Modern Characters in Bruno Lessing’s The Americanization of Shadrach Cohen and Chinua Achebe’s Dead Men’s Path
Modern Characters in Bruno Lessing’s The Americanization of Shadrach Cohen and Chinua Achebe’s Dead Men’s Path
The two short stories under analysis here, Bruno Lessing’s The Americanization of Shadrach Cohen and Chinua Achebe’s Dead Men’s Path both represent the conflict between different cultures, traditions and generations. The main characters in the two stories, Shadrach Cohen in Bruno Lessing’s story and Michael Obi in Chinua Achebe’s narrative, are modern figures who search for identity in a culturally diverse environment.
Both Cohen and Obi are confronted with difference, in the form of a different culture and to a different generation. Despite the briefness of the stories, both characters are constructed as modern figures, whose views are challenged by another culture. As it shall be seen, Shadrach Cohen is a modern character that manages to adapt to a new culture, without losing his own identity.
His experience symbolizes the reconciliation between the old and the new and between the Eastern and the Western worlds. At the opposite pole, Michael Obi tries to impose the new over the old in a radical and intolerant way. His failure is therefore due to his inability to comprehend tradition. Obi adheres to modernity but cannot incorporate tradition in his beliefs.
Thus, Cohen and Obi are modern characters because they struggle to find identity in a world that is increasingly multicultural. The two stories describe the tension between different cultures and the way in which the individual reacts to this conflict. Therefore, both protagonists struggle with fundamental questions of identity and self-definition in a world where tradition meets change and novelty.
The Americanization of Shadrach Cohen tells the story of a father who is Russian Jew and who follows his two sons in America. The opposition between the immigrant father and the “Americanized” sons brings into play the conflict between tradition and modernity, but also that between two cultures.
Abel and Gottlieb had become part of the American culture by relinquishing their own. Significantly, their denial of tradition is revealed through the shame they experience when their father appears as an old-fashioned man, with an untrimmed beard and ruffled clothes.
Having come in contact with the main precepts of the American civilization, the two sons embrace the new world and deny the old one. Their father however resists Americanization: staying true to his religion and traditions, he maintains his old habits in America, including his usual prayer at the meal.
The two sons are dismayed at his behavior, considering themselves the representatives of progress and enlightenment. The disrespect they show to their father is, in fact, the disrespect they have for their own culture and tradition. Abel and Gottlieb are examples of characters that have been completely absorbed by another culture. They are perfectly assimilated into the mainstream American culture, but their integration is due to the vehement rejection of tradition and, implicitly, of their previous identity.
Shadrach Cohen is the silent witness to this radical change in his sons. While, in the beginning, he is also inflexible in his views and only recognizes the values of his own culture and tradition, he gradually grows towards an understanding of the Western civilization.
His reaction to it is radically different from that of his sons: while the two young men believe they have to turn their backs to the past in order to become a part of the future, the old man adopts the new ideas and customs he finds in America, without annihilating his culture and religion. Symbolically, he takes over the business that was previously run by his sons and becomes much more successful than they were.
His achievement is a lesson for them: they understand that their father draws his wisdom from tradition and begin to regard him with deference again. Cohen is therefore a modern character who is faced with the challenge of becoming adjusted to a new culture, despite his old age.
In this context, the title of the short story is deceptive: Shadrach Cohen does not become Americanized, in the full meaning of the word. He becomes adapted to the new culture without giving up his old customs and beliefs. Significantly, the father becomes a much better business man than the sons.
Through his lesson, he shows them that, while remaining truthful to his beliefs, he can be pragmatic as well. Shadrach thus becomes adapted to the American life, without altering his own identity and beliefs: “The charm of American life, of liberty, of democracy, appealed to him strongly. As the field of his business operations widened he came more and more in contact with American business men from whom he learned many things, principally the faculty of adaptability” (Lessing 119).
The only change that does occur in him is that he becomes more tolerant and open-minded than before. The respect he gains from his sons is a symbol of the merits of tradition, in the context of a modern life. Shadrach Cohen is also a modern character because he evolves in the course of the narrative, from a mere immigrant in America, to a well-adjusted and successful business man: “A new life was unfolding itself before his eyes, he became broader-minded, more tolerant, and, above all, more flexible in his tenets” (Lessing 119).
Cohen learns how to become a part of a different culture, without denying his roots. He maintains his habits and his peculiar and old-fashioned appearance, yet he is respected by all those who meet him.
