(Portrait of Frederick Douglass).
In 1869 the American writer and social reformer Frederick Douglass went on a nation-wide speaking tour. In one notable address he described his country as “a country of all extremes”. At that time the country had only just passed a law prohibiting slavery and the prospect of reconciliation and redemption looked distant. However Douglass possessed a rare gift. He had a unique insight as a former slave but in spite of his experience he could perceive the inherent humanity of all Americans.
His tremendous ability to forgive and even converse with the people who once owned and brutalised him and his community was extraordinary. His magnanimity was profound and sincere. He was convinced that people of all races could change the nation for the greater good, even proclaiming that “we are the most fortunate of nations and beginning our ascent”.
(Picture is of William Howard Taft, former US President and Chief Justice).
William Faulkner was another writer who had his own unique gifts and perceptions of this nation of all extremes. He was born in Oxford, Mississippi in 1897 to an established Southern family. His great-grandfather was a veteran of the Civil War and his exploits became a part of family legend but he was also acutely aware of the darker side to his family`s history.
Faulkner was troubled by this aspect of his heritage all of his life. As a young boy he became quiet and withdrawn and a habitual truant. As a much older man he became increasingly dependent upon alcohol and this contributed to his premature death. It was this acute sensitivity which allowed him to write so perceptively about the dehumanising and raw experience of enslaved African Americans. His unflinching style of writing was composed in a demotic language unburdened by linguistic convention.
His work attracted numerous plaudits and in 1949 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. At the award ceremony he was nervous and intimidated. Not one attendant in the audience could actually hear the words of his speech as he was so shy and anxious. The significance of his words were only realised after the speech was reproduced in the newspapers that following day. The speech is now part of literary history and it is widely quoted. It is even paraphrased by people who are otherwise oblivious of the history. The most striking and memorable part is his insistence that “the poet`s voice need not be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail”.
In our contemporary world the extremes and disparities of America have come under scrutiny yet again. It is difficult to predict the consequences of an ugly and divisive election campaign, it seems that this is all part of the vagaries of Presidential politics. However we must never forget the power of words to change and to move all people.