Can we ever escape our past? In their attempt to create a New Canaan, New World, New England, English settlers to what would become the United States of America brought with them the sum total of their experiences. But perusing the history texts suggests that these were primarily men's experiences. Thinkers and writers such as Captain John Smith and Cotton Mather recognized that we could not leave the flaws in human nature behind, that we bring with us who we are.
There have been periods in American literature that reflect the promise, the unlimited potential, that the earliest European settlers came to find. Indeed, our literary history is peppered with works which question what "America" means, the way we as a nation have come into existence, whether the American Dream is available to all (or any), and where, in fact, we are going from here. But the male voice tells only half the story. When we turn to the female voice in American literature, we find one of the missing pieces of the puzzle.
American women writers have many faces, and with the expanding canon and the increasing sensitivity to multicultural curricula, more American women writers (and hyphenated Americans) are being "discovered" and incorporated into our teaching. By examining American literary history from women's perspectives, we see a more complete picture of where we are going and where we have been. And when we look to black women's writing in particular, we find rays of hope, ironically, that are not always evident in writing by western European, or white, women.
When we look at American literature, if we are reading carefully, we recognize the existence of an ongoing dialogue, between and among writers. We can read Toni Morrison's
and appreciate her debt to, and her recrafting of, Twain's
. Reading Marilynne Robinson's
calls to mind, in no uncertain terms, Melville's
, but from a female perspective. There are others. The novelist, the poet, the short story writer, the essayist and the playwright, cannot help but use their predecessors as sounding boards, as grist for their own mills. And the conversation continues, albeit with different twists on and interpretations of what was said before. These works, and others, have associations with one another, maybe based on a common theme, a similar character, a re-telling of the same story from a different cultural perspective. By reading a work along with a newer counterpart, we engage in Rich's act of "re-vision the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction" (35). And "seeing with fresh eyes" is not merely the need to engage our students in their reading, to encourage them to make connections between their lives and what they read, but, as Rich posits, "it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves" (35). Reading these newer, female voices in American literature and recognizing that they have emerged and continue to emerge from a long line of forebears will help our students to better know and understand themselves.