Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. U of Missouri P, 2001.

Summary of Work
This autobiography of Langston Hughes’s life details some of his life experiences from his early twenties into the end of his twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression. When he was a child, his parents split, and he lived with his mother for a time. He remembers having his parents try to get back together in Mexico, but that was the year of the great earthquake in Mexico City, and so his mother got scared and they went back. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Kansas and to go to school, and she was a proud woman who would never do service jobs for white people to earn a living. When she died when he was just before his teenage years, he went to go live with his Aunt. During this time his Aunt took him to a Christian church, where they were praying over people to be saved. Everyone had gone up but him, because he believed he would get to see Jesus in the flesh, and he did not want to be dishonest about coming to Jesus. Finally, filled with guilt that he is the only one who hasn’t been saved, he comes to the front at the alter, and his Aunt is overjoyed. That night, he cries over having lied. His mother remarried, and he liked the man. Hughes was elected the poet for his school (it was integrated) because people made assumptions that all black people had rhythm and could dance, so they must be able to write poetry. He wrote his first poems there. He admits that his entire life, he rarely majorly edited poetry once it was down on the page. He also admits that most of his poetry and other work was written when he was miserable or unhappy rather than when he was happy.

In his late teenage years, his biological father wrote to him that he wanted him to come down to Mexico. His mother was upset about it, but he went anyway. There, he found out that his father was considered very American because all he cared about was money, but he was wiser than other Americans that came to Mexico because he was interested in keeping and saving his money. He hated Mexicans and many black people, and all poor people. Hughes was fairly miserable his first year there, because his father was always trying to force him to hurry places, and because he had to do bookkeeping and was no good with numbers. He got so angry at his father that it made him physically ill and he couldn’t eat for weeks, which landed him in a hospital that cost his father $20 a day to keep him there. After he was feeling better, his father sent him back to the US.  But the next time he went down to stay with his father, he spent more time to learn Spanish and became better friends with the Mexicans in town. A German woman also stayed with them (she later became his father’s wife), and she made the space more pleasant. His father expressed that he wanted to send him to college somewhere in Europe and have him come back to Mexico to be an engineer, but Hughes said he wanted to be a writer and did not want to go learn things he was no good at. His father told him that writers made no money and that if he was going to pay for college, Hughes would go where he wanted him to. He would also not be allowed to leave Mexico until he agreed to his father’s wishes.

So in order to escape, Hughes started tutoring Mexican children so they could speak English. Word spread that he was good at his job, and soon he was able to raise his rates and take on as much work as he wanted. He also got offered two jobs at colleges to teach English, and he took both jobs because scheduling worked for him. While working these jobs, he is lucky to narrowly escape death because a man who the German woman’s relation was working for thought that the German girl was sleeping with Hughes, and he, enraged, came to the house, shot the girl in the head three times, and went in search of Hughes to kill him, but couldn’t find him because he wasn’t home. The girl miraculously survived, and the man was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Hughes had made quite a bit of money, and he started thinking that he did want to go to college, but in NYC at Columbia. He and his father fought about it, but eventually his father agreed to send him there. On the train to New York City, he was mistaken as Mexican and when he said he was black, white people in the South would not serve him. He remembered the struggles of living as a black man in the US, and contemplated why it was so difficult for white people to interact with black people in the US when it was so easy for them to do so in other countries. He spent a year at Columbia, only to find he really disliked college, and so he quit and started looking for a job. But his father at that point had cut him off, his mother was looking for work and struggling, and he could not find a job that would take him, even if it were available, because he was a black man. He finally found a job working at a shipyard, and in the meantime he was having some of his poetry published by Crisis magazine. Alain Locke wanted to meet him and he had met several major figures of the New Negro movement, but he told Locke no because he was nervous and because he knew that Locke wouldn’t be able to get his way around the docks very easily and it could kill him if he weren’t careful. Before Hughes sets off to sea on his first voyage, he tosses all his books from college into the ocean, ridding himself of their weight both literally and figuratively.

Hughes set sail to Africa eventually and landed in many ports to find that the Africans did not consider him a black man because his skin was more brown than black. This astonished him, and he also saw the terrible effects of colonialization. He recalls having to watch a prostitute and a young girl coming on board in hopes of receiving money, and receiving no money but being forced to have sex with all the men on board who were interested, which was a group of about 30 men. He tired of this type of exploitation as well as the economic exploitation. As they were about to leave, he bought a red monkey, and many of the other soldiers did as well. There were adventures on the ship with those monkeys getting loose and winding up drowned or in missionaries’ beds or in the masts, but eventually all were caught. There were also many more antics and debauchery, and all the men were fired upon returning to the US. Hughes made his way to Cleveland, where his family was staying, and found himself penniless in order to make it there with the monkey, named Jocko, who he had bought for his younger brother. His mother was very upset to have it in the home, but his stepfather and brother liked it, so the monkey stayed. Then his stepfather’s mother came to town, and his mother had an ally to protest about the monkey. Then when his stepfather had the monkey out on the town one night and it got scared and destroyed the carpeting of a pool table, it cost them 25 dollars to have it replaced, and his mother was furious. Not long after Hughes left to go back to sea, she sold the monkey.

