«I learned – at least – what home could be» The house as a haven for America’s literature and identity20 min read

Di seguito presentiamo con piacere il saggio «I learned – at least – what home could be»  The house as a haven for America’s literature and identity scritto da Mathilde Bathelier. Il saggio è stato presentato durante la Prima Edizione del Best Essay Award indetto da CanadaUsa.net a Marzo del 2017 ed è stato premiato come “Honourable Mention”.

Introduction
The concept of home in de Crèvecoeur’s Letters
Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie: two different attitudes
Thoreau on simple living
The Fireside Poets
Women writers and home values
Emily Dickinson and “The Infinite Power of Home”
The depiction of everyday life in William Carlos Williams’s poetry
Conclusions
Works cited

 

Introduction

«And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.»
Gospel of Mark, 3:25

Because of its domestic and highly intimate dimension, the space of the house in literature is not where we would instinctively engage a research on the making of a national identity for the United-States of America. Indeed, on the face of the most emblematic masterpieces forging national distinctiveness such as Emerson’s Nature, Thoreau’s Walden or settlement stories, we would naturally be more incline to designate pastoral Arcadia, the sense of awe triggered by the contemplation of nature’s wilderness and the great landscapes setting America’s blossoming history as the most aggregative topics in the making of national community, along with religious rhetorics.

Yet, the act of building or inhabiting a house is a way of engaging the landscape. The recluse space of the house may seem to enter in contradiction with the idea of discovery that characterizes both the country and its literature, it is however a territory in itself, that allows to root the selfhood in the world. Even if the motive does not take precedence in the mind when discussing the literary elements creating the national myth, it deals with different ideas more obviously crucial such as the issues of home, property, independence, individuality, civilization, separation between private and public life, and with the imagery of authorship. As Carolin F. Levander notices in Where is American Literature? «The links between authorship and residential architecture are an enduring feature of the American literary landscape». I do believe that American literature might sleep under the stars as well as in a well-furnished cottage of New-Hampshire or Massachusetts.

To understand the roots of such a centrality of the house, we need to start now from wider considerations on the notion of home. The concept of home in the United States of America acquires further definition when related to the imageries of the settlers, and when compared to the stories of European establishment in Canada.

 

The concept of home in de Crèvecoeur’s Letters

In both Canadian and American narratives the home rhetoric flourishes, although the great idea of a land of its own is more determinant for the United States, where historical tensions are underpinned by the matter of emancipation from the Old World in a more definite way.

St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813) publishes his Letters
from an American Farmer
in 1782, the form is an address from a fictional American narrator to an English recipient. One of the letters, «What is an American» is a strong plea in favor of «making a living for oneself» as life principle, and a vivid expression of the belief that men are the result of the environment they inhabit : «Men are like plants: the goodness and flavor of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow». In this letter, the narrative axis is occasionally interrupted by descriptive or rather reflexive moments on the feeling of being at home. Home is generally the country, but more precisely the land, and its climax resides in the house:

Whenever I go abroad, it is always involuntary. I never return home without feeling some pleasing emotion, which I often suppress as useless and foolish. The instant I enter in my own house, the bright idea of property, of exclusive right, of independence exalt my mind.

This quote is one discrete example of a decisive ambiguity: as St. John de Crèvecoeur’s narrator never refines what he means by «abroad», a doubt subsists on the meaning of this term. Does he refer to a trip to Europe, to an expedition outside of the State, or simply to a jaunt outside of his own land? This last supposition is plausible, given the progression of these three sentences: outside of the farmer’s own house or own land, it could already be «abroad». Although the title that de Crèvecoeur has given to this letter makes clear that he believes in the idea of a distinct nation, he also hints at the idea of the house as what we might call a small nation of its own, and domestic life as the condition of happiness:

When I contemplate my wife, by my fire-side, while she either spins, knits, darns or suckles our child, I cannot describe the various emotions of love, gratitude, of conscious pride, which thrill in my heart and often overflow in involuntary tears. (…) It is true these pleasing images vanish with the smoke of my pipe, but though they disappear from my mind, the impression they have made on my heart is indelible.

The narrator more explicitly refers to his house as «the small sanctuary where my family resides», underlining the sacrality of the family unit’s individuality and intimacy. De Crèvecoeur’s letters are openly fictional, this is paradoxically why their intent can easily be brought to light, and especially their propaganda that draws the outlines of a literary and national particularity. In the way of life he describes, the supreme reward is to be able to come back home after labor, when the european farmer’s home is not truly his. While dignifying the American farmer to attract disappointed Europeans, while praising the emancipation that consists in owning a house, he engraves a certain idea of America in the collective conscience.

