1991 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 name the two winners of the 1991 D. C. Heath Student Essay Contest. They are Jason Ehrlich, a student at the State University of New York-Buffalo, with the first place essay, and Suzanne Aylor, a student at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, with the second place essay.
Both essays, chosen from a wide array of entries, demonstrate fine student writing and creative thinking. The work of these writers, and all the entrants, shows that canonical works and works from the expanded canon of the Heath Anthology can shed light on each other and lead students to new insights about American literature.
We thank all of the student entrants and their instructors for sharing their insights and efforts with us. (Instructors may feel free to duplicate these essays for classroom use without requested permission.)
First Place Essay
Title: Marginal Lives
Nicholasa Mohr, who penned "A Thanksgiving Celebration (Amy)" and Saul Bellow, who composed "Looking for Mr. Green," are two authors whose acute awareness of social class comes across forcefully in their work. Social status is a focal point of Mohr's story, as it depicts the attempt of the main character-Amy Guzman-to escape the position of low wealth and power in which she has become trapped. Bellow's story is that of George Grebe, a man who has been brought to an unaccustomed low in social position by the Great Depression, and whose job is, ironically, to deliver relief checks to those who have experienced even greater misfortune. The social indicators in these stories are made prominent by various stylistic devices, most notably including setting, imagery, tone, narrative, and use of peripheral characters.
The stage is set for both stories through vivid, powerful descriptions of their poverty-stricken locales. Mohr employs repetition to describe the "rows and rows of endless streets scattered with abandoned buildings and small houses" that comprise Amy's neighborhood. It is an area of the Bronx that is disturbing to visualize and positively dangerous to live in. Gangs, drug addicts, and alcoholics rule the streets, while fires continually destroy the comparatively few buildings that still contain tenants. Amy lives in this nightmarish place, and must not only be concerned with her own welfare, but also with that of her four small children. To Amy, her neighborhood is no better than the bombed-out German cities she saw as a child on the newsreels. She wonders what she has done to deserve such a low standing on the social ladder that she cannot afford to live elsewhere.
Bellow never introduces the reader to George Grebe's neighborhood, as the entire story takes place in the predominantly black section of Chicago where Grebe delivers government checks. It is difficult to imagine any part of town that needs government money more than this one. Bellow describes it as a "giant raw place," with "factories boarded up, buildings deserted or fallen, gaps of prairie in between." The Depression has accelerated the already rapid decline of this neighborhood, an area which had been rebuilt only fifty years before, following the Great Fire. The district's dismal aura is made to seem all the worse by the cold, windy weather and the dark, decrepit residences that Grebe comes across everywhere he goes. This setting is a clear indicator of the poverty of the neighborhood's residents, and even though Grebe is not one of them, it colors the reader's perspective of his life as well.
Though both stories are set in similarly impoverished areas, they begin
in very different ways. When Mohr's story begins, the reader sees Amy being
victimized by other people and by unfortunate events. Firstly, her roof
is leaking and her landlord will not fix it. Then Mohr describes her neighborhood,
and how the destruction afflicting the area as a whole is coming closer
and closer to her building each day, "never stopping even for a night's
rest." Soon after, Mohr relates the story of Charlie's death in an
automobile accident with a drunk driver on the Bruckner Expressway. When
this tragic tale has been told, and it seems that Amy cannot be any worse
off, the reader learns that her lawyers are making little effort to ensure
that she receives the money that should accrue to her from the drunk driver's
family. Moreover, while she is lacking this money, she can do little to
make more for herself, as going to work would mean the end of the checks
she receives from the Aid to Dependent Children agency. As it is, those
checks barely enable her to scrape by. Clearly, Amy has fallen victim to
Whereas Amy is shown to be at the mercy of peripheral characters at the beginning of "A Thanksgiving Celebration," the emphasis is on Grebe himself at the outset of "Looking for Mr. Green." Bellow begins his story with a description of Grebe. This account of Grebe's personality gives the reader the impression that he is self-reliant, resolute, and has a good ability to overcome hardships. Apparently, though, those aspects of his personality are not helping him as much as one would think they would. The Depression has put him in a low social position, just as it has done to countless others. He is working in a Depression-created public-employment job, and hasn't had a prestigious job in quite a while. Once it is revealed that Grebe is university-educated, and has pretentions to be, as his boss Raynor says, "a man of culture," it seems strange to the reader that he maintains as low a place as he does on the social ladder.
