Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps

Carpentier, Alejo. The Lost Steps. 1953. University of Minnesota P, 2001.

Summary of Work
We find the unnamed narrator in this work living in NYC and working in the advertising industry even though his talents lie in his musicology background and college degree. He is married to an actress who is part of a wildly popular yet banal play. As he is wandering the city one day, he meets an old friend, a museum curator, who talks to him about going on an expedition to find and bring back primitive musical instruments in South America. At first he refuses, but after meeting with his mistress, Mouche, and some friends and watching a film he composed the music for and finding it worthless, he determines that he will go with Mouche to South America, but go on vacation and buy forgeries to satisfy the requirement of bringing back instruments. When they arrive in a coastal city (again unnamed), he feels suddenly more at home speaking his native tongue, Spanish. As he falls in love with the culture there, Mouche starts detaching from him. Still, he searches for antiques in shops. While he is shopping a revolution breaks out, and he, Mouche, and the other hotel guests have to stay in the hotel, where they worry about food and water supply, getting shot, and getting eaten by the insects that have invaded the place. Even after the revolution ends, he is held up by snipers in the grocers. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, Mouche and the narrator leave and go to the home of a Canadian painter and friend in another town. He becomes jealous of the relationship Mouche has with the woman, and after some time spent there, he determines that he will actually take the trip to look for primitive instruments.

Mouche decides to accompany him, and they take a bus across the Andes and also take on an Indian woman who seems to embody the culture there. One evening, he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the radio, and it brings him back to his musical heritage and European connections and his forced removal from the space by WWII. The native woman, Rosario, becomes better acquainted with them, and as they enter an oil town where prostitutes are the local entertainment, he begins to criticize Mouche for not being more like Rosario. They finally reach the City of Ruins, and when they reach Puerto Anunciacion he vehemently argues with Mouche. He also meets Adelantado, who tells him of the life of tribes in the jungle. He also witnesses the funeral of Rosario’s father and meets an herbalist who is seemingly insane but who tells of tales of El Dorado and other ancient myths. Mouche, meanwhile, tries a sexual advance on Rosario, and she beats her for it. Mouche then gets malaria, and she has to be sent back to Puerto Anunciacion for treatment. Rosario and the narrator become sexually involved. The remaining party take canoes upriver.

They head into the heart of the jungle by a hidden tributary which Adelantado finds, and they seem to start traveling back in time. The tropical atmosphere, the plant life, and the animal life in the jungle scare the narrator, and a thunderstorm nearly capsizes their canoes. However, they finally find a native village, and he is able to get some of the musical instruments he had been sent to find. He finds their customs and way of life primitive, almost Medieval, and he feels that he witnesses the birth of music while he is there watching a funereal rite. They travel further on to Santa Monica de las Venados, which is a village Adelantado settled. The narrator determines that he will live out his life there, but he is torn because he wants to write music and lacks paper, and he also has an obligation to deliver the instruments he has collected to the museum curator. He visits many primitive areas in the village, including a valley full of prehistoric plants. The rains come, and it seems they will never cease, and he comes up with a new musical composition based on The Odyssey. However, his lack of paper and ink poses problems. This whole time he stays with Rosario, and he asks her to marry him, but she refuses him. Not long after, an airplane stops in the village in search of a lost explorer, which turns out to be the narrator. Torn about going with them or staying, he finally determines that he must return to get paper and ink and deliver the instruments, and then he can come back to live in the village and with Rosario again.

When he flies back home, he is at first a celebrity, and he learns that his wife is pregnant. He sells his story, which he lies about, to a newspaper, but when Mouche sells her story, it creates a scandal, and Ruth also learns about Rosario and that he wants to leave and go back to her, but Ruth will not divorce him. NYC has lost all beauty to him and he finds it useless to him. He runs out of money while he is getting divorced, and he is forced into tiny and poor room accommodations. When he sees Mouche and spends the night with her, he is disgusted with himself about the decision. He decides to get back to writing music to earn some money, and once he sells a film score for enough money, he goes back to Puerto Anunciacion, but cannot find his way back to the tributary and the village. He meets Yannes, who was at the village, and he learns that Rosario has married Marcos, the son of Adelantado, and she is pregnant. The narrator then realizes that he can never go back and relive his previous experience.

Discussion of Work
This work could be considered a work of magical realism, in particular because of the unsurety of time and the magical regression from modernity to primitive life. The winding back of time is an important part of the novel, as it helps to display the tension between European and Latino cultures: the modernity of NYC and European culture evident there as valuable is called into question as the narrator finds his identity, culture, and home in the more “primitive” space of the village of Santa Monica de las Venados. Unlike the European image of primitive cultures, the culture of these villages is sophisticated and engaging and valuable, particularly because of how they live in harmony with the environment. That harmony is particularly tied together through music, moving from the poorly written but popular musical his wife stars in to the beauty of Beethoven, to finally the origins and harmonies of music in its usefulness for everyday life.

Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps puts readers in what feels like a dream state, leaving them to wonder if they read passages on previous pages correctly because the story jumps through six weeks so quickly. The main guidance tool readers have to navigate through the book are the musical performances, which cue readers to coming change and new settings for its main character. The surrealism in the novel, then, is in part created by the magical expectations that the music creates for the readers, as it guides the main character from city to jungle in search of not only music, but of himself.

We first become aware of music’s pull on the main character as he struggles to find any object that does not remind him of some musical composition he has neglected, and any music that does not remind him of pieces of his life he would rather stay buried and forgotten, and this is particularly true of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It drives him to disgust and out into the rainy weather, where he runs into an old friend, the organology curator of a museum. Forced to deal with his past and ashamed at his current state, which is much less than he had hoped it would be as a composer, the main character accepts the Curator’s job offer to obtain specific musical artifacts in the jungles of South America.

