Money: An Introductory Lecture H Nemerov

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Money: An Introductory Lecture by Howard Nemerov This piece is, on the surface, an analysis of the symbols on an Indian head nickel. However, these analyzations can themselves be analyzed for further meaning which subtly attacks the very foundations of America. The nickel itself is a symbol of American modernization and industrialization, representing greed, power, ambition, and expansion. Nemerov starts with the back. He notices first how oppressed and burdened the bison, which is a symbol for nature and the American wilderness in general, appears to be. He is "hunchbacked . . . bending his head and curling his tail," but, as Nemerov implies, this is not simply to make him fit on the coin. It symbolizes how the technology of non-native Americans caused the bison, as a population, to buckle, and, as mentioned in line 33, nearly break, crushed almost to the point of extinction. Indeed, the edges of the nickel appear to be crushing the bison from either end, pressing against its head and rump. The government, Nemerov is saying, feels that nothing must stand in its way. It owns all and has rights to all; even the wild and free-roaming bison are stamped with the bold title, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The bison is also slapped with the motto e pluribus unum ("from many, one"), because the government feels everything must do its part for America. The bison, it is saying, must make sacrifices for the greater good of progress. This is all a hoax according to Nemerov, because most Americans don't even understand the motto. He says e pluribus unum means "an indeterminately large number of things/All of which are the same," meaning that while Americans know the motto has something to do with freedom and the American way, many of them don't really know what it means, and that it actually contributes to the suffering of many who wish to be free within America, such as the bison. The FIVE CENTS written under the bison's feet is to me reminiscent of a price tag. Despite the huge cost to the bison population, the economic gain to the United States through the slaughter of the animals was almost naught. Yet the United States still felt the need to conquer the bison for its own gain. On the other side of the nickel is an American Indian. Nemerov shows the Indian's anonymity by referring to him as "a man with long hair/And a couple of feathers in the hair," instead of a more personal description, and by mentioning that "he wears the number nineteen-thirty-six," implying that he is only identified by number, not by name. This numbering is suggestive of the numbers tattooed on the arms of Jews in Nazi concentration camps, an idea that is reinforced in line 31 when the concentration camps are directly compared to reservations. Nemerov suggests in lines 19 and 20 that the government beckons the Indians with a skewed version of liberty, telling them to live on reservations in the name of peace and freedom. The Indian, though, is smart. He does not acknowledge this poor mock-up of liberty, for "to notice it, indeed, would be shortsighted of him." Instead, he examines his future, and sees that he must fight. Like the bison, the word liberty is "bent/To conform with the curve of the rim," as the idea of liberty has been bent to fit the the designs of the federal government. The Indian realizes that the liberty is not to be his, but is in fact the liberty of the whites who want his land, and their liberty is his oppression. This corruption of liberty is further suggested by Nemerov's mention that it is "falling out of the sky Y first," meaning that liberty is apparently becoming a less and less important value in American society. Perhaps the "Y first" means that no one is even stopping to ask "why" anymore, to question or rebel against anything anymore, as per the "ancient" American tradition. Benjamin Franklin once suggested that instead of e pluribus unum our motto ought to be "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." "What happened to this, the American way?" Nemerov asks. Nemerov goes on to discuss why the symbols are still important as symbols, though as facts they are obsolete. All the remaining Indians' "relations with liberty are maintained with reservations," he says, meaning both that they live on reservations and that they regard America, represented by "liberty," warily and reproachfully. The bison, Nemerov says, is nearly extinct. He then alludes to Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats, in which the poet marvels that while the actual things depicted on the urn are long gone, their images remain unchanged, and their meanings are just as powerfu

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