This mystery can be cleared up, however, if one goes back to his description at the beginning of the story. It is rather vague, and it contains many ambiguities. Often, Bellow's description is more of what Grebe is not than of what he is. "He was not so mild as he looked, nor so youthful; and nevertheless there was no effort on his part to seem what he was not." Bellow gives the reader no indication of some positive, inner strength that Grebe might rely upon. Instead, Grebe seems to take comfort in ambiguities, as it is said that his eyes "persisted in some kind of thought and yet seemed to avoid definiteness of conclusion." Because he has this sort of nature, and because, as a butler's son and a university student, he has been brought up within "the system," he is incapable of fighting the system, but rather goes down with it when it is in a depression. Grebe appears unable to swim against society's tide.
The differing narrative techniques of the two stories reinforce this view of Grebe's personality. Grebe's actions, feelings, and thoughts are always described in the third person, whereas narratives about Amy, while usually in the third person, often slip into the first person in more heated moments-when ideas are hatching or when many conflicting emotions come on all at once. Such a technique is used when Amy is contemplating her prospects for this year's Thanksgiving. "Enough is enough. Amy shut her eyes. I want my own dinner this year, just for my family, for me and the kids." This narrative style gives the reader the feeling that Amy has more control over her life than does Grebe. Even in Grebe's most excited moments, such as at the end of the story, where he is confronted in his search for Mr. Green by a naked woman, the narrative remains in the third person. This contrast indicates to the reader that Amy is far more in touch with her emotions than Grebe is with his feelings.
This difference, hinted at in the style of narration, is more clearly exhibited by definite stylistic changes that take place in the latter stages of the two stories. As the stories progress, the emphases seen in their beginnings-that on peripheral characters in Mohr's story and that on the main character in Bellow's story-trade places. While Grebe is shown to be virtually helpless at the hands of others in his search for Mr. Green, "A Thanksgiving Celebration" focuses increasingly on Amy. Grebe seems to be losing control over his situation, and Amy appears to be gaining a degree of command over hers.
Amy realizes how foolish she has been to rely on the system-manifested in her lawyers-to take care of her, and sees the need to take charge of her life. Finally, she concludes about the coming Thanksgiving Day that "Tomorrow is going to be for us, just us, our day." Even though she does not seem to have the means to back up that conviction, she does indeed find a way to do so-by returning to the beliefs that had given her comfort when she was a little girl. In those days, her grandmother had told her stories about a mythical part of Puerto Rico where she grew up, in which animals talked, performed heroic deeds, and fell in love just as humans do. Although Amy's family had little more than the basic necessities, she never felt lacking for much, as she believed her grandmother's stories, and those stories had always been enough to sustain her. The system may be treating her badly now, but she has something that the system cannot touch-something she can truly rely upon. She passes these stories on to her children, and invents a wonderful new one of her own. Through this utilization of her roots, she does give them a magnificent Thanksgiving, and at the same time, gains more of a sense of her personal power and resourcefulness. Thus, the story ends on a hopeful note. Amy is on one of the lower rungs of the social ladder now, but it is difficult to imagine that a woman with her resourcefulness will be kept down there for long.
The effectiveness of this type of resourcefulness in the betterment of one's social position is further demonstrated in "Looking for Mr. Green" in the form of Staika. She has been a member of the lower social classes for years, but she makes a point of taking advantage of the system as much as possible. She does not let it beat her. Raynor believes this seemingly lowly woman wields real power, saying, without sarcasm, "she'll submerge everybody in time, and that includes nations and governments." Apparently, he believes that she has sufficient resoucefulness not only to ride out the depression successfully, but to truly improve her social position later on.
It is worth noting that Grebe wholeheartedly disagrees with this view. His disagreement illustrates his denial of the lesson that his experiences in the story seemingly should be teaching him-that one can indeed go against the system in an effective manner. Apparently, witnessing the case of Grebe, it is not necessarily true that those who believe in and follow the system will experience success.
