Friday, August 27, 2010

Literary Comfort Zones

Let me expand on the idea of breaking out of a comfort zone -- especially in our reading and interpretation of literary texts or the writers that produce them.  Turning to a new experience as a reader often is a mix of reward and anxiety.  While still a graduate student I was asked to read a sentimental novel written by an American woman during the mid 19th century. I chose Susan Warner's Wide, Wide, World, a novel published in 1850 (a contemporary and competitor to novels such as The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick) and which sold thousands of copies in both the United States and Great Britain (Warner would be one of the "damned mob of scribbling women" that drew Hawthorne's ire).  I was assigned to read a novel that, because of its sentimentality, was thought (still in the 1980s) critically inferior to Hawthorne and Melville.  The point was to read an "inferior" work so that I could better appreciate the aesthetic complexity of male writers.  And it worked.  For a while.

Later I read other women writers, but this time within a wholly different context -- a study of the tradition of women's writing and within a more broadly constructed definition of the purpose of writing.  These women were writing within a part of the culture and as critics of that culture.  Their writing was, perhaps, not as aesthetically sophisticated as some of the male writers, but it was authentic because it spoke to the demands of the household and the legacy of sacrifice that was part of women's lives.  Male writers were held at arm's length and thought of as "artists."  Women were set into a lower class of contribution and were considered too much a part of the culture to write useful (which meant) existential criticism.  I was, in fact, forced now to look at what I had been told both about the value of novels and the role of writers.  And over the years I adjusted my approach to reading and then to teaching to take into account the writer's place within society and the changing definitions of worth.  This also -- by the way -- made me more conscious of the quality of writing and more conscious of the link between art and social commentary.

The reality is that this kind of discomfort can bring about substantial change in how we think about our own disciplines and our work within those disciplines -- and then how we think about what we do as teachers.  It takes some time for the lessons to sink in.  But holding on to conventional notions deprives us of the excitement of a new perspective and ideas.  We can broaden out our understanding of the world, but only if we remain open to the lessons that help us.

Next time -- how all of this affected my work on Mark Twain.

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