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The "Delicious" Land
America acted deeply on the Elizabethan English imagination, working its magic in the minds of poets and men of science
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
It is somehow right that, just as Move’s Utopia provides the first expression of genius of the New Wovld in our period, so The Tempest provides the last; that these two transcendent minds should have risen to the full height of the theme. For there is far more of the New World in Shakespeare’s play than the original suggestion from Strachey’s letter: the storm with its veracious details, St. Elmo’s fire (laming amazement along the mainmast; the wveck and not a hair of the people hurt; the enchanted island full of noises, for Bermuda was believed to be haunted by evil spirits. The whole play sings of the sea; the loveliest songs are of the sea:
Not only that, but with the creation of Caliban, the primitive savage, possessor of the island, and his relation to Prospero, the very civili/ed and lordly person who dispossesses him, the whole question of what happens when civilization makes its impact upon primitive society is placed before us in a way we can never forget. Our sympathies arc not with Prospero —and perhaps in the subconscious corridors of the mind we think of what happened to the redskins. There is something deeply affecting about Caliban:
This is what had happened time and again, generation after generation, with tribe after tribe, all along the coasts of America when the Indians came in contact with the white men and their superior knowledge. AVe vead in Hakluyt and Captain Smith with what avidity they learned about the stars and the firmament, watched the white men’s instruments, were impressed by lodestone and magnet, optic glass and clock.
That, too, had often happened—we remember how Squanto showed the Pilgrims where best to take their fish and how to set Indian corn, and enabled them to subsist through the hard first years. In one sense the. Indians were quick to learn; in another, they never learned—the gull’ between their primitive cast of mind and that of the white man was too deep to bridge. And so the red man lost in the struggle for existence. Nor did he profit from his knowledge, in spite of his experiences at the hand of the white man. After Prospero comes the drunken Stephano:
In spite of what he has suffered at the hand of Prospero, Caliban now wants Stephano to be his god:
We are reminded of the native Californians who embarrassed Drake and his men by taking them for gods.
The idea of an original state of nature was to have an important development in political speculation and theorizing about society, and it was given immense impetus what men discovered in the New World. It was brought home vividly to me years ago when I saw John Locke’s library as it had come down in the possession of his representatives: we take it for granted that he was a generalizing and abstract thinker, as he was, but his library was full of the American voyages. There, made visible, was an example of the way early anthropology went into political theory.