Thursday, December 17, 2009

Westward Ho

For the last few semesters I've taken Eliza up on an invitation to visit her American Lit Nature class when they are reading Robert Frost. This year, as I was going through my files in preparation for the visit, I ran across a copy of the poem that Frost read at the inauguration of John F Kennedy in 1961. Maybe it was because I had just finished reading Barack Obama's terrific Nobel Prize Acceptance speech that had me thinking about the connections between poetry and public policy. But I think that it is a measure of how much has changed, and how far we have come, that Frost felt comfortable reading a poem on a national stage in 1961 for which he would be roundly, and rightly, pilloried today.

The Gift Outright

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

I can remember reading this poem 30 years ago and not having the visceral negative reaction which it now evokes in me. How remarkable, how amazingly tunnel-visioned, this meditation on ownership appears to be now, how smugly self-enclosed this notion of "we" is, how much misery and suffering is elided in the oblique phrasing of "the land vaguely realizing westward," how snobbish the characterization of the land as being "unstoried, artless, and unenhanced" before "our" arrival.

I wrote earlier this week about Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. One of the many pleasures of that book is the number of set pieces, conversations between characters whose core beliefs are at odds with one another in ways that exemplify the perennial fault lines that have defined social and political relations throughout history. Here, from late in the book, is part of a conversation between Erasmus Kemp, the self-centered and self-righteous son of of a British merchant, and Redwood, a British army officer in charge of a garrison in Florida. Redwood is in a classic bind that has driven many men, before and since, to some combination of cynicism and alcohlism. The two have just come from a parley with at which a group of settlers, led by the British governor of the colony in Florida, have been negotiating with the leaders of the Creek Indian tribe in hopes of exacting gifts of land. Over a glass of wine, Redwood asks of Erasmus:

    '... Tell me, what did you think of the business today?'
    'Much of the time was taken was taken up with ceremony. It was interersting for me, of course, who have not seen these Indian customs before. They were all decked out in their best beads and feathers.' He laughed a little saying this.
    'So were you I suppose?'
    'What do you mean?' Erasmus said, staring.
    'Campbell in his dress uniform. Watson in his best broadcloth and silver wig and you, as always, irreproachably turned out. Just a question of fashion, really. Theirs suits the climate better."
    Obscurely displeased at this comparison, Erasmus made no immediate reply. Redwood waited a moment, then said, 'You were talking of the Calumet ceremony, the peace pipes. I have seen it often. They have come singing and dancing to their ruin with those pipes in their hands all over America.'
    'It is hardly ruin, Redwood — you are exaggerating. They will be left in possession of large tracts of land, as I understand the matter from Colonel Campbell.'
    'For how long? We daren't do otherwise at present, or they will rise against us and sweep us into the sea. Campbell is a reasonable man in his way. He knows the Creeks and has a feeling for them. But he is set on getting a favorable treaty — his career hangs on it, and it makes him wonderfully single-minded. That Indian who spoke today, who complained of trade prices, he wasn't so wide of the mark.'
    'Not wide of the mark? He accused Watson of breaking promises he had never made. He wasn't even talking of Florida, but of Georgia.'
    'That is is the point. He has seen thousands of land-hungry white settlers pouring into the Georgia back-country from Virginia and the Carolinas. Many of them have crossed the treaty line and fenced the land on the other side. Nothing has been done to stop it, and nothing will be done. And why? You know the answer as well as I do, Kemp. I suggest you know it much better. You have been having a look around, haven't you? This is prime land, and there are fortunes to be made out of it — but it is worth a lot more with no Indians on it.'
    Redwood sat back, smiling with the slightly bitter carelessness characteristic of him. There were brief soudnds from above them, steps on the stairs, then silence. 'And it is hardly necessary to us to use force of arms,' he continued. 'They are prevailed upon to cede their lands by treaty. Trade is the thing that has undone them, this great blessing of trade. Watson tells them they should be grateful for the advantages of trade. Campbell tells them they should give up their land to their English brothers for the sake of the trade goods they will get by it. They have hunted these lands for centuries without ever knowing that what they needed for happiness were muskets and looking-glasses and beads and bits of printed cotton. Now they are persuaded that they cannot live without these things. Strange, is it not?'
    Erasmus smiled, but without much warmth. What he had taken for a good-natured, rather thoughtless expansiveness, seemed quite other to him now: Redwood obtruded his views more than a man should, without first making sure they were welcome. And what he was saying was perverse, subversive even. Trade brought benefits to both sides — so much was common knowledge. Erasmus had always disliked people who took a view contrary to what was broadly agreed upon by men of sense...' (479-80)
There you have it, in a nutshell, the reality behind what Frost describes blithely as "the land vaguely realizing westward." Rich men utterly convinced of their own  superiority, unable to conceive of even the possibility that their might be another point of view, relentlessly pursuing their own self-interest at the expense of those who they believe themselves to be saving.

Two of the things that I most admire about Barack Obama are first, his willingness to concede that neither he in particular nor the United States government in general has a monopoly on the truth, and second, his willingness to say that out loud in the face of his many critics who want nothing more than to characterize every conflict as a matter of, well,  black and white. One of the most subtle and telling passages in Obama's Nobel speech comes when he says that the promotion of human rights must be "coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with oppressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — condemnation without discussion — can only carry forward a crippling status quo."

"The satisfying purity of indignation." There's a phrase that describes with telling accuracy a lot of what you hear in the media today. My hope this holiday season is that cooler heads may eventually prevail.

No comments: