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Fiorenzo Iuliano*


Gelido, consapevole di sé e dei suoi torti,

non è cattivo. È il buono che derideva il Nietzsche

"... in verità derido l’inetto che si dice

buono, perché non ha l’ugne abbastanza forti ..."

(Guido Gozzano, “Totò Merumeni”)


1. Losers and superheroes: a relationship of mutual dependence

American comics are, still today, often regarded as undemanding books starring a few well-known superheroes wearing masks and costumes. This is only partially true: comics are not necessarily about superheroes, the latter being starred, in fact, only in a limited amount of the comics ever published and circulated in the US. The golden age of comics, which saw superhero comics gain immense popularity, reached its momentum in the 1930s, when Superman, Captain America and Wonder Woman were created in order to give a body and a face to traditional American values (like freedom and democracy), and, thus, to symbolically vilify the European dictatorships of the time. Before the 1930s, however, comic strips published in magazines and newspaper chiefly featured ordinary people (or sometimes animals), often portrayed in surreal and paradoxical contexts. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, superheroes were not the only protagonists of comic stories, horror and science fiction comics being, at the time, as much as popular as the stories about superheroes. The supremacy of superheroes in American comics was sanctioned during the Cold War. When the Comics Code Authority, established in order to prevent young people from reading those comics that would encourage bad behavior, imposed its ban upon a high number of publications, only superheroes were spared, since they clearly met at least one of the Authority’s requirements: “in every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds” (Johnson 81). From the 1960s, the traditional superhero’s features started to change: no longer an exclusively “positive” figure, the new superhero was “the psychologically torn hero-villain” (Witek 49). The late 1960s and (especially) the 1970s, saw the increasing popularity of independent and underground comics, which in few years secured their niche in the comics industry: stories of antiheroes, as well as parodies of the most celebrated comics heroes, gained an almost immediate following. The era of graphic novel (from the late 1970s on), finally, witnessed the birth of art comics, radically different, on the whole, from old superheroes magazines, and the growing importance of authorship over marketability.

In this essay I will try to analyze the figure of the “loser”, one of the most typical embodiments of the antihero of present comics and graphic novels, as simultaneously opposite and complementary to the traditional superhero of mainstream comics. In particular, I will foster attention on a specific kind of character, the cartoonist or comics drawer, as the “loser” par excellence in comic books. I will, first, reflect on readership, as playing an important role in originating the figure of the loser through a process of identification and projection between comics and their readers; I will then try to trace the historical origins of the loser as the antihero of comic stories back to the 1960s; finally, I will analyze three comic books featuring cartoonists as protagonists (two of them being authors of superhero comics), thus highlighting how many contemporary works in this genre invite readings that take into account their status as meta-comics. The aim of these three comics, as I hope to make clear in the essay, is to show that traditional comics heroes have almost invariably been created by socially awkward types, who shaped them as to be idolized for their superpowers and fabled charisma. It follows, thus, that superheroes, rather than generic emblems of strength and courage, function as symbolic figures that counterbalance the flaws and the fears of their creators. This need for compensation is quite often related to gender and sex roles, which effectively explains why superheroes (and super-losers as well) are, with few exceptions, male.[2]


2. The Nerd Club: readers, comics freaks and losers

The comics-freak as the loser par excellence has become such a common character to be frequently represented as the antihero of strips and graphic novels, and his popularity, as I previously suggested, can be explained in terms of identification and dis-identification between readers and characters.

A passage by Edward Said could be useful to understand the process of multiple identification (between  readers/authors/characters) that distinguishes comics as a subcultural phenomenon. In his introduction to Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Said argues:

Many comics (…) seem to acquire a life of their own, with recurring characters, plot situations, and phrases that turn their readers, whether in Egypt, India or Canada, into a sort of club in which every member knows and can refer to a whole set of common assumptions and names. Most adults, I think, tend to connect comics with what is frivolous or ephemeral, and there is an assumption that as one grows older they are put aside for more serious pursuits, except very occasionally. (i)

Said, thus, does make two points, absolutely relevant to my argument: first, comics actually establish a connection among their readers, which has no equivalent among people interested in “serious” books (being, on the contrary, quite diffused among the fans of specific sub-genres, from music, to cinema to literature).[3] Second, the reasons for the solidarity among the readers of comics and graphic novels is to be found in the marginal, and often despised position that comics still occupy among literary texts. It is undeniable, in fact, this type of art still “suffer[s] from a considerable lack of legitimacy”, as Thierry Groensteen puts it (1), summarizing the reasons of this bias in the following terms:

1) It is a hybrid, the result of crossbreeding between text and image; 2) Its storytelling ambitions seem to remain on the level of a sub-literature; 3) It has connections to a common and inferior branch of visual art, that of caricature; 4) Even though they are now frequently intended for adults, comics propose nothing other than a return to childhood. (7)

The first two points are also effectively addressed by Scott McCloud, in his pivotal Understanding Comics: “traditional thinking has long held that truly GREAT works of art and literature are only possible when the two are kept at arm’s length. Words and pictures TOGETHER are considered, at best, a diversion for the masses, at worst a product of crass commercialism” (140).

Groesnteen’s and McCloud’s analyses, as well as Said’s intuition, focus on a common prejudice: comics are books for readers that reject the “great works of literature”, and prefer clinging to an oversimplified, almost infantile genre, thus refusing the challenges posed by more serious, complex and mature books. People reading comics, basically, are seen as adults that do not want to grow up, and that stubbornly claim their right to enjoy a condition of cultural infancy.

This mixture of complicity and marginality, perfectly summarized by Said, could at least partially explain why the loser, as such, has become in some comics a sort of icon, effectively functioning as a recurring role model. The awareness of participating in a collective experience that is foreclosed to the majority of readers, who despise comics for being naïve and infantile, characterizes the experience of comics as subculture, that is, as the will to collectively and rebelliously share something that grown-ups and judicious people do look down upon. The loser, as the hyper-infantile hero of the comics’ world, is the perfect site of identification for those readers that are kept at the margins of the imagined community of “serious” writers and readers, representing their ironic and (sometimes) pathetic counterpart.


3. Back to the 1960s: archaeology of the loser

fig1Let us start with what the word “loser” evokes in common usage, and what its origins as a central figure in the history of US comics are. A comparison with superheroes could be precious to elucidate the opposite polarities around which these two icons have traditionally been constructed. In response to Peter Coogan’s essay “The Definition of the Superhero”, I will try to list the most common features that identify losers as the antiheroes of comics and graphic novels.[4] The archetypal loser of comics and graphic novels is a man (but there are also some female instances)[5], usually in his twenties. He is typically into “geeky” stuff: computers, sci-fi, role-playing games, and obviously comics. Although not necessarily unattractive, more often than not he is. He has a problematic (to say the least) relationship with women and with sex in general, but he is (almost) invariably heterosexual. He is generally white, though ethnicity is not necessarily a case in point – but I will mention a controversial example with regard to this issue in one of the texts I am going to analyze. He has some friends, but is often solitary or prefers hanging out with his closest friend rather than partying and enjoying other people’s company.

As for the historical origins of the loser as an icon, easily recognizable for the features I have tentatively listed above, my hypothesis is that they can be traced back to independent and underground comics (the comix) that, between the 1960s and the 1970s, featured parodies or caricatures of the celebrated superheroes of the time, ironically embodying their opposite: in the early 1960s, for example, Gilbert Shelton and Tony Bell created a parody of Superman, the “wonder wart-hog”, a counter-superhero with piggish features, who killed the people he did not like.[6] “A particularly fruitful ground for iconoclasm” (Witek 50), comix countered the American traditional and ordinary values embodied in mainstream comics, emphasizing, among other things, authorship as an essential component of artistic (and cultural) creation, valuing “the productions of the lone cartoonist over collaborative or assembly-line work” and thus establishing “a poetic ethos of individual expression” (Hatfield 16). This specific feature, moreover, even more closely associates comix with graphic novels, in which the role of the individual author (who makes both the drawing and the writing of his/her texts) is paramount.

Among the most influential of all underground comic artists, Robert Crumb emerges in the 1960s as “an anxiety-ridden perpetual loser” (Mouly 279), who first had the merit of “ironizing (…) the comic book medium itself” (Hatfield 12). Crumb’s art, “unabashed in its vulgarity”, has been also interpreted as “the glorification of his own nerdiness” (Mouly 279). Among the characters Crumb created for the magazine Zap, at least a couple are to be mentioned: Fritz the Cat, the feline superhero famous for his sexual performances, and the guru Mr. Natural, supposed to have renounced all material goods and nevertheless obsessed with sex and luxury.[7] Rightly considered “the Bruegel of the second half of the twentieth century” (Mouly 282), Crumb immediately became popular in the circuit of underground comics, and his characters were recognized for some of those very traits that, in a few years, would have marked the loser of graphic novels as well: they are ordinary people, they always show an unrestrained sexual appetite (which is an obvious reference to the utopia of sexual liberation of the time), and they visibly contrast with and contradict the supposedly “positive” values that superheroes have traditionally embodied.[8] As Witek argues, “The comix creator cultivated an outlaw image, and their works systematically flung down and danced upon every American standard of good taste, artistic competence, political coherence, and sexual restraint” (51).

This complex and fascinating world of the underground production of the 1960s-1970s is of great help in order to understand the origins of the loser as the key-figure of a number of graphic novels published for almost thirty years now: being marginalized and ridiculed by mainstream society is the essential feature of the typical comics’ loser, and sex-related themes play a pivotal role as well. However, whereas in the past the comix anti-heroes freely expressed their sexual needs and preferences – and, in the surreal world in which they lived, there was even room for their oddities – [9] graphic novels unmistakably veered towards realism, thus turning the sexual eccentricities of the past into shameful anomalies. Yet, while so-called “normal” people usually conceal their weirdness, fearing of being, otherwise, openly ridiculed and mocked at,  graphic novels’ antiheroes often are proud of weaknesses and flaws commonly ascribed to them, and eager to turn them into markers of their own identity. As I will try to show especially in my second and third case studies, sexual eccentricities serve the purpose of questioning and criticizing the normative gender, and more specifically male, role played by superheroes, thanks to which the latter can adequately embody “positive” values (courage, generosity, righteousness).

Let me now move to an analysis of three texts that, each to a different extent, highlight some of the abovementioned peculiar features of the loser.


4. Loser degree zero: Joe Matt’s Peepshow/The Poor Bastard

fig2The relationship between the loser as the antihero and the world of independent comics is particularly evident in the first of the texts I am analyzing, the autobiographical graphic novel The Poor Bastard by Joe Matt. The protagonist of the book is a cartoonist who tries to earn a living by drawing independent comics, thus perceiving himself as rather an intellectual than simply a drawer. When his girlfriend, who takes drawing classes at college, tries to show him a sketch featuring Goofy she has been working on, he disdainfully refuses: “They’re training us so we can get jobs”, she argues, to which he abruptly replies: “Jobs at Disney. No thanks” (1992, #2, 10). Though laying no overt claim to any continuity between the independent comics of the 1960s-1970s and the new antihero of graphic novels (condemned, by now, to be a loser), the text implicitly (and proudly) foregrounds this lineage.

The Poor Bastard was published as a book in 1996, gathering a six issue comics previously published under the title Peepshow. Being an autobiography, it naturally foregrounds the issue of identification, which I have previously referred to as crucial to comics as a subculture: author and protagonist perfectly overlap, to the point that they are both named Joe, and the reader is aware that identifying with the protagonist means identifying with the very author of the story.[10] Joe desperately tries to earn a living by his artistic craft, is utterly addicted to pornography, and shows no respect whatsoever to his girlfriend, who eventually breaks up with him. The issues of sex and gender, thus, are evidently paramount to the construction of the character and to the self-definition of the author; yet, the text features no superhero, being valuable, rather than for the customary and almost standardized featuring of a loser as a protagonist, for disclosing the close relationship between the author, his book, and its readers.

The Poor Bastard’s protagonist, thus, can be identified as “loser degree zero”, as the text presents him through no filters, metaphors or narrative detours. This is also true of the graphic component of the book, drawings being, with few exceptions (that is, the panels about the protagonist’s inner conflicts and anxieties), regular and homogeneous, with no ostensible emphasis on any aspect of the story over others, or on any of the characters.[11] The relationship of identification between readers and characters is even more visible in the Peepshow’s issues, which precede the publication of the volume. The second issue of Peepshow features a letter from a reader to Joe Matt: “Dear Joe, after reading about what a selfish, thoughtless, bastard you are in Peepshow #1, my girlfriend thinks I’m a prince! Thanks for making the rest of us look good” (1992 #2, first inside back cover, my emphasis). Apart from the close relationship between comics’ authors and readers, quite unusual for “ordinary” books, the message adequately expresses the role of the loser as a catalyst of bad qualities and, as such, as a symbolic site upon which readers can simultaneously project their own alter egos and disown the very projection they have produced. Moreover, shedding light on the community of comics’ freaks the protagonist belongs to – on their very frequent errands to comics stands, and on their little manias and fanaticisms – the text features this entire subculture as itself an ideal cradle and heaven for losers. Obsession with comics is reported, indeed, as the real reason of Joe’s bad behavior, of his selfishness and stinginess (comics are the only items he spends money on, showing, on the contrary, no interest at all in going out to dinner or to the movies with his girlfriend or friends), and of being more absorbed in his erratic (and often erotic) fantasies than attentive to the people around him.

