Monday, May 2, 2011

Beneath the Canon and Student Driven Reading

When I introduced the course on reading out-of-print 19th century American novels to my students, I gave them a list of 27 titles, written by 20 authors (see my earlier post for a full listing).  I set two titles for our reading (Hospital Sketches, by Louisa May Alcott, and Ragged Dick, by Horatio Alger).  I told my students that they would help set the rest of the reading list.  This past Friday, we did just that.

There is a good deal of cynicism expressed about getting students to read.  Last week's Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, featured an essay whose writer hooted that he told students that reading would help them get laid and that this only would prompt them to read.  He then listed a host of intellectual and cultural reasons to read that he said he could not share with students.  The whole essay in an insult both to students and teachers:  the writer seems caught up in his own sense of self-importance and intellectual blindness.  His has not been my experience.

Anyway.  As we discussed possible readings, my students fully engaged and were animated in their discussion of what to read.  To be honest, there was some worry on their part about the length of some of the readings; however, in the end we created a full and complicated list.  Over 6 weeks, we will read 9 novels.  Here is the list:  Hospital Sketches, Ragged Dick, At Fault, The Gates Ajar, Pink and White Tyranny, Giles Corey, The House Behind the Cedars, The Clansman, and Is Shakespeare Dead?  Writers include Louisa May Alcott, Horatio Alger, Kate Chopin, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary E Wilkins Freeman, Charles Chesnutt, Thomas Dixon, and Mark Twain.  Students chose the Chopin and Twain works because they wanted to see what else the writers had written besides their canonized novels (and works other than those most often taught).  It's an ambitious list.

In the end, the intention here is to introduce students to a range of writers and writing.  And the student have shown a genuine willingness to spend the time needed to understand the reading.  The electronic nature of the texts has allowed us a good deal of flexibility.  I have only one concern:  reading Dixon's The Clansman will offer a real challenge.  Not because of the style.  Because of the racist language and ideology.  But I have warned students about that, and we will talk about the implications as we get close to that text.  We will see.

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.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The "New" Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- Again

I was recently asked by one of my students to respond to the "new" edition of Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for a report in our campus newspaper.  This roughly coincided with (actually it predated) an interview with a news service reporter (Reuters) that focused on that edition and with a recent CBS Sixty Minutes segment.  Even in 2011, we continue to be entranced by Twain's creation, even though -- or perhaps because -- it sparks a variety of controversial responses. 

Here are the student's questions, with my response:

Do you feel it is appropriate to remove the word "ni**er" from Huck Finn?  What do you think this does in terms of the meaning of the text for our society?

The fact that you are not able to type the word out demonstrates how uncomfortable we have become with the word. 

I think that Twain would be mightily opposed to a wholesale removal of the word from his text.  He knew the language that he was using, and he was aware of the potential for discomfort.  Not, by the way, by African American readers but by a readership that was solidly middle-class and predominantly female – Twain was, after all, writing to an audience of primarily white readers.  He knew that his language and his tone would be unwelcome by some.  He wants you to feel uncomfortable.  It’s how he gets and keeps your attention, and how, ultimately, he argues that you need to change your world view.

If you read Huck Finn you are faced with a series of problems:  there are questions related to race and the relationship between white and black; there are comments aimed at demonstrating clear class distinctions among characters; there are issues related to the abuse of children and the failure of a society of adults to help protect children from that abuse; there are questions of the role of society in establishing and then continuing attitudes and policies that keep individuals within tight social and legal constraints; there are comments that suggest the adult white world (the dominant society), despite its sense of self-righteousness, is really in conspiracy against children and African Americans.  [Twain] takes careful shots at established religion.  In its deepest sense the book is an argument against what John Stewart Mill would call the “despotism of custom”:  it’s not about legal freedom; it’s about the failure of the majority to see a minority (poor children and African Americans) as having any potential.  And it’s about how that majority imposes its rules.  Finally, it’s about the use of violence (psychological and physical) by the majority to assure its continued power.  “Nigger” is only one way that power is reinforced in the book; it’s powerful, but it’s one tool wielded by the majority in at attempt to keep control of its definition of morality.

For what purpose did Mark Twain use the word, in your opinion?

Many commentators fall back on the point that the word was used as part of the speech of the 1840s (when the story is set) and the 1880s (when it is written).  They suggest that Twain is just being accurate in his reproduction of the language at use within American society.  That is too simple an explanation and often leads to a condescending attitude toward those with legitimate grievances against the book and its language. While the word was often used, it was used with an explicit political and social purpose – to signify the dominant idea that African Americans were inferior and, indeed, not human.  The word always carried that purpose, and even in the ante-bellum period (as well as in the post-Civil War period), it was identified as a word not to be used in polite society. 