It appears that the entire story of "Looking for Mr. Green" is about the near-betrayal of Grebe's trust in the system, and his ultimate inability to comprehend that his cherished system does not actually work in an effective manner to better people's positions in society. His determination to go by the system in looking for Mr. Green is proven superficial in the end, as the characters he meets in his quest-characters whom Bellow brings increasingly to the fore during the course of the story-make a mockery of his procedural orientation. This theme can be seen from the very start of Grebe's search. As soon as he sets out, he is easily dismissed by a grocer. Following this episode, he is brushed off by the janitor of the apartment building in which Mr. Green is purported to live, as well as by several of the building's tenants. Grebe then meets an Italian grocer who goes so far as to tell him that he has virtually no chance of finding Mr. Green, but still Grebe refuses to believe it. After delivering a check successfully to a Mr. Winston Field, Grebe sets out in search of Mr. Green once more. Walking through the neighborhood, he starts to realize the futility of his search and the chaotic lack of organization in society, as he ponders the fact that he is trying to deliver a check "which no one visible asked for." He begins to wonder whether the system is just appearances, existing only because society consents to it, but he cannot bring himself to take this line of thought to a conclusion. Instead, he takes refuge in the fact that he has a real check in his pocket for Mr. Green, who must also be real because the system says that he is. Once again, Grebe returns to his reliance on the system. At the end of the story, Grebe cannot even be sure that he has found a real Mr. Green, and he ridicules himself for the way in which he pursued him. However, this self-ridicule fades away, and his belief in the system is renewed by the self-deception, apparently inevitable for Grebe to produce, that Mr. Green could indeed be found.
Thus, Bellow's story ends on an intentionally false note of certainty that the system will carry society through its rough times. Contrasting Amy, who learns that this belief is false, and who takes constructive action to build on that discovery, with Grebe, who refuses to learn this lesson, it seems that Amy will better her place in society, and that Grebe is capable of doing no better than holding his standing. Grebe's type of resourcefulness is useful when he is working within the system, but is of little value when he is in an unfamiliar, chaotic situation. The stylistics of the two stories strongly indicate that society is not well-ordered and organized, but rather a chaotic place in which one must have a great deal of inner strength if one expects to thrive. Amy is better equipped than Grebe to deal with a chaotic world, and as such, she can be expected to ascend the social ladder while Grebe can do little but stand still.
Second Place Essay
Title: Religious Arguments Used for Women's Rights and Slavery in
the Nineteenth Century
Religious arguments have been used for years to justify the oppression of women and slaves. The Bible, depending on how it is interpreted, can be used to prove almost any point. Many people in the nineteenth century used religious and Biblical arguments in their writings on slavery and women's rights, including Frederick Douglass, Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln, and Sojourner Truth. Although these authors were defenders of the rights of women and slaves, their writings provide examples of how religious arguments can be made for or against the oppression of women and slaves.
In the nineteenth century, women and slaves were in a parallel position. Feminists of this period often talked of the "slavery of sex" when speaking of a married woman's legal subservience to her husband and generally of the imprisonment of all women within the traditional concept of their role. This phrase suggests the close historical link between abolitionism and feminism. The women who first spoke out and organized for women's rights were abolitionists. Feminism grew out of abolitionism because the anti-slavery argument for human rights transcended both gender and color.
Due to the link in the two movements, feminism and abolitionism, it was possible to use the Bible as the one source from which arguments could be made for and against women's rights and the abolition of slavery. The Bible served as the touchstone of the cultivated as well as the ordinary churchgoer. The pertinence of the Holy Scripture could not be ignored (Perry and Fellman, Anti-slavery Reconsidered 327). Thus much time and energy was devoted to Biblical arguments. Today these arguments may seem old-fashioned, but in the nineteenth century they were at the heart of the controversy.
Pro-slavery arguments at this time mentioned the number of slaves being converted to Christianity. It was argued that more work was being done by pious masters and clergymen with the slaves than by missionaries with the people in foreign countries. Pious slaves were said to show "Christian submission, orderliness, and contented character" (Perry and Fellman, Anti-slavery Reconsidered 326). Thus many purported to believe that it was not wrong to hold slaves because the slaves that were converted to Christianity were content in slavery.
Frederick Douglass, on the other hand, tells us in his Narrative of the Life of an American Slave that religious slaveholders were the cruelest: "I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,-a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,- . . . a dark shelter under which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection" (1681-1682). Douglass goes on to explain that religious slaveholders were the worst of all. They believed that blacks were inferior and that they should be whipped by their masters as a reminder of the master's authority. They seemed to believe that God gave them the right to do so. They even felt religion encouraged blacks to be subservient and whites to be tyrannical. Many writers, however, spoke out against slavery from religious convictions. Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address showed that he did not believe that God willed the institution of slavery. He says, "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces" (1885-1886). Lincoln did not believe that a loving God could approve of such mistreatment of fellow men. He continues by saying that perhaps God is trying to end slavery through "this terrible war" (1886). Lincoln, like the clergy, saw the Civil War as "a divine chastisement of the entire nation" (Davis, Slavery 268). Because Americans had forgotten God, as attested by the institution of slavery, they must suffer the fate of war.