The process through which the loser is constructed as the result of identification and rejection is also staged within the very storyline of the text. The perspectives of the narrator and the protagonist on this process, in fact, diverge only as to the different degree of awareness of themselves as losers: whereas the author implicitly acknowledges it, the protagonist, on the contrary, repeatedly rejects any assumption about being himself “the” loser of the story, and thus projects this stigma upon another character. Joe, in fact, shares his apartment with an older man, Charles, whom he overtly describes as a weirdo, a lonely man with no job or friends, who spends whole days in the kitchen frying bacon and anxiously trying to find someone to talk to. Speaking about Charles over the phone with a friend, they refer to him as a “poor bastard” (1992 #2, 3; fig. 1), thus resorting to the same mechanism of identification/rejection that the reading of his strips actually trigger for his readers. Like his readers who, as I have previously shown, use Peepshow’s characters not so much to “look better”, as his fan’s letter reports, as to “feel” better, the protagonist of the story, by showing his contempt for Charles, demonstrates how gratifying it is to have someone to look down upon and identify as a loser. The same dynamics of projection and dis-identification, thus, is operating within the story and outside of it, both at the level of the narrative and of the author/reader relationship, thus enhancing the potential of the text as a site of identification/rejection.


5. It takes three to know one: all the losers of Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison

fig3My second example further explores the connection between losers and comic artists that I have analyzed in Joe Matt’s magazine and graphic novel. Published in collected form in 2001, Alex Robinson’s Box Office Poison is “a convincing, absorbing and satisfying fictional portrait of post-college life in mid-1990s New York City” (“Review”), and is essentially based on the protagonists’ daily lives and their attempts to face personal issues and the precarious job market of the 1990s United States. Quite originally, in Box Office Poison the features of the typical loser of comics are distributed over three different characters, which, besides suggesting how diverse the very figure of the loser might be, further complicates the dynamics of identification between the author and the protagonists, and between the latter and the reader. Sherman, the “positive hero” of the book, unmistakably features some of the most easily identifiable characteristics of the comics’ loser: he is a wannabe writer who earns a living by working in a bookstore and is deeply frustrated in his job (he angrily claims that he has a college degree and yet is treated like a servant by his bizarre customers, 32); however, despite the rejections he continually gets after sending his manuscripts to publishers, he has friends, a girlfriend, a sex life, and is rather good-looking. Sherman could be better defined as only a half-loser also because, differently from Ed Velazquez, his comics-addict best friend, his literary aspirations prevent him from being fully associated with “nerdishness”. To complement Sherman, the book features two more characters who better fit the prototype of the loser and provide an interesting comparison between what being a loser means today and what it used to in the past. The character that any reader immediately sympathizes with is in fact Ed Velazquez, who dreams of becoming a major cartoonist, despite the economic crisis in the comics industry. Ed is not very good-looking, often complains about his fatness, has no luck with women, still lives with his parents, and, unlike the WASP Sherman, is of Hispanic heritage. Ethnic connotation is one of the traits that controversially identify losers in Box Office Poison, though never being explicitly addressed as such, but I will take this point up later.

In the eyes of people around him, being a cartoonist is the worst of Ed’s shortcomings, as shown in figures 1-2 (58-59): everything can be accepted and tolerated, but working in comics necessarily amounts to being a loser, and lacking any attractiveness for the woman he is trying to seduce (and, in a broader sense, for anyone looking at comics from the outside). People who are into comics are unredeemable dorks, not because they have any flaw in particular, but because their very interest for comics is itself a flaw. Moreover, being a cartoonist is scorned as a fallback, something that people end up doing because they do not succeed in their real aspirations. This is openly stated by the second cartoonist featured in Box Office Poison, Mr. Irving Flavor, a former comic artist who created the superhero Nightstalker (a tongue-in-cheek reference to Batman, the “dark knight”, the allusion being confirmed by Nightstalker’s aspect, almost identical to Batman’s). Irving started his career as a cartoonist in the 1930s, at the age of nineteen, and was later fired by the company that had hired him, Zoom Comics, which however kept the copyright on Nightstalker and left him in poverty. Referring to cartoonists, Irving bluntly affirms that, back in the past, their real professional aspirations were addressed elsewhere, and that they turned to comics only because it was the easiest way to earn money. Those who really loved and wanted to work in the comics industry were regarded as losers, as Irving states in figure 3 (117). Irving’s point can be more easily understood by looking at the history of the genre itself, as summarized in figure 4 (178), which elucidates the pure entertaining role of comics in the US popular culture during their so-called golden age. As a pioneering study published in 1950 by Leo Bogart maintained, in fact, comics “provide some sort of satisfaction (some tension reduction) for the individual reader, either in a conscious, purposeful way, or in a mechanical, unconscious way. Tensions may be reduced simply by a relief in monotony, by a break in accustomed activity, by the pure mechanics of variety” (190). Comics, back then, were the purest expression of escapism, a pastime that especially children and adolescents enjoyed, something that adults more often than not disapproved of, but that was however tolerated as a way to spend one’s own leisure time. Likewise, in Box Office Poison, Irving declares that publishers “didn’t give a shit what you did, as long as kids kept buying it. … you had total freedom … we sure as hell had to fill up a lot of pages quick” (178). An easy money job, comics were far from being appreciated as a culture or even a subculture; reading comics, thus, did not amount to being a comics-addict, or, to put it differently, to being a loser. Only people really keen on comics are, in fact, rated as losers, just because they turn something trivial and infantile, and only profitable for making money, into a lifelong and absorbing passion. fig4Mr. Irving’s story, on the contrary, suggests that in the past the average middle-class American man, perfectly embodied by him at the time of his job at Zoom Comics, was not supposed to have any other personal interest than the ones commonly and unanimously sanctioned by mainstream society: owning a house and having a wife was all he needed to be happy, satisfied and proud of himself. Channeling one’s own desires into unusual directions was completely unconceivable, and nurturing a passion for what was simply a job would probably sound like a sort of morbidity, something that only losers could possibly dwell on. The use Robinson makes of the characters of Ed and Irving sheds light on the different functions that comics have had in American society over the decades, and, as a consequence, perfectly renders the slippage from comics as a part of the entertainment industry to comics as a subculture. This slippage, which actually occurred in the 1960s, has produced a considerable shift also within popular imagination: the comic artist, back in the past, was a simple cog in the machine of comics industry; after the countercultural turn, comics have become more complex, halfway between the homemade, amateurish artifact, targeted to a small audience that usually shares the same milieu as the author, and the countercultural product, which has, theoretically, higher intellectual standards than mainstream comics and is aimed at a wider audience, more engagé, or at least supposed to be so.

Superheroes are featured, in Box Office Poison, as the silent alter egos of both Mr. Irving and Ed, who are the creator of Nightstalker and one of his devotees respectively, and thus symbolically figure as the author and the consumer of mainstream comics. The association between comics and losers, thus, plainly hinted at in The Poor Bastard, is here charged with another, absolutely crucial, meaning, that is, the role of the loser as the actual counterpart of the superhero. This element will be finally addressed and thematized, as I hope to make clear, in the third book I am going to analyze.

Before moving to Pussey!, the last of my three case studies, however, two more issues raised by Box Office Poison must be addressed. The first one is that of ethnicity: both Ed and Irving, in fact, belong to clearly identified ethnic groups. Ed is Hispanic, and, to further emphasize his background, the author repeatedly underlines that he still lives with his parents, a possible indirect reference to Latinos’ supposedly strong sense of attachment to their family. fig5Moreover, Ed is obsessed with his being still a virgin, which, though not obviously related to his Hispanic heritage, completes the picture of him as the typical “mama’s boy” of Latino cultures, and is thus contrasted with his more independent and adult Anglo-Saxon peers. As for Irving, though his ethnic origin is never openly mentioned, there are several clues that allow the reader to identify it: his constant use of the word “schmuck”, the kippah that Ed wears during his funeral viewing, and his almost stereotypical physical aspect, especially in those panels featuring him as a young man, let the reader easily infer that he is of Jewish descent. The fact that Ed and Mr. Irving play the role of comic artists, and, as such, of “losers”, legitimately raises questions of ethnic bias: the overall idea conveyed by the story, indeed, is that there are, on the one hand, more or less neutral characters, invariably white and middle class, whose virtues and vices are almost equally balanced, while, on the other, freaks are either non-white, or, at least, non-Anglo-Saxon.[12] Rather than hypothesizing that Robinson has voluntarily assigned negative roles to non-Anglo people, I would suggest that Box Office Poison, as comics and graphic novels often do, has absorbed the stereotypes most frequently attached to different ethnic groups, immediately turning them into, and circulating them as, cultural icons. This reading only partially explains the author’s choice, and raises questions as to whether or not comics and graphic novels should address thorny issues, or whether they, as the expression of unofficial, often marginalized and despised countercultures, can legitimately infringe the norms of political correctness.[13]

The second point to make in this brief reading of Box Office Poison pertains to the ending of the story, and is quite relevant to my analysis of the loser as the comics antihero. Sherman, put aside his artistic aspirations, ends up working as an assistant manager, which causes his friendship with Ed to end; the latter gets married to Hildy Kierkegaard, a Scandinavian girl who works at Zoom Comics; Irving finally manages to get money from his former employers, which still owns Nightstalker, and dies a rich and respected old artist: a page-size panel featuring a monument built in his honor closes the whole book (figure 5, 602). This apparently positive conclusion can yet reveal a certain degree of ambiguity: though on the one hand it suggests that a happy end is always awaiting those who fight against difficulties, on the other it implies that, for all their efforts, losers cannot aspire to anything more than an ordinarily petit-bourgeois life, a dull middle-class routine.


6. Superman vs. the Überloser: Daniel Clowes’s Pussey!

fig6The third graphic novel I am going to analyze sums up and fully deploys most of the issues I have addressed in my analysis of Peepshow/The Poor Bastard and Box Office Poison. Pussey! by Daniel Clowes is, as the Fantagraphics website puts it, “a brutal and scathing peek into the insular, pathetic world of the comic book industry, as seen through the eyes of antihero Dan Pussey.”[14] A short graphic novel, published in eight issues of the series Eightball and then collected in 1995, Pussey! evokes distinct elements of The Poor Bastard and Box Office Poison: the protagonist, Dan Pussey, as a comic addict and, later, a professional drawer, embodies the stereotype of the comics freak (as in The Poor Bastard), and, at the same time, calls for a more complex analysis of the loser as a cultural icon. Whereas Box Office Poison, however, chiefly deals with the loser’s transformations over the decades, Pussey! unfolds a genealogy of the loser as an individual, shifting the focus from the historical to the individual plan.[15] Finally, Pussey! combines the figure of the cartoonist as a loser with the iconic superheroes of mainstream comics. Dan Pussey is, in fact, an avid reader of superheroes comics, and the most interesting (and funniest, too) sections of the book spring out of the sheer opposition between his fantasies, deeply indebted to his favorite comics’ heroic scenarios, and his real life, which is, quite predictably, the life of a nerd. The book is remarkable for at least one more reason: it caustically attacks not so much comics addiction and its “nerdishness”, as the haughtiness of those wannabe alternative artists that, despising comics as commercial and commercialized art, claim their status as artists to guarantee for the high quality of their work.[16]

On its very cover, Pussey! declares its intent: it wants to sketch the story of “our hero from cradle to grave”. Pussey is thus ironically labeled as “our” hero, though being, in fact, the typical weirdo of comics who, since his childhood, has dreamt of himself as a superhero (“Volcano Boy”, fig. 6, 44). Moreover, the story insists on the mutual dependence between losers and superheroes, overtly maintaining that the latter can be conceived and decently dignified only by the former. As Dr. Infinity, the man who hires Pussey in his publishing house and makes him a celebrity argues, “there have always existed a handful of creators with a loftier aspiration: to create MODERN MYTH for adults, or at least college students. Such a man is our Mr. Pussey” (8). The alleged opposition between superheroes and losers, thus, turns out to be in fact the expression of sheer continuity: not only do losers sublimate their anxieties and frustrations into powerful figures of strong and successful men, but their very status as losers is the necessary condition to conceive superheroes, who are just unthinkable of by ordinary men.

fig7Clowes explicitly relates the present status of Dan Pussey as a loser to his childhood, to the relationship with his family, and to troubles with sexuality since his teen years, as the titles of several chapters and, obviously, his very name emblematically suggest: “The Young Manhood of Dan Pussey – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Pussey”, “The Origin of Dan Pussey”, or, as to insist on the troublesome relationship that Pussey, and losers in general, have with sex and with women, “Dan Pussey’s masturbation fantasy”. Going back to the years spent in school means, for Pussey, going back to the memory of his schoolmates bullying him and of girls being totally disgusted by those guys crazy about “Star Trek, science fiction, and comic books and stuff” (47). Pussey’s family, too, is deemed as responsible for having transformed an insecure teenager into a total loser, since his absent father and domineering mother mistake Dan’s lack of social skills for homosexuality (fig. 7, 46), thus implicitly maintaining the equation between a socially integrated behavior and normative sex/gender roles. According to this perspective, a loser can be easily mistaken for a gay man, since they both embody alternative and nonconformist models of masculinity. Fully upholding these stereotypes, Dr. Infinity admits that there is nothing “wrong to make a few bucks from exploiting the repressed homosexual urges and castration fears of undeveloped adolescent minds (especially when they belong to 37 year-olds!)” (23). Pussey’s traumas and frustrations, as a matter of fact, are clearly related to sex; his inadequacy to fully participate in the world of adult people makes him a grown up man who still lives the existence of a shy and awkward teenager whose fantasies have completely replaced reality.