It is music, then, which sends the main character out into the unnamed, dreamlike land in the jungles of South America, where he stays in Puerto Anunciación until, at the cue of poorly played music, a revolution breaks out, and he moves on into the jungle in search of the musical artifacts he initially did not intend to find for the Curator. And as he is sitting in an inn in the jungle, he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over the radio again, this time succumbing to a dream state, remembering his past experience with his parents, and that music’s particular effect upon his father. His whole life is inherently tied to music and this symphony, ever guiding him back to song each time he comes across the composition. We see that music is inherently tied to his life and is leading his destiny, although we, as readers, are unsure of what that destiny is or how much reality is portrayed in such a fast-paced narrative, a narrative that from the second playing of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony onward feels as if it moves backward in time.

The music played becomes improvised, not written down, and then even more primitive, used for religious and funereal rites rather than for pure enjoyment or artistic, aesthetic ideals. As he moves back into what he feels could pass for the Middle Ages and primitive lifestyles, the narrator discovers that he believes every Westerner has misunderstood the origins of music: music is not imitation of animal calls, as he had previously believed, but instead a connection to life and death, created for practical purposes rather than aesthetic ones. The realization drives the narrator to abandon the Western lifestyle.

But he cannot stay away from it. Becoming obsessive over composing for the first time in years, he starts a musical rendition of portions of The Odyssey, feverishly composing through the rainy season and causing his woman, Rosario, and other villagers he lives with to worry about his sanity. For them, there was no reason to write down music when it could be played. He realizes that if he wants his music to be heard, he will have to find a way to connect to the Western world to have the work performed, which leads to the beginning of the end of the dream cycle in the South American jungle. If it were not for the hysteria in New York City over his disappearance and discovery in the jungle, readers would question if the experience had been real or if he had simply slept all day in his apartment and dreamt up the experience.[1]

And as the primitive music fades, no quality music reenters the narrator’s life, signaling the downturn from prosperity to poverty for our narrator. His composition from the jungle, Threnody, left with his love Rosario, he has no muse and no piece to work on even when he makes his way back to South America, unable to find Santa Mónica de los Venados and unable to find the motivation to work on previous compositions.

By the end of the novel, the narrator’s life destroyed and hopes of reuniting with his love Rosario dashed, both the readers and the narrator believe that for these characters, there is no free will, but rather destiny that fate will bring to pass regardless of personal desires: for our narrator, this destiny is to compose music, whether or not anyone will hear it and whether or not he will find success as a composer of classical music. Individuals, then, should strive to be more aware of the external forces that drive them and to learn to ride the wave of those forces or risk being swallowed and destroyed by them.

[1] It is even arguable that we wonder if this entire story is a dream, including the stay in New York City, given that both times the narrator is living there, the scenes pass in a dreamlike blur.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. 1877. Trans. Richard Pevear. Deckle Edge, 2004.

Summary of Work
The Oblonsky family is in tatters over adultery: Dolly caught her husband, Stiva, having an affair with their children’s former governess, and she is seriously considering leaving him. Stiva can’t comprehend quite why his wife is so upset, but he is sad that his actions have upset her this badly. He has his sister Anna come to mediate the situation, and she successfully convinces Dolly to stay with him. At the same time, Dolly’s youngest sister is being courted by two men: Konstantin Levin, a wealthy landowner in the country who is incredibly awkward in his manners, and Alexei Vronsky, a military man with great career potential. Kitty’s mother tells her that she must turn down Levin in order to accept Vronsky, but after she does so and they go to a ball, Vronsky falls in love with Anna. This leaves Kitty ill over the loss of both suitors, and Anna runs away to St. Petersburg.

Vronsky follows Anna there, and she ends up falling in love with him and starting an affair, and her husband, government official Karenin, does not seem to realize the situation he is in, which causes the entirety of their social society to gossip. Anna nearly abandons her old social circles and starts spending time with Betsy Tverskaya and her friends so she can be close to Vronsky more often. One evening when she has a particularly private and long conversation with Vronsky at Betsy’s home, Karenin takes notice. Vronsky, in that conversation, revealed his love for her. When Karenin confronts her about the conversation, she curtly responds and dismisses his concerns as silly.

The affair gets more heated, and on the day of the military officers’ horse race, Anna tells Vronsky that she is pregnant with his child. They are both uncertain as of what to do, and Anna loves her son too much to get a divorce and leave him. When Vronsky participates in the race, he makes a riding mistake that breaks his horse’s back, and the horse has to be shot. Anna is so visibly upset over the accident that Karenin notices, and when he takes her home, she tells him of her affair and her hatred for him and love for Vronsky.

Kitty, meanwhile, has taken a trip abroad to Germany to recover from her loss, and she meets a Russian woman and her ward and caretaker, Varenka. Kitty becomes enamored with her, and she tries to do good just like them, and this much revives her. She also meets Levin’s infamous and sick brother, Nikolai, who is trying to recover from illness at the same spa.

Levin, having gone home to the country to mourn his failure and recover and move on, is visited by his brother Sergei Koznyshev, who criticizes him for quitting his post in the local government and having no faith in the council there. Levin cannot find a way to explain to his brother how useless he finds the work, so instead he decides to work with the peasants on his estate to try and better the crops and the situation, but is continually frustrated by the lack of interest or even resistance to new agricultural technology that would increase yields. At this time, he also spends some time with Stiva, who has gone to the country to sell some of his wife’s land inheritance for money, since they are severely in debt. Dolly also takes a summer in the country with the children, and Levin goes to visit her at Stiva’s request. He offers his services, but when she suggests that he take another chance to have a relationship with Kitty, he never visits again. He also sees his brother Nikolai several times, and he struggles to know how to keep a relationship with him and help him through his sickness into death.

