Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Erica Hunt’s book explores the relationship between domestic life and a social world, between a putative “self” and an “other,” all in the context of the various layers of “history.” As the title, Local History, suggests, Hunt is interested in reminding her readers that there have always been multiple histories and that these histories overlap and intersect one another. Thus, the first section of the book, “Local History,” hints at not only the daily events and thoughts of a narrator negotiating her way through a personal life but also delineates what this narrator thinks about the United States, homelessness, war, and other public issues. The second section, “Correspondence Theory,” is constructed of a series of subsections alternating between “Dear” and “Dear Dear.” It uses the normally intimate epistolary form to explore issues of sociality, labor, unemployment, and politics. At the same time, Hunt does not neglect apparently personal issues related to one-on-one relationships, though she notes in passing that “in English there are more words referring to external objects than there are words to refer to internal ones. . . .”

The last section, “Surplus,” whose opening, eponymous poem lays out all the problems of binarism (such as self versus other and self-awareness versus socialization), relates these oppositions to the unknown, what lies “between” or “outside” concepts of a knowable self and a “blank” other: “Surplus equals the bystander beside her own accumulated memory.” She writes in the very first sentence of this poem, “Equals the difference between beginning to wake up and beginning the day.” That is to say, what remains beneath or beyond consciousness, what cannot be recalled, is for Hunt precisely what orients “normal” daily life (several of the “Dear” and “Dear Dear” poems in the second section deal with forgetting, memory lapses, on so forth). In some sense, then, Hunt is faithful to traditional psychoanalysis, which emphasizes the significance of the unconscious in the formation of identity and social life.