However, as I have previously mentioned, Pussey! is noteworthy also for drawing a parallel between the world of comics and the world of allegedly “high” art, thus showing that there are no actual differences between the two and that, moreover, the apparently sophisticated and intellectual artists are, more often than not, completely incompetent, and more interested in just making money than their despised and more commercial antagonists who work for the comics industry. Clowes insists on the economic issues at stake in cultural industry, and on the deceitful strategies used to trick losers into working for no money in return: Pussey is often reminded that he is, actually, an artist, and that, as such, he should not care about money. Pride and passion are the triggers that motivate Pussey, whose genuine interest in comics is exploited in order to force him to do an exceptional amount of work, with little or no rest and payoff. He is a loser, after all, and there is nobody better than a loser to take advantage of, because all that he needs is someone who sincerely admires him and his work and efforts. Losers are, according to Clowes’s perspective, completely innocent and firmly convinced that all people, like them, strongly and genuinely believe in what they do and are up to.

fig8In his search for losers’ redeeming qualities, thus, Clowes tries to counterbalance the worst stereotypes attached to comic artists as social misfits, by pointing out the role played by the culture industry in arbitrarily sanctioning the divide between art and mass culture, and, consequently, between the professed artists featured in the book and cartoonists, on the mere basis of market trends and demands. Trying to run away from the comics industry, Pussey is gradually convinced of his qualities as a “real” artist by a man who runs an art gallery and encourages him to set up an exhibit. Unfortunately, this man, after showing considerable enthusiasm for Pussey and his drawings, abruptly dismisses him to make room for another wannabe artist. After this episode, Pussey is finally pushed back to the world he always belonged to, realizing that he will be forever a loser. Dr. Infinity confirms him in this opinion, triumphantly claiming him to the world of comics (fig. 8, 26). However, incredible as it may sound, the last chapter features Pussey happily married, thus confirming the idea that a loser can obviously only aspire to be a regular man, the “quiet American”, whose life is finally as ordinary as the lives of his peers, those who have always looked down upon him.

The book ends with Dan Pussey, a celebrated icon of comics industry, witnessing his gradual decline when The Mutilators, the debut comics of Trent Gaswell, a 17 year-old artist, starts selling more copies than Pussey’s Nauseator. Pussey dies a very old man, surrounded only by his books; Gaswell, the new star of superhero comics, is his ideal heir, being as talented as him in drawing superheroes, and, obviously, looking as much like a loser as Pussey did in his youth. The wheel, thus, comes full circle: losers and comics heroes form a dyad that outlives actual comic artists, confirming that the mythical qualities traditionally projected on superheroes (strength, courage, audacity) do not exist and never existed but as losers’ idealizations.

Whereas traditional superhero comics stubbornly maintain that every man is, at least potentially, a hero – as witness Superman or Batman, ordinary American citizens that turn into heroes when someone needs help – losers show that heroism can be, at most, the desperate effort to compensate for being, and being identified as, unsuccessful in anything. Described by Clowes as the real heroes of his book, losers of all generations have been given the arduous task to debunk the myths of courage and to unveil the mysteries of heroism which, especially in the United States, have been and still are used as a cover for nationalistic and, often, racist, chauvinistic and militarist ideologies. We definitely agree with Bertolt Brecht that “unhappy is the land that needs a hero” – but, fortunately, we can add: happy is the land that breeds so many losers.



Bogart, Leo. “Comic Strips and Their Adult Readers.” Mass Culture. The Popular Arts in America. Eds. Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White. The Free Press, 1957. 189-198.

Brown, Jeffrey A. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001.

Carlin, John. “Masters of American Comics: An Art History of Twentieth Century American Comic Strips and Books.” Masters of American Comics. Eds. John Carlin, Paul Karasik, Brian Walker. Los Angeles-New Haven & London: Hammer Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Art-Yale UP, 2006. 24-175.

Clowes, Daniel. Pussey! Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2000.

Coogan, Peter. Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. Austin: Monkeybrain Books, 2006.

“Daniel Clowes.” U.X.L. Graphic Novelists. Eds. Tom Pendergast and Sarah Pendergast. Vol. 1. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007. 67-74.

Duncan, Rendy, and Matthew J. Smith. The Power of Comics. History, Form and Culture. New York & London: Continuum, 2009.

Golomb, Liorah A. “So Many Options, So Little Money. Building a Selective Collection for the Academic Library.” Graphic Novels and Comics in Libraries and Archives. Essays on Readers, Research, History and Cataloging.Ed. Robert G. Weiner. Jefferson and London: McFarland & Company, 2010.101-110.

Groensteen, Thierry. “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” A Comics Studies Reader. Eds. Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2009. 3-11.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics. An Emerging Literature. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005.

Harvey, Robert C. The Art of the Comic Book. An Aesthetic History. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1996.

Jacobs, Dale. “Multimodal Constructions of Self: Autobiographical Comics and the Case of Joe Matt’s Peepshow.” Biography 31.1 (2008): 59-84.

Johnson, Jeffrey K. Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society. 1938 to the Present. Jefferson: McFarland, 2012.

Knight, Gladys L. “Introduction.” Female Action Heroes. A Guide to Women in Comics, Video Games, Films, and Television. Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford: Greenwood, 2010. xiii-xxi.

Matt, Joe. Peepshow. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 1992 - Present.

---. The Poor Bastard. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2003.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Mouly, Françoise. “It’s Only Lines on Paper.” Masters of American Comics. Eds. John Carlin, Paul Karasik, Brian Walker. Los Angeles-New Haven & London: Hammer Museum and The Museum of Contemporary Art-Yale UP, 2006. 278-289.

“Review of Box Office Poison.” Publishers Weekly. October 22, 2001. 56.

Rifas, Leonard. “Race and Comix.” Multicultural Comics. From Zap to Blue Beetle. Ed. Frederick Luis Aldama. Austin: U of Texas P, 2010. 27-38.

Robinson, Alex. Box Office Poison. Marietta: Top Shelf Production, 2001.

Said, Edward. “Homage to Joe Sacco”. Joe Sacco. Palestine. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2001. i-v.

Witek, Joseph. Comic Book as History. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989.

[1] I wish to thank Nicoletta Vallorani and Cinzia Scarpino for giving me the chance to present a draft-version of this essay in the class of American Culture at the University of Milan, on December 5, 2013.

All images from Box Office Poison are © Alex Robinson. Reprinted with permission of Top Shelf Productions. All images from Pussey! are reprinted by kind permission of Fantagraphics Books Inc..

[2] For the question of female superheroes in comics and popular culture, see Knight.

[3] Whereas the question of comics as a genre in its own right is a highly debated one (Golomb 103), in fact, few doubts exist about comics as a subculture.

[4] According to Coogan’s analysis, a superhero is the “champion of the oppressed”, must be “prosocial and selfless” (which implies that he fights against evil not in order to achieve personal benefit, but in the sole interest of the community), must have exceptional powers (true also of those characters, like Batman or Iron Man who, though not having traditional superpowers, are much stronger and smarter than ordinary people) or weapons, and, finally, must wear a costume and have a codename (30-32). Coogan’s description fails to notice, however, that, as Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne demonstrate, heroes often disguise ordinary men, thus serving the function of blank screens onto which anyone can cast his dreams, desires and projections. For the role of superheroes in American comics, see Harvey, especially the second chapter “Legions in Long Underwear. The Advent of the Comic Book and the Reign of the Superhero.”

[5] Among the comics featuring female losers, I will just mention the short story “Hawaiian Gateway”, by Adrian Tomine (included in his collection Summer Blonde, published by Drawn&Quarterly in 2003), and the graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw (published by Fantagraphics in 2008).

[6] Several traits that characterize the figure of the loser are also detectable in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, which started being published in 1950; yet, some of the loser’s most emblematic features, and his strong connotation in sexual terms, are obviously lacking in Schulz’s characters.

[7] In 1981 Robert Crumb founded a magazine whose name is quite telling, as to relationship between the old antihero of comix and the new loser of graphic novels: Weirdo, published until 1993. The case of Weirdo is quite interesting, since a lot of new-generation cartoonists have published on it, like Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, Peter Bagge, Gilbert Hernandez and Joe Matt. Weirdo shut down when graphic novels had already landed in the US book market.

[8] All the more surprisingly, there also was a female anti-superhero that gained immediate popularity at the time, Angelfood McSpade, a black woman represented, according to the worst and politically incorrect stereotypes, as a nymphomaniac who even enjoys being sexually abused, rape being thus presented as an event that can ordinarily occur to a “primitive” African woman craving sex in all forms. Among the comix magazines dealing with, and addressed to, women, at least Wimmen’s Comix, started in 1971 and edited by Patricia Moodian, has to be mentioned.

[9] “Underground comix conveyed an unprecedented sense of intimacy, rivaling the scandalizing disclosures of confessional poetry but shot through with fantasy, burlesque, and self-satire” (Hatfield 7).

[10] Dale Jacobs indirectly points out how strong the identification between the text and its readers is: describing the protagonist of Peepshow, he remarks that “most of us are not as obsessed with sex, pornography, or money” (76), thus implying the existence of a mainstream, normative “us” to which Joe Matt (and, consequently, anyone who identifies with him) is sharply opposed.

[11] Jacobs provides a more detailed analysis of Peepshow’s graphic features (66).

[12] I am not only referring to the two comic artists, but also, for instance, to the old woman who owns the building where most of the graphic novel is set: she is from eastern Europe and is portrayed as a sort of grotesque Dickensian Scrooge, maniacally attached to money, eventually dying alone and forlorn during Christmas holidays.

[13] For a more in-depth analysis of the issue comics-ethnicity, see Brown (especially chapter 5) and Rifas.

[14] http://www.fantagraphics.com/browse-shop/pussey.html. Recognized as one of the most interesting and prolific authors of the graphic novel generation, Clowes has been praised as “a worthy successor of Robert Crumb” for creating “a sharp-eyed view of the American popular culture of these two decades [1950s and 1960s]” and for the “outcasts and tragic figures” that populate his comics (“Daniel Clowes” 67-69).

[15]Clowes resorts to his characters’ ugliness to classify and label them as losers (10), as well as Robinson in Box Office Poison (363). Emphasizing the physical unattractiveness of people who are, generically, connected with comics (as artists, publishers, or simple amateurs) reveals what they really look like in the eyes of “mainstream” people.

[16]Fantagraphic website reviews Pussey! as a roman à clef, some characters clearly embodying real people working in the comics industry, like Art Spiegelman, in Pussey! featured as Gummo Bubbleman.

Fiorenzo Iuliano (Questo indirizzo email è protetto dagli spambots. E' necessario abilitare JavaScript per vederlo.) insegna Letteratura angloamericana all’Università di Cagliari. Si è occupato di studi sulla corporeità (Il corpo ritrovato. Storie e figure della corporeità negli Stati Uniti di fine Novecento, Shake 2012), di teoria critica (Altri mondi, altre parole. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak tra decostruzione e impegno militante) e di graphic novel, e sta lavorando a uno studio su sottoculture, attivismo politico e immaginario collettivo nella Seattle negli anni Novanta. Fa parte della redazione di Ácoma.


Marta Degani*



1. Introduction

On November 4, 2008 people all over the world could celebrate the advent of a new era. The election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th American President was a historic event of immense significance. For the first time in the history of American democracy, an African American was elected President of the United States.

After eight years of policies that had increased military expenditure and broadened the gap between what Obama likes to call “Main Street” and “Wall Street”, the time of the Republican administration was eventually over. Obama was welcomed as the president promising renewal. He was seen as the leader who would move the country ahead and bring about real change in the lives of ordinary Americans. Being young for a person in that role and charismatic, he was capable of awaking American people’s subliminal needs for hope at a time of great uncertainty and economic instability.

Obama’s unprecedented victory was not just embraced with enthusiasm, it caused a wave of interest in his persona. The media soon transformed the president into a world celebrity and emphasized the role of race in his election. Indeed, race was possibly one of the most debated issues in relation to Obama’s success (Bobo and Dawson; Hunt and Wilson; Smith and King; Walters). Depending on the “racial” lens through which he was described, Obama would appear as either too black, or not black enough. More compromising scholars supportive of theories on hybridity suggested a post-racial era was about to come (Pettigrew).

In addition to Obama’s problematic racial identification, the fact remains that he embodies different cultural traditions (Remnick). In a way, Obama is the man of three continents: Africa (the land of his Kenyan father), America (the country where he was raised and educated) and Asia (he spent part of his youth in Indonesia). Also his language is able to engage different kinds of audience. A master of public performance, Obama is skilful in addressing the Black community using African American Vernacular English. By the same token, he has been recognized as one the most gifted rhetoricians in his use of Standard American (Alim and Smitherman).

Obama’s capacity to evoke multiculturalism, multilingualism and racial mixing is probably what made him into a citizen of the world and, at the same time, a tangible example of the American sense of historical development. In the run for presidency, he was the ideal candidate to impersonate the American credo that “out of many we are one,” the strongly held patriotic belief in unity out of diversity.

