Monday, December 20, 2010

Eat, Read, Talk

For some years, my wife craved shrimp.  I have a photo of her at turn one of Watkins Glen International Race Track (it was during a weekend of races for "classic" sports cars) in a folding recliner with a bowl of shrimp and cocktail sauce.  She looks happy.  One day she announced, "That's it.  I am done with shrimp."  It must have been almost five years ago.  And she hasn't had a shrimp since.  This past term I had a student in my seminar who read the way my wife eats (or used to eat) shrimp:  find an author, read absolutely everything you can find by him or her until you are sated and can no longer bear the thought of another bit of this prose or poetry.  It's an interesting approach.  I couldn't do it.

It brought up the issue of how reading and what we read can be compared to our diet.  Are we classic meat and potatoes?  Or exotic flavors?  Do we think about trying a new dish?  Or do we stick the old and proven stand byes?  Are we adventurous or comfortable in our individual ruts? (I tried tongue for the first time at a Basque restaurant in Idaho -- I liked it.)  And once we make a choice, do we stick with it or do we try a taste and then toss it away if it does not sit well (I confess that I did that with one book -- that I remember -- during my reading life -- I started to read A Confederacy of Dunces -- I got through about a 100 or so pages and then just tossed the book -- not a good thing for a literature professor to admit).  And what makes us say, as my wife, "Enough!"

This led to a discussion of how a reading list (menu) should come with one of those plates with dividers for the separate components of the meal (like the old tv dinners or the new microwave gourmet meals).  And then whether it's ok if the portion in one compartment flows into the next (a kind of intertextuality?).

Ok.  It was not the most profound discussion of reading, but it did, somewhat oddly,  connect with students who are always looking for ways of compartmentalizing their lives so that the whole becomes easier to adjust.  My students weren't so willing to push the metaphor, but they did see a kind of point.  And they started, perhaps, to think about reading as a matter of both settled "taste" and exotic seasoning.  That might just pull them away from an overriding sense of the sameness of school reading (like school lunches of the past?).  And they might start to think a bit more playfully with the very idea of why and what and how we read. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Mark Twain and Frances Harper -- Pudd'nhead Wilson and Iola Leroy

I expected a stronger reaction -- maybe even an argument. 

Last week I attended a small conference hosted by the Mark Twain Circle of American and the American Humor Studies Association.  We met in San Diego.  The groups meet together every four years; the most recent meeting was in New Orleans the year after Kathrina.

This time I decided to write a comparison of Twain's The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson and Frances Watkins Harper's Iola Leroy.  Harper's novel was published in 1892 (before Twain's).  It is within a time frame during which concern with "passing" took on a greater life.  William Dean Howells, for example, published An Imperative Duty in 1891;  Twain himself played with the idea of "passing" not only in Pudd'nhead Wilson in 1894 but sometime earlier in the 1880s in a brief fragment of a plan for a story titled (in manuscript) "The Man with Negro Blood."  This all ties to Harper and to writers such as Pauline Hopkins, Charles Chesnutt, and Nella Larsen (each of whom I teach in my course on African American Writers).  This is fertile critical ground, and it helps place Twain in a much more complex combination of writers, a combination that makes it more difficult to think of him as unique in the American literary tradition of writing about race.  Too often proponents of Twain raise him to unrealistic heights.  It's best, I think, to bring him back to earth by linking him to other writers, his contemporaries.

At the end of my presentation, I wrote -- "Both Harper and Clemens center the lives of their black characters in the relationship of parent to child; however, for Clemens that relationship, tainted by the ideology of servitude and ruled by both law and custom, holds no positive lesson, no positive result.  Once Chambers becomes Tom, Clemens begins to develop a story about the weaknesses of a motherly bond that is overwhelmed by racist doctrine and twisted by desperation and anger.  In this way Clemens writes about white fears in the 1890s – esp. the fear of being supplanted by blacks and the fear of hidden and unknowable racial backgrounds.  His portrait of Roxy and his description of her actions are not about sensitivity to black experience or black allegiance to the mother or family.  They are about white fear at the prospect of the growing black influence – the image of the former slave as subversive, not only within American society but more specifically within the American household.  Roxy’s act is ultimately the most disagreeable threat – from within – from the kitchen and the laundry – to white power and authority.

