Literary Influences

T.S. Eliot used to talk about a dead poets' society. This society was Eliot's way of expressing that each author changed poetic tradition and interpretation and made it new. Everything each author did was influenced by poets of the past, and everything each author did would influence poetry to come. This is true not just for poetry, but for all literary styles, as well as any art form; art forms are always evolving into new forms that are still impacted by the past.

With canonization, and often an official list of the literature of a nation, the representation of literature's evolution is doubtlessly limited. This does, however, offer an opportunity to link together those limited works in order to represent the evolution of said national literature. Often people talk of putting more meaning to a book than there is, or of not respecting its real influence.

When Kate Chopin's The Awakening was canonized as early American feminist literature, some people disagreed whether or not its intent really was to purport feminist ideals. Whether its intent revealed feminist thought or not, it was still a part of the evolution of literature, and whether canonized or not, it still had a place in that evolution. The knowledge taken from it is limited in that there were probably other books of the same time that have vanished, but since hers remains, that is no reason to discount it. With this mentality, all literature, however good or bad, know or unknown, fits into the evolution of literature as a whole; how it was influenced by existing literature, and how it influenced literature to come, are two interesting trains of thought to follow as a reader.

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Influences on Olaudah Equiano, and his Influences on Literature to Come

For Equiano, staying in England meant working towards his goals through British culture. This is how his Interesting Narrative gained the structure it has. With Equiano's reformative intent for the novel, his confusing amalgamation of culture and upbringing, and the intended audience to hear his reformative cry, his best bet to reach this audience was mostly by means with which they were familiar: British means. The features of his book are an interesting step in the evolution of British Literature, African-American Literature, and American Literature, for it was influenced by, and wound up influencing, all of these bodies of literature.

Although The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, is considered to belong to the genre of slave narratives, it is one of the earliest of that genre, and perhaps even played a hand in molding the genre as such. Therefore, to consider his story as belonging to only one genre is limiting, because it shows traits of many literary genres.

Equiano's narrative, as many slave narratives, correlates with spiritual autobiographies because both genres follow a similar plot progression. While spiritual autobiographies follow the path of sin, conversion, and rebirth, slave narratives follow the mold of slavery, escape, and freedom. The parts of each genre not only match each other, but Equiano uses both aspects throughout his book; as well as escaping slavery, he also struggles with Christianity and undergoes a spiritual rebirth. Angelo Costanzo makes the point that "Equiano adapted the autobiographical form to his invention of the slave narrative." (note1)

Equiano's novel is obviously influenced by other literature as well. The detailed accounts of his adventures are reminiscent of picaresque adventures and action-adventure novels (note2). Many comparisons are made between him and Daniel Defoe (note3). Also, one can find similarities between Equiano's book and American captivity narratives. The interesting difference is that in Equiano's case, the whites are the captors. Thomas Doherty makes the observation in his article, "Olaudah Equiano's Journeys: The geography of a slave narrative," that "Equiano forced a confrontation with another perspective and coaxed a realignment of instinctive allegiances," on his audience.1 The whites are the savages.

Equiano influenced literature to come as well. Many credit Equiano with helping to create the genre of the slave narrative. This genre came to have as much political impact, if not more, as it did literary impact. Also, the autobiographical form and style has impact on literature to the present day (note4). Notably, autobiographical writing influences black literature. Authors like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, just to name a few, portray the ostracized individual. Baldwin was an expatriate, Wright was a black boy, and Ellison was simply invisible. Dick Gregory's autobiography, Nigger, was part of the autobiographical genre, and as much political commentary as it was about his life, and as serious as it was funny.

CLR James' Influences, and his Influence on Historical Literature to Come

The Black Jacobins, by CLR James, fits into the evolution of literature as well, even though it is an historical study. It was originally written as a play. Also, even when in novel or historical essay form, it still exhibits many traits of a tragedy. Toussaint L'Ouverture, the "hero" of the Haitian Revolution, meets tragic ends. As Malick Ghachem notices in his book review for All Souls Rising, L'Ouverture comes to these ends by possessing an Aristotelian flaw.

Thus, James is influenced by literature, just as Equiano is, when documenting history. They both write their histories with literary intent. By both these authors utilizing literary techniques in their telling of true stories, they are influencing literature to come by offering the idea to cross the true with the literary.

  Notes

1.Autobiographies:

Equiano's autobiography not only represents spiritual autobiographies, but is quite similar to other autobiographies as well. While Equiano was working on his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin was working on his own, and their autobiographies bear striking resemblance in some ways. Angelo Costanzo mentions that they both use self-ironic humor, and both portray themselves as the picaro figure. In his article, "Olaudah Equiano's journeys: The geography of a slave narrative," Thomas Doherty examines the fact that both Franklin and Equiano portray themselves as self-made men. Each is "resourceful, pragmatic, print-oriented, always on the lookout for a likely scam or fast buck."2 Bonnie Schreiber examines the American myth of the self-made man, and whether Equiano played a role in furthering this myth, in The Boundaries of Freedom.

2.Picaresque Novels:

The picaresque influence on Equiano's autobiography raise many more interesting literary ideas. For one, the picaro is often utilized to elucidate his surroundings. As a picaresque novel is episodic, it step by step reveals the world in which the picaro resides. This is interesting in Equiano's case because one of his intents is always to reveal the inequity of white men. The picaro is also usually a character struggling for survival, which leads him to wander and escape to where he can, often leading to another exciting episode. This seeming lack of control the picaro has on his life lends itself to the feeling of predestination Equiano repeatedly experiences, because one whose life is predestined has no control over his life either.

3.Equiano and Defoe:

This is interesting because Equiano is striving to eliminate slavery, while Defoe's novel, Robinson Crusoe, is about civilizing and colonizing the world. Nor are Equiano's similarities limited literary action and adventure. In Tropicopolitans, Srinivas Aravamudan discusses similarities between the two, and incorporates Equiano's life events. He explores Equiano's relations to Christianity, capitalism, and colonialism. Equiano, after being freed, joined the British forces trying to "civilize" Sierra Leone.3

4.Autobiographical impacts:

In this paragraph, I focus mainly on modern and contemporary black authors. This note is just to reiterate the impact that the autobiographical form had on the abolitionist movement. This carried over and impacted the Civil Rights Movement as well. Also, while I mention Baldwin's use of the personal narrative in a creative way, authors still use the autobiography as a political tool. This isn't to say that Baldwin's work wasn't political at all, but authors like Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier write autobiographies that come to be present day captivity narratives.

  Links

*** An excellent essay by John Clarke entitled "The Origin and Growth of Afro-American Literature" is on the web. It is long, but very interesting, and he touches on many different authors and aspects of the writing.

*** A great brief history of The Slave Narrative is available too. It includes definitions, early examples, later examples, and offers ideas for further reading. It also has a section called "general information" about slave narratives, which is an outline of purposes, influences, reasons for popularity, parallels with captivity narratives, frequent patterns, and frequently repeated motifs. This site is an excellent introduction.

  Teaching

Angelo Costanzo offers a great teaching outline for Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797). The Heath Online Instructor's Guide offers similar outlines for tons of writers, like James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, many of which are mentioned earlier on this page, and can be linked to through their names in the text, as well as here.

Also, check out Vicki Whistler's teaching page that focuses on teaching history through literature and teaching about slavery.

  Citations

1.Doherty, Thomas. "Olaudah Equiano's journeys: The geography of a slave narrative." Partisan Review, v64n4, (Fall 1997), 572-581.

2.Ibid.

3.Aravamudan, Srinivas. Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.

Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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