It must have been a hot, shining, sun-baked day, there on the beach, as the Spaniards stood there, chafing and sweating in their body armor, carrying their swords and shields, along with the white flag of Catholic Spain, with its red cross. Off to the side was a Dominican monk, holding a crucifix. The golden Saviour on top gleamed in the sun; the Indians blinked at it.
I see Christopher Columbus standing there, calculating, plotting, thinking, “How can I enslave these people?” as the Taino Indians, shy, smiling, friendly, bring forward baskets of fruit, bowing and leaving them before his sweating, half-starved soldiers and sailors, like offerings before gods.
The Admiral of the Ocean Sea turns and squints his sun-baked eyes at the three little caravels that lie at anchor in the harbor of—where? Cuba? Hispaniola? Jamaica? Or some island we will never know?
Columbus turns back to his men.
“What think you, Bartolome?” he asks the short, one-eyed captain standing in front. “How many conquistadors would we need to conquer these sheep in human form?”
Bartolome smiles; the teeth he has lost to scurvy have left empty black holes in his jaw. He tries to spit onto the sand, but is unable to do so.
“Amiral,” he says in a husky voice, dry for lack of water, “I could do it all in one day, and with these men. Just give the word.”
…And Columbus, a man who holds the destiny of the Western World in his hand, turns back, and smiles, as a taller Indian, wearing a feathered headdress and a leather string around his neck with some small gold chips flashing in the sun, approaches….
Benjamin Franklin, eager to get readers for his newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette, hires small boys, paying them pennies a day to hawk his news. But this alone will not do; there are other newspapers and broadsides to read, and the news-hungry public may buy them, instead. He knows what to do: he buys a wheelbarrow from an out-of-work farmer, fills it to the brim with his newspapers, and walks the streets of Philadelphia City calling, “News, Fresh News! Buy it straight from me, Ben Franklin, writer, printer, and publisher! Get your news fresh!”
And the eager Philadelphians buy, impressed by this handsome, muscular, tall young printer who does not shirk from selling his handiwork himself….
Edgar Allan Poe, wishing only to head his own magazine, slaves through the night to write his masterpiece, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” He is not aware that he is creating a new art form, the psychological horror story; he knows only that he is continuing a Gothic literary tradition, and taking it into a new direction, penetrating the mind and soul of a madman. His editor shudders when he reads it through—Imagine, hiding a dead body that way!—but he prints it. Poe gets $10 for his work.
He gets nothing more when every other American magazine steals his work, nor when European magazines steal it as well, translating it into other languages; nor again, when, long after his death, movie companies use it as a screenplay. All he ever gets for “The Tell-Tale Heart,” first of its kind, still a masterpiece, is $10.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, aching from the family curse, knowing full well that his great-grandfather Wm. Hathorne, the “hanging judge” of the Salem Witch Trials, never repented the innocent lives he sent to the gallows, writes the story “Young Goodman Brown” as both a vengeance and a penance; he never fully accepts the Puritanical Christianity which haunts his family, becoming a freethinking Transcendentalist instead. The gloom he inherits from his ancestors haunts his life.
During and prior to the Harlem Renaissance, talented young poets and writers like Paul Laurence Dunbar (who could have been a lawyer, business executive, banker, or anything he set his mind to, but is forced to be a bellhop and scrub spittoons in a hotel; he contracts tuberculosis, and dies at age 34), Countee Cullen (a gifted poet who writes in Shakespearean mode, he winds up a junior high teacher in NYC), Claude McKay (in desperation joining the Communist Party during the 1930s, he is blacklisted and dies young), Zora Neale Hurston (she lives the longest, refusing to let adversity defeat her bold and adventurous spirit), or Langston Hughes (who maddeningly never gets angry, either in real life or in his poetry), have left us a wealth of their work, a legacy to young African-Americans today, still trying to make sense of America’s promises.
From World War I, when a generation of idealistic young men marches off to save the world for democracy and fight the war to end all wars, only to die in the trenches, to the end of World War II, where, if anything, the technology to kill human beings only improves, from the rape of Nanking to the bombing of London and Dresden, thro’ Auschwitz and Belsen, and culminating in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—this is the Age of Modernism, where, strangely enough, writers still believe in high ideals like Truth, Integrity, and Honor. Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway live the high life and drink themselves to death, but each one lives by his own, oddly self-enacted code.
We follow Fitzgerald thro’ Depression Paris in “Babylon Revisited”; Hemingway takes us to the jungle, both the real and of the human soul, in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”; and Faulkner shows us both Southern Renaissance and Southern Gothic in “A Rose for Emily,” where love continues beyond death, even as one lover hastens the other to the grave, in a manner Poe would have approved: Gothic and Southern Gothic are not so far apart.
Finally, there is Post-Modernism, which allows us to play amid the forms of literature: here James Baldwin takes us into the mind of a bigoted Southern deputy sheriff in “Going to Meet the Man,” and Toni Morrison takes the supreme question of the 20th Century, the Color Bar, and, oddly, plays with it, showing us that the State is unable to raise motherless children, and that, perhaps, we tend to over-emphasize the entire Race Question in this country: in the end, aren’t human beings merely human, and isn’t dialogue and just getting along the only way we can hope to survive and rise above bestiality and killing one another?
And so, I sit here, watching and waiting for my latest class of American Literature Survey students to complete their final, beginning at 6 pm—it is now 9:15 pm; three out of seven remain; they have until 10 pm.
The final irony of Post-Modernism is taking these literary works—works designed to stretch the spirit and imagination of Americans, to answer the questions we have about this country, and, in the end, Explain Ourselves to Ourselves—and reducing them to essay questions on an English Final Exam. But that is what I do.