Take a Walk Through the Forest

Deforestation

Deforestation at work.

“No! They cannot cut down this forest! It is the last bit of forest left in north Lake Charles!” I had only left my hometown two months ago and now someone was cutting down the forest I admired every time I passed through Lake Charles. I pleaded with my boyfriend to slow down so that I could see who was responsible for this travesty, but he drove on and replied, “What do you expect? When a city is expanding, the trees are the first to go. Do you think New York City was always a cement lot?” I had nothing to say to him in response (a rare occurrence) because I knew that he was right.

I was saddened by the thought that someone twenty or thirty years from now may pass by that place and never know that there had once been a forest. They may know of a valiant oak tree or two that was left on the lot, but they will never know the forest. They will never see the damaged and missing branches on the south side of every tree from the time that a hurricane blew through the area. They will never know the forest, and because of this they will miss so much history.

Mourning the loss of this forest caused me to realize that literary studies are no different.

Those oak trees that we become familiar with because we encounter them so frequently.

Those oak trees that we become familiar with because we encounter them so frequently.

The forest of literature has not been preserved—far too many trees have been cut down, far too many stories have been discarded, and far too many students have passed through their education unaware that were missing the forest.

As mentioned earlier, we are usually left with a few oak trees to line our streets after the forest has been cut down. People know these oak trees well—they can even become trademarks of a city. The oak trees of early American literature would be writers like Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. Nearly every student who has taken an American literature class is familiar with these writers: the ideas of their work, their religious opinions, and their place in the literary canon. But can we judge a forest by its oak trees? Can we judge American literature by its well-known writers? I am convinced that we cannot.

Minorities, Stereotypes, and Discarded Trees 

I have come to realize that before beginning this research class in early minority literature, my understanding of American literature was formed around the oak trees. I knew of the major writers and movements of the time, but I was missing the rest of the forest. I was missing the sermons of Jupiter Hammon and the diary of Elizabeth Ashbridge. I now know that the forest of American literature also consists of the lesser-known writers, the “lost” writers, and the minority voices. The forest consists of a multiplicity of viewpoints, religions, and political ideals.

In order to understand the whole of early American society (the forest), then we must include these minority voices (those trees that have been cut down and discarded). Deemed inferior due to race or gender, many women and ethnic American writers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were not given the historical representation that they deserved—the ramifications of which are now being discovered. The way that scholars understand canonical texts is changing with the discovery of lost texts written by minority voices.

Stereotypes often surrounded minority populations in early America. Reading Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, I noticed that both writers were playing into the stereotype of black slaves as “dark benighted Souls.” It seemed that Hammon and Wheatley would proclaim the stereotype assigned to their race only to subvert it with the ideas underlying their words.

With the texts of Mary Ann Talbot, a woman, and William Apess, a Native American, I noticed a different pattern emerging. These two minority voices never considered themselves as minorities, but drew strength from the aspects of themselves that make them unique. They considered themselves equal to white men in spite of their supposed minority status. Actually, Talbot and Apess seemed to propose that they were even more specialized that white males because of their minority status. In evaluating the texts and ideas of Talbot and Apess, we prove that they deserve a place among the oak trees.

Mary Ann Talbot: Living Outside of Gender Roles

The stereotype surrounding women of eighteenth century America was one of gentleness and delicacy. Women were expected to occupy and tend to the household while men worked outside of the house. In The Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Ann Talbot, Talbot describes her lack of adherence to this stereotype and her performance of male gender roles that allows her to prove that women are not inferior to men.

Because her mother died during childbirth, Mary Ann Talbot was sent to a boarding school when she was five years old. Several years later she was placed into the guardianship of Captain Essex Brown, whom she describes as a “determined ruffian.” In spite of the many things that she may have suffered, Talbot describes her most horrific task as such, “It was not long before I was destined to become the object of still greater degradation. …[Captain Bowen] produced a complete suit of male attire; and…made me acquainted with…taking me with him to the West-Indies, in the menial capacity of his foot-boy.” Talbot initially despised the thought of having to live the life of a man. She did not consider the freedoms that accompanied the male gender as something to be attained, proving that she enjoyed her status as a woman.