Thus, while Obama’s genealogical background (an African father and an American mother from the Midwest) and life experiences give him a cosmopolitan flair, his public voice echoes a truly American rootedness. Significantly, Kloppenberg claims that Obama’s cultural sensibility and his political outlook have been substantially influenced by the tradition of American philosophical pragmatism that was heralded by William James and John Dewey. In his view, Obama is also the product of the intellectual turmoil that excited US campuses in the 1980s and 1990s when he first studied at Occidental College, Columbia University and Harvard Law School, and later taught at the University of Chicago Law School. According to the historian, Obama’s intellectual formation and his commitment to the grounding ideals of the American Left pervade all his writings. In particular, Obama’s eloquent memoir Dreams from my Father (1995) and his ambitious book The Audacity of Hope (2006) seem to disclose the influences that have shaped his distinctive worldview.

Many factors, indeed, can have contributed to raise Senator Obama to the highest rank in US politics. On the one hand, we can expect that Obama’s expression of certain values and ideals was decisive for his victory. His intellectual formation and educational development have imbued his voice with the ideas about democracy that many of his country fellows share. On the other hand, we cannot underestimate the impact of Obama’s figure and all that it evokes. His presence enacts a kind of subconscious reconciliation of the social, ethnic and racial tensions with which the United States still have to cope. Furthermore, he appears as an authentic embodiment of one of America’s most deeply held beliefs, the idea that everyone can make it if they work hard.

All these observations make us curious about the way Obama actually decided to present himself as the future President of the United States in the speeches he made during his first election campaign. Which aspects of his personal story did he decide to share with his potential voters? Which reasons might have guided the selection of personal facets to be brought to the fore? Answering these questions is expected to give recognition to some of the elements that may have been crucial for Obama’s success.

It is the purpose of this paper to explore these and other related issues so as to shed some light on how Obama uses aspects of his personal background and experience in the formal context of his electoral speeches. In particular, the paper will investigate the rhetorical strategy of story-telling by focusing on the different types of “stories” that inhabit Obama’s electoral speeches and by explaining their significance for the campaign.


2. Corpus and methodology

This study is based on the analysis of a selection of 30 representative speeches made by Obama during his election campaign in 2008. The corpus was originally compiled for a much larger investigation of Obama’s use of language on the occasion of his first crucial presidential race (Degani forthc.). The time span that was considered for the selection of speeches reaches from February 5, 2008 (Super Tuesday, the day when Obama was elected as the candidate for the Democrats) to November 3, 2008 (the day before the presidential election). The criteria adopted for choosing the significant 30 speeches include: a) presence of the much acclaimed primary night speeches, b) coverage of different topics, c) coverage of different States, and d) exclusion of the shortest speeches. In detail, the corpus consists of the speeches shown below in chronological order:

1. February 5, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Super Tuesday”

2. February 12, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Potomac Primary Night”

3. March 4, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: March 4th Primary Night”

4. March 18, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: A More Perfect Union”

5. March 20, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: The Cost of War”

6. April 14, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: AP Annual Luncheon”

7. April 15, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Town Hall Meeting with Veterans and Military Families”

8. April 22, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Pennsylvania Primary Night”

9. May 3, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Plan to Fight for Working families and Take on Special Interests in Washington”

10. May 6, 08 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Primary Night”

11. May 20, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Forging a New Future for America”

12. June 3, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Final Primary Night”

13. June 21, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: a Metropolitan Strategy for America’s Future”

14. June 28, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: National Association Of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials”

15. June 30, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: the America we Love”

16. July 1, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships”

17. July 10, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Women’s Economic Security Town Hall”

18. July 13, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: 80th Convention of the American Federation of Teachers”

19. July 16, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Summit on Confronting New Threats”

20. August 1, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Town Hall on the Economy”

21. August 5, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Energy Town Hall”

22. August 23, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: Vice President Announcement”

23. September 9, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: A 21st Century Education”

24. September 12, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama: On taxes”

25. September 20, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama (Daytona Beach, FL)”

26. September 27, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama (Greensboro, NC)”

27. October 10, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama (Chillicothe, OH)”

28. October 15, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama (Londonderry, NH)”

29. October 20, 2008 “Remarks of Senator Barack Obama (Tampa Bay, FL)”

30. October 27, 2008 “Senator Barack Obama’s Closing argument Speech: One Week”

This selection of speeches is expected to be relevant for the expression of Obama’s political message to the American electorate.[1]

Initially, the speeches were collected for the purpose of exploring Obama’s words on the background of Lakoff’s predictions about American politicians’ framing of issues (Degani forthc.). In line with Lakoff’s theory, Republicans are expected to frame political reality according to a Strict Father (SF) model, while Democrats are assumed to think and talk about politics relying on a Nurturant Parent (NP) worldview. In a nutshell, SF morality emphasizes the values of strength and authority. To the contrary, NP morality places empathy and nurturance at the core of political thought and action. The investigation covered a range of different aspects related to the significance of Obama’s words as the expression of American Democratic ideas. As part of that, the strategic use of certain rhetorical strategies aimed at gaining consensus was also taken into consideration. In particular, the use of story-telling emerged as a distinctive feature characterizing Obama’s oratory. While this previous work focused on the question of Obama’s appeal to Democratic values and unveiled many of its facets, the present paper picks up the use of story-telling which was not explored further.

Even though the term story-telling has been used in the diverse fields of linguistics, literary studies, psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology, it remains a rather fuzzy concept and one for which it is not easy to provide a clear definition (Hatavara, Hydén, and Hyvärinen). In this study, the notion of “story” is not used in the Labovian sense to indicate a fully-fledged type of narrative (Labov 1972, 1997), nor is it employed to indicate a form of dialogic co-constructed narration as defined in more recent narrative research (Georgakopoulou 2006, 2007). More simply, the presence of “stories” in Obama’s electoral message refers to the occurrence of brief personal accounts or anecdotes interwoven in the texture of his political speeches.

These personal “narratives” can be grouped into three major categories. There are “stories” that revolve around the upbringing, education and professional achievements of Obama himself. These stories crucially contribute to defining the public image of the future president in relation to his pedigree and past accomplishments. Then, there are stories that have as their protagonists Obama’s parents, grandparents and his closer family (his wife Michelle and his daughters Sasha and Malia). Here, he talks mostly about the hardships they were able to cope with in their lives as well as the courage and determination with which they faced highly demanding circumstances. Lastly, there are “stories” of ordinary Americans who are taken as examples to talk about their sufferance. This last category is particularly suited for expressing Obama’s concern with the lives of ordinary American citizens and it is instrumental to his political message of caring for people.

Having now clarified how the notion of story-telling is intended in this paper and introduced the basic narrative categories established for the analysis of Obama’s speeches, the next section will provide examples for each of the three types of “stories” and discuss their relevance, function and purpose in the corpus.


3. Analysis    

Starting with the first of the three identified narrative categories, the one about the ways Obama presents himself to the electorate, it is significant to observe how he describes his genealogy.

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slave owners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one. (Obama, March 18, 2008)

This passage defines Obama as the embodiment of multiple racial identities in the United States. The story of his life appears to reconcile the historically grounded racial conflicts and the related social tensions between White and Black America. While his dad is an African man and his wife is a Black, American-born woman, Obama was raised with the love and affection of a white family, that of his American mum and grandparents. This story of symbolic racial integration does not stop here. Indeed, it is embellished with a further element. Obama describes his own extended family as being made up of people of different races living in three different continents. The excerpt also conveys another important message. For Obama, telling his story is a way to celebrate the United States as the only place on earth where certain “incredible” things can happen. As his personal story tells us, America is the country where unity can be reached out of diversity. It is also the place where dreams can come true. It was in the United States that Obama had the chance to get the sort of education that opened the doors for his success. His achievements could not but reinforce one of the lessons he learnt from his grandparents: the importance of serving one’s beloved country, the significance of being patriotic. The same message is now transmitted by Obama to all American people. Indeed, in other speeches (see for instance Obama, June 30, 2008) Obama makes clear that his patriotism derives from how he was educated by his family. It was built out of the stories he heard from his grandmother about her work on a bomber assembly-line during the Second World War. It came out of the proud stories of his grandfather depicting himself as a brave defender of his country who enlisted after Pearl Harbor and marched in Patton’s Army. It was also inspired by the lines of the Declaration of Independence and the words of the United States Constitution that his mother used to read to him as a child during the four years they spent in Indonesia.

Obama does not only use his family background to idealize himself as a good example of a successful American, but he also relies on talking about his past voluntary and professional activities as a way to show his engagement with American Democratic thought and its core values of empathy and nurturance. The following excerpt clarifies this point.


I should not be here today. I was not born into money or status. I was born to a teenage mom in Hawaii, and my dad left us when I was two. But my family gave me love, they gave me education, and most of all they gave me hope – hope that in America, no dream is beyond our grasp if we reach for it, and fight for it, and work for it.

Because hope is not blind optimism. I know how hard it will be to make these changes. I know this because I fought on the streets of Chicago as a community organizer to bring jobs to the jobless in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant. I've fought in the courts as a civil rights lawyer to make sure people weren't denied their rights because of what they looked like or where they came from. I've fought in the legislature to take power away from lobbyists. I've won some of those fights, but I've lost some of them too. I've seen good legislation die because good intentions weren't backed by a mandate for change. (Obama, February 12, 2008)


The words above situate Obama’s personal narrative in the tradition of the so-called “from rags-to-riches” stories. These are the type of stories describing an ascent from poverty to fame which in the United States more than anywhere else have the potential to become powerfully inspirational. After all, they actualize the ideal of the American Dream and by doing so they reinforce American people’s belief in it. Since Obama is the concrete example of someone who could make it notwithstanding all odds, his message of hope and change – two keywords throughout his campaign – is one people “can believe in.” As he says in other speeches, he is the son of “a young man who grew up herding goats in Kenya” and “a white girl from Kansas whose parents survived war and depression to find opportunity out west” (Obama, March 4, 2008). His own story tells Americans that the United States are the only country where a story like his could have ever happened. This story reinforces American people’s pride in their nation as the land of real opportunity.

While the story of Obama’s success culminating in the chance to run for the highest office in the United States is coherent with the logic of the American Dream, his social involvement and his work for the community favor the creation of his public image as not just a civic-minded person but a model citizen. Obama takes great pains to convince Americans of the purport of working for one’s community. On the one hand, he stresses the importance of caring for others; on the other, he admits that real change can only come “from the bottom-up.” His work as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago is mentioned recurrently in the electoral speeches. The emphasis is always on change that can be brought about working at the local level and helping communities solve their problems of joblessness, poverty and malfunctioning education. Admittedly, Obama’s experience in public life lasted for about two decades and it was not limited to “lifting up neighborhoods” in Chicago. His fights had a larger impact. The passage above shows how his law degree was initially used in courtrooms, where he fought as a civil rights attorney to guarantee that everyone’s rights were respected. What his words suggest, here and in other speeches, is that his work in the legislature was inspired by a firm conviction in people’s equality, by a profound respect for any form of diversity and by an understanding of fairness as the cancellation of unjustified privileges such as those in the hands of lobbyists.

Obama is skilful in building a public image of himself that appeals to some of America’s most deep-rooted convictions, relies on a shared belief in America’s superiority, and is based on a Democratic interpretation of what the work of democracy should entail. His rhetorical strategy of drawing ad hoc portraits is not limited to his persona. Indeed, the members of Obama’s extended family also partake in the narrative edifice that he constructs for obtaining American people’s support. The role of Obama’s parents and grandparents in shaping his personality has already been recognized. In addition to this, his family members are also talked about as inspiring exemplars of US citizens. In this respect, particular attention is paid to provide “pictures” that call for emotional involvement. A couple of paradigmatic examples are given below.


Growing up, I saw my mother struggle to put herself through school and raise me and my sister on her own. She once had to turn to food stamps, but thanks to student loans, scholarships and a lot of hard work, her kids could attend some of the best schools in the country. I think women like her who work hard and pour everything they've got into their kids should be able to pay the bills and get ahead for a change – that's why I'm running for President.

I saw my grandmother, who helped raise me, work her way up from the secretarial pool to middle management at a bank. But I also saw her hit a glass ceiling, as men no more qualified than she were moved up the corporate ladder ahead of her. I think women like her should be paid fairly and have the same chance to succeed as everyone else – that's why I'm running for President.

I've seen my wife, Michelle, the rock of the Obama family, juggling work and parenting with more skill and grace than anyone I know. But I've seen how it's torn at her. How sometimes, when she's with the girls, she's worrying about work – and when she's at work, she's worrying about the girls. It's a feeling I share every day – especially these days, when I'm away so much, out on the campaign trail. And I think it should be a little easier for parents in this country to raise their kids and do their jobs – that's why I'm running for President. (Obama, September 20, 2008)


This passage focuses on three female figures who have been central in Obama’s life: his mother Ann, his grandmother Madelyn and his wife Michelle. All of them are depicted as strong women, capable of coping with the least favorable conditions and able to raise their families with the utmost devotion. Their stories speak of lives of hard work, sacrifice and unflagging love for their children. These women appear as Obama’s heroes. Ann struggled to get a degree in anthropology while raising her two kids (Obama and his sister) and providing for their sustenance. Madelyn sacrificed for Obama again and again. She also put all of her efforts into getting a well-paying job but had to face with discrimination. Michelle, “the rock” of the Obamas, finds it hard to compromise between work and family duties. The stories of Ann, Madelyn and Michelle are like the stories of many other American women. This is why they are so significant and this is why Obama relies on them to attract the sympathies of his female electorate. By recounting these stories Obama can demonstrate that he is sensitive to the kind of problems women have to face in their lives and, most importantly, he can promise he will do something to make their lives easier. More generally, these stories are pivotal to the expression of gender equality as a basic right to be promoted and they emphasize the fundamental role of the mother in child-raising. There is, however, another facet of these stories which make them appealing to a larger portion of Obama’s electorate. The stories of Ann, Madelyn and Michelle are also well suited for reaffirming certain deeply rooted beliefs in traditional family roles, which assign to mothers all the duties of child-raising. This kind of message can be expected to please more conservative voters.