In the end, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson examines the fear of white society of the racial other and of the creeping reality of the result of miscegenation.  “Tom’s” fear is every white man’s.  Samuel Clemens is not interested in racial balance, but in the effects of paranoia on the white community.  The worry is that we are all black inside:  the inversion of Huck’s line about Jim.  The question is how white society will deal with and address its possible loss of status.  Chambers accepts his mother’s truth because it is the fear that has been placed within him throughout his privileged experience of life.  From Yale to Dawson’s Landing, the fear is that blacks will become a social force, a fear that is somewhat supported by the strong ties that Harper argues are the real legacy of slavery.  Her vision of a rising black community strengthened by its members’ allegiance to mothers and siblings, unified in its accepting responsibility for intellectual and economic lives and setting up the foundations for cooperation among generations of former slaves and their children is a contradiction to Clemens’ reality of white fear (it is a strange line from Pudd’nhead Wilson to Thomas Dixon’s The Leopard’s Spots and later The Clansman).  It is a pity that his vision takes so long and so hard a hold on American society."

That last comment, I had hoped, might lead to a discussion that complicates Twain's reputation for racial transcendence (Dixon's novels are notoriously racist and aimed at sparking and reinforcing white fear).  It didn't.  And I am left wondering why not.

Maybe we have internalized the message of Twain's unique status and have become used to the idea that he is standing alone for racial justice.  And we are used to thinking that only his ideas matter.  That is all too simple.  We need to read Twain in context, and we need to think of his writing not as a signal that racial issues are easily resolved when white writers take them on.  Why is it that we embrace Twain (or Stowe or, perhaps, Thoreau and Melville) but do not acknowledge the long and complex tradition of African American writers who write from within an experience and not about an experience.  And why don't we see Twain as commenting more on the fears of white citizens than on their supposed ability to transcend race.  It's a puzzle.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Beneath the Canon -- electronically

I will teach a new course in the Spring term.  The course will use an Amazon Kindle as the primary technology, and I plan to ask students to read a 19th century American novel each week using the resources available via Amazon.  The point will be to choose novels that are no longer in print; the question will be how those texts relate to the usual canon of 19th century American novels.

I have been playing with my Kindle since I bought it several weeks ago.  There is a wealth of material available, and I have already bought collections and individual works by Mark Twain, Frank Norris, Louisa May Alcott, Thorstein Veblen, and Frances Harper. I have recently finished reading Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick and Norris' Vandover the Brute, each of which would offer students a chance to experience a much needed broadening of typical 19th century reading lists.

My intention for the new course will be to introduce students to writings that seem no longer to be part of the established 19th century canon.  We will explore the titles in relation to those books that remain popular and that are held up as representative of the genre and the times.  The question will be why some books are canonized and why some are not.  But rather than a conversation of the general merits and intentions of the literary tradition, I will hope to get students to engage in creating criteria and judging works based on that criteria.  And I will hope to spark a conversation about values and the way generational reading and teaching shapes what becomes a literary tradition.

All of this, of course, can also be discussed within the canon of an individual writer; for example, William Dean Howells, whose The Rise of Silas Lapham or Hazard of New Fortunes continue to get some attention while A Modern Instance, Annie Kilbourn, or Indian Summer remain virtually unknown to today's students.  Even Mark Twain has titles that are virtually exiled; for example, Recollections of Joan of Arc, Is Shakespeare Dead? or The American Claimant seem to have disappeared.  This will extend the discussions this term in my seminar (for senior English majors).  We have been exploring the idea of canonicity.  At issue is, I think, the very real separation between personal and academic reading.  Put simply, we read differently depending on the context -- school reading, especially for English majors, demands a level of analysis that is uncommon when civilians (I can think of no other way to describe non-academics or non-English majors) pick up a book.  Students admit that pretty readily. 

