Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Armory Show

The question of what is modern to contemporary societies can be very subjective because there are always new forms and mediums being invented by people all over the world; but, during the early 20th century, a time when more long-standing traditions reigned over popular culture, anything out of this bubble would have been shocking.  The Armory Show of 1913 was just that, besides bringing new forms, shapes and interpretations of humans and nature to unsuspecting audiences, it was able to develop a definition of what was modern in artwork, a definition that still holds true today.  While at first it seemed appalling to many audiences, the show contained pieces the truly transcend time because we can still look at them today and think they are modern.

Cubism was an avant-garde movement in art that was brought to American eyes for one of the first times by the Armory Show; it consisted of objects that were broken up and reassembled in an abstract form, so instead of presenting objects from one viewpoint, the artists can depict the subject of his painting from a myriad of view points.  Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a staircase No. 2 exemplifies all the cubism criteria; it can be related to Earnest Hemingway’s In Our Time because his prose also has characteristics of a cubism painting.  Taken individually, the vignettes of In Our Time hold their own merit, but taken collectively they give way to a whole new window of insight and meaning.  We can view them as individual stories or as an aggregated collection of stories, like a Duchamp’s cubist painting it can be viewed from many different perspectives.

Prose and artwork, although seemingly different means of expression can often evoke the same emotional response; for example Kenneth Hayes Miller’s The Waste awakens the same type of themes found in T.S Elliot’s “The Waste Land”.  Besides the fact that both audiences chose a similar title for their works, but they had the same sort of pessimistic outlook on the world which prompted them to create these mediums in the first place.  Overall we see the same uncivilized, degenerative essence prevalent through Elliot’s pose and the way Miller captures a scene of destruction through the ominous clouds, disturbed landscape and the dispirited look on the woman’s face.

What is modern will shock, and looking through these galleries was not only shocking for the people of that time, but me, a contemporary audience too.  There is something about these innovative works that commands attention, and seeing their resemblance to written works at that time is not surprising.  Like the vignettes in Hemingway’s In Our Time each of these works has a story to tell individually, but put all together as The Armory Show, the meaning only gets richer and richer.

Monday, March 26, 2012


In both of these stories, ("The Yellow Wallpaper" & "The Revolt of Mother"), the authors portray a woman who is severely undermined by her husband until she defies the strict gender rules of society in order for her voice to be heard.  This idea is best captured by an excerpt from Mary Wilkins Freeman's story The Revolt of Mother: "Nobility of character manifests itself at loop-holes when it is not provided with large doors."  Here, Freeman is literally saying that one must find a loop-hole to get their point across if they are not blessed with the opportunity to do so, and that is exactly what both women did.

In "The Revolt of Mother", Sarah Penn sternly asks her husband why he would build a barn to better house his farm animals than a home to protect his own family; at first, he denies her an audience, then he seems to not be listening as she tells him her concerns, and to top it off, he denies her an answer!  Sarah thought herself a decent wife and person, she never complained or nagged her husband about anything, the least her husband could have done was hear her out, but she was even too unimportant for that.  She was so fed up and embarrassed with her housing situation that she moved her belongings and her children into the new barn to live permanently. For the first time in her life, Sarah was not submissive, she would be heard by her husband.  Although many of the towns people thought her silly and crazy, she was making a statement; by standing up for herself, she would finally make her husband pay attention.

The narrator of Gilman's story "The Yellow Wallpaper"also finds a loop-hole to her repressive situation.  In this story, the narrator's husband takes her out of town after she shows signs of post-partum depression; but, he does not necessarily help her or council her, instead he locks her in a room all day and night.  He continuously tells her that there is nothing wrong with her, and denies her the opportunity to do what she wants to most -- write.  At first she believes he is doing what is best for her, but after a while we can see that she slowly changes her mind.  Fed up with being treated like a child, she begins to create her own world through the wall paper, claiming to see a woman in its confines.  She tears it down to let the woman out of the wall, symbolizing her finally being free, no longer kneeling to the commands of her husband.  Although she is essentially crazy, she revolted against the wishes of popular society to do what she wanted.  Life didn't give her an open door, so she ripped one open herself. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Walt Whitman:

"I will go to the bank by the woods and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me."

