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Albena Bakratcheva


    "The tests I need to pass are prescribed by the spirits
    of PLACE who understand TRAVEL but not amnesia...
    Ourselves as we are in these painful motions
    of staying cognizant: some part of us always
    out beyond ourselves
    knowing knowing knowing..." (Rich 1993: 99)

These lines belong to an Adrienne Rich poem - a New England poem, arising from Rich's deep identification with the countryside in western Massachusetts. Amnesia leads to nowhere; it is only the painful condition of being cognizant, that makes you truly alive. Cognizant of the spirits of place. And they appear to be many. Thoreau in his time was pretty content with one and only "genius loci" to identify with. Are these spirits of place now also the ghosts of place? Is place being sensed as haunted? HAUNETD BY THE NEED OF MEMORY? Since it is the prescription of your own fate, of your own self that lies encoded there. And this "knowing" part of us should always be kept alert, so that to ensure awareness of self-identity. It is "out beyond ourselves", since it communicates with the spirits of place, thus becoming a shared identity - therefore Rich switches from "I" to "we". Cognizance turns out to be a SHARED MEMORY OF PLACE whispered by the spirits of place. And TRAVEL is a way to let that whisper enter the soul, enlighten it and ease it with the touch of identity secured. If "walking" led Thoreau to the millenarian vision of the New Jerusalem on the actual soil of his native New England, "travel" now takes Rich into the depths of local mythology, among the voices of haunting local ghosts, into the history of local spirits. "I need to understand how a PLACE on the map is also a place in history within which... I am created and trying to create", Rich would state in an essay, clearly enough called "Notes toward a Politics of Location" (Rich 1986: 27).

And I would suggest here, that the tradition of self-place relationship is being currently REVISITED and REEXPERIENCED in contemporary American literature. Place as Home as America is being rediscovered as the core of self-identity. Not any more as paradise to be regained though, but already as a Story necessarily to be heard. A LOCAL STORY. A local story that needs trusting. So that the poetic Voice become true. So that the (poetic) Self become rooted in the global insecurity all around. In other words, in "the ambivalent relation between map knowledge and place-sense" that Lawrence Buell so profoundly talks about (Buell 1995: 275), a recent tendency can be outlined that makes map knowledge "haunted", i.e. inspirited with voices from history to the effect of rooting place-sense in terms of SELF-PRESERVATION in a globalizing reality. Thus, in Rich's words, a place on the map becomes also a place in history by a necessity that is both creative and existential. "Trust the place to form the voice", another contemporary poet, Susan Howe, would state in an interview, making it clear that there is no poetical voice, or identity, without adopting the spirits of place. "It would be hard to think of poetry apart from HISTORY... - she goes on. - The TALE and the PLACE are tied in a mysterious and profound way." (Howe 1993: 156-158). Needless to say, that both the tale and the place are considered as entirely American. And I would go further here in suggesting that it is the very frontier mythology underlying the whole of American culture that is being presently revisited, that a NOVEL FRONTIER METAMORPHOSIS is unfolding itself in the confusing, incoherent, evasive realities of postmodernity, of globalization itself.

The frontier used to be the gateway through which one might escape from time into space, from bounds to boundlessness, and from the works of corrupt and corrupting humanity to the works of God in uncorrupted nature (see Frontier 1989: 6). Escape and thrilling temptation have always been at the core of the frontier mythology. Therefore the effects of the frontier did not and could not end with the 1890 census, as Frederick Jackson Turner suggested. The frontier mentality did not and could not vanish with the historical frontier. Gatsby's "green light" would never cease glimmering in American writing. The archetypal frontier opposition between the Old and the New World, between the known and the unknown, between rottening civilization and the freedom of wilderness, would always be stuck to, thus constantly reviving the inherent impulse in American literature of erasing the notion of time in order to focus on space - space being but entirely American. So that in our time there be still authors like Susan Howe insisting on that pilgrim-old, identity-figuring contradiction: "Space and Time - America and England" (Howe 1993: 156). The symbolic drama of American consciousness still keeps unfolding itself "shifting over from the old psyche to something new" (Lawrence 1966: 1), as D.H.Lawrence observed. Unspecified as it is, that "something new" has been undergoing lots of changes with the time - not to speak of "the old psyche". The relation between them, though, has remained untouched, preserved as a metaphoric frontier, providing hope, dreams, self-esteem. What I am pointing at here is a recent adaptation of the frontier mentality in American writing, a certain mutation of the frontier archetype that makes the self part of a historical geography, or of a (HI)STORY OF PLACE, thus charging place with an EXISTENTIAL NEED FOR MEMORY. Place is already being sensed as haunted by the ghosts, or the spirits of its own past; that their voices become audible turns out to be of vital importance for the self. Original topophilia, in other words, has been transformed into alert cognizance of topical history as a renewed means for self-preservation. I do not mean that the notion of time is taking advantage over space in what may be called a contemporary frontier disposition, since it is mostly histories rather than history that acquires significance; neither do I refer to some sort of mysticism here. What I am talking about is that sheer necessity of rooting the self in America as American that has been coming out recently in American writing out of extreme globalization awareness.

