Continuing The Great American Anti-Novel experiment...
Song of Myself
Call me Jim1. When I read the book, the biography famous, is this then what the author calls a man’s life? And so will someone -when I am dead and gone -write my life? (And if any man really knew
aught my life, why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life, only a few hints, a few diffused faint clues and indiscretions I seek for my own use to trace out here.)
From pent-up aching rivers, from that of myself without which I were nothing, from what I am determined to make illustrious, even if I stand sole among men- I sing myself.
I’ve played the part. Fool, jester, field nigger, house nigger, Uncle Tom, Smilin’ Jim, boy, free man. Liberated by two boy-children, I was later sold back into slavery. My soul had tasted freedom, a body chained- of this I would never speak. But my mind would run free. Of escape to the North.
The soul is not more than the body, the body is not more than the soul, and nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is. And I say to any man or woman, let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes.
But is it too late to make any improvements now? The universe is finished, the copestone is one, and the chips were carted off a million years ago.
I say no.
Born in Tuckahoe, near Hilsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland- my tongue, every atom of my blood, formed from this soil, this air. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.
Very soon after I could stand and walk, I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld. She very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C.2 After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Beginning my studies the first step pleased me so much, the mere fact of consciousness, these forms, the power of motion... The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love... The first step I say awed me and pleased me so much...
Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other thins, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read.
From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. The motto which I adopted when I started from slavery was this- “Trust no man!” I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost every colored man cause for distrust.
I did trust one boy, Huck, who gave me my first taste of freedom. Only to be sold back into slavery, unknown to him. I never had the chance to speak of thanks, but thanks for my own soul? But then, I was never fully myself with him, only in moments on that river, when the night creatures spoke their own language, and the murmurs of men, colored and white, faceless, spoke the same unfettered tongue.
I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Of the terrible doubt of appearances, of the uncertainty after all, that maybe reliance and hope are but speculations after all.
One’s self I sing, a simple separate person, of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power. Cheerful, for freest action formed under the laws divine. Of myself, of the free man, I sing.
Yet, I have been utterly astonished to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater
mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.
I planned, and finally succeeded in making, my escape from slavery.
I thought the matter over during and finally resolved upon the third day of September, as the day upon which I would make a second attempt to secure my freedom. The wretchedness of slavery, and the blessedness of freedom, were perpetually before me. It was life and death with me. But I remained firm, and, according to my resolution, on the third day of September, I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York, without the slightest interruption of any kind. How I did so, - what means I adopted,- what direction I traveled, and by what mode of conveyance, - I must leave unexplained, at least for now.
I had been in New York but a few days, when Mr. Ruggles sought me out, and very kindly took me to his boarding-house at the corner of Church and Lespenard Streets. Mr. Ruggles was then very deeply engaged in the memorable Darg case, as well as attending to a number of other fugitive slaves, devising ways and means for their successful escape; and, though watched and hemmed in on almost every side, he seemed to be more than a match for his enemies.
Very soon after I went to Mr. Ruggles, he wished to know of me where I wanted to go; as he deemed it unsafe for me to remain in New York. I told him I was a calker, and should like to go where I could get work. I thought of going to Canada; but he decided against it, and in favor of my going to New Bedford, thinking I should be able to get work there at my trade.
I was quite disappointed at the general appearance of things in New Bedford; it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul.
1. Did I deny Jim by creating/adding what I see as eloquence?3 There must have been slaves- if not with the exact ‘comic/stereotypical’ speech of Twain’s Jim- who spoke with many if not the same colloquialisms. If someone doesn’t talk like me, or in a less educated way, do I assume their emotional range, depth of feeling isn’t the same? Of course I do.
Did Jim (if Jim existed) have the same depth of feeling as Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman? Of course. And since the internal dialogue of a fictitious character is both unknowable and infinite, then painting the feelings with eloquence is as valid as any other internal dialogue. I think.
Is there the same interior monologue pretension for Huck? A poor white Southerner (well, southern Illinois/Arkansas), orphaned, speaking and thinking in King James’ English? But then why not?4
2. Chief Justice Warren wrote in Brown ‘ Education is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is the principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him adjust to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education... To separate Negro children from other of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.'
3. ‘There are moments when Mr. Gattis- a lecturer at Chapman University in California and a member of the urban art group UGLAR- falls prey to the John Updike of “Rabbit” syndrome, attributing to his street-tough narrators the sort of ruminative, literary thoughts that seem more likely to occur to him than his creations. But such slips are rare.’ – from The New York Times April 30, 2015, ‘ Gang Life Goes On Amid City in Chaos’, Michiko Kakutani book review of Ryan Gattis’ All Involved
4. Of course, this endless soul-searching, this consciousness of self-consciousness of self-consciousness can be, well, an endless loop. I never finished David Foster Wallace’s (unfinished) last novel ‘The Pale King’, but like much of his best writing (or any great writing), there is such awareness. It’s in his footnotes throughout his works, his digressions, his moments of epiphany. I once saw him interviewed on Charlie Rose [link], and I don’t know if he was just uncomfortable being interviewed or if this endless awareness and self-awareness made him naturally uncomfortable, but he made me feel claustrophobic. A sweaty uneasiness- was that what the bandana was for? I wanted to pull him out of the screen, let him out of the box. Relieve him, like wanting to pull my son off the pitcher’s mound as he struggled through an inning. But then, it was one brief interview, and I have no idea what demons he struggled with, and, by all accounts, he was funny and a good friend, and wickedly brilliant. [I watched the interview years later on YouTube, and realize now that he wasn’t necessarily uncomfortable with himself, but rather the TV interview version of himself, or the fear of the TV version of himself, i.e., the awareness of saying/being the boxed-in TV interview persona DFW.]
The other sense of The Pale King is a yearning for struggle, for moral and heroic struggles in our time, when ordinary American life- for many, but definitely not all- seems to lack life-or-death challenges. Maybe that’s why he liked rap music, which is about real life and death on the streets. He had the ability to have written a novel about the streets, but he wouldn’t have wanted something so inauthentic, I think? But trying to bring that intensity to the cubicle, the mall, the suburbs, the academy- philosophical jujitsu to the mundane- is that what he was trying to do?
In the book ‘Signifying Rappers’, Mark Costello remembers after DFW saw a rap act at the Middle East in Cambridge, on a horrible sound system, and asked afterwards: did that suck? Or was that absolutely raw greatness? The test: DOES THIS WRITING-ART-MUSIC-SHOW-MOVIE-PROJECT SUCK? But if I think about it too much, then I won’t feel it, or, even if I do feel it, I won’t enjoy the feeling, or the feeling won’t be raw, because I’ll spend most of my time thinking about the thinking I have for the feeling... The fucking loop.