The meaning of freedom to Whitman is something deeper than being nude in nature; nakedness represents the true self, stripped from all the qualities that would make you easily categorized.  By being naked, you are your authentic self, with nothing to hide.  Nature is one of the only things that man cannot fully control, and for that reason it is seen as the wild or perhaps even a primitive dwelling place.  Therefore, by first freeing yourself from all the titles and roles by being naked, and then coming into contact with a force that is inherently untamed, you are not confined by any physical or societal boundaries.

Emily Dickinson"

"I Dwell in Possibility -- a fairer House than Prose --"

Although I think freedom for Dickinson is about the independent nature of thought -- meaning how each of our ideas have their own potential --  I also think this line is infused with frustrations about the gender roles of her time.  She compares prose to home, a place that was primarily reserved for women; in doing so, she shows that prose can be an occupation for women, not only men.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"Free should the scholar be -- free and brave.  Free even to the definition of freedom, without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution."

Freedom for Emerson is freedom though creativity.  In his speech The American Scholar he urges academics to step away from their books and traditional lessons, he maintains that the only way they can create something truly great is if they go out and make (learn from) their own experiences.  This way, they find their own freedom, their own interpretations, their own meanings; only then can they truly be free.

Frederick Douglass:

"I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom...Through conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read."

Freedom to Douglass was something he not only saw as physical coercion, but almost entirely mental.  He realized that only education (literacy etc) would allow him to escape the oppression he faced through Slavery in the south.  By keeping slaves uneducated, their masters could keep them docile and obedient; but, once Douglass started to learn, discovering his own ideas, he would never be the same.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


In my opinion, the word in Dickinson's poem 465 that has the most significance, and underlying role is "interposed" located in line 12; here, it is used to describe the instance in which a buzzing fly interjected itself between the speaker and the so-called "light".  But, I think it has more importance than just describing what the narrator sees right before death, it is used as a tool to illustrate separation, a theme that I found prevalent throughout the poem. 
The images that usually come to my mind when I envision a death scene involve family, friends, comfort and warmth; but, while reading Dickinson's piece, I felt a great deal of loneliness and detachment.  For example, when she describes: "The eyes around -- had wrung them dry -- / And Breaths were gathering firm" it does seem like the the people gathered mean anything to her, and they do not seem to be standing or sitting close to the speaker as people usually do to provide comfort to a dying person.  Instead, everyone mentioned in the poem seems to be congregating around the speaker, watching her.
A similar picture can be drawn for her keepsakes, which she mentions will always carry some part of her, but then are willed from her when they are assigned to others; but, I think the most formidable example of separation, and one of the biggest events of the poem in terms of significance and meaning occurs with her description of the fly interposing itself between the speaker and the light.  Although no direct reference to God is made, I got the sense that Dickinson injected this poem with certain subtleties of religion with her mention of the "King" and "the light" to show how people are generally drawn to the divine when their lives are nearing the end. Therefore, the fly getting between her, and this notion of the "the light" presents a bigger question of Dickinson's trouble or conflict with religion (or the idea of God).
People who have undergone near death experience all recollect being comforted by a beautiful, comforting, radiant light that makes them feel at peace with the notion of their physical death on earth; but, unfortunately for the speaker in Dickinson's prose, something interfered the transition into that religious realm, and not by accident. 

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dickinson Poem Analysis

I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air --
Between the Heaves of Storm --
The eyes around -- had wrung them dry --
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset -- when the King
Be witnessed -- in the Room --
I willed my Keepsakes -- Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable -- and then it was
There interposed a Fly --
With Blue -- uncertain stumbling Buzz --
Between the light -- and me --
And then the Windows failed -- and then
I could not see to see --

I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --

Why is fly capitalized? In what context did she "die"? You cannot physically hear once you are dead. She starts out with what seems like a pretty boring observation, but then, almost out of no where she drops "when I died", almost like an afterthought to nab your attention.

