Littérature | Philosophie | Langues
Penny Jane Hallas, 2001 | Courgevaux, FR
In some ways, the American Civil War, as well as being one of the most important historical events, encapsulates many values and disputes that are still echoed in the United States today: contentions in its founding documents, structural discrimination based on prejudice and a sense of division within the country despite a will for unity. To study the American Civil War is to understand America’s achievements and failures. This work regroups and compares poets’ different experiences of a turbulent time in American History. Dehumanisation is defined through the lens of the war itself and the slavery that caused it. Poets representing the full spectrum of American society are included: the opinions of women and men, blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, abolitionists and confederates are touched upon and reinforced by thorough analyses of the work of Phillis Wheatley, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Emily Dickinson and George Henry Boker.
Civil War poets serve as the communication channel of the 19th-century American population. Issues similar to those of the Civil War are still present in America today (e.g. racial division, bipartisan politics). (I) What were the different perspectives expressed in Civil War poetry? (II) What was its impact on America’s literary identity? (III) How did each poet differ in regard to their experience of dehumanisation?
The first part of my work is based on historical and literary research, and the second is a creative part. Having familiarised myself with the meaning of dehumanisation and its various manifestations, I studied the different historical events leading up to the Civil War. I also briefly drew on poems by confederate poets Henry Timrod and Abraham Joseph Ryan. Then, I dove into the development of Civil War poetry and its different contributors. The poems I included in my thorough analyses are “On Being Brought from Africa to America” by Phillis Wheatley, “Bury Me in a Free Land” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “My Triumph Lasted Till the Drums” by Emily Dickinson and an untitled poem by George Henry Boker. Finally, with a deeper appreciation of the key functions of poetry, I wrote my own poem.
Wheatley, a female slave poet, suggests in her poem that she feels grateful for having discovered Christianity upon her forced passage into America. This surprising position raises questions as to the extent her pen might have been manipulated or her thoughts indoctrinated. Harper, a black poet born free, brutally establishes a closeness between slavery and death and highlights the absurdity of slavery while suggesting a possibility for a better nation. Dickinson writes about death and its link to tyranny, which is unjustified because peace and freedom can coexist. Boker, a confederate, writes about how the nation is talking about the war and how it might desensitise some and make others cherish life.
In the recurring times of anti-racist militancy throughout America, it is easy to get tangled up in fake news, so-called alternative facts or the effects of shock culture. In this work, I wanted to extract the fundamental 200-year-old origins of discrimination rooted in American history. I had to, reluctantly, select only four poems to analyse and support my research, which prevented me from representing the full breadth of Civil War poetry. In a second phase, I was able to grasp previously ignored facets of dehumanisation and the power of speech through poetry. This allowed me to compose a poem of my own entitled “Talk of Shame”, in which I address the sexualisation of female bodies, the double standards and hypocrisies repressing the battle women have been losing for decades.
By analysing the points of view of different poets located throughout the country – black, white, male and female – I was able to understand that dehumanisation manifested itself in the poetry of different writers and reached different readers because of advances in the proliferation of information. Civil War poets, especially black poets, were able to communicate their opinions and experiences to the northern states that maybe were naïve about the reality of the slave industry in the South. Whilst most men were on the battlefield, the women and black poets facing the horrors of the war at home addressed the nation. On the other hand, perpetuators of the Lost Cause tried to rewrite American History to preserve the South’s honour. The Civil War was therefore a war of words. This phenomenon highlights the delicacy of a national literary identity that Civil War poets played a major role in sculpting.
Appréciation de l’experte
The great quality of this work is how its clear academic structure combines with the candidate’s personal involvement from a scholarly and creative perspective. The mémoire is carefully organized. The close-reading of poems by Wheatley, Watkins Harper, Dickinson, and Boker is outstanding. The selection is interesting, uncovering a diversity of attitudes about slavery and the Civil War. The conclusion, consisting in a piece of creative writing by Hallas herself, is equally excellent, interestingly reverberating on the mémoire, which is about how poetry helps resist dehumanization then and now.
Collège Saint-Michel, Fribourg
Enseignante: Sandra Chetany