Layers of Reality: Exploring the Mental Landscape via the Voices of Lincoln, Dickinson, Poole, and Melville


For millennia, language has served humanity as a bridge from one great mind to another. The channel opened by such meaningful discourse surpasses the faculties of all other animals and grants endowment of the title, homo-sapiens-sapiens — man who thinks about thinking. It is within this capacity that the human species operates, building a layered world rich in meaning that informs man’s performance upon the stage of life. Crafting the experiences of today and speaking forth the architecture of tomorrow depends upon symbolic foundations presiding from the past. As Lincoln speaks life into a national entity in his Gettysburg Address, Dickinson explores the malleability of that perceived life in her poetry, and as Irish-American immigrant John Poole chants the myth of systematic victimization which shapes identity in “No Irish Need Apply,” Melville reveals the masks that can manifest in response to man’s constructs in his “Benito Cereno”. While each voice crafts — and is crafted with — a distinct perspective, the underlying reality of man’s existence within the mind is exposed. The early American prose of Lincoln, Dickinson, Poole, and Melville illuminates the power of voice, revealing that the human world consists of parallel realities, each augmented by the lens of myth, to produce the three dimensional perspective within which a collective humanity endures.

Speaking life into the American proposition, Abraham Lincoln’s legendary “Gettysburg Address” celebrates the conception, life, death, and rebirth of a national identity. In the year of 1776, what had previously existed in the imagination of early pioneers became reality: “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Lincoln 738). Four-score and seven years later, America’s sixteenth president was appointed the task of commemoration for the fallen in the struggle to sustain that very nation’s self-actualization. He reminded the world of government’s most intimate reality: its formation of, by, and for the people. Government is in its essence, the manifestation of human ideas on how reality ought to be framed for a peoples to interact within.

As an intellectual force, humanity is not content with being subject to the whims of nature and has endeavored to use imagination and hard work to build civilizations. In this spirit, peoples form governments to aid in the mutual goal of self-preservation and advancement. Adapting the environment to mankind’s imagination, symbols of meaning are developed to become cornerstones of civilization. The round table, a feathered pen, the gavel, and the microphone are all manifested ideas uniquely real and significant within the human mind. It is in this richly symbolic vein that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” (Lincoln 738). Mankind lives in myth — in the belief that one’s surroundings are beyond mundane and that interactions between fellow citizens, as well as voices separated only by time, are meaningful to humans.

Nineteenth century contemplative poet Emily Dickinson eloquently condenses the world into the mind’s perceived reality, as she proclaims that “The Brain is deeper than the sea” (line 5). Dickinson’s poem number 598 dives into that thought: “For- hold them – Blue to Blue – / The one the other will absorb / As sponges – Buckets – do” (6-8). The brain is capable of absorbing the idea of the sea and transporting that idea wherever one pleases. Within her simple illustration, Dickinson reveals the considerable expanse the human mind shapes and wields. Not only can the “Brain” absorb the sea and contain the sky, but in developing models of the world, it can create its own platform for perceiving reality. In an article addressing the brain in relation to Dickinson’s insights, Stanford biology graduate and philosopher Dr. Grobstein asserts that the nervous system is an “exploratory device . . .continually building and revising models of the world” (Grobstein). A meaningful model of the world is envisaged, becoming the infrastructure for consciousness. Further, this diction includes an understanding of the self within that model. Dickinson’s verse illustrates this in the beginning of poem 598:

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –

For – put them side by side –

The one the other will contain

With ease – and You – beside – (1-4)

More than the sky, the brain can contain one’s very identity with ease. Thus, “You” live within a conceptualized world of “You[r]” own (4). Dr. Grobstein goes on to note the “distinctive individuality” that creates these models and maintains an “internal organization that continually promotes their creation and evaluation” (Grobstein). This reality is ever adapting and it collaborates with other realities via the channel of voice.

