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Literature and History in the American Experience Essay

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Updated: Oct 19th, 2021


In the pages of history and numerous literary canons in American experience there lies a terrain of societal upheaval and unrest that addresses the questions of segregation and racist philosophy underlying the mainstream dynamics of the American dream. How the American society has undergone the faces of changes in society and the interpretation thereof shapes the very structure and function-ability of a literary text.

The American literature has been reflective of the North American demographic and political divide rather than unification in case of literary transaction. A new and unique socio political identity and the aftermath of the diverse cultural chemistry are also tentative at the juncture of any possible creation. The different and variegated space of experiences of diverse cultural and ethnic groups seeks to root themselves to different traditions and belief systems generated by the organizations they belong to. This multiplicity of voices brushing against each other can drift towards a continental divide. In this paper, I would like to address the issues related to racism, individualism and freedom juxtaposed in the literary discourse of ‘Flight To Canada’ by Ishmael Reed, ‘Another Country’ by James Baldwin, ‘If He Hollers Let Him Go’ by Chester Himes.

Part I

Literature and history in American experience

In Ishmael Reed’s novel Flight To Canada the protagonist Raven Quickskill represents a runaway slave who is also an activist, an embodiment of the native Black American myth. Raven who’s the synonym for black is the placeholder of resilience and aesthetics. He’s the trickster of African American oral tradition. The name Quickskill is also denotative of the creativity associated with his profession and in his first name addresses to the racial flavor in order to transgress it. Raven’s escape to Canada and his metaphorical identification with the raven myth circulated in the Tlinglit Indians of Alaska compounds the slave owner’s plea to the president of America. He accused him of forging freedom papers and the owner was also vocal about the Voodoo tricks that Raven has reciprocated with in lieu of the literacy drive.

In Another Country by James Baldwin the major predilection of Modern American Literature to slide around the separating drive has been worked upon. The melting pot syndrome of America which proposes an America with different compartmentalization of distinguishing and clashing voices would relate to the innate African American experiences. Based in New York, the story of Another Country somewhat builds into it an air of the melting pot which is gradually becoming cold. What has been the sweet proposition of congregation of the flurry of the immigrants flooding the American landscape for more than centuries, to identify them with the mainstream American dream, to merge them into the dialectics of freedom and unity was not going to be the working hypothesis for the novel at least. The character of Rufus Scott, a Harlem jazz musician rummaging into the city of New York creates a new space for the Black American identity characterized with contraventions of different relations. Rufus’s suicide is also rooted to this plain of cold meting pot.

The sense of belonging drifts towards the land of the forefathers and to accommodate oneself in the conflicting plain of segregating glances and identity crisis also posit themselves into the conjectural point of historical dynamics. What is another country in this very novel! Baldwin contemplates on the ghetto culture of the native African American descendants who like the little Italy are giving themselves to the notion of creating a sub territory, a minuscule country of their own and Baldwin is also reflective of many such countries that are psychological creations of the other residents. The countries that dwell in the minds of the people like Rufus and Leona are very much different from the cold embraces of the pot with its segregating population. The voice of the individual sometimes surpasses the prejudices of historical adjacency. America as seen from the eyes of Rufus clearly reflects the voice of the individual who’s separated from the main discursive plain with his experiences as a Black American and vouches for his feelings of an outsider, a loner in disguise.

In Chester Hime’s If He Hollers Let Him Go, the character of Bob Jones sounds like the alter ego, a half autobiographical creation of the African American writer who was amongst the numerous African Americans who moved to the Los Angeles in the period of the second World War. This move of the over pouring migrants was going to double the existing Black population in the southern Californian block of America. The racial anguish and the grievances generated from his experiences of a sordid childhood, his years in prison could not live up to his anticipation of a relaxed negotiation for racial relationships generated from the shortage of labor in the defense plants. In his autobiography Himes pours his voice of racial discomfort and it’s somehow was going to shape the life of Bob Jones. How Himes tried to transgress the notion of race and community, ethnicity is evident from the credible portrayal of Bob Jones. Himes confessed the predicaments of the Black people of Los Angeles who were subjected to the treatment much the same way as they were treated in the Sothern blocks. The underlying hypocrisy of the White American discourse who were courteous enough to ask for “Nigger, ain’t we good to you?”