Talbot continued to live under the guise of a man, named John Taylor, and worked as a seaman for many years. She became comfortable in her new gender role, and after she finally revealed her sex, Talbot struggled with relinquishing her identity as a man. Describing her fluctuating gender roles, Talbot wrote, “I had not yet changed my seaman’s attire; but during the stay I made with Mrs. Jones, I resumed the dress of my own sex, though at times I could not entirely forget my seafaring habits. …[I] was more inclined to masculine propensities…than what became a female…” Talbot reported that even after sharing her true identity, she continued to alternate between dressing as a man and dressing as a woman. Instead of choosing to live according to a specific gender, Talbot chose to perform the roles of both man and woman. In doing so, she proved that a woman could do the job of a man. If Talbot had continued to perform only male gender roles, then it could be stated that she viewed the female sex as inferior. But by choosing to proclaim her womanhood while she continued to perform male gender roles, Talbot displayed the confidence and assurance that can be derived from the female sex.

William Apess: Native American Novelty

As a Native American growing up in a religious community, William Apess was subjected to the Protestant view of the time that “natives” were “agents of Satan” who kept Christians from achieving their evangelical mission. In A Son of the Forest, Apess reveals that he was fearful of his own people as a child. Later in life, Apess began to question this stereotypical view of Native Americans. Sharing the realization that the white men were the ones to blame for the behavior and state of Native American tribes, Apess stated, “…the whites did not tell me that they were in a great majority of instances the aggressors—that they had imbrued their hands in the lifeblood of my brethren, driven them from their once peaceful and happy homes… If the whites had told me how cruel they had been to the ‘poor Indian,’ then I should have apprehended as much harm from them.”

Coming to terms with the fact that he was viewed as a minority in a white man’s world, Apess did not let this hinder his mission of preaching the message of salvation. Instead, Apess looked to his minority status for confidence and strength. He told of an instance in which he was sold into servitude and reported, “If my consent had been solicited as a matter of form, I should not have felt so bad. But to be sold to and treated unkindly by those who had got our fathers’ lands for nothing was too much to bear.” It is clear that Apess takes pride in his Native American heritage and considers himself superior to the white man.

Apess takes his Native American pride and channels it into the religious idea that Native Americans were one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. Apess introduced this idea in A Son of the Forest and continued it in “The Increase of the Kingdom of Christ: A Sermon” and “The Indians: The Ten Lost Tribes.” The “lost tribes theory” claimed that the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which disappeared from historical record after an Assyrian defeat, relocated to the Americas. Apess used this theory to unify his people in a common past and genealogy; he also used the theory to condemn white settlers for mistreating God’s chosen people. Rather than viewing himself as a minority, Apess clung to his Native American ancestry as the confidence for his authoritative writing.

How Do We Reconstruct the Forest?

Mary Ann Talbot causes modern readers to reevaluate the female stereotypes of eighteenth century America. Perhaps the women of her time were stronger and more confident in their selves than canonical literature conveys. In a similar way, William Apess changes the way that readers think about white settlers who came into America and claimed it as their own. He offers a Native American view that has often been overshadowed by white pioneers. ForestSo, how do we go about including these “minority” voices into our literary studies? How do we reconstruct the forest of literature so that it contains more than the traditional oak trees?

The answer is archival research. Archival research ensures the rediscovery of lost texts so that they can be placed into their literary and historical contexts. If these voices are not recovered, then we will never truly know the entire story of our history. A few major writers cannot capture the essence of early America—we need to hear from a multiplicity of voices in order to discover our true heritage. If we only sit under the oak trees, then we will miss the truth that can be experienced when we take a walk through the forest.

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