His second voyage, he got off to stay in Paris, but found himself unable to get a job because he was not a musician, dancer, or performer. He makes friends with a Russian dancer who got sick and whose company had dissolved, and who had no money. They share a cheap room, and she finds a job before he does. He finally gets a job as a doorman and then, through someone who liked his poetry, found a job as a dishwasher and then a cook. When the club he is working at goes nearly bust, they tried to fire the head cook, and he brought out a knife and threatened everyone, and they let him stay. And when they tried to fire Hughes, he threatened them again, so he got a job as a waiter. During his time there, he saw many fights and other antics. The Russian lady got a job at La Havre, and she leaves him, very sad. He then falls in love with a girl named Mary, who is very well-to-do. But when her father finds out what she’s been doing, first she is very chaperoned, and then she is forced to leave. Soon after that, he spends some time with Alain Locke, who is in town, and then when one day he is waiting on a famous poet, he shares his work. The poet “discovers” Hughes, and then he became wildly popular and many people came to the club looking to get a photo with the poet. He has more poems published but is never paid for them.

When the club had to close down for refurbishment and because of lack of business, he goes with some Italians to see Italy. He has enough money to enjoy his time, and Locke is also there and takes him to Venice and they enjoy their time. However, while in Genoa, he has his passport and all his money stolen, and the US embassy and consulate refuse to help him, so he lives homeless and in poverty, unable to get a job that will pay him enough to either get back to France or to find safe passage to America. He finally gets passage as a workman on a ship bound for NYC, and he is nearly kicked off in Spain for being late back to the ship, but he makes it back to the US with a quarter more than he had in France when he first landed. He makes his way to Washington, where his relatives are, and they want him to work in the Library of Congress, but it has too many needed qualifications and Hughes needed work, so he started working doing wet wash laundry for twelve dollars a week. His mother and the relatives had a dispute, and so he found them different accommodations, and they struggled to make ends meet. Carl Van Vechten contacted him and helped him publish a book of poetry at this point, but the elitist community would not welcome him or his mother because they were poor.

He makes his way back to Harlem in hopes of going to college, but he can’t get a scholarship. He talks of meeting Van Vechten and Jean Toomer, who could pass as white and refused to be labeled a “Negro Artist” much to critics’ dismay. He also met Zora Neale Hurston, who he had a good relationship for years until a dispute over a co-writing project. He speaks of Vechten and his parties, the decadence of the Harlem Renaissance and how the area was a victim of its own image. Hughes finally makes a bit of money off of some poetry, works as a personal assistant for a time, gets patronage to go to college at Lincoln, and visits and explores the South and takes a short voyage to Cuba and Jamaica, which he liked very much and would have kept doing if he hadn’t had to go back to college. During his final college years, he wrote a survey of the issues of the color line at Lincoln college, where all white professors taught a nearly all black student body. The founder of the college came up to him at graduation to tell him that as time passed, he would see that there was no way for him to do what he did in founding the school unless he could have had white patronage and made concessions. Hughes disagreed with him.

Around this time, he also received patronage to write and finish his novel Not Without Laughter, which he wishes would have been better because it is about the best of his family members. He receives a major literary award for it. He tries to write other things, but the white patron dislikes his work, and finally they part ways, and it makes him sick like he was with his father. He remembers all the decadence and security he experienced and remembers seeing the other people in the street starving because of the depression, and he remembers the disgust the white chauffeur had over being forced to drive a black man places. He went to the doctor to see what was wrong and spent a lot of money doing it, was told first he had a Japanese tape worm, and then told by a white doctor that he had no such thing. Then he got tonsillitis and had to have them out, using up the last of his money from the Park Street patron. After that, he immediately got better from his illness brought on by anger over the patron. It is during this time that he had his dispute with Hurston over the play they had been working on, and while it had been in production, it had to be shut down over the dispute. After that he went to Haiti and decided that he would make money writing for a living, and at the time of writing the autobiography, that is what he had done successfully.

Discussion of Work
This book gives an adventurous story about Langston Hughes’s life during his twenties. Its major dealings in terms of themes that cut across works of African American writing are the color line, economic oppression and poverty, travel narratives, and artistry, particularly writing and music. Hughes regularly comments on the struggles of being a black man, particularly when it comes to finding housing or a job. While he knows that other races are discriminated against, he knows they also have an easier time finding work, which makes all the difference. And he struggles with the knowledge that many of the black elite are not interested in changing the situation because they feel that there can be no progress unless they tell the white people what they want to hear. He states that while the Harlem Renaissance was happening, the majority of the black communities in America felt nothing change in their situation or economic or social standings. Economics and travel go hand-in-hand for Hughes, who travels in order to get money, which he can never keep as he comes back to the US, or even as he simply travels from one country to another. Job opportunities do not change, and while he doesn’t experience the same type of color prejudice, he does experience it in that the natives of the countries he visits dislike him for being a threat to their jobs.

Artistry is the other large portion of this narrative. He shows several of his poems and discusses when he wrote them and why. Much of his work was strongly influenced by blues songs and structures, which can be seen throughout much of his poetry with the AAB writing format, just as many blues lyrics are written. He also talks about how dance and music were a rich part of many black people’s lives, specifically citing the many rent parties and house parties he went to, some of which were certainly to help pay people’s rent, but others which were just hosted to be hosted. He provides several examples of printed up tickets for these events. He states that these parties were the spaces where he liked to be because black artistry was not put on display for racist white audiences. His understanding of what it is to be a black man or a black person in general is changed and given more value in an all-black space.

