Money: An Introductory Lecture H Nemerov

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


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


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 powerful.

Nemerov finishes up with a few final observations

about the nickel. He first notes that the bison

and Indian are on opposite sides of the coin, face

different directions, and are upside-down to one

another. They can coexist, interfering with one

another only when necessary. There is a mutual

respect between them, and they can see beyond

their differences: "the bison [looks] past/The

Indian's feathers, the Indian past the bison's

tail . . . ." This is something much of the rest

of America and the world needs to learn to do. The

idea of respect for the bison is hammered home

when Nemerov points out that the bison has a face

"somewhat resembling that of Jupiter Ammon," a god

universal to many ancient cultures including the

Romans (Jupiter) and the Egyptians (Ammon-Ra).

This poem shows that some of the injustices of

America are so hammered in that we do not even

notice that we are creating things which justify

them. It would be an interesting exercise to look

for symbols ingrained in other everyday items. We

may be surprised, even appalled, at what we turn

up. But I cannot think of many things which would

have as

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