Michael Obi undergoes a similar experience in Chinua Achebe’s Dead Men’s Path. The very brief story focuses on the experiences that Obi has as a headmaster of a school in his country. Characterized as a young and enthusiastic man, the headmaster wants to reform the school and the life of the inhabitants. Arguing for modern teaching, he sees the necessity of reform both in teaching and in the aspect of the school premises:
“Ndume School was backward in every sense of the word. Mr Obi put his whole life into the work, and his wife hers too. He had two aims. A high standard of teaching was insisted upon, and the school compound was to be turned into a place of beauty.
Nancy’s dream-gardens came to life with the coming of the rains, and blossomed. Beautiful hibiscus and allamanda hedges in brilliant red and yellow marked out the carefully tended school compound from the rank neighbourhood bushes” (Achebe 214).
The importance the headmaster attaches to the orderly aspect of the garden that surrounds the school is symbolic. Education is seen therefore as an organizing force, one that eradicates unwanted ideas. The beautiful garden surrounding the school is clearly delimited from the wilderness around it, to symbolize the organizing role of civilization in a society. The real conflict that occurs is however between the modernizing forces symbolized by the headmaster and the people’s perseverance in tradition.
Thus, the school compound obstructs the local people’s path towards the village shrine. The core of traditional beliefs is revealed in the interconnectedness between the past, the present and the future. Thus, the headmaster orders the road to be closed, not only to protect the garden in front of the school, but also to discourage what he sees as superstitions and fantastic beliefs: “Dead men do not require footpaths.
The whole idea is just fantastic. Our duty is to teach your children to laugh at such ideas” (Achebe 215). After he closes the road, a woman dies while delivering a child and the villagers interpret the occurrence as a divine sign. According to them, the continuity between the past and the future has been obstructed by the headmaster’s fences.
The story therefore symbolizes the way in which modern education is likely to interfere with tradition and with the continuity of life from past towards future: “‘Dead Men’s Path’ affirms the existence of an area of transition between the unborn and the dead on the one hand, the living on the other, an area which European education is liable to block” (Séverac 248). As a modern character, Obi fails in his endeavor to civilize the village and eradicate the traditional beliefs inherent in its culture.
It is very hard to discern guilt from innocence in the story. Both parties seem to be right in their own ways, Obi for believing in progress and the old priest for understanding and valuing tradition. According to Killam, Achebe is impartial as a narrator in the story, not taking sides with any of the two conflictive views: “Achebe is impartial here: neither side is supported.
Obi, despite his somewhat frivolous attitude and the seeming paucity of his idealism, is never allowed to explain himself. Nor, on the other hand, does the priest question the validity of the religion he expounds. The force of the story lies in its suggestiveness rather than any explicit statement it makes” (Killam 105).
However, Obi’s behavior is to be analyzed in this context. Like Cohen, he is also confronted with the conflict between tradition and modernity. Unlike him, he does not try to incorporate tradition in his progressive ideas and plans. For him, tradition is limited to the past and should be forgotten and even laughed at, in order to obtain real progress. Cohen’s role is to teach a fundamental lesson to his two sons, regarding tolerance and broadness of mind.
The role of Obi is also an educative one, but he fails precisely because he mocks tradition and disrespects custom. As Lindfors points out, Achebe does take the side of Tradition in the narrative, but only insofar as the voice of tradition is here lenient and pacifying as opposed to that of progress: “Achebe, in other words, was on the side of Tradition here because only that side had the good sense to speak in tolerant and levelheaded terms” (Lindfors 108).
Obi is therefore modern in his aspiration from enlightenment. He is also modern because he is placed in a situation where he is confronted with otherness: he is mediates the conflict between the old and the new. He loses the battle precisely because he denies the values maintained by tradition.
While superstition may be regarded as negative, tradition is also related with man’s complex ties with nature, which are always destroyed by civilization. Both Cohen and Obi are therefore modern figures placed in the middle of a conflict between the old and the new.
Achebe, Chinua. Girls at War and Other Stories. New York: Fawcett, 1987.
Killam, G. D. “The Writings of Chinua Achebe.” The Writings of Chinua Achebe. Heinemann, 1977. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Jean C. Stine and Bridget Broderick. Vol. 26. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.
Lessing, Bruno. Children of Men. New York: Ayer Publishing, 1969.
Lindfors, Bernth. “Chinua Achebe’s Undergraduate Writings.” Comparitistische Hefte. 4.( 1981): 103-116. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Vol. 105. Detroit: Gale, 103-116.
Séverac, Alain. “‘Telling Stories: Postcolonial Short Fiction in English.” Telling Stories: Postcolonial Short Fiction in English. Ed. Jacqueline Bardolph Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001. 241-254.