Source: Twain, Mark. “Chapters from My Autobiography.” Gutenberg eBook #19987, Dec. 1, 2006. Zitkala-Sa. “American Indian Stories.” Gutenberg eBook #10376, Dec. 3, 2003.
Welcome back to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.
What are we going to learn today? Today we'll be taking an in-depth look at two model narratives. We'll start by looking at an excerpt from Mark Twain's Chapters from My Autobiography and then finish by looking at a very different text, a selection entitled "The Cutting of my Long Hair", taken from American Indian Stories by Zitkala-Sa.
The first narrative we'll look at comes Mark Twain's Chapters from My Autobiography. For those who don't know him, Mark Twain was a novelist, humorist, and social critic who lived and wrote in 19th century America. He's most famous for his novels, but here, in his autobiography, we can see how Twain was also a master of personal narrative.
Consider this scene, a piece taken from a chapter on Twain's childhood. The only context, I think, you'll need is to know that Twain as a young boy was asked to play the part of a bear in a play and he went into a room to practice. Pause the video here and read what happens.
First, let's look at the rhetorical situation of the text. We know Twain was writing an autobiography, so his goal was primarily to tell us about his life. But the selection, at least, seems also eager to entertain us. He's not just writing about his childhood, but about all childhoods, about the embarrassment and growing up we all end up going through.
It's also an interesting technique, given that by the time Twain wrote this he was already a famous novelist, a public figure even then. And so including a scene in his autobiography, in which he capers around naked in front of two young women, was a bold choice, to say the least. Now, let's look at how this narrative functions.
Even given that we don't have the entirety of the text before us, we can still see how Twain was able to use different narrative techniques to his advantage. For example, Twain does a good job of setting the scene. He quickly and efficiently tells us the situation that he's been observed unbeknownst to him, which allows Twain to build a lot of tension into the scene, tension and future conflict that wouldn't have existed for us, the readers, if Twain had simply told us the story from his boyhood perspective. The fact that we're allowed to know more than his character did at the time allows us to share on the drama and benefit from all the perspective Twain has as an older man, while simultaneously being invited to share in his childhood experience.
This is the magic that can come from a masterfully-realized narrative, when it's capable of telling us more than its few lines could otherwise manage, because it's showing, not telling. We, the readers, are left to build an understanding ourselves, which can help make us more engaged readers of the text.
Now, let's change gears a little and take a look at a very different text. Zitkala-Sa was a Sioux writer, teacher, and political activist, who wrote, among other things, a memoir about her experiences being taken from your family and her tribe and placed in what were called Indian schools, but were really facilities for the forced re-education of Native American children. She was writing at a period in American history during which the general American consciousness was only starting to realize the atrocities it had committed and was still committing against the native people on whose land and liberty the country had been founded. The selection we're going to look at shows us Zitkala-Sa's initial reaction at the school. Pause the video and take a moment to read it.
So what would you say Zitkala-Sa's purpose was? She's clearly trying to explain her experience. But there's more to it than that, right? Given the fact that she was raised in a village of the Dakota Sioux Indians, but was taught English and American ways of writing and thinking, she has a unique perspective, one she uses well here.
Zitkala-Sa isn't just trying to tell us, non-native readers, her story. She's trying to comment on what it meant to her and hundreds, thousands of other children like her to be taken from her family and deposited in a place so foreign to her that even the sound of shoes on a wood floor causes her distress. And as you can probably expect, it gets worse from there, culminating, if not ending, with the cutting off her hair.
And though this text is very different from Twain's, here too we can see the elements of narrative writing coming through to create a powerful, moving scene. Notice how well Zitkala-Sa sets up the scene, the discomfort and terror she felt coming through, and making what would otherwise have seemed a harmless setting-- a boarding school-- into a place full of unknown, unseen, but heard terrors. Zitkala-Sa makes good use of her narrative stance by zooming in on her childhood perspective.
Though we obviously know that she, the writer, can understand English perfectly, the way she chooses to describe spoken English as simply one of the many unfamiliar sounds she heard as a child does a lot to show us how far she has been taken from her family, more than just telling us ever could have. Notice too how Zitkala-Sa uses figurative language to convey the emotional truth of her situation by writing that the sounds "made a bedlam within which I was securely tied." She manages to convey how powerful these new sounds were to her and how powerless she had become taken from her family, her people, her life.
So what do you think? Having read two excerpts from two writers' life stories, what similarities and what differences did you notice between them? Though it's clear that the writers were coming from very different backgrounds, did the two childhood experiences we looked at have anything in common?
Both Twain and Zitkala-Sa chose to use the perspective gap between themselves as writers and themselves as children for similar purposes-- to convey to us, readers, not only what it was like for them in particular, but what it would have been like to be them there. It's this, the invitation to share an experience, that binds these narratives. That being said, they don't have much more common.
Twain is writing about an embarrassing, but ultimately harmless experience, one that's more likely to bring about laughter than tears, while Zitkala-Sa was writing about what was essentially the destruction of her childhood self, or more accurately the attempted destruction of her child itself. The school, from its physical presence right down to its teachers, existed to beat everything native out of the native students it taught.
Zitkala-Sa wasn't shy about explaining this. Though first, as we saw in the excerpt, she was going to make us see what it was like to go through the process. And this is probably most rhetorically powerful method for instilling reform-- making the victim's suffering real in the minds of the reader.
Twain, obviously, was not attempting to do anything remotely like this. Still though, we can see from the juxtaposition of these two texts, from looking at them side by side that is, that the narrative techniques and approaches they used can be used to suit a huge variety of writerly goals. And by reading them so closely together, we can get a deeper look to each of them than we might have otherwise.
What have we learned today? We learned about how a deep, engaged, rhetorically-aware reading of a personal narrative can reveal the author's intent and assumptions. And we learned how even in very different texts written for very different purposes by very different writers the skills, techniques, and approaches used are similar, because, ultimately, the relationship between writers and readers is a universally human one. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.
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