Let us have at this point a brief glance backwards. In his remarkable book on "The Puritan Origins of the American Self" Sacvan Bercovitch saw "American selfhood as identity in progress, advancing from prophecies performed towards paradise to be regained" (Bercovitch 1975: 143). He was referring to that long line of New England authors, who, like Cotton Mather, would envision "the American way spreading over the face of the earth" and affirm that "We have seen the Sun rising in the West"; or, like Samuel Baldwin, would figure the "Expansion of the United States into the Millennial Republic, and its Dominion over the Whole World"; or, like James Russel Lowell, would glorify "New birth of a new soil, the first American"; or, like Henry David Thoreau, would see the West as the Wild as the World and American wilderness as the preservation and the future of the world... These authors, like many, many others in their time, coming from a tradition of radical Protestant feeling, harbored deep within a hope for a millennium, an apocalypse that transforms society and ENDS HISTORY. Moreover, they all pictured the New Jerusalem on the actual soil of the New World. "... here, here in America, is the Home of Man", Ralph Waldo Emerson declared (Emerson 1903-1904b: 540) evidently envisioning MAN AS AMERICA. All this was self-place identification, that glorified American space, or Wilderness, to the extent of timeless, i.e. ahistorical, paradise to be regained.

Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier", defined as "the line of most rapid and effective Americanization" (Turner 1963: 58), came as the clear-cut image of that very spatial preoccupation that had been long established as overpowerful topical-psychological relationship. Therefore, when Turner proclaimed that as of 1890 the historical American frontier was settled, it turned out to be a dangerous proclamation. Since it threatened the very spirit of the American dream, the very hope for a blank spot on the map to focus and inspire the self. The disposition that had long been resting on the apocalyptic impulse of drawing global timeless pictures of America as the Holy Land could not be but endangered to lose coherence. So, in terms of a counterbalance, it began to endlessly generate new frontier images, unfolding frontier metamorphoses on all kinds of levels and grounds - virtual or real, metaphoric or literal, imaginative or existential. But mostly existential. What I am concerned with here is a recent frontier metamorphosis in American writing, a process of gradual changing in the very nature of the relation between the Self as American and the Place as America. This process has been going on simultaneously with - or perhaps presents another side of - the last decades' boom of all kinds of ethnic studies, native studies, racial studies, or border studies in the United States. The change I am talking about presents itself as a side of a CULTURAL SELF-PRESERVATION BEYOND, rather than against, GLOBALIZATION. It is an INWARD AMERICANIZATION in Turner's sense, aiming at figuring place-sense in the midst of the overwhelming insecurity of globalization displacement. It is a "line of most rapid and effective Americanization" that creates a historicized geopoetics. Let me refer to that as a GLOCALIZATION LITERARY IMPULSE.

The very term "glocalization" is an American neologism, of course. When he came up with it three years ago in his book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree", Thomas Friedman made it clear that "the whole purpose of glocalizing is to be able to assimilate aspects of globalization into your own country and culture in a way that adds to your growth and diversity, without overwhelming it" (Friedman 2000: 295). What Friedman obviously has in mind, is "a culture encountering other STRONG cultures", or globalization abroad, i.e. predominantly outside America. As well as inside America, as far as small cultures' survival is concerned. And although aware of the often undue synonymous usage of the terms "globalization" and "Americanization", Friedman often does the same thing. Since he is focused on the issue of otherness, on the relation to U.S. culture or what he calls "strong culture". This "strong culture" itself remains for him taken for granted as a nonproblematic, stable, undisputable reality. What I am suggesting here (borrowing the term mainly for the term's sake) is that the "STRONG CULTURE", or literature, ITSELF has been recently and is currently UNDERGOING ITS OWN PROCESS OF GLOCALIZATION. This comes mainly in terms of a constantly kept dialogue with the global, millennial vision of America, with the very wilderness mythology, and transcends into a need for local stories memory, into a self-identification with "the prescriptions of the spirits of place" (Rich). The frontier is being shifted by some authors towards the unexplored spaces of American topical histories, thus providing an existentially needed horizon in the prevailing uncertainty of postmodernity.