When Levin goes back to town to visit and to conduct some business, he is invited to the Oblonsky’s home for dinner, and he meets Kitty again and falls in love. They quickly become engaged, to everyone’s happiness. While all of this is occurring, Karenin does not know how to best handle the situation, knowing that it will be bad for him socially and politically to get a divorce. He determines to not allow a divorce, but to instead let Anna continue the affair as long as she does not bring Vronsky into his home. They must keep up appearances. She spends some time in the country, and sees Vronsky often. Vronsky is struggling to choose between his military career and Anna, and yet his opportunities are passed by for the military in his effort to be near her. When Karenin finds Vronsky at his home one day, he decides that they must get a divorce because he cannot take the insult.

However, when Anna goes into labor and nearly dies, he changes his mind. He runs home from town and cancels his beginning the divorce proceedings, and he stays by her side; Vronsky is there as well. Anna begs for Karenin’s forgiveness, and he gives it to her and tells her that she can decide if she wants the divorce or not. His generosity bothers Anna, and so she does not get a divorce, but instead leaves him and goes with her child and Vronsky to Italy, where they do essentially nothing, and Vronsky takes up painting. A famous Russian painter paints a gorgeously stunning portrait of her that Vronsky keeps with them and hangs wherever they stay. When they return to Russia, however, they are outcasts from society because of their position. Vronsky keeps begging Anna to get a divorce, but she will not. She visits Karenin’s home on her son’s birthday, and she is forced to see her husband. She does not return, and forgets to give her son his gifts. At this point, she has become jealous of Vronsky’s freedom because he can go out in society while she must stay in the house because of her social position.

Levin is surprised at the difficulties of married life and the lack of freedom he suddenly has, and this is even more apparent when he gets a message that Nikolai is dying and Kitty refuses to let him go alone. He is at first angry, but then lets her come along. He regrets it when they get to the hotel that Nikolai is staying in because of the poor accommodations, but then immediately changes his position when he sees how good Kitty is at helping the dying man and making him comfortable as possible during his final days of life. Soon after that, Kitty learns she is pregnant, and she is joined by Dolly and her children for the summer at Levin’s estate. While there, Dolly decides to go visit Anna in the country, and finds her happy but somewhat bipolar as she switches from happiness to worry over her situation and her isolation and position in society. She is particularly worried that Anna is using strong sedatives to sleep, and she is wholly dependent on them. Furthermore, she realizes that Anna does not love her baby daughter, and it is apparent by her not knowing anything about her, but rather leaving her to the nurses to take care of. Vronsky’s place in the country is extravagant, and despite the comforts, Dolly is glad for the excuse of her children to go back to Levin’s. Stiva comes to visit them and brings a young male friend who is a cousin to Kitty with him. The young man flirts with Kitty, making Levin jealous to the point that he is unkind to his wife, and together they determine that in order to solve the problem, Levin needs to ask the man to leave. This insults Stiva, but nothing can be done about it.

When Kitty is close to her due date, Dolly and her mother insist that Kitty give birth in the city, and so they move to Moscow temporarily. Levin can’t believe how expensive it is to live in the city, and even Kitty laments that she misses home and wishes she could have had the child in the country. Levin has to take a trip to the provinces to take care of some business, and he takes part in the local elections there, where the liberals are victorious. He meets Vronsky there, and he agrees to go with Stiva to see Anna, who enchants Levin with her charm and the portrait of her. And Levin’s adoration only serves to make Anna more unhappy with Vronsky. When he returns and tells Kitty about his trip, she becomes jealous, worried that Anna has again stolen away her lover. Levin realizes that he has hurt her, and he tries to comfort her. When Kitty goes into labor, he is worried she might die, and he has feelings of resentment toward the child and then doesn’t know quite how to feel about his son.

Stiva leaves and goes to meet Karenin, who has a woman who has helped him raise his child and essentially be a wife to him. Stiva tries to get Karenin to agree to a divorce, but the woman has such a hold on him that he doesn’t make a decision without her and their psychic. When Stiva sees his nephew, he talks to him and he learns that his father and the woman have told him that his mother is dead. When they finally are able to meet with the psychic, Stiva cannot believe what is going on and he leaves the room. The psychic tells Karenin not to get a divorce. Meanwhile, Anna has become more and more frantic, accusing Vronsky of not loving her and of cheating, and no matter how accommodating he is to Anna, she will have fits of rage and insensibility. When she says she wants to go to the country again, Vronsky agrees, but not at the date she wants to go, and suggests they wait a few more days when his business is finished in town. When Vronsky goes out to run an errand, Anna is tormented about her behavior and writes a letter apologizing and asking him to come back, but he replies that he cannot come home until the evening when his business is concluded. She runs to say goodbye to Dolly and then catches a carriage to the train station, where she throws herself under a train and dies (just like a man had when she came into Moscow and first met Vronsky).

Two months later, Levin’s brother Sergei’s book has been published, but it has gone unnoticed. Sergei tries to stifle disappointment by getting in on the patriotism for Russian involvement in the Turkish-Slavic war. When he and Levin talk of it, Levin is uncertain about the motives behind the Slavic cause and Russian support, again to Sergei’s exasperation. Sergei boards a train to Serbia to assist, and Vronsky is also going, having enlisted and paid for an entire regiment himself in order to go to die after the loss of Anna.

