English 2013: Introduction to American Literature
Assignment Seven-- Parents and Children

Gwendolyn Brooks

The thematic focus of the literature that we are examining in the seventh and eighth assignments is the relationship between parents and children.

This seventh assignment asks you to read two narratives: one by the nineteenth-century author Harriet Beecher Stowe and one by the twentieth-century writer Alice Walker. You are also asked to read poems by four twentieth-century poets: Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Galway Kinnell, and Lucille Clifton.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin became America's favorite novel when it was published in book form in 1852. Like Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that we read last week, Stowe's book was openly didactic. The novel had a profound effect on America's view of slavery and the South. President Lincoln once referred to Stowe as the "little lady who started the Civil War." Two rhetorical strategies that made Stowe's book successful abolitionist propaganda were her appeals to Christianity and family.

In "The Mother's Struggle" Stowe succeeds in putting her white readers in the position of the black slave mother, struggling heroically to save her son: "If it were your Harry, mother . . . How fast could you walk" Vol. I (p. 841). Theatrical productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin were widely popular throughout the nineteenth century. The scene of Eliza crossing the Ohio River to freedom by leaping from one block of ice to another was a highlight of these productions. Traveling theatrical companies used conveyor belts with "blocks of ice" attached and the actress portraying Eliza would leap from one to the other as the blocks were cranked across the stage.

Harriet Beecher Stowe


Alice Walker

Alice Walker's story "Everyday Use" examines the relationship of a woman and her two daughters. Published in 1973 at a time when young black Americans were reexamining their roots and making difficult decisions about their identities, the story examines the way in which family connects us to our heritage. Read David White's essay, "'Everyday Use': Defining African-American Heritage" and the Study Guide for "Everyday Use" posted by Lyman Baker of Kansas State University.

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, but his white father and black mother were separated from the time he was very young. As the introduction in our text states: "like other poets in this era -- T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Edgar Lee Masters, and Robert Frost -- Hughes had a mother sympathetic to his poetic ambitions and a businesslike father with whom he was in deep, scarring conflict." Hughes' poem "Mother to Son" highlights the responsibility of parents to model behavior for their children -- in this case perseverance and the determination to overcome obstacles in life's "climb." The Modern American Poetry site on Langston Hughes features a biography by Arnold Rampersad.

Langston Hughes
Gwendolyn Brooks' poem "the Mother" is spoken by a women who has had multiple abortions and addressed to her aborted children. Clearly the speaker struggles with the burden of her actions, describing the loss that she has experienced and maintaining that "even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate." The Modern American Poetry site on Gwendolyn Brooks includes a biography and discussion of several poems including "We Real Cool."

Galway Kinnell

Galway Kinnell's short poem "After Making Love We Hear Footsteps" describes how a married couple's love is made more meaningful by the child that resulted from it: "this blessing love gives again into our arms." The Modern American Poetry site on Galway Kinnell has an overview of the author's work. Paul Reubern maintain a Galway Kinnell site as part of the Perspective in Ameriacan Literature project.
Lucille Clifton's humorous poem "wishes for sons" expresses a mother's hope that her sons could understand the biological difficulties that women face. The Poetry Foundation page on Lucille Clifton provides a detailed summary of her publications. The Modern American Poetry site on Lucille Clifton includes several commentaries on her poetry.

Lucille Clifton

updated: June 15, 2018