herself playing pieces of the song she played so poorly as a child. Then she sees another song on the other half of the sheet music, and plays it, and she realizes that just as her mother said, they were two halves, two kinds.

Brief Note on Themes
Family relations, individual identity, and cultural expectations are the main themes running throughout this work. The mother-daughter relationship particularly highlights cultural expectations: while they are in America, the mother still holds the same social expectations for how the household will be run and how her child will act and behave. Jing-Mei is caught between two worlds as the daughter of an immigrant; she has her family’s culture and expectations, but she is also dealing with American cultural expectations. Her mother also holds some of those expectations in her version of the American Dream, thinking her daughter will be famous if she just works hard enough.

The story is a form of Bildungsroman, with the daughter not really fully coming to her own identity or of age until she can accept the gift of the piano and learn what her mother really wanted of her: for her to try to get better at something rather than simply accept a life without making an effort to better oneself. There is also a sense of cultural understanding and individual communication that happens in the final scene, where cultural barriers are broken down and Jing-Mei can really identify with her mother for the first time.

Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”

Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology, Third Edition. Ed.

Beverly Lawn. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

Summary and Discussion of Work
This short story is written from the point of view of a mother trying to teach and direct her daughter on how to live as a housewife in her local community. It is a very short work, but holds a theme that pops up several times in the work: womanhood holds two options—respectable or slut. The mother keeps telling her daughter that she is trying to teach her so she goes away from the slut she wants to be, and even though the daughter says she doesn’t want that and doesn’t sing Calypso music in Sunday School, the mother just barrels on through her to-do female identity list. When she gets to the end about how to choose bread, the daughter asks, what if the baker won’t let me touch the bread, and the mother says, you really are going to be the woman who the baker won’t let near bread!?

The main theme within this work is female identity and cultural roles. The mother is teaching the cultural image of what it means to be a woman in their society, and there is an undercurrent, coming up occasionally in the slut comments, about what happens if a woman transgresses those roles in society.

August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Plume, 1985.

Summary of Work
The play opens in a recording studio, with two men, Sturdyvant and Irvin, discussing Ma Rainey’s work. Sturdyvant, the owner of the recording studio, thinks that Ma Rainey is a diva, and he’s upset that her last recording didn’t sell as well as he wanted in the North, even though it sold in the South. He wants nothing to do with talking with the black people in the studio, and leaves Irvin to take car of that. He also requests that Levee, the horn player, have more of a role in the music because that is what is the new sound that’s selling. Aftewards, the band sets up for rehearsal. Levee is late because he is buying new shoes. When he arrives, he immediately starts bantering with the other band members: first about the price of his shoes and how Cutler helped him pay for them; then about how to spell the word music, and then about how the songs should be played. Levee wants to add more of a jazz feel to the music, and he doesn’t want to rehearse songs they’ve played numerous times.

They start rehearsing, but are regularly interrupted by arguments between Levee and Toledo, who reads books and has a lot to say about race relations and black entertainment and advancement. Slow Drag, a man who’s as laid back as his name implies, keeps trying to divert discussion so they can get back to rehearsing, but he fails. In the meantime, Ma Rainey has still not shown up, and Irvin is nervous about it. Just as Sturdyvant is getting angry, Ma Rainey, her girlfriend Dussie Mae, and her nephew Sylvester walk into the recording studio, escorted by a policeman. The policeman tells Irvin that she had hit another car with her car and then tried to run away in a cab, and then assaulted the cab driver when he wouldn’t take her. Irvin tells Ma he will handle it, and he slips the police officer some money for him to forget about taking her to the precinct.

Since the production of the record is delayed from the incident, Irvin gets sandwiches for the band, and while eating, they discuss their pasts. Cutler tells about how Slow Drag, dancing in a competition with a woman one evening, nearly got knifed for dancing with her when the woman’s boyfriend saw them. He talked the guy out of knifing him by saying that he was trying to help the girl win the competition so she could buy him a gold watch. After that, all the women wanted to Slow Drag with him, which is how Slow Drag got his name.

Toledo discusses how black people are the “leftovers” (57) in America, and after a brief discussion about race relations, they start to rehearse Levee’s version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Ma hears it from upstairs and confronts Irvin about it, who tries to convince her that it’s the style people want, but she’s not hearing it. She goes downstairs and tells them what they will be playing, and tells them that Sylvester will do the speaking part at the beginning of the song. Afterwards, Levee goes off, and in his anger, tells the story of watching his mother get gang raped by white men, and how he tried to stop them by getting a kitchen knife and cutting them, and they took the knife and sliced his chest open, nearly killing him. Then he tells about his father selling the home to one of the white rapists so they could get out of town.

