C.N.P Poetry 

  • Cathexis Northwest Press

The Politics of Storytelling: Narrative Bias in Maurice Manning’s The Common Man

By: Connor Bjotvedt


Maurice Manning’s The Common Man presents itself, unapologetically, as Manning’s

own, idealized, historical narrative of the Appalachian landscape and its inhabitants. Manning

dedicates the collection, “. . . to the memory of [his] grandmothers, who told [him] stories, and to

the Kentucky mountains, which made those stories happen.” Through the specificity of person

and place found within the dedication, Manning conveys his expectation for the reader to

understand the proceeding work as a loving homage to the world that was constructed for him as

a child. Manning implies that the focus of the work is to construct a sensationalized narrative

comparable to his grandmothers’ stories. To fulfill this intention, the poems within the collection

consist of developmental images of the Appalachian landscape and its people and to further

parallel the storyteller role they are communicated to the reader through a first-person speaker.

Ultimately, the goal behind the collection is to present the reader with the scenes and characters

that comprise a contrived version of the Appalachian landscape which attempts to reexplore the

examples of cultural narrative that Manning was presented with in his grandmothers’ stories.

Without doubt, Maurice Manning’s focus within The Common Man is to present the reader with

his personal understanding of the culture of Appalachia, which he demonstrates through a string

of emblematic narratives which are filtered to the reader through the collection’s biased, first-

person speaker.


Finding the truth or the complete truth within a work of literature forces the reader to

look beyond the narrator and the narrative to imagine the larger landscape and its themes which

the speaker or narrative is unable to fully present the reader. The speaker and the narrative’s

inability to fully explore the greater landscape and its populations is not because the two are

apathetic to do so but it is because the complete exploration of every detail and person present in

the landscape is not conducive to the formation of purposeful narrative. A narrative that doddles

and touches on every facet of the world that it creates does not allow the work to formally

progress through its narrative arc. So, the work, to progress through its narrative arc, must form

an operating bias which it will use to deem what information is appropriate or what contributes

purposefully towards the work’s conclusion. In the case of The Common Man Manning chooses

his speaker to inhabit the role of the collection’s operating bias.

Manning selects his speaker to embody the work’s bias and because of this, the poems

within the collection are presented to the reader as a litany of personal stories about Appalachia.

The stories provide the reader with a single perspective and a single personal history but do not

present the reader with a culturally accurate depiction of Appalachia. Realistically, the poems are

meant to explore Manning’s emblematic Appalachia—Manning’s pure Appalachia. The poems

are meant to showcase the humorous or the sophomoric and are meant to entertain the reader—

not educate the reader. Manning defends this reading through his admission that the work is

meant to pay homage to his grandmothers’ stories and defends the speaker’s embodiment of the

work’s operating bias via his attempt to emulate his grandmothers’ original storyteller roles.

Manning’s desire to pay homage to his grandmothers, and to the Appalachian people,

forces The Common Man to imply that it is a complete rendition of the two. The collection, via

this implication, is therefore ushered to claim that the poems found within it will communicate

the objective characteristics of Appalachia. However, this blanketed desire to claim that the

collection represents an objective image of Appalachia leads it towards the formation of a biased,

strategic, discretion within its poems. The utilization of this strategic discretion ultimately allows

the speaker to emphasize the material which he finds meaningful or otherwise imperative to

understand the specific cultural narrative which he subjectively constructs throughout the course

of the collection.

The speaker abuses the reader’s trust to achieve his goal of accuracy within the

collection’s personalized rendition of Appalachia. The sidelined support he receives from his

selection as the collection’s bias allows the speaker to abuse his perspective and submit to the

reader a selection of embellished narratives which he believes best represent his version of

Appalachia. The speaker designs the collection around the qualities of Appalachian life which he

believes best represent the culture and history that he wants to present and not pieces which

represent the true history of Appalachia. To look briefly at a similar piece of literature, the novel,

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, presents the reader with a biased narrative similar to

The Common Man. The novel’s speaker Nick Carraway presents the reader with his personal

accounts and memories to elegize the life of James Gatz and explore the social attitudes of New

York City during the 1920’s. To achieve these goals Carraway provides the reader with his

version of events and abuses the reader’s trust by his attempt to retell the story as accurately as

possible.