Besides being evoked for her efforts in supporting her family, Obama’s mother is the protagonist of another tragic story, that which explains her premature death.


If I am President, I will finally fix our broken health care system. This issue is personal for me. My mother died of ovarian cancer at the age of 53, and I'll never forget how she spent the final months of her life lying in a hospital bed, fighting with her insurance company because they claimed that her cancer was a pre-existing condition and didn't want to pay for treatment. If I am President, I will make sure those insurance companies can never do that again. (Obama, October 10, 2008)


This story is told so recurrently in the electoral speeches that people are enticed to associate Obama’s mother to the problems of US health care system. Here actually lies the purpose of the story itself. Talking of his mum’s fierce struggle with cancer means discussing America’s failures in the health care system and calling for immediate reforms. The fact that this issue is so “personal” for Obama, makes his political proposals more credible.

In addition to stories involving Obama and his family, electoral speeches also contain anecdotal narrations about the people Obama met during his campaign. Among these accounts, one of the most significant ones deals with a young girl named Ashley Baia.


There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley." (Obama, March 18, 2008)


As one of Obama’s supporters, Ashley Baia helped organizing his campaign targeting the African-American community. Her story is exemplary for different reasons. It shows how love for one’s parents and strong determination can help coping with the most difficult situations. It also shows how important it is to put one’s own experience at the service of others. Ashley’s story makes her into a source of inspiration for other Americans. Furthermore, it turns her into a model of nurturance, one of the Democratic values that is consistently advocated in Obama’s electoral speeches. Through Ashley’s story Obama can communicate a meaningful message: caring for one’s parents must be a moral priority for everyone.

In his long journey stretching over a number of distant locations, Obama was never alone. The electoral narrative is dotted by the presence of different people and enlivened by the recount of significant encounters. There are indeed many people who inhabit Obama’s speeches. Most of them belong to the present of the election campaign, some others are evoked from Obama’s memories of his past experiences. The anecdotal narration reported below is a case in point.


Over the course of this campaign, I've had the opportunity to visit schools and talk to teachers and students; paraprofessionals and support staff; college faculty and employees; public employees, nurses and health care workers all across this country. But so much of what informs my visits comes from an experience I had a few years ago at Dodge Elementary School in Chicago, not far from where you're assembled today.

I asked a young teacher there what she saw as the biggest challenge facing her students. She gave me an answer I had never heard before. She talked about what she called "These Kids Syndrome" – the tendency to explain away the shortcomings and failures of our education system by saying "these kids can't learn" or "these kids don't want to learn" or "these kids are just too far behind." And after a while, "these kids" become somebody else's problem.

And she looked at me and said, "When I hear that term, it drives me crazy. They're not 'these kids.' They're our kids. All of them.”

She's absolutely right. These children are our children. Their future is our future. And it's time we understood that their education is our responsibility. (Obama, July 13, 2008)


Obama’s narration of his experience at Dodge Elementary School is significant in many respects. First of all, it shows that he is close to American people and that he empathizes with them. Being close for him means talking to people, listening to their stories and sharing his own experience with that of others. This is exactly what he communicates through the story of the young teacher working at a suburban school. The fact that he reports stretches of their conversation and even quotes her words is also relevant. It strengthens the impact of this story and emphasizes how he personally treasures this kind of exchanges. The story is also important for other political reasons. Through it Obama can tell his voters that he is aware of the problems affecting the education system and, most significantly, that he cares for future generations and the quality of their education. Furthermore, by recounting this story, Obama can make a point of people’s commitment to solve an American problem together. If American people intend to lead their nation in the right direction, they should not foster divisions between “first class” and “second class” children. As Obama suggests, fixing the education system means fixing it so that everyone can benefit from it. All children should be given the opportunity to realize their dreams and succeed in their lives.

Obama’s closeness to the problems affecting ordinary US citizens at a time of impending economic crisis is manifest also in other types of stories that have American people as their protagonists. They are the stories of people who cannot afford the rising costs of life. They are the stories of Americans who risk to lose their house and do not know how to pay for their sicknesses. They are the stories of workers who have lost their jobs, pensions and insurances because the companies for which they have worked all their lives closed down or because their jobs were sent overseas. A representative selection of these accounts is reported below.


There's nothing empty about the call for help that came from the mother in San Antonio who saw her mortgage double in two weeks and didn't know where her two-year olds would sleep at night when they were kicked out of their home. (Obama, March 4, 2008, my emphasis)

We're here because of the young man I met in Youngsville, North Carolina who almost lost his home because he has three children with cystic fibrosis and couldn't pay their medical bills; who still doesn't have health insurance for himself or his wife and lives in fear that a single illness could cost them everything. (Obama, April 22, 2008, my emphasis)

I saw it [what happens when the local steel mill shuts its doors and moves overseas] during my campaign for the Senate in Illinois when I'd talk to union guys who had worked at the local Maytag plant for twenty, thirty years before being laid off at fifty-five years old when it picked up and moved to Mexico; and they had no idea what they're going to do without the paycheck or the pension that they counted on. One man didn't even know if he'd be able to afford the liver transplant his son needed now that his health care was gone. (Obama, April 14, 2008, my emphasis)

So many working women today are living right on the edge. I met a woman a few weeks ago in New Mexico who told me she works two jobs – at a restaurant and a hair salon – but the last time she saw a doctor was ten years ago, because she didn't have insurance, and couldn't afford an appointment. She later said, "This is a pretty hard life. I just want to figure out how we get out of this box." (Obama, July 10, 2008, my emphasis)


Through these and many other similar stories, Obama reinforces a message that is crucial for his campaign: the time has finally come for change and American people desperately look for it. In his speeches Obama strongly attacks the Republicans who have led the country for two consecutive turns. In his words, it is because of their policies that people have become poorer and poorer, while multinationals, big corporations, CEOs, and lobbyists have seen their wealth increase day by day. As Obama says, American people do not expect government to solve all of their problems, but they need a hand from Washington to be able to go on. It is therefore the time for the government to assume its moral responsibilities and take care of its people. The government must reduce the distance to US citizens and be ready and willing to listen to their needs. This is what Obama proposes he will do if elected President of the United States.


4. Conclusion

This paper has focused on the use, function and purpose of story-telling in Obama’s electoral speeches. As pointed out in the discussion, Obama employs three different types of stories: about himself, about his family members and, more generally, about American people. The stories which revolve around Obama emphasize the kind of work ethics that led to his success. Additionally, they provide an image of the future president in his role of caring for people and looking after their most basic needs. The second category of stories has other important functions. On the one hand, it shows how and to what extent Obama’s own personality was influenced by those of his family members. On the other hand, it establishes fundamental similarities between his family (and hence himself) and American people. The last group of stories focuses on a range of different US citizens who are taken as exemplary individuals (Ashley Baia), as representatives of specific social roles (the teacher), or who just stand for a class of people (a mother, a young man, union guys, a woman). Through this last group of stories Obama can communicate that he is aware of the problems which affect people in the country and that his politics is intended to address them.

In the context of Obama’s election campaign speeches, story-telling works at the service of a larger political aim. Obama communicates political ideas via personal stories that speak for them. This is a rhetorical strategy that is not unusual in political discourse and that some scholars have referred to as an instance of “personification” (Capone). Stories “personify” in the sense that they stand for specific political issues. The analysis of Obama’s speeches has proved how his oratory also relies on carefully crafted stories to convey a message that is imbued with the same ideals that are at the core of American Democratic thought: community, equality, social responsibility, empathy, fairness and justice.

There is yet another component that makes the use of stories particularly suitable to the final objective of an election campaign. Stories reduce the distance between the presidential candidate and his voters by making the electoral message more “personal.” Furthermore, since they appeal to pathos more than to logos, they intrinsically call for engagement.

All of this can explain why Obama did not abstain from telling stories during his first hard fought run for the US presidency. Quite to the opposite, he confidently relied on different types of stories to gain consensus from the American electorate. Stories were vital in shaping his public image as the future president of the United States and they played an important role along the way to his presidency.


Works Cited

Alim, Samy and Geneva Smitherman. Articulate While Black. Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Bobo, Lawrence and Michael Dawson. “A Change Has Come. Race, Politics, and the Path to the Obama Presidency.” Du Bois Review 6.1 (2009): 1-14.

Capone, Alessandro. “Barack Obama’s South Carolina speech.” Journal of Pragmatics 42 (2010): 2964-77.

Degani, Marta. Framing the Rhetoric of a Leader. An Analysis of Obama’s Election Campaign Speeches, forthcoming.

Georgakopoulou, Alexandra. Small Stories, Interaction, and Identities. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2007.

--- “The Other Side of the Story: Towards a Narrative Analysis of Narratives-in-interaction.” Discourse Studies 8.2 (2006): 235-57.

Hatavara, Mari,Lars-ChristerHydén and Matti Hyvärinen, eds. The Travelling Concepts of Narrative. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2013.

Hunt, Matthew and David Wilson. “Race/Ethnicity, Perceived Discrimination, and Beliefs about the Meaning of an Obama Presidency.” Du Bois Review 6.1 (2009): 173-91.

Kloppenberg, James. Reading Obama. Dreams, Hope and the American Political Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Labov, William. “Some Further Steps in Narrative Analysis.” Journal of Narrative and Life History 7.1-4 (1997): 395-415.

--- Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.

Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Obama, Barack. The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. New York: Random House, 2006.

--- Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995.

Pettigrew, Thomas. “Post-racism? Putting President Obama’s Victory in Perspective.” Du Bois Review 6.2 (2009): 279-92.

Remnick, David. The Bridge. The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. New York: Knopf, 2010.

Smith, Rogers and Desmond King. “Barack Obama and the Future of American Racial Politics.”Du Bois Review 6.1 (2009): 25-35.

Walters, Ron. “Barack Obama and the Politics of Blackness.” Journal of Black Studies 38.1 (2007): 7-29.

[1] The speeches were downloaded from Obama’s website (last accessed on 1/8/2010).

Marta Degani (Questo indirizzo email è protetto dagli spambots. E' necessario abilitare JavaScript per vederlo.) è Ricercatrice di Lingua Inglese presso l’Università di Verona. Nelle sue ricerche e pubblicazioni ha esplorato principalmente la varietà dell’inglese neozelandese, con specifico riferimento al contatto linguistico-culturale tra inglese e maori e alla situazione di bilinguismo in Nuova Zelanda. Ha anche indagato aspetti semantici e pragmatici della modalità inglese, con pubblicazioni sui fenomeni di subjectification e (inter)subjectivity. Più recentemente, si sta occupando di linguaggio politico secondo una prospettiva d’indagine che combina la discourse analysis con la semantica cognitiva. 


Gianna Fusco*



La complessa vicenda editoriale, quasi interamente postuma, attraverso cui la produzione poetica di Emily Dickinson ha visto la luce è uno degli elementi che ancora oggi ne condizionano la lettura critica. La “Letter to the World” (J441)[1] che Dickinson compose nell’arco della sua vita conta, infatti, non meno di 1775 poesie, un esorbitante numero di componimenti che l’autrice lasciò privo di una precisa sistematizzazione e che per decenni dopo la sua morte i suoi eredi si sono contesi come un lascito prezioso ma ingombrante, consentendo per lungo tempo la pubblicazione solo di gruppi di poesie, accuratamente selezionate e altrettanto accuratamente sistemate nella forma. Tali operazioni, pur se formalmente mirate a rendere i versi più compatibili con il gusto prevalente dell’epoca, avevano l’inevitabile conseguenza di ridurne la sovversiva portata estetica. Da quando l’intero canone è stato messo a disposizione dei critici oltre che dei lettori, “There has been a great deal of stir about the editing of Dickinson’s works, particularly in the wake of the newer facsimile and variorum editions of her poems and letters, leading to new and acute attention paid to her manuscripts, fascicles and folios” (Franke 65). Tutto questo lavoro, che qualcuno ha definito di “unediting” (Werner 5), ha messo in luce l’impossibilità di affrontare tale mole di testi nella sua interezza con un unico sforzo critico. Pertanto, gli innumerevoli studi su Dickinson pubblicati nel corso degli ultimi decenni sono il risultato di inevitabili operazioni di selezione, quasi la costituzione di raccolte virtualmente aperte di componimenti, ognuna delle quali costituisce il proprio oggetto di studio, estrapolandolo da un tutto più ampio, nel momento stesso in cui si accinge a decodificarne aspetti specifici. Gli unici studi che affrontano il canone nella sua interezza sono, non a caso, quelli che tentano una ricostruzione delle condizioni originarie in cui le poesie sono state lasciate dall’autrice e la conseguente indagine sulla significatività dello stato materiale di esistenza dei manoscritti, come il raggruppamento in fascicoli o l’inclusione in lettere a vari destinatari.