Act Two opens with Irvin and the band discussing how Sylvester can’t do the part, and Irvin tells them to stick with Levee’s version of the song and he’ll work it out with Ma. Ma goes to record and sees there’s no coke to drink, and she will not record until she gets one. She waits, and tells Cutler that she knows that she doesn’t mean anything but money to these white men. She says that because of that, she’s going to do everything she can to ensure that they treat her how she wants to be treated even if it kills the white men. She talks about how the blues are a more than a form of expression for her, they are a form of survival, a way to understand life. Meanwhile Levee starts seriously flirting with Dussie Mae.

When they finally get to recording, they first have problems with Sylvester getting the line right. When he finally does, they don’t get it recorded due to technical difficulties with the sound equipment. Ma threatens to leave, and Irvin hurries to get the issues fixed. While they are waiting, the other men in the band tell Levee to lay off Ma’s girl, and try to tell him the problems that it will bring him to meddle with women who are involved already. They also try to tell him that the way he dresses won’t change anything in the eyes of white people, and that they even know black preachers who, very well dressed, were publicly humiliated and harassed by white people. Levee gets angry and says he isn’t an “imitation white man” (94), and he starts in about how he is going to be successful with his music once Sturdyvant lets him record. When Cutler tries again to talk to him about God, he insults Cutler and says that his God, if he is real, can strike him down.

Finally, the issues are fixed, and they finish recording. Afterward, Ma confronts Levee about his playing and tells him that he is to play his horn in a way that fits her music style for the band. When he gets upset at Ma, she fires him. Figuring he doesn’t need the job anyway, he goes to talk to Sturdyvant about his music, and he finds out that Sturdyvant will buy his songs for a few dollars, but won’t let him record. With no job and no prospects, he is upset, and as the band is getting ready to leave, Toledo accidentally steps on Levee’s shoes. Levee, in a rage, stabs and kills Toledo.

Brief Note on Themes
This play is the only one of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to be based on a historical figure, although he insisted that Ma Rainey was not a researched character. The play itself deals with how the music and entertainment industry treated its black artists, who sold very well and yet were terribly treated and underpaid. Issues of segregation, how popular music is marketed, race relations, economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and black rage brought on by systemic injustice and oppression feature throughout the play. One distinct example is the altercation with the police, where only a white man can pay off the white police officer to keep Rainey out of jail. Still, the power black entertainers held was more than the average black person: Rainey describes being able to be forceful and get what she wants from white men in the business when otherwise she has no power to command respect, or if not respect, then decent treatment.

Music plays a big part of this play, the first of Wilson’s Century Cycle. The purpose of the blues is a theme running through the work. Blues is one of Wilson’s main influences for his work (he stated this many times in interviews during his lifetime). While Rainey outright states how she feels about it, the blues also feature as each of the characters tell their stories of sadness, travel, and life experience. Recording technologies are explored, as glitches occur throughout the process (a known problem for Paramount, since their recordings were regularly poor quality). The recorded and unrecorded blues songs can stand in as a form of cultural memory, music that passes on important information from one generation of listeners to the next.

August Wilson, Fences

Wilson, August. Fences. Plume, 1986.

Summary of Work
Troy Maxson and his friend Jim Bono are at Troy’s home after working at the Sanitation Company, and they are discussing Troy’s recent decision to apply for a job driving the garbage truck rather than staying on the back and lifting the bins. Bono thinks that he is going to get himself and other black men fired, but Troy disagrees, and says that what he’s after is to have them change the job description so everyone can drive the truck. His wife comes in and they start discussing the past and then their son, and Troy is upset that his son Cory is being recruited to play football at college. Troy remembers back when he played baseball (it’s how he met his wife Rose) and was denied the chance to play professionally due to segregation and injustice. Rose tries to tell him that times have changed, but he won’t hear it. As he rants about Selkirk and Jackie Robinson, he gets drunker and drunker, and when his wife tells him that he’ll drink himself to death, he speaks the famous line “Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner” (10) as he tells about when he had pneumonia and beat death.

