What is interesting about Native Guard is that it seems to take into account the Black soldiers who joined after New Orleans fell to the Union soldiers in May of 1862. At that times, tens of thousands of former slaves joined the Union Army. What I found interesting is that a modern writer took modern thoughts and rewrote history as if to speak for the forgotten. Trethewey wrote, “I now use ink to keep record, a closed book, not the lure of memory-flawed, changeful-that dulls the lash for the master, sharpens it for the slave” (11-14). This line spoke to me. She seems to be saying that she is correcting history which has been dulled by incorrect history books that rewrote or omitted history over the last decade and a half. She also seems to be saying with this line that slaves were powerless when they could not record their history, and with the right to education came a power that had long been denied which had previously afforded it to slave owners. As more slaves became free, their ability to document their own stories changed the landscape of literature. Natasha Tretheway seems to be saying that she now represents their legacy.
In lines 18-21, she writes, “Still, we’re called supply units, not infantry-and, so we dig trenches, haul burdens for the army no less heavy than before” (Trethewey). It speaks to a subordination even when free that they were not equal to their White counterparts in the military. They were there to work so that the White soldiers did not have to. Much like the Restoration period, society had reinvented slavery which took them from one plantation onto a theoretical other. Trethewey writes, “On every page, his story intersecting with my own” (27-28). White society had documented their story, but it was left to Black American to record the rise of their own identity. Some might say that if it were not for 20th-century writers, this history would still be lost to time.
Trethewey also wrote, “It was then a dark man removed his shirt, revealed the scars, crosshatched like the lines in this journal, on his back” (49-50). Just as these scars were revealed to the narrator, Trethewey is revealing them like scars on American history so that we, as a nation, should never forget. For it is when we forget that we tend to repeat it. Tretheway speaks of wisdom when she writes, “Death makes equals of us all: a fair master” (103). The narrator says, “These are things which must be accounted for: Prisoners and deserters, what we’ve looted” (118-19). She goes on to give a reason as for how time will change history because of many stories yet to be told. This seems to speak for the modern writer and the narrator slave in that they both have a responsibility to take account of for history of both sides of the war. She closes with, “…turning them to dust beneath our feet, a scaffolding of bone we tread upon, forgotten” (129-31). This speaks, again, to the modern writer’s need to speak for the dead which I feel she did by comparing her knowledge of history to actual moments that we know existed with Black regiments in the Union Army. She also showed the same type of urgency to document history much like former slaves which speaks to modern writers to speak for others when they are unable to.
In Daisy Miller, the author writes, “I hardly know whether it was the analogies or the differences that were uppermost in the mind of a young American, who, two or three years ago, sat in the garden of the “Trois Couronnes,” (James). The narrator seems also to be documenting what he or she sees in real time. As it was written in 1878, it is documenting a story in the real-time instead of trying to retell the past. It also seems realistic since he mentions the aunt had a headache and smelling camphor. A modern author may not have written or mentioned such things.
The characters of Winterbourne and Daisy also represent the same belief systems regarding class systems, yet Europe is much more formal than Americans. He has a love for the Old World, and she represents the new one. It is two cultures clashing as everyone calls Winterbourne by a formal name but she is referred to as Daisy (a nickname). This same idea can be found in Native Guard in that White and Black societies were clashing and having to learn a new way of life together.
I also liked the informal language used by James with lines like, “It’s this old Europe. It’s the climate that makes them come out. In America they didn’t come out.” (James). This story compares the people in two geographic locations while Tretheway used her knowledge from one era to compare a society in a former one. Both stories are filled with perceptions of the other group regarding belief systems. When Trethewey speaks of the White prisoners being afraid of the Black jailers, the same type of sentiment can be found between Winterborne and the American characters.
As a lover of history and a person born in New Orleans, I have to say that the author knows much of the past in that area. What she does not record is that there were some Black slave owners in New Orleans, and it was much different than the rest of the south regarding how it played a role in the war. She makes it seem like this slave was unique in Lousiana, but the slaves were allowed to work on Sundays in the French Market which gave them a source of income that was denied the rest of the slaves in the South. I feel that she told a story instead of the story which seems to contrast the poem’s theme of correcting history lost to time. I think that if a writer in the Civil War documented his duties, we were read more about his duties and the war instead of his need to record it. I also felt she embodied the modern writer with her use of language instead of a former slave. We can see a formal writing style of educated slaves that I did not find authentic in her writing style.
Even though Native Guard was a brilliantly written piece of poetry, I could tell it was a modern writer because of her use of the English language. Mark Twain was authentic because he used dialects. So, I would think even educated slaves would use some language style from that era. That is the only critique of this piece. I see the same influence in Daisy Miller with lines like, “My father ain’t in Europe; my father’s in a better place than Europe.” (James). I believe this was written after Twain toured in Europe, so it seems his dialectology had caught on quickly for other writers. Writers today believe “ain’t” is not a word, but in the South, it is which I found to be authentic in this piece to differentiate the American from the English speaker. James also uses the scenery of the castles to show the difference between the old ways of Europe and the fresh perspective of the American lifestyle which very much was present in Trethewey’s story in capturing the scenery of the civil war through the eyes of someone who had never been there.