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North American Literature of the 20th Century: A Literature of Alienation
North American literature of the twentieth century began as a predominantly white male-dominated literature, on the heels of 19th century romantic literary expression, such as within the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane, and others. Similarly, in the early decades of the 20th century, American literature was dominated by the likes of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and other white male authors, whose works (understandably) reflected their own experiences and world views. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, subsequent to World War II, more diverse voices began to appear within North American literature. By the time authors like Maxine Hong Kingston; Toni Morrison; James Baldwin and others came on the scene, diverse literary viewpoints were beginning to be seen as integral to the American literary cannon. In my opinion, many North American writers of the 20th century were predominantly interested in the theme of alienation, which is often inherent in the cultural stereotypes written about by authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston, Toni Morrison, and James Baldwin. In this essay, I will explore how works by these three authors express the North American 20th century literary theme of alienation.
As the video lecture by Dr. Simmons suggests, Chinese and Chinese-American experience within the United States is fraught with alienation. "In Maxine Hong Kingston's "China Men," as Dr. Simmons mentions, a character-based closely on Kingston's own immigrant grandfather risks his life, again and again, dynamiting mountains so that the transcontinental railroad can be built through, only to be dehumanized and denigrated by white Americans, and considered by them to be only partially human. However, Kingston does not spare China itself, or the Chinese themselves, in her explorations of alienation based on devaluation of certain individuals, and stereotypes about them. In "No Name Woman," for example, Kingston explores the lot of the Asian woman in China, particularly a female family member, the "No Name Woman" who committed in China, a place where females were very much devalued, so much that this dead female relative remains unspoken of, as if she never existed. Chinese-American women in America were similarly devalued by their families; they were considered, according to Kingston "the maggots in the rice," with their more wanted, more valuable brothers being the "rice." More recently, the novels of Chinese-American author Amy Tan have explored intra-cultural conflicts between Chinese-born mothers and their Americanized daughters, and those daughters' tendencies to denigrate the "Chinese" part of themselves, at their own considerable expense, as Chinese daughters learn, slowly and painfully, within works of Tan's including The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife. Within the literary works of both of these Chinese-American authors, then, alienation is a dominant theme, especially for females but also sometimes for males as well.
The works of two major African-American authors of the twentieth century, James Baldwin and Tony Morrison, also focus on alienation; that is, the alienation felt by African-Americans within white-dominated North America. One of the best examples of the theme of alienation of black people in America, within James Baldwin's work, occurs in his short story "Sonny's Blues," in which the narrator, an older brother of a jazz pianist named Sonny, discovers at the end of the story, to his own surprise, that he is just as alienated from himself as his younger brother Sonny is from him. Sonny, however, is far less alienated, perhaps by virtue of his music, from African-American culture. Sonny's older brother (unnamed within the story) has spent so much time becoming a responsible, upstanding citizen (as whites would recognize it) that he has forgotten his roots. Sonny's older brother does not even quite realize the extent of his alienation from his own roots, until, sitting inside a smoky piano bar in Harlem, listening to his accomplished older brother playing jazz piano, he sees, through the haze of smoke, a reflection of who he himself is. Dr. Elliott, in his lecture on Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, mentioned African-American poet Langston Hughes's poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." At the end of Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," Sonny's brother sees that Sonny's soul "has grown deep like the rivers," although his own, he implicitly realizes, has not. As "Sonny's Blues" illustrates, African-American fiction of the twentieth century often depicts two types of alienation, first, alienation from society (as exemplified by Sonny), and second, alienation from oneself (as exemplified by Sonny's older brother).
Alienation is also a theme in the works of Nobel prize winning African-American author Toni Morrison, in some of the same ways, as Dr. Simmons suggests, that it is in the works of Maxine Hong Kingston. For example, within both "No Name Woman" and Toni Morrison's first novel The Bluest Eye, the main characters are implicitly encouraged to dislike themselves, and to consider themselves inferior. Such alienation implies Morrison, stems not only from white-dominant values of beauty and worthiness (as Morrison illustrates in The Bluest Eye) but also from fear of the white majority, and for valid reasons, as Toni Morrison illustrates within her masterpiece Beloved.
In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison expresses the helplessness of the three main female characters, Frieda and Claudia (the MacTeer sisters) and Pecola Breedlove, a foster child in the Mac Teer home who has been raped by her father before coming to live with the Mac Teers. All of the characters in the book feel alienated, because they both face racial discrimination and hate white culture. But some of them also think of it as some sort of ideal. They hate whites but imitate them, anyway, because of the culture they live in, where white culture is considered good and beautiful, but black culture is considered bad and ugly. This is similar to Maxine Hong Kingston's accounts, in "No Name Woman" (as mentioned in Dr. Simmons's lecture) of being taunted as a child, by other children, because she was Chinese.
Within The Bluest Eye, the culture values everything whites do, and nothing blacks do, so this is why the girls love and hate white culture at the same time. It is very confusing for them, as it must have been for Toni Morrison herself. Toni Morrison captures the confusion that must have been like hers when she was a black girl in the 1940's and 1950's growing up in Lorraine, Ohio.
The school-age girls in The Bluest Eye dislike whites, but they envy the beauty of whites, not because it is better but because the society they live in thinks it is, and devalues African-American culture by comparison. That is also the environment of Toni Morrison's own childhood, so when she describes how Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola envied white girls' hair, eyes, clothes, etc., she is probably reflecting the standards of her own early childhood as a minority in Lorraine, Ohio.
As "Morrison, Toni, 1931-"states:
Morrison was schooled by her parents in the richness of her African-American heritage and the joys of great literature. When she entered first grade, she was the only black student in her class, and also the only child who had already learned to read. An enthusiastic student of literature, she graduated from Howard University with a degree in English in 1953 and later earned a Master's degree from Cornell.
Toni Morrison, in her own life, was not from the poor class like Pecola, but rather, more from the African-American middle class, like the MacTeers. She writes novels for the middle class, which is her own background. As Toni Morrison states:
The label "novel" is useful in technical terms because I write prose that is longer than a short story. My sense of the novel is that it has always functioned for the class or the group that wrote it. The history of the novel as a form began when there was a new class, a middle class, to read it, it was an art form that they needed. The lower classes didn't need novels at that time because they had an art form already: they had songs, and dances, and ceremony, and gossip, and celebrations. ("Thoughts
on the American Novel: Toni Morrison")
In The Bluest Eye, Pecola hates white dolls, and white girls, but she would still love to have blue eyes. Today she could just get contact lenses (she could even have blonde hair, too, if she wanted, and many black girls now do), but that was impossible then, so this basically means Pecola longs to have something she never can have. This probably makes it even more desirable to her. The more crazy she gets, the more she talks about, and wants, blue eyes, to the point where she insists she wants the bluest eyes in the world and even kills a dog to try to get them.
When Pecola drinks too much milk from the MacTeer's refrigerator, and Mrs. MacTeer becomes angry about it, it is like Pecola is still a baby and needs milk, which she is…[continue]
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