1995 D. C. Heath Student Essay Contest Winners
The editorial board of The Heath Anthology of American Literature and its panel of judges are pleased to announce the winners of the 1995 D. C. Heath Student Essay Contest.
The first place essay is by Tristan Trotter, a student at the University of Idaho. The second place essay is by Tasha Miller, a student at the University of South Dakota.
The winning essays, reprinted here, demonstrate excellent student writing and creative thinking. These essays, and the assignments that prompted them, demonstrate how works from the traditional and expanded canons inform each other and shape our understanding today of the literatures and peoples of America. We thank all of the students who entered essays in this fifth annual contest and all the instructors who shared their assignments with us. Instructors are free to duplicate these essays and assignments for classroom use without requested permission.
First Place Essay
Title: "Like Writers Who Pass in the Night"
Like Writers Who Pass in the Night
You are in a train station, somewhere on the edge of the Midwest. It is the late 1800s, close to Christmas-time. The station is thick with bodies wrapped and cloaked against the bitter cold that filters through doors and cracks in the station walls. You are exhausted, having just made the cross-country journey from your home in Montana to visit relatives in the East. Aunt Kay is late picking you up (what else had you expected after all?) so you decide to rest your feet and body and travel bags on the next available bench, keeping your eye out for the powder blue wool overcoat you are sure she will be wearing (because it is what she has worn, without fail, for the past seven winters).
It is at this moment that your attention is drawn to a man with thick, unruly white hair, clutching a dull grey cloak about himself, knuckles white on the hand which closes it at the neck, moving through the crowd. He is a striking figure, his face riddled and craggy with years and care, over-worn. But his eyes are full of light and life. They pick up every detail of the station as he passes--the attendants in their red slacks and brass-buttoned coats; complaining children who run through the aisles, drop candy wrappers, nut shells, and sandwich crumbs; even you, inconspicuous and nondescript, earn a short, assessing glance from the man which, even in its brevity, seems to have told him everything there is to know about you.
You draw your eyes away from the man's figure, which is making its way in your general direction, and they are suddenly attracted by another approaching body, a woman's, coming from the other side. She presents a form as outstanding as the man's: decidedly feminine, but with a strength and energy that is magnetic, forceful. You notice heads turn to watch her pass--attention to which she is oblivious, intent on her progress to the other end of the station.
Suddenly you foresee what will happen. The man and the woman are heading straight for each other, both of them too focussed on their respective paths to negotiate the potential for collision pressing in on all sides. Sure enough, it occurs -- right in front of your bench. He catches her with his shoulder, directly, square on her own, turning her sharply so that she wobbles half-way around, loses her footing, drops the two bulky bags she has been so careful to keep from dragging, and falls straight down on her backside. He, jolted with the impact but far more substantial in size and managing to maintain his balance, looks dazed, lets go of his cloak at the neck, and stares down at the woman at his feet. She scowls back up at him.
"Just what do you think you're doing, sir, tramping through a crowded station without looking around, barrelling into people and knocking them on their bottoms like that?!"
He returns her angry glare and says, with some annoyance, "Forgive me, madam, but I believe you, too, were moving at quite a clippy pace. I would not have knocked you down if you'd been looking up yourself. "
She hoists up her skirts, muttering what you think must be curses, and pulls herself to a standing position. She swats at the dirt and debris clinging to the obviously expensive material and looks the man piercingly in the eyes. "A person would like to think she could walk through a station without all the time having to look out for danger."
"One would, wouldn't one? But one must take into account one's own part in creating that danger. And you, madam, are one of the dangerous."
She is angry, but far from out of control. She retorts, coolly, calmly, "You are precisely why I write, sir. One day I hope that society will be swept clean of selfish, unaware, bullying men--like yourself--and that women will be able to maintain their dignity and worth without being knocked about like so many rag dolls."
"You write? I find that very interesting. You are entirely too absorbed."
"Just what do you mean by that, sir?"
"Unconcerned, I mean--with what's going on around you. After all, why else write, if not to comment on things outside of yourself and to people outside of your own experience?"
"You talk as if you profess to know something about it. What kind of an expert do you claim to be?"
He is silent for a moment, perhaps debating whether or not to continue this exchange, which has gained the attention of so many eyes and ears. You are suddenly conscious of your own absorption in what promises to be an exciting match of intellects.
"I am, if you must know," he allows, "a somewhat well-known writer. "
"Oh? And just who are you?"
"Shall we each first agree to grant the other our identities in turn? Before I disadvantage myself unnecessarily?"
"Fair enough," she says
"Alright then ,I am Mark Twain, from the Mississippi. "
She looks a little surprised, but has not been caught entirely offguard.
