This essay is adapted from a talk given last May at the American Literature Association Conference in San Diego.

I want to set down and illustrate a number of operational principles which I have found helpful in teaching a reconstructed or multicultural course in American literature. I will talk about voice, audience, function--three closely related elements--then about ethnography and context, and finally about what is to me central: comparative study. I don't suppose that these principles, much less the illustrations, are exhaustive or in many cases particularly new; I do think they can be useful, and also that they can stimulate other teachers to share their approaches to what, in real practice, is a relatively new discipline.

One theoretical issue before I get down to cases. It has been argued that the real issue is not what a syllabus contains but how the texts are taught. The Color Purple or Beloved can be presented, the argument goes, in racist ways or, even assuming the good intentions of the instructor, in a manner whose consequences are objectively racist or sexist. Presumably, the converse is also true: Ulrich Phillips or Thomas Nelson Page can be taught so as to deconstruct their racist ideologies. There is some truth in these arguments: as Frances Maher and Mary Kay Tetreault have found by observation, racially monocultural classes do construct texts differently, foreground different issues and concerns. Dominantly black or dominantly white classrooms can, often do, experience books differently, from each other, and also from significantly mixed classes. But that is not the whole story, for while teachers exert a powerful force in classrooms, and while dominant student culture is likewise a strong influence, neither is hegemonic. In my experience, literary works exert their own power, not definitive but never trivial either. The notion that reading literature can, by itself, overcome ingrained prejudices and unexamined assumptions is, I'm afraid, a convenient mystification of my profession. But that does not mean that literary texts are simply wet putty, to be flattened, rolled, and pinched into whatever shapes teachers propose or students prefer. That notion seems to me oversimplified and undialectical. The texts themselves, like the ingredients in a souffle, are critical components in whatever it is that gets baked in generative classrooms. Yes, there is the cook, and yes, there are diners, but it turns out to be hard to ignore a spoonful of Szechuan peppers, whatever the cook might do or the diners prefer.

Thus I focus on texts here--how they illuminate, clarify, comment upon one another. And while I do not wish to deny the importance of how one approaches these texts, I continue to believe that in some measure they will teach us how to read them. That can be their main danger, as Judith Fetterley suggests in The Resistant Reader, as well as the ground of their power.

i. Voice

I like to begin my classes with three closely-related questions: who is talking, to whom, and why? To give these more formal names: voice, audience, and function. I have often employed a first-day exercise using two or three poems, often Frances E. W. Harper's "Aunt Chloe's Politics,"1 Edwin Markham's "The Man With the Hoe," and Eugene Pottier's "The Internationale" or, more recently, Joe Hill's "The Preacher and the Slave." Harper carefully establishes the everyday informality of speech and shrewd political insights of an "ordinary" woman before she places a specifically southern black locution in Aunt Chloe's mouth. Markham's speaker, on the other hand, uses an elaborately learned language ("immemorial infamies, immedicable woes"), presumably impressive to the "lords and rulers of all lands" addressed in the poem and the upper middle-class audience addressed by it. And, whereas Aunt Chloe implicitly argues a strong case for extending the right to vote and thus to participate in decisions about matters like schooling to people like herself, Markham's bourgeois intellectual appeals to those with power to ameliorate the conditions of the men with hoes lest--or perhaps before--they rise up. Similarly, in discussing the writings of the "founding fathers," I ask students about the kind of person talking in texts like Tom Paine's "Common Sense" (1, 940-945) or in Federalist 6 (Hamilton--1, 1008-1013) or 10 (Madison--1, 1013-1018). In vocabulary, syntax, and frames of references, Paine presents himself as an ordinary man offering "nothing more than simple facts, plain arguments" to the "common sense" perceptions of other ordinary, reasonable men. Hamilton's elaborate syntax, his learned allusions, his Latinate vocabulary, and his construction of the opposition in terms of a feminized dreamer, Utopian and sensual, suggest a very different idea of the character of the Governor, his constituency, and the terms of correct republican governance. Indeed, the disparate voices in these texts can be taken to represent two radically alternative conceptions of how, and by whom, power should be exercised in a democracy.

