I sent a message several times yesterday, and it never came through. I
hope this does. I was trying to comment on the concept of a rich oral
tradition by pointing back to Homer, Beowulf, and Scottish Border Ballads.
It was too long to recreate. But that much of our "great" poetry began in an
oral tradition and got written down later is a fact. And such traditions
remain in many places.
I don't think it likely that Wheatley could be described as having abandoned
an oral tradition for a written one. She wrote in the only available model of
writing she could. She was a slave and unquestionably surrounded by
assumptions about what "poetry" was and should be, and she was hardly
part of any community that would encourage any alternative or even know
of it. So the suggestion that she "chose" heroic couplets is very
problematic. A real discussion would require a great deal of the
scholarship of the development of writing in groups historically excluded
from it. But individual choice seldom is the issue. Using your dates (I have
not looked them up), she was only 8 when sold into slavery after probably
much of a year being captured and transported and traumatized; it does not
seem likely, from that, that she would carry into adult life much knowledge
or memory of an African tradition that she could weigh against 18th Century
You make a good point about the many sources of African-American oral
tradition. But they had much in common, and studies of those roots in
contemporary Black writing show a great deal of "African" base.
Date sent: Wed, 29 Aug 2001 09:13:33 -0600
Send reply to: [log in to unmask]
From: "Richard Seddon" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Subject: Re: Essays In Criticism
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
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
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
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
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",
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
illiterate. > ><<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 > >