Saturday, April 6, 2013

Fear of the Outsider

Fear of the Outsider: Part One

One of the most compelling themes of New England literature – and a recurrent motif of the region’s films, too – is “outsider-phobia”.

Fear of the outsider or stranger, one might reasonably argue, is part of the literary landscape the world over (in Europe, of course, one immediately thinks of Meursault in Camus’ L’Etranger). 

Nowhere, however, is suspicion – even hatred – of the foreign object more prevalent than in the literary tradition of New England. 

Most of us will be familiar with Arthur Millar’s Crucible, that vivid dramatisation of the Salem witch-hunts of 1692, in which it is a thrice-fold outsider – a woman, a slave, a West Indian (Tituba) - who is held responsible for introducing the dark art of witch-craft into the god-fearing community of New Englanders. 

For many people of a certain generation, a rather less elevated example might spring more readily to mind: Jaws.  The mythical great shark - just like Salem’s sorceresses – is that most frightening of things, the uninvited guest, the destructive interloper, the trespasser and transgressor apparently bent on destroying a society's orderly existence.

My argument is a simple one: that the theme of the hostile outsider in the literature of New England is a reflection of a historical reality: the early settlers from the Old World were indeed threatened on all sides.  

At the same time, the motif of the menacing intruder also reflects a psychic reality: fear of the outsider, alarm at the very otherness of the other, has haunted the American unconscious since… well, since the nation had an unconscious. 

One might even be tempted to argue that anxiety about the intruder  is so deeply rooted in the American psyche that it shapes the way the modern United States views much of the world…

This is an adapted version of a lecture given by Dr David Winter on behalf of the Association for Cultural Exchange in New England. 

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