She Eats Writers Like Part of a Complete Breakfast

More

Jane Awesome running the voodoo down: 


Mrs. Jennings was a widow, with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but marry all the rest of the world. In the promotion of this object, she was zealously active, as far as her ability reached, and missed no opportunity of projecting weddings among all the young people of her acquaintance. She was remarkably quick in the discovery of attachments, and had enjoyed the advantage of raising the blushes and the vanity of many a young lady by insinuations of her power over such a young man; and this kind of discernment enabled her soon after her arrival at Barton decisively to pronounce that Colonel Brandon was very much in love with Marianne Dashwood. 

She rather suspected it to be so, on the very first evening of their being together, from his listening so attentively while she sang to them; and when the visit was returned by the Middletons dining at the cottage, the fact was ascertained by his listening to her again. It must be so. She was perfectly convinced of it. It would be an excellent match, for he was rich and she was handsome. Mrs. Jennings had been anxious to see Colonel Brandon well married, ever since her connection with Sir John first brought him to her knowledge; and she was always anxious to get a good husband for every pretty girl. 

The immediate advantage to herself was by no means inconsiderable, for it supplied her with endless jokes against them both. At the Park she laughed at the colonel, and in the cottage at Marianne. To the former her raillery was probably, as far as it regarded only himself, perfectly indifferent; but to the latter it was at first incomprehensible; and when its object was understood, she hardly knew whether most to laugh at its absurdity, or censure its impertinence, for she considered it as an unfeeling reflection on the colonel's advanced years, and on his forlorn condition as an old bachelor.

I read these sentences on Saturday, and I've been thinking about my attraction to them, and to Austen in general since then. I've said this before, but it's funny how often it comes back to me—the whole of my  aesthetic was shaped by Golden Age hip-hop. 

One of the delights of Austen is how she employs the polite language of the gentry to describe people who really are not. "In promotion of this object, she was zealously active...." "The immediate advantage to herself was by no means inconsiderable..."  "The distinction was, perhaps, felt too strongly..." But the fact is the high language is belied by the invariably low behavior of many of her characters. I don't know enough about Austen to say whether this is her intent or not, but it's the way I read it—a dissonance between form and content. Is there really anything, ultimately, ladylike about Lady Van der Burgh?

Likewise, rappers have this way of using regal language to describe thuggish behavior. So in lieu of introducing a story where the protagonist will rob and kill drug dealers, Biggie gives us a corporate and officious beginning: "Today's agenda..." he instructs us. The antagonists are not thugs, they are "henchmen" and should our hero fail, he's not told that his brains will be splattered over the payment, but oh so gently gently, "your life is on the shelf." The hero's compatriot is a man who "chose not the moves wisely." A gentleman of the highest honor he "vanished\Came back speaking Spanish\Lavish habits, three rings, twenty karats." And in noting his resolve, the hero assures as that retreat is "not in my protocol"

Or take "Friend of Foe," which is positively genteel. Attempting to intimidate a drug dealer Jay kindly instructs him not just in the drug trade, but in manners:

Your twitching, don't do that. You're making me nervous.
My crew, well they do pack. Them dudes is murderers. 
So please, would you, put your hand back in sight?
They don't like to see me nervous, you can understand that right?
You draw, better be Picasso. You know, the best.
Because if this is not so, eh, God Bless.
You leave me no choice. I leave you no voice...

The point here is not to draw a rather narrow comparison between Jane Awesome and hip-hop, but to say that I'm always amazed at how human, normal, and natural the literature of hip-hop ultimately is. Like much of Austen's work, rappers are obsessed with the come up, with getting put on. For Austen it's marriage. For rappers it's often drugs and/or guns. And in both there's this ironic appropriation of the manners, language and customs of the very class to which they aspire.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In