Where Is American Literature Now?
In my primer, I wrote that American Literature was works written for or about America over time and through history such as The Declaration of Independence. I still agree with that statement after this semester of readings but not all the way through and through. After assuming American Literature was works from the past and then taking this course in “Rethinking Early American Literature,” my mind has changed a bit about it. I can now see how American literature has changed and evolved over time. It has become a whole new definition in today’s world when we talk about American literature in the present. Where is American Literature now, you ask?
American Literature is so hard to define to one thing because we have brought it to a whole new definition. You used to be able to walk into a bookstore and have every category to lead you right to the book you were looking for now we have it broken down into fiction, non-fiction, “if you liked this, you may like this,” and “other shoppers bought.” Instead of it being writing about America or for America, it is now seen as anything written in America, or by an American author, or anywhere close to being ‘American.’ For example, today we categorize The Great Gatsby the most American piece of literature. Is it though? Just because it has the words American Dream in it? It doesn’t touch upon what is happening in or for America. Instead it talks about a man struggling with love and his dreams.
After reading the many texts in class about slavery, I connected it back to something I see as from this time. Both a text and a movie, The Green Mile, created/ written by Stephen King. This movie is the only one I have every cried through besides Marley & Me. A perfect example of how American literature has changed across time; they are now more popularly movies instead of just texts. I first thought of The Green Mile after thinking about how crazy my emotions were getting reading the slavery texts in class. A white man connected to a black man when society told him it was wrong. We see both of those things in The Heroic Slave and The Green Mile.
The Green Mile is set in 1935 in Louisiana where race was still a very big issue. The main character, a very big black man, John Coffey, played by Michael Clarke Duncan amazingly, is accused of murdering two young girls. He is brought to the prison facility known as death row. There is the white man who gets attached to him, Paul Edgecomb, played by Tom Hanks. Even though he has been convicted of such a heinous crime Edgecomb doesn’t believe it based on Coffey’s quiet, pleasant nature. The man acts like a small child alongside being scared of the dark. It would be hard for anyone to believe he could commit the crime he was accused of. John Coffey displays an amazing gift of miraculously being able to heal people by taking it on himself. And by the end he is brought to the electric chair to die while Edgecomb stands by crying.
I compare this movie to all of the slavery texts we have read so far because there is so much hatred towards John Coffey even though he is a human being and he shows that because we see the same thing but mostly in Madison Washington. Paul Edgecomb doesn’t do as much as Mr. Listwell does for Madison Washington but you see the remorse in both of their characters. After Mr. Listwell sees Washington off after slipping the file into his pocket to get out from the chains and have his chance at escaping he says, “Farewell! Farewell! Brave and true man! God grant that brighter skies may smile upon your future than have yet looked down upon your thorny pathway” (Douglass 41). I see this same kind of farewell and remorse in the last line Paul Edgecomb says in The Green Mile. He says, “We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, but oh god sometimes the Green Mile seems so long” (The Green Mile). To me both white men show that they cared and they saw the hard path that both black men had been through and it wasn’t fair.
One of the biggest connections I made with both the book I’ve mentioned and the movie is that both black men, Madison Washington and John Coffey, had a disgust for the world and human race. In The Heroic Slave, Madison Washington says, “Upon my word, sir, I dreaded more these human voices than I should have done those of wild beasts” (Douglass 19). Then one of the most famous quotes from a movie is the one in The Green Mile when John Coffey says, “I’m tired boss. Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other” (The Green Mile). If that doesn’t rip your heart out, I don’t know what will. American Literature has changed their categories but I don’t think the overall lessons of history will ever go away. Because we need history to be where we are today, to move forward.