Such comparisons encourage students to "listen" closely to the language of texts as, in fact, they generally do to the language of everyday discourse and to examine their genuine responses to the people whose voices they are hearing through the words on the page. For example, many students retreat from Walden into irritable silence--Thoreau is a "classic" writer, so how can they acknowledge disliking him? I try to bring their responses to the surface by examining the opening paragraph of chapter two, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For" (1, 1981-1982) and comparing it with a similar passage from the beginning of Caroline Kirkland's A New Home--Who'll Follow? (1, 2290). From his opening sentence--"At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house"--Thoreau speaks a language whose assumptions of (relative) power and privilege emerge strikingly by contrast with Kirkland's ironic view of her own real powerlessness:

"When my husband purchased two hundred acres of wild land on the banks of this to-be-celebrated stream [the Turnip], and drew with a piece of chalk on the bar-room table at Danforth's the plan of a village, I little thought I was destined to make myself famous by handing down to posterity a faithful record of the advancing fortunes of that favored spot."

Kirkland's comically alliterative f's, her `decidedly low' details, her "homely" narrative about establishing a home bring into view the quite differently sexualized terms in which Thoreau begins to erect his Walden sojourn:

I walked over each farmer's premises, tasted his wild apples, discoursed on husbandry with him, took his farm at this price, at any price, mortgaging it to him in my mind; even put a higher price on it,--took every thing but a deed of it, took his word for his deed, for I dearly love to talk,--cultivated it, and him too to some extent, I trust, and withdrew when I had enjoyed it long enough, leaving him to carry it on.

What I'm aiming at here is not to "debunk" Thoreau--whose work can, I believe, be stirring even for today's urban readers--but to help students understand why that self-determined, willful male voice can become a source of paralyzing anger to them. To be sure, Kirkland's narrator, whom she calls Mary Clavers, is no one-dimensional figure either. Like American women writers before and after her--one thinks of Anne Bradstreet's "The Author to Her Book" (1, 260) and Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" (1, 2853)--Kirkland deploys a self-deprecating irony to gain a certain discursive space.

ii. Audience

Just as these texts carefully establish a speaking voice, almost all construct--in the same breath, so to speak--an implied audience. The question I like to press on students in this regard is "do you feel that the text is speaking to you?" Or, more formally, "do you feel part of the discourse?" I think such questions help students clarify not only the political differences between Paine and Hamilton, for instance, but the senses of kinship or distance they feel toward certain writers. The problem of audience also leads richly into attentive reading, for the question of how a text assumes or constitutes its audience engages students by helping them to understand their genuine, often baffled, initial reactions. There are, of course, works like the documents of the American revolution, chants and legends from American Indian tribal cultures, and early Spanish exploration narratives specifically directed to certain constituencies, which need to be established in part from outside the texts. Some writers--for example, Rebecca Harding Davis in "Life in the Iron Mills" (2, 43-68) and Charles Chesnutt in his conjure tales (2, 446-462)--devote a great deal of attention to invoking and defining the implicit audience for their work within it. Davis' narrator directs considerable anger toward her readers, "you. . . who study psychology in a lazy, dilettante way" and worry about "your clean clothes." In fact, those readers are never far from sight throughout the narration, which regularly reinvokes their presence-- as, when Hugh thinks of keeping the stolen money: "You laugh at the shallow temptation?" Or, in response to our final look at Hugh's sculpture: "Why, you tell me you have seen that look in the eyes of dumb brutes. . . " Chestnutt, like Sarah Orne Jewett, carefully establishes a familiar white, male, middle-class, and obtuse frame narrator, who mediates Uncle Julius' dialect tales and the exotic world he evokes--distanced from most of Chesnutt's readers by race, geography, and mythology. He also provides the narrator's wife, Annie, to model a more sympathetically attentive reader.

But most texts, in ways increasingly familiar to recent literary study, "expect" a particular readership, which shares language, assumptions, and even physical standpoints with the narrative voice. Works like Henry Adams' "The Virgin and the Dynamo" (2, 842-849), Pound's "Hugh Selwyn Mauberley" (2, 1170-1179), and Eliot's "The Waste Land" (2, 1312-1326) construct their audience on the basis of a shared classical education and, more particularly, out of the cultural assumptions of a class and sex then experiencing its authority as disintegrating. The kind of question with which I began this section--"is this text directed to you?"--is particularly effective, I think, in teaching such male modernist works to our post-modernist students. Again, in "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" (2, 714-721), Crane's language effectively defines the audience "norm" as male. It is not only that events are seen through men's eyes, but the terms of the descriptions are those of male perception and judgment: "The man's face was reddened from many days in the wind and sun. . . The bride was not pretty, nor was she very young." A similar set of gendered assumptions drives tales like Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" (1, 1248-1280).

Such stories lead to what is centrally at issue in the problem of audience: race, gender, and class. For these--with sexuality--are the most critical matters on the basis of which, in our culture, discourse is organized.