Angelina Grimké also used religious arguments to show how slavery was wrong. In her letter "Appeal to the Christian Women of the South," she uses the Bible as the foundation of her arguments that slavery should not exist. She says that slavery is "contrary to the first charter of human rights given to Adam and renewed to Noah." She goes on to say that "slavery never existed under the Jewish dispensation; but so far otherwise, that every servant was placed under the protection of the law, and care taken not only to prevent all involuntary servitude, but all voluntary perpetual bondage" (1827). Here Angelina Grimké refers to the laws of Hebrew slavery. Compared to the American system of slavery, the Hebrew system could not even be considered slavery. The Hebrew system was one "within which heathen were adopted into the Jewish state, educated and instructed in the worship of the true God, and in due time emancipated" (Stowe, Key 117). The law protected them from personal violence. The slave was a guest at family festivals. He could never be sold and his servitude ended after seven years.
Just as the Bible was used as a tool for pro-slavery arguments, it was also used to justify the oppression of women. Verses have been quoted proving that women should be submissive to their husbands. Early feminist writers used other Biblical passages to counter these arguments.
In her Letter XII, "Human Rights Not Founded on Sex" Angelina Grimké uses the Creation Story to prove that men and women are equals. In Milton's "Paradise Lost," he says that woman is "the last best gift of God to man" (1836). Angelina Grimké goes on to argue that woman was not given to man as a gift but created from his rib as his companion and equal: "not one hair's breadth beneath him in the majesty and glory of her moral being; not placed under his authority as a subject, but by his side, on the same platform of human rights, under the government of God only." She adds that the belief that woman was a gift to man from God has been the means of "turning her into an appendage to man, instead of recognizing her as a part of man-destroying her individuality, and rights, and responsibilities, and merging her moral being in that of man." Grimké goes on to say that the stature that God gave woman has been taken away and that she has been "subjected to the . . . control of man" (1837). Women's rights were thus taken from them by men because of the belief that men were superior since they were created first and because of the belief that God created woman for man.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton speaks of this same problem in the "Declaration of Sentiments." She says, "He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and to her God" (1899). She, like Angelina Grimké, believed that woman is ruled only by God and that man has no power over her. Also in the "Declaration of Sentiments," Elizabeth Cady Stanton talks about how women are only allowed to have lower positions in the church and in the government: "He allows her in Church, as well as State, but a subordinate position claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and, with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church" (1800). Here she is referring to verses by the apostle Paul such as I Corinthians 14:34, "Let your women keep silence in the church." This verse was used to keep women from holding high positions in the church.
Sojourner Truth also spoke out for women's rights using religious arguments. At a meeting on women's rights, ministers claimed men's superiority on the basis that Christ was a man, that " `if God had desired the equality of woman, He would have given some token of His will through the birth , life, and death of the Saviour' " (1911), and on the basis of Eve's sin. Sojourner Truth got up and spoke against these arguments. She said, "Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do wid Him." Against the argument that Eve caused the fall of man, she said, "If de fust woman God ever made was strong enough to turn de world upside down all alone, dese women togedder ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again!" (1912). She was able to counter these ministers' arguments with equally valid arguments from the Scriptures. In her "Speech at New York City Convention," she used the Old Testament story of Queen Esther to show how leaders no longer listen to women. Esther only wanted justice for her people and King Ahasuerus gave it to her along with half of his kingdom. However, all that women ask for now are their rights and they have gotten nothing. Sojourner Truth asks, "Can they ask for anything less?" (1914). She says that the king ordered Haman killed but the women's rights activists do not want men killed. They only want their rights. Here she uses a Biblical argument to show that women are asking for very little by demanding their rights.
The fact that religious arguments are used both for and against slavery and women's rights shows that the Bible can be interpreted in different ways. A verse can be understood to mean many things and thus can be used to prove different points. During an argument with the Reverend Henry Grew at the 1854 National Women's Rights Convention, Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister who was active in the anti-slavery movement said, "The Bible has been ill-used. It has been turned over and over in every reform. The temperance people have had to feel its supposed denunciations. Then the anti-slavery and now this reform has met, and still continues to meet, passage after passage of the Bible, never intended to be so used" (Perry and Fellman, Anti-slavery Reconsidered 244).
Davis, David Brion, ed. Slavery and Human Progress. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Lauter, Paul, ed. The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Lexington, Massachusetts: D. C. Heath and Company, 1990.
Perry, Lewis, and Fellman, Michael, eds. Anti-slavery Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Abolitionists. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1968.