Beyond Twain: Connecticut's overlooked but trailblazing literary canon

  • 12 min to read
Beyond Twain: Connecticut's overlooked but trailblazing literary canon

In September 1772, a man looked out at a large crowd gathered on the New Haven Green and gave a sermon that placed him among the Colonies’ most notable literary voices.

The preacher called on the masses to forgive the man who would be summarily executed, and quoting from the Bible, employed the colonists’ own language around morality and judgment to argue against the very idea of execution. The orator was not Timothy Dwight, a prominent theologian who would go on to become president of Yale College and the namesake of one of the college’s famed houses. Neither was the speaker one of Dwight’s buddies from Yale — John Trumbull, David Humphreys and Joel Barlow, the four of whom collectively came to be known as the “Hartford Wits” and are credited with helping establish a literature of the American Revolution.

The man preaching that September day nearly 250 years ago was not white and wealthy like the other elite authors of the time. He was the Rev. Samson Occom, a member of the Mohegan nation, and the speech he gave that day was one of the first notable texts to come out of the Connecticut colony in the 18th century. Printed first as a pamphlet, A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul was reprinted well into the 19th century and today there are at least 23 distinct editions of the sermon.

“It’s an incredibly important text because it marks Occom as one of the leading authors of the Colonies, but it also commemorates a Mohegan man broadcasting the concerns of Native Americans to a large audience,” says Alanna Hickey, a professor of English at Yale University, noting that Moses Paul, the man executed, was himself a member of the Wampanoag Tribe.

Today, however, Occom’s work is far from solidified in the state’s literary canon and its absence reveals the larger tensions between whose work is remembered and whose is forgotten. Indeed, as Occom’s story suggests, since the state’s earliest conception, Connecticut’s authors and the literature they forged has been a clash of identities, and collision of opposites that, in its composite complexity, shares much yet defies one story.

Entering the ministry after studying under Dartmouth College founder Eleazar Wheelock, Occom traveled around Britain, preaching to raise money for Wheelock’s school for native students in Lebanon, Connecticut. But when he returned to the Colonies, Occom found his family and community impoverished despite guarantees from Wheelock, and he began to speak out about the plight of Indigenous under Colonial rule. “Occom is drawing attention to the kind of hypocrisy of white Christians who use their Christianity as a so-called marker of civilization, but then do, by definition, very uncivilized things,” Hickey says of Occom’s sermon for Paul.

Writing of race

More than 50 years later, and in the same city where Occom preached his sermon, William Grimes published the first fugitive slave narrative written by an American-born ex-slave, Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave. In the words of slavery scholar Yuval Taylor, it “inadvertently helped inaugurate a genre.” (Grimes’ work predated Frederick Douglass’ narrative by two decades.) Born a slave in Virginia, Grimes escaped on a ship to New York and settled in New Haven, where he opened a barber shop, started a family, and became a well-established member of the community. However, when Grimes’ master found him and demanded he pay for his freedom or return to slavery, Grimes was forced to sell his shop to prevent his return to bondage.

By 1855, Grimes was destitute and without a source of income and published the second edition of his story, which details both the brutality of the slavery he faced in the South but also the hardships, both economic and social, that came with being a free man in the North. “Let it not be imagined that the poor and friendless are entirely free from oppression where slavery does not exist: this would be fully illustrated if I should give all the particulars of my life, since I have been in Connecticut,” Grimes wrote.

Nearly a century later, Ann Petry built upon Grimes’ legacy, writing about Jim Crow as an issue not only in the South but also in the North, and in so doing became the first African-American woman to sell more than one million copies of a novel. Petry is best known for her 1946 book, The Street, which is set in Harlem, but she spent most of her life in Connecticut, first as a child in Old Saybrook and then earning her degree from the University of Connecticut. She moved to New York to study writing at Columbia University, but moved back to Old Saybrook just a few years later. Most of her short stories are set in the state, including My Most Humiliating Jim Crow Experience, published in the Negro Digest the same year as The Street.

