The Poetics of National and Racial Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

The Poetics of National and Racial Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

The Poetics of National and Racial Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

The Poetics of National and Racial Identity in Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Synopsis

Examining the literary history of racial and national identity in nineteenth-century America, John Kerkering argues that writers such as DuBois, Hawthorne and Whitman used poetic effect to emphasize the distinctiveness of certain groups against a diffuse social landscape. Kerkering tells the story of how poetry helped define America as a nation before helping to define America into distinct racial categories. He concludes that through a shared reliance on formal literary effects, national and racial identities become related elements of a single literary history.

Excerpt

I have wanted always to develop a way of writing that was irrevocably black. I don't have the resources of a musician but I thought that if it was truly black literature, it would not be black because I was, it would not even be black because of its subject matter. It would be something intrinsic, indigenous, something in the way it was put together — the sentences, the structure, texture and tone — so that anyone who read it would realize. I use the analogy of the music because you can range all over the world and it's still black…I don't imitate it, but I am informed by it. Sometimes I hear blues, sometimes spirituals or jazz and I've appropriated it. I've tried to reconstruct the texture of it in my writing….

– Toni Morrison

I had an instinct that [the invitation to translate Beowulf] should not be let go. An understanding I had worked out for myself concerning my own linguistic and literary origins made me reluctant to abandon the task. I had noticed, for example, that without any conscious intent on my part certain lines in the first poem in my first book conformed to the requirements of Anglo-Saxon metrics. These lines were made up of two balancing halves, each half containing two stressed syllables – “The spade sinks into gravelly ground: / My father digging. I look down …” — and in the case of the second line there was alliteration linking “digging” and “down” across the caesura. Part of me, in other words, had been writing Anglo-Saxon from the start.

– Seamus Heaney

The two passages quoted above exemplify this book's central concern, the work of writers who employ formal literary effects in order to establish the identity of a people. When Toni Morrison speaks of “a way of writing” that is “irrevocably black” and Seamus Heaney describes himself as “writing Anglo-Saxon, ” they each link their writing to a particular people, the “black” and “Anglo-Saxon” races. In these examples, what determines the race of the writing is not, as one might expect, the race of the writer or . . .

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