To What Extent Is American Literature Preoccupied with the War and Its Aftermath?

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“My triumph lasted till the drums” aptly describes the feeling of war. The narrator first feels a sense of victory, but after having realized what that victory entails then experiences feelings of regret and contempt. There is a certain ambivalence with the phrase ‘finished faces’, for it suggests two meanings: either the ‘finished faces’ of those who have been killed in battle; or the ‘finished faces’ of the living who have ended the battle. In both cases, the narrator is seemingly stared at by these faces and in the process making her wish she were dead. The narrator knows the latter are the only ones who are capable of moving on with their lives and this battle. However, she realized, that she “hated glory”; a phrase which implies that there are no real victors in war. This sentimentality can be seen throughout American literature. Therefore, this essay will argue that different types war can be throughout American literature, but the effect of war brings about a form of enlightenment before or in its aftermath.

One notable type of war viewed in American literature is between the oppressors and the oppressed. This can be read in Frederick Douglass’ ‘Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave’. As a child on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation, Douglass saw multiple whippings of different slaves, including being “awakened … by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine and whipped … till she was literally covered with blood”. When he was seven, he was made to work for Hugh Auld, which was when he began to get a sense for what freedom was like, due in part to his new master's wife who “very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C”. But after Hugh prevented Douglass from being taught to read, it only fueled his ‘determination to learn’, which was his first step into writing antislavery texts. Douglass illustrates how white slaveholders were able to sustain slavery through keeping the slaves uneducated. This is because during the period Douglass was writing in, a majority of people assumed slavery was just something that was normal, being convinced slaves were genuinely unable to engage on any level in everyday society, and were only fit to be slaves for slaveowners. A method slave owners utilized to maintain power over slaves was to keep them unaware of fundamental facts about themselves such as where the rest of their families were sent to work, as well as the disability to learn how to read and write - preventing what the rest of America were aware of about slavery. In this war between the oppressors and oppressed however, Douglass demonstrates that slaveholding not only harms the slaves, but also the slave owners themselves depicting slavery as unnatural for all involved. This can be exemplified through Sophia Auld, who through the corrupt immorality of slaveholding she changed her from an affectionate woman to a monster. From his writings, Douglass is making the point that slavery should be banned for the benefit of all parts of society.

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This war between the oppressors and the oppressed can also be witnessed in ‘A Raisin in the Sun’. Through Mr. Lindner, Hansberry explores the theme of racial prejudice as an important matter in the story that the Youngers family have to face. The Clybourne Park Improvement Association dispatch Mr. Lindner to convince the Youngers not to relocate into the Clybourne Park neighborhood - wholly lived in by white families, by offering “to buy the house from [them] at a financial gain to [their] family”. When Lindner first sets foot in their apartment the Youngers are more than welcoming to him, offering him beer and coffee yet Lindner's amiability turns into awkwardness, even pathetic as he notices that the Youngers are in fact morally upstanding people. The reason Hansberry depicts Lindner becoming more and more pathetic is to show that being racially discriminative is in itself pathetic, for obviously any assumptions about how the black community are unreasonable and savages is completely false, as clearly demonstrated in this scene. The Youngers' wish for living equality causes the Clybourne Park Improvement Association worried about the prospect of black integration. Conversely, the Youngers are alarmed regarding the potential types of bigotry they could encounter whether it be discrimination or physical threats. Despite this, the Youngers react to these threats with both resilience and bravery. Hansberry is trying to state that the way to manage any form of prejudice is to stand against it and to uphold one’s pride as opposed to allow the oppressors to enforce any power over you. Therefore, the war between the oppressed and the oppressors is shown to be fruitless, considering even though the oppressed come off far worse in this battle the oppressors find themselves not gaining much for it to be called a victory.

Another type of war that will be discussed is a religious war - being able to decide for oneself what can really be considered Christ’s teachings, or if it has been manipulated to benefit someone else. Two types of Christians can be identified in ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, represented by the contradiction between the Widow Douglass, a holy and loving woman who personifies the strong Christian, doing good deeds for God. This includes Jesus's saintly and loving word of God, as well as teaching Huck about difference between Heaven and Hell as “she had got a start, and she went on and told [him] all about the good place”. Conversely, Miss Watson signifies a hypocritical form of Christianity - convinced that she living exactly how the Bible has instructed her to live and that anyone else who does not follow the Bible to heart (in other words how she feels they should live) is in fact a sinner, and as a result they will have to endure eternal damnation in Hell when they die. Huck notices the different ideas of Heaven that the Watson sisters present to him, as he states: “…I could see that there was two Providences…”. Even though Huck is a child, he is mature enough to become conscious that this level of religious hypocrisy that surrounds him is escalating. It is not long before he realizes that both of these places appear boring and would rather be with Tom Sawyer in Hell than either of their ‘good places’. However, this is vital for Huck to learn that it’s up to him to make the right choice, even when it comes to religion. On the other hand, Huck and Jim use superstitions to understand the world, meaning they read ‘bad signs’ into everything, like when a spider burns in a candle for example. This is a critique of religion from Twain by making the point that as silly as superstition is, it is still more reliable to use in the world than formal religion. In contrast to their silliness, organized religion plunges its followers into ignorance and inhumanity. According to Christianity Huck is Damned for saving Jim from slavery, but resisting what society dictates and refuses to follow the Christian good, he saves Jim, and through this establishes a moral guideline in the novel - that one that cannot be manipulated by society into backing immoral systems such as slavery.

