American Literature Essay

The following is an essay for my American Literature class.

Topic: In Greil Marcus’s essay concerning American Exceptionalism, he takes Americans to task for not knowing about their own history to understand that we might be the very instruments of our destruction in our inability or refusal to see that America has forgotten or turned its back on the standards that our founders set for us: Our covenant, our Constitution.

Now consider Philip Roth’s novel When She Was Good.  What does it mean to be civilized by the standards set in this novel?  By our society?

American Lit II

April 11, 2011

How to be Civilized in America

 “Not to be rich, not to be famous, not to be mighty, not even to be happy, but to be civilized- that was the dream of his life,”  This was the aspiration of the character Willard in Philip Roth’s When She Was Good.  When defining the term “civilized,” one must examine first the time frame in which the definition takes place in.  When our country was founded, the Puritans, who were society at the time, placed a different emphasis on certain values or acts, and those same beliefs or actions have a different importance in today’s America.   A “civilized” person cannot simply be defined by one characteristic of his/her life.  There are many components of a civilized being, especially one living in a free country such as America.  Not only does being civilized mean that one lives in such a way that is pleasing to society and their standards of living, but they are also expected to fill a certain role in their community, as well as abide by the written or unwritten guidelines set before them based on their race or gender by that very community they are living in.

First, to be a civilized member of society, one must be a proper, upstanding member of the community.  His/her acts should be socially acceptable and their beliefs should align with those that society agrees with.  One of the most obvious examples of a person diverging from the accepted and proper beliefs of the community is when a woman gets pregnant out of wedlock.  This act was strongly looked down upon because it was not proper to have sex before marriage, much less to have a baby out of the whole ordeal.  The civilized way to go about having a baby out of wedlock would be not to; one is expected to wed before birthing a man’s baby. The Puritans expected ladies to remain celibate until they were married, and only then was it acceptable for women to have sexual intercourse, and only with their husbands.  Even then, sex was performed for the sole purpose of getting the woman pregnant and producing a baby.  In the novel Light in August, the pretty, very pregnant character, Lena, is on a journey through several cities and states to find the father of her unborn baby.  When she is on this journey, women openly judge her for her visible sin of premarital sex.  Lena encounters a couple willing to host her for a night and the wife refuses to even speak to her once she learns that she is pregnant and without a husband (22).  Since the beginning of America’s founding up until even today, society does not approve of a woman having a baby or getting pregnant before she is joined in marriage to her husband.  In Roth’s novel, When She Was Good, Lucy gives herself to her boyfriend Roy and becomes impregnated.  She is then faced with the choice of abortion or marriage, both of which she did not want to do.  “She didn’t want to marry him!  He was the last person in the world she would ever want to marry!” (166).  Lucy gets engaged to Roy, who she doesn’t love and doesn’t want to have a family with, but she gets engaged because it is the right thing to do according to society and for the rest of her life she is very unhappy for doing so.  Today, society does not look down upon a woman having a baby without wearing a wedding ring as much as it used to, but to some degree this is still not acceptable according to the civilized group of people called society in America.

Another expectation of a civilized person is that they fulfill their role in society, and people in America were assigned roles in society based on their race.  For example, black people were seen as property and owned by white people as slaves simply because they had dark skin, and behaving as inferiors to white people was what proper, well-behaved blacks did if they wanted to be treated in any sort of civil way by society, which was, at this time, the white man.  Our founding fathers believed so strongly that black people were inferior to whites and should be treated as such that they created laws that ensured segregation and degradation of the black man to the point that he eventually believed the laws.  The black community actually believed God deemed the white man superior because God blessed the white race so abundantly with their prosperity (Awakenings).  The black race had the mindset that they were to serve the white man and never to step out of line, and these actions would make them civilized (to some degree) black people.  This was sadly true.  In Wright’s essay, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” he discusses how he obtained his “Jim Crow education” (2138), which was through years of watching and participating in countless injustices aimed at the black people.  These injustices were legal according to the Jim Crow Laws.  Further, disagreeing with these laws, white or black, would make one uncivilized because they would have been going against the Supreme Court, the highest lawmaking power in the country.  From his essay, one of the most prominent examples of one being categorized as civilized based on their role in society, determined by race, is when Wright calls his boss Peace instead of Mr. Peace.  He had a minute to leave the workplace before he got beaten.  He writes of the incident, “When I told the folks at home what had happened they called me a fool.  They told me that I must never again attempt to exceed my boundaries.  When you are working for white folks, they said, you got to “stay in your place” if you want to keep working” (2140).  In this time, a white man was seen as civilized as long as he made himself superior to blacks and blacks were seen as somewhat civilized as long as they could stay within their boundaries.  Civilized people must live and/or work in the same society and to be able to do so successfully make one civil.  This was achieved by each man, white or black, knowing his place in society and adequately accomplishing the role society laid out for them, established by his race.  Today, segregation is not nearly as much of a problem as it once was when this country was first founded.  A black man can be seen as a civilized man just as much, sometimes more so, than a white man in today’s society, especially because segregation is illegal and the Jim Crow Laws are no longer in effect.

When America was founded by the Puritans, there were acts that were punishable by death such as adultery, which is something that is so common in American society today that we are not the least bit alarmed when we hear of this behavior occurring among members of our community.  There is a stark contrast between the way the Puritans expected society to act then and between how society acts today; we have strayed very far away from the founding concepts of our country because those concepts simply are not applicable to our lives today, or the very things that the Puritans valued are no longer valued by society as a whole.  When the Puritans founded this country, they knew that the laws that were set in place at the time would undoubtedly evolve with our country throughout time.  This is why the Constitution allows amendments; however, some of the founding principles of this country are still very important to American citizens today such as freedoms of speech, religion, press, rights to a judicial trial, to bear arms, etc.  In his essay, Griel Marcus sums up the way the civilization in America designates the individual’s actions, “There is the nation in which all must be as they must, where no one truly belongs except as a member of the community…The community grants the freedom of the city to the individual” (38).  To be civil means to be a proper citizen with beliefs that parallel that of society and to fulfill the role society places on you.  Civilization is what governs a community or society.  The community is expected to follow this specific set of rules, written or unwritten, created by those that founded their nation; and that obedience makes one “civilized.”


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