As voice manifests into rhyme, it wields an inspiring power to shape the reality of those who join the chant, as can be seen in Irish-American John Poole’s song “No Irish Need Apply”. The song depicts an Irish-American immigrant man disgusted by a job posting that includes the phrase “No Irish Need Apply” (Poole). The speaker finds the offender in his office reading the Tribune, expresses the desire to “black his eye” and goes on to beat up the “ould chap” who apologizes and rescinds his offensive policy. Articulating a strong anti-oppression spirit, the song found its homage within the tavern walls of a working-class America. However, the reality of the signs described is disputable, implicating a symbolic tone as providing fuel for the song more than actual accounts of the widespread humiliation such signs would pose. Retired University of Illinois history professor, Richard Jensen notes in his article “No Irish Need Apply: A Myth of Victimization” that in regards to any evidence of the use of this slogan against Irish workers in America, the “newspapers and magazines are silent. The courts are silent” and any proven instances of discrimination against Irish men in the workforce are “rare” (Jensen). Nevertheless, the signs were ingrained in the Irish-American psyche, erected within a mental Irish-American landscape.

With roots in Europe’s aversion to Irish-Catholicism, John Poole’s song most likely derived its slogan from an earlier female-maid version in London, where the Protestant domestic sphere verbalized its fear of inviting the “other” into the home. Irish immigrants destined for America packed up their models of a discriminatory world, sailed the Atlantic Ocean, and unloaded their identity in the New World. In doing so, the subconscious identity and resentment of being victimized was carried over, ready to manifest into the myth of a systemic American “No Irish Need Apply” or “NINA” policy. Ironically, the voice in Poole’s prose gives life to an underlying nativist concern: that of the immigrants’ so called pre-modern traits indicated by a short-temper that resorts to violence. Although such a characteristic has its roots within all cultures, its presentation within the song in some respects served to perpetuate any privately held aversion to the Irish immigrants, creating the atmosphere for a self-fulfilling prophecy. NINA became a symbol of injustice and the song perpetuated a rallying cry for confrontation, which came to fruition in the anti-draft riots of the Civil War. The American history textbook, “Liberty, Equality, Power” explains that white workers, and particularly a large Irish-American population, read the Democratic newspapers which proclaimed “the draft would force them to fight a war to free the slaves, who would then come north to take their jobs” (Murrin 601). In this light, the picture of an anarchist, fighting spirit which sings proud in Poole’s “No Irish Need Apply” is given further dimension, as a competition between “victim” cultures and scramble for livelihood is illuminated.

Although the oppression purported by American NINA signs is most likely the product of exaggeration, the question is not whether the Irish were indeed discriminated against — the American human-experiment consisted of an unavoidable xenophobia from all perspectives; rather, the issue is how identity becomes reduced to a mental model of reality. David Wilson argues against the use of “exceptionalism and essentialism” in his publication appearing in the Cambridge Press, entitled “Whiteness and Irish Experience in North America”, comparing the struggle found in analyzing the Irish experience to that of playing “multidimensional chess.” Wilson asserts that the argument of Irish oppression “oversimplifies a rather more complicated reality” — one which involves the construction of race. Navigating the challenges set before new immigrants in a budding vista, constructing an identity becomes essential to one’s relationship with the environment and social mobility within the perceived structures in place. The Irish-Americans underwent a metamorphosis to become “white” as some critics term it (Ignatiev). But more complicated than the arbitrary perception of color which such denotation implies, this construct was a mindset: a pact which granted admission to this perceived “American” club.

The very question of what it means to be American is something shaped by internally held beliefs. When met with the age-old element of nativist xenophobia, the Irish reply was that to be American was an “act of ideological will rather than an accident of birth”, and in a more rallying spirit of camaraderie, it was purported as being “democratic, republican, and anti-British” (Wilson). Thus, the question of who possesses the “American” identity becomes one answered in the mind of each inquired. Even the idea of the rebel is more complicated than the offended immigrant blacking the eye of Tribune subscription keepers. While in one light the rebel personality could be the Irishmen, in anarchy calling to arms against the oppressive NINA perpetrators, in another light the Catholic-Irish claimed that the Protestants of America were the rebels. Wilson notes the Irish argument that Catholicism “provided authority and discipline as a counterweight to the anarchistic tendencies of a Protestant democracy”. Indeed, the perspective realities run parallel, finding meaning through an interpretation of history and the belief in certain identities within a dynamic world.

