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Cultural and Political History in the USA: Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed and The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Feb 20th, 2019

American history is one of the most captivating and educative issues to be touched upon by all students around the world. The events which took place of the American land are characterized by high purposes, unbelievable passion, and undiscovered abilities of ordinary people who were eager to improve their lives and enjoy their present.

Literature is probably one of the most reliable and effective source to make use of in order to find out more about the past of the Americans and to comprehend a true essence of theories related to cultural and political history.

The relations between people on different levels seem to be one of the major themes in numerous literary works. The ways of how authors describe the development of relations help to comprehend the history of a native land as well as the principles according to which people try to live. In this paper, certain attention will be paid to two works of the 20th century: Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed and The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein.

These two writers made powerful attempts to analyze human behavior from different perspectives: Reed made a decision to focus on human actions and their consequences using all his energy and imagination and Stein with her desire to analyze the life and define the mistakes made by the “others” by means of the analysis of several generations in one family.

The main purpose of this paper is not only to compare the ideas offered in the texts by Reed and Stein but also to understand the intentions of the authors and learn more from their own experience of how to fight against cruelty and slavery and consider the magnificent periods of the American history which are illustrated in the books.

There are a number of periods in literature, and each theory has its own peculiarities and impact on the writer as well as on the reader: avant-garde, the Beat Generation, modernism, and postmodernism. The works chosen for this paper came from different periods, still they are connected by the desire to define the truth and explain the reader the intensions of people under various conditions.

Gertrude Stein created her The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress at the beginning of the 1900s and tried to introduce the aesthetic problems which were so inherent to the modernist literature. And Ishmael Reed was the representative of postmodern literature, this is why in his Flight to Canada, it is possible to find out the echoes of the wars and human desire to change their lives.

The peculiar feature of both books is the possibility to unite various aspects of life and various themes which should help to improve the current living conditions. “Ishmael Reed conflates time to establish a link between the historical condition of slavery and the material conditions of contemporary culture” (Clark, 2001, p.71). In fact, Reed’s novel is a kind of slavery movement to achieve the desirable freedom though the historical representation.

And the work by Stein is defined as the possibility to establish the system with the help of which it could be possible to comprehend the diverse nature of human behavior (Miller, 2009). The texts of both authors teach the reader how to evaluate the situation, how to make the right decisions, and how to consider personal interests in order not to hurt the feelings of other people. Still, to admit the worth of both authors’ works and their success in literature, it is better to focus on each novel separately and take the best issues from them.

At the beginning of the 1900s, Gertrude Stein offered her new novel The Making of Americans to the reader and turned out to be one of the brightest representatives of the existed tendency that was modernism. The main ideas of modernist literature were all about individualism and inabilities to trust the institutions existed. It was hard to define the truth and use it as the main principle of life, this is why the author tried to use as many repetitions as possible.

Though the vast majority of critics and readers find the idea of repetition as one of the most challenging aspect of the novel (Clement, 2008), Stein achieved the desirable result: she was recognized and her work was read by many readers. In fact, it is not that easy to define the main message of the novel, still, it is possible to believe that the author wanted to change something and help people define their weaknesses within the short period of time.

“It is hard living down the tempers we are born with. We all begin well, for in our youth there is nothing we are more intolerant of than our own sins writ large in others and we fight them fiercely in ourselves; but we grow old and we see that these our sins are of all sins the reality harmless ones to own, nay that they give a charm to any character, and so our struggle with them dies away.” (Stein & Meyer, 1995, p. 3)

From the very beginning, Stein admits that something goes wrong and it is hard for an ordinary person to cope with the challenges. Though people grown, they do not find it necessary to become more experienced but what they want to do is to increase the level of their pity to themselves and underline inability to rely on personal knowledge. In other words, Stein shows how poor people are in the cultural sense.

She wants to repeat this truth in order to open human eyes and make them do something: what people should do is “to change their habit to some other thing, some other way of doing that thing doing something” (Stein & Meyer, 1995, p. 503). Human nature may be changed, still, it is necessary to have appropriate backgrounds to promote the actions required. And psychological development of a person is one of the first steps to be taken to self-improvement.

If Gertrude Stein focuses on personal inabilities and a kind of laziness, the ideas of Ishmael Reed have a bit different roots. In his Flight to Canada, Reed introduces the idea of slavery as the main source of human suffering and disappointments. He informs that “there are more types of slavery than merely material slavery” (Reed, 1998, p. 67), and one of the most terrible types is a cultural slavery. People may be deprived of their freedom, enable to take actions and make decision.

Still, all this is a form of a material slavery that may be opposed and destroyed by means of definite actions and thoughts. However, if people are not able to fight against their cultural slavery, it is hard for them to define their own places in this world and their functions which have to be performed.

In the novel, “Reed further demonstrates how African Americans can free themselves from mental bondage” (Nash, 2003, p. 120): he offers his own vision of the situation and suggest to take the actions which could be dangerous still effective.

Mental freedom is considered to be an integral part of life. It should be rooted from the past in order to influence the contemporary community. By means of properly used anachronisms, Reed shows the domination of white nation, and it is obligatory to oppress the existed order and rules in order to prove black identity.

This novel is a collection of thoughts and actions chosen by ordinary black people who wanted to change their life and enrich their cultural heritage by means of the abilities available. The connection between the historical past and challenging present makes the reader to understand that much depends on personal understanding of the reality and the possibility to connect that can and has to be done within a short period of time.

Taking into consideration the attempts made by the two authors, it is possible to observe that they have the same purpose to be achieved: they want to help people realize that their lives may be improved.

However, the chosen methods are different, and this difference may be presupposed by the periods during which the novels were written. The modernistic perspective makes Stein pays more attention to the psychological basis of a person, and the postmodernist attitude of Reed helps to focus on retrospectives and clear actions which lead to certain consequences.

The chosen African-American positions help Reed introduce neglected people and the challenges connected to the identification of cultural origins. Though he is considered to be one of the most controversial author of his period, his controversies should make the reader to re-evaluate personal attitude to contemporary life, past and present political situation, and cultural history of the nation.

The achievements of Gertrude Stein are more of emotional character, still, her text proves that certain disadvantages of contemporary life may be observed through the lines of the story and may be understood by the reader in case the root of the disappointment is discovered.

The main idea of these two stories is that people have to be free to make choices, to make their own dreams come true, and to help the rest achieve the necessary results. There is no need to stop and believe that everything will be all right without taking any efforts. It is necessary to fight and to prove personal dignity and personal rights.

In conclusion, it is necessary to say that each book should teach the reader to become better and more confident in the chosen activities. For me, the works by Ishmael Reed and Gertrude Stein are the two sources which have to be united and introduced to the reader as the one whole because this information helps to achieve the necessary changes on emotional and physical levels.

Each person has his/her own journey of life, and much depends on how a person is able to comprehend personal abilities to cope with the challenge and become culturally and mentally free from all those judgments and rules set by people without souls and feelings.

Reference List

Clark, K. (2001). Contemporary Black men’s fiction and drama. Chicago: The Board of Trustees.

Clement, T.E. (2008). A think not beginning and not ending’: using digital tools to distant-read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 23(3), 361.

Miller, M. (2009). Makings of Americans: Whitman and Stein’s poetics of Inclusion. The Arizona Quarterly, 65(3), 39-59.

Nash, W.R. (2003). Charles Johnson’s fiction. Chicago: The Board of Trustees.

Reed, I. (1998). Flight to Canada. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Stein, G. & Meyer, S. (1995). The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress. New York: Dalkey Archive Press.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Cultural and Political History in the USA: Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed and The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein'. 20 February.

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