Perhaps nothing is more important to the teaching of literature generally, but certainly to the teaching of a multicultural curriculum, than helping students to understand that their own position with respect to these categories is a critical variable in how they encounter texts. This is not, obviously, to say that a student's race or gender altogether can or should determine how she reads; it is to say that these categories establish powerful links with, or barriers from, many works, and that they are therefore not at all "irrelevant"--as many students have been taught--to their reading. I particularly like the Kirkland/Thoreau comparison to get at this point, but many individual works can be used equally well--e.g., Sarah Orne Jewett's "A White Heron" (2, 112-118), Susan Glaspell's Trifles (2, 1078-1087), Langston Hughes' "Big Meeting" (2, 1492-1500). Charles Chesnutt's "The Passing of Grandison" (2, 462-473), like Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" (1, 2464-2522), are especially important examples of texts that depend on most readers' acceptance of an "outside" view of black characters for their most challenging impact.

iii. Function

Closely connected to these issues of voice and audience, as the last examples suggest, is the problem of function--that is, the purposes--e.g., personal, social, financial, sacred, instructional--for which a text was created. Many students, and especially literature majors, seem to arrive in my classes with a fairly unconsidered notion about the separation of "art" and "propaganda" or "politics." Occasionally, one will say, "a poem should not mean, but be." However one feels about that proposition generally, it stands as a main barrier to thinking about American writing in the nineteenth century or before. For, as Harriet Beecher Stowe makes explicit in the last section of Uncle Tom's Cabin, most pre-modernist writers had designs on their reader's conduct--or at least consciousness. In "Life in the Iron Mills," for example, one measure of the narrator's success is evoking from the audience a feeling response appropriate to the experience of Wheeling's working people that she calls upon us to share. From Cabeza de Vaca's Relation (1, 89-99) or Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation (1, 212-232) to Pedro Pietri's "Puerto Rican Obituary" (2, 2510-1517) or Lorna Dee Cervantes' "Poem for the Young White Man Who Asked Me How I, An Intelligent, Well-Read Person Could Believe in the War Between Races" (2, 2583-2585), to see texts as interventions in history requires what is, to me, a differing theory of literature than those aesthetic paradigms to which most students have been exposed.

It is a theory that asks about the cultural work being undertaken by that kind of writing we designate "literature," that refuses to value such writing only to the extent that it presumably transcends history, but looks at it, rather, as deeply implicated in its historical moment--and in ours. Thus when Alexander Posey writes of Sequoyah (2, 492) or Chicano balladeers sing of Gregorio Cortez or Jacinto Treviño (2, 802-809), such a theory views these poems of celebration of "local" or "marginal" cultural heroes as inherently no lesser than lyric forms which celebrate a poet's lover or the poet's self. Or when Charles Chesnutt's Uncle Julius tells a tale in "Sis' Becky's Pickaninny" designed to restore one of his listeners to health, such a theory enables us to understand Julius' efforts as paradigmatic of Chesnutt's own attempt to cure the disease of racism rampant among white Americans.

I have presented these issues of voice, audience, and function more or less independently, but obviously they are inseparable. So, I think, are two other reading strategies I like to employ; I call these "ethnographic" and "contextual." By these terms I mean to underline, in the first instance, what texts reveal to us about their world and, in the second, what we need to draw from outside the text to read it more fully.

iv. Ethnography

One of the first exercises I use in the early American literature survey course is to ask what stories like the Zuni "Talk Concerning the First Beginning" (1, 26-40), the Tlingit "Raven and Marriage" (1, 59-64), and the Tsimshian "Raven Makes a Girl Sick and Then Cures Her" (1, 64-66) reveal about their respective societies. What is wealth? How is proper behavior defined? What do people mostly eat? How do they think about sex? These and a variety of similar questions can be answered, or at least suggested, through careful readings of such tales. So, indeed, can these kinds of questions be answered by ethnographically reading texts like those of Bradford, John Smith, Thomas Morton, and Jonathan Edwards, not to speak of Franklin, Cooper, and Frederick Douglass. Consistently approaching this range of texts ethnographically deconstructs the cultural distinction dramatized in New York by the separation across Central Park of the Museum of Natural History, where one found Indian "artifacts," and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where one found the "fine arts"--and, of course, classical period pots.

The point is reinforced by balancing the ethnographic reading of the tribal texts with a careful formal analysis of them. The Zuni tale, in particular, rewards formal study, in part because its repetitive, formulaic features call attention to themselves and often strike today's Anglo students as obtrusive. Most of its features can easily be catalogued, but explaining their purposes or their value is less simple. On the other hand, the very distance of Zuni narrative forms from Anglo student expectations encourages discussion of cultural assumptions and differences. As one of my students put it: "I found the Zuni forms hard to get close to; they seemed strange and a little boring. But then it occurred to me that they might find the songs and poems I like strange and a little boring, too. Does how we write come from the kind of society we live in?" Such formal study also acts as a corrective to the dangerous assumption that texts directly reveal cultural and social patterns. The Zuni narrative makes very clear that such patterns are mediated for us by elaborately formal structures and particular language patterns.

