Monday, November 22, 2010

American Expansion by KZ

In rereading one of my favorite authors, Steven Crane, I realized that I had yet
to actually review one of his works. While The Red Badge of Courage is perhaps my
favorite, I’d like to save it for another time. Instead, since I covered one transformation of
the American Frontier last week with Zitkala-Sa, I figured I’d cover a more positive view
of American Expansion.
In The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, Crane illustrates the eventual movement of
society’s borders by showing how civilization comes to tame the Wild West. The story
deals with movement and transformation, not on a personal level, but on a societal level.
As marriage and family come into Yellow Sky, Texas, the world of the wild frontier
dissolves away. Ultimately this story describes the overall change that society hoped and
argued for at the time. The belief that men could not exist as proper men in as natural
a place as the prairie or the plains of Texas, was widely held by the majority; only the
trappings and suits of society could dress a man properly. So if a man can’t exist in such
a place, that place must be changed so a man can exist there. This is what Crane argues
in his story, that through physically changing the nature of his surroundings, a man can
make a more positive and comfortable life for himself anywhere in America.
The world of Yellow Sky is not wholly wild when the reader is introduced to it,
as the prairie or the woods that we see in other literature at the time. Society had already
been slowly encroaching on the frontier, and as each wave from the east grew stronger
and stronger, what little resistance of the wild ways gave out. In Yellow Sky even the
last savage man, Scratchy, has been partially civilized, as noticed in his “eastern” clothes.
The fancy “maroon shirt” and “gilded boots” adorn a man who is being absorbed by
the influences of civilization, but is still a base creature of the wilderness. The opposite
of Scratchy, is Jack, who has taken a bride and brought her back to Yellow Sky in an
attempt to bring the last few traditions of civilization to the frontier. When confronted
by his rival, the marshal stares down his ties to a savage past and simply steps away,
saying, “I’m married.” Scratchy is forced to withdraw and disappear as a result of
this “foreign condition” which reduces him to “a simple child of the earlier plains.”
The last traces of wildness ebb out of the white man, and civilized man is left standing
and married to his “drooping, drowning woman,” a symbol for the family’s struggle to
survive in the wild. As Crane concludes his story, the woman is wilting, but not dead,
and she will grow stronger as Scratchy fades away and the trains keep running.
In slowly diluting the frontier with eastern influences, man is transforming the
wilds into a place where life is increasingly easier. While this mixture creates a suitable
environment for civilized man to live in, the consequences are questionable and hinted
at in much of the literature of the period. Things must die for such a metamorphosis to
take place, and again I bring up Charles Brockden Brown’s work, and James Fenimore
Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales series. In Brown’s Wieland it is Theodore, the link to
the irrational mind in wilderness seclusion. In The Bride comes to Yellow Sky, Scratchy
is forced off the scene, and the fight in him dies out as he realizes his last opponent has
gone. Coopers, The Prairie, finally, shows the decay of a family as wilderness’s harsh
nature buffets their defenses, and as members drop, the Bushes are forced back east to
seek safety in the number of civilization. Whether these are positive or negative changes
were unclear at the time, but looking back on them now, the reader can better decide.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

KZ Book Review - American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings

