Campus & Community

Tradition of American protest literature probed

6 min read

Zoe Trodd explores voices of dissent, strident and soft, through U.S. history

In July 1846, Henry David Thoreau was arrested in Concord and briefly jailed for evading a poll tax. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him, and peered through the bars.

“What are you doing in there?” Emerson asked. Thoreau replied: “What are you doing out there?”

That story – of civil disobedience meeting civil manners – is not a bad way to sum up a sometimes subtle division in American literature. On the one hand, there is art. In his masterful “Nature,” Emerson mildly suggests, “A noble doubt perpetually suggests itself.”

On the other hand, there is art with a direct purpose – literature meant to spur action; to convey anger and shock; or to prompt empathy, based on a discontent with the status quo. That is, protest literature.

In Thoreau’s 1849 “Resistance to Civil Government,” he advocated tax refusal as a way to stand up against slavery and what he saw as an unjust war with Mexico. Thoreau had a “noble doubt,” then acted on it. As he wrote in the essay, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

In the United States, the place to go for a sense of justice has often been literature. A tradition of American protest in print goes back to the angry plain talk of pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the orderly defiance of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

From there, protest literature opens for the reader an alternative window onto the American history of slavery, the forced migration of American Indians, women’s suffrage, labor unrest, lynching, the Great Depression, Civil Rights, “second-wave” feminism, Vietnam, and gay rights.

A new book from Harvard University Press is a collection of literary voices that revealed the injustices of yesterday and offered alternative courses of action, along with hope. “American Protest Literature” is edited by Zoe Trodd, a Cambridge University-educated member of the tutorial board in Harvard’s History and Literature Program.

Trodd arrived in the United States in 2001, and fell in love with its literature. American writing that goes against the grain is not just art or entertainment, she said in an interview, “but part of the democratic process. Dissent is patriotic.”

“In Britain, we don’t have this idea of a nation,” with beginning myths and symbols, and a textually rich literature of independence, said Trodd. “I became fascinated by the self-consciousness of this country.”

Where the myths and text of America’s beginnings had gaps, she said, protest literature stepped in, offering ways “to correct sins and omissions.”

“American Protest Literature,” inspired by a series of Harvard undergraduate courses, gathers up literary voices from 11 distinct American reform movements. Many of the writers are still well-known (Thoreau, Upton Sinclair, Allen Ginsberg). Others are, perhaps, not (Philip Freneau, a satirist who was the poet of the American Revolution; Ralph Chaplin, who in 1915 contributed “Solidarity Forever” to the strike songbooks of the early labor movement).

Each section includes the literary legacies of past protest literature. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, was a model for the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, a totem of the women’s rights movement. (It expands on the original Declaration by adding 18 new grievances.)

In part, the book is a continuation of Trodd’s lifelong fascination with slavery and abolitionism. As a girl of 9, she studied slavery among the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Abolition runs through American protest literature, she said – beginning with the unfinished promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence.

Trodd introduces each primary document in “American Protest Literature” with a brisk summary of the moment in time that informed it.

In that way, the book “fills a huge gap,” and gives “critical definition and weight” to a whole genre of writing and criticism that has been little studied, said John Stauffer, professor of English and American literature and language and professor of African and African American studies. (With Trodd, he co-edited 2004’s “Meteor of War,” a John Brown reader, and provides a forward to the new book.)

All reformist writers are “picture-makers,” said Trodd, quoting ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. They see the world as it is, but they also “see the world as it could be,” she said.

Rarely are the alternative visions of protest literature part of the mainstream – though radical heroes of the past sometimes become the mild staples of future popular cultures. (Thoreau the jailbird becomes Thoreau the patron saint of simplicity, with just the right face for a T-shirt.)

Other radical heroes of the past maintain a potency that inspires new radicals. In the 1960s, for instance, abolitionist John Brown still seemed, to Malcolm X, “the blackest white man who ever lived.”

Historian and political scientist Howard Zinn, who wrote an afterword for Trodd’s book and is himself a fixture in American protest literature, called the new volume “a refreshing antidote to those many documentary collections which give us presidential speeches, congressional legislation, and Supreme Court decisions.”

The voices in the book mark a different path, revealing decades of “resistance to injustice, which we desperately need these days,” said Zinn.

Trodd is hopeful about the next generation of protest literature, which she said at the moment seems to be visual and comedic (“The Colbert Report,” “The Daily Show,” “The Onion”).

Some protest literature is also electronic and immediate. Trodd recalled a Washington, D.C., scene. Iraq War protestors, laptops deployed, blogged as events unfolded around them. It meant that out on the Internet, she said, “there was a virtual protest happening.”

With its democracy of images and words, Stauffer agreed that the Internet is a new and powerful engine of dissent. The most effective protest literature, he said, “is always the literature in search of a new form.”

In American history, dissent has always had two faces. It is usually seen as progressive, said Stauffer, but can also be reactionary – as in “traditionalist movements” that pine for a past “golden day” of order and authority. A book on protest literature from the right, said Stauffer, has yet to be written.

In the kind of protest literature Trodd has collected, anger is not the final message. “This is about hope – a deep faith that the blueprint for American can be redrawn,” she said. “And that words matter.”