There were the galore of economic promises burdened with the inherent dream of racial hatred and intolerance, the unmasking American dream, the state sponsored racism are deeply embedded in the character of Bob Jones, who’s struggling to synthesize them all. The historical conjecture of the Second World War induced paralytic condition forced Bob to the point of nativism to be thrown on the faces of the enemy forces of Japan.

The novel is a document of the historical ruptures and upturns in the context of the Los Angeles wartime saga. The wartime economy bursting with the promises of political and financial opportunities leads Bob into the broken neighborhood replete with the enthusiastic and elaborated dreams of the millions of the African Americans who’s looking at the prospect of the war induced boom straight. The 1940s historical chronicles of the labor relationships and the analysis of the labor organizations can lead us to the dawning civil rights movement of the Black American people. It gradually steps onto the precarious zone of the third world movements of the following decades. The picture of Los Angeles in the face of such an upheaval twisting in the aftermath of the war is denotative of the emerging Black Popular Front. Himes literary engagement with the events of the 1940s war inflicted Los Angeles in If He Hollers Let Him Go begins to crystallize in the relationships of the Black American Communities with the Japanese American internment.

The historical cursors that regulate the movement of the novel are set in the historical plane of the 1940s America where innumerable Japanese Americans are forced to flee the land in the wartime aftermath of the Second World War How the vision of the city of Los Angeles changes with the changing times are reflected in the narrative flow. It also recreates the backlash experiences of the jilted Mexican Americans who bore the worst racial blows in the Zoot Suit Riots. The character of Bob Jones is deeply affected with the trauma of the ill wind that was lashing against the plane of Los Angeles. He could identify himself in the same apocalyptical destiny of the evacuated Japanese Americans and the predicaments of the thwarted Mexican Americans. The reverberating drums of the Mexican American youth could also situate him in the hinterland of the American dream worked up with the racial anguishes. The fear of evacuation is tremendously overwhelming in Bob Jones who could dream of nothing but the paralytic fear of experiencing the same destiny in times to come. He twists in anticipation in his mysterious dreams about a dog and inquires about the approaching time, the dangerous beats.

He can feel the rising and prostrating voice within him that disowns any allegiance to the racial slurs and segregation intensified by the incessant drumbeats of the Mexican Americans and the evacuated suddenness by the Japanese Americans. All of them situate themselves in the plain opposite to the American dream and the inherent reciprocation of the pledges and promises thereof. It questions the very patriotic dream revisited by the wartime crisis, an act of displacement in defense of the maintenance of sanctity of the nation. There is no escape for Bob Jones, even if it includes any possibility of such escape from such maddening nightmares it would only aggregate the fear and loss and humiliation.

The voices discussed so far gets resonate to the pulses of the symptomatic historical negotiations and their inclinations to a possibility of escape. It defines the precarious zone of a legitimate discourse in which Bob Jones, Raven Quickskill and Rufus move along answering the lapse. Sometimes they contemplates suicide as the suitable means to escape and sometimes they are just as positive and optimistic as Bob Jones whose escape, if was granted, could change the face of the parallel American Literature.

Part II

American fictional discourse

Burrough’s Naked Lunch is the controversial novel. The author was considered as a critical artist of the twentieth century literary discourse, identified both as a voice of failure and un-surpassing. His work Naked Lunch is also situated in such precarious anchor point. The novel was first published in the year 1959 and very much related with the period of his life and the historical forces that were tormenting the canvas of racial experiences. He was drawing up the accounts of everyday life, collapsed in the routines, during his stay at the Harvard. There were varied responses following the publication of the Naked Lunch with some of the howling comments to greet the book. The author here sarcastically elopes into giving out a critique of the social systems and the satirical failure of the political face but inherent in his discourse of sordid commentaries there lies am appreciation of the human potentialities. The various obsessions that are relevant in the Naked Lunch are to throw a protest and to place the individualistic voice ahead of the conventional dynamics.