"Well, sir--I am familiar with your work. I must admit it is very good to meet you. Interesting, at the very least."
"And now you," he reminds her.
"My name is Charlotte Gilman. I'm from Connecticut, but I live and write in California now. "
"Ah!. . ." he responds, pausing. "Yes, I know some of what you do as well, Mrs. Gilman. Stimulating subject matter."
"I'm trying to break down walls. If what I produce is stimulating, I hope it is a stimulation that brings change--not just controversy."
"I see." He nods slowly. "M-hmm . . ."
He is, you think, a little sarcastic in his responses to her. You see that it has started to bother her.
"Not that you would understand completely, Mr. Twain. I am well aware of your technique of veiling meaning when you write. It is something I toyed with in fiction -- not making my message entirely obvious because I feared marginalization or ridicule. But I let go of that long ago. I decided that really profound and meaningful literature should and must stand on its own, raw, exposed, if it is to make an impact. Otherwise, it is so cushioned that it fails to add any tension or discomfort to the readers' philosophies. What good is it then? You hide behind river trips and adventures in the woods, which are all charming accounts in their own right--but less perceptive readers might easily pass your work off as simply stories. I happen to know that they include a lot of depth behind the words on the page."
He is suddenly angry. You see it moving behind the calm in his eyes--it is small and fluttering, but you are somehow frightened of what it has the potential to become.
He snaps. `'I am trying to reach an audience, to talk with them. Not to preach or moralize. You are the one turning off listeners."
"People often turn off to what they don't want to hear, no matter how you put it. It's human nature. You are not implying, I hope, that my readers are turned off for reasons beyond the nature of my words themselves? By, for example, the fact that I am a woman?"
He visibly hesitates. "I imply nothing, madam." His eyes narrow. "Are you, perhaps, insecure on that point and therefore overly suspicious of off-handed remarks?"
"You automatically discount the logic in what I imply. I'll tell you why you do this. By virtue of my sex, in your eyes everything I say has some kind of hidden neurotic agenda or meaning. Mine is to DO and not to THINK. To cook, clean, bear and raise children, listen to the instructions of my husband and my society. When I propose to reason or logic something out, my motives are suspect and called into question. That is the kind of tradition I am trying to reverse through my writing. I hope it does make people uncomfortable. Just because someone is turned off by something, it doesn't mean she or he will stop reading it. That is what I'm banking on."
"A risky bank, Mrs. Gilman.''
"Risky, but worth it."
Again, a pause.
"I must say, I am far more pessimistic than you," he says at last. "I have little hope that what I write will reach anyone. I tell you this candidly, Mrs. Gilman. I know people enjoy my stories. I know they find them charming and picaresque and witty. I am a good writer. I've mastered my genre. But there are a thousand things in my head--a thousand words I want to put down and ideas I want to convey, but cannot. For whatever reason I'm not sure I agree with the arguments of your sex. I won't lie. I respect you, individually, too much to mislead you. But the point is, I'm not sure--about anything, really. It is disconcerting--this constant uncertainty--and it keeps me awake oftentimes, despite the contentment I feel in so many other aspects of my life."
Charlotte Gilman's face softens. For the first time since the beginning of their argument, she gives a supremely female look: one of motherly concern and pity.
"I am sorry, Mr. Twain. I, too, have had my own bouts with confusion and emotional torment. I, too, have been trapped between my need to express myself through art and the confines of what I am forced by society to be. Perhaps. . . ," she pauses, touching him lightly on the shoulder, ". . .we are not so different from each other after all."
His face is touched with sadness and you realize for the first time just how old he must be. The two stand this way for a few long moments, silent. And then suddenly they are aware of the eyes and ears around them, which have been rivetted to the spectacle throughout its unfolding.
He clears his throat gruffly. She touches her temples with slim, lovely fingers, brushes her skirts again.
"Well, Ms. Gilman. It has been . . . an experience . . . meeting you. Most likely, we will not cross paths--physically or otherwise--again in the future. After all, what were the odds of even this meeting taking place? But I've no doubt that it has served its purpose. Would you not agree . . . ? "
She grants him a small but significant smile. It is heavy with regard.
They nod to each other, recover their bags and demeanors. And they move on, past each other, resuming their opposite directions. The crowd, which has grown so uncharacteristically silent for such an energetic, restless train station assemblage, attempts to re-establish its mood of bustling Christmas gaiety. But you have a feeling it will take some time before the essence is recaptured. It is at this point that you notice, out of the corner of your eye, the approach of Aunt Kay finally, bright and fluffy in powder blue, cutting a cheery, slightly ridiculous path through the otherwise somber winter colors. You prepare yourself, a little wiser, a little more reflective, for yet another New England Christmas.