Uno degli approcci più diffusi e più efficaci alla poetica dickinsoniana rintraccia nel suo ampio corpus di versi il ricorrere di immagini e metafore che fanno emergere come un vocabolario prediletto, e mettono in rilievo le strategie verbali con cui l’autrice tenta di cogliere e fermare nella sua arte la profondità e la verità dell’esperienza umana. Si tratta di una scelta strategica che libera la lettura di Dickinson dalle griglie imposte dai tentativi di sistematizzazione, consente di individuare costanti e scarti significativi nella sua scrittura, ma rende anche esplicite le selezioni operate all’interno del corpus nella sua interezza, selezioni che non rivendicano più un carattere di innocenza e non si pongono più come una scelta delle liriche più compiute, ma diventano semplicemente uno dei molteplici assi intorno a cui ruota la straordinaria ricchezza dei versi dickinsoniani. È quindi possibile percorrere la sua produzione poetica guidati da alcune particolari parole, in un percorso che porta a scoprire tutto l’universo di significati che Emily Dickinson riesce a costruire a partire da significanti legati tra loro dall’appartenenza a specifici campi semantici.

Accanto alle liriche costruite attraverso le immagini di pietre preziose o al cui interno campeggiano i nomi di luoghi esotici, e accanto ai componimenti che descrivono tutte le sfumature che può avere la luce o l’infinita varietà di fiori e insetti al passare delle stagioni, Dickinson compone un congruo numero di poesie giocate sul lessico della nutrizione, dalla fame inappagata all’ubriachezza più dissoluta.[2] Entrano così nei suoi versi, spesso definiti eterei, la concretezza del pane, del vino, dei liquori, delle tavole imbandite e dei banchetti sontuosi, ma anche lo straziante e altrettanto concreto dolore dell’affamato e dell’assetato, del mendicante e dell’escluso. Nell’ambito di questo cluster specifico, un ruolo di particolare importanza spetta all’utilizzo di richiami, più o meno diretti, al sacramento dell’Eucaristia, non solo per il significato che l’atto religioso del nutrirsi ricopre in tutte le culture di origine cristiana, ma anche per il carattere di esclusività che esso aveva nella dottrina religiosa in cui Dickinson fu educata. La partecipazione all’Eucaristia era, infatti, dovere e privilegio di chi aveva pronunciato una pubblica professione di fede, sottoponendosi tra l’altro al giudizio del ministro e degli anziani della comunità per essere ammesso a tutti gli effetti tra i membri della Chiesa. Emily Dickinson non fece mai tale passo e rimase perciò sempre esclusa dal sacramento della comunione. Una simile scelta non va tuttavia interpretata come un allontanamento dal religioso o dalla dottrina calvinista, quasi che Dickinson fosse partecipe del mutamento culturale in atto nella sua nativa Amherst. Come nota Zapedowska, infatti, “despite its theological and social conservatism the poet’s hometown did not escape secularization as in the late nineteenth century institutional religion became a social ritual increasingly separated from other spheres of life” (380). Nella poesia di Dickinson, invece, “Calvinism functions (…) in a manner somewhat analogous to her family home: it is a space into which she was born and in which she has remained; a space that provides her with language, imagery, and a frame for experience; a space of frequent longing, conflict, and emotional hunger” (381). Il suo posizionarsi simultaneamente dentro e a margine di una tradizione forte ma in declino costituisce dunque una condizione di deprivazione nell’esperienza religiosa personale, che si trasformò per l’artista in un punto di vista privilegiato. Come osserva Eberwein, “Unconverted and thus ineligible for church membership, Dickinson experienced the communion ritual only from the vantage point of the excluded” (73).La distanza che la separa dalla consumazione concreta del sacramento le permette di usarlo simbolicamente e metaforicamente sia come mezzo sia come fine delle sue esplorazioni in versi, sfruttando l’ambiguità di questa prospettiva per arricchire il suo discorso di numerose implicazioni e sfumature sul piano religioso e spirituale.

Tra le molte poesie di tema eucaristico, saranno analizzate qui un gruppo di liriche che intrecciano il campo semantico della comunione con un’altra macro-area della poesia dickinsoniana, ovvero le descrizioni della natura e delle stagioni.

Dalla giovanile formazione spirituale improntata a un’etica di tipo puritano, Emily Dickinson apprese la propensione a una scrupolosa e continua autoanalisi, ma anche un interesse e un amore per il mondo naturale che lo stesso Calvino invitava a scrutare alla ricerca di quei segni attraverso i quali si poteva gradualmente scoprire l’azione della Grazia nella propria anima e nella propria vita.[3] D’altra parte, circondata dal fiorire del Trascendentalismo, appassionata lettrice di Emerson, Thoreau e degli altri esponenti del movimento, Dickinson ebbe modo di scoprirne gli ideali e la propensione a vedere la natura come un libro aperto che bisogna soltanto imparare a leggere. In questo contesto, è perciò comprensibile che, come tanti suoi contemporanei, ella investisse la natura di profonda spiritualità, pur mantenendosi sempre indipendente e critica nelle sue posizioni, mai fisse, mai dogmatiche, mai inquadrate in una struttura stabile e permanente, ma sempre suscettibili di produrre quello scarto necessario a una nuova indagine dell’io poetante.

Natura e sacramento eucaristico si incontrano e si sovrappongono in diverse poesie del canone dickinsoniano, tracciando un percorso che va dalla comunione consumata nel contatto con la natura, in opposizione alla mensa eucaristica offerta dalla Chiesa, alla sacramentalità del susseguirsi delle stagioni.


1.     I do not respect “doctrines”  (L176)

“I do not respect ‘doctrines’”, scriveva Emily Dickinson quando ancora frequentava il servizio domenicale, riferendosi a un sermone incentrato sulla Predestinazione, una questione squisitamente dottrinale ma di fondamentale importanza per la Chiesa cui tutti i componenti della sua famiglia, tranne lei, progressivamente aderiranno. Man mano che avanzava nell’età adulta, che era uno dei requisiti per essere ammessi pienamente alla vita della Congregazione, Emily Dickinson si allontanava dalla Chiesa, fino a una rinuncia totale a qualunque forma di partecipazione. Non diminuiva però il suo desiderio di conoscere ed esplorare, per strade diverse dall’ortodossia, il mistero della divinità. Non più tardi del 1860, quando il suo isolamento iniziò a farsi sempre più evidente, Dickinson espresse il suo sentimento verso il servizio domenicale in versi seguenti:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —

I keep it, staying at Home —

With a Bobolink for a Chorister —

And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —

I just wear my Wings —

And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,

Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —

I’m going, all along.

                                                                      (J 324)

Il tono è lieve, ma anche profondamente ironico, e dunque implicitamente critico. L’alternativa alla First Congregational Church è un frutteto; i suoni sono quelli della natura gioiosa, l’inno il canto di un uccellino. Già in apertura Dickinson tende a sminuire il valore dell’assidua frequentazione delle celebrazioni: “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—” significa implicitamente che la partecipazione ai riti ecclesiastici è solo un modo di osservare la festa. Il lettore si aspetta già che ci sia qualcuno che, pur assente dalla congregazione, celebri il Sabbath con uguale sacramentalità. L’io poetico, infatti, si propone immediatamente come alternativa nel secondo verso: “I keep it”, anche se in altro luogo e in altro modo; la celebrazione non ha minor sacralità per il parlante. La stessa struttura è ripresa, e dunque rafforzata anaforicamente, all’inizio della seconda stanza: “Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice— / I just wear my Wings—”.[4]

Dopo avere descritto nelle prime due quartine il tempio e il rituale che si propongono come alternativi alla chiesa, nella quartina finale l’io poetico ci introduce nel cuore della celebrazione, rivelandoci come la differenza sia ben più profonda che in apparenza. Qui il ministro è Dio stesso: Dickinson lo definisce scherzosamente “a noted clergyman” e allude al suo sermone mai lungo. Il riferimento soggiacente è all’ammirazione che suscitavano i ministri della Chiesa, noti per la loro oratoria e ai lunghissimi revivals religiosi che periodicamente scuotevano gli animi delle popolazioni del New England, e che potevano durare ininterrottamente anche alcuni giorni. La stanza diventa quindi una critica alla verbosità non necessaria che serviva a coprire un vuoto latente, un’incapacità a comunicare con semplicità il messaggio vero della Parola di Dio. Ma per chi sa ascoltare il suo sermone, Dio predica dal tempio che Egli stesso ha creato, la Natura.

Negli ultimi due versi Dickinson completa l’opera di demolizione silenziosa del precetto che impone la celebrazione del giorno del Signore secondo una specifica tradizione: “So instead of getting to Heaven, at last — / I’m going, all along.” L’io non nega l’idea di una ricompensa futura per i celebranti dell’ortodossia, ma l’impagabile differenza che lei ha scoperto nella sua liturgia privata è l’idea di un paradiso calato nella vita terrena e nella natura. Il cielo non è una ricompensa finale, ma un dono che si inizia a godere al di qua della carne, quando la domenica, invece dei paramenti, si vestono le ali. In questo modo l’io poetico trova la sua celebrazione eucaristica, il suo nutrimento spirituale, nella natura stessa, senza intermediario alcuno tra lei e Dio. Senza mai attaccarli direttamente, Dickinson sgretola alcuni degli elementi fondanti della vita di una congregazione, semplicemente sostituendoli con altri, suggerendo tacitamente il confronto e lasciando che le debolezze delle convenzioni si rivelino per inferenza.   

La stessa strategia, descrivere una cosa e invocarne un’altra come in un negativo, è usata in un’altra poesia di tema affine a “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” e scritta all’incirca nel 1866, quando il suo ritiro dalla vita sociale e religiosa di Amherst era ormai consolidato:

These are the Signs to Nature’s Inns —

Her invitation broad

To Whosoever famishing

To taste her mystic Bread —

These are the rites of Nature’s House —

The Hospitality

That opens with an equal width

To Beggar and to Bee

For Sureties of her staunch Estate

Her undecaying Cheer

The Purple in the East is set

And in the North, the Star —

                                              (J 1077)

Anche qui la natura ospita un rito e offre un nutrimento. Il riferimento obliquo al sacramento della comunione è chiaro già dai primi versi, dove la vastità dell’invito della Natura a consumare il suo mistico pane ricorda immediatamente un’altra mensa, il cui pane consacrato è privilegio di pochi eletti. Chiunque sia affamato può saziarsi al banchetto che la natura offre; non è così là dove l’ammissione al sacramento non è garantita dal solo bisogno, ma dipende dal pubblico riconoscimento della propria appartenenza al ristretto numero dei convitati. La stessa disparità è evocata nella seconda stanza, dove l’ospitalità, cioè l’accoglienza incondizionata di qualunque affamato (“Whosoever” è addirittura messo in maiuscolo), è l’unico rito di quella casa che è la Natura. Dickinson sottolinea che tale ospitalità è offerta con uguale generosità al mendicante come all’ape. Quest’ultima è una creatura che rappresenta sempre, nella poesia dickinsoniana, una saggezza e una conoscenza del mondo naturale superiori a quelle dell’umanità: il suo arrivo annuncia l’estate imminente, la sua assenza decreta l’arrivo dell’autunno, il suo godere appieno dei frutti della bella stagione è il paradigma dell’estaticità del vivere. Essa è perfettamente a suo agio e in armonia con il creato, a differenza dell’essere umano che può avvertirlo come ostile e sentirsene respinto. Il mendicante, al contrario, è colui che desidera, che brama il banchetto, il disperato che sentendo di non potere reclamare nulla come suo è costretto a implorare l’elemosina altrui. La Natura appaga generosamente il suo bisogno come quello dell’ape, e non fa privilegi, a differenza di una Chiesa che distingue tra gli appartenenti alla schiera degli eletti e coloro che, per quanto bisognosi del nutrimento eucaristico, non possono accedervi. Il mendicante, unica figura umana nella poesia, è quasi un intruso rispetto all’ape nel tempio della Natura, come lo sono quei partecipanti non convertiti che al momento della comunione devono lasciare la chiesa. E tuttavia, egli è anche figura biblica ed evangelica degli ultimi, interlocutori prediletti del Messia e beneficiari privilegiati delle sue promesse di salvezza, ed è questa condizione di marginalità e di elezione insieme che ne fa un commensale degno allo stesso banchetto eucaristico che nutre l’ape.

La Natura offre, come segni esterni e visibili, due luci, il sole e la stella del Nord, sigilli concreti, seppur lontani, del suo patto con l’umanità. Due fonti di luce, una vicina e luminosa a rischiarare le giornate della fede, l’altra piccola e lontana, ma immobile e immutabile, a offrire un punto di riferimento stabile nelle tenebre del dubbio e a evitare il buio della disperazione che, in senso dottrinale, è proprio la perdita di fiducia nella misericordia di Dio: “the northern lights (…) were a sign that, even in the midst of potential darkness and engulfment, a cold, pure, elusive hope stood burning, a vestal flame of the almost forgotten faith in dawn and resurrection” (Levi St. Armand 292).

