I blame James Fenimore Cooper for rampant literary disinterest in the United States. In their sophomore years of high school, millions of teenagers come to the simultaneous conclusion that novels are boring. It all starts with, “It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet.” What spirited fourteen-year-old wouldn’t rather face the dangers of wilderness than another four hundred pages with this passive-voice-loving narrator? I suggest that the rebirth of American literature happens when Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter satisfies the mid-eighteenth century novel requirement. We could skip The Last of the Mohicans and move right on to The Awakening by Kate Chopin.
I remember The Awakening as being fluid—a lyric meditation on a young woman trapped by society. When I pick up my copy and flip it open, though, I find a welcome (albeit forgotten) edge to the objects and people described. The narration begins,
A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over:
‘Allez vous-en! Allez vouz-en! Sapristi! That’s all right!’
He could speak a little Spanish, and also a language which nobody understood, unless it was the mocking-bird that hung on the other side of the door, whistling his fluty notes out upon the breeze with maddening persistence.
Despite being just as American as Cooper’s frontier, there is something exotic about Chopin’s turn-of-the-century New Orleans. The residents may believe that they have tamed America—that even the ocean welcomes them in their bathing suits—but not everyone is content with sanitization. Rebellion resides just below the surface. Despite being tamped down, the heroine eventually faces “the toils and dangers of wilderness” as she becomes more and more intoxicated with the release offered by the ocean.
Bio: Erica Wright is the poetry editor at Guernica. Her “interview with John Ashbery”:https://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/507/houses_at_night_1/, “Houses at Night,” appeared in Guernica‘s February 2008 issue.