The first section of American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings
deals with the author, Zitkala-Sa’s, retellings of old Native American legends, focusing
specifically on the trickster Iktomi. Representing the malleable nature of mankind’s
will to survive and thrive, Iktomi moves among these stories causing mischief that
helps to form many of the rules, laws, and guidelines that governed life for the natives.
These types of legends are common among “primitive” people as they try to explain the
mysteries of their world. What is interesting about Zitkala-Sa’s tales is that they deal
with a time when the world was changing from the gods and spirits and the beginning
of Earth to a time when men would walk and thrive on its surface. These tales precede
a section dealing with a change of a similar nature. The Native American folk tales
illustrate how a transformation in civilization occurs naturally and peacefully, as
man inherits the Earth from nature. The problem arises when people like Iktomi use
unorthodox or unethical methods to force the change in their favor. Zitkala-Sa shows
how such men end up changing the world in negative ways; in the case of stories about
Old Man Coyote or Iktomi, things like death, disease, and segregation occur as a direct
result of their meddling. To explain why the Great Spirit does not give food feely to
man, but makes him toil to receive it from the Earth, she tells of Iktomi’s deceptive tears
that “No longer moved the hand of the Generous Giver. They were selfish tears. The
Great Spirit does not heed them ever”. As man gradually assimilates himself to his
surrounding, he attempts to peacefully adapt, but, as Zitkala-Sa notes, some men ruin
things for everyone.
Zitkala-Sa’s second section brings the tradition of Iktomi’s tricky manipulative
nature and places it into the spirit of the white man who seeks to expand into the frontier,
displacing the natives in the process. Writing at the end of the era where this expansion
took place, Zitkala-Sa forces the reader to acknowledge the actual consequences of the
changes Cooper, Crane, and Brown were writing about and advocating. In her stories
the last remnant of her native people are tricked away from their homes in the interest
of “civilizing” them. Tempted with red apples and taken away by the very trains that
brought civilization west, Zitkala-Sa represents the final product of the white man’s need
to socialize the North American continent. Stripped of her name, her “savage” clothes
and her native language, Zitkala-Sa comes to a stop in the final product of American
expansion, a country where there is no longer any wilderness.
This is the ultimate transformation that many of books of the era advocated at
the time, though not one of them could have anticipated the results such a change would
have. Certainly James Fenimore Cooper, who portrayed honorable Natives among the
savage ones in The Prairie, would not have wanted the entire culture snuffed out, and
Charles Brockden Brown, in highlighting the insanity of natural seclusion during the
events of his novel, Wieland, must not have wanted his country to go insane with the
notion of destroying the mysterious wilderness around them. While the transformations
depicted in these works are generally beneficial to the characters, the actual changes that
occurred in our country because of these attitudes where anything but positive. American
Indian Stories closes with the Native giving up the last of his land, “The old chieftain
sighed, but made no comment. Words were vain. He pressed his indelible thumb mark,
his signature it was, upon the deed, and drove home with his son,” and giving in to the
futility of opposing the expansion of the white man.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Little Triple P

Review by KZ
While rereading Jane Austin’s Persuasion this month, I realized that it connected to her
novel Pride and Prejudice in a very interesting way. Through setting and estate, the change in
social hierarchy that comes with a change in economy, industry, and personal identity was, and
still is, a primary concern of the wealthy and middle class, as preservation of wealth and status
concerns anyone who has worked hard for their gains. Identity through estate and setting is a
strong thematic element through which the distinctively separate characters of both Pride and
Prejudice and Persuasion are revealed and analyzed. Both books are similar in their treatment
of the then modern states of social class and responsibility, but while Pride and Prejudice
shows how an individual can affect a change (however small) into the viewing of such classes,
Persuasion reveals how economic change can forcefully thrust that change into the lives of
everyone involved in the system. P&P shows the change of the people within their strict setting,
while Persuasion’s more natural one explores the force to which the people react when their
setting changes. The two views are distinctly different, one is an analysis of how one changes the
estate through character, and the other is an analysis of how society can change the implications
of a man’s character and his estate.

As ­Pride reveals a world of distinct social classification, the gentry, who our key family
is a member of, sit below the nobles, but above the trade class. They have a place, and their
houses and estates are revealed to be within those lines. The rich families who have made money
through trade are outcasts, as the inherited rich and noble are the ones atop the social ladder.
Through this we are given Mr. Darcey, the rich young man who seems obsessed with social status
and environment. He is a seemingly distinct foil to Elizabeth, who is more focused on her
prejudices towards such snotty men. In the novel, the closing setting of Permberly provides an
excellent metaphor for what the two have achieved in their marriage. It is a model of change, a
modernized house that retains all of its ancestry and pride.
This is the change personified in the house, but alive in Elizabeth and Darcey. Through
his own pride in his class, Darcey has learned and been humbled to respect and be equal to a
woman beneath him (another review topic entirely), which is a more modern take on the old
notion of how marriages should be done. While marriage was once used to further the family
wealth, we are presented with two characters that, despite their different estates and social
statuses, are joined by love rather than propriety. The two estates illustrate this perfectly.
While Longbourn is a medium sized estate, endangered in the likely chance that the
Bennet’s don’t marry their daughters right, Pemberly is a family estate in no danger of decay and
still strongly linked to the family and it’s past. While Longbourn is a message in itself about
Elizabeth and the family’s relative lack of status, it is her reaction to Pemberly and what it reveals
to her about Darcey that form’s the critical link between estate and character in this particular
novel. It is this revelation that Elizabeth faces her own fault at judging him on a first impression.
His house betrays his real personality, the maids are practical, not “fine”, and the grounds and
gardens are modern and practical. The flaws that Darcy is attributed to have by Elizabeth, both
over­formality and a sense of awkwardness, are both absent within Permberly. Through this
revelation we are shown that a man’s station in life may be in appearance only, and thus we are
greeted with the two’s love for one another and their union as a complete coupe, even if they are
unorthodox in the eyes of traditional societal hierarchy.

