Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lecture 20

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Wk 10 - Thurs (9/10), 3-4 pm lecture: HSB2

Louise Erdrich: Tracks (1988) -


Leslie Fiedler, in The Return of the Vanishing American (1968), refers to four persistent foci of mythic patterning in American literature, which he identifies with the four points of the compass:

  • The Eastern: the novel of manners, in a European or sophisticated east-coast setting (henry james, Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald)
  • The Western: the novel of the frontier (he'd include Herman Melville here, as well as some of Mark Twain)
  • The Northern: the austere New England Yankee novel (Ethan Frome, The Country of the Pointed Firs)
  • The Southern (Huckleberrry Finn, The Grandissimes - even Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone with the Wind

This seems to refer back to the distinction between (so-called) "Redskins and Palefaces" in American literature which I discussed in my first lecture on Willa Cather.

If Tracks is a Western, though, what kind of a Western is it?

Some fairly obvious points about the narrative:

  • Nanapush begins and ends the story, and generally seems to be more reliable as a narrator - or at any rate less biassed against Fleur Pillager.

  • Pauline's story begins with an account of Fleur's relations with the lake monster, and goes on to an account of her rape by the men of Argus. This encourages us to see her as an unreliable, self-justifying witness.

  • Nanapush has a longer memory than any other surviving member of the tribe, and a tendency to see things in a traditional sense. According to the author of the wikipedia entry on the book, his name equates with Nanabozho, a Native American Trickster figure.

  • Pauline's religious fanaticism, and propensity for the dead operates as a kind of parody of assimilation to a dominant ideology. "Internalizing the standards of the aggressor," as Toril Moi put it in Sexual / Textual Politics (1985).

  • Nanapush's story is being told to Lulu, Fleur's daughter, presumably in the 1940s, many years after the events described in the book, which roughly span the period between 1912, when Nanapush saves Fleur, to 1924, when Lulu returns from Boarding School. The status of Pauline's account is less certain.

So whose story is it? Nanapush's, Pauline's, Fleur's - or Lulu's? Or does the significance of the story transcend any one of them? Is it, in fact, an allegory of dispossession?

Compare Willa Cather (1918):

Beyond the pond, on the slope that climbed to the cornfield, there was, faintly marked in the grass, a great circle where the Indians used to ride. Jake and Otto were sure that when they galloped round that ring the Indians tortured prisoners, bound to a stake in the centre; but grandfather thought they merely ran races or trained horses there. Whenever one looked at this slope against the setting sun, the circle showed like a pattern in the grass; and this morning, when the first light spray of snow lay over it, it came out with wonderful distinctness, like strokes of Chinese white on canvas. The old figure stirred me as it had never done before and seemed a good omen for the winter.

Where else does the term "tracks" come up in Cather's narrative? At the very end:

On the level land the tracks had almost disappeared - were mere shadings in the grass, and a stranger would not have noticed them. But wherever the road had crossed a draw, it was easy to find. The rains had made channels of the wheel-ruts and washed them so deeply that the sod had never healed over them. They looked like gashes torn by a grizzly's claws, on the slopes where the farm-wagons used to lurch up out of the hollows with a pull that brought curling muscles on the smooth hips of the horses.

And at the beginning:

This was the road over which Antonia and I came on that night when we got off the train at Black Hawk and were bedded down in the straw, wondering children, being taken we knew not whither. ... Whatever we had missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.

I'm not suggesting that Erdrich is making a direct reference to Cather's version of the settlement of the great plains, from "buffalo and Indian times" to the present day of the story, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't.

The question is, what are we to conclude from it? Is it a hopeful parable, or yet another account of the Last of the Mohicans? The return, or the passing, of the Vanishing American?

The question may seem a little crass and reductionist, but what is Erdrich's point in telling us this involved, tortured story of hunger, disease, rape, murder, love, redemption, and religious mania? Does she know herself? Is it really necessary for her to spell it out in words of one syllable?

Once again, all we have to go on is the words of her text, slippery and fork-tongued as they are. "Traditional people," she reminds us helpfully, "are very careful about attribution. When a story begins there is a prefacing history of that story's origin that is as complicated as the Modern Language Association guidelines to forming footnotes." An interesting analogy. Does a well-documented and footnoted lie (or fiction) become any less of a lie?

The double-play between Pauline and Nanapush seems to me not so much designed to invite us to endorse one or other of the two narrators, as to show the soul of the dispossessed under colonialism.

Where Willa Cather's conception of the Western (in her case mixed with the stylistic affectations of the Eastern) is essentially elegiac, though, Louise Erdrich's Western has elements of the Northern in it instead. And, what's more, seems designed more to point towards a future, however precarious, for its various embattled characters than as a lament for a "precious, incommunicable past."

This, to me, is the significance of her parody of Magic Realist tropes (channeled as they are almost exclusively through the voice of the fanatical Pauline), as well as her careful charting of the economic processes of dispossession: unpaid land-taxes, appropriated by the "Kashpaw" collaborator, Nestor.

It's like a return to the strategies of Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude: magic is easy to believe in, but the sheer blind cruelty of unadulterated economic imperialism is always more of a stretch.

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