Kitty and Levin go back to the country, and Levin becomes depressed even to the point of thinking about suicide, because he is unable to discern the meaning of life and what he should be doing. He then receives advice from a peasant that serving God and being good are the points of life, and Levin has a revelatory experience about those points, determining he will change his life as he has found faith. Later, he, Kitty, Dolly, and the children go out in the woods for a walk and to see some of the buildings and the work going on, and they are caught in a thunderstorm on the way back. When they are hiding under a tree waiting for it to pass, Levin realizes Kitty is not with them, and he runs to find her in the woods, coming upon an oak tree struck by lightening. He worries for them, thinking they may be dead, but finds them safe, his wife having stopped to take care of the child and then getting caught in the storm. He realizes how much he loves them, especially his son, and this change of attitude pleases Kitty. He determines that his life is very good, and the meaning of his life will be the good he can do while he is alive.

Discussion of Work
This work reminded me very much of a novel of manners like Jane Austen’s work. It explores expectations based on social class and gender in Russia before the communist revolution there. Women’s situation as dependent upon marriage and family for respectability is very clear, especially in the contrast between Anna and Kitty. Anna is highly educated and seemingly has it all. She has a child and a husband, but is unhappy and unable to change her state even with her intelligence. Vronsky is regularly surprised by her knowledge and expertise in many fields, but she is unable to use those skills and that knowledge to better her position once she has chosen to leave her husband and become a social outcast. Kitty, on the other hand, is very focused on purely domestic issues–marriage, children, housekeeping, and religion. She stays in the domestic sphere, and this causes her to be solely dependent upon the men in her life: first her father, and then Levin. Her situation in comparison with Dolly’s and Nikolai’s lover show that women were lucky if they had a situation like Kitty’s with a caring and faithful and loving husband who did well by her materially as well as emotionally. Even Anna is bound by this situation, and it is largely what brings her misery. Even these situations, however, are in flux, as Tolstoy writes in his work of a large discussion about how marriages should be arranged and if marriage and God were even socially necessary.

However, unlike Jane Austen’s work, Tolstoy’s work deals heavily in the economic and social situations that men dealt with during the time period, especially with the contrast between Levin and Sergei: Levin is the traditional nobleman who owns land and expects to be able to help the peasants he hires by finding ways for them to invest (through a form of sharecropping) and ways for them to increase yields. He is unable to see the use of democracy for anyone, especially the peasants, and he also sees no need to formally educate them when it will do them no good in their work life. Sergei, on the other hand, is the philosopher who believes in the democratic process, even if it doesn’t at first seem to get things done. He has a set of ideals and deals with those ideals in the written word, believing that the way forward is to allow everyone the chance to participate in government and to have and education to gain more economic opportunities. The many arguments that they get into, and that others in their company also engage in, show the struggle between the old Russian nobility and the newly emerging system. Many of these men live constantly in debt, like Stiva, putting further pressure on an already struggling economic system.

Life philosophies are largely put in stark contrast of one another, with Sergei, Anna, Vronsky, and Nikolai representing “newer” philosophies and Dolly, Stiva, Levin, and Kitty representing older ones. Both have their problems: terminal illness, struggles with satisfaction, struggles with relationships (both romantic and general social relationships), and economic struggles. However, Kitty and Levin represent the ideal in this work, as they stick with the old system and try to make slight modifications to it as befits their situation, and ultimately the old system prevails when Levin turns from secularism to God to live his life in goodness and faith. Religion in this book seems to be the key in what is otherwise a rather godless society.

Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition

Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Doubleday, 1957.

Summary of Work
Richard Chase seeks to discuss the development of the American novel as it diverged from the English novel. He states that it is very important to make a distinction between the two traditions, as the English novel seeks to derive social order out of the disparate elements or plot points in the novel and is largely a novel of manners that adheres to social expectations and the unities, whereas the American novel is much more focused on exploring the possibilities and realities of specific, narrow situations and much less interested in wresting order out of the chaos of those events. The American novel, Chase says, has therefore regularly not been a novel as the term has been generally defined, but instead a romance. He states that the novel is a work which focuses mainly on character and the development of that character, whereas the romance focuses mainly on action or plot and has very little character development. The narrators of the novel are more often omniscient and able to display a proper scenery and social sphere that the character develops within, but the romance utilizes a very narrow section of society simply as a backdrop, and the personal motivations and thoughts of the characters take center stage as they go through the plot. This view of the novel is largely the viewpoint of Henry James, the American novelist whom Chase finds to be the greatest American novelist in the history of the American novel. He also gives a brief commentary on melodrama, which is the height of extremes and dualities, saying that the American novel often indulges in such language in order to further plot or explore extreme or peculiar situations.

Of Hawthorne and his work, particularly The Scarlet Letter, Chase says that it is firmly in the category of romance and not the novel, particularly because of the lack of scenery except as backdrop to the main characters in the novel; furthermore, he finds that there is no character development, but rather the characters serve largely as psychological forms and allegory, and they do not change their natures throughout the work. Like James, Chase finds these facts to be somewhat the faults of the novel, although the creation of a psychological novel is, Chase admits, an important and quality development for the American novel. He compares symbol and allegory at this point, stating that allegory functions in its purest form when the readers know what each particular part of the story represents so that they can always refer back to that representation, which is never changing: this is Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. On the other hand, symbols are a fusion of many meanings, and those meanings change throughout the course of the novel; therefore, the A on Hester Prynne’s chest could be seen as a symbol, but more importantly, the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick is a symbol.

Of Melville’s masterwork Moby Dick, Chase states that while it starts out with high promises of realism to be a novel, it falls into the category of romance, not a novel, and despite its certainly masterful pieces within the whole work, there are many parts that are poorly flung together to fit the emotional fits that befit Ahab and the romance tale of his obsession. Yet in Moby Dick lies a central tenet of American literature: a life of contradictions through experience and a life of ironic perception. These features appear throughout the development of the American novel, and Melville’s work is a perfect example of that. He also terms Moby Dick an epic romance, more akin to the poetry of Homer than the structure of the prose novel because of the melodrama and otherworldly elements it contains.