Is the speaker of the poem dead?  Death and flies paint a pretty morbid picture, so this poem probably wont be about something cheerful.

The Stillness in the Room

Why is stillness and room capitalized?  The stillness of the room is the exact opposite of what she said in the first line about the annoying buzz of the fly.

Was like the Stillness in the Air --

Why is stillness and air capitalized?  The atmosphere of the room seems heavy and thick, almost humid.

Between the Heaves of Storm --

Why are heaves and storm capitalized?  This line reminds me of that moment in natural disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow or The Perfect Storm when the setting suddenly get really quiet and eerie just before the storm roars through and destroys everything.

The Eyes around -- had wrung them dry --

Why is the word eyes capitalized?  Whose eyes is she talking about? Are there other people in the room?  Where they crying and now have become exhausted or maybe made peace with the situation?  This line seems to contain more traces of human emotion.

And Breaths were gathering firm

Why is breaths capitalized?  Are a group of people/onlookers gathering in the room?

For the last Onset -- when the King

What is the last onset and why is onset capitalized?  Why are the gatherers waiting for the last onset? Could this possibly mean the moment of death?  Is the person dying important or royal?  This is the first mention of a king, the person dying must be well known in a good way since everyone is waiting for her/him to pass on.

Be witnessed -- in the Room --

Why is room capitalized?  Who is this king?  Nineteenth century America had no king, is this a reference to god?  But Dickinson doesn't seem like a religious poet.

I willed my Keepsakes -- Signed away

Why are keepsakes and signed capitalized?  The speaker suddenly switches gears, wasn't she just talking about a king in the room?  I though she was leading up to some big event, but the poem calms down and she's talking about how she has given away her possessions.

What portion of me be

Some part of her will always be present through her possessions.

Assignable -- and then it was 

She gives her possessions aways -- assignable.  This is the end of the calm moment since she says "then it was".  All of sudden something new is going to happen.

There interposed a Fly --

Fly is capitalized again and its back!  It interrupts the quiet scene, it "interposed".  It is an intruder.

With Blue -- uncertain -- stumbling Buzz -- 

Why is blue and buzz capitalized?  The fly is not graceful, because it stumbles.  Why is the fly being brought back up?  Does it have more importance than just an annoying old house fly?  Why is it uncertain?  Why does she mention the color blue? Or is it the mood?

Between the light -- and me -- 

The fly is "interposed" between the light and the speaker.  What is the light -- the afterlife?  The fly seems to have messed up the soothing/calming transition to the light with its annoying buzz.

And then the Windows failed -- and then

Why is windows capitalized?  What does she mean by the windows failed?  Did she finally die?  Are the windows her eyes?  And then...and then what?!

I could not see to see --

Yup, she definitely died, she can not see anymore.  But what does she mean she can not see to see?  It's a bit of a spooky ending, first there was an annoying fly and a light and now she's dead.  We are left with the image of darkness, flies and mystery.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Emily Dickinson, Frederick Douglass and Walt Whitman were three authors that lived around the same time period, and while they came from very different backgrounds, the circumstances of their lives compelled all of them to question the idea of freedom.  
Poetry was a great liberating force for Dickinson, in a society that hindered the opinion of women severely, prose was the one, if not only, outlet for her to establish a powerful public voice; in "They shut me up in Prose / As when I was a little girl / They put me in the closet / Because they liked me 'still' " society is trying to limit Dickinson's power by making her adhere to the ideals of true womanhood which were prevalent at this time.  These limitations, however, only made her more determined to write poetry as we can see with the line: "I dwell in possibility / A fairer house than prose."  This very clever metaphor depicting poetry as a house serves to show that prose was not only a realm of men and politics, but served as a tool for women situated in the home.

