Tuesday, January 06, 2009

What We're Reading: The Astonishing Life Of Octavian Nothing

M. T. Anderson has written an extraordinary historical epic for young adults, now complete in the two volumes, of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. The first volume was honored with the National Book Award for young people’s literature in 2006. It is everything that great literature should be and stands remarkably alone in a field dominated by contemporary approaches to literature as entertainment: the wish fulfillment of fantasy, breathless action, the graphic novel sops to reluctant readership, or the difficult loves of vampires.

Teens will find the books off-putting, I fear. The prose is deliberately archaic, a style difficult and foreign to the world of the monosyllabic, dude. The historical setting and detail is something about which they are remarkably ignorant and uninterested, the development of the story proceeds at a pace they would find glacial, and the impact of the book grows from the articulate expression of feelings and detailed descriptions of circumstance rather than the rapid concatenation of action and events. It is a credit to the publisher that this work saw the light of day, and though young people may not read and prize it, and I hope I am wrong, this work is remarkable and should find an appreciative readership with everyone who yet values the virtues and rewards of what we now must call traditional literature. The book designer at Candlewick obviously had some affection for the book. The type is set in a commonly used 18th century font, and the jacket artwork on both books is precisely emblematic of the theme. The cover of the second volume employs to great effect a detail from the wonderful 18th century portrait by Joshua Reynolds of “A Young Black.”

Anderson’s story is about a young slave living in Boston during the beginning of the American Revolution. He is the subject of a bizarre and inhumane experiment by a band of Enlightenment scholars who are giving him the classical education of an English gentleman in an attempt to scientifically measure the perfectibility of his race. This premise allows Anderson’s narrator to speak plausibly and tell his story in a remarkably articulate and authentic voice, one that innocently shames his oppressors in their own tongue and idiom. Anderson has mastered late 18th English prose to tell this story. He imitates the construction, cadences and vocabulary of the period, and as a student who has read a fair amount of Augustan age prose, I am astonished by this feat of similitude. That he can write in this style is remarkable, but more than this, he is able to write with great effect, precision and beauty. He is a lover of the English language, and his mastery reminds us of the greatness and possibilities of English prose and, unfortunately, our own comparatively impoverished state of the language.

But for all the imitation of period prose, Anderson’s knowledge of the intellectual currents of the time, the world of ideas in which our national heritage was born, is at the center of this book. It is the hypocrisy of the American patriots, their insistence on freedom for themselves but the demand that this freedom include their right to enslave others that is the compelling theme of this book. Octavian joins a British regiment composed of runaway slaves to fight the colonists, only to be disillusioned by the commitment of the Crown as well to his freedom and equality. In a wonderful parody of the Declaration of Independence, Octavian cynically concludes, “It is a fact easily discernible that governments are instituted to commit the crimes that their citizens require for gain, but cannot countenance committing privately.”

Anderson forces us to look at the ideas that made us a nation, to think about the nature of man and the nature and purpose of systems of government. If the rights of man do not come from the vote of a majority, then from where do they come? What are those rights and how are they secured? Can reason alone produce a just society? All questions that a generation ago were matters of importance to young adults and in previous generations have been the source of renewal and recommitment to democratic ideals and human rights. Literature such as Anderson has written employs historical imagination in a way that allows us to imagine the world of our political origins, and that, in turn, causes us to think about what kind of values we wish to see prevail in our future as a nation. But imagination these days has been hijacked for trivial purposes in the literature written for young people. You would think Anderson’s theme might be a good theme for young adults, that perennial questioning of those things most complacently espoused and fundamental that seems ever to have been the special province and providence of youth. But times have changed. After all, we live in a nation with more liberty and justice than you can shake a stick at, and at long last citizens seem to sincerely believe, and hold dear, that singular notion of our founding fathers that most men are created equal.

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