Chase attributes the development of regionalized language and straightforward diction to the novels of Mark Twain, particularly that of Huckleberry Finn. He states that the colloquial language of the novel forever changed the way American writers approached their characters, swaying from the formal English language and into the representation of the spoken language. Yet even here, Chase asserts that the novel is more of a tragi-comic romance than it is a novel, given the focus on the action and the interior narrative of Huck than on the social atmosphere around him and the unifying of social issues.

Next he discusses novels of manners, which deal with how to navigate social class and fix problematic characters or behaviors, or, if they cannot be fixed, to cast them out. He claims that Jane Austen, while not the most masterful writer, is the master of the purest form of the novel of manners. American novelists, by comparison, Chase finds sorely lacking in ability. He claims that F. Scott Fitzgerald is a second, possibly third rate author who nevertheless he will discuss because he is one of the only people who have successfully attempted a novel of manners in the US. He discusses The Great Gatsby in this sense, calling attention to the discussion of scene and character and the reverse development of Gatsby from an experienced rags to riches man back to a child with idyllic imaginations, while all around him he struggles to integrate into a rich society that has a set of rules he cannot meet or follow, which in combination with his imaginings, leads to his death. Despite the success as a novel of manners, Chase finds Fitzgerald’s style lacking, and he is stymied by the fact that Henry James thought that Fitzgerald did the most for the American novel since Mark Twain.

Finally, Chase discusses three novels by William Faulkner, who he considers to be the second or third best American novelist, second only to James and perhaps third depending on how one compares Mark Twain to Faulkner. The majority of this final chapter is dedicated to The Sound and the Fury, discussing how Faulkner managed to (mostly) successfully provide unique language styles to each of his characters as they tell their part of the story while at the same time offering solid character development over plot, where the plot happens because of character development. Chase finds no language more masterful than Faulkner’s when he knows what his character sounds like, and he also demonstrates the best of American prose with his crafting of Benjy’s narrative through the eyes of an idiot. It shows obsessions, character development, tragedy, and most importantly to befit James’s and Chase’s definition of the novel, provides a creation of order and unity through Dilsey, who is the only character capable of keeping the Compson family from falling apart at the end of its 200-year stint in the South. Furthermore, Chase claims that the only reason that this novel is the greatest novel written up to the point of his writing is because there have been novelists who came before to establish certain mechanical elements or traditions, and that finally there is enough American history available to create a proper background and scenery for character development to take center stage in the American novel. Chase finds the work a transcendence of romance to create an amalgamation of realism, romance, and the qualities of the novel that James laid down.

Discussion of Work
Chase’s book provides important information about how the American novel is viewed in comparison with the English novel; his introduction, which defines specific differences between English and American, novels is useful because it provides a framework from which to view American novels and their development over a century of writing. However, Chase falls prey to worshipping Henry James, finding no issues with him or his writing, seemingly unquestioning of the structure as pure and perfect in form for all to follow. In doing so, he excludes many masterworks from the title of “novel,” instead relegating them to what is implicitly considered and insinuated a lesser form.

His treatment of Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and especially Fitzgerald are full of backhanded compliments or appraisals: it fits perfectly the, “well, they did this or that, but they still will never measure up to James” form that he establishes from the beginning of the novel. The blind spot essentially disables him from seeing, even as he describes the incredible feats of Faulkner, how Faulkner will come to transcend James in their importance of the development of the novel in the twentieth century. It also disables him from understanding how the language of Fitzgerald would come to be recognized as some of the most carefully and well-crafted language and writing of the Jazz Age.

Another failing of this work is that it completely ignores and excludes authors of color. He does mention that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man exists in passing, but only to state that the tradition he is speaking of has influenced it. He doesn’t even mention anything about the work. Certainly, the development of the American novel was heavily influenced by the writing that came out of the traditions of African American communities, let alone other communities of color. Faulkner would be as much influenced by the stories and cultural traditions of communities of color as he was by Mark Twain, as is evident in his portrayal of the character Dilsey in his work and his intricate discussions of the race issues inherent in the Southern mind. Perhaps these things are overlooked because throughout his work, Chase is insistent that morals and moral teachings and lessons are not meant to be read in the American novel: the American novel is simply an exploration of history and moral lessons that the characters deal with in all their contradictory experiences.

Amiri Baraka, “Legacy”

Baraka, Amiri. “Legacy.” Poetry Foundation,

poetryfoundation.org/poems/42557/legacy-56d221281526a

Summary and Discussion of Work
Legacy discusses the many different situations that may be described in blues songs, from the homeless man sleeping outside or wandering in the littered back alleys and deserted streets of the early morning hours in the south to getting drunk and traveling from town to town, finding each the same as the last. Blues itself, intended to deal with the complex and often contradictory or ironic realities of black life, offers Baraka a laundry list of options to discuss living conditions and life experience in the South. The subtitle of the work, “(For Blues People),” indicates that this poem is specifically for those who need to hear the message Baraka is conveying: the poem is for those people who are living in the conditions he describes as well as those who are experiencing life the way he describes in the poem. Starting the poem with poverty-stricken living conditions, he asserts that life is lonely and unable to offer much to the blues people than the wandering and possessionless life that they already have.

True to the blues tradition of travel, the narrator describes a person riding out to another space, but the rider still remains in a nowhere space or a twilight space: everyone around is sleeping, and the rider goes unnoticed as they ride through the space toward some supposed better spot or end, whether it be good or bad (represented by the sea). This is similar to the blues songs, which affirm living and state that it is worthwhile, but offers no real scapegoat for the conditions; Baraka’s narrative does differ slightly in that the sea represents some form of hope or greater option, but fits in with the idea that the point of travel was to find better life and hope for it, and then come to find that it is no different than the last space they exited.