“I didn’t learn about Jim Crow in Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi. I learned about it in Connecticut a long time ago at a Sunday School picnic,” Petry writes in the opening line of the story, set at an unnamed beach where Petry, the only black girl in her church group, says she was made fun of by a group of white children and asked to leave by a guard at the beach because of her skin color.

“Her stuff is really popular fiction and not quite literary fiction. It’s easy to read, which I’m sure hurts her with the literati,” says Eric Lehman, an author and English professor at the University of Bridgeport. Ironically, Petry’s work is left off the reading lists of present-day English classes for the very reason that her work is accessible to the masses and therefore considered somehow low-brow, Lehman says.

More recently, three titans of contemporary Connecticut poetry have all sought to revive memories of the state’s fraught racial history and its repercussions for today. While state poet laureate in 2004, Marilyn Nelson published Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem, a book of poetry inspired by the efforts, in the 1990s, of the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury to identify a skeleton that had been donated to the museum decades earlier but whose name had never been provided. As the community members of the museum discovered, the bones were the remains of Fortune, who was owned by a local doctor and died in 1798 after a lifetime of arduous labor like many formerly enslaved persons in the state.

Elizabeth Alexander, best known for reciting her poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, spent 15 years living in the state while on the faculty at Yale, and during that time unearthed troves of the state’s forgotten history in her poems.

In The Amistad Trail, Alexander writes of the Spanish ship Amistad, that, in 1839, was seized by the 53 enslaved Africans on board and then intercepted by an American ship off Long Island. The Africans were then imprisoned in Connecticut and President Martin Van Buren called for them to be extradited to Cuba. But abolitionists in Connecticut and elsewhere sought a trial for the Africans in the U.S., and following a long court battle that began in Hartford, the Africans were recognized as free men. Alexander writes:

The Amistad Trail bus

leaves from the commuter parking lot

Exit 37 off Highway 84

There is interest in this tale.

 Claudia Rankine moved to the state a few years ago to take a position as a professor of poetry at Yale and writes more broadly about the country as a whole, but her work, and notably her 2014 book, Citizen: An American Lyric, speaks to the state’s racial history. “Citizen was a transformative book,” says Richard Deming, a colleague of Rankine’s in the Yale English department and himself a poet. “It found a way to have a literary perspective on microaggressions and their proliferation in our culture. Her formal choices make the prose pieces of the book seem very immediate and intimate in a way that feels like a direct conversation with a reader at a time when tensions about race are at their most fraught.”

Women’s voices

No author, and especially the aforementioned three, is solely defined by their race and work on the topic because race is often in both congruence and collision with the other through lines, including gender, that have defined the state’s history and literature.

Hartford’s own Charlotte Perkins Gilman was among the first widely recognized feminist authors in the country and became famous writing poems and short stories about controversial issues, such as women’s suffrage and birth control, and also penned the first feminist college texbook, Women and Economics, published in 1898. Asking questions that were taboo for her day, and perhaps still today, Gilman wrote in her poem, “To the Young Wife”:

Are you content, you pretty three-years’ wife?

Are you content and satisfied to live

On what your loving husband loves to give

And give him your life?

514690442

Writer and women’s rights advocate Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressing members of the Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1916.

Perkins Gilman’s reputation pales in comparison to that of her great-aunt, Harriet Beecher Stowe, who is perhaps the state’s most revered female author, best known for her 1852 book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sought to engender sympathy among the country’s white population for slaves and expose the immorality of the institution. Outsold in the 19th century by only the Bible, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its success made Stowe the bestselling novelist of the 19th century.