The question becomes how do we enhance an interest in "school" reading while preserving the level of interest and (even) enjoyment for readers.  A recent discussion of (parts of) Janice Radway's A Feeling for Books:  The Book of the Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle Class Desire got us all thinking of contrasting (read antithetical -- even enemy) approaches to reading.  One of the ideas that my students embraced is the way that non-academic reading allows for a full range of emotional reaction.  They love the feeling of getting lost in a book and allowing the text to take them over and push them to new experience.  And they say that the harsher, clinical reading that academics do is alienating at times, even when the analysis, in the end, brings them to a better understanding of the writing or a broader knowledge of literary history.In the past I have tried to address the separation of academic and personal by suggesting that students read for class using the same approach they use for their own reading.  I don't give reading quizzes.  I don't insist that the artifacts of a culture (the books that grow out of it) are the primary means of realizing the reality of a society or its internal relationships.  But it's still the teacher telling them this.  And it's still assigned reading.  So we are never quite able to suspend the rules of academic reading (and I am not sure that I would do that if I could). 

I have also resorted in this class to asking students to read three books of their own choosing and to discuss those books (why they chose them and what they got from them) in a round-table format.  It certainly has broken the form -- last week's reading moved from The Scarlet Letter to Frankenstein to Dracula to Jane Eyre to Animal Farm to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Angela Carter, H.P. Lovecraft, Albert Camus, and David Sedaris' Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk.

So we struggle.  Have quiet moments.  And, from time to time, are able to realize the power of writing.  But students don't embrace academic reading (and I am not sure that I do at times) and are always a tad suspicious of the whole process.  So it goes.  Maybe their skepticism is for the best. And maybe the dance we do when we talk about reading keeps all of us a little more honest about intentions and results.  And maybe access to long forgotten texts will contribute to this conversation overall.  Maybe.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Mark Twain Industry

A recent post on the Mark Twain Forum -- an electronic list for those interested in the writing and life of Mark Twain got my attention.  It doesn't always happen.  This post was a complaint about an essay in The New Yorker, a piece written by Adam Gopnik titled "The Man in the While Suit:  Why the Mark Twain Industry Keeps Growing" (The New Yorker, 29 November 2010, pp. 78-83).  It seems Gopnik crossed a line when he claimed the new volume of Twain's autobiography to be "the Royal Nonesuch of American Literature" (79; go back and read Huck Finn to catch the entire significance of that), and at least one writer felt that he disparaged Twain scholarship by calling it an industry.  Both reactions are, in fact, unreasonable given the depth of Gopnik's commentary and his clear understanding of (if not reverence for) Twain's literary accomplishment.  And I wrote to the list to point out the fundamentalist streak in those who worship Twain and accept no criticism of their hero.  Twain had lots of warts, and it does us no good to think of him as a saint.

Anyway.  It is naive to argue against the industrial analogy when looking to the work done in Twain's name.  Few writers inspire as large a number of major publications each year as does Twain .  That is especially true of 2010, a year in which there appeared at least four major biographies, two editions of the autobiography (my own in a second edition from University of Wisconsin Press and, of course, the Mark Twain Project's hefty first volume), two special issues of journals noting the anniversary of his passing (one from Japan), and a full assortment of academic and popular essays.  Any industrial complex would be thrilled with that kind of output.  And it has been a more or less continual treadmill (or assembly line) since Twain's death.

The problem, of course, is that fans of Twain (as opposed to critics or scholars) can only see the value in works that reinforce the cultural icon (see my earlier post "Challenging the Conventional Mark Twain" from this past August).  For them (and for those involved in assuring the continued cultural and economic success of the icon) there is only a threat when readers (and most critics and scholars are readers) look more deeply into the motivations and accomplishments of Samuel Clemens.  So when someone like Gopnik offers a less than worshipful comment, all hell breaks loose.

What was most offensive about the reaction was that most of those taking extreme umbrage seem never to have read the whole essay.  They responded to a post that offered the abstract of the essay and then just went into rally mode.  Even scholars who should know better reacted with a sense of hurt and anger.  But, then again, some scholars are most interested in maintaining the holy image of Mark Twain rather than being genuinely interested in both the man's writing or the history of their own profession and perhaps their own complicity in pushing an inherently biased icon of Twain on readers.  In short, the "industry" stuck up for its product.  And then complained when it was caught in the act.

More's the pity.