I Found Myself in the Stories He Told—Richard Rodriquez, on William Saroyan
WE THE PEOPLE: THE ROAD TO HAMILTON, PART ONE, live from Broadway-New York and Helsinki, the 40th Fulbright Anniversary and the Maple Leaf and Eagle Conference on North American Studies
The Nation of Nobody: The Crisis of Belonging in Alien-Nation, or, Outsiders as the Elect(ed) in American Cultural History (and that includes Emily Dickinson, and you).
A global and historical context for the phenomena of the musical Hamilton currently on Broadway: a radio show for which you do not have to pay $600 or $800 (plus fees)–if you are lucky or win the lottery (literally) to be eligible for a ticket. Here, hear hear!, you’ve won the lottery with our three-part series, an odyssey of the meaning of this musical in illuminating what is going on today with American culture (including the dynamical plot of our presidential campaign). We consider how the poetryof outsiders and nobodies speaks to a nation and creates a community, an “in crowd” of belonging, of mattering to a larger whole. We begin with my own journey as an outsider, first to American culture as child of immigrants and to academe as a Southern Californian (misinterpreting a T.S. Eliot poem, who knew?), and then literally as I came as a Fulbrighter to teach (culturally non-legit, but the Finns didn’t suspect) in Helsinki. It was outside the culture through the prism of Finns reading America’s story that I saw our (and my) connections as outsiders, as “we the people.” We turn, of course, to Emily Dickinson’s signature “I’m Nobody,” to frame our cultural selfie, arguing that this anthem poem could be our national anthem. We consider Ralph Waldo Emerson’s exhortations to write American, that is, as an outsider, against the grain, as a nobody, with ‘tude, and to reject domineering advice from society, to speak up and out(side), and his idea that by expressing our unique, alienated, private, secret story, we will speak “for the man in the street, and the maid with the pail”—that is, universally, for our fellow man and woman. This paradox frames American literature, and culture—we note how Abraham Lincoln enfranchises nobodies, from African-American slaves to western wilderness, from a physic sanctuary of poetry of and about outsiders. We consider Richard Rodriquez’s quoting the Mayan “you are my other me” (expressing Einstein’s e=mc2 and idea that “if you want to know about water don’t ask a fish”) and the significance of the fact that he describes is own outsider life as son of Mexican immigrants and in an orphanage as key to his insider status in American academia, an elite outsider in every community he is associated with, and finding community and self in the stories of other outsiders—William Saroyan, whose books and stories do not belong in the elite canon of American literature taught in the schools, and Carl T. Rowan, an African-American, with whom he identifies, even his own body, his own memory. We then look at this the theme of the outsider as our common experience bonding us in Broadway musicals, such as The Color Purple, from Alice Walker’s book (I may be poor, I may be a woman, I may be black, but I’m HERE! rousing the audience from its seat in a sustained ovation), and School of Rock (people united around the theme of “stick it to the man” and the outsider “rock” identity). And then we consider Lin-Manuel Miranda’s interpretation of Ron Chernow’s 1994 biography Hamilton, building on Rent and the idea of the significance of a life, in terms of who tells our stories: outsiders! And thus we begin this three-part series of what the success of Hamilton means in our culture in understanding whom we are, we the people, that phenomenal set of words transforming and forming a nation of nobodies. We’ll be here, hear hear! Thank you for joining us, belonging to the Poetry Slow Down.
© Barbara Mossberg 2016