The other virtue of practicing such ethnographic reading, I think, is that it enables students to deal creatively with more complex examples. I want to use as an instance a little-known poem by the nineteenth-century Cherokee poet and journalist John Rollin Ridge. Called "The Stolen White Girl" (1, 1777-1778), some of its stanzas go as follows:

The prairies are broad, and the woodlands are wide

And proud on his steed the wild half-breed may ride,

With the belt round his waist and the knife at his side.

And no white man may claim his beautiful bride.

Though he stole her away from the land of the whites,

Pursuit is in vain, for her bosom delights

In the love that she bears the dark-eyed, the proud,

Whose glance is like starlight beneath a night-cloud. . .

The contrast between them is pleasing and rare;

Her sweet eye of blue, and her soft silken hair,

Her beautiful waist, and her bosom of white

That heaves to the touch with a sense of delight;

His form more majestic and darker his brow,

Where the sun has imparted its liveliest glow--

An eye that grows brighter with passion's true fire,

As he looks on his loved one with earnest desire.

Oh, never let Sorrow's cloud darken their fate,

The girl of the "pale face," her Indian mate! . . .

It is not my purpose to make grandiose claims for this poem, though its thumping regularity marks its obeisance to popular nineteenth-century norms. But it is an extremely clever mockery of a whole set of racist icons deeply rooted precisely in that popular American culture: the menacing half-breed, here become proud and virile; the "abducted" and asexual blonde maiden, here become sensual and full of desire; the "fate worse than death," here become "their sweet hours." Even the cowboy and Indian definition of a happy ending, generally the disappearance of the Indians, is brought into question--though rather more ambiguously than the other racist clichés. To "read through" the poem's details, perhaps even its formal schemes, into the assumptions it parodies is to construct a devastating picture of the kind of ideology upon which James Fenimore Cooper's--not to speak of Hollywood's--effects depend. In fact, teaching Cooper (especially Magua's speech and Cora's response from The Last of the Mohicans, 1, 1303-1307), Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie (1, 1309-1322), work by Indian writers like George Copway (1, 1453-1466) and Elias Boudinot (1, 1761-1769), together with this poem is, I have found, a particularly helpful tactic for deconstructing critical pieces of American ideology regarding the noble but disappearing savage.

v. Context

Ethnographic readings help students to see how deeply particular cultures penetrate works that arise from them--an obvious enough point, unless one has been brought up to believe in the "timelessness" of true works of art. Such readings also prepare the ground for a form of reading which, at least in my experience, today's college students (and graduates) are most reluctant to undertake, and that is any richly conceived contextual examination of a work. Knowing about late nineteenth-century U. S. immigration history generally, and the prejudice against Chinese particularly, enables students to read Sui Sin Far's "In the Land of the Free" (2, 895-901) as a paradigm of the immigrant tale. It focuses on a struggle for the younger generation between a child's mother and American institutions: La Mígra (the customs agents), the legal system, the church, and, of course, the schools. Lae Choo, the wife, is identified with traditional values: caring for parents, valuing the old country, its institutions and culture. In such respects, she is much like Teta Elzbieta, in Sinclair's The Jungle (2, 815-828), or Gitl, the rejected wife of Abraham Cahan's Jake in Yekl (2, 878-884). Her husband, the Chinese merchant Hom Hing, has in many ways already acquiesced to his "place" in the white way of things and thus plays an ambiguous role, standing between Lae Choo and the officials who deprive her of her "little one." In part, the story offers an inside ethnography of the uneven struggle between turn-of-the-century immigrants and the institutional pressures for "Americanization" brought to bear on them. At the same time, however, the story requires sensitivity to the distinctively hostile environment, expressed in the Chinese Exclusion Act and in the particular ways Hom Hing is treated, faced by these specific immigrants.

Similar contextualizing processes are very useful in helping students to understand the burden of feeling which underlies more or less contemporaneous high modernist texts, like those of Henry Adams, T. S. Eliot, or Ernest Hemingway. My argument is not that their work resists close textual analysis, but rather that their tone of genteel pessimism, the sense of loss and decline which characterizes much of their writing, will best be understood as products of the enormous cultural shift symbolized and in part produced by the First World War and 1919. If America represented for immigrants both opportunity and a fundamental disruption of original social and cultural values, so immigration (and northern migration of southern blacks) partly expressed for America's dominant classes the changed world that was no longer altogether "theirs." Immigrant and modernist texts can thus become parts of the context that, I think, significantly illuminates both.