Humanity believes in society, where meaning is derived from formerly established structures, and the way in which humanity perceives it through the lens of structure is depicted masterfully within Herman Melville’s short story, “Benito Cereno”. Following the third person gaze of Captain Delano, readers board the weathered and eerie ship called the “San Dominick,” spotted off the coast of a remote island, ready to offer help and uncover its story. Delano is depicted as a man having a “singularly undistrustful good nature”, though it becomes hard for him to ignore the suspiciously reserved and disturbed demeanor of the San Dominick’s Spanish captain and apparent slave-master Don Benito Cereno (1526). Observing the large proportion of Africans walking the ship in comparison to the few Spaniards who survived the fabled scurvy, Delano focuses all of his attention on the man he believes is in control of the situation, continually formulating fleeting ideas about Benito’s possible ineptness or tyranny. He meanwhile sees the Africans aboard the ship as “raw” savages and paints a static face of faithfulness upon the domesticated African servant, Babo, who is ever at Benito’s side — comparing him to a faithful Newfoundland (1556). As he systematically reduces the African characters and vests interest in the strangely quiet Don Benito, whom is observed as being of the “shrewder race”, readers are guided through a hierarchy of observations, all of which are vying for attention within Delano’s mind (1549).

Melville successfully constructs the perfect illusion of attuned perception, only to shock the audience and bring awareness to the self-imposed, limiting boxes that often contain one’s imagination. Thinking that Don Benito Cereno may be contriving the master plans of an evil genius, Delano is both alarmed and immediately vindicated in his uncharacteristic suspicions, as he is followed over the side of the San Dominick, and onto the deck of Delano’s ship, by Don Benito. Believing Don Benito is attempting to stir his crew and slaves to action by appearing kidnapped, Delano wrestles Don Benito to the ground, but soon realizes that he has been wrestling with the wrong mastermind — for Babo follows with a dagger pointed at Don Benito Cereno’s heart. It was the Africans who, following an uprising, were in control of the ship.

The simple fact that Delano ignores environmental cues, in favor of what he believes to be the most logical situation aboard the ship, demonstrates his utter belief in his assumptions about society. He is not simply “undistrustful” in nature, but rather, has a secure and singular trust in the structures of society, allowing Melville to reveal the way in which myth can shape the reality one operates within. The depicted ship bends to Delano’s perceptions as he walks the deck, manifesting into the reality he wants to see. Knowing this power of biased perception, the actual mastermind Babo orchestrates the appearances of a ship that follows the society’s expectations, removing all suspicions from befalling himself during the course of the charade. By catching the audience by surprise, Melville allows for the development of “schemes” to appear as something that only a master race would devise and thus, in attributing the scheming to Babo and the fellow Africans, it becomes clear that all men are of the same capacity — whether of good or bad intention. Identity is not always synonymous with the masks of expectation or the static attributes assigned to a group; identity and the world it lives in are of a more improvised nature than is often credited.  Thus, humanity can on occasion be misled by the “symbols” constructed without constant and honest feedback.

