Themes in Literature

Literary Survival


As with any thematic approach to literary study, consideration of the role of survival in literature requires an acknowledgement of the ever-evolving nature of the theme itself. Of primary importance, then, is recognizing that at different times, in different places, and to different people, the word survival has taken on myriad different meanings. Our very understanding of the term fluctuates. Centuries before the printing press, when written texts were far less common, oral transmission was often utilized as a means of relaying a text, thus literally tying the survival of texts to the living, breathing carriers thereof. The fate of people and texts were parallel. Numerous works, including Beowulf (Anonymous), when eventually recorded, sustained damage or were lost or consumed by fire. Therefore, concomitant to examining survival in literature, we have also to acknowledge the necessary survival of literature, an issue which, even with the technological advances that have taken place over the epochs, is again presenting itself. Literature, of course, cannot be without language, and this basic concern is not lost when we consider the founding documents of the English language. Early Anglo-Saxon pieces such as Bede’s Caedmon’s Hymn (ca. seventh century) are, in and of themselves, testaments to a fledgling language struggling for its very existence. Works like Bede’s faced an uphill battle against the preeminence of Latin, a language to which most deferred due to its association with the church. Hence, the survival of any language is, in and of itself, the survival of familiar ideas and expressions, of connective provincialism. The early forms of English thus served as a sort of cultural conduit to crude patriotism. Correspondingly, the texts that utilize these forms concern themselves often with defense and survival, whether focusing on the tribe or on the nation-state.

The Arthurian legend serves as an early example of literature concerned with survival beyond merely that of the individual, as does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight centuries later (although as Gawain’s head is literally at stake, individual survival is not entirely dismissed). Given the ties between the church and Western states, especially since the rise of Christianity, the intermingling of religion, the state, and the texts that carried their respective messages was of the utmost importance. The middle of the second millennium in particular saw monumental struggles between Catholics and the newly emergent Protestants for control of the hearts, minds, and truly the states and texts of Europe. The inception of the printing press in the 15th century facilitated the transmission of Martin Luther’s and John Calvin’s iconoclastic Protestant ideas and encouraged vernacular translations, sentiments that clashed with Catholicism’s insistence on Latin. Both biblical translations deemed unacceptable and those propounding them were subject to destruction via fire, and thus, the survival of both people and texts were again aligned. Dynamic both politically and textually, this era saw Henry VIII’s refutation of papal authority and his subsequent founding of the Anglican church; Elizabeth I’s rise, rule, and promulgation of Protestantism; and the ascension of King James I and creation of his conservative new Bible.

The boundaries of these disputes, however, were continually expanding, as the dictums of the early modern age insisted that to be prosperous at home meant being prosperous abroad, and that meant the maintaining of colonial empires. As the struggle of the dominant ideologies in Europe quickly spilled over into its ever-expanding imperial holdings abroad, different views on survival presented themselves. John Milton’s Paradise Lost applied the Christian mythos as a means of examining survival in new worlds—Eden for Adam and Eve, and Hell for Lucifer. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels explored the notion that, sail where one may, survival—however one chooses to define it—is only ultimately possible through selfknowledge. Tales pouring back to Europe from the Western Hemisphere, including those of Cabeza de Vaca and John Smith, told harrowing tales of survival amid unfamiliar new environments. Captivity narratives such as Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mary Rowlandson, further underscored the dangers incumbent upon usurpation-based foreign settlement. The attendant horrors of “progress” helped, over the course of time, to spawn the romantic movement. Writers such as William Wordsworth (see “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”), John Keats, and Sir Walter Scott sought survival in and pined for a departed day that favored bucolic simplicity in tried locales over the ever-advancing technology utilized to conquer alien landscapes, cultures, and people. But neither colonial exploitation nor its attendant cultural emphases would survive in the New World. Shortly after gaining independence, the United States produced its own literary examinations of just what it meant to survive. Early American writers—not merely those reproducing British fiction, but those with whom others identified the young country—such as James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving (see Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, The), and Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur deductively chronicled the survival of the state by examining parcels thereof: ostensibly, the small villages and hamlets ranging across the frontier and the manner in which they were configured, governed, and threatened. From a spiritual perspective, Calvinist notions of predestination, which seem to take away our ability to act on our own, became the target of more and more disdain, as Americans inundated with notions of new horizons leveled mounting attacks on what they believed to be the domineering beliefs of their forbears, a system that essentially attributed the nature of one’s soul’s survival to luck. Such is the nature of Emily Dickinson’s probing, almost haunted poetry; hers is unsatisfied verse, work permeated by restlessness, want, and a need for a new savior. Her yearning for something new was largely representative of the mid-19th-century atmosphere that gave way to a more liberal unitarianism and, finally, transcendentalism.

