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American Literature: Historical Events and Related Literary Works Essay

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Updated: Jan 12th, 2022

Literary writers often get their creative juices working when certain events, persons, or things strike them in such a way as to significantly impress upon their senses. Most love poetries, for example, are written at a time when their respective writers are in the ecstasy of being in love or at the lowest point of despair from being rejected by their object of love. Moreover, there are historical events in the nation’s history that have so created a great impact on poets and literary writers inducing them to write some of their literary works. This paper tackles some literary works that have been inspired by certain events or periods in the history of the country that have made a serious impression on their respective writers such as “On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines” by Stephen Crane, “Democratic Vistas” by Walt Whitman and “Wealth” by Andrew Carnegie.

Stephen Crane’s “On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines” was incited by American expansionism at the turn of the 20th century. Cuba, which has always been an important country for the US because of its proximity and resources, was under Spanish control before 1898. The US interjected herself by helping the Cubans launch a successful rebellion against Spain, which has also colonies in the East, particularly the Philippines. In a display of naval power, the US secured Spain’s defeat by destroying the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and driving out the Spanish forces, and liberating the Philippines from several centuries of Spanish colonization. It did not stop there, however, but tempted by expansionist dreams, it continued to hold on to the Philippines as it did with Guam and Puerto Rico for twenty million dollars paid to Spain in exchange for the latter’s cession of these territories. The natives, however, had an agenda of their own: complete freedom from foreign control. Thus, a war ensued that led to the loss of the lives of both natives and American soldiers (Boyer & Dubofsky 234-235). Crane disapproved of the war and thought that it was borne of evil and sinful desire for power that unnecessarily sacrificed the lives of the country’s soldiers. In the poem “On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines,” he exhorts for the reader to honor the dead soldier whose life was lost fighting for a war that was instigated rather than in defense of the nation. The poem hints at sarcasm when it entreats the reader to memorialize the soldier’s death, but never “a whispered hint but the fight was he fought was good; Never a word that the blood on his sword was his country’s blood” (63). Crane’s point is that the war was a big American disgrace because of its dishonorable intention and that the soldier’s death was a tragedy because it happened under shameful circumstances.

A literary work that was inspired by one of the most crucial periods in the history of the country was “Democratic Vistas” by Walt Whitman, which was written in 1871 or the period after the Civil War known as the Reconstruction. The Civil War, as most know, was triggered by the secession of the southern states from the Union to resist the abolition of slavery. The Northern states were pro-abolition, while the agricultural South, which was largely reliant on slaves, was anti-abolition. After the Northern States triumphed over the South, the Reconstruction period began, where efforts at unification were made. The reconstruction, however, was seen as a failure because of the uneven economic gains that resulted between the North and the South as well the ineffectual assimilation of the slaves into society especially in the South that resulted in segregation or ‘equal but separate’ policy. Worse, the issues that underpin the Civil War were still alive during the Reconstruction period in some southern states, but under different means such as widespread white terrorism and violence. Some attributed the failure by the inability of the Northern states to follow up on the earlier resolve to institute true freedom and equality for the slaves, in their effort at reconciliation with their southern counterparts for economic and political interests (Burton 47-55). Whitman, for his part, laments the social decay that he says characterizes the period. In his “Democratic Vistas,” he observes that despite the economic gains during the period, the strengthening of the social fabric had been neglected and as such characterized the era as having a “hollowness at heart” that had never before marked any period in the history of the country. The essay bewails the lopsided development between the economic and the spiritual so that while cities and people were experiencing material wealth, corruption, religious hypocrisy, moral degeneration, and even literary pomposity permeate the very fabric of society (21-22).

About more than a decade later, Andrew Carnegie also gives the reader his take on what was happening in his country through his essay “Wealth” written in 1898. The essay is a commentary on the unequal distribution of wealth beginning to be prevalent in the US at that time. It is to be noted that before the Civil War, the US took second fiddle to the British economy, but after the war, things began to change. The British, which accounted for “more than one-third of the world’s manufacturing output and more than 25 percent of the world trade” suddenly found being surpassed by the US, whose economy began to gain ground by the 1890s. Not only did the US surpass British per capita income, but it took control of 36% of the world manufacturing as well as took the lead in technology. This economic turnaround, however, resulted in an undesirable side effect: the growing gap between the rich and poor at home (Shapiro 55-56). It was this lopsidedness between the social classes that preoccupied Carnegie in his essay “Wealth.” Carnegie does not view such economic inequality as bad, but rather as an opportunity where the rich can nurture his relationship with his poor fellowman. He rationalizes that “The ‘good old times were not good old times. Neither master nor servant was as well situated as today. […] But whether the change is for good or ill, it is upon us, beyond our power to alter, and therefore to be accepted and made the best of” (57). Carnegie defends the law of competition as a necessary stimulation to the new economic prosperity that is ultimately more advantageous than not and must be, therefore, accepted and embraced. He does not, however, stop at acceptance and embracing these changes, but further proposes a way of “finding the true antidote for the temporary unequal distribution of wealth,” (58) which in essence, he says, consist of transferring the surplus wealth of the rich to the poor. He is not, however, proposing turning to Communism, but through the voluntary giving of the rich of such surpluses to the government, which then uses the collected amount for public projects and programs that will benefit the poor (57-58).

Poets and literary writers often produce their “magnum opus” or great works in times of inspiration. Thus, great loves stories and poems often underscore the passions and emotions that their writers feel at the time the works are being written. This paper has tackled some literary works that were written at the most crucial periods in the country’s history: “On a Soldier Fallen in the Philippines” by Stephen Crane at a time when the US was in its expansionist mood; “Democratic Vistas” by Walt Whitman, at a time when the country is undergoing massive changes during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, and; “Wealth” by Andrew Carnegie, at the turn of the 19th century when the US was beginning to gain true world hegemony by taking the lead in the global economy and technology, but with the side effect of a widening gap of economic status between the rich and the poor.

Works Cited

Boyer, Paul and Melvyn Dubofsky. The Oxford Companion to United States History. Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Burton, Vernon. ‘Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877.’ A Companion to the 19th Century America. William Barney (ed.). John Wiley & Sons, 2006. Print.

Perkins. American Literature from the Civil War to Present. Mcgraw-Hill, 2011.

Shapiro, Harold. A Larger Sense of Purpose: Higher Education and Society. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005. Print.

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