5 Favourites: American Literature

The Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-86)

Emily Dickinson

‘Hope is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —’

The American… undiscovered
The Mother of American poetry to Walt Whitman’s Father, Dickinson left over 1,500 distinctive, dense and dash-laden poems that only found fame after her death.

Despite living in isolation, Dickinson’s poetic voice is not only introspective but inquisitive, questioning the boundaries of life, death and everything in-between, from marriage to religion to Mother Nature. With a penchant for capitalisation and poetic discord, Dickinson has both an anxious desire to discover the unknowable secrets within, as in ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, and ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes —’, and, in ‘A Bird came down the Walk —’ and ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’, a curious eye to cast outwards on the usually-unnoticed workings of the natural world, with lines of poetry only paralleled by the wonder of the wildlife it captures. As such, Dickinson’s writing finds a unique freedom in the confinement of poetic form, femininity in the nineteenth-century, and her self-inflicted reclusiveness.

Other works ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ and ‘Those – dying then’ for death and divinity in the same breath, ‘Title divine – is mine!’ and ‘They shut me up in Prose —’ for some contextually controversial views on courtship, that synesthetic ‘Blue — uncertain— stumbling Buzz’ in ‘I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —’, and ‘Because I could not stop for Death —’ for possibly the most inspired use of iambic rhythm in the poetic canon.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

‘The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.’

The American… locked in
The Yellow Wallpaper is less about wallpaper and more about walls – of both the bricks-and-mortar and symbolic kind.

A semi-autobiographical short story about a woman forced to lay on her back and… do absolutely nothing. Known as the ‘rest cure’, this controversial remedy was often recommended for women suffering from ‘hysteria’, a term used to describe ‘female’ depression. Unsurprisingly, isolation and inactivity are not an antidote to depression, but instead feed and fester it, and its real effect, rather than a doctors’ theories, is found in Gilman’s evocative account. The narrative style reads like the pattern of the eponymous wallpaper: the flourishes of the pattern camouflage the creeping unease of the narrative, until the unnamed narrator’s interiority escapes and plasters itself over the walls in place of the repulsive wallpaper. Yet, as women under the rest cure, the act of writing is an act of rebellion for both Gilman and her anonymous narrator.

Other works for women writers in America, see Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple for race and womanhood, Sylvia Plath’s poetry and partly-autobiographical The Bell Jar for a woman’s experience of depression, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved for women and the unbreakable maternal bond.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

The American… dreamer
A cliché but a classic, The Great Gatsby is the Jazz Age archetype of the dream-to-disillusionment truth of a truly American ideology.

And the truth is that Gatsby isn’t that Great. Fitzgerald’s prose is like Gatsby’s parties: the decadence, the drink, and the dancing disguise the longing, loss and loneliness underneath all the glitter and gold as Fitzgerald’s lyrical poetry masks the prosaic reality of the American Dream. An American classic that includes some of the greatest imagery of its age, from the Valley of the Ashes to the Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg to the green light at the end of Gatsby’s adored, Daisy’s, dock, the empty symbolism of The Great Gatsby is as, if not more, meaningful – or meaningless – in our modern, material reality as it was in the Roaring Twenties, permeating pop-culture with a reminder of how hollow and heartless the pursuit of American ideals of love, life and wealth can be.

Other works from the Great Depression to eighties-era yuppies, the migrant workers George and Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Bret Easton Ellis’s monster-of-a-man in American Psycho highlight how all walks of life have dreamed the American Dream and fallen from its great heights.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

‘…racism is a visceral experience […] it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth […] [and] all land, with great violence, upon the body.’

The American…  advocate
A heartbreakingly honest work laying bare the fearful truth of racism in the USA not as a philosophy to be studied, but as a physical assault on the black body.

History is written by the victors, but the history of race in America is often written by the villains, or at least those, willingly or unknowingly, on their side. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a visceral, vital voice in the narrative of black America made all the more poignant because it’s written as a passionate epistle to his son. Like his experience, Coates’s writing is as powerful as it is exposed, defiant as it is fearful, and brutal as it is beautiful; it’s an account unflinching but invaluable to our understanding of lives we haven’t lived. And that’s the key: this is the ‘stars and strife’ story of American history, and it’s a story that we have to hear from the hearts of those who’ve lived it first hand.

Other works The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, the blazing, groundbreaking 1963 work that influenced Between the World and Me, Maya Angelou’s autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and poetic rebellion in ‘Still I Rise’, and Coates himself on HBO’s Confederate, and why Civil War success for the South is ‘an ugly truth that black Americans are forced to live every day‘.

Hamilton: An American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (2015)

Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

‘If I throw away my shot, is this how you’ll remember me?
What if this bullet is my legacy?
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.’

The American… descendant
The ultimate American musical written by an American with immigrant heritage about America then told by America now, focussing on another American immigrant, Alexander Hamilton, who wrote his way into American history as one of its Founding Fathers.

Telling history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B, Miranda makes America’s past matter through music that’s contemporary and a cast-of-colour who play the mostly white political players of the late-18th century. With many characters and songs taking their cue from the founding American writers of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, Hamilton fuses the past, the present, and the future – the finale asks, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’ – into a harmonious whole with a heart that beats and breaks and skips and aches. Hamilton tells not only a political history but a private one, centring on the opposing views of Hamilton and his rival, Aaron Burr (Sir): one waits for it, the other goes for it; one stands for nothing, the other rises up; one dies, the other survives, but pays for it.

Other works Miranda is a theatre-admirer as well as a theatre-maker, and his varied musical influences – classical and contemporary – are found throughout Hamilton, so see the Genius annotations and analysis, authorised and added to by Miranda himself, to find them all.

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