Meg Boerema: On "Elizabeth Umpstead"

Carl Sandburg’s "Nigger" and "Elizabeth Umpstead" insist upon the insufficiency of type. In "Nigger," the self-conscious repetition of the anonymous and singular "I am the nigger" (emphasis added) mocks the presumed applicability and universality of type, challenging the poem’s evocation of broad racial stereotypes. The poem’s final lines demand the speaker’s particularization and bring the insufficiency of type to a crisis: "I am the nigger./Look at me./I am the nigger" (lines 18-20). The particularized voice of Sandburg’s "Elizabeth Umpstead" realizes the particularity "Nigger" calls for. The poem’s voice is powerfully personal. It attends to Elizabeth’s most private experiences in a voice driven by emotion--"Nobody will say my heart is someway wrong when I assert"--and guided by a private logic--what personal logic motivates the likening of a brass cuspidor, a new horse and buggy, and a swivel chair? It is through this particularized narrative performance that "Elizabeth Umpstead" most successfully resists the racial and gendered objectification and typification that dominate the action of the poem. Though within the poem, racist and sexist ideologies effectively deny Elizabeth her individuality, through the performance of her narrative, Elizabeth reasserts her particularity and resists her objectification and typification.

Within the poem, Elizabeth is a body to be negotiated. The undertaker uses "supply straps to let the box down the lean dirt walls" and the clergymen pronounces, "’Dust to dust and ashes to ashes.’" Living, her body is similarly the sole source of men’s attention--"they wanted to take it and crush it and taste it"--and her resistance to her objectification--"she learned what they wanted and traded on it" and "I slashed his face with a horsewhip"--does little to complicate her purely physical performance within the poem. Elizabeth’s narrative performance, however, resists the objectification of her body. Elizabeth won’t let us look at her. Her body is hidden in a "polished and silver-plated box," and persisting in the erasure of her materiality, she alludes to her body either vaguely, in terms of her "beauty," or metonymically, by referencing her "short dresses." Speaking to us from the grave and effacing her physicality, Elizabeth’s narrative voice works to exceed her body and resist its objectification. Moreover, although Elizabeth won’t show us her body, she will show us its effect upon men: "and men wanted my beauty, white men and black men—they wanted to take it and crush it" and "I learned early, away back in short dresses, when a lawyer took me and used me." Looking back at those who look at her, Elizabeth takes their gaze as her object, denaturalizing its authority. Elizabeth’s narrative erasure of her body then disrupts the economy of physical exchange present in the poem by denying the economy its commodity, her physicality, and its authority, the naturalness of her body’s objectification.

Elizabeth Umpstead’s narrative performance also resists her identification as a racial and sexual type. Although Elizabeth’s identification as an overtly sexual black woman accords with racist and sexist stereotypes of black womanhood, the particularity of her narrative voice denies this stereotype its universality. Her erasure of her body also resists her typification by denying us access to that element of a racial and gendered type: a racially and sexually marked body. Though within the poem Elizabeth performs as other--she is other to the men’s desires and other to the community’s sexual proprieties--the intimacy of her narrative voice resists her othering. Elizabeth’s private and emotional voice invites us into her confidences, and her lack of a body compounds the intimacy of the speaker’s relationship with the reader by disabling physical difference. In so doing, Elizabeth positions herself not as the reader’s exotic other, but as the reader’s intimate friend.

The poem’s narrative performance then resists the racial and sexual oppression that dominates the action of the poem. Though Elizabeth’s attack upon the lawyer is a powerful moment of revolt, its political resistance is limited. It does little to disavow the objectification of her physicality, and by figuring racial and sexual oppression as a personal rather than political conflict--i.e., it is a conflict between Elizabeth and the man she whips--it does little to consider the cultural politics of her oppression. The poem’s greatest political resistance then occurs not within the poem, but through the poem, as it is through the poem’s narrative performance that the poem does its more radical work reconceptualizing racial and sexual power structures.

Copyright 2001 by Meg Boerema

 

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Criticism Overview
Title Meg Boerema: On "Elizabeth Umpstead" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Meg Boerema Criticism Target Carl Sandburg
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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