Black no more represented the American contradiction of throwing up a debate as to the racial subjugation, the socio cultural space dealing with the so called harmony of the national character. The writer Schuyler was efficient in dealing with the African American dilemma in the plain of the American elaborate dream of conflating interests and he was vocal enough of the racial cultural drift in the geo political identity of the body of mainstream America. The lofty promises of relaxed racial restriction and the proposed paradigm of eased out economic and political order could only point out to the baseless claims culminating into social contradictions related to Black identity.

The racial hysteria and the satirical critique of the Black destiny was bound to show its face in the narrative flow which tempted the paranoia of the politicians, historians, anthropologists and at the same time it also relates to the Harlem renaissance artists and intellectuals of the time who were caught in the throes of the hysteria symptomatic and enmeshed with the essentialist and primitive rhetoric.

The novel is reflective about the ways it generate a critique of capitalism that was responsible for the ultimate backlash of the Black American, for the racial unrest and the mask for exploitative mannerisms. In the broad space it was going to be the conservative’s verdict of disowning any such possibility of cultural conflation discarding the very symbols denotative of the whiteness and the blackness. No cultural discourse can assign itself to the functioning of the racial markers which are instable and unreliable. The structure of the novel deals with the inherent dichotomy of these markers flowing as leitmotifs to ultimately identify them with the emerging market economy. It was a destabilizing drive to ignore and disown any cultural racial harmonization and semblances in tradition, practices. Individual identities were questioned time and again.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered to be the canonical creation by Mark Twain in the history of American literature. Mark Twain deployed many characters to work up the humanity of the Black Americans though Huck Finn is often considered to be the racist in the dominant discourse. Huck Finn, according to many critic historians has been responsible for the changes to the American society. But somewhere the innate grasp of racism is prominent in the narrative plane. The character of Jim as introduced by Mark Twain is the parallel flow of the African American stream and the face of the denying humanity. The voices of the young adolescents are merged in the fleeting reflections of the pre civil war experiences as in Huck Finn.

Huck Finn was deliberately tried by Aunt Polly to make him civilized as he was hovering around the prospect of understand Jim and his ways. Though sometimes it was not an easy going task to converse and coordinate with the experiences of the other, this fiction represents the typical 1800 air of America, who’s striving to become one nation and one aspiration. Huck stands apart in the face of dominant racial prejudices. Jim is the typical of the demeaning existence of a man, worked up by the intensifying racial segregation negating the Blacks to the rights they were constitutionally entitled to, with the growing pangs of alienation.

The various faces of sub cultures as in the Naked Lunch is very much akin to the subversion of the conventional notions, as pairing itself with the echoing challenge in Black No More. The basic workings of the human psychology that is never negated but often enervating and unsettling makes the very theme of the novel. Burrough is ever insistent of the human conditions that live amongst the variegated and critical assimilation of the parallel dialectics of the counter culture morons, the hippies, the freaks and the kind. The author wants his readers to delve into the disseminating and problematic of a journey to the life of an addict who’s recently come out of the spell of the heroin. He goes on developing and engineering the difficult and incredible precincts which are usually forbidden to the respected citizens of the nation. There lies some degree of conformity in the three narrative works as in Black No More, and Naked Lunch and the tendency to redress and subvert the narrative challenging the difficult paradigms of racial experiences in the mainstream discourses.

Naked Lunch started with the fleeing drug dealer in his convoluted and disconcerting drive to escape the police. He journeys from America to the plains of Mexico and during this time he meets the different sub cultural groups who are meant to write a parallel social discourse of homosexuals and freaks. Like Black No More here also the writer hints on the paranoia and hysterias of the governments and psychiatrists to regulate the population. The novel also stands in the historical conjecture of the 1950s around the ethos and the socio cultural air of that particular time period as resonated in another creation Black No More. How the conception of modern society is increasingly vitiated is documented in Naked Lunch as well as Black No More. Huck Finn though situated in diachronically diverse plane, also calls for a change, assumed in a seemingly naïve adolescent dialectic.


  1. Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go, Thunder’s Mouth Press (1995)
  2. George S. Schuyler, Black No More: A Novel, Modern Library; New edition edition (1999)
  3. Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada, Scribner (1998)
  4. James Baldwin, Another Country, Vintage (1992)
  5. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Create Space (2008)
  6. William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch, Grove Press (1992).
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