You have to realize who is using that word in this text.  The narrator is Huck – a partially (and poorly) educated young boy who has grown up in a society that embraces the ideology and the practice of slavery.  He is the son of a racist.  He lives with the Widow Douglass whose sister Miss Watson owns slaves.  Huck is a racist.  Some critics look to his opening tricks on Jim as evidence of this – he only becomes aware of Jim’s humanity gradually – though there is a good case to be made that Huck never really generalizes from his experience with Jim.  He may come to see Jim as human, but [Huck] will never work against slavery as a system or have a full and complete conversion to a more socially liberal interpretation of race.  The word is one of the more explicit ways to demonstrate this idea, and Twain uses it with the intention of making readers uncertain and uncomfortable.

I think the text offers a warning about those children like Huck who are left to find some moral system for themselves.  Lately, I have come to see the book as Twain’s meditation of what happens when a child is brought up in a world that is hostile to the belief in human compassion.  There are days that I even think that this is Twain’s consideration of what happens when a child is left to grow without any kind of deep Christian and moral instruction.  That, by the way, probably puts me at odds with a score of Twain critics.  So be it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Mark Twain and Sarah Orne Jewett: the Naturalist and Realist Spheres

Mark Twain celebrated his 70th birthday with a party sponsored by George Harvey and Harpers.  There were a host of writers present that evening, including William Dean Howells, a young Willa Cather, and Charles Chesnutt.  Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was Twain’s escort into the dinner.  She sat at the main table with Twain.  I have always liked that connection between two powerful realist writers.

Class discussions this term have focused on the writing of Twain, Crane, Freeman, (Sarah Orne) Jewett, Crane, Norris, and (still to come) Dreiser.  Twain, I think, stands as a transition between high realism and the movement into literary naturalism.  For our purposes The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson offered a shift toward naturalism, especially with its dominant questions over nature/nurture and its methodical beat of determinism.  Twain used that novel to extend his explorations of identity and self that shaped Huckleberr Finn, and he used the novel to ask questions about the nature of human action and the definitions of class and race.  He didn’t, I think, have any answers, but he did have a lot of questions. 

What I found most compelling in all of this, however, was the variation in voice between the so-called “regionalist” or “local color” writers – Twain and Freeman and Jewett.  In many ways the three share an interest in the veracity of everyday life, from the careful creation of vernacular speech to the often pinched lives of small towns in transition and in decline.  And while Twain was a master at describing the realism of small towns and at criticizing the narrow perspectives and intentions of the citizens (think of St. Petersburg or Dawson’s Landing or Hadleyburg), I come away lately with a sense of the realistic failure of Twain’s vision of “small” town life.  Artistically, his mimetic approach to the image and limits of small town life seems to me seasoned with caricature even more than character.  His descriptions themselves offer a limited description of the limited lives.  This is naturalism at its most effective.  And I wonder what the function of art can be when it is so dominated by his kind of ruthlessness.

Against (or perhaps supplementing) Twain’s small towns I find Jewett’s New England, especially in The Country of the Pointed Firs.  Even it its decline, it is a more complicated and artistically significant venue.  Jewett’s Elijah Tilley, Captain Littlepage, or William Blackett or Joanna, Mrs. Fosdick, or Almira Todd offer a deeper experience of a people and the strains (geographical, social, economic, personal) they feel than anything that Twain creates in his mid-career fiction.  The adults of St. Petersburg are at the service of its children (especially Tom Sawyer); the adults of Dawson’s Landing are corrupted by the omnipresence of slavery and racism.  Neither is reality at its most effective.  But the complicated lives of Jewett’s Dunnet’s Landing open to the panorama of reality and its myriad stresses – primarily the stress of domestic relationships.  There is much to contemplate in the dropped stitches of Elijah Tilley as he knits and recalls his youth and his taking for granted the loyalty of his now dead wife.  That kind of strain is rare in Twain and comes only at a sideways glance as he conjures loss in Hank Morgan’s Camelot or Adam’s Eden.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mark Twain and the Ghost of Joan of Arc -- part three

Like all death songs, de Conte's tale of Joan of Arc is a mix of disaffection, alienation, and disappointment.  The insanity of the coming night prevents reconciliation.  There is no spiritual reclamation, there is no joy.  His story is not a celebration of Joan of Arc, it is a blast at human kind and (similarly, I think, to Hank Morgan's autobiography) a record of the gradual realization of possibilities lost:

               bottom they were still under the spell of timorousness
                        born of generations of unsuccess, and a lack of confidence in the
                        way of treacheries of all sorts -- for their kings had been
                        treacherous to their great vassals and to their generals, and
                        these in turn were treacherous to the head of the state and
                        to each other.  The soldiery found that they could depend
                        utterly on Joan, and upon her alone.  With her gone, everything
                        was gone.  She was the sun that melted the frozen torrents
                        and set them boiling; with that sun removed, they froze again,
                        and the army and all France became what they had been before,
                        mere dead corpses -- that and nothing more; incapable of
                        thought, hope, ambition, or motion. (322)