“I don’t think there’s a novel in the history of America that affected politics more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Lehman says. “It had an immediate and widespread impact all across the North as well as Canada and England. It’s no exaggeration to say the number of people reading it in England kept them from supporting the South in the Civil War, because England needed cotton from the South.” Today, Stowe’s bestselling book is criticized for portraying African-American characters as passive and without pride or agency. Lehman says that like Petry, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been brushed to the side by many modern-day syllabi because of its sentimental and popular nature, which Lehman says is exactly what made the book effective at humanizing enslaved people among the white population at the time.

ransomcenterstories

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly, 1852.

President Abraham Lincoln had Uncle Tom’s Cabin checked out of the congressional library when he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, and folklore has it that when he met Stowe, Lincoln said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” Yet, despite her great influence, Stowe’s legacy falls short of the man who lived across the lawn from her in Hartford and whose seminal work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is still read in droves by high school students in English classes across the country.

Although only a small patch of grass separates Mark Twain’s sprawling quasi-Victorian home from the more modest abode where Stowe lived and wrote in the last two decades of her life, Stowe’s home receives a fifth of the traffic, with about 14,000 people trickling through each year compared to the 70,000 annual visitors to the Mark Twain House & Museum.

“I think, as a woman, her literary accomplishments were not as celebrated because of that sense that this is women’s writing,” says Briann Greenfield, executive director of the Stowe Center. “It might have had a big impact on people’s ideas about slavery and it might have been a tremendous seller, but today, particularly in the early 20th century, her legacy was supplanted by a lot of male writers, including our neighbor, who we happen to like a lot.”

Stowe may be underappreciated, but she is still largely remembered, unlike her contemporary, Lydia Sigourney, who was the best-selling poet, let alone female poet, of the early 1800s. Known as the “sweet singer of Hartford,” Sigourney came from humble beginnings and was incredibly prolific, publishing sometimes 1,000 magazine poems a year to support her family following her husband’s bankruptcy. Sigourney’s work was sentimental like Stowe’s, and if she is ever noted today it is usually for her advice books for young women.

Sigourney, however, also wrote extensively about social and environmental justice, especially in regard to the Native American population in Connecticut. In her poem “Indian Names,” Sigourney decried the erasure of Native Americans in the Colonies, writing, “How can the red men be forgotten, while so many of our states and territories, bays, lakes and rivers, are indelibly stamped by names of their giving?”

Criticized for their simple and easily digestible nature, like many of the female authors who came before and after her, Sigourney’s poems were even parodied by Twain in Huckleberry Finn. And, referring to Sigourney, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1855, “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women.” Dennis Barone, a poet and professor of English at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, speculates in Garnet Poems: An Anthology of Connecticut Poetry Since 1776 that Hawthorne made the comment out of envy. Critics deride Sigourney’s poems as shallow, but their ability to touch one’s emotions, like with the Instagram poets of today, is the source of their greatness according to Barone. Her popularity led to her being possibly the only poet in the country to have a town named after her — Sigourney, Iowa.

ctcanon.jpg

Only using the photos, how many of these Connecticut authors can you name? If it’s more than two or three, you’re likely doing better than the average resident. 1. Mark Twain 2. Harriet Beecher Stowe 3. Wallace Stevens 4. Sloan Wilson 5. The Rev. Samson Occom 6. William Grimes 7. Charlotte Perkins Gilman 8. Lydia Sigourney 9. Ann Petry 10. Ocean Vuong

Clashes of class

There is perhaps no greater determiner of who is remembered in the canon of Connecticut literature than class, especially in the writings of the last century.

A whole subgenre of the state’s most cited literature could be built around the travails of the uber-wealthy in Fairfield County. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent time in both Westport and Greenwich and is said to have been inspired to write about the sultry lives of the rich, and the downfall of this lifestyle, from what he witnessed in these towns.