 

August Wilson, The Piano Lesson

Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. 1990 Plume, 2013.

Summary of Work
Boy Willie and his friend Lymon go North to visit Boy Willie’s sister Berniece and to sell a truck full of watermelons. They intend to take a family heirloom, a piano, from her so they can sell it to buy land that was previously owned by the family who had enslaved their family. Sutter, the landowner, was said to have died by the hands of ghosts. But Berniece won’t sell the piano, even though she won’t play the piano either. The piano has been in their family for over a hundred years, when the first Boy Willie carved the faces of his son and wife into the piano after the Sutters had sold them to buy it. He also carved their family history from Africa forward into the wood. Decades afterward, the boys of the family—Wining Boy, Doaker, and Boy Charles—decided to steal the piano rather than let it remain with the Sutter family. The family history carved into it represented the family’s soul, and they could not leave it in the hands of their former slavers. They got the piano, but not before Sutter caught up to them and burned Boy Charles and for traveling hobos alive in a train car. Boy Charles and the hobos became ghosts and avenged themselves on white bullies. The piano went to Boy Charles’ wife, Mama Ola, and when she died, she passed it on to both her children.

Berniece is being courted by a preacher named Avery, but she won’t give him the time of day. Lymon gets through her rough nature, however, and it causes him to have doubts about Boy Willie’s plans to steal the piano from her since she won’t willingly give it to him. As Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano, they encounter Sutter’s ghost, who has been haunting the space and the piano in particular, and Lymon and Boy Willie are thwarted in their plans. They determine that the only way to be able to do anything at all with the piano and to be able to live in the house, they must perform an exorcism. They call the preacher Avery to come perform the exorcism, and the ghost Sutter appears. Boy Willie starts to attack the ghost, but nothing is working. Everyone is losing. In desperation, Berniece decides to try to exorcise the ghost through playing the piano. She starts playing the piano, and it summons her ancestors who are carved into its wood; they attack Sutter’s ghost and it flees.

Having played the piano, Berniece has a change of heart about it and the history it holds, believing even more strongly that it cannot be sold, but must be allowed to be a living representation of their family history and ancestry. Boy Willie finally accepts that he will not be able to sell the piano, and he leaves the house.

Discussion of Work
In retelling and centering a marginalized black history, August Wilson seeks to show the importance of family heritage and family history as a powerful form of resistance to white oppression. The piano itself is the living embodiment of that history, housing the spirits and images of the family genealogical line from Africa forward to when Boy Willie carved the piano. Since Voudon so strongly relies on knowing one’s ancestors in order to retain balance and peace between the worlds of the living and the dead, the piano, when not played, becomes a forgotten artifact, and therefore a forgotten family. The imbalance leads to the struggles that Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie, have in their lives.

The effects of slavery are very apparent generations down the family line. Many men, promised 40 acres and a mule to be able to work their land with, never had that dream realized when they were emancipated. Boy Willie’s desire to sell the piano for that land then becomes rooted in the historical significance and economic power of black people holding land as reparations for centuries of enslavement. Yet the sale is not just of a piano, but a selling of family history and legacy, something that even not fully understood or appreciated, Berniece cannot let him do. The conflict is then set up as more than just the sale of a piano, but the conflict of remembering family heritage and yet still finding ways to move forward and succeed. This conflict is embodied in Sutter’s ghost, who haunts the space. Sutter, the ghost of white supremacy, oppression, and ownership, cannot be ousted until the family heritage is claimed, and a selling of the piano is simply a strengthening of Sutter’s ghost, because it allows him ownership over the family once again by owning the family spirits and genealogy. As long as the piano stays in the hands of the black family, no one owns them; they are free from ownership in death.

The imbalance is corrected upon the physical use of the piano, a release of all the cultural and family heritage and knowledge upon the white oppressor. The music coming from Berniece’s piano playing, much like the blues, carries with it all of the knowledge of survival and living that are necessary to avoid a second enslavement. Berniece accepts her role as matriarch of the family at the point she starts playing the piano; she becomes the family griot that holds the authority of the family line. Boy Willie recognizes this change in her, and while he still dreams of economic success through land ownership, he comes to recognize how important Berniece’s role of preservation is to their family line.

Thomas F. Defrantz, Editor, Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance

Defrantz, Thomas F, ed. Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African

American Dance. U of Wisconsin P, 2002.

Summary of Work
For the purposes of my comprehensive exam list studies and dissertation research, I read chapters 1 – 7 of this edited collection. The work broadly covers how African American dance has been perceived and performed from slavery to near the present day. Thomas F. Defrantz starts off the collection by briefly discussing the struggles of terminology for African American dance. He states that he will use the term black dance or black vernacular dance in spaces where there are only people of color present, but always uses African American dance to refer to the same thing in mixed cultural groups. The reasoning is complex, and largely revolves around the history of the term black dance: it was often used as a pejorative, a term that meant it was lesser than European dances like ballet. White dance critics did not understand the cultural underpinnings of the work and made no efforts to understand or learn, meaning that the reviews in the paper of performance works were often derogatory or backhandedly complimentary.

While there were two important works on African American dance in the mid 1900s—Jean and Marshall Stearns’ Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance and Lynne Fauley Emery’s Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970—there are problems with both of those works. The Stearns put a focus on the term vernacular, making very clear that the dance styles they are talking about will never be high art or even really considered worthy of such a title. Emery’s work tries to document too much in travelogue form, and she doesn’t consider that there is more to these dances than race and the slavery-to-freedom narrative. Yet these two works are the foundation for the few other books that have been written on African American dance forms, and since the records on the dance forms are poor, there are a strange amount of methodological approaches taken to studying and writing about the dances. Defrantz states that the best scholarship out of the last decades of the twentieth century comes from scholars Kariamu Welsh Asante, Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jacqui Malone, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. Their works have served to diversify the scholarship on African American dance.