This is all very much like A Connecticut Yankee:  a walk in the killing field that is daily life, a last look back.  De Conte's narrative is a walk in the company of ghosts that is ultimately a preparation for his own death.  It is an old soldier's tale -- one that is seasoned with momentary claims to humor and the distraction of short-lived, victories.  Ultimately it is a story of individual disappointments -- Joan's certainly (even her death is not what she wished it to be), but de Conte's especially.

Clearly, de Conte is displaced in time.  As he moves away from the victories and the comradeship that united Joan, her friends, and her circle of advizors, his comments become more infused with sentiment and with a sense of lost youth:  "How foolish we were; but we were young, you know, and youth hopeth all things, believeth all things" (426); "Our imagination was on fire; we were delirious with pride and joy.  For we were very young, as I have said" (439).  At 82 when he puts his memories to paper, de Conte can only look back at what he has lost with little sense of how history will judge his experiences or whether the work, the experience, the love that so defined his life will have been in vain.  He lives with his memories, but those memories are (literally) in ashes.  "We are so strangely made," he writes, "the memories that could make us happy pass away; it is the memories that break our hearts that abide" (439).

Like the crazed and obsessed narrator of Poe's "Ligeia," Louis de Conte is left with the piercing memory of Joan's eyes.  The story may be read as his growing restiveness under her gaze, his evolving sense of the purity in eyes destined to see God.  And, it seems, destined to smite de Conte in his tracks:

                        There was never but that one pair, there will never be
                        another.  Joan's eyes were deep and rich and wonderful
                        beyond anything merely earthly.  They spoke all the
                        languages -- they had no need of words.  They produced all
                        effects -- and just by a glance:  a glance that could convict
                        a liar in his lie and make him confess it; that could bring
                        down a proud man's pride and make him humble; that
                        could put courage into a coward and strike dead the courage of
                        the bravest; that could appease resentments and real hatreds;
                        that could speak peace to storms and passion and be obeyed;
                        that could make the doubter believe and the hopeless hope again;
                        that could purify the impure mind; that could persuade -- ah,
                        there it is -- persuasion!  (160).

And later:

                        And her eyes -- ah, you should have seen them and broken your
                        hearts....How capable they were, and how wonderful!  Yes, at
                        all times and in all circumstances they could express as by
                        print every sahe of the wide range of her moods.  In them were
                        hidden floods of gay sunshine, the softest and peacefulest twilights,
                        and devastating storms and lightenings.  Not in this world have
                        there been others that were comparable to them. (343)

Certainly, Joan gains strength from her voices, but what does she see with those eyes.  And now, looking back some 60 years, what does De Conte see.  Joan saw a direct and unchallengeable vision of unity through war.  It's a frightening image of wounds and assaults, all undertaken for the greater glory.  De Conte sees a child's death.  And he sees his own role in that death, and he is unable to reconcile the loss when so little was gained.  His loss is personal.  Not national.  Not religious.  He sees a childhood friend he loved engulfed -- one way or the other -- in the flames of political and religious zealotry.  And he is tired.  And he wants to die.

And in a way, De Conte plays a dual role as both Kurt Vonnegut and Mary O'Hare.  In the opening pages of Slaughterhouse 5, Mary O'Hare takes after Vonnegut with a passion that lays him flat.  She is angry about war and about the way men talk of war:  "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be playing in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men.   And war will just look wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them.  And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs"  (14). Her outburst ends with her subtitling the book -- "The Children's Crusade."  What better description for the work of Joan of Arc.

Many readers are much more sophisticated and worldly and deeply wounded than we care to admit as we make facile and droll remarks about ideology and then feel that we have opened a new vista on literature.  What opens that new vista is the emotional impact of reading and the ache of recognition readers nurse after reading.

Relatively early in the story De Conte comments on the notion of the need for honor, "...for when a man's soul is starving, what does he care for meat and roof so he can get that nobler hunger fed?" (73).  Mary O'Hare, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Mark Twain, I suspect, would laugh.  And maybe, by the end of his book, so does Louis De Conte.  Vonnegut's chapter ends with words that likely could have been penned by Twain as he looked back at Joan:  "People aren't supposed to look back.  I'm certainly not going to do it anymore.  I've finished my war book now.  The next one I write is going to be fun.  This one is a failure, and it had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt" (22).  After Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Mark Twain added at least (depending on how you count) 12 additional books to his list.  Some of them were fun.  So it goes.