“The artist always betrays his tribe.” Sherman Alexie

thCA53KB6KI had an interesting conversation with my American Literature students on the last day of class, which was last Friday. I asked them about what over-arching themes they saw in the literature we had studied and what they thought that they gained from the class.  One young man said that he thought the idea of “searching for a home” seemed to appear in American Literature from the very beginning. The class seemed to agree with him and thought that from the very beginning Colonial Literature this appeared in one way or another. Someone else said that in the literature  from the mid-20th C on there seemed to be a lot of “searching for identity,”   as the emerging women’s voices, Latino voices, African-American voices and gay and lesbian voices began appearing. One young woman kind of bristled at that comment and said something about being put off by the activist tone, the political tone and identity-driven tone of that literature. She said she much preferred the British Romantic novelists, like Thomas Hardy.

I began thinking about this and thinking particularly, because I know this student loves it, about Tess of the d’Ubervilles.  What I don’t think this student sees is that this is as much as transgressive text as some of the pieces we have read this semester.  Here’s story of sexual assault, of class and of displacement. Hardy’s book created quite a stir when it was published. Its heroine is a strong young woman who, although she rejects his advances, is assaulted by a young man who is, in terms of class, apparently her superior and who takes advantage of that “class privilege.”  In 19th C. England, the idea that one would sympathize with the victim in this circumstance would have been shocking ,and yet Hardy does and creates Tess as a sympathetic character, in fact subtitling the book A Pure Woman.

For this student, Tess represents a romantic story far removed from the “identity politics” that plays out in  the work of many late 20th C writers, but what she doesn’t see is that Hardy was “betraying his tribe” in a way that many others betrayed theirs later. His language is 19th C, but his sentiments are clearly not. He is making a very clear statement about the treatment of women and about the English class system.

This young woman’s implication was that many of the 20th C writers were too “political.” My response to her was that it was easy to be a white-faced, blued-eyed girl in a very white-faced town, but that she might think about what some of the 20th C writers were saying. I’d say, for example, that Langston Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son”  (“life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”) isn’t just about the African-American experience, but that of any mother who has struggled to survive “gets” the poem, but Hughes’ metaphor is so clear that even someone who has not brought up a child in difficult circumstances understands the poem and the situation.

Yet there were those who thought that Hughes was “betraying his tribe” when he wrote in Black vernacular and not standard English because, they said, it implied that African-Americans only spoke  sub-standard English. This is clearly a shallow argument as people’s reactions to “Mother to Son” attest. It’s a beautiful poem whose language is clear and moving, and if it had been written in standard English, would have felt forced and wrong.

As we talked about what things people had taken from the class, one older student, a woman in her 60’s, said that reading all the different voices in American Literature had taught her empathy.  I hope the young woman student was listening. If she was, she may take another look at our fine writers, at Adrienne Rich, at Anne Sexton, at Hughes, at Plath, at Alexie, and see both how they all “betray their tribes” and how, at the same time, they tell us something important about what it means to live in America at this time, just as Hardy was saying something important about what it meant to live in England in the 19th C.   As a young woman with some dreams of being a writer, I hope she thinks  about how she will “betray” her own tribe, and what that will mean