His older son Lyons stops by and asks for ten dollars, and Troy, after being upset at Lyons and telling him that he needs to get his life in order rather than just playing music and relying on others, he hands all the money from his paycheck to Rose, and she gives Lyons ten dollars from the money. The next morning, when Troy comes down wanting to have Cory work with him on the fence, Rose tells him that Cory is at football practice, and Troy is upset again. He’s also upset that his wife is playing the numbers. Then Gabriel, Troy’s brother who was injured in the war and is now mentally ill, walks up carrying his trumpet and basket of fruits and vegetables that he tries to sell. He thinks Troy is mad at him for moving out, but Troy insists to Gabe he isn’t upset. Rose tries to feed Gabe, and he tells Troy that he knows Saint Peter has Troy’s name in the book but not his own. When he leaves, Troy starts feeling guilty again about taking the disability money Gabriel got so they could buy the house.

When Cory gets home, Troy starts in arguing with him. Cory asks if they can get a TV, and Troy lectures Cory on how much money it takes to roof the house and to keep it up and make sure that everyone is fed and taken care of. Then, when they start talking about Cory’s football scholarship chances, Troy tells him to forget it because the white people aren’t going to let him get anywhere, so instead he should be focusing on his job at the A&P so he could actually earn a living doing something. Two weeks later, Cory is still more concerned with football than chores and work, and takes off to play. Just after, Troy comes back with Bono, ecstatic because he just got the job as a driver for the Sanitation company. Bono asks him if he even has a license, and Troy states that he doesn’t need a license.

Lyons comes back to return the ten dollars he borrowed, but Troy won’t take it, telling him to save it for the next time he needs to borrow money. So Lyons gives the money to Rose. Gabriel also comes in, having been he thinks, in his mentally ill state, chasing Hellhounds away from St. Peter’s gates. He asks for a sandwich, and when Troy starts up again about family matters, Rose shuts him down and says that Troy is to stop it about Gabe and his landlord Miss Pearl and about Cory, and he is to sign the papers allowing Cory to play when the college recruiters come, and that’s the end of it. Then they get talking about parents, and Troy tells of how he was from a family of eleven, and his mother ran off from her evil husband, who was a sharecropper. Troy was just eight and thought his mother would come back for him, but he didn’t. When he was 14, he had a girlfriend, and he was going to sleep with her in a field, when his father came upon them and whipped him badly. Troy, thinking that he was done, went looking for his father after that and found his father having sex with the girl, so he got upset with his father, and his father beat him unconscious. He awoke to the family dog Blue licking him, but he couldn’t see anything. After that, he figured he couldn’t go back home, so he walked all the way to Mobile and started stealing to survive. It landed him in jail for fifteen years, and that’s where he learned to play baseball and where he met Bono.

When Cory comes back home, Troy tells him that he’s in trouble because he found out that he quit his job at the A&P and he hasn’t been keeping his chores up. Cory tries to explain that he can’t do both work and football practice, and Troy tells him that’s his first mistake, strike one. He is to go and get his job back and quit the football team. Cory refuses, and tells his mom so. That afternoon, when Troy and Bono and Cory are out, they say they don’t know why Rose wants the fence put up. Bono suggests she wants it up to keep everyone close to her. When Cory leaves into the house to get something, Bono confronts Troy about his affair he is having, saying that Rose is a good woman and he shouldn’t be doing it. Troy, says he loves rose but can’t shake this other girl loose, and Bono replies that he doesn’t want to see Rose hurt.

They’ve had to go get Gabe out of jail for disturbing the peace, and it cost 50 dollars. During the time that Troy is explaining this to Rose, he also lets her know that he is going to be a father: the woman he is having an affair with is pregnant. To get Gabe away from the situation, she tells him to go get the watermelon in the fridge that he can eat and sell. Rose, upset that after eighteen years of love and work in the marriage, even knowing it was tough and wanting to give up often, Troy would cheat on her.  He tries to explain that he felt like he was standing in the same place for eighteen years and wanted a change, and she tells him that she’s felt the same way but never acted on it. Troy goes to hit Rose, and Cory sees and grabs Troy from behind and hits him. Troy tells him that that’s strike two.

Six months later, Rose confronts Troy about having signed a form to put Gabe in the hospital, and tells him that he’ll have to pay for that. And she also tells him that Alberta, the woman with whom he had the affair, died in childbirth. Troy leaves and comes back with his daughter, asking Rose to help him raise the child. She tells him she will raise the child, but that he no longer has a wife. Two months after that Troy comes into the house one day and when Cory tries to get past him without saying excuse me, an all out fight ensues. Troy tells Cory that he’s raised him and given him all he has because it is his responsibility, and when Cory gets upset and says that he’s done nothing but bully everyone and abuse them into fear of him, Troy gets ready to beat him. Cory picks up Troy’s bat and starts swinging it at him, but cannot bring himself to hit his father even as he is backed into a corner. They fight over the bat, and Troy is stronger than Cory. He gets it and tells him to get out of the house and never come back. Troy starts talking about death and preps to swing the bat at that fastball on the outside corner.