A conferma del carattere insistente di questa riflessione, nello stesso periodo (1862 ca.) Dickinson ripropone l’opposizione tra mondo naturale e istituzione religiosa come luoghi del nutrimento spirituale in “I had been hungry, all the Years —” (J 579):


I did not know the ample Bread —

‘Twas so unlike the Crumb

The Birds and I, had often shared

In Nature’s — Dining Room —

The Plenty hurt me — ‘twas so new —

Myself felt ill — and odd —

As Berry — of a Mountain Bush —

Transplanted — to the Road —


                                                                      (J 579)

“Nature’s Dining Room” è il luogo che l’io poetico predilige dopo avere avvicinato l’altra mensa e avere trovato che la nuova abbondanza non risponde al suo bisogno, pienamente soddisfatto invece proprio nell’incontro con la natura. Il parlante si sente immediatamente accolto nel banchetto dove ha per commensali gli uccelli e comprende come le istituzioni umane sono un artificio che può essere di imbarazzo e di ostacolo alla fruizione del sacramento: la Bacca di montagna non può sentirsi a proprio agio lungo una strada.       

Il sacramento eucaristico, in queste poesie in cui Dickinson costruisce la propria eterodossa liturgia, rimane sullo sfondo, schermato da una narrazione volta a esprimere soprattutto l’idea di una natura intrisa di spiritualità. Quando il riferimento si fa più diretto, la decifrazione del messaggio poetico si complica, come dimostrano alcune poesie che uniscono in una fitta rete di rimandi e complesse simbologie l’Estate, l’Autunno e il sacramento della Cena del Signore.



2.     Besides the Autumn poets sing (J 131)

L’accostamento simbolico tra il ciclo della vita e l’avvicendarsi continuo delle stagioni ha origini antichissime. Nella dottrina cristiana esso è ripreso e interpretato alla luce del messaggio evangelico, così che la morte simboleggiata dall’inverno non sia più vista come la fine della vita, ma come preludio alla risurrezione che è la primavera. In particolare, la teologia calvinista è molto legata a un’interpretazione tipologica del mondo e degli eventi secondo cui, come sottolinea Yin, tutti i fenomeni naturali che possono essere ricondotti a un’idea di rinascita sono ritenuti segni della resurrezione (passim). Si tratta di un mero punto di partenza per Dickinson, la quale interrogherà tale sistema di comprensione (nel senso di intendimento, ma anche di inclusione) della realtà per approfondire la sua ricerca poetica, più che per trovare risposte alle pur urgenti domande che pone la fede.[5]

Il momento del passaggio dall’Estate all’Autunno costituisce il tema centrale di alcune poesie in cui il riferimento al sacramento Eucaristico è evidente, ma complesso nelle sue ambiguità di interpretazione e nelle sue implicazioni dottrinali, e risulta inoltre condizionato dalla concreta esclusione di Emily Dickinson dalla comunione celebrata dalla Chiesa. L’estate, con la sua pienezza di vita e di colori, più che la primavera tanto cara alla tipologia calvinista, era la stagione cui ella anelava di più dalla prospettiva dell’inverno.

It will be Summer — eventually.

Ladies — with parasols —

Sauntering Gentlemen — with Canes —

And little Girls — with Dolls —

Will tint the pallid landscape —

As ‘twere a bright Bouquet —

Tho’ drifted deep, in Parian —

The Village lies — today —

The Lilacs — bending many a year —

Will sway with purple load —

The Bees — will not despise the tune —

Their Forefathers — have hummed —

The Wild Rose — redden in the Bog —

The Aster — on the Hill

Her everlasting fashion — set —

And Covenant Gentians — frill —

Till Summer folds her miracle —

As Women — do — their Gown —

Or Priests — adjust the Symbols —

When Sacrament — is done —

(J 342)

“It will be Summer — eventually.” La poesia comincia con una rassicurante certezza, un’affermazione che riempie il verso conferendogli compattezza e un carattere di definitività, anche grazie a quel punto già raro nella scrittura dickinsoniana e che resterà l’unico lungo tutto il componimento. Quest’apertura così fiduciosa trova respiro e acquisisce vastità nella vivida descrizione di un paesaggio punteggiato di figure che lo riempiono quasi fosse una tela impressionista. La suggestione pittorica è rafforzata dalla stessa Dickinson: uomini e donne a passeggio e bambine accompagnate dalle loro bambole “will tint the pallid landscape / As ‘twere a bright Bouquet—“. La brillantezza dei colori risalta ancora di più nel paragone subito suggerito dai versi immediatamente successivi, dove il paesaggio invernale è reso con la glaciale immagine di un villaggio immerso nel marmo: freddo, solido, e senza vita come una bianca scultura, quasi a evocare metonimicamente la morte attraverso il marmo della tomba. Nella terza e quarta stanza, la pittrice lascia il posto alla naturalista. Le minute figure umane che popolano il paesaggio restano sullo sfondo per portare in primo piano fiori e insetti, i veri messaggeri dell’estate in tutta la poesia di Dickinson. È nell’ultima stanza che la meditazione si fa più esplicitamente spirituale, lasciando che la poesia si chiuda con un’immagine non soltanto religiosa, ma assolutamente rituale ed ecclesiastica:   

Till Summer folds her miracle —

As Women — do — their Gown —

Or Priests — adjust the Symbols —

When Sacrament — is done —

Lo scivolamento verso la sfera del sacro avviene proprio quando dalla descrizione della stagione estiva si passa all’evocazione del suo dissolversi nell’autunno. Il linguaggio si fa squisitamente dottrinale: “miracle”, “Priests”, “Symbols”, “Sacrament”. L’estate non è in sé il miracolo ma, più propriamente, lo dispiega e poi lo ripone nello sbocciare e nell’appassire dei suoi fiori, proprio come fanno le donne con i loro colorati abiti estivi oppure, e il paragone si fa più ardito, come fanno i sacerdoti con i simboli del sacramento eucaristico. L’uso della parola “Priests” potrebbe fare pensare a un riferimento alla dottrina cattolica della transustanziazione, che sarebbe qui criticata per essere ingannevole come l’estate, la stagione che nel suo fiorire sembra promettere un’infinita vita, e poi inevitabilmente muore[6]. Ma il termine usato dall’autrice per riferirsi al cibo consacrato è “Symbols”, un termine cioè incompatibile con i dogmi della dottrina cattolica. Per il cattolicesimo, infatti, il pane e il vino non sono “simboli”, ma presenza concreta di Cristo, come specifica appunto la dottrina della transustanziazione. Calvino, al contrario, “rejected both the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the Lutheran alternative of consubstantiation, emphasizing instead the spiritual nourishment drawn by the faithful from eating and drinking the food of the soul under physical symbols of bread and wine. (…) The American Congregational churches accepted this theology (…) essentially unchanged” (Eberwein 72).

In realtà, il problema della coerenza rispetto a una qualunque versione del memoriale dell’Ultima Cena non si pone affatto. Dickinson non si propone, infatti, di costruire o esporre una teologia coerente e stabile. Al contrario, il suo scrivere è un continuo interrogare, un sondare orizzonti quanto più possibile vasti, allontanandosi da un centro che oltre ad essere indicibile è pure limitato e limitante. Del resto, Dickinson stessa indicava nell’idea trascendentalista della Circonferenza il suo ideale estetico, una circonferenza che permetta una visione obliqua e molteplice della realtà e una continua espansione verso i limiti dell’esperienza concessa all’io poetico: “Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that—My Business is Circumference—“ (L268). Come afferma nel suo studio classico su Dickinson Charles Anderson a proposito del matrimonio (un altro rito di passaggio che non era considerato un sacramento nella teologia calvinista), “Since she was writing poems rather than a personal confession of faith, she could deal creatively with any version of the sacramental act ” (Anderson 179).

L’associazione tra l’estate che volge al termine e il sacramento eucaristico ricorre anche in “Further in Summer than the Birds” (J 1068). Qui Dickinson cerca di cogliere il momento stesso del passaggio da una stagione all’altra, che era ciò che più colpiva la sua sensibilità e stimolava la sua riflessione poetica quando si confrontava con il trascorrere delle stagioni. Poiché si tratta di un momento in realtà indecifrabile e indefinibile, ogni minimo indizio era scrutato con la mente già rivolta a quanto stava per accadere, per cui la prospettiva scelta, il punto di vista da cui l’io poetico esplora il suo tema, è in questo caso l’estate nel pieno del suo splendore:

Further in Summer than the Birds

Pathetic from the Grass

A minor Nation celebrates

It’s unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen

So gradual the Grace

A pensive Custom it becomes

Enlarging Loneliness.

Antiquest felt at Noon

When August burning low

Arise this spectral Canticle

Repose to typify

Remit as yet no Grace

No Furrow on the Glow

Yet a Druidic Difference

Enhances Nature now

                                   (J 1068)

I richiami alla religione e il linguaggio da celebrazione si rincorrono di stanza in stanza in un vocabolario ricco di riferimenti teologici: “Mass”, “Ordinance”, “Grace”, “Canticle”, “Repose”, “typify” e nell’ultima stanza un enigmatico e pagano “Druidic”.  Ma anche l’uso di “Mass” è peculiare, essendo un esplicito riferimento al rituale cattolico bollato come superstizioso dalla teologia calvinista. L’insistenza con cui Dickinson torna sul linguaggio ecclesiastico in ogni quartina lascia intravedere come nella descrizione del canto dei grilli ella iscriva una riflessione spirituale più profonda. Del resto, se non fosse stata la stessa Dickinson a riferirsi a questa poesia chiamandola “My Cricket” sarebbe stato ancora più difficile farsi strada nel suo linguaggio complesso e allusivo per dare un nome specifico a quella “minor Nation” protagonista della celebrazione. Il testo lo descrive soltanto come un rito discreto, che ha luogo quando già da tempo gli uccelli hanno inaugurato la bella stagione. Una celebrazione invisibile (“No Ordinance be seen”), in cui tutto ciò che si percepisce non è la Grazia (troppo “graduale” per essere avvertita), ma un senso di solitudine che si dilata e si fa più oppressivo nel caldo del mezzogiorno, culmine del giorno nel culmine dell’estate, quando nel glorioso splendore della natura di agosto si innalza non un canto gioioso, ma un cantico spettrale. Niente turba ancora l’incanto dello scenario naturale; tuttavia, l’io poetico percepisce qualcosa di indefinibile, una “Druidica Differenza” che non sciupa la bellezza circostante, ma anzi la fa più intensa. In questa intensità è come iscritto il suo prossimo sfiorire e si comprende meglio come il cantico spettrale della stanza precedente esemplifichi proprio il riposo della morte (“Repose to typify”).

Non vi è in “Further in Summer than the birds” un riferimento esplicito alla Comunione, ma essa è evocata indirettamente nell’uso di “Mass” nella prima stanza, a designare il rito cui tutto il resto della poesia fa riferimento. La messa è sempre una celebrazione eucaristica che rinnova il legame con Cristo nella rievocazione della sua morte e risurrezione. Ancora una volta il sacramento eucaristico è posto dunque in relazione con il momento in cui l’estate muore nell’autunno; e ancora una volta vi è un’allusione alla dottrina cattolica e un mescolare il lessico di varie confessioni religiose, come abbiamo visto succedere in “It will be Summer -- eventually”, dove troviamo “Priests” accostato a “Symbols”. Qui si passa dal cattolicesimo di “Mass” al calvinismo più accentuato di “Grace” e “Typify”, per chiudere con un pagano “Druidic”, a conferma della spregiudicatezza linguistica di Dickinson in materia religiosa. La natura è nuovamente motivo di riflessione e contemplazione dello spirito e, infatti, nella prima stanza, che è la più legata alla descrizione naturalistica, l’introduzione del tema della celebrazione nel quarto verso fa sì che per tutta la seconda stanza la riflessione sia di tipo spirituale:

No Ordinance be seen

So gradual the Grace

A pensive Custom it becomes

Enlarging Loneliness.

Oggetto della descrizione di Dickinson non è più il canto dei grilli, ma uno stato d’animo di profonda e pensosa solitudine. Nella terza stanza torna il riferimento temporale con l’uso di “Noon” e “August”, ma non si tratta in realtà di un ritorno a una descrizione naturalistica, quanto piuttosto un accentuare il carattere di meditazione spirituale che pervade il componimento. “Noon”, infatti, è nel vocabolario dickinsoniano il termine che evoca la fuga dal tempo e l’ingresso nell’immortalità, come sottolinea Cameron:

Interestingly enough, she conceives of immortality not as morning but as “noon” and if we investigate the many times the word appears in her poetry, we realize that it implies not only noon, but noon in the middle of summer, not only summer, but a summer light whose intensity dazzles to blindness, its glare burning away all but vision of itself. (1-2)

L’ultima stanza torna a fare riferimento alla grazia in un verso, “Remit as yet no Grace”, (un’eco al precedente “So gradual the Grace” nella seconda quartina) che, come nota Eberwein, ha due possibili interpretazioni, le quali negano entrambe l’azione della grazia, benché quest’ultima dovrebbe invece essere rafforzata dalla partecipazione al sacramento:

The result of sacramental action ought to be grace, but at best, this liturgy avoids diminishing its existing sum. No grace has been remitted or lost. If we take “remit” in its alternative sense, as verb rather than adjective, the speaker tells us that this liturgy gives back no grace either. In Calvinist terms, the sacramental activity recorded here accomplishes nothing of value and should never been expected to do any good. (77)

Siamo di fronte a un’implicazione che potremmo definire doppiamente negativa, ottenuta da Dickinson proprio attraverso un verso che introduce il tema dell’immutata bellezza dell’estate, e dunque, almeno in apparenza, conserva una connotazione positiva. La voce poetica riesce a definire il mutamento misterioso nel volto della natura solo con il termine “Druidic”, fortemente legato a una dimensione di arcana magia, una evocazione di antichissime tradizioni religiose che si trovano al polo opposto rispetto al cristianesimo. In qualche modo Dickinson dice che c’è qualcosa in questo mutare delle stagioni che l’osservazione attraverso gli occhi della teologia cristiana non permette di cogliere. La voce poetica riesce a intuire tale momento di impercettibile passaggio, ma rimane comunque estranea al rito che i grilli celebrano con il loro canto.