As stated previously in this essay, Douglass’s narrative demonstrates how white slaveholders were able to control slavery by adopting a method to keep their slaves ignorant, for learning how to read and write would grant them the self-sufficiency to express their views on how horrible conditions were. Another key method that the slaveowners used to control their slaves was to use Christ’s teachings. Slaveowners through several passages from the bible including Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, VI, 5-7: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters … as unto Christ”, essentially indoctrinating these slaves to believe that by working for their masters they were in fact doing Christ’s bidding and so it was almost a holy practice to serve their masters well. Reviewing the work of the white churches, Frederick Douglass commented that “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference” - so wide is the difference that to receive one as good, pure, and holy as Christ’s teachings is to be the enemy of the other. He also claimed he “hated the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land”. This can be applied to certain slaveowners such as Thomas Auld, who developed a twisted interpretation of Christianity to appear God-fearing, when in fact he turns a blind eye to the crimes he commits. On the surface Auld acts devout by praying and inviting ministers to his home, yet in reality he acts really inhumane to slaves. For example, Henny, a slave who fell into a fire as a child and is practically helpless still endures dreadful treatment and many lashings nonetheless - after which Auld frees her from her punishments and instructs her “to take care of herself”. Hence, one’s war with religion should be to decide for themselves what really falls under Christ’s teachings of “loving thy neighbor as thyself”, to fight to what organized institutions dictate is correct, especially when innocent people are being victimized as a result.

Leading on from the previous paragraph, the final type of war that will be discussed in this essay is an internal war, as characters go through different stages in their life to discover who they really are and what is right, not what society instructs them who to be and how to behave. An example this internal conflict in ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ is in Chapter 16, when Huck is debating if he should hand in Jim to the slave traders or continue their efforts to liberate him. Society taught Huck that even socializing with slaves was a bad thing to do, let alone assisting their attempts to get to freedom. He made the decision to do what he felt was right rather than what society says is right, learning to see Jim as another human being. At one point in the novel Huck even began to write a letter to Miss Watson about Jim going back, but then tears up the letter saying, “All right, then I'll go to hell”. As the slavers hurry to get away from the “small-pox on the boat”, one says “my Kingdom”, then gives Huck two “twenty- dollar gold pieces”. Twain writes this as a critique on certain members of the church, who believed they could solve any difficulties they faced by giving away church money. Twain himself disapproved of organized religion, for not representing an accurate view of Christ’s teachings - similar to the Watson sisters. Twain commented on his book as being a story “where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision, and conscience suffers defeat”. In saying this, Twain discusses the internal war Huck faces, of what he knows is right as opposed to what he is told is right.

This internal conflict can also be seen in the story of Roderick Hudson, in both Hudson and Rowland. Hudson, who after announcing his ambition to become one of the great sculptors of Italian art, and failing to contain his pride enters into a stage where his inspiration leaves him leaving him to resort to gambling and high debt. Hudson finds himself in a battle to try and find himself again, and to rediscover that inspiration he has lost. With the sculpture of ‘thirst’ seemingly represent the thirst of his ambition, this metaphor the metaphor of 'thirst' loses its meaning as a result of his dual frustration. Conversely, Rowland Mallet battles not with trying to rediscover his imagination but fighting both his self-criticism and as a result his inaction. He spends his time “broken into a dozen conscious devices for disposing of the hours”, which results in his lack of emotion. Max Weber defined modernity as the ‘disenchantment of the world’, which represents the key theme running throughout this novel which would become a recurring motif James’ work. This is because it seems to be an unconsciously intended exploration of what it means to be a homosexual in a world where homosexuality is a crime. The internal fights of these characters’ inaction and self-criticism thus refer to James’ battle with accepting who he really is, and therefore on one’s internal battle to discover who they are they tend to go through some form of hardship in order to come out having been enlightened in its aftermath.

Despite the fact that warfare throughout history has had devastating effects, American literature has shown such brutality does bring about different forms of enlightenment. The war between the oppressed and the oppressors shows whatever oppressors do to control society, the oppressed will always resist and stand up to adversity. On one’s journey they tend to undergo an internal battle to discover who they are, which in turn influences many of their decisions such as questioning what really falls under Christ’s teachings of loving and caring each other, to not listen to what society dictates you should do.

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To What Extent Is American Literature Preoccupied with the War and Its Aftermath? (2023, March 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2024, from
“To What Extent Is American Literature Preoccupied with the War and Its Aftermath?” Edubirdie, 01 Mar. 2023,
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