Monday, September 5, 2016

How to Be an American Writer, Part 7: Internal Exiles

Now we come to the third approach of American writers to U.S. society, which I would call the internal exile. Unlike the expatriates, who discover an alternative home in another country, and who find that the American experience compares in important ways unfavorably to the values and culture of that other place, the internal exile rejects any homeland outside the U.S. The internal exile digs deeply into the American soil, but on his or her own, in isolation from the larger society.

Emily Dickinson
The most famous example of this sort of writer might be Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Dickinson had a brief stint as a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College). She was more or less hounded out of that school after being categorized as “hopeless” by the administration because she was impervious to the religious fundamentalism that was the order of the day. This was the period of the Second Great Awakening, then hurricaning through New England. Here the Puritan tradition resurfaced in its insistence on spiritual conformity. 

Emily Dickinson
After leaving Mount Holyoke, Dickinson kept to her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father was actually the congressman from this district, so Dickinson’s nonconformist views on religion, love, and women’s roles would be controversial and possibly damaging to her father’s career.

For example, Dickinson wrote:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

What more eloquent statement could there be of the individual’s right to communicate directly with the Spirit, and to see the divine directly in nature?

In a remarkable essay on Dickinson, “Vesuvius at Home,” Adrienne Rich makes a convincing case that Dickinson understood the explosive nature of her rebellion, and that that Dickinson deliberately kept to her home to protect the revelation of her poetry and her ideas. “I have a notion that genius knows itself;” writes Rich, “that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence.”

I think Rich is right that Dickinson’s reticence to share her poetry was not the withdrawal of a dry school marm but a savvy choice. Dickinson had the shelter of her family’s home as a writer’s retreat—so long as her work didn’t embarrass or disgrace her father and her other relatives. Dickinson’s best choice for publishing and preserving her nonconformist poems was to turn them into a sort of time capsule. That way her poems could be read, understood, and appreciated in a future century—which they are.

Robinson Jeffers
Another writer I would classify as an internal exile is the poet Robinson Jeffers (1887–1962). It seems that internal exiles tend to be poets. Poets are not given to compromise, and it takes an uncompromising and independent spirit to choose and to flourish in internal exile.

In 1912, Jeffers had an affair with a married woman who was older than he was, Una Call Kuster, the wife of a prominent Los Angeles attorney. The liaison was so scandalous that it was featured on the front page of the L.A. Times. Jeffers and Una fled to Carmel on the California coast, where Jeffers helped design and construct Tor House, a refuge from the humdrum, modern world. Jeffers lugged and mortared many of the stones himself that were used in the construction of the tower.

Along this rugged coast, Jeffers retreated and wrote many of his poems.  

Maybe the poem of Jeffers’ that most embodies the outlook of the internal exile is “Shine, Perishing Republic.” This poem typifies the critical view of the internal exile toward the larger American society:

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
     center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
     are left the mountains.

Gary Snyder
Another internal exile is still living today. I’m referring to Gary Snyder (1930– ), a poet and essayist of the Beat Generation. Gary lives in a house called Kitkitdizze, in the foothills of Sierra Nevada Mountains in California in a house he also helped to construct. He deliberately chose for his home an area that had been heavily logged, in an effort to reclaim and nourish the land. The architecture style borrows from both Japanese homes and Native American lodges. The house is only accessible by a three-mile, unpaved road. For many years, Snyder pumped all the water they used by hand. His family had only an outhouse.

Of course, there are many other facets to Gary Snyder that don’t relate to the idea of an internal exile: he had a long teaching career, very connected to his students at University of California, Davis; he lived abroad in Japan and is in many ways global in his outlook; he was part of the camaraderie of the Beat Generation and close to that group of writers. But I think that there is an edge to Gary Snyder’s writing that is very skeptical about contemporary American culture, an edge that would allow for him to be called an internal exile of sorts. 

John Haines
I believe we can add to the list of internal exiles, the Alaskan writer John Haines (1924–2011). Haines, poet and essayist, lived for twenty years on a homestead outside of Fairbanks. Here’s an excerpt from a poem by John Haines, The Sweater of Vladimir Ussachevsky,” that I think speaks to the view of the internal exile toward the larger society. It’s spoken in the voice of a frontiersman visiting New York City:

The old Imperial sun has set, 
and I must write a poem to the Emperor. 
I shall speak it like the man 
I should be, an inhabitant of the frontier, 
clad in sweat-darkened wool, 
my face stained by wind and smoke. 

The speaker sees himself as apart from the political and economic center, but in that distance there is room to critique the mainstream. In the poetry of this internal exile, there is a sense of belonging to a different polis, a different community from the one that is generally acknowledged as established. I think we see this in Jeffers’ and Snyder’s work as well.

The populist believes in the inherent goodness of American life, but the internal exile doubts it. The internal exile may believe that redemption lies elsewhere—maybe in nature, maybe in Native American or other cultures, maybe in a more resonant past or a more utopian future.

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