If the white majority of our students need contexts to read works out of "their own" heritage, how much more is that true when they are asked to approach minority or marginalized texts. I have often used "Aunt Chloe's Politics" to show how knowledge of Gilded Age and Reconstruction politics and of the women's rights struggle are important to elucidating the poem. Similarly, an understanding of the fabrication of turn-of-the-century racist policies and the institutionalization of Jim Crow clarifies Chesnutt's aspirations for his fiction and thus his tactics for teaching his audience. Information about the urbanization of black people and the defeat of progressive social ideas and organizations during and after World War One, and about the interest of modernist intellectuals in "primitive" cultures, illuminates a great deal about the ambiguous relationships between white and black modernisms in the twenties. English majors have, in my experience, often been trained to resist historicizing texts; that amounts almost to a "language" barrier in studying any genuinely multi-cultural curriculum.

vi. Comparative Study

Finally, as most of my specific illustrations have been designed to suggest, my basic strategy in teaching a multi-cultural American literature is what I have termed "comparative." That involves taking up together and reading against one another not only writers like Thoreau and Kirkland, but, to choose a few examples, John Smith, William Bradford, Thomas Morton, and Richard Frethorne, and all four with Cabeza de Vaca or Villagra; Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and Phillis Wheatley; Judith Sargent Murray and Washington Irving; Edgar Allan Poe and Alice Cary; Sarah Orne Jewett and Stephen Crane; Mary Wilkins Freeman and Jack London; Henry Adams and W. E. B. DuBois; T. S. Eliot and Langston Hughes. Just to sketch some processes without fleshing them out: I try to get students to compare Smith, Bradford, Morton, and Frethorne on the basis of class origins, religious affiliations, fundamental world-view and aspirations, ideas about Indians and purposes in writing. Both Crèvecoeur and Wheatley ask "what is an American?" For Crèvecoeur (1, 895-899) --taking himself as an archetypical American farmer--he has been "melted into a new race of men" from pilgrims of all the nations of Europe; as a tiller of the soil, "the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest." Wheatley can symbolize America in the image of Columbia:

The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair,

Olive and laurel bind her golden hair. . .

But she also recognizes how little, as an African and a slave, she is herself assimilable to that image. Rather, in poems like her "To William, Earl of Dartmouth" and her "Reply to . . . the Gentleman in the Navy" she begins to construct a new form of identity, that of the hyphenated African-American--at once "American," by virtue of arrival in the new world, democratic ideology, and the adoption of colonial English cultural forms; and "African," by virtue of racial stock, historical experience, contrasting (Pagan) religious origins, and, not least, the racial views of her compatriots. It is precisely her "Africanness" that provides the knowledge and authority she requires to instruct the students at Harvard about their moral and educational obligations ("To the University of Cambridge. . . ") and that enables her to develop, before many of her new countrymen, a critique of British tyranny.

I have set Judith Sargent Murray and Washington Irving next to each other to see how gender myths were being constructed--and deconstructed--at the turn of the nineteenth-century. Both are humorists, but the forms as well as the butts of their humor provide delicious contrasts. Similarly, I study Sarah Orne Jewett ("A White Heron" and "The Foreigner," 2, 112-135) and Stephen Crane ("The Open Boat" and "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," 2, 697-721) together because they reveal so much about contrasting female and male assumptions, languages, fictional patterns, and subjects--in short, cultures. The comparative tactics that can be devised using such an inclusive text as is the Heath Anthology of American Literature seem to me limited only by our imaginations and what it is that we want to emphasize in any term and with any particular class.

But it is not just the spice of this variety that I recommend. I have argued at some length elsewhere2 that a comparative strategy is central to understanding "marginalized" writings. Here I only wish to emphasize the effectiveness of this approach in opening the full range of American writings to our students.


1. The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 1, 1932-1933. Other page references in the text are to the Heath Anthology. One peripheral virtue to using the Markham and Joe Hill poems is to illustrate to students that, however comprehensive the new Heath Anthology is, there are always interesting works that fall even beyond its scope.

2. "American Literature as a Comparative Discipline," in Canons and Contexts. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

"The new Heath Anthology is an exciting venture from which my students have already begun to benefit. It is the first anthology that presents the instructor with the opportunity to make extensive use of noncanonical texts."

Professor Lawrence Buell,
Harvard University

Contents, No. IV