The following is a paper I wrote for a course at the University of California Riverside. The Course centered around the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, and more specifically, his magnum opus, The Canterbury Tales. For this paper, we were asked to either do a straightforward analytical essay or were also given the option to write a creative piece that did its best to emulate The Canterbury Tales and after writing, explain what it’s connection to the story was. As you ‘ll find if you choose to continue reading, I chose the second option.
America in One Paper
It was a modern-day pilgrimage. One that started on computer screens in homes across the country via online surveys that asked questions like, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you with the way the president is running the country?”. From there, NORC at the University of Chicago gathered Americans filling those online surveys out and invited them to “America in One Room”. The New York Times Writers Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy wrote an article on the event saying NORC hoped to bring Americans from all over the country to form a group “representative of registered voters by age, race, gender, educational attainment and geography” (Badger, Quealy). All those people, physical manifestations of America’s melting pot, were flown to Dallas Fort Worth, Texas and given all expense paid stays at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center for four days. From Thursday to Sunday Afternoon, the 527 guests would be broken into small groups and asked to have a discourse on issues they voted (in the before mentioned surveys) to be the biggest issues facing the country heading into the 2020 presidential election. Among the topics discussed were foreign relations, climate change, higher education, healthcare and the economy/taxes. Groups were encouraged by the moderators that led discussions, to be as open and honest as they could be when discussing these issues while maintaining a level of respect and open-mindedness in listening to everyone else in their group. With recorders sitting across conference room tables, the groups of representatives for different parts of the country and different rungs of social and economic ladders, began their civil discourse. In deluxe suite 9125 of the Gaylord Texan, the outspoken members of group 39 would practice “civil discourse” and amongst them, a student would listen actively and attempt to understand in a deeper way, the people of Group 39 and who they were on this pilgrimage to Texas.
The Nuclear Scientist
“Well if I’m being frank, that’s Bullshit.”
It was Thursday night, and amid introductions, the Nuclear Scientist said this, announcing himself without having to do so, as outspoken and unafraid of any conflict that might arise over the course of the weekend. The Scientist had a habit of looking someone in the eyes whenever he felt the need to be bold in his argument. His piercing blue eyes peered through the lenses of his glasses, lenses that would sit above his red cheeks and below his white hair. When he wasn’t arguing with someone directly, he would stare blankly at the table in front of him and cross his short but large arms in front of his barrel shaped torso. When he did this, The Student across the table would watch and imagine The Scientist doing mental mathematics or placing imaginary weight on either side of Lady Justice’s scales as he formulated arguments and responses anchored in fact and legal precedent. The group would go off on a tangent and very subtly, he’d let out a sigh, uncross his arms and say in one specific situation, “Well, does anyone know exactly what the DACA policy actually says and what the loopholes are? Because to my understanding this is legal and that is not if we’re going by what’s actually written in the policy”. He’d scan the room and wait for anyone to respond and when they did, he’d point that piercing stare at them and smack pathos-based arguments away like flies, he’d reiterating after, that what he was there to discuss
, was policy and law and not how those things could be manipulated to make people happy, but to make policies effective and beneficial for the biggest portion of the country possible. All in all, it was evident that The Scientist was a man or rules and law, focusing and being well educated on the specifics of what these national issues are and how they present themselves on paper.
The Mother was the antithesis to The Scientist. While he was confident in his assertions, she would almost always begin her comments with a statement like “Well, I’m clueless and don’t know anything about anything but…”. And for every carefully calculated argument The Scientist made, The Mother would go on an impulsive rant that seldom answered any question about the chaos that was (and is) American politics. In the heat of a discussion about immigration she raised her hand timidly and talked about how one thing she could be sure of, was that the president was an honest man, and that he was a real go getter who said and did things the way he wanted to do them. She respected him for that. The Mother would then admit to not knowing anything about policy, but that in her heart and soul she felt she had to say what she had just said. After that, she’d continue and talk about how she was Mexican, a stay at home mom who where she was from (Idaho) people would look at her like a psychopath for admitting her admiration of the president. The room would go silent after such remarks before the moderator would pull the conversation back to the topic at hand and this would happen plenty times over the course of the weekend. The Mother was a wide built woman with a round face. She wore beautiful floral dresses that popped with color like the red of her lipstick and turquoise of her jewelry. The colors of her clothes and accessories did well to draw attention away from the gray of her curly hair. The grey of her hair suited her however, and it even brought comfort to The Student, who she’d talk to during breakfast and dinners like he was of her own kin. “So, you’re going to school?” she’d ask, and when he’d say yes, she’d follow with “Oh, that’s very good mijo, it’s that you go to school and get a good job”. In all her tangents, it became clear that above all, she wanted to show everyone that what she valued most was family, love, and God.
The Wife of Preacher
The Mother did have an ally in Faith though, and that ally was The Wife of Preacher from Colorado. In all the ramblings of The Mother, there was one that really struck a chord with The Wife of Preacher. While discussing climate change, The Mother questioned the role of God in the deterioration of the planet. To this, the Wife of Preacher, who had for the most part been quiet up until this point, raised her hand and looked and everyone around the conference table as if to make a non-verbal agreement with each and every one of them that it was her turn to speak. She did this because in her old age and frail state, to raise her voice and demand the attention of the room seemed like a monumental task. And when everyone stopped to give her their attention she began to speak about the possibility of just accepting the fact that the world was going to do whatever it was going to do, not because of its own will or even that of its inhabitants but because of the will of God. “If this is a decision made by God, the end times that is talked about in the bible, there is nothing that we can do in order to prevent that and people need to respect that,” she said, the room becoming quiet. Everyone did their best to process what had just been said and The Mother even nodded her head and whispered “Amen”. With that one statement, The Wife of Preacher made one thing evident, that with all the political noise that existed in the room, conversations about tariffs and taxes, that for her, the only true opinion that mattered was not an opinion at all, but a fact of religion. Her gray curly hair and the walker behind her chair made it so that everyone in the room did not contest, believing that her words were the words of an elder who had no intentions of budging on her devout faith.