Let me now once again turn to Adrienne Rich. Her poem "From an Old House in America" is one of those internalizing the (hi)story of place - place as America, as home.

    "I am an American woman: ...
    I am washed up on this continent
    shipped here to be fruitful
    my body a hollow ship
    bearing sons to the wilderness...
    I never chose this place
    yet I am of it now." (Adrienne 1993: 63)

It is a choice made long ago by others; there is no more choice of place; what is left is the sense - and the cognizance, - of belonging to it. Many, many stories of the place resound in this American woman's voice. They don't necessarily endow it with a touch of oldness, since oldness is so relative. What they definitely endow it with, though, is roots. And therefore strength. "My power is brief and LOCAL / but I know my power", a few lines later Rich would declare. What follows is LOVE. And when it comes to love, no arguments are needed. It is simply being of it, belonging to it, never forgetting America as storytelling home and home as storytelling America. Especially nowadays, when amnesia is threatening to enter and turn everything into fluid, voiceless, taleless, global everythingness.

A wonderful poem by Denise Levertov would touch a similar vein:

    "I look and look.
    Looking's a way of being...
    The eyes
    dig and burrow into the world...
    World and the PAST of it,
    not only
    visible present, solid and shadow
    that looks at one looking."
    ("Looking, Walking, Being") (Levertov 1987: 35)

Obviously the past matters here; moreover, it is considered an essential part of vision - true vision, that would not be content with solid visible present, but would dig and burrow into the invisible past of the world... One cannot but think here of the American transcendentalists aiming at a "visibility beyond the visible". Even the very wording sounds like echoing that well-known passage from Thoreau's WALDEN: "My head is hands and feet... My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing... and with it I would mine and burrow my way through these hills". Yes, but Thoreau would do that when experimenting with self-forgetfulness to the extent of "I cannot count... I know not the first letter of the alphabet". Since for Thoreau time is a stream that "slides away, but eternity remains" (Thoreau 1963: 73). And to reach eternity, he would constantly infer the "universal law from the single fact" (Emerson 1903-1904a: 474), would see the pebbly bottom of Walden Pond as the starry sky to finally envision America's wilderness in the global timelessness of a paradise regained. His notion of space would only expand with the years, remaining throughout completely regardless of time passing. If time is present with Thoreau, it is in terms of the careful effort to make it absent, to erase any touch of temporariness and thus to enter the realms of eternity. Attentive avoiding of time-sense therefore, only enforces Thoreau's place-sense of a transcendental reality on actual American soil. So he would burrow his "way through these hills"... His "burrowing" is spacial and timeless. While the "burrowing" of a late 20th century poet like Denise Levertov is both spacial and temporal. But perhaps mostly temporal. "Visible present" can no more simply provoke the romantic impulse of discontent and, therefrom, forgetfulness, striving towards eternity; what it rather provokes, globalizing as it is, is global insecurity. Hence the need for the "past of the world", for rooting of the self with the help of the spirits of the place, for self-support provided by place histories. Looking is still a way of being - just universal laws do not matter any more; it is place voices, local stories that gain existential importance. The frontier is being transcended from space timelessness to place "timefulness".

It used to be a preoccupation of the self with the "genius loci" as America; it used to be the "genius loci" forming the voice of the self, the very self-identity in American writing. It has always been so. And still is. Though not quite.

    "Walked on Mount Vision
    New Life after the Fall."

