10 September 2010
by Justice Putnam
Black Kos Poetry Editor
The Impossibility of Categorization might be the first theme of the American Epic. By turns, the Hero might be the Rugged Individual traversing mountain and stream, or the stout but tender Matriarch helping bridge the decreasing gulf between the Wilderness and the Town. The Hero might at once be anti-heroic, then by actions and deeds, raised to the Heroic, then by another set of actions and deeds, once again to fall utterly; while retaining the mantle of Hero still.
As the National Myth though, the Epic functions as a device to define the members of that nation; and by what marks they were to be identified.
For the American Epic she set out to construct, Phillis Wheatley could see no method for determining who was a member of the culture and who was an other; indeed, the two positions expatiate each other constantly and indefinitely. Wheatley's subversive refusal to accept the taxonomies of a culture that marked her as the other shows Wheatley's own assimilation; she would not and could not place herself outside the narratives she recites. Her construct of the American Epic and its narratives of belonging required her participation in the culture, even if it wasn't the culture her masters constructed. For Wheatley, all Colonial Americans were equal; precisely because definitions of equivalency or difference cannot be established.
Wheatley's investigation of the dominant notions of who belongs, within the boundaries of what it is to be American, is particularly evident in her poem, To The Right Honourable William, Earl Of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary Of The State For North-America. She makes explicit her African marginality, while issuing correctives to her audience; important, because writs issued to the good Earl were also made public for all the colonies to read.
Writing before the Declaration of Independence and the ratification of a Constitution which permitted slavery, Wheatley offered a vision of an American Culture without a privileged center and without qualifications for membership based on race, class or gender. Indeed, Wheatley is the archetype American, a type which paradoxically marks itself as belonging, through a constant process of making and unmaking; of repeating and then differing from itself.
She wrote of this so long ago; we may get there still.
To The Right Honourable William, Earl Of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary Of The State For North-America
HAIL, happy day, when, smiling like the morn,
Fair Freedom rose New-England to adorn:
The northern clime beneath her genial ray,
Dartmouth, congratulates thy blissful sway:
Elate with hope her race no longer mourns,
Each soul expands, each grateful bosom burns,
While in thine hand with pleasure we behold
The silken reins, and Freedom's charms unfold.
Long lost to realms beneath the northern skies
She shines supreme, while hated faction dies:
Soon as appear'd the Goddess long desir'd,
Sick at the view, she languish'd and expir'd;
Thus from the splendors of the morning light
The owl in sadness seeks the caves of night.
No more, America, in mournful strain
Of wrongs, and grievance unredress'd complain,
No longer shalt thou dread the iron chain,
Which wanton Tyranny with lawless hand
Had made, and with it meant t' enslave the land.
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent's breast?
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
For favours past, great Sir, our thanks are due,
And thee we ask thy favours to renew,
Since in thy pow'r, as in thy will before,
To sooth the griefs, which thou did'st once deplore.
May heav'nly grace the sacred sanction give
To all thy works, and thou for ever live
Not only on the wings of fleeting Fame,
Though praise immortal crowns the patriot's name,
But to conduct to heav'ns refulgent fane,
May fiery coursers sweep th' ethereal plain,
And bear thee upwards to that blest abode,
Where, like the prophet, thou shalt find thy God
-- Phillis Wheatley