However, he also discusses the problems that come with the assumptions that all black people have rhythm and can dance and sing: he could not dance or sing, and those were almost the only jobs available to him in Europe and even in the US. The stereotype led to success for some, but not for long for many: once they were injured or could no longer work or could not work the grueling schedules or create enough new material, they often died in poverty. It ultimately narrowed black people’s options and avenues for success, even as it provided a rich culture and outlet for many. In discussion of his own work, he also talks about how a narrow view of what black artists should create doomed his work Fine Clothes to the Jew because critics and general public readers alike felt that the dialect and blues structures should not be used in his art: white people saw enough of that elsewhere, and writing was supposed to highlight the best to show people that black artists were capable of high art. The strict rules placed upon what a black artist could write or create further limited what people read, and who could be successful in the field of art.

Amiri Baraka, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”

Baraka, Amiri. “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” Poetry Foundation,

poetryfoundation.org/poems/58013/preface-to-a-twenty-volume-suicide-note.

Summary and Discussion of Work
This poem, dedicated to Amiri Baraka’s daughter, considers the author’s existence and daily life, reflecting upon becoming accustomed and even consumed by the little pieces of every day, done every day. The first stanza could easily be a commentary on domestic life and the boredom of everyday life, and yet at the same time speaks to a discomfort of accepting being “enveloped” by the world as he enters it every day. His political position as a black man means that he is accepting less in society, or receiving less from the same everyday activities because he is in some way denied other opportunities. As he looks into nature, he sees the same amount of everything, and when the stars disappear, he can still see the holes they left. This could be thought of as opportunity disappearing from him the longer he is alive, and representing the fact that even though the same opportunities are seemingly as available to him as they are to everyone else regardless or race or circumstance, the reality is that they are not available to him, a black man. Yet despite those opportunities being unavailable to him, he can still see that they are there, forever unable to be attained.

The knowledge that opportunities will be forever unavailable to him and he cannot reach them, combined with a communal acknowledgement that black communities should accept the everyday status quo as it stands, leads people to stop hoping, and to stop singing. Singing as a communal release of anger and frustration and sadness, as well as a tool to bring hope to black communities, is an important part of the culture as well as an important part of political involvement, and the fact that the singing stops is not simply an indicator of complacency, but an indicator of acceptance of the situation that black communities are currently in.

That complacency and acceptance of a lesser position for black communities becomes dangerous when considering the legacy it leaves for black children; that concern leads Baraka not to a message of fear, however, but back to hope. He sees his daughter kneeling, praying aloud into her clasped hands, her eyes peering into the blackness of those clasped hands, and he sees those who are still speaking, even to God, and still hoping for a better life. While readers to not get to hear the words she speaks, they do get the image of her looking into “her own clasped hands,” an indication that she speaks not only to God, but to herself, reminding Baraka that the place for hope and desire for change starts from within, from speaking to oneself.

This poem, in comparison to other works Baraka wrote, suggests a change in how he feels about his relationship with America, or if not a change, then certainly an uncertain feeling about how he should direct his life course regarding his political and social life.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. B.W. Huebsch, Inc, 1916.

Summary of Work
Stephen Dedalus, a young boy in Ireland near the end of the nineteenth century, is the main character of this story. The stream of consciousness narrative style follows Dedalus throughout his growth, letting the character’s thoughts and actions dictate the narrative rather than a completely omniscient narrator. While still a young boy, his parents send him to a Catholic boarding school, Clongowes Wood College, which is run by Jesuits. When he first arrives, he is homesick and gets bullied. He is chased into a ditch and gets sick from the cold water, and the other boys beg him not to tell on them for their actions. Soon after that, he begins to make friends with the other boys, and he also enjoys his time at home. One Christmas when he is home, political conversation starts and gets heated at the table because the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell has died. One of his relatives insists that these men ought to follow the will of God and the preachers who preach it, and his father, Simon, states that priests should stay out of politics and says to hell with God.

Simon Dedalus is very bad with his money, and so while Stephen is away at school, the family falls deeper and deeper into debt. It gets to the point that one summer, his family realizes they cannot send their son back to school. Stephen spends the summer with his Uncle Charles, and then that Fall they move to Dublin. When they move, they put their son in Belvedere, a very well-reputed school, and he begins to excel in academics, particularly writing and acting. He has sex for the first time with a prostitute, and the experience shakes Stephen; he is guilt-ridden and full of shame over the experience because of his strong Catholic beliefs. He tries to rid himself of these feelings by casting aside religion and instead masturbating and committing other sinful acts. However, his Catholic religion comes back in full force as he goes to a three day retreat for school, and sermons about hell and the judgment day scare him so badly that he decides to repent and return to a life of piety. He goes from one extreme to the other, and is the model of a Christian life, the life of a priest: he attends Mass each day, practices abstinence, self-denial, and even self punishment for his sins.

His example to the entire school leads the school master to suggest that he should take holy orders and join the priesthood. After taking time to consider the opportunity, Stephen decides that he cannot join the Church because he would fall; he values physical beauty far too much to live a good, priestly life. After making that decision, he learns that he and his family will again move because of his father’s poor financial skills. Meanwhile, he awaits a letter from the University to know if he was accepted or not, and as he is waiting, he decides to take a walk on the beach. There, he sees a girl swimming in the sea, and he is so struck by her beauty that he decides that beauty and desire and love should not be considered shameful, and he should stop denying himself enjoyment of that beauty and love and desire. This leads him to decide that he will not be constrained by structured institutions such as family and the Church, but that he will live his own life as an individual.

He is accepted into the university, and Stephen moves there and beings making many strong friendships; he is especially close to his friend Cranly. They take many classes, and Stephen is very poor at remembering what day it is or getting to them on time, but he enjoys debating and learning and developing theories about life and aesthetics. He uses his friends as a sounding board for his theories, and one of his professors suggests that he should be writing essays about his theories on aesthetics. The more he experiences and writes and thinks, the more he desires to be independent from his friends and family, and in the end he determines that he will leave Ireland in order to escape all of those relationships. He believes that it is the best way for him to succeed as an artist.

Brief Note on Themes
The name Dedalus is a play on the Greek Myth of Deadalus, the man who builds himself and his son Icarus a set of wings to fly out of imprisonment, leading to Icarus flying too close to the sun and getting killed because the wax of his wings melt. The stream of consciousness narrative is a main point that makes the story unique because readers get to experience the main character’s growth with him, as many times Stephen can only describe sensations because of his lack of language or his immaturity. Readers watch the artist grow from inexperienced and very impressionable to a young man full of opinions and striving for full independence. The novel is also semi-autobiographical, as many of Joyce’s influences are what influence Stephen: language, religion, family, culture, sex, to name a few.

Religion is a major player in this piece, as Stephen goes from casual but regular observance of religion to no religion to extreme adherence to religion and then a falling away again. Yet the message here is that as Stephen follows first a life of sin with abandon and then strictly adheres to the doctrines of the church, he comes to realize that doing things in extremes is harmful, and that doing things with strict obedience, not thinking for oneself, causes him to live a false life. In order to fully experience life, Stephen decides that he must live life within the two extremes, both believing in God and at the same time doubting doctrines that ask for people to deny the pleasures that come with love and beauty and desire.

The discussion of what it takes to become an artist starts to come into play toward the end of the novel, when Stephen decides that he is going to be a writer. The discussions of aesthetics show readers that Stephen is developing his ideas about artistry, but the largest discussion point is individuality. Stephen believes that in order to be an artist he must be divorced from the influences of his direct community: friends and family. This causes him to leave tradition and culture behind in an attempt to serve that same community by bringing them art and new techniques and aesthetics.

Similarly, the Irish-English conflict is always in the background of this book. The Irish have the same innate need for autonomy and self-government that Stephen does. Stephen sees this in the Irish language, which is in fact something he sees as belonging to England; he sees it in the slavery that he believes is Ireland’s fate (this is a slavery he refuses to accept and desires to escape, just like many Irishmen); and he sees his Irishness in his traditions and cultural heritage, which he desires to escape from if only to escape from what he sees are chains holding his country back from freedom and cultural development.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1990.

Summary of Work
This novel is a collection of interconnected short stories about Alpha company’s time in the Vietnam War. The title of the work is indicative of one of the main things discussed throughout the work: the things that soldiers carry with them through and after wartime. Many of these things are considered lucky or are memories of home. Others are memories and scars from the war and experiences before and after the war that these men have to carry for the rest of their lives. In the first story, O’Brien details the death of Ted Lavender, a PFC who is always taking tranquilizers in order to deal with the horrors of war that he sees. He is going to the bathroom when he is shot through the head. The head of the company, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, blames himself for Lavender’s death because he had been distracted thinking about his girlfriend and her letters and pictures. He burns her letters and pictures in an attempt to never be distracted again. The love he had for her is unreciprocated, and yet he can never get over her or the guilt of Lavender’s death.

The next short story details O’Brien’s experience of receiving his draft notice and running away to the Canadian border, considering skipping out on a war he does not support or want to fight. However, he can’t immediately bring himself to cross, so he helps the owner of a lodge. When they go fishing one evening, the lodge owner lets the boat drift to the Canadian shore, and O’Brien breaks down over the realization that he is not able to leave, too afraid of what other people think and say than even he is of getting injured or dying in the war. He goes back home and then to Vietnam.

In the short story “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien indicates that many times the stories that are told are not true, but they are in the fact that the feeling of the war and situations are conveyed in them. He describes several stories that may or may not be true, but says that the real truth of a story depends on if you need to ask that question or not. He also tells of Curt Lemon’s death, who dies, blown into many pieces, as he steps on a rigged landmine. Rat Kiley, Lemon’s closest friend, loses it after having to see him in pieces, and when they find a baby water buffalo, he shoots it time and time again, keeping it alive as long as possible to feel the pain, until it absolutely dies from too many bullet wounds. No one stops him because of that. He also at one point killed Ted Lavender’s puppy he had saved and nurtured back to health; Kiley strapped it to a bomb. Kiley is the medic, and deals with so much death and destruction that it drives him crazy, and he later shoots himself in the foot to get out of the war.