A Fairfield County native himself, Sloan Wilson set his 1955 novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in Westport, one of the epicenters of the suburban sprawl coming out of New York City. The book centers around Tom, a wealthy man who wants to be even more affluent and climbs the corporate ladder only to be left miserable. Rick Moody, also a Connecticut native, built on the theme of Fairfield County suburban angst amid massive wealth 40 years later with his novel, The Ice Storm, set in 1970s New Canaan, as did Richard Yates in his 1961 book Revolutionary Road, which describes a couple’s disenchantment in an unnamed Connecticut suburb. The work that most epitomizes this genre is Arthur Miller’s 1949 play Death of a Salesman, which is set in New York but was penned at Miller’s Connecticut home. “In the 20th century the American Dream seemed to be collapsing and Wilson and Miller are dealing with the depth of that decline,” Lehman says.

Like Miller, who lived for more than 50 years on a forested property in Roxbury, many notable authors most remembered in the state’s canon also came to Connecticut armed with privilege and seeking a peaceful place to write productively.

“I think this is the best built and the handsomest town I have ever seen. They call New England the land of steady habits, and I see the evidence about me that it was not named amiss,” Twain wrote in an 1868 newspaper article. Twain lived in Hartford for two decades, longer than anywhere else in his notoriously nomadic life, and wrote many of his most famous works — Huck Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court — in the attic of his Hartford home.

“Twain loved that Hartford was the right scale to carry on an active literary career and still have close access to New York City and Boston, where his magazine publishers were,” says Steve Courtney, a curator of special projects at the Twain House. “You get the feeling he would have been too sucked into the social life in New York City and Boston. He would go to those cities often and hobnob and was a toastmaster at banquets, but he enjoyed the fact that Hartford was peaceful and his friends there weren’t super intense and high flying.”

Wallace Stevens, perhaps the greatest modernist poet of the mid-20th century, also found Hartford’s mid-size and his job there as an insurance executive as hospitable conditions for his writing. “He never learned to drive and would walk to and from work on many days and on the walk would compose his poetry,” says Jim Finnegan, president of the Hartford-based group, Friends & Enemies of Wallace Stevens. “Later on at the office he wrote them down on little slips and had his assistants type them up.” Because of Finnegan’s group, the 13 stanzas of Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” are now etched on 13 granite stone markers along the route Stevens walked each day from his home on Asylum Avenue to The Hartford building where he worked.

But Connecticut was far from a refuge for many, Grimes and Petry among them, who wrote not because of their comfortable environment but in spite of the challenges they faced living in the state. This clash of the two worlds is in large part what defines Connecticut and its literature.

Former Hartford Courant columnist and novelist Cindy Brown Austin, whose2017 memoir Cinders describes the violent and poor environment in her hometown of Hartford, certainly belongs in the category of those who faced hardship in the state. Wally Lamb, a homegrown author like Brown Austin who was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey’s book club and has now created a comfortable home in the state, still writes about the hollowed-out, post-industrial towns of eastern Connecticut where he grew up. “Walking wounded emotionally” is the way Lamb describes the characters in his many books, a characteristic he said is due in part to the tough economic conditions in cities east of the Connecticut River that inspired them.

Connecticut literature, like the state itself and the country at large, has always been a study in contrasts, a clash of stories, some remembered and others forgotten. In this way, Ocean Vuong, the newest author to make his way into the state’s literary elite, fits seamlessly in the legacy of all those who came before him. Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Vuong immigrated in 1990 with his mother to Hartford, the city where he was raised, and the setting for his 2019 memoir-novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The novel — a coming-of-age story of loneliness, first love and persistence in the face of adversity — takes the form of a letter to his mother, who works in a nail salon and cannot read. “I am writing to reach you — even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are,” writes Vuong, who recently was named one of two dozen winners of the 2019 MacArthur “genius” awards.

The 30-year-old’s novel stands apart from many of his predecessors in the state’s literature in the particulars of his ethnicity, the outlines of his sexuality, and the makeup of his identity. But even with the differences, Vuong’s novel shares more with those that came before him in the canon than divides because his book, like the others and all great literature, probes the truth of the human experience.

This article appeared in the November 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.