 

Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie: two different attitudes

The Canadian storytelling concerning the arrival and acclimatization of European settlers demonstrates less effort in the definition of a distinct nation. Two main testimonies – and best-sellers – The Backwoods of Canada by Catharine Parr Traill (1802-1899), published in London in 1836, and Roughing it to the Bush by Susanna Moodie (1803-1885), published in 1852, contrast with de Crèvecoeur, as they present two reflections of great sensibility and authenticity on the difficulties and joys in the process of making themselves at home, rather than a plea, yet they both shaped Canada.

These two sisters settle down not far from the current Peterborough (Ontario) but express their state of mind during this experience very differently. Catharine Parr Traill writes to her mother about her installation, she seems resourceful, very observing and hopeful, whereas Susanna Moodie’s memoir reflects her homesickness and the suffering endured in these new wild surroundings. Rootlessness and the accommodation of the household are two major themes, but once again the birth place detachment is less clear than de Crèvecoeur’s radical preference for America, and expressed with more of a personal sensitivity. This attachment to the birth nation indeed distinguishes Moodie’s narrative who traded her middle-class comforts for Canadian roughness, her new house literally bends under the wilderness, the snow, the wind that cracks in the walls so that she comes to call it the «prison-house», where she has to bear the loss of an Eden England in a climate of regret:

The homesickness was sore upon me, and all my solitary hours were spent in tears. My whole soul yielded up to a strong and overpowering grief. One simple word dwelt for ever in my heart, and swelled it to bursting -« Home!» I repeated it waking a thousand times a day and my last prayer before I sank to sleep was still « Home! Oh, that i could return, if only to die at home!»

Moodie’s poem, The Lament of a Canadian Emigrant (Chapter IV) closes an ironical chapter about the pioneer society she observes. Occasionally, the prose chapters demonstrate comic features, whereas the final poem gives an elegiac conclusion that underlines the tragic of her situation. «Oh Canada! Thy Gloomy woods» (Chapter V) on the contrary shows – in spite of its darkness – the first steps of the acceptance of her emigrant situation :

I dash regretful tears away,
And lift my thoughts above:
In humble gratitude to bless
The Almighty hand that spread
Our table in the wilderness,
And gave my infants bread.

Catharine Parr Traill is certainly more enthusiastic and willing to call Canada home: although she states in Letter XV «I must ever give the preference to Britain», she continues «there are new and delightful ties that bind me to Canada: I have enjoyed much domestic happiness since I came hither;—and is it not the birthplace of my dear child». One interesting aspect of Catharine Parr Traill’s testimony, and insightful as regards to the discrepancies with the American literary treatment of european exile, is how she tries to inseminate Canada with English details, to appreciate familiarity rather than completely embracing the unknown, like her wish to import English flowers:

«I am very desirous of having the seeds of our wild primrose and sweet violet preserved for me; I long to introduce them in our meadows and gardens.», Letter IX

Likewise, Elizabeth Thompson comments Moodie’s description of her house and garden in these terms:

Our new habitation stood on a gentle slope; and a narrow but lovely stream, full of pretty speckled trout, ran murmuring under the little window; the house also, was surrounded by fine fruit-trees (…)» betrays her attempt « to apply a British rhetorical apparatus onto a distinctly different space, which, naturally, resists the move making Moodie’s description grotesque.
(Thompson, Elizabeth. «’Roughing It in the Bush’: Patterns of Emigration and Settlement in Susanna Moodie’s Poetry», in Canadian Poetry. 1997, pp. 58-73)

Elizabeth Thompson also notices that this tendency fades throughout the book to finally reveal «a Canada that is home» with a vigorous new way of describing it.

This detour through two pioneer testimonies funding a Canadian canon is a key to distinguish an American literary particularity regarding the home and house topoi. Moodie and Traill’s stories indicate a long process of settlement and acclimatization to a country that would become their home but still be longly and tightly linked to England. By contrast, the tension towards emancipation that – often violently – characterized the United States of America’s history has probably produced an immediateness in the claiming of autonomy and self-sufficiency throughout literature, defining the house as its sacred haven as well as a means to root the self in the homeland.

Thoreau on simple living

The reflexion on the house, the ownership, the necessary of life and the engagement of the land has been furthered in the American literature in many occasions, but none has been as fascinating and everlasting in the literary patrimony as Walden (1854). Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) demonstrates continuity lines with the settler narratives, particularly on the topic of independence, but he develops a reflexion on simplicity and more decisively «makes a symbol out of his life» (Marx, Leo. “Walden as Transcendental Pastoral”. 1968, pp 101-112) for generations of Americans to come. The first chapter, «Economy» enunciates principles that would become fundamental in the American life ethic canons. The first principle is to own a house – obviously refusing to rent – and to build it :

There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simple and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged.