Non vi è nei versi presi in esame qui il fiducioso ricercare nel contatto con il creato il proprio nutrimento spirituale che è evidente in “Some keep the Sabbath going to church”, ma un sentimento di esclusione e di distanza che accompagna la poesia dickinsoniana sulla natura quando il riferimento al sacramento eucaristico si fa più esplicito. In altre parole, quando Dickinson tenta di cogliere gli aspetti impenetrabili e sfuggenti della natura, l’immagine che sceglie per definire il sentimento di estraneità e l’esperienza della mancata simbiosi tra l’Io e il mondo è proprio quella della comunione, quasi a confermare indirettamente il suo complesso rapportarsi al sacramento che rappresentò sempre per lei un limite invalicato dell’esperienza.

C’è un’altra estate che Dickinson, così sensibile ai momenti di passaggio, non poteva non accogliere nei suoi versi, “A summer briefer than the first / But tenderer indeed” (J 930), la “Indian Summer” che riporta per un momento breve e intenso l’illusione di un’estate senza fine:

These are the days when Birds come back –

A very few – a Bird or two –

To take a parting look.

These are the days when skies resume

The old – old sophistries of June –

A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee –

Almost thy plausibility

Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear –

And softly thro’ the altered air

Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh Sacrament of summer days,

Oh Last Communion in the Haze –

Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake –

Thy consecrated bread to take

And thine immortal wine!

                                                                      (J 130)

È il momento in cui estate e autunno si sovrappongono e si confondono, risvegliando nell’animo le emozioni vissute nel dispiegarsi del “miracolo” estivo e riportando la mente alla meditabonda solitudine di quella prima “druidica differenza” avvertita al culmine dell’agosto. Si tratta di una breve parentesi nel fluire delle stagioni, un tempo quantificabile con la misura dei giorni, come dice Dickinson all’inizio delle prime due terzine. La poesia si apre con l’immagine di pochi uccelli che tornano indietro non tanto perché ingannati dal clima, quanto piuttosto per dare un ultimo sguardo d’addio ai luoghi dove hanno trascorso la bella stagione. Le successive due stanze, che portano alla metà del componimento, sono intessute del linguaggio della frode: “sophistries”, “mistake”, “fraud”, “cheat”. In particolare, nella seconda stanza Dickinson dipinge questa stagione come un doppio inganno:     

These are the days when skies resume

The old – old sophistries of June –

A blue and gold mistake.

Non solo si tratta di una falsa estate, ma lo stesso giugno è un mese di “sofisticherie”, un errore il cielo blu intenso e l’oro del sole, promesse d’immortalità tradite dall’autunno. L’estate, che al suo inizio sembrava dover essere infinita, è inevitabilmente giunta al suo termine, anche se nel caldo anomalo di ottobre sembra volere perpetuare un inganno che quasi coinvolge l’io poetico nell’illusione di una eterna vita. La quarta stanza riporta alla realtà con la concretezza dei suoi semi, dell’aria inevitabilmente mutata rispetto ai mesi passati e della prima foglia che timidamente cade al suolo. Le ultime due stanze, in evidente opposizione alla prima parte della poesia, sono costruite con il linguaggio del sacro: “Sacrament”, “Communion”, “sacred emblems”, “consecrated bread”, “immortal wine”. L’io poetico, finalmente disilluso, può riconoscere in questo breve ritorno del sole non l’estate, ma il suo sacramento, un rito, cioè, che celebra un’assenza.

Consapevole di essere soltanto una spettatrice che non riesce a penetrare il segreto dello spettacolo naturale del passaggio delle stagioni, l’io si fa avanti negli ultimi versi per chiedere di partecipare a questo ultimo momento di comunione prima del definitivo arrivo dell’inverno. La parlante formula la sua richiesta in modo indiretto, nascondendosi dietro una timida persona infantile: “Permit a child to join”. “Child” ha in nel contesto dottrinale cui allude la poesia una doppia connotazione: da una parte l’io sa di non essere eleggibile per la partecipazione al sacramento e di essere quindi allontanato dal banchetto eucaristico come i bambini nella funzione domenicale. Il termine era anche usato nel XIX secolo per designare “One weak in knowledge, experience, judgement or attainments” e “One who is unfixed in principles”. D’altra parte, la stessa parola designava chi fosse rinato e rinnovato nello spirito dall’azione della grazia e fosse perciò divenuto “a child of God” (Webster)[7]. Inoltre è lo stesso Gesù nei Vangeli a specificare come il farsi bambini sia necessario per entrare nel Regno di Dio. Dickinson quindi usa una maschera dalla doppia valenza e, mentre riconosce la sua imperfezione e inadeguatezza, rivendica il diritto a partecipare degli emblemi sacri in virtù della sua innocenza e della sua purezza.   

Dickinson stabilisce in queste poesie una connessione costante tra il declinare dell’estate e l’atto della comunione, e lega il passaggio all’autunno a pensieri e riflessioni inerenti i temi della morte e dell’immortalità, come si può evincere, oltre che dai suoi versi, anche dalle sue lettere.

These Indian-Summer Days with their peculiar Peace remind me of those stillest things that no one can disturb. (…) I suppose we are all thinking of Immortality, at times so stimulated that we cannot sleep. Secrets are interesting, but they are also solemn - and speculate with all our might, we cannot ascertain. (L 332)

Rendere l’autunno una stagione sacramentale pone il problema della comprensione di una complessa simbologia privata che, mentre affonda le radici nella tradizione della lettura tipologica degli eventi naturali e storici, ne usa strategie eforme per essere rifondata alla luce dell’esperienza personale dell’autrice. Nella ricerca di un contatto con Dio e con il suo messaggio non mediato dalla tradizione, la sperimentazione poetica di Dickinson esprime così un puritanesimo più radicale di quello vissuto dai suoi ortodossi concittadini.

L’estate è la stagione in cui tutta la natura giunge alla pienezza delle sue possibilità espressive. È la stagione dei colori intensi, vitale al punto da non poter quasi sfuggire all’illusione che sia eterna e possa non avere fine. Così fu, in effetti, il tempo della permanenza di Cristo sulla terra e tra i mortali. Dio, attraverso il suo Figlio, riversava sul mondo i segni della sua presenza e, per mezzo dei miracoli che questi compiva, svelava all’umanità il suo progetto di redenzione. Tuttavia, fu proprio al culmine della sua predicazione terrena che Gesù iniziò ad annunciare agli increduli apostoli la sua prossima passione. Nel consumare con essi l’Ultima Cena, il Cristo celebrava anche la prima messa, una “unobtrusive Mass” di cui il mondo, al di fuori dei pochi riuniti nel cenacolo, rimase inconsapevole e ignaro. La stagione estiva, nell’immagine dickinsoniana dell’eucaristia, diviene perciò simultaneamente memoriale della vita e morte di Cristo e anticipazione del suo ritorno alla fine dei tempi, quando gli eletti risorgeranno a nuova vita. L’autunno, di conseguenza, equivale al tempo in cui il mondo fu privato della presenza del Figlio di Dio, ed è per questo occasione di meditazione sul sacramento eucaristico, istituito da Gesù proprio in vista dell’approssimarsi della sua passione. All’interno di tale interpretazione della simbologia dickinsoniana, la “Indian Summer” può essere paragonata a quel breve tempo in cui Gesù apparve ai suoi discepoli dopo la risurrezione e spezzò di nuovo il pane con loro. Una permanenza breve del Cristo, un fugace ritorno, commovente e denso di significato in quanto preludio a un definitivo addio:


A summer briefer than the first

But tenderer indeed

As should a Face supposed the Grave’s

Emerge a single Noon

In the Vermillon that it wore

Affect us, and return –


(J 930)

In realtà è pressoché impossibile dire con certezza se Emily Dickinson intendesse utilizzare una simbologia religiosa per le sue osservazioni sulle stagioni (per cui il sacramento non sarebbe che una metafora, un mezzo linguistico) o se piuttosto non guardasse al ciclico esplodere e declinare dell’estate come a un testo da leggere tipologicamnete (per cui il sacramento avrebbe un ruolo di maggior peso nell’interpretazione). Probabilmente nessuna delle due ipotesi risponde pienamente alla complessità dei versi oggetto di analisi, perché Dickinson utilizzò sempre i mezzi espressivi e le categorie di pensiero che le forniva il suo retaggio culturale senza però mai esserne dominata, bensì interrogandoli costantemente ed esprimendo attraverso di essi la sua personale esperienza del mondo. In un’interpretazione che privilegi l’aspetto descrittivo di queste poesie, non è possibile non tenere conto del fatto che la natura vi sia espressa con il linguaggio della fede e della dottrina ecclesiastica; allo stesso modo, volendo enfatizzare una lettura simbolico-religiosa, non si può non sentire come tecniche espressive collaudate per lungo tempo dalla tradizione calvinista siano asservite da Dickinson alla propria ricerca poetica, trascurando completamente l’aspetto dogmatico e la funzione dottrinale che avevano ricoperto fino ad allora.

Non vi è dubbio che la stagione autunnale fosse per Emily Dickinson fonte di meditazione spirituale e ispirazione poetica. L’autunno che intese descrivere non era infatti quello dei paesaggi di tanta poesia naturalistica: “Gone – Mr Bryant’s “Golden Rod” – /And Mr Thomson’s “sheaves”. (J 131) Al contrario, si tratta di una stagione che più di altre stimolava le sue riflessioni sulla vita interiore e il rapporto con la divinità. “Besides the Autumn poets sing”, c’è un altro autunno, più difficile da affrontare perché è la testimonianza evidente che ogni splendore ha fine:


Grant me, Oh Lord, a sunny mind –

Thy windy will to bear!

                                              (J 131) 



Anderson, Charles R. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. New York: Rinehart and Winston, 1960.

Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time. Dickinson and the Limit of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Dickinson, Emily. Selected Letters. A cura di Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

---. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. 3 voll. A cura di Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1955.

Eberwein, Jane D. “Emily Dickinson and the Calvinist Sacramental Tradition.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 33.2 (1987): 67-81.

Franke, William. “The Missing All: Emily Dickinson’s Apophatic Poetics.” Christianity and Literature 58.1 (2008): 61-80.

Freedman, Linda. Emily Dickinson and the Religious Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Goluboff, Benjamin. “‘If Madonna Be’: Emily Dickinson and Roman Catholicism.” The New England Quarterly 73.3 (2000): 355-385

Levi St. Armand, Barton. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Luisi, David. “Some Aspect of Emily Dickinson’s Food and Liquor Poems.” English Studies 52.1 (1971): 32-40.

Werner, Marta L. Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Yin, Joanna. “‘Arguments of Pearl’: Dickinson’s Response to PuritanSemiology.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 2.1 (1993): 65-83.

[1] Le poesie saranno citate seguendo la dizione e la numerazione di Thomas H. Johnson, curatore della prima edizione completa del corpus poetico dickinsoniano nel 1955. Anche le lettere saranno citate dall’edizione curata dallo stesso autore e indicate tra parentesi nel testo con il numero progressivo preceduto dalla lettera L. Seguendo l’orientamento prevalente della critica contemporanea, sarà rispettata l’ortografia a volte peculiare dell’autrice.

[2] Come osserva Luisi, “more than two hundred poems (...) employ this kind of imagery” (32).

[3]Calvin enjoins his followers to read the signs of the world as a reflection of the state of the individual soul — on which (…) God has written — for indications of either grace or evil” (Yin 67).

[4] La dicotomia che oppone l’io poetico ai non meglio identificati celebranti riuniti nella chiesa è sottolineata nel manoscritto che Emily Dickinson incluse in uno dei fascicoli che lei stessa compose ordinandovi alcune sue creazioni poetiche. Come nota Johnson, infatti, nella copia rilegata nel fascicolo 15 sia “Some” che “I” sono seguiti in entrambe le stanze da un dash, tanto utilizzato nella scrittura dickinsoniana per evidenziare, anche ad un primo impatto visivo, un elemento del discorso (Dickinson, vol.1, 255).

[5] Come nota Freedman, “Theology lends poetry a rich vocabulary for understanding the difficulties of poetic expression and vocation which so often appeared to Dickinson to be shrouded in the same kind of epistemological darkness as God” (3).

[6]“Summer will cheat us again, says the speaker, just as the priest hoodwinks his flock with empty symbols” (Goluboff 366).

[7] Webster, Noah. “Child.” An American Dictionary of the English Language. New York: S. Converse, 1830. 

Gianna Fusco (Questo indirizzo email è protetto dagli spambots. E' necessario abilitare JavaScript per vederlo.) insegna lingua inglese all’Università di Napoli “L’Orientale”. È autrice del volume Uomini in secondo piano. Protagoniste femminili e deuteragonisti maschili nel romanzo del tardo Ottocento (Napoli 2007) e ha pubblicato saggi su gender theory, su autori statunitensi dell’Ottocento e sulla didattica dell’inglese. Sta completando un volume su gender e televisione in cui si occupa di serie televisive contemporanee prodotte negli USA da una prospettiva di studi americani transnazionali e comparati. 



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