The final scene is the family getting ready to go to Troy’s funeral. Cory is a corporal in the marines, Lyons is just out of jail for the funeral before he has to do nine more months, and Gabriel is still in the hospital. Raynell, Troy’s daughter, is elementary school aged now. When Cory tells his mother that he doesn’t think he’ll go to the funeral because he can’t have his father still hanging over him, she tells him he will go and that he is just like his father, that for all that he did wrong, Troy was a good man and that he should respect him and recognize that he gave the best he had to him. She says that she loved him and lost touch with him, but Raynell is a saving grace and she intends to give her the best she has to offer as well. Afterwards, when Cory goes out, Raynell follows him and they sing the song their dad used to sing, Dog Named Blue, together. When they all walk outside together, Gabriel tries to blow his horn, which has no mouthpiece now, to open the gates of heaven for Troy. When no sound comes out, he does a ritual dance and tells Troy that it’s the way to go.

Brief Discussion of Themes
The Pittsburgh Cycle of plays is an attempt to center marginalized black history and experience. This play explores what it is like to live in the North in a city where black people are better off than in the South, but still not allowed full participation in society. Jim Crow laws are fully seen in the play with the discussion of baseball and segregation as well as Troy trying to get a promotion. The struggles of employment and poverty stem from this, which is evidenced by Troy’s discussion of his thieving in order to survive in the North until after he went to prison for fifteen years. The struggles of black family life are also a focus, with not just Troy’s family in the North, but his young family life in the South. Troy’s pride is that he has a good job and owns his home for his family to live in, and he guards money viciously because of his knowledge of what it is like to be without. That fear is what drives him to treat his son the way he does and to deny him the opportunity to attend college on scholarship: he doesn’t believe that anything has changed or will changed in white-black relations. It is a similar fear, a fear of staying in the same place, that leads Troy to be unfaithful, and it costs him everything. The plays end shows a recognition of human weakness and a recognition of the love and progress that is being made from generation to generation, as the struggle is passed on and the history of that struggle lives on through Troy’s children.

For a discussion of Jim Crow laws in Fences, see the study guide I am published in through the August Wilson Society.

 

Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry

Angelou, Maya. Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry. Random House, 2015.

Summary and Discussion of Work
This book is a compilation of all of Maya Angelou’s poetry. There are three main themes that I find running through Angelou’s poetry: black history, the passage of time, and feminism/black feminism. Her work also readily pulls from the black musical tradition of work songs, gospel songs, and the blues to structure her poetry.

For instance, “Times-Square-Shoeshine-Composition” demonstrate the caller shouting his pride at his work with the “(pow pow)” (34) as the response to those calls. “One More Round” and “Pickin Em Up and Layin Em Down” have the same form, with the refrain taking the form of a work song. Many of her poems about black womanhood take the sound of the female blues singer lamenting the loss of a lover who has either died, left her for someone else, or left to travel to different towns. Even if the format is not a blues format, the thematic elements are there to call to female blues singer song traditions. The gospel songs are felt in her poems such as “Just Like Job.” That particular poem calls to an important part of African American Christian beliefs, as Job was the prophet who endured the worst of life and persevered, receiving all that was his and more for his long-suffering and faith in the Lord.

One very important poem in the collection is “Still I Rise,” which takes a blues-like form in its poetic structure and repetition of the title’s phrase. It, like much of her poetry, is revealing of Angelou’s life experience, which tells of being continually forced into the dirt but not losing her fighting spirit and keeping hopes alive for a better future. This poem has the question “Does my sexiness upset you?” (159) written within it, calling attention to the black female body and the stereotypes and concerns historically surrounding black bodies, particularly black female bodies. Many other poems within the collection in some way or another also discuss the black female body and its structure, highlighting Angelou’s comfort and confidence in who she is that befuddles others, both black and white. She discusses how a fear of one’s own body can lead to being alone and dying, and how bodies have been taken captive through slavery in the past.

