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An Argument for American Literature

Joshua Manning
Engl. 321 Final
Dr. R. Allen Alexander, Jr. - THE Americanist
12-9-02

I was tempted to breathe a sigh of relief as I pulled into my driveway until I saw the 1975 beige Buick sitting in the driveway. I had just taken my last final for the semester - a very difficult yet extremely thought provoking twenty-five short answer exam for English 321, early American literature. I was looking forward to having a nice, relaxing break. I was, that is, until I saw that Uncle Ned had decided to pay us yet another surprise visit.

As I walked in the living room, I saw the self-proclaimed genius sitting on the sofa eating BBQ chicken wings. I could see sweat dripping from his shoulder-length curly hair in the same manner as the grease from the fatty chicken. I headed over to the recliner and sat down while giving him a half smile. Uncle Ned sat up and gave a dumb grin. He then proceeded to ask me where I was coming from. I informed him about the recent exam I had taken.

The overweight man asked with an air of arrogance only a college-professor- wanna-be-who-is-actually-a-Winn-Dixie-stock-boy could have, "What's so great about American literature? What has it ever done for anyone? What does it have to do with who we are and what we do?"

Annoyed, I wasn't sure where to start. I then grabbed my text book and looked up as my uncle began to gnaw on one of his chicken wings in an attempt to cleanse it of all the meat and marrow possible.

I smiled then jocularly replied, "Well, Uncle Ned, first of all Henry David Thoreau actually started the chicken wing fad. In fact, it was he who said, 'It is life near the bone where it is sweetest (1979).'"

My uncle shouted in excitement, "Ah ha! Smart man! Those dark meat people don't know what they are missing! What else does he have to say?"

"Well, he was actually one of the first writers that encouraged Americans to think on their own and be proud of whom they are. At the time in which he wrote, many Americans looked to Europe, particularly England, for all of their 'intellectual needs.' They didn't believe that Americans were able to develop important, philosophical ideas of their own. They couldn't see how any American could have any cultural impact anywhere. Thoreau, however, argues, 'Some are dinning in our ears that we Americans, and moderns generally, are intellectual dwarfs compared with the ancients, or even the Elizabethan men. But what is that to the purpose? A living dog is better than a dead lion. Shall a man go and hang himself because he belongs to the race of pygmies, and not be the biggest pygmy that he can? Let every one mind his own business, and endeavor to be what he was made (1977).'"

I looked up from my book and saw my uncle with a look of confusion on his face, a chicken bone hanging out of his mouth.

"In other words," I smirked, "he encourages us to think for ourselves while attempting to become the best we can possibly be."

He nodded. "Interesting. Tell me more."

"Well, what do you think about Shakespeare?"

He closed his eyes as if he was in thought. "Oh yeah! The greatest poet that ever lived! Didn't he write the Adventures of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Jim?"

"Something like that. Well, what would you say if I said that 'Shakespeare has been approached. There are minds that have gone as far as Shakespeare into the universe (2297).'"

"Isn't that blasphemous?"

"Well, Herman Melville doesn't think so. He says, 'Believe me, my friends, that men not much very inferior to Shakespeare are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio. And the day will come, when you shall say who reads a book by an Englishman that is a modern?' (2298)."

My dumbfounded uncle could only reply with a grunt.

"Think about this, Melville even seems to write with a bit of anger towards those who imitate others. He says, "No American writer should write like an Englishman, or a Frenchman; let him write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American. Let us away with this leaven of literary flunkyism towards England' (2300)." My voice here drifted some as I realized I had just missed this quote on my midterm. "But anyway, as you can see, Melville is actually upset at those who sit on the sofa all day and expect others to think for them - at those who refuse to think for themselves but dwell on the regurgitated wisdom of others!"

Uncle Ned's face lighted up as he believed he could now add to the discussion. "I can sympathize with him. It's all them blacks on welfare who pull down this country! We ought to stick them back in slavery where they actually did some work for all the free food and shelter they got!"

I slapped myself in the face as I wondered how I could possibly be from the same gene pool as this brother of my father.

"You ignoramus fool. Is that what you think slavery was? Free room and bored for doing simple work?"

I opened up my text book to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. "Uncle Ned, I want you to read this right now."

He grabbed the book out of my hand and began to flip through the pages. He read about the hunger and the cold. I could see his eyes grow large and then angry as he read about females being used for breeding and the men, and not just men, but the boys being beaten. I saw the smirk on his lips as he read of Douglass's defiance of Mr. Covey and his eventual escape and freedom.

He looked at me apologetically and said, "I guess I never really saw it in that light before."

"And that, Uncle Ned, is the answer to your questions."