Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The primary goal of “American Primitive” is to portray tragedy as central to human life, while at the same time lightening the load by using a humorous tone, one that is uniquely American. Smith’s narrator functions within a larger tradition of the self-reliant child, particularly the literary American child who demonstrates a resilience and strength of character equal to even the most difficult of situations. American literature and biography include a mythos of this child as stalwart and vigorous in the face of many tumultuous events—including those resulting from the Civil War, frontier settlement, the Great Depression, and so on.

Although “American Primitive” borrows from a childhood incident in the poet’s life, the ballad quality of the poem derives from its portrait of the personal in the context of the societal. In this case, members of the crowd react to the suicide, expressing the emotions the child narrator rejects—women swoon and children cry out. While discovering a father’s suicide is not a common childhood experience, the loss of innocence is.

It should be noted that the poem is not entirely autobiographical—Smith’s father did not commit suicide. Smith writes in his autobiography Army Brat: A Memoir (1980) of a time when his father, a man whose gambling regularly disturbed the peace and security of his family, stayed out all night after payday. Having searched the local hangouts for him...

(The entire section is 464 words.)