The Great Gatsby begins with a chapter length introduction of the 1920’s by Nick

Carraway. Yet before he begins discussing the culture, the history, or even the novel’s narrative,

he confronts the reader with a short, rhetorical, observation of his own bias. The bias he

describes will both influence the body of the novel and the novel’s end by controlling the novel’s

moral opinion and the dissemination information within the novel. In the introduction: Carraway

identifies himself as the speaker of the novel, he explains the bias that he will demonstrate in the

novel, and then admits to the reader that the bias, which he will employ, has a personal, moral,

limit. Carraway seeks to demonstrate to the reader that he can be trusted as a reliable source of

information within the novel. Carraway, through his direct admission of his perspective’s

constraints, wants the reader to feel that they are in no way being led unfairly by him to biased

conclusions within the novel, but what he proves is the opposite. Carraway begins,

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that

I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that

all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a

reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In

consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up

many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran

bores.

. . . and, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it

has a limit. (Fitzgerald 1)


In this excerpt, the reader learns of Carraway’s upbringing and the situational advice that

his father gave to him when he was a younger man, “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one . . .

remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

Through this introduction, Carraway states his lifelong desire to remain as impartial as possible

as long as it concerns any interpretation or critique of other people. Carraway admits to

the reader that he abstains from all “judgments” in life and because of this he believes that he will

not contribute as an influencing factor over the reader’s interpretation of the novel’s characters in

any way. Ultimately, Carraway uses this passage to formally try and demonstrate to the reader

that he will remain as unbiased as possible until the events or circumstances approach his vague

moral limit.

By openly discussing his perspective’s constraints and his role in the novel, Carraway

presents the reader with the rules of the narrative. These rules of the narrative dictate how the

narrative of the novel will unfold and how his bias will impact the narrative. Christopher

Castellani, in his book The Art of Perspective, refers to these rules as the narrative strategy of

the novel and defines the term as such:

Fiction writers are taught that the first pages of a novel or short story serve as a

contract . . . this so-called contract with the reader [is] the author’s attempt to

establish narrative strategy . . . By narrative strategy I mean the set of organizing

principles that (in)form how the author is telling the story. (Castellani 16)

As Castellani explains, narrative strategy in fiction and in poetry informs the reader on

how they should interpret character, scene, and morality within the text. These “organizing

principles that (in)form how the author [tells] the story” (16) inevitably inform the reader on how

to read the story. Through Carraway’s personal introduction he shows that he would like the

reader to understand that he is an unbiased source of information, in all but rare occasions. He

would like to show that he will maintain his objective gaze until his moral limits are reached. In

his own way, Carraway would like to present himself definitively as a reliable narrator and prove

that The Great Gatsby’s narrative is being judged impartially, yet, he confirms the opposite. He

definitively proves to the reader that the novel’s actions will be judged first by Carraway’s vague

personal standards and then allowed to be judged by the reader. Carraway’s opening soliloquy

proves that The Great Gatsby has a structured, biased, filter which it will maintain for the whole

of the novel as long as Carraway is narrating. Through his own admission Carraway confirms to

the reader that his perspective will embody the novel’s operating bias which forces him

wholeheartedly into the role of the unreliable narrator and forces the novel into the realm of

homage or memoriam.

Through his own admission Carraway voids the possibility for The Great Gatsby’s

narrative to be interpreted in any way as accurate and that instead the narrative should be seen as

a biased recount of Carraway’s memories. Carraway’s choice to openly admit his operating bias

nullifies the possibility for the text to be taken as an honorable approach towards accurately

conveying the social dilemmas of the 1920’s and instead supplants it with his morally ambiguous

discussion of his own opinions of the social scene at the time. The Great Gatsby presents the

novel’s narrative strategy through Carraway’s opening soliloquy and proves to the reader on the

first page of the novel that what they are about to read should be taken with a grain of salt. The

novel’s introduction demonstrates to the reader that under no circumstance should the novel’s

narrative be considered an accurate recount of the life of James Gatz or an objective glimpse of

the high society of the 1920’s. Ultimately, Carraway’s introduction leads the reader to understand

the novel as a piece of satire or memoriam which does not present the reader with an accurate,

objective, depiction of anything.

Much like Fitzgerald, Manning wastes no time in unwrapping the mysteries of his

narrative strategy as he discusses them on the first page of his book. The Common Man begins

with the poem “Moonshine” which outlines the narrative strategy which it will use to control the

development of the larger narrative within the collection. This poem acts as The Common Man’s

opening soliloquy. The poem presents the reader with the speaker’s moment of epiphany. The

speaker realizes within the poem the implication of his perspective within the landscape and

within the larger narrative of Appalachia. This epiphany leads the speaker to admit his desire to

tell his story within the poem and the collection. Thus, like Carraway’s soliloquy, this poem

stands to define the collection as the platform from which the speaker will present the reader

with his story.