A “True War Story” that Rat Kiley told was the story of a man who brought a woman to the war so he could be with her. She was just out of high school and things went well until she started learning how to be a soldier and went out with the Green Berets. She slowly started going out on missions and then became one with the land and even the Greenies were worried about her or unable to connect. Despite the young soldier’s attempts to reel her in and get her to go home, she would not go. He goes to the tent and finds her with a necklace of human tongues around her neck, and one night not much later she disappears into the bush forever. Since the story ending does not please all the soldiers, he makes up the ending as that she is always living on the land, becoming part of the land, only seen every now and then, but never brought back to civilization.

In another story, two friends in Alpha Company make a pact to kill the other if they are mortally wounded, and when one of them has his foot blown off by a landmine, he realizes that he doesn’t want to die and begs his friend not to kill him. His friend complies to his request, but feels guilty about it and is relieved when he finds out that his friend died in transport to medical help. O’Brien also looks back, forty years after the fact, at the time he killed a man on the road. He had a grenade and threw it before the man could ever see him. He couldn’t leave the body and just stared at the face. Kiowa, the Native American in the company, stays with him to help him process but makes sure he eventually gets up and leaves. When O’Brien’s daughter asks him if he’s ever killed anyone, he lies and says he hasn’t. He hopes he’ll get the chance to set matters right one day and tell her the truth if she ever asks again.

Kiowa’s death is in a shit field. They were camping in the evening and Norman Bowker and Kiowa were looking at a picture of Bowker’s girlfriend when gunfire started. They were already in trouble, sitting in the shit field and the river rising and creating a sinkhole of shit and mud and dirty water, and with the gunfire raining down on them, Kiowa got hit and then his body sunk in the mud and shit and Bowker could not get him out. Bowker, years after the war, still feels guilty about it and he relays the story to himself over and over as he drives around a lake in his hometown. Unable to rid himself of the guilt over Kiowa’s death, Bowker kills himself in a locker room a few years after coming home. The book also describes the process of looking for Kiowa’s body, as Cross refused to let him stay MIA. They found his body eventually, and had to dig it out. Kiowa’s effects were also found, particularly his moccasins and his brand new, ornate Bible his father had given him before he left for the war. O’Brien has the moccasins when he goes back to Vietnam over forty years later, and he places them in the field where Kiowa died to honor him and remember him.

O’Brien also remembers getting shot twice: the first time Kiley was there to clean him up and help him, and there were no problems; the second time, it was a new medic and the guy nearly let him die of shock and the wound got gangrene because of him. While in the hospital and in his new station, he dreamed of getting back at the man. And when he came into the base, O’Brien recruited another man to help him get him back. Even after the medic apologizes, O’Brien can’t get past it and continues on with his revenge plan. They scare him all through the night with sounds and flares, and in the final moments of dawn they raise a flour bag to scare him. O’Brien feels satisfied and then bad about what he’s done about halfway through the plan. After the end, the man calls out his name and the next morning they make peace. While at this base O’Brien also remembers Curt Lemon, who was so afraid of the dentist he fainted and then in order to save face, came to the dentist in the middle of the night and had him pull a perfectly good tooth in order to prove his bravery.

O’Brien also discusses his childhood, saying that the reason he entered the war was the same reason he’s always done what he’s done: he always needed to be loved, and feared being called a coward. He describes his childhood love, Linda, who died of a brain tumor at age 9. He recalls mentioning her hat when they went to the movies, and how he wasn’t brave enough to stop a bully from tearing the hat from her head and revealing her bald head and stitches one day. He walked her home after, but always regretted not doing anything. He discusses how many times men aren’t as brave as they think that they are and that when it comes to life and especially war, people do terrible things and it becomes difficult to tell the difference between right and wrong. The only way to get through these tragic moments of realization, at least for O’Brien, is to tell stories about them.

Brief Note on Themes
The main theme running throughout this work is the horrors of war, particularly the Vietnam War, and the scars that the immorality of war leave on the men who fight. Truth and morals are discussed, as many of the characters deal with death in uncharacteristic or mocking ways in order to process or deal with the atrocities they see and the atrocities they commit. For instance, Ted Lavender is never considered dead, but on the most mellow trip the war has ever given him. The power of stories is also a large part of this, as it is the stories that these men tell themselves after the war that determine their ability to cope and survive or to die. Personal responsibility for a person’s actions is questioned; if a person is just following orders or trying to save themselves in the war, are their actions immoral or unjust or wrong? The blurring of those boundaries in wartime is a feature of this work, even as O’Brien tries to grapple with the fact that there are moral pillars determining the correctness of their actions during the war. This work is also semi-autobiographical, as Tim O’Brien places himself as a main character in this story and tells the stories of his time as a soldier, simply changing names and some stories as he tells them. He discusses this in a New York Times piece that he wrote in the early 2000s about his return trip to Vietnam and his struggle to deal with the atrocities of the war and the damage it did to the people he left behind in the country as he went home.

Gloria Anzaldúa, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.”  Everett Public Schools, 

www.everettsd.org/cms/lib07/WA01920133/Centricity/Domain/965/Anzaldua-

Wild-Tongue.pdf. Accessed 2 July 2018.