The Tax Professional
Equal parts well versed in taxes as he was overindulgent with his late-night festivities, the Tax Professional was one person in the meeting room and another out of it. When he spoke amongst the group, he would give detailed explanations about tax percentages and what they meant for the rich, how they’d affect the poor and vise-versa. In group sessions he wore a button up shirt and tie that screamed business but rolled up his sleeves in a footnote that said casual. His hair and beard were kempt and well maintained and although he did his best to keep a respectable demeanor, you’d be hard-pressed to find him doing anything but having a good time when he wasn’t talking about tax brackets and the wealth distribution of the nation’s economy. At night, he would linger around the resort’s bars and outdoor areas and invite familiar faces to sit down and have a drink with him. For The Tax Professional, who American’s were while enjoying a beer or eating hot wings was just as important as who they were in a boardroom or in a voter’s box. That amnesty and search for fun however, was possibly overstretched when on the final night of the convention, The Tax Professional found himself drunk and getting into bed at 4 A.M in the morning, with Group 39’s final meeting being only four hours later at 8 A.M. He would sleep through most of that final meeting but still manage to give his final thoughts on the economy and the country’s overwhelming debt.
After the Tax Professional’s final words, The Student, gave one final speech to his group on Sunday morning that summed up who he was as a voice that weekend. It seemed to the student that everybody in the room, despite where they were from or how old they were, could all agree that there were very real problems that were beyond anybody in the room to fix and tried to express that in the most literary way he knew how. He used metaphors like one where the country was a house that was on fire, and that the coordinators of the event were in a sense, asking bystanders what it is they should do about a fire that was all but doomed and impossible to extinguish. Regardless, he praised the group for being so welcoming to one another and went on to continue his metaphors of black, white, and all the gray space in between in which he believed a majority of Americans lived in; although majority was falsely presented otherwise on evening news. He wanted everyone to be friends, regardless of their political views and tried to argued as eloquently as he could. He’d hoped to gain some respect if only for his believed intelligence. The Student’s youth made it hard for him to demand respect from the room. Ripped jeans and casual t-shirts did nothing to help his cause and when he spoke, he could feel the older people in the room stare as if he was a child masquerading as an adult. He was afraid of conflict and didn’t do very well when challenged. Growing up and living amongst the lower class, he felt everyone else the room had an upper hand and because of this, his cowardice showed through his pleas for common ground where at times there didn’t seem to be any. At the end of the weekend he came to the conclusion that to be an active and contributing member of this country, what Americans could do, is be well informed and literate when it came to political issues. From Thursday to Sunday he remained in his “gray area” but grew through a deeper understanding of the different shades of American gray.
The Modern Pilgrims
Coming from all over the country, this story is like the Canterbury tales because of the difference in lives led by the people in Group 39. The issues being discussed offer a look at America in 2020 in the same way The Canterbury Tales aimed to put Medieval England on display. Group 39 members then, take on adapted roles of Chaucer’s Pilgrims.
The Nuclear Scientist like The Man of Law, finds himself grounded in the knowledge of written documents and what they mean for the issues at hand. In The General Prologue, Chaucer writes of The Man of Law, “So that no one could find a flaw in his writing; And he knew every statute by heart” (326-327). In the same way, The Nuclear Scientist calls back to the written word of law when formulating his arguments which he aims to craft without flaw.
As confused as The Squire seems to be in telling his tell, so was The Mother when in conversation with her group. She bounces around idea to idea and fails to add to the productive discourse. The Squire is the same in the Canterbury tales, saying he will share the story of Cambyuskan (Squires Tale,661), then of Algarsif (663), and finally before being interrupted, he also says he will speak of Cambalo (667). The Franklin, like the Moderator of Group 39, interrupts and pulls the conversation back and away from The Squire.
Like the Wife of Preacher, The Prioress makes it very clear to those around her that she is a woman of God. Spending her entire prologue in a dialogue that heaps praise unto God, she draws on her religion to guide her through her story as The Wife of Preacher uses her faith to formulate her argument on what can be done about climate change.
The Tax Professional is just as well versed in taxes as the Franklin (GP, 359) and is just as indulgent. Chaucer writes of The Franklin, “He well loved a bit of bread dipped in wine in the morning; / His custom was always to live in delight,”. The Tax Professional skips the bread and goes straight to the wine but all in the same he does so out of a search for joy in the fine things of life. They both exist in a constant back and forth of profession and indulgent camaraderie.
Lost in a daze of scholarly virtue and knowledge, both The Student and The Franklin value their every word, as well as the philosophy that gives shape to their arguments. The Student, in a similar financial situation as The Clerk, finds himself above all else, glad to learn and glad to teach (GP, 308).
Information gather for, and cited in this post (paper) came from:
Chaucer, Geoffrey, et al. The Norton Chaucer: the Canterbury Tales. W.W. Norton & Company, 2020.