Due to the system of marginalization, the characters aboard the San Dominick are voiceless, and it is in the absence of their voice that reality becomes skewed. Prior to realizing the true nature of the ship, Delano comments on the obvious loss of crew-mates and how disorienting a storm and illness must have passed, to which Don Benito Cereno replies, “Past all speech” (1554). Don Benito’s forced silence on the elements at play serves to reveal the silenced status that has been perpetuated against the African slaves throughout their plight. Neither the Spaniards nor the Africans could speak about the reality aboard the ship, for they found themselves slave to a structure, the very structure that Delano operates within. Their relationship is embodied in the puzzling “knot” Delano witnesses a Spanish crewman tying, the purpose for which the Spaniard replies is for “someone else to undo” (1550). Due to the voiceless nature of these men caught in the throngs of an absent freewill, Delano’s reality is thus misinformed and he misses the “multidimensional” aspect of the ship’s circumstances. His reason for perceiving the ship the way that he does, one with an unquestionable master-slave hierarchy is not without cause though. While it reveals his inner racism, it also attests to the parallel worlds that existed at the time, where a Spaniard may in one instance be a maligning slave-master, and in the next, the victim of that very same subjugating machine. Reading through Melville’s story a second time, with the veil of expectation removed, allows for a whole new experience in perceiving the activities aboard the San Dominick.

Dickinson’s famous “certain slant of light” in her poem 320 beckons readers to consider humanity’s perceptive capacity. She professes her belief in a certain slant of light that gives us “Heavenly Hurt”, although “We can find no scar, / But internal difference – / Where the Meanings, are-” (5-9). As light reveals reality, this certain slant of light is a perception. It “gives us” hurt, while it moves something inside of the individual. The perception is “Sent us of the Air / [and] when it comes, the Landscape listens” (11-12). Perception informs the ever evolving construction of one’s landscape — the landscape of the soul and model in the mind. Just as color is interpreted and given meaning only within the brain in response to perceived wave frequencies of light, the significance attached to the world is interpreted within the “certain slant of light” that informs. Dickinson’s use of the word “slant” can be better understood when observing its meaning within her poem number 1263:

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant –

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind – (1-8)

Humans are not omniscient. To know everything at once would be overwhelming, possibly beyond the brain’s scope and perhaps an ability reserved for the “Species” beyond, which Dickinson plays with in her poem 373 that begins, “The World is not Conclusion” (1). Therefore, as characters with a perception limited to the senses, each mind can see only a “slant” of the truth. Essentially, readers see that “slant” as the perspective gaze one meets the world with.

As citizens of humanity endowed with equal “Liberty”, it is each man and woman’s prerogative to develop perspective throughout life. Together, the perspectives prod and explore a mutual society, one shared by voices like Lincoln, Dickinson, Poole, and Melville. The success of this pact is based on the simple fact that society is about belief: mankind believes in its organization, believes in its monetary exchanges and believes in the use of language to both document and shape its realities. Society works because each member contributes and thus it becomes real for each. But this belief fails when one segment becomes voiceless, for it loses that side of the 3-dimensional existence and reality can no longer be seen from that perspective. It is only through consideration of all voices, the shapers, the soft, the new and the loud, that the perspective “slant[s]” of each voice can build a three dimensional landscape, within which parallel realities of the American experience endures.




Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “320”, “373”, “598”, “1263.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Eds Nina Baym et al. Vol B. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 1672-1696. Print.

Grobstein, Paul. “The Brain’s Images: Co-Constructing Reality and Self.” Serendip. Bryn Mawr College, May 2002. Web. 21 July 2015.

Ignatiew, Noel. Interview. Z Magazine March 1997.

Jensen, Richard. “‘No Irish Need Apply’: A Myth of Victimization.” Journal of Social History 36.2 (2002): 405-429. Web. 18 July 2015

Lincoln, Abraham. “Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetary at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Eds Nina Baym et al. Vol B. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 738. Print.

Melville, Herman. “Benito Cereno.” The Norton Anthology American Literature. Eds Nina Baym et al. Vol B. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 1526-1582. Print.

Murrin, John, Paul Johnson, James McPherson, Alice Fahs, Gary Gerstle, Emily Rosenberg, and Norman Rosenberg, eds. Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People. Boston: Wadsworth. 2008. 600-602. Print.

Poole, John. “No Irish Need Apply.” US Library of Congress. Ed. H. De Marsan. 18 July 2015.

Wilson, David. “Comment: Whiteness and Irish Experience in North America.” Journal of British Studies. Vol. 44.1 (2005): 153-160. J-STOR. 21 July 2015.


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