 

Summary of Work
This short story is more of a biopic than short story. In it, Anzaldúa starts off by talking about her trip to the dentist and having him angrily state that they’d have to do something about her wild tongue because it was causing problems with healing in her mouth; her tongue would get the cotton out of the root hole and let it keep getting infected. She reflects on what it means to have a tamed tongue, and discusses her Chicana identity. She discusses how being Chicana means not being fully Mexican and not being fully American. She speaks eight different languages/dialects, and code switches between them based on who she is speaking to. And yet there is something about her identity that erases her as female and as equal human: she didn’t realize the word nosotras existed until she heard a Latina say it, and she discusses being ashamed of her identity when in the presence of Latinas and Mexicanos who speak Spanish as their first language, and uncomfortable with her identity in the US, where she is expected to not only speak perfect English according to American rules, but rid herself of her accent.

She also takes time to discuss the differences in the dialects and languages she speaks. The difference in dialect determines where you are from in America: Texas, California, Arizona, or Nuevo Mexico. But many of the Chicanas she speaks to, she speaks to in English, especially in California, where they do not want to be recognized as Chicana by the dialect. They have a certain understanding that to be in America and to speak this Chicano language is to admit shame. She states that if a person wants to hurt her, all they have to do is make fun of her language.

The first time she read a book by a Chicano author, written in Chicano spanish, by John Rechy, she realized that she had an identity all her own, and that her people could be writers as well. Still, she had to fight with her advisor to have her focus be Chicano literature for her PhD, and when she taught in the K-12 system, she was reprimanded and threatened with being fired for introducing her largely Chicano classroom to Chicano literature. She also discusses her experiences with Mexican cinema and border music; she was ambivalent to the music at first, preferring rock and roll and country western music, but admits that there is something very catchy about the corridos music. But, she says, there are more ways to identify than the language or music or art; food is a big cultural identifier for her.

When wondering about her identity, she discusses how she will cop out depending on who she is talking to, and say she is Spanish to refer to the linguistic group, or say Mexican-American with stress on the American. But she will always feel that Mexicana and Chicana are the best identifiers, and Raza the first term with which she ever identified. Mexicana is not someone born and raised in Mexico, but a spirit or soul of an individual. Yet she does not fully identify as American with American values, nor does she identify fully with Mexican values. What Chicanos experience is an identity or problem of borders and cultures, and they do not acculturate well, causing them economic problems as they live in either space. But they feel that they will not give up what makes them who they are; they will not give up their language, and one day when the Western European institutions fall to pieces and disappear, the Chicanos will still be there, unbreakable and malleable, going about their business.

Brief note on Themes
This short story is a discussion of language as a large portion of human identity, especially for those who are biracial and speak two languages, or an intermediary form between the two languages. Being forced to adhere to another culture’s rules, they do not feel welcome anywhere, and even are taught to feel ashamed. Even Anzaldua’s mother, speaking Spanish, is upset that her daughter sounds like she is Mexican and doesn’t speak quality enough English. Language itself is fluid in the short story, with the author switching between Spanish and English throughout the work, rarely translating the Spanish words for the English speakers. All Spanish is italicized, setting it visibly apart from the English, a visual break of the languages.

Feminism is another part of the discussion, as female identity is erased in the language, with the masculine forms of Spanish words always prevailing in the Chicano dialect. What does it mean to be a woman in a world where there are not linguistic identifiers for women?

Representation is another theme. How does a person form an identity when no one is writing about them or appearing in the media or art? What happens when people start appearing in those artistic mediums to form a more national or racial identity? And what do those representations do for perceptions people outside the group have about Chicanos?

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.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

Summary of Work
This work is a series of letters to his son about what it is like to be black in America and how his son, Samori, should strive to live his life in order to both survive and be aware of the world around him, and yet at the same time have joy in his life and take the opportunities that he can. He begins his work by telling his son that race is an invention that is not new, but just continually rehashed with each new country and nation. It used to be Jews and Germans and Irish and English, etc, that would discriminate against each other; now, in America, it is “black and white,” with many of the previous groups mentioned being eventually combined into a class of white, even though they had not previously been branded as such. And it is this myth of whiteness that allowed for slavery and exploitation of black bodies. Coates is very concerned that his son know that the struggle they are dealing with is much more than racism: it is the struggle for black embodiment and empowerment. Racism is a cover term for the destruction of black bodies, progress, and livelihood.

He remembers back to his time as a child growing up in West Baltimore, feeling trapped because he had to go to school but saw no purpose to it and at the same time had to live the laws of the streets for survival and yet had no desire for the violence that went on in the streets. His father would punish him regularly with the idea that it is better that he beat him than the police, and he didn’t understand what it was about until he grew up and had a son of his own. In his desire to get out of the system, he went to college at Howard, where he spent most of his time in the library reading in the stacks and the archives. His father worked as a librarian and archivalist there, so he had always been happy to read and get knowledge from books. His parents never gave him easy answers but always referred him to books. He became very fond of Malcolm X’s writings and ideologies, and sought to have those ideas reinforced and verified as fact from history books. But he found so many different perspectives, and his history teachers gave him so much information, that he had to dispel the illusions that he had built for himself. He says he is very grateful for those historian professors who taught him the issues with grandiose ideologies. For white people, he says that the ideology is the American Dream, and the Dreamers blur faces and forget trespasses and injustices against black people in order to maintain that dream, and they continue to commit crimes against blacks in order to keep the dream.