P. Sterling Stuckey discusses the challenges of converting African religious dance tradition into Christian worship. He briefly discusses the forced dancing on the boats during the Middle Passage crossing, and then goes on to say that the fact that the dances remained even after that and all the oppression and hardship they faced proves the importance of dance in African culture. But since there was such a mix of tribes, the dancing changed to become a language of slavery and communication across cultural boundaries. Stuckey then moves his focus to the Ring Shout, discussing it as a form of worship that involved shouting praises and shuffling the feet side to side while in a circle. Despite the many attempts to stop the practice, black people found ways to keep it in their worship. Stuckey also states that these dances were able to cross from religious to secular, and that while many times the steps were the same, the context is what made the dance different; thus, much like the African understanding of secular versus sacred, the line between the two is blurred. He states that Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin best describe the function and uses of these dances, citing Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain specifically as an example: the character Elisha performs a solo form of Ring Shout in the church as he dances and the crowd and preacher join in, creating something almost akin to Juba. The novel also contains prime examples of the Ring Shout in communal form at the church as it is done to tambourines and piano music, indicating that the Ring Shout is a very important and all-encompassing religious experience for these black Christian communities.

Nadine A. George discusses the struggles that black female vaudeville performers faced when going on the circuit. She focuses specifically on the Whitman sisters, discussing their rise as gospel focused performers and then moving away from the gospel performance to do vaudeville shows. They were light skinned, meaning that they could pass as white, and they performed on both the white vaudeville circuit and the TOBA circuit. George states that to their credit, they never did deny their black racial heritage, and yet that also brought its own set of challenges. These women, in order to “look black,” donned blackface and performed in it for most of the show. They also performed some stereotypical acts in order to keep the crowd pleased, and they were often fighting to get paid the rates that they had been promised. They were also in charge of being matriarchs to the picks that they had traveling with them, knowing that if they didn’t take good care of the children, it would ruin their business. At the same time as all of this was going on, they also often dyed their hair blonde and came out on stage for one number without the blackface, confusing many audiences because they wondered what white women were doing on stage during a black minstrel/vaudeville performance. They also had crossdressing acts, which challenged expected gender norms. Their business acumen and talent made these women the longest running vaudeville performing group, and they gave many great dancers their start, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In spending more time looking at the challenges, both gender and racial, they faced to accomplish all of this, George hopes their work will be more widely recognized and studied.

Marya Annette McQuirter discusses the myth of black people having natural dance talent, particularly focusing her studies on the 1940s forward. She states that there are problems with that precisely because every dancer goes through an awkward learning stage, but that stage is never represented in any studies or literature. Taking Malcolm X’s autobiography as an examples, she states that he goes directly from being unable to dance from lack of experience to a top jitterbug dancer magically: it is his African heritage that mysteriously gives him the ability rather than teachers helping him through awkward learning stages. It is narratives like that which put fuel on the fire of the stereotype of the natural black dancer. McQuirter states that there were many black people, especially those coming from the countryside, who did not dance and could not dance. If they wanted to go out on the town when they moved to the cities, they then had to go through an awkward learning stage in order to be able to dance at the clubs. As a parting statement, McQuirter asks her readers to realize that “The dance arena . . . did not offer a retreat from this awkwardness, but it was where women and men worked out the complex and difficult moves required to navigate the new and different terrain of urban centers throughout the United States at mid-twentieth century” (99).

Richard C. Green focuses on the career of Pearl Primus, a phenomenal black dancer who made many of her choreographic works about social issues (including the famous choreography to Billy Holliday’s Strange Fruit). Learning her dancing skill set at the New Dance Group’s school on a scholarship, she was influenced by the government’s efforts to use art to placate a people ready to riot. Her work was also shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, with figures like Locke and Hughes and Garvey speaking out about how to solve the “Negro Problem.” When she made her professional debut, she was very well received, and yet at the same time she did not rise to the fame that Josephine Baker and other lighter skinned performers did. Primus was considered a “real” black dancer due to her skin color combined with her dance movement choices. She did perform on Broadway and in an opera, and she staged many performances, some of which had lukewarm receptions, Given her history, it is troubling to Green that Primus is being used as a rebranding tool for both black dance and modern dance, her history being revised or erased in places that it becomes no longer a full picture of Primus. The revisionism reveals a truly American Dilemma where people feel they have to choose between calling Primus a black dancer and calling her a modern dancer. With revisionism like this occurring to push specific racialized agendas, it becomes even more important to be able to preserve a full picture of Primus as a dancer.

Marcia E. Heard and Mansa K. Mussa give a brief overview of African people like Asadata Dafora and Katherine Dunham who started African dance companies in NYC, many of which still operate today, although only three companies in the country are internationally recognized: Ko-Thi, Muntu Dance Theater, and the African American Dance Ensemble.

Sally Banes and John F. Szwed discuss the history of the instructional dance songs, which create a form of dance notation for people to learn popular dances of the time. They state that the instruction song was a long-standing tradition among black communities, where they would use songs to call out dance steps. The songs were always only part of the picture for learning the dance: the songs assumed some level of familiarity with dance steps that would be taught in communities or at parties on a dance floor. There would be people present who could help others who were unfamiliar with the dances learn. The songs take many forms that reassure the listeners that the dances are popular, that everyone is doing them, that they are easy to learn, and that they should learn it too. They give examples in the text such as “Mashed Potato Time” and “The Locomotion” as well as “The Monkey” and “The Twist” and “The Jerk.” The songs had declined by the 60s but saw a revamp in the 70s with the Disco age, but the songs were much less specific with their instruction. The only place that such songs seem to exist in the present day is in country line dances done to country music. Banes and Szwed conclude by stating that these instruction songs contradict Adorno’s belief that popular music was an opiate, because these songs required their audiences to pay close attention, and they were encoded with specific cultural and communal knowledge. The one problem that the instructional song poses is that of appropriation: by making the moves mainstream, they are often watered down and found bereft of their cultural heritage.