This extract reminds us of the comparison made by de Crèvecoeur, who envies «the astonishing art which all birds display in the construction of their nests», but adds the dimension of a house fitted for poetic faculty, where de Crèvecoeur meant to praise the bird’s dedication to its family : «their love to their dame, their incessant careful attention, and the peculiar songs they address to her while she tediously incubates their eggs, remind me of my duty». In spite of the cruciality of ownership, Thoreau despises the «insane ambition of the nations to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave» and praises a house that provides the bare necessities, describing his very humble set of furniture.

Thoreau’s real originality resides nevertheless in the way he apprehends his house’s relationship both to the universe and to himself: «What is a house if not a sedes, a seat ? » (Chapter «Where I lived and what I lived for»). The house and its inhabitant both reflect on each other: «Better paint your house your own complexion, let it turn pale or blush for you.», it becomes the condition and the expression of individuality.

In Walden, the house and furniture are somewhere in an indefinite space between nature and civilization.

With this more substantial shelter about me, I had made some progress toward settling in this world. This frame, so slightly clad, was a sort of realization around me, and reacted on the builder. I did not need to go out doors to take the air, for the atmosphere within had lost none of its freshness.

This sentence is one brilliant example of the house paradox in Walden in all its richness: the house appears as both the prolongation of the atmosphere and landscape, that is to say that it somehow merges with nature, and yet allows its inhabitant to resolutely engage its selfhood in the world.

The Fireside Poets

A whole section of American literary Nineteenth century tends to present the houses as shelters, as ramparts against overwhelming cities, economic crisis, turbulent politics and social violences.

The so-called Fireside poets, or Household poets, aimed at procuring by their poetry – the poetry of home and the affections as defined by Thomas Wortham – the home safety that appears to «have vanished with the old ways and customs» (Wortham, Thomas. “William Cullen Bryant and the Fireside Poets “, 1988). The number of pages that anthologies of American poetry grant this movement tends to diminish through the ages, along with the critics recognition, maybe precisely because of the domestic themes occasioning moral lessons. Because of the evolution of poetic canons we could hardly defend this conventionality (in the form as well as in the principles stated), but the question of the Fireside Poets’ literary genius is not the point here. It is indeed essential to analyse the Fireside Poets movement for what it has been: a true canon for scholarship. Because of their convenient form and themes, these poems were memorized at school, and also recited in the family sphere, at home, likely after dinner.

This great influence on the pupils, American citizens to be, and within the families, made the fireside and the household melody everlasting in the national imageries, along with for instance Platt Powell Ryder’s genre paintings.

Women writers and home values

In her chapter «The Rise of the Woman Author», Nina Baym explains that the women encouraged to write in the Nineteenth century encountered an increasing audience, in the image of Sarah Josepha Hale, and that they took advantage of this medium to «give the readers a series of models to help them become the men and women of a reconstituted nation» based on a flowering house life. We cannot restrict the explanation of this literary phenomenon to a conservative stance among these women, it would be reducing if not parodying a wider reflexion on the American aspiration and a deeper commitment to «the values fostered by home: affiliation, intimacy, altruism». This literature encountered a great fortune and contributed to the creation of long-lasting images and representations for the American nation.

Emily Dickinson and “The Infinite Power of Home”

For other women, the house could be a safe space to nourish intellectual aspirations without overpassing their assigned place in the society. Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) was for instance «conductor of conversation» for women at their own house. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) appears as the luminous case of self-empowerment within the walls of her (father’s) house. Yet she can’t be understood as part of the women authors just mentioned, although she does put her verbal brilliance at the service of a poetry that crowns the intimate and emotional realm over financial and down-to-earth values, and believed in a feminine deeper understanding.

Her «At home» life, as stated by her death certificate, perfectly suits her literary sensibility and aspiration. She made an asset out of two burdens, the traditional place of woman in New-England that was assigned to her, and her eye problems responsible for a high sensitivity to light that kept her from participating to any kind of public life. Her poetry seems to always put in balance familiarity and exile, even if she barely got out of her house. She prays «The Infinite Power of Home », and somehow can remind us of Thoreau’s experience in the woods, but it is undoubtable that her experience of what she calls «Sumptuous Solitude» was actually more radical and intimate. However she also strangely deals with the melancholic feeling of expatriation, in poems such as Away from home are some and I

Away from Home are some and I –
An Emigrant to be
In a Metropolis of Homes
Is easy, possibly –
The Habit of a Foreign Sky
We – difficult – acquire
As Children, who remain in Face
The more their Feet retire

How could Emily Dickinson be away from a home she never left? She might be this emigrant, but the «to be» lets us glimpse this possibility without realizing it, though she is aware of the existence of a Metropolis of Homes, a community of coexisting intimacies. Knowing about her reclusive life and her well-known statements such as «within is so wild a place», we could interpret the exile theme as the exile of the mind.

