Monday, April 25, 2011

Canon Thinking -- E-texts, Reading, and Expectations

The first meeting of "Beneath the Canon" is over.  I am not sure what students will make of my wandering explanation and expectations.  This first week will be given to a (somewhat) theoretical discussion of how canons are formed and what their function is (or should be) within a culture -- or more rightly a classroom.  Our six-week discussion will begin in earnest later this week with Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches and Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick.  

What we read after that is, right now, anybody's guess.  I have asked the students to spend some time over the coming days to take a look at the other texts that form the potential reading list (see my previous post).  By the end of this week, we will talk about their possible choices for our reading.  I am still not sure what they think of having the responsibility for choosing texts.  I often begin my classes asking students what they would like to discuss from the day's reading (I always have an idea of where I would like to end up with the discussion, but I am always willing to allow students to start the discussion).  Just as often they find it difficult to respond even to that level of freedom in the discussion.  I wonder now how they will respond to the very idea of setting the agenda for the class' reading. (As an aside, this would not be possible in a class using conventional print editions; book orders would be required and that would demand planning months ahead -- especially with new federal rules for providing text information earlier -- and any kind of improvisation would be an extreme challenge.  E-texts make this flexibility possible.)

I have also told students that how much we read will likely depend on what they choose to read.  Of course, they don't really have a sense of how long some of the novels are (because of the electronic format).  And I have said that we would very likely be reading at least one but maybe two novels each week (for the next 5 weeks).  This will change HOW we read.  I will not be pushing them with reading quizzes; instead, we will concentrate on reading the whole novel before we begin our discussion.  I have told them that this might allow us to adjust the schedule for the class so that we meet less often during each week.  Ironically, meeting less often might indicate reading more.  An interesting trade-off.  We will see how they adapt.  And how I adapt since I will be reading along with them and, quite honestly, have not read many of the texts that are part of our potential reading list.

So.  The first week will be about finding our way into a structure that allows for a meaningful discussion while at the same time challenging the way they have often had to read for a literature course.  I can only hope that the novelty will be attractive and will perhaps seduce them into a more rigorous reading schedule.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Beneath the Canon: Reading Out-of-Print 19th Century American Novels

I am about to begin a course that aims to reclaim out-of-print American novels from the 19th century (I first wrote about this back on December 7, 2010).  We will ask questions related to why these novels are no longer read and what criteria has been or is used by critics to shape the present canon.The intention is to question not only the notion of canon but also why certain texts have been shut out of the traditional canon of the period.  Along the way, we will also talk about whether this new access prompts a change in how we read, though I suspect at this point our discussions of individual texts will not be very different from conversations about more conventionally gotten texts. We will gain access to electronic editions using an Amazon Kindle and the texts available from the Kindle store (many at no additional cost to the students).  We will read (at least) one novel each week during the six-week spring term. We will, I hope, be able to think more broadly about the reading and about the issues that we will address during our discussions (issues of aesthetics, social conscience, popular versus literary fiction

Here is the list of potential readings:

Writers listing – 19th Century American Writers

Louisa May Alcott [individually available or of part of a collection]
            Hospital Sketches
            An Old Fashioned Girl
            Under the Lilacs
Horatio Alger [Individual or collection]
Charles Brockton Brown [individual or collection]
            Arthur Mervyn
            Clara Howard
            Jane Talbot
Charles Chesnutt [individual]
            The House Behind the Cedars
            The Colonel’s Dream
Lydia Maria Child [individual]
            A Romance of the Republic
Kate Chopin [individual]
            At Fault
Richard Harding Davis [collection]
            Soldiers of Fortune
Thomas Dixon [collection]
            The Clansman
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman [individual or collection]
            Giles Corey (a play)
Pauline Hopkins [individual]
            One Blood
William Dean Howells [individual]
            The Man of Letters as A Man of Business
            The Quality of Mercy
Frank Norris [individual or collection]
            The Pit
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps [individual]
            The Gate’s Ajar
Elizabeth Payson Prentiss [individual]
            Stepping Heavenward
Elizabeth Oakes Smith [individual]
            The Newsboy
E.D.E.N. Southworth [individual]
            Ishmael; or, In the Depths
Harriet Beecher Stowe [individual or collection]
            Pink and White Tyranny
Albion Tourgee [individual]
            Bricks Without Straw
Mark Twain     
            Is Shakespeare Dead?
Susan B. Warner

This is an experiment. While the past decades have seen a rise in the number of optional texts for classroom use, the current availability of hundreds of out-of-print novels through electronic/digitized files opens a wholly new opportunity for introducing the processes that determine canon or even cultural formation. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mark Twain, Josephine Hobby, and Collaborative Autobiography

After Samuel Clemens accepted Albert Biglow Paine’s as his official biographer, Paine and Twain decided that one way to gather material for that work was to bring in a stenographer to keep a careful record of Clemens’ dictations.  Paine would ask questions, Clemens would use those questions to start his comments, and the stenographer – as both audience and scribe – would keep a careful record.  The first and primary stenographer was Josephine Hobby.  It has taken a century for readers of Clemens’ dictations to understand the contribution of Hobby.  We would not have as careful or as full a record of Clemens’ autobiography without her.

The editors of volume one of Clemens’ autobiography give Hobby some long-deserved attention in their discussion of the autobiographical manuscripts and dictations.  In their “Note on the Text” (pp 669-679), they present the often convoluted sequence of the several typescripts that grew out of the post-1906 dictations.  More importantly, in the sub-section titled “Dictated texts” (673-674), they offer a tightly focused discussion of the relationship between a “writer” and a stenographer as they work in tandem to create a text loyal to the intentions and perceptions of the writer.  The issues involved include proper punctuation or paragraphing, especially difficult if the person dictating moves along at a pace without oral hints of the proper structure of sentences or paragraphs. 

Hobby seems to have been a wonderful match for Clemens.  The typescripts she produced were attuned to Clemens’ speech patterns, and she was often able to incorporate punctuation according to Clemens’ own exacting rules (he might at time allow editors to repair spelling errors, but he NEVER would allow them to adjust his punctuation – in the same volume, read “Private History of a Manuscript that Came to Grief”).  While the editors comment that Clemens may have trained Hobby to his style of punctuation, it is clear that she was fully able to provide him text that he could work with.  This collaboration is an aspect of the dictations that is too little appreciated.

One wonders what Hobby thought of all of this.  I suspect that it became much more than a job (especially through the first and second years of Clemens’ dictating binge).  And she was very good at the whole process.  Her work on Clemens’ behalf, and his reliance on her, speaks to a symbiotic tie that perhaps only grew as the two spent more and more time together.  And it’s one more instance of his reliance on the work of a woman to develop what is likely his last story (one more woman in the list that runs from his mother, his wife, his daughters, to Mary Fairbanks to Susan Crane to Isabel Lyon).  It also demonstrates that writing – even writing done with the human voice – is often best when done when facing an appreciative audience and a valued listener.