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Underground est une série télévisée américaine créée par Misha Green et Joe Pokaski, et diffusée sur la chaîne WGN America.

Underground saison 1 photo

La série se déroule au XIXème siècle, pendant ce que les historiens appellent l’Antebellum Era ou encore Plantation Era. Elle suit à la fois la quête de liberté d’un groupe d’esclaves travaillant dans une plantation de coton et la mise en place du chemin de fer clandestin (“Underground Railroad”).

Un groupe d’esclaves planifie une échappée téméraire, délaissant leur plantation de Géorgie pour aller se réfugier à plus de 600 miles de là.

En chemin, ils sont aidés par un couple d’abolitionnistes secrets qui sont en charge d’une station de l’Underground Railroad. Le groupe tente par tous les moyens de fausser compagnie aux gens chargés de les ramener à la plantation – morts ou vifs.

Dix épisodes sont prévus cette saison et une seconde saison de dix épisodes également est déjà programmée pour 2017.

Introduction

Most slaves were forced to work long hours under close supervision. Most slaves could rely on their master for basic welfare: clothes, food and shelter. On many plantations, slaves grew their own garden and some even enjoyed a few holidays or received some rewards.

Subjugation and resistance

Concerning the problem of subjugation, the slaveholders tightly circumscribed the world of their slaves: they had to carry passes with them when they were off the plantation and were forbidden to go out at night. There were slave patrols, vigilant in finding offenders. Punishment was severe and quick. As a means to prevent communication, the Slave Code forbade teaching slaves how to read and write; but about 10% of the slaves risked punishment to achieve literacy: the ability to read and write was understood to be the key to freedom.

Concerning resistance, the degree to which slaves resisted their subjugation reinforced the police state (1831: Nat Turner”s rebellion). Either they resisted or ran away. Successful escape was very difficult. Despite the number of punishment, there were always runaways willing to take the chance of risking escaping and reaching the North.

Among the laws, the Fugitive Slave Law. Resistance could take many forms: the sabotage of plantation property, the abuse of farm animals or feigned sickness. On occasions, slaves murdered their masters. But that was from the part of a tiny minority. Religion gave them a sense of community: slaves were strengthened by religion (singing to bear labor).

Freedom and Code

Free blacks were 250 000. Many of them or their parents had been freed by their masters for acts of nobility. They held property and some owned their own slaves. But legally, they were denied all civil rights by the Virginia Black Code. Free slaves were in constant danger of being kidnapped and forced to work again. That is why many of them decided to go to the North.

The Black Code existed very early and has been declined in several versions: in 1622, 1668 and 1705. In 1705, any master was free to kill any slave and would not be prosecuted for it. In 1819, the Virginia Black Code reduced free slaves to a mere property (no rights at all).

The laws became stricter and stricter as the South was more and more afraid of possible revolts. Yet, 76% of the Whites did not own slaves in the South. But any white man was entitled to be ipso facto an auxiliary of justice, slaves being considered as cattle

I. Writing the territory: the literature of discovery and exploration

Started as a vision in Europe: it is a product of literary imagination. America existed only as a literary object that was represented in the writings of Europeans who first visited America. They brought back their own visions, written in Spanish or French and not in English.

16th century: the English knew about America through outside texts, not from English texts.
1670’s: English mariners started exploring the North American coast.

The creation of American literature goes hand in hand with the first permanent colonies at Jamestown, Plymouth, Boston, Charleston or Philadelphia. In the language, American in temperament and in tone, the literature of the colonists was different from the exotic narratives of the explorers (i.e. "land of miracles", "eldorado"). The literature of the colonists shows a contradictory mixture of terror and exaltation before the magnitude of the land.

However, more often than not, the literature of the first settlers shows that it was difficult to maintain a positive attitude toward America. George Percy’s Discourse on the Plantation (1607) shows that the writers saw America as a land of "meadows and goodly tall trees" and people as "miserable distressed". So there are full of ambivalence and contradictions. America is the land of the new beginning and opportunities but also a beautiful land of difficulties (sacrifices, isolation, and hard work). Ambivalence is an important factor of American literature. This first contradictory experience will mark American literature with its most nasty and characteristic voice, created out of actions rather than imagery or contemplation.

The narratives of Captain Smith are big examples of the American new character: the narration of the internal life of the individuals goes hand in hand with the external description of the land. There’s a constant dialogue between the mind of the individual and Nature. It’s always Nature that has a strong effect on the mind of the individuals. Human minds only change with confrontations with Nature.

European literature was more based on contemplation whereas American literature was a concrete experience with Nature: that makes a huge philosophical difference. Captain Smith wrote:

  • A true relation (1608)
  • A map of Virginia (1612)
  • The general Historie of Virginia, New England and
    the Summer Isles

The work of Capt. Smith is representative of a specific literary character in the sense that they show a deeply American theme: the theme of the relations between geographical exploration and individual exploration: by discovering the land, the individual also discovers himself. Self-exploration and geographical exploration came together. With the change of the colonies and their social needs, there was also a change in writings. The writer’s role now consisted in more than observing and depicting the land.

