American Literature and Religion
America has seen monumental changes amongst the people in the Twentieth Century. Though these changes have led to simpler lifestyles for the American people, the changes have also led to the alienation of many American individuals. These people often feel as if they are outcasts amongst their neighbors. Others have lost sight of God and what Christianity truly means. Others are left incapable of loving themselves; therefore, they feel apathetic toward the human community. Before isolated persons can reconnect with their society, they must determine the reason of their own self imposed isolation.
One cause of an individual’s detachment from the human race is his or her own preconceived notions of how society regards him or her. Often people refuse to recognize the fragmented aspects of American culture. One reoccurring, prevalent aspect of Twentieth Century literature is the existence of the otherness in characters, which is often exhibited as the unusual or foreign behaviors we do not understand. Too often, people fear that which they do not understand. For instance, on the way to a job interview, Bigger Thomas of Richard Wright’s Native Son carries with him a gun and knife. The young man felt the neighborhood he had entered “was a cold and distant world” (Wright, 1644). This same fear of white people led to Bigger’s natural distrust of them. Because Bigger is an outcast of the white American society due to his race, he knows he will not be treated fairly if he is discovered with Mary. Therefore, to save himself from imminent persecution, the young man smothers her to death. Though race is often the root of alienation, not all outcasts are pariahs of society due to race. Some, such as Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are rejected from society due to their inability to fulfill a basic human understanding of moral behavior. Often, Americans believe if a child is brought up with good morals by decent parents, as in the Misfit’s case, then the child will become a moralistically sound individual. However, this does not always ring true. Even after developing a bond with the grandmother, the Misfit could not seize the morals, which were once imprinted within him. Both Bigger and the Misfit were cast beyond the margins of society. They were victims of fear and degradation. Therefore, their response was violence, in order to guarantee self-preservation.
The assurance of self-preservation often leads to the decline of Christian behavior. Though many people claim to be of Christian faith, they often do not adhere to the Christian lifestyle. For instance, Rose in August Wilson’s “Fences” has lost sight of her faith. She does, however, devoutly cling to her church and her own salvation. Furthermore, Rose wishes for Jesus to build a fence around her to keep her safe. Regardless of her faith, Rose cannot be saved from the consequences of her choices. Her faith did not keep her from being a victim of adultery. However, Rose’s faith is what made her become a mother to Raynell. Rose tells Troy, “you can’t visit the sins of a father upon the child” (Wilson 2342). In spite of her apparent Christian behavior, Rose has forgotten that Jesus taught forgiveness to his followers. She never learns to forgive Troy. The need for Americans to pick and choose what commands to follow has led to a distrust of the Christian faith. Due to this overwhelming distrust, more and more Americans turn away from God, because they are unable to find peace in His word. Therefore, they look for peace among the physical world. For instance, in his poem “Sunday Morning,” Wallace Stevens reflects the darkness seen in Christianity. Steven’s poem alludes to the innumerable injustices perpetrated in the name of Christianity. As an answer to Christianity, he offers the search for beauty within our imaginations and the physical world, which surrounds us. To Stevens, if a person can construct his world of beauty, then they can love.
However, the inability to love, find love, or be loved has also led to the alienation of many American individuals in the Twentieth century. Both Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath struggled with love. The poets came from dysfunctional families and were married to tyrannical husbands. For both women, their inability to feel and find love stemmed from their despondent upbringing. Plath suffered from an inconsolable longing. She had not found love in her childhood. In Plath’s poem “Daddy,” she compares her father to Hitler. To her, Plath’s father finds pleasure from torturing her. Her father was a brutal man who could not teach her love. Like Plath, Sexton alludes to an empty childhood. In her poem “Rowing,” Sexton suggests being immersed in a sea of mayhem where “there was life / with its cruel houses / and people who seldom touched” (lines 14-16). These lines allude to a longing of affection from the members of her family. Due to the family’s inability to love, Sexton was never able to develop her own ability to love. In “The Farmer’s Wife,” Sexton sees herself as a mere apparatus to be manipulated to subdue the lustful desires of her husband. Through their poetry, both women searched for their purpose, but could not find a suitable answer, which eventually led to their suicides.
A sense of purpose can be important in reintegrating oneself among the human community. To Robert Frost, the answer is a harmonic existence, which can be achieved when humankind chooses to live in unison with one another and nature. In his poem “Mending Wall,” Frost depicts the neighbor as a man who does not understand what makes good neighbors. To the man, putting walls between one another, both physically and mentally, is what brings a community together. However, Frost is careful to point out the inconsistency of his neighbor’s theory. In lines forty one and forty two, Frost wrote, “He moves in darkness as it seems to me, / Not of woods only and the shade of trees.” The man does not see the light. Instead, he has searched for a simple answer to the human condition. To Frost, there are no simple answers, which bring about spiritual experiences. It is through the integration of nature in one’s life that people become closer to human spirituality. However, nature is not the only answer to isolation. Living in harmony with our human community can bring those who are secluded back into society. In “The Sky is Gray,” by Ernest J. Gaines, the female shopkeeper reached out to the outcasts of her immediate community. She helps James and his mother by offering them a warm place to sit and eat. The woman says the food is a trade for chores, which did not need to be done. This woman offered compassion and warmth where others hid behind closed doors. By doing so, the woman is a step closer to living harmoniously with those on the outside of her town’s societal boundaries.
In order to alleviate alienation from society, people must learn to harmoniously function within society. They must forget their preconceived notions and assimilate, not necessarily conform. Conformity leads to mind numbness or, as Alfonse in DeLillo’s White Noise calls it, brain fade. Assimilation can most often be found in a functional Christian community. 1 Corinthians 12:11-13 tells Christians they are all a part of the body. Each part has its individual function; but without the whole of the Christian community, the individual part’s function is insufficient and ineffective. Also, through a Christian community, people can develop the ability to love, be loved, and find love. In Luke 10:27, Christians are told to love God, love their neighbors, and love themselves. The human existence depends on harmony between the people. Harmony, however, cannot be reached from self-segregation. The more we become dependent on technologies for human connection, the more alienated and apathetic we become.
Frost, Robert. “Mending Wall.” Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 2: 9th ed. Ed. David Bradley, Joseph Csicsila, Shelley F. Fishkin, James S. Leonard, George McMichael, and Dana D. Nelson. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 2007: 1105-1106.
Sexton, Anne. “Rowing.” Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 2: 9th ed. Ed. David Bradley, Joseph Csicsila, Shelley F. Fishkin, James S. Leonard, George McMichael, and Dana D. Nelson. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 2007: 1838-1839.
Wilson, August. “Fences.” Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 2: 9th ed. Ed. David Bradley, Joseph Csicsila, Shelley F. Fishkin, James S. Leonard, George McMichael, and Dana D. Nelson. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 2007: 2303-2353.
Wright, Richard. “from Native Son.” Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 2: 9th ed. Ed. David Bradley, Joseph Csicsila, Shelley F. Fishkin, James S. Leonard, George McMichael, and Dana D. Nelson. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 2007: 1643-1672.