This is the beginning of a recent Susan Howe poem. Every word in it breathes pure American air. It resounds Gatsby's belief in the green light; evokes an Emersonian vision of nature; makes Thoreau's different drummer audible; echoes the rhythm of transcendental walking beyond the visible; insists on newness, freshness, wilderness; takes back to Mather's "Magnalia" and the Puritan glorification of America as the New Jerusalem. So it could be considered as simply rephrasing the grand millennial tradition of New England. Had the poem followed the direction of the beginning. But it doesn't. What follows is:

    "So many true things
    which are not truth itself...
    In the machinery of injustice
    my whole being is Vision." (Howe 1990: 49)

So there is no more ultimate truth - be it transcendental, evangelic, not to speak of existential. There are only questionable truths. If the whole being is vision, it is mostly in terms of adequacy to the Fall of fluid, confusing, evasive present realities. The poem turns out to be a dialogue with the very impulse of drawing special, timeless, Holy Land pictures of America. As well as a metaphoric nowadays answer that Susan Howe deciphers in the already quoted interview: "I always have to look back into the past for some reason - she says. - Where and how the English seventeenth-century voice becomes the seventeenth-century, the nineteenth-century and even the twentieth-century American voice... Why? This is a question that I feel obliged to answer. So when you say PLACE doesn't matter, I think it does." (Howe 1993: 155-156). Evidently, place matters here mostly as self-identification awareness of local time passed, of place memory preserved as local mythology.

Let me finally refer to Richard Slotkin and his mythology analysis. "Myths are stories, drawn from history... - he writes. - Historical experience is preserved in the form of narrative; and through periodic retellings those narratives become traditionalized..., abstracted, until they are reduced to a set of powerfully evocative and resonant "icons"... in which history becomes a cliche. At the same time ... the range of reference of these stories is being expanded... because the telling implies a metaphoric connection between the storied past and the present..." (Slotkin 1985: 16). It is exactly one of those expanded references or metaphoric past/present connections that I've been talking about. It is the very frontier mythology in American writing that has recently been undergoing certain metamorphoses in terms of transcending its inherent space orientation into time awareness too. It is the "line of effective Americanization" shifting from historical space into spacial histories. Not that local histories matter and are being necessarily told as narratives; it is the alert consciousness of their existence that matters. Forgetfulness can no longer be, amnesia only leads to self-dissolving into the fluid, incoherent, disconnected present realities. While the self-preservation anchoring in place histories can be thought of as a counterbalance to what Fredric Jameson called the schizophrenic, perpetual present of postmodernity (Jameson 1998: 111-125). The Frontier archetype, in other words, has started generating an existential need for a past.




Bercovitch 1975: Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. Yale University Press, 1975.

Buell 1995: Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination. Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts - London, England, 1995.

Emerson 1903-1904a: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works. Vol. 10. Boston and New York: Houghton - Mufflin, 1903-1904.

Emerson 1903-1904b: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works. Vol. 11. Boston and New York: Houghton - Mufflin, 1903-1904.

Friedman 2000: Friedman, Thomas. The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Understanding Globalization. New York: Anchor Books, Random House, Inc., 2000.

Frontier 1989: The Frontier Experience and the American Dream. Essays on American Literature. Ed. David Mogen, Mark Busby, Paul Bryant. Texas A&M University Press, 1989.

Howe 1990: Howe, Susan. Singularities. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1990.

Howe 1993: Howe, Susan. The Birthmark. Unsetting the Wilderness in American Literary History. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1993.

Jameson 1998: Jameson, Fredric. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society". // The Anti-Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture. Ed. Hal Foster. New York: The New York Press, 1998.

Lawrence 1966: Lawrence, D. H. Studies in American Literature. New York: Viking Press, 1966.

Levertov 1987: Levertov, Denise. Poems 1968-1972. Seattle: New Directions, 1987.

Rich 1986: Rich, Adrienne. Blood, Bread and Poetry. Selected Prose 1979-1985. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Rich 1993: Adrienne Rich's Poetry and Prose. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.

Slotkin 1985: Slotkin, Richard. The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890. New York: Atheneum, 1985.

Thoreau 1963: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Washington Square Press, 1963.

Turner 1963: Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Significance of the Frontier in American History. Ed. Harold P. Simonson. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1963.



© Albena Bakratcheva
© E-magazine LiterNet, 08.01.2005, № 1 (62)

An International Conference: "Crossing Cultures: Travel and the Frontiers of North-American Identity", Institute for North-American Studies (INAS). University of Groningen, The Netherlands, May 19-21, 2003.