Still looking back : modern American postcolonial pairings

by Chau, Chi-kit

Abstract (Summary)
(Uncorrected OCR) Chapter 1: Introduction In the world-renowned speech "The American Scholar" delivered in 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks of the future of American culture. After the United States declared its independence from British colonisation in 1776, the country, which is relatively newborn, is at the beginning stage of finding and forming its independent culture. Therefore, the country has many uncertainties on whether it is able to find and develop its distinctive culture. Emerson, in his speech, assures the American public by pointing out that America should be, and will be able to develop its literary culture on the basis that its people, its large soil and its freedom in politics provide the country with the potential to find its distinctive cultural values: Mr. President and Gentlemen, this confidence in the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar. We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe. The spirit of American freeman is already suspected to be timid, imitative, tame. Public and private avarice make the air we breathe thick and fat. The scholar is decent, indolent, complaisant ... They did not yet see, and thousands of young men as hopeful now crowding to the barriers for the career do not yet see, that if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him ... We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. The study of letters shall be no longer a name for pity, for doubt, and for sensual indulgence. The dread of men and the love of men shall be a wall of defence and a wreath of joy around all. A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men. (114-5) As a relatively newborn country, America had a strong cultural anxiety to be independent. As most Americans emigrated from Europe and in particular Britain, British and European cultures have embedded their values in the American culture, reflected in Puritan narratives and Enlightenment discourse, especially before the independence of the States. Many American literary texts since then, moreover, have attempted to develop "unique" American characters. One such representative text is "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street", written in 1857. The interaction between the two protagonists of "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" implies, amongst other things, the tension and confrontation between existing cultural values copied from British culture arid the "new" American cultural values in process of formation. After the narrator in "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" employs Bartleby as a copywriter, Bartleby interrupts the narrator's "safe" life by means of silence. Bartleby consistently refuses to perform the duties the narrator requests him to do. He either replies in brief sentences or says nothing to reject the narrator's requests. Bartleby's confrontation with the narrator serves as a metaphorical call for awakening of self-understanding and self-consciousness for those who directly copy from the colonized cultural values. Further, as the story is written at a time when the transcendentalist movement is on the rise, silence is chosen as a means of questioning, integrated with other emphases of transcendentalism, including self-reliance, self-trust, and self-sufficiency. The play, The Zoo Story, written approximately one hundred years later, also plays a vital role in revealing the tension between the British cultural values and the American ones. There are of course changes in American society that are represented by the changes in the contexts of the two texts. For example, the story moves from the lawyer's office in "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" to the Central Park in The Zoo Story; the narrator in "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" no longer exists and is replaced by the dialogue between Peter and Jerry. However, the position of the American character has fundamental continuity: the American character continues to be positioned to question those who inherit their ideas and beliefs without questioning them for themselves first. Further, even though there are changes in the contexts of the two texts, silence remains an important tool for questioning. In "Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street", Bartleby the character is clearly, and in its own literal life, incomplete. As stated by Elizabeth Hardwick, Bartleby does not have himself a narrative of his present existence (262). In The Zoo Story, it is apparent that the American character, no longer silenced, and represented by Jerry, has developed to be a much more mature character: Jerry is set as "a man in his late thirties"; he used to have a "trim and lightly muscled body [that] has begun to go to fat", and "while he is no longer handsome, it is evident that he once was" (5). While such progress is reflected, the more violent death of Jerry, compared to that of Bartleby, suggests an accelerated cultural anxiety comprised of increasing cultural diversity that this dissertation will explore more fully.
Bibliographical Information:


School:The University of Hong Kong

School Location:China - Hong Kong SAR

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:melville herman 1819 1891 bartleby the scrivener a story of wall street albee edward 1928 zoo culture in literature


Date of Publication:01/01/2005

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