He learned a lot at Howard, which he calls The Mecca, and met many people there. It was a haven for him where he could see what his people and his culture could be and do. He met his wife on the Howard Campus, but he could not stay long enough to graduate, feeling restrained by the courses he had to take and not caring for the things he could graduate in. He started writing, which was the one thing he really liked. When they moved to New York City, they struggled. He was not making money as a writer, and she got a job and was nearly sole support. Their son was a toddler at the time. He recalls the layout of the city both structurally and racially, and discusses how when they went to a movie on the Upper West Side one day, his four year old son got pushed by a white woman, and he turned around and yelled at her, and other white men came to her defense and told him that they’d have him arrested. He got even angrier. He explains to his son that this moment is a moment of shame for him because he forgot the code of the streets and where he was. He should have been able to call out her behavior and move on, he thought.

He also takes a lot of time to discuss police brutality, shootings, and judicial injustice to his son, who was very upset after hearing the verdict in the Michael Brown case. he talks about Prince Jones, who he knew at Howard, getting shot by the PG policeman in Virginia. He describes his feelings of anger, because Prince was an upstanding citizen, with a fiancee and a daughter on the way; he was a very intelligent man, a prodigy, who valued experience over things; he had it all, and had seemingly beat the system of the ghettos and projects, and yet his life was still taken from him. Coates started writing about the injustice of the police system after that, full of anger. He offers no real relief or respite for his son about these injustices, but tells him that they have always happened, and will continue to happen, without consequences for those who commit the crimes. He talks about how Prince’s killer was put back on the streets to patrol without even a trial. He talks about Prince’s mother’s amazingly strong and calm reaction to the whole affair, even as she grieved for the loss of her son. Toward the end of the book, he describes sitting down with Dr. Jones and learning of her story of success, becoming a doctor and then the chief of radiology and being able to offer her son and daughter everything she didn’t have growing up. To talk about Prince comforts her, but at the same time, the pain never goes away.

Coates reflects on these shootings and injustices and how they are dealt with within the community. He says he knows that he is somewhat disconnected from them because they can speak of forgiveness and turning to God, but he does not believe in their God, but instead believes that this life is all we have. He tells his son that perhaps he could have taught him more if he did believe, but that he cannot offer that comfort.

His wife’s life had been very different than his growing up, and she had been afforded opportunities to travel when he hadn’t, among other opportunities. She lived in a more well off area in a more well off home. He never understood his wife’s need to travel, thinking back to his French class days and thinking that France was as far away as Jupiter. But his wife went to Paris and came back with stories and photos, and he went by himself later on and got to see a new world, one that was not underpinned by the same superficially-created racial divides of black and white. And yet he also noticed that there is simply a different system of oppression in place: France, like every other European country, was built upon colonizing and oppressing other groups of people. Being aware of that, he thinks, is important so that they don’t lose perspective on how systems of oppression function. He also goes back for a time with his whole family to explore France, and further comes to this conclusion.

He tells his son to live his life, to enjoy it and live it fully, and to fight for the struggle to equality, but to not fight it in hopes that the Dreamers will convert their thinking and ways and come down from their mountain. He says that also to think that gods or ancestors will come and reap revenge and justice upon the Dreamers’ heads is also unrealistic. Instead, he says, Dreamers will always keep exploiting black people, but with technological improvements, they are also exploiting the Earth, which is no respecter of persons. The Dreamers, he says, will eventually destroy themselves.

 

Brief Note on Themes
The main theme of this work is the exploration of what black embodiment means, and Coates does this through an exploration of his own experience with life and watching people engage with the oppressive superstructures forced upon them. Understanding what it means to be racially embodied versus simply a human being is the main message that Coates brings to his son and to all that read the book: there are different rules and codes imposed upon those with darker skin, and even if the rules are followed, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a good life free of violence and terror. And yet there are still spaces that allow for black communities to share in joy and the power of owning their own bodies, of living as a community and an individual.

There are two spaces outside of the Mecca of Howard University that he describes this happening: religion and dance. Religion offers comfort in a higher being and in the spirit, a relationship he doesn’t understand but can appreciate in the community it brings to people who are feeling broken and are oppressed. For dance, he describes it saying that he “would watch how black people moved, how in these clubs they danced as though their bodies could do anything, and their bodies seemed as free as Malcolm’s voice on the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies . . . . But in the clubs, under the influence of two-for-one rum and Cokes, under the spell of low lights, in thrall of hip-hop music, I felt them to be in total control of every step, every nod, every pivot” (62). Movement, then, becomes a form of joy and communal engagement and solidarity; it is unique in its function for the community and the individual, as it affirms control over the body in a way that is not possible outside of the shared communal space.

This book also contains photographs periodically throughout the book: of Coates, of his wife, of his son, of the doors in France his wife describes to him, and more. It is worth considering how the photographs enhance the narrative. Is their purpose merely personal, to show his son? Or are they meant to emphasize important messages contained in the text about black embodiment and black bodies?

 

Brief Note on Dissertation Uses
For purposes of my dissertation, this book is going to be very useful in helping me to understand how the power of dance is a way to assert control over one’s own body and to be embodied in a communal space. In literature, then, dance could be discussed in terms of embodiment and communal and public messages of personhood. I have seen this discussed in lectures before in context of blues: it was one of the only ways black people, during enslavement and after, could assert control over their bodies and their lives, not dictated to by white people.

 

 

John Dos Passos, The 42nd Parallel

Dos Passos, John. The 42nd Parallel. Houghton Mifflin Co, 2000.