This «within» could thus refer to both within the walls and within her own subjectivity, implying that there is so much to travel, elucidate and create in her own mind that she can be away from home and engage with the adventure of life. Could Emily Dickinson be the singing cage bird that she writes about? Following this interpretation, the house would be her cage, that at the same time imprisons and makes possible the sheer energy of expression by the voicing of a lively cry of beauty. She states that « Home is the definition of God», that is to say an almighty guardian as well as the source of artistic expression awaiting exploration. Yet the more illustrious achievement of Emily Dickinson appears as her capacity to be her own home, by her own poetic mission she realizes her self-inhabitation and self-possession, subverting what her contemporanean society would expect from womanhood:

There is a solitude of space,
A Solitude of sea,
A Solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself –
Finite Infinity.

Emily Dickinson thus importantly contributes to inscribe the image of the «At Home» writer in the literary landscape of the United States; her «Homestead» in Amherst has become a very frequented place of tourism that agitates the imagination and roots the author’s figure in the national territory.

The depiction of everyday life in William Carlos Williams’s poetry

A new poetry follows Emily Dickinson’s intimate home poetry in the Twentieth century . William Carlos Williams’s aesthetic for instance depicts the details of everyday life with great familiarity, originality and liveliness. Paterson, a 2016 movie directed by Jim Jarmusch, pays tribute to William Carlos Williams (1883-1863) and his sensitive way of engaging reality. Jarmusch chooses to make Paterson’s house a real haven of peace for Paterson and his girlfriend, as well as an important source of inspiration for his poetry and her inexhaustible artistic creativity. Ron Padgett’s poems punctuate the movie, exalting the idea of discovery at home for the smallest items, by giving them great dignity:

We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip,
though we used to prefer Diamond brand.
That was before we discovered Ohio Blue Tip
matches. They are excellently packaged, sturdy little
boxes with dark and light blue and white labels with
words lettered on the shape of a megaphone, as if to
say even louder to the world,
“Here is the most beautiful match in the world,
its one and a half inch soft pine stem capped by
a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious
and stubbornly ready to burst into flame (…)

Conclusions

There is a whole world indoors, there is a whole world within. The house is a fruitful motive in the American literature, a multifaceted place of identity negotiations, incarnation of America’s independence, prolongation of the self or the landscape, way of claiming its belonging to the world, haven of affiliation values, realm of the sensibility… Caroline F. Levander explains that «a character, as well as an author, requires a proper setting». Given its engagement with the territory, as a distinctive patrimony, it is not surprising that the author’s house encounters such a success and crystallizes curiosity. Visiting Mark Twain’s house or Emily Dickinson’s homestead nourishes the American imagery of the author, for those who hope to unravel the mystery of their emblematic writing. In the Twentieth century, the motive of the house gets renewed and subverted, becoming the occasion of a discourse on segregation, marginality or on the burden of the past, at the image of 124 Bluestone Road, brilliantly depicted by Toni Morison in her masterpiece Beloved.

Works cited

  • de Crèvecoeur, J. Hector St John, “What is an American” in Letters from an American Farmer. 1872
  • Moodie, Susanna, Roughing it in the Bush, 1852
  • Thoreau. Henry David, Walden, 1854
  • Dickinson, Emily, and R.W Franklin, The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, 1998
  • Morrison, Toni, Beloved: A Novel, New York: Knopf, 1987
  • Williams, William Carlos, Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams. New York: New Directions Pub., 1968
  • Elliott, Emory, Martha Banta, and Houston A. Baker, The Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia U.P., 1988
  • Levander, Caroline Field, ‘In the House’, in Where is American Literature?. Wiley Blackwell, 2013
  • Marx, Leo, ‘Walden as Transcendental Pastoral’, in Ruland Richard, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Walden: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 101-112
  • Thompson, Elizabeth, ‘’Roughing It in the Bush’: Patterns of Emigration and Settlement in Susanna Moodie’s Poetry’, in Canadian Poetry. 1997, pp. 58-73
  • Dickinson, Emily, and R.W Franklin, “I learned – at least – what home could be” in The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, 1998
  • Traill, Catharine P, The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters From the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America, 1836
  • Marx, Leo. « Walden as Transcendental Pastoral », in Ruland Richard, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Walden: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968, pp. 101-112
  • Wortham, Thomas, ‘William Cullen Bryant and the Fireside Poets’, in Elliott, Emory, Martha Banta, and Houston A. Baker, The Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia U.P., 1988
  • Baym, Nina ‘The Rise of the Woman Author’, in Elliott, Emory, Martha Banta, and Houston A. Baker, The Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia U.P., 1988
  • Martin, Wendy, ‘Emily Dickinson’, in Elliott, Emory, Martha Banta, and Houston A. Baker, The Columbia Literary History of the United States. New York: Columbia U.P., 1988
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By | 2017-06-01T10:49:21+00:00 maggio 3rd, 2017|Best Essay Award|0 Comments

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