This poem presents the reader with the parameters of the collection’s operating bias,

which are: that the speaker will retell the stories in which he believes himself to be the center of

and that he will, throughout the course of the collection, showcase all the Appalachian people

and their collective history through generalized stories and attempts at presenting genuine

experiences to the reader. The poem, in partialness, “Moonshine,”

The older boy said, Take ye a slash

o’ this – hit’ll make yore sticker peck out –


which would have been a more profound

effect than putting hair on my chest,


to which I was already accustomed.

Proverbially, of course, he was right.


I took a slash, another, and then

I felt an impassioned swelling, though


between my ears, as they say, a hot

illumination in my brain.


The shine had not been cut; full of

the moon it was for sure. I knew


the mountain country it came from –

my family’s section, on Little Goose.


A distant cousin would have been proud

to know another cousin was drinking


what might as well be blood, at least

the bonds that come with blood,

[. . .]

This was the first time I heard the story


I was born to tell, the first I knew

that I was in the story, too. (Manning 1-2)

The poem’s beginning five couplets introduce the reader to the character of the speaker

and to the climate from which the speaker is writing. The speaker experiences a drunken night

but has been given a great “impassioned swelling . . . / a hot / illumination in [his] brain” rather

than the feeling of drunkenness. The speaker creates the genesis moment for the collection—he

describes the moment of realization that his life and the life of those around him needs to be

chronicled. He, like Carraway in his opening, presents the reader with the formation of his

perspective and the collection’s operating bias.

“The older boy said, Take ye a slash,” Manning, in this opening line forms the character

of the speaker. He is a man young enough to have a senior but old enough to already have hair on

his chest, “. . . hair on my chest, / to which I was already accustomed.” The speaker is a young

man who understands cultural idiom. He is a young man who is significantly tied to the

landscape,

[. . .] I knew


the mountain country it came from –

my family’s section, on Little Goose.


A distant cousin would have been proud

to know another cousin was drinking


what might as well be blood, at least

the bonds that come with blood,

Manning’s speaker is a man of the people and a man of the land and this realization leads

him towards the epiphany that coalesces in the final two couplets, “This was the first time I heard

the story / I was born to tell, the first I knew / that I was in the story, too.”

Manning’s speaker in “Moonshine” defines the collection by the operating bias which he

will use to craft its larger narrative, “I heard the story / I was born to tell.” Manning’s speaker

defines the collection by his attempt to tell his story, and the story of those around him, as

accurately as possible. Elizabeth Bishop in her poem “The Fish” encounters a similar equation

and details her experience in an interview:

That’s exactly how it happened,” Elizabeth Bishop said nearly thirty

years after her poem “The Fish” was written. “I did catch it just as the poem says.

That was in 1938. Oh, but I did change one thing; the poem says he had five

hooks hanging from his mouth, but actually he only had three. I think it improved

the poem when I made that change. (Doty 13)

Bishop determined that her intention behind writing “The Fish” was to describe

the narrative “exactly” as it presented itself to her. She allowed the poem to take on embellishment

and allowed the piece to become emblematic of the scene. Bishop allowed herself to tell the

better story or the “improved” story. She allowed herself to create the image she wanted to see

and the image that she wanted the reader to see. When Manning’s “Moonshine” is paralleled

with Bishop’s interview the comparison seems to rightfully lean towards understanding the

narrative presented in “Moonshine” as a work of embellishment. The interview suggests the

possibility that Manning’s speaker’s “hot illumination” could have come as an afterthought long

after his drunkenness had left him and armed with this interpretation it stands to reason then that

the speaker could have fabricated the whole experience during the act of writing the poem.

The speaker needed to present this exact scene to the reader. The speaker needed to

present an emblematic narrative which would provide the reader with the correct emotional

connection to and understanding of the source material. The speaker needed to present this

choreographed scene as a factual event, and so he did. The speaker wanted a piece that would

justify his perspective within the collection and would ingrain the reader with a sense of regional

culture. The speaker wanted a piece that would demonstrate his bias and his reason for his bias.

The speaker wanted a piece that would show the reader the beginning of the story that he is

going to tell.

The intention behind “Moonshine” is to portray the speaker’s epiphany as a genuine

event but realistically the piece is meant to, like in Bishop’s case, present the reader with the

“improved” story—the story that is emblematic of what the speaker wants the piece to stand for.

Therefore, the true intention of the poem, like Carraway’s soliloquy, is to introduce the reader to

the speaker and provide the reader with the necessary tools to understand the collection’s

emerging narrative strategy.

