As a professor of American literature, I teach my students about the dual strains of America: optimism in the native goodness of the individual, and a pessimism stemming from the realization of the human heart’s great capacity for evil. Jefferson and Adams. Emerson and Hawthorne. Yet I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a single book that embodies American optimism and pessimism quite as powerfully as a 2006 novel marketed for teens: M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I, The Pox Party.
As the title itself suggests, Octavian Nothing is not your standard young adult novel. In fact, I have my doubts about whether any teen could fully appreciate it, and I personally would never put it in the hands of anyone under the age of 15. This is heavy stuff. Set in late 18th-century Boston and written to evoke the literary style of that period, Octavian Nothing is the story of an Enlightenment experiment, an experiment who also happens to be a human boy. The College of Lucidity, a circle of philosophers and scientists, has undertaken to determine whether Africans can be considered human. They raise Octavian with the end of measuring his intellectual prowess. They school him in Latin and Greek, they train him in detached, objective scientific observation—but the so-called objectivity of their scientific method is called into question when it becomes clear that their source of funding has an interest in proving Africans and African Americans to be an inferior race.
Much of the novel is told in Octavian’s first-person narration (and my one complaint about the book is that it’s difficult to tell what age he’s supposed to be at the time of writing down his story, but this may be revealed in the sequel, which just came out in Fall of 2008), in short chapters that end with punchy, often incredibly painful scenes or statements. In one, Octavian’s mother, who also lives at the College of Lucidity, becomes deeply upset when Octavian’s music tutor asks her to sing the songs of her native Africa so that he can transcribe them. Octavian, who also wants to learn the songs of his people, is puzzled by her reaction. However, that night, she reads to him from Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Zion. On the willows there, we hung up our harps, for they that carried us away captive required of us songs, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?”
Octavian’s mother doesn’t stop there, but continues on to the harsher part of the Psalm:
“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall be he who requites you with what you have done to us!
Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks!”
I’d like to meet the mature adult who doesn’t crumple in a heap upon finishing this chapter. Maybe it’s just because I study American literature, but I’ve always felt that the “vengeance” Psalms made a lot more sense to me if I imagined them from the perspective of African American slaves. However, I honestly don’t know what a teen—a teen who knows nothing about the Babylonian exile or the use of Psalm 137 in Frederick Douglass’s famous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”—might get from this same chapter.
So the pessimism about the inhumanity of “Enlightened” America is obvious—but where’s the optimism? Anderson inserts letters from another character, young (and white) Patriot solider Evidence Goring, to show that some people genuinely believed they were fighting the American Revolution for universal liberty and the common brotherhood of all men. Evidence, writing to his sister Fruition (gotta love those 18th-century names), writes of his confidence that “Slavery and Subjugation shall soon enough fall away . . . in the coming Tumults, as Peter’s Chains slipped off from his Wrists when the Angel smote him upon the Side; & the Gates shall be opened, and we shall issue forth, & the Meadows shall lie before us all.”
Yeah . . . the 19th century was one big, happy frolic for everyone. Evidence’s optimism is almost as painful as Octavian’s story, to the 21st-century reader who knows that it took another 90 years for slavery to end. Though Anderson is generous in giving voice to the optimists, he also shows the danger of the naïvete that often accompanies such an unjaundiced view of humanity: it’s Evidence who unknowingly leads to Octavian’s re-capture.
Though M. T. Anderson is white, he doesn’t fall into the all-too-common trap of stereotyping or sentimentalizing his African American protagonist. He creates a character whose silences speak as loudly as his words, a character whose perspective on the American Revolution is much more complex than that of Johnny Tremain. In fact, it may even be too complex for many of my college students to understand. Here’s hoping Octavian Nothing stays off high school required reading lists—instead, let consenting adults discover this Great American Novel, hidden under its young adult packaging, for themselves.