While Emily Dickinson was trying to free herself through poetry from the strict gender roles of her time, Fredrick Douglass was trying to free his mind from the firm grip of slavery by education.  While serving as a slave in Baltimore as a child, his mistress Sophia Auld taught him the A B C's and how to spell a few small words; but, Mr. Auld drew the line here, he maintained that "Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world." If he learned how to read, he would become unmanageable and discontented.  At this moment, Douglass had one of the biggest insights of his life, he finally understood that slavery was not only about physical coercion and brutality, but almost entirely mental; if they kept slaves ignorant, they could control them, therefore, Douglass concluded that his only way out of the system of slavery was through learning (education).  He made it his life goal to escape the lifestyle he was born into, he used his resources creatively and enlisted the help of neighborhood children to help him learn how to read and write.  Although part of his freedom was the desire to be physically liberated, Douglass placed more emphasis on the encagement of his mind that was the logic of the slave trade.

Unlike Dickinson and Douglass who were fettered by gender or race, Walt Whitman was a free white man; however, he saw many problems with society, and therefore defined freedom as a step towards democracy and individual rights.  In section 10 of "Song of myself" he describes aiding a runaway slave by clothing him, feeding him and letting him stay in his home.  This would have been a very controversial subject at the time; but, it supported his idea of democracy and equal rights for all men.  In section 19 he talks about setting a meal where all are welcome, and none are turned away; this too supports the idea that people should have the freedom to be equal and have their voices heard.  Whitman was highly criticized for his work seeing that it contradicted many of the established ideals held by the white population in early America at this time; but, he felt a free nation was essential for happiness.

Although Dickinson, Douglass and Whitman all have different definitions for freedom, given their special circumstances, they all wanted to be liberated from strict societal norms.  All three found something inherently wrong with the system that their country was operating under, and they all wanted to find ways to overcome the obstacles of gender, race and democracy.   

Monday, February 13, 2012

The American Scholar

"But the final value of action, like that of books, and better than books, is, that it is a resource. That great principle of Undulation in nature, that shows itself in the inspiring and expiring of the breath; in desire and satiety; in the ebb and flow of the sea; in day and night; in heat and cold; and as yet more deeply ingrained in every atom and every fluid, is known to us under the name of Polarity, — these "fits of easy transmission and reflection," as Newton called them, are the law of nature because they are the law of spirit." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

At the time of Ralph Waldo Emerson's address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, America was in a bit of a slump; see, they had just declared independence from British rule sixty years earlier, and continued to display signs of European influence.  Troubled by their lack of ingenuity, Emerson spoke to incite inspiration in the minds and hearts of young American thinkers; he called on them to think creatively, to read critically, and to cultivate a knowledge and understanding entirely their own.  Of the many themes Emerson touched on, the need to look forward was one of my favorites:

"They look backward and not forward. But genius looks forward: the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead: man hopes: genius creates. Whatever talents may be, if the man create not, the pure efflux of the Deity is not his; — cinders and smoke there may be, but not yet flame. There are creative manners, there are creative actions, and creative words; manners, actions, words, that is, indicative of no custom or authority, but springing spontaneous from the mind's own sense of good and fair."

All too often we are encouraged to read books of the past to make prudent decisions for the future, and in some respects, that is an acceptable course to take; however, what (I think) Emerson is trying to say, is that sometimes the works of history grow stale over time, they do not hold entirely the same meanings as they used to, and instead of looking back for answers, we should make construct some ourselves.  He urges the audience to become proponents of their own education; college can teach you how to vocabulary and facts, but it is how you use and develop those skills that truly make you wholesome.  Emerson also encouraged his listeners to learn from their own experiences; instead of regurgitating information from text like bookworm, he wanted them to go out and make sense of the world on their own.  Only that way could they be creative enough to move their country forward culturally, politically and intellectually.