Spearheaded by the disheartened Unitarian preacher Ralph Waldo Emerson and his 1836 essay “Nature,” transcendentalists advanced the idea that surviving and flourishing were merely functions of recognizing one’s own innate divinity, an endeavor undertaken not via the intermediary of a preacher or priest in a church house, but alone. Hence, although the number of transcendentalists within the United States never exceeded that of an infinitesimal minority, their legacy survives and is celebrated as integrally American due to the manner in which emphasis on individuality and independence mirror the country’s stated goals. For example, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself ” (see Leaves of Grass) is an inductive celebration of the nation-state as construed by each and every one of its respective constituent citizens and environs. His is truly poetry of inclusion, stressing both his spirit and body; by commemorating, rather than debasing his physicality, Whitman marvels at the manner in which matter only changes form, thereby ensuring its survival, be it as human, grass, or dirt beneath one’s boot soles.

Henry David Thoreau took Whitman’s ebullience even further, specifically positing the wilderness as savior by writing in his essay “Walking” (1862) that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” a sentiment that would come to serve as a mantra for environmentalists. The idealism of transcendentalism, however, would last only until the time of the Civil War, as national survival quickly advanced to the forefront of public consciousness. Slave narratives penned by Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, Written by Herself ) and Frederick Douglass (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave), along with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, intensified the debate over slavery that threatened to destroy the country. Yet amid all the politics of division, the transcripts of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches reveal a president concerned, first and foremost, with the survival of the Union. In 1890, the American frontier was declared “closed,” thus effectively ending what had until then been the country’s most enduring myth: that of the West. Suddenly, the United States and her authors had to acknowledge the philosophical significance communicated by this spatial reality: There was, indeed, no more second chance. What remained was to turn back around and re examine the manner in which the continent had been settled. Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution and its attendant advances in transportation had shifted the American economy from agrarian to mechanized. This phenomenon, along with tough economic times following the war, facilitated the rise of naturalists like Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy) and Stephen Crane (The Open Boat), whose writing highlighted the manner in which survival now pertained more to getting along in bustling capitalist metropolises than on sun-drenched prairies.

Modernists sought solace with this increasingly unrecognizable world. Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner all wrote eulogistically of a country they were not certain they really knew. Jack Kerouac and Kurt Vonnegut followed suit. Postmodernism interrogated what surviving in the 20th century necessarily entailed. Most recently, however, the ecocritical movement, a critical literary approach aiming to treat nature, according to the scholar David Mazel, as if it were consequential has added further nuance to survival’s role in literature. Citing environmental degradation, including groundwater contamination, overuse of pesticides, deforestation, pollution, and global warming, authors (beginning ostensibly with Rachel Carson in Silent Spring [1962] and still gaining momentum from scholars like Glen Love) have stressed the seemingly rudimentary concept that the survival of literature—indeed, that of all art—is integrally dependent on the survival of an environment able to sustain humanity itself. This basic assumption refutes the postmodern maxim that there are no absolutes, and it emphasizes that the theme of survival in literature is a very fundamental one; indeed, as people and texts are paralleled, they share a similar fate.

See also Bradbury, Ray: Fahrenheit 451; Defoe, Daniel: Robinson Crusoe; Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist; Erdrich, Louise: Love Medicine; Tracks; Frank, Anne: Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl; Golding, William: Lord of the Flies; Gordimer, Nadine: Burger’s Daughter; Harte, Bret: “Outcasts of Poker Flats, The”; Hemingway, Ernest: Farewell to Arms, A; Kingston, Maxine Hong: Woman Warrior, The; Mukherjee, Bharati: Middleman and Other Stories, The; O’Brien, Tim: Going after Cacciato; Solzhenitsyn, Alexander: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; Steinbeck, John: Pearl, The; Tennyson, Alfred, Lord: In Memoriam A. H. H.; Wright, Richard: Native Son.

7 thoughts on “Literary Survival

  1. aw that doesn’t sound too bad. is it a text you have to study, or an actual piece of literature?

  2. all wekeend for my English Literature midterm. Read a couple of Virginia Woolf’s works and felt…

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