Like your original question my questions were sent to encourage a line of
thought and to learn from the list's knowledge and opinions.
I think Ms Phillis Wheatley particularly appropriate for discussion. As you
point out most would maintain that she had available a greater oral
tradition but I would maintain that, if she had, she deliberately turned
her back on it for a literate tradition. As Nancy pointed out her poetry
was quite conventional for the times, centered in colonial themes and used
the most conventional of forms and techniques.
That said I want to look at the "rich oral tradition" available to Phillis
Wheatley. The African slaves in America were not from the same tribe. They
therefore did not have a "rich oral tradition" to share with each other.
They did not speak the same languages. An African "rich oral tradition"
could not exist in American slavery. The "rich oral tradition" of the
American slave had to, therefore, be a resultant, hybrid tradition conducted
in English that began with enslavement and which was lost with "Jim Crow",
urbanization and literacy.
Ms Wheatley was born in West Africa in 1753. She was purchased directly
from the slaver ship (the "Phillis") in Boston, Mass. in 1761. Her name is
correctly, Phillis Wheatley, after the ship and her purchaser. She had had
some exposure to an original "rich oral tradition" in her natal land. She
was raised as a house servant and to all accounts when exposed to literature
eagerly sought it out and rapidly learned. Within a year and a half of her
purchase she was able to read the Bible. My impression is that, although,
undoubtedly a privileged slave, she was raised fully enslaved. Her freedom,
either deliberate or through neglect, came from a visit to England where
slavery was illegal and slaves imported from the colonies were freed both
there and upon return to the colony. The point is that once literacy was
available she immediately abandoned any "rich oral tradition" and to all
accounts did not become a vital part of any enslaved "rich oral tradition".
She never attempted to render her natal "rich oral tradition" in English
poetry. She became part of the American literary tradition.
She was not the first Black poet in America. Jupiter Hammond was published
in about 1770. She was not the first Black woman poet in America. Lucy
Terry wrote poetry before Ms Wheatley but was not published until much
later. Ms Wheatley's literary life is a most interesting tragedy. Her
talent, though initially widely recognized, was eventually lost to
disastrous marriage, political exploitation, racism and sexism.
The Bedouin of Arabia recently had a "rich oral tradition" of oral poetry.
It survived for centuries even in the face of the militant literacy of
Islam. I wonder if it is still extant or has been lost to urbanization,
BMW's, cell phones and television. The modern fragmentation identified by
our Modernist poets.
I personally experienced "rich oral tradition" as a youth among the Navajo.
My impression is, however, that the last 40 years have been disastrous for
"rich oral tradition" in the US. I'm not sure whether "modern
fragmentation" or "homogenization" is the culprit but would like others
Could the use of myth be viewed as a sort of "urban pastoralism" on the part
of the modernists? A fond remembrance of a time of "rich oral tradition"
written about from the viewpoint of dissatisfaction with rapid cultural
McIntosh, NM, USA
From: [log in to unmask] <[log in to unmask]>
To: [log in to unmask] <[log in to unmask]>
Date: Tuesday, August 28, 2001 6:26 PM
Subject: Re: Essays In Criticism
>In a message dated Tue, 28 Aug 2001 6:26:45 PM Eastern Daylight Time,
"Richard Seddon" <[log in to unmask]> writes:
><<What do you mean by "rich oral tradition"?>>
>I was unclear. In speaking of "communities with a rich oral tradition", I
meant societies where the dominant culture relies upon an such a tradition,
either entirely or as an important supplement to its literature. By
"rich", I mean Homer rather than "Friends." (Granted, there's a lot in
between, but y'all get to sort that out on your own terms.)
><<Is the modern urban myth part of this rich oral tradition? When does
common gossip become "rich oral tradition", when the common gossipers are
illiterate and members of a government defined minority? Can a visually
identifiable but illiterate member of the majority have a "rich oral
tradition" i.e.., are Red Necks as good a place to find "rich oral
tradition" as Hispanics in a barrio?>>
>As I say, I'm not undertaking to answer all the particulars. Just trying
to get a little conversation going. If you want my opinion, Southern
culture would have been a better place for a "rich oral tradition" in the
days when oral storytelling was relatively more important than the press and
television. But, I suppose, if conducted at a sufficiently high level,
television (or radio) could qualify.
>As to the "redneck"/barrio" leg of your question, it seems likely to me
that both of those subcultures today are too modernized to qualify for a
"rich oral tradition" in the sense I used the term. Again, I agree with
your point (as I construed it) that this is a loose term. My limited usage
of it was not intended to disparage communities that might fall outside that
usage, but only to distinguish societies dependent primarily on oral
communication for communication beyond daily conversation from those
dependent primarily on other means.
>> I think most illiterates have no more a "rich oral tradition" than most
literates regularly read well crafted mind expanding literature. Because of
this I think that it would be difficult to find a"rich oral tradition" as a
niche within a larger literate one. The minds that would be drawn into
intimate interrelationship with a "rich oral tradition" would be attracted
to the greater universe of literacy. Literacy is not that difficult. As
Phillis Wheatley, illiterate slave turned poet, showed, the attraction of
>literacy to capable minds is irresistible.>>
>You make a good point. However, the slave example is particulary apt in
cutting against it as well: Mr. Wheatley (I confess I'm not familiar with
him) was no doubt exceptional, and I would propose the ante-bellum slave
community as precisely one based upon oral tradition, existing within a
largely (for the day at least) literate society.
><<I think well crafted and mind expanding literature acts directly in the
lives of a literate and thoughtful minority. It acts less directly and more
indirectly in the greater portion of a literate society and indirectly in
the lives of every illiterate. Literature is bound to affect all who
directly or indirectly contact it. An example would be the number of
Americans who know of the Constitution, are capable of reading it and have,
>that literate majority who have not and those Americans who know of the
constitution and could not read it. All have been affected by it.>>
>Yes, but the impact of the Constitution is inherent in its operation upon
the citizens' lives through its role in defining our government.
"Literature" as I intend it must find other ways to influence the
><<Another example would be the elite position of the professional scribe in
highly illiterate countries. Literature and especially good literature
seems irresistable to humans.>>
>Hmmm. Sometimes it seems that bad literature is even more irresistable.
But then, that requires one to define the good and the bad, which each must
do by differing standards. I certainly agree that literature I would
consider "good" comes down from many socities, and probably (no, certainly)
exists in those that I am not familiar with.
>> Rick Seddon
>> McIntosh, NM, USA