She focuses poems on the events of Civil Rights, of slavery, and of black-white relations, emphasizing the struggles, the failures, the trespasses, and the understanding or misunderstandings about how race relations work, particularly in the South. The collected poetry feels, as it is structured, like a continuation of her autobiography cycle, but also including the biographies of those deceased, news reels or memoirs of those living with her in the present, and prophecies of what is to come for future generations.

Her work is far more formally structured than the works of other poets I have read for my comprehensive exam lists, taking formal rhyme schemes and African American musical formats. None of her poetry contained within the collection is more than a few pages long at maximum, most being a page or less in length. However, the poems seem to relate across theme within each book of poetry in the larger collection: black womanhood and relationships, both familial and romantic; history, Civil Rights, and black-white relations; and personal struggle and triumph combined with religious fervor and music.

Joyce Carol Oates, “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?”

Oates, Joyce Carol. “Where are You Going, Where Have you Been.” 40 Short Stories:

      A Portable Anthology, Third Edition. Ed. Beverly Lawn. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

Summary of Work
Connie is a young high school girl who is obsessed with her looks and with going out with friends and boys. It is summer vacation, so she has to spend a lot of time at home and with her mother, who she dislikes because she is always harping on her to care less about her looks and more about being responsible and preparing for the future like her sister June. Her sister is not as pretty as she is and is a bit overweight, 24, and lives at home while she works as a secretary at the high school Connie attends. She feels like her mother actually does secretly like her better than June, but just can’t say so and that’s why they are always arguing and getting on each others’ nerves.

One thing that Connie’s mother does let her do is go out to the mall with friends because June also does that. One evening, when her father drops her and her friend off at the mall to go see a movie, they go over to a dirty restaurant instead and she meets a boy, Eddie. She enjoys his company and tells her friend to leave her and meet her at eleven so they can get picked up together to go home. When the boy is walking her back to the movie theater, she sees a boy in a black convertible with gold detailing, and he looks at her and smiles; she is slightly unnerved and looks away, but gives a glance back and he smiles at her and tells her he’ll come to get her, that she’ll be his. However, the boy doesn’t go after her and she quickly forgets him as she meets her friend and asks about the movie so she can lie to her parents and sister about it.

The next day is Sunday, and she gets up in the late morning and washes her hair. When her family gets ready to go to a barbecue and asks her if she wants to come along, she declines, and it angers her mother, but her mother allows her to remain home. Connie watches them leave in the car together, the mother still angry and June far too dressed up to be going to a barbecue, and then she lays in a lawn chair to let her hair dry outside. It gets too hot, however, so she goes inside and starts listening to a radio show. Then a car drives up. It is the same convertible she saw the night before, with the same boy in it, and he is with another boy. He introduces himself as Arnold Friend, and the other boy as Ellie. She goes down the stairs and he tells her he’s come to take her for a ride. He knows her name and everything about her and where her family is. Afraid, she backs into the kitchen and locks the screen door, which he says is silly because he can just break in, but he won’t. The longer she looks at the boy, she realizes that he is much older than he looks; he is wearing a wig, and his shoes have things stuffed in them to make him look taller than he is. His friend also is a lot older than he initially looked.

She threatens to call the police, and he says that he will come in the house if she does that. Ellie offers to cut the phone lines, and Arnold tells him to shut up and not do anything, that Connie is going to come willingly. He threatens to hurt her family if she doesn’t come out and be with him, be his girl. He tells her, in much more flattering words that he is going to rape her. Panicked and not knowing what to do, she reaches for the phone and picks it up and has a fit of hysteria. She doesn’t call anyone, and Arnold convinces her to put the phone back on the receiver, to forget her previous life, and come with him. She walks out the door, and he drives her away to the countryside in his car.

Brief Note on Themes
This work is a suspense/thriller, even though it does not seem that way upon its beginning. Family relations dominate a large portion of the theme, with the young teenage girl regularly sassing her mother and causing trouble as she comes of age, the older sister who seems always better than her somehow, and the nagging mother and aloof father–the average American family life in the suburbs. The cunning nature of kidnapping and criminality are a theme/narrative that runs in the scene with Arnold Friend, who has elaborately disguised himself to get what he wants, and who seemingly knows everything about Connie, her family, friends, and all their routines. It could also be seen as a warped Bildungsroman story, where Connie, a child in many ways, is forced into a bleak reality as she feels she has to choose between her own defilement and saving her family. Her fantasies about herself and her life are wrenched from her as she comes face to face with the illusion that Arnold Friend has created around himself. Forever she wanted independence, and that was further ripped from her as her choice before her would likely lead to the same end no matter what she chose.