In Persuasion, the idea of estate is explored in a different way. While Pride, even in the
garden setting, focuses on very man­made settings, the focus in this novel is on the natural, and
the current image of fall. This whole book is a symbol of change, as the main character is
decidedly more alone than previous Austin characters. In this book, the idea of familial estate and
societal status are shaken to their core, the foundations rattled by the Napoleonic war. We are
presented with Kellynch Hall, and the city of Bath, rather than the landed estates of Pride. This is
the displacement of gentry and aristocracy, as the Elliot’s wealth has been squandered, and
instead the estate is taken over by a navy man, Admiral Croft. Thus, in this book, the estate itself
acts not as an index for the character, but their reactions to their lost place and wandering in Bath 
reveal their natures.
This book is a simple exploration of a naval family interfering and overpowering the life
of the aristocratic family. The social hierarchy is changing, and no longer is worth placed on what
you have, rather what you do. The navy men are esteemed, and only pursue the fine houses and
costly adventures because it’s what seems fitting for the wealth. The female lead, Anne, denied
Captain Wentworth in their youth due to his lack of social status and persuasion by Lady Russell.
In the current time of the novel, things have changed. No longer is the estate the status for family,
rather the old aristocratic family has decayed and been outpaced by the new, working, Naval
family. The whole of the aristocracy is abandoning its ideals and moral, as seen through
Baronette Elliot’s collapse. The gentry and inherited rich of Pride are no longer honorable, and
the hard working families that were once looked down upon in the same novel, have risen to
power in this one.

Persuasion represents a change in society’s view of estate and worth. While Pride ends
with a change in the two characters, this novel begins with the whole hierarchical change as a
statement. Once denied for his lack of wealth, his hard work and “dirty” life have made new
wealth for Wentworth, while living much the way the characters in Pride did, has ruined and
bankrupted the Elliots. This is brought on by all of the factors mentioned, especially the war and
economy. The “old money” of the Elliot’s has failed to keep up with the strength of the made­
men of the country, and as such has fallen into destitution and obsolesces. It’s these things that
cause the change; not the change in individual people as seen in Pride, but the change in society’s
view as a whole.

The estate is a shaky image in the changing world of Austin’s novels. For Persuasion it
represents the necessary change in importance, the shift from lethargy and acquiescence that
comes with generations of inherited money to the motivated and industrious acquisition of wealth
and power that a growing nation needs to compete in the world today. So with this in mind,
Austin is marking her characters’ social responsibility. The aristocracy and gentry have ignored
theirs, and thus fallen into decay. The self­made and military man has worked to gain from the
troubled times and improve his life and those around him, thus gaining the power.
So, when analyzing all of this, it is easy to draw the conclusion that through the idea of
the estate as a symbol for the responsibility of the wealthy and the powerful to uphold the old
ways while changing things as needed to fit the times, we are presented two distinct stories that
illustrate this. We are shown Darcey, who, in spite of his familial pride, has devoted himself to
modernizing and improving Permberly towards a more necessary simple and practical life for the
wealthy. We are also shown Wentworth, who through his hard work has risen above the
declining aristocracy to achieve new wealth, power, and favor in a changing country. So, you
could say that Austin has attempted to show us the houses as a multiple metaphor, both for the old
ways of wealthy living, and for the needed change that must come as war and economic strife
changes the world we all live in.