At the end of the 17th century, American literature still showed the discovery of literature: same themes, same lyricism, poetic quality and sense of actions but despite this influence, a more abstract type of literature was now emerging. For instance, William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation (1630-1650) concentrates on the complexity and difficulties of colonial administration as well as a social organization of the community.

In the final analysis, the ambivalence of exploration and discovery in American literature reveals another kind of ambivalence. It is the ambivalent relationship but also the ambivalent contrast between the positive and the negative, good and evil, utopia and tragedy. This type of ambivalence remains the most characteristic territory explored by the first writers of America. Emerging from the magnitude and the complexity of the land itself, this ambivalent vision would determine the American literary and popular imagination. Even today, it still represents a very important aspect of the American literary sensibility.

II. An authentically American literature ? Textual appropriations, generic influences and innovations

To many observers, the idea of an authentically American literature seems to be a paradox. Many would think American literature emerged and developed in the shadow of the English literary tradition. However, this paradox is only apparent: the authentically American literature is like every literary innovation, it always needs some influences for inspiration.

At the same time, those influences are little by little changed through authentic innovations (first they borrowed, then they changed). In this sense, literary texts of the New World are both an extension of English literature and a new creative body of literature. The relationships of continuity between English and American literature comes from a common cultural and national heritage: religious, ethnic, historical and linguistic relationships.

There are some similarities between English and American education: in both countries, the major subjects like Latin, Philosophy and History are very important (as well as Greek and Roman literature). Concerning the common heritage, both people and colonists shred the memory of the English Reformation and thought of themselves as elect nations. With the Reformation, we see the myth of England as an elect nation divided by the Puritan Saints. They were a special nation from the start: "God owns the country".

The colonists and the English people identified with the myth of the elect nation by means of religion: the most important and legitimate text was the Vernacular Bible (Geneva version) in 1560 written by Calvin. Other texts:

  • John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563)
  • Edmund Spencer, Faerie Queen (1590)

More important: what happened from the heritage is a common vision of the individual reflected in two major aspects of the protestant literary and existential experience:

  • The strict application of every event in the Bible to the individual (develop their own ideas in relation with the Bible, standard for the right personal behavior and code for the Puritans).
  • The perception of historical events as the predestined fulfillment of biblical events as they apply to the elect nation.

These two common aspects of colonial and English experience made many English writers to consider America as a special and elect land. Many thought that an English/American Reformation was going to happen in America. The English religious poet George Herbert expressed this historical and religious continuity between England and America:

"Religion stands on tiptoe in our
Land,
Readie to pass the American
Strand" ….The Temple, 1633

No surprise that the sense of a shared heritage came from a common imaginary perception of the New World: religion shaped perceptions. One of imaginary vision of America is the myth of Arcadia that shows a contrast between peaceful, simple life in nature and corruption in city life. [Nature is always seen as positive].

The myth of arcadia is found in many pastoral poems and romances and in Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1590). America is not a secular utopia and is unseparable from the biblical visions of the continent as a new Eden or a new Israel (parallel between the Puritan’s crossing of the ocean and the exodus of Moses’ s people). The myth of America as a new Eden is finally restored to its innocence. It was also reinforced by the English literary tradition of utopia:

  • Thomas More, Utopia (1516)
  • Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1626)

The conception of America also finds its way into Puritanism for the notion of the holy community was also a kind of utopia. The prose forms that appeared during the English Reformation had a tremendous influence on American literature. The most important of those prose forms is the sermon, influenced by the religious community, which became a biblical sensibility. In poetry as well as in prose, the writers of New England appropriated biblical references, imagery and themes. They used biblical imagery and themes in order to represent historical events as a realization of the Protestant world vision. The others forms of literary production existed in colonial America: poetry and prose about the analysis and the exploration of the individual (mind, body and soul): introduction of the meditation, journal, diary, (auto) biography and lyric poetry. Purpose: self-improvement and self-help. The world vision of Protestantism is presented as a central element in judging individual human experience. The most important criteria of self-judgement derived from the Bible: literature of introspection and self-exploration:

  • The narrative of the Exodus: very beginning of America and hope to reach a better land.
  • Paul’s metaphors on Christian pilgrimages and warfare: must go to a better place.
  • The conception of the Christian life as "a progress of the soul" (Hebrews, 8). Progress = work.
  • The psalms as an account of David’s sins and repentance.

Conclusion

From the beginning, American literature simultaneously assimilated and transformed English culture and literature. During the colonial period, the writers of the New World were obsessed by the same themes as English writers. They used the same literary forms and biblical metaphors that predominated in English literature during the Reformation. However, American literature must not be reduced to a simple transplant of English literature for in the process of this American transplantation, American literature emerged metamorphosed in innovating and fascinating ways.

Sommaire de la série History of American Literature

  1. An authentically American Literature
  2. Puritanism : a New World Vision
  3. Declaration of Literary Independence
  4. The American Renaissance
  5. Modernism