Veta Golar discusses the blues aesthetic, stating that it is more than just sad songs and hard times, but comes to embody “(1) art that is contemporary, that is created in our time, (2) creative expresssions of artists who are empathetic with African American issues and ideals, (3) work that identifies with and reflects popular or mass black American culture, (4) art that has an affinity with African/U.S.–derived music and/or rhythms, and (5) artists and/or artistic statements whose raison d’être is humanistic” (206). These aesthetic ideals combine to create something that is important to cultural production and black art forms. Golar states that Albert Murray’s belief is that it focuses and relies very much on vernacular. Therefore, the popular is the heart of the blues aesthetic. This aesthetic also opens up the blues to non-black artists. She looks at Dianne McIntyre’s work to discuss how the blues aesthetic can be seen in modern dance, stating that the rhythms she uses are a big part of that aesthetic. She performed many different dances that included dances which highlighted black cultural roots. Her aesthetic movement choices made the blues aesthetic clearer and more accessible to many audiences outside of black cultural audiences and connects those experiences to other people’s lives; her work is a form of cultural outreach.

Discussion of Work
The theory section of this collection will be very useful to me for my dissertation for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly that there is a reference to James Baldwin’s work in the piece on Christianity and AfAm Dance. Stuckey’s chapter specifically deals with not only the cultural importance of the Ring Shout but also the transference of that tradition into literary culture. The dance is an entryway to understand the cultural importance of the religious worship in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. The presence of the Ring Shout multiple times throughout the work demonstrates that it is important to be aware of the dance’s cultural importance in order to properly read or analyze the work as a whole and its representation of black church worship services. The literature is as much a cultural artifact as the dances, and it requires readers to have a level of cultural competency in order to fully understand and appreciate the works instead of consume them and appropriate the material for our own popular or scholarly purposes. This is particularly true of scholars, who have argumentative agendas in writing about these works: refusing to acknowledge the important cultural points in the work becomes an act of assimilation into the broader term of Western, and therefore white, culture.

Generally speaking, the collection brings up important discussion questions: should we be referring to the dances done as black vernacular dances, African American dances, idiom dances, or something different from all of those? How can words, performers, and dances be reclaimed from a pejorative history? At what point is someone appropriating black art forms (in creating, using, consuming without knowledge of the roots of the art form)? What motivations do we as writers have when we approach this rich cultural history to make arguments about the dances’ validity? How can we avoid the dangers of the need to create an “Africanist” notion of African American dance?

 

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”

Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” 1926. Modern

American Poetry,

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/mountain.htm.

Summary of Work
Langston Hughes discusses his belief that black poets should not be ashamed of themselves as black people or strive to be white in any way in order to be a successful poet. He speaks of a young poet with much potential who told him that he didn’t want to be known as a “Negro poet,” and it made him incredibly sad because he knew what type of upbringing this man had had. Hughes states that people like this grew up in affluent black homes and had parents who were constantly striving to be white, using examples of black people who enjoyed jazz and dancing and clubs as the worst sort of people, the type of people that this young man should stay away from. Yet, it is precisely this desire to get away from one’s own culture that is so problematic in Hughes’ mind, especially if a black person wants to be a good writer. For him, culture is a large part of writing, and so the desire to be white and to rid oneself of one’s culture is antithetic to being a great poet or writer. Instead, a writer should embrace their culture, learn that “black is beautiful,” and pursue writing about what they want within that black cultural framework.

Discussion of Work
I find that this work is very indicative of the times it was written in, and yet is still prescient today. The idea of “black is beautiful” is important, particularly in the circumstances Hughes outlines: shame about one’s skin color, race, and culture is never a good place to come from as a writer, and acceptance of oneself is necessary in order to live a full life. And yet, the piece itself seems to impose restrictions upon writers, restrictions that we in fact see historically during the height of the Harlem Renaissance: the rule of insisting on creating “black” art means that if a writer decides to write about a topic that is not about African American life, they will not be considered an artist or a quality writer by the black academic and literary elite.

Yet this idea of African American writers embodying their culture so much that it becomes the sole focus of their writing has certainly had staying power in the academy and in the general literary world. The African American writers who seem to have staying power or are popular are writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Colson Whitehead, to name a few. These people are writing about black history, black experience, and black culture, and are finding ways to represent silenced voices. Writers who choose other topics, like Ishmael Reed, are often missing from African American literature course reading lists, precisely because of this idea that black writers must write about black subjects in specific historical, oppressed or deteriorating positions where their characters must overcome violence and injustice. But writers like Reed write quality literature which encompasses stories not specific to black historical and current representation. Indeed, Reed is one of those authors who would have bothered Hughes because he insists that his racial identity should not be indicative of his writing choices and quality.

Certainly, the idea of writing about what you know is an important one, and yet it is also detrimental when it does not allow for writers to break the boundaries of what other groups, including subgroups of the same race, set for our writers. It becomes exclusionary of different types of experiences, excluding even the groups of black elites or white-skinned black people that Hughes discusses in his essay. It speaks directly to what bell hooks stated about the importance of allowing multiple experiences, because when we only allow for specific stories to exist about a culture and people, we isolate large groups of people and lose their voices in the conversation.