Friday, June 3, 2011

PROMETHEUS IN THE NEW WORLD


How can one not love a book that is peppered with words such as garth, bevins, baver and fanfarooons?
CALEB' CROSSING, by Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks, has all that and more. In this superior kind of historical novel there is, above all, a lesson about cultural assimilation and its unintended consequences. Its main character is based on a a real person, Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, a member of the Wampanoag tribe of Martha Vineyard. Though his birth date, 1646, preceded by nearly thirty years John Dryden's introduction of the concept of the noble savage into the English language, Brooks painted him as an icon of tractability and lofty ideals. She had only a few facts on which to base her story—Caleb's date of birth, 1646, tribal affiliation, the dates of his graduation from Harvard, 1665, and his his death a year later. She also had a letter he allegedly wrote in Latin during his sojourn at Harvard College.
To these e wispy brush strokes Brooks added on her own vivid colors to create t a fascinating portrait of a young man's transition to a place that depended on the Old World for a cultural model although it existed, physically, in the New World. She chose an imagined character, Bethia Mayfield, a highly intelligent young girl who hungered for knowledge and who chafed at the socio-religious constraints her culture imposed upon women. Linguistically gifted, she eavesdropped on her older brother's Hebrew and Latin and of Wopanaak lessons, storing up information that had no practical use until, at age twelve, she met Caleb.
This is what she saw, “All else about him was open and naked, saved for three glossy feathers tied into a kind of topknot in his thick, jetty hair, which was very long, the forelock pulled hard from his coppery face and bound up as one would a horse's mane. His smile was unguarded , his teeth very white and something in his expression made impossible to fear him.” Of such contrasting figures—milky pale girl in ankle-length skirt, naked, sunburned young man, are romance novels made. But Brooks is way above such literary shenanigans. What she does, and she does is extremely well, is to explore the commonality and the difference between these two, adding a touch of philology, a touch a pinch of Anne Bradstreet's proto-feminist poetry, generous servings of history and large measures of theology. Bethia is a Puritan. Caleb is in line to follow his tribe's medicine man. This friendship is the first stage of Caleb's transformation into an English speaking, somewhat reluctant Christian, fit to join the privileged group of liberi liberaliter educati, gentlemen educated likegentlemen. Not only did he use his new language to speak of ordinary things, he also discussed concepts that must have been foreign to the Woponaog. This raises the question of how bethia transitions so quickly from a passive understanding of Woponaak to total fluency and the reader can assume that she is a linguistic prodigy. But then so seems to be Caleb. Else h can they discuss the fine points of theology? How do they bridge the linguistic gaps early on when they happen upon a concept that has no equivalent term in the other's native speech?
Besides learning new languages, Caleb must cut his hair, learn to wear hose, coat, bonnet, shoes and he must acquire a taste for unfamiliar food, as he adapts to his new, enclosed surroundings.
“So many things I loved I had to learn to hate,” he says. That, is no surprise to the assimilated immigrants who realize that in order to belong entirely to a culture other than their own, they must kill that which he once loved. Sometimes, that means leaving behind their their first language along with the notions civility, generosity, humor, honor, bravery, cowardice, hospitality, privacy, associated with it. It means replacing a collection of gestures--shrugs, hand waving, embraces—old ways of expressing emotion with new ones. Layer by layer of the old self must be peeled away so that a new one can emerge. The process is rarely gentle.
Then there is the question of how assimilated he be when it is impossible for him to change the angles of his or change radically the coppery tone of skin. Having left family and friends behind, he must have gone through a stage where he belonged nowhere. By the time he graduated from Harvard,--the first Native America to do so in Colonial times-- his heart must been torn as often as that Prometheus, to whom he compared himself. Yet when he talked of stealing the fire of knowledge to share with his people he stopped short of saying that such an act is at once a creative and destructive. Once he performed it, there was no turning back.
“You have done it, my friend. It has cost you your home, your health, and the estrangement from your closest kinsman. But after today, no man can say that the Indian mind is primitive and ineducable,” says Bethia. Her own crossing is no less than Caleb's is Bethia's as she moves from her beloved island home to Harvard's buttery and eventually, to Padua, Italy.
This is a luminous book, filled with reverence for the unsung heroes of Colonial America. Readers who might never have heard of Caleb owe Brooks a debt of gratitude.

Note: I prefer the version of the Prometheus legend in which it is his heart, rather than his liver, the eagle tears apart. 

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