“Moonshine” conveys The Common Man’s narrative strategy so effectively that the rest

of the poems within the collection become rather formulaic. Retrospectively, the poem seems

little more than the speaker’s introduction to his world and functionally it proves to be little more

than that. The poem creates the expectation that the whole of Appalachia will be conveyed to the

reader through the speaker and that he, through the course of crafting the other poems in the

collection, will provide the necessary commentary and explanation to justify the alternative

narrative’s inclusion within his narrative. “Moonshine” sets the reader up to understand that the

proceeding poems within the collection will be functionally redundant and only serve as vehicles

to present the narrative that the speaker wants to present.

The poem “The Mute,” which directly follows “Moonshine,” demonstrates the

collection’s emerging trend of functionally redundant narratives. “The Mute” details the lives of

two brothers living up in a “holler” and then details the relationship the speaker has with these

two brothers. The piece seeks to present a genuine scene of Appalachian life to the reader but

functionally the piece is little more than a brief narrative which is subverted by the speaker.

Ultimately, “The Mute” stands as the beginning of the speaker’s self-domination over the

collection and the Appalachian narrative that he is trying to present. The poem, in partialness,

“The Mute,”

If you go up in the holler far

enough you’ll spy a little house


half-hidden in the trees. It’s dark

up there all day and when the night


comes down it’s darker yet. There’s two

old brothers living in that house


and the younger one is fatter than

a tick with lies and sassy tales


[. . .]

Because I jinxed him! he told me one day

when I asked why I’d never heard


the older brother speak. How long

has he been jinxed? I asked. Lord, years!

[. . .]

Now remember what I said – this man

is fatter than a junebug with lies


and he can spread them pretty thick,

though I’ve never minded listening.


Many a time I’ve stopped up there

to visit and every time it seems


the younger brother has just been waiting.

What’s the good word? he always asks.


Yes, many a time I’ve stopped up there, (Manning 3-6)

“The Mute,” when presented in full, details the backstory of two brothers and their lives

in an Appalachian holler. The piece presents the reader with a humorous glance into the lives of

people living in Appalachian communities and details odd quirks of character and the realities of

living in an impoverished area. The above, excerpted, sections of “The Mute” demonstrates the

three turns within the original poem and in rendition seeks to present a poem similar to the

original.

“The Mute” begins with the lines, “If you go up in the holler far / enough you’ll spy a

little house / half-hidden in the trees” which is not a far cry different from the opening couplet of

the previous poem “Moonshine,” “The older boy said, Take ye a slash / o’ this – hit’ll make yore

sticker peck out.” The two poems share a similar thematic opening because both poems seek to

set a choreographed path for their narratives to follow. The two poems deal with, what the

speaker believes to be, specific emblematic examples of Appalachian life: the first, a night of

drinking and wild abandonment and the second, the actual day to day presentation of oneself

within the community. These poems present the reader with character driven pieces that seek to

demonstrate the faculties and possibilities of people found within the Appalachian landscape.

These poems seek to present genuine experiences to the reader, however, what they truly

represent is the confirmation of the collection’s structured bias. The speaker admits at the end of

the poem,

Now remember what I said – this man

is fatter than a junebug with lies


and he can spread them pretty thick,

though I’ve never minded listening.

[. . .]

Many a time I’ve stopped up there

[. . .]

Yes, many a time I’ve stopped up there,

Through the speaker’s own admission, he proves to the reader that this story was selected

by him because of his own enjoyment of the characters within the story, “I’ve never minded

listening /. . .Yes, many a time I’ve stopped up there.” The speaker admits that the inclusion of

the brothers’ narrative is not meant to imply that they contribute to a greater theme or image of

Appalachia but that they were selected to provide a brief glimpse into the speaker’s Appalachia.

Ultimately, the speaker uses this story of the two brothers to demonstrate the narrative control

that he maintains over the developing collection and forces the poem “The Mute” to identify

as the first working model of the narrative strategy that he presented to the reader in “Moonshine.”

“The Mute” informs the reader of how the speaker’s operating bias will determine which

stories to present to the reader later within the collection. As well, the speaker demonstrates that

he is not concerned with the perspective of the other people within the landscape or within the

collection but that he is concerned with how accurately he can depict them and himself. The

speaker displays to the reader that the collection will represent the stories which he finds

amusing or entertaining and formally reveals that poems within the collection will not

reconstruct an objective depiction of Appalachia but that they will reconstruct his contrived

version of Appalachia.