Summary of Work
This novel follows six characters through their lives in the first two decades of the twentieth century, ending just as World War I breaks out. The novel is structured with these different narratives stopping, starting, and intertwining with other characters’ narratives, even if they do not come in direct contact with one another. The novel is also broken up by newsreels, which are headlines and bits of news stories pulled from the Chicago Tribune during those years. The other section type is camera eye, which are autobiographical shots of Dos Passos’ life. The newsreels and camera eye sections do not follow any particular chronological order, and the stories of the lives of the characters also do not follow strict chronological time. Because of this, I am structuring this summary entry around the six characters rather than trying to chronologically summarize.

Mac, also known as Fainy McCreary, is from an immigrant family and is trained to work a printing press. He is a wanderer who won’t stick with one job for long, particularly because he is attracted to the ideologies of the Industrial Workers of the World and their leader, Big Bill Haywood. When he is in California and meets a woman and marries her, he settles down for a time and has two kids, but he feels like he is suffocating under the weight of poverty, work, and family responsibilities. When he hears about opportunities to help with the revolution in Mexico, he abandons his family and moves to Mexico to help where he can.

Janey Williams is from a poor working class family, and though she does well in school, she struggles in the working world as a secretary. She keeps trying to date different men to find love and finding that she dates rather terrible men. The firm that she finally gets a decent job at is pro-German, and although the pay is good, she cannot stand their anti-American statements and beliefs, so she quits the firm. Looking for work, she heads to New York City, and with some help she slips into what is first a temporary job to be a stenographer to J. Ward Moorehouse, and she does such a good job that she becomes his secretary. She takes trips with him all over the country, even down to Mexico.

Joe Williams, Janey’s brother, is a dropout and a fighter. He wanders from place to place intent on going to see new things around the world. He joins the Navy hoping to accomplish this goal further, and he sends Janey occasional letters and gifts from his travels. The Navy doesn’t work out so well for Joe, however, and he goes AWOL and goes back to his fighting, drifting ways.

J. Ward Moorehouse ties nearly all the characters in the story together in some way or another, even if it is just the other characters being in the same area. He is from a middle class family and well educated, but he aspires to be much more than a middle class working man. A writer, while he is working he meets and marries into a wealthy American family (the girl is pregnant), but upon his honeymoon trip to Paris, he realizes that she wants nothing to do with regular family life. She gets an abortion, and he quickly separates from her. He does make some contacts in Paris, and when he returns to the US, he begins a journalism career in Pittsburgh. From there, he marries again and starts his own public relations business with capital from his wife’s family.

Eleanor Stoddard is from Georgetown and part of a successful upper middle class family. She has artistic talent, particularly as an interior designer. She and her friend Eveline Hutchins, who have lived and worked together, quit their jobs and start up a decorator business of their own. They have the opportunity to do a costuming and design job for a play in New York, and eventually Eleanor decides to move there. She starts up her business there again, and J. Ward Moorehouse becomes one of her biggest clients. She also starts to become very close friends with Moorehouse, which even though a non-sexual relationship, angers Mrs. Moorehouse.

The final character introduced is Charley Anderson. He is a boy in Minnesota who ends up in Minneapolis as a mechanic. He falls in love with a girl about his age, and he has dreams of settling down to domestic life with her. However, when his best friend gets her pregnant, he is disenchanted with his dreams of domesticity and decides to leave and wander the nation to find something new to want. He gets stranded down in New Orleans and is lucky to not be beaten or killed from his terrible instrument playing, and he meets Doc William H Rogers, who buys the instrument off of him. They end up going to New York together on a ship and enlist in the ambulance corps for World War I. They are heading out to the front when the novel ends.

Brief Note on Themes
This work is unique in the way it deals with chronology and period representation through a mix of historical record and fiction. The book, as part of the USA Trilogy, is meant to give a picture or representation of the US during the early part of the twentieth century. The work itself deals heavily with attitudes about economics and racism during the time period, with racist sentiments abounding about Asians, African Americans, and Mexicans as well as immigrants. The narrative contains a lot of travel within it, ranging from the East Coast to the South to the Midwest to California and the West, all the way back down to Mexico. The idea of the American Dream seems embodied in the character of J. Ward Moorehouse.

Questions

  1. From Fainian making disastrous decisions time and time again to join in the communist movement and leave decent-paying jobs to Moorhouse’s consistent attempts to succeed through capitalism which leave him in debt or full of worry over risk, John Dos Passos’s work holds a healthy skepticism for both economic situations and economic “solutions.” Is there any indication in his work that he has a way out of the vicious cycle of economic ruin he illustrates throughout the novel?
  2. How does text placement and stylization affect the way we read the newsreel portions of this text? For example:

    TITANIC LARGEST SHIP IN THE WORLD SINKING
    Personally I am not sure that the twelvehour day is bad for employees
    especially when they insist on working that long in order to make more
    money

    Still all my song shall be
    Nearer My God to thee
    Nearer to thee
    (118)

    Those who know that the band on the Titanic played the song “Nearer My God to Thee” as the ship sunk can pull the importance of the connection to the music there, both for time period and beliefs. The text in between headline and song is almost like text from a different article out of the newspaper on the same day or the same year. When looked at in this way, is sound being captured in the sense that we’re getting the “noise” from the time period?