Archive for October, 2007

Teaching Levity

I am finally comfortable teaching Walt Whitman. For years, I would worry about how to teach the “28 young men” portion (section 11 in the 1881 edition) of “Song of Myself.” How, I wondered, could I explain the line about not caring whom they soused with their spray? I would blush and then die. Tonight, though, I didn’t worry. I read the line with great relish, and then said, “And yes, that means exactly what you think it means,” causing the class to burst into laughter that only got more raucous when one girl had to explain, in significantly more graphic detail and R-rated language, what it meant to the guy sitting next to her.

Whitman is insanely teachable. Read the lines loudly, sounding the barbaric yawp over the rooftops, let the students roll with the ideas, and keep the pace breakneck. I was excited when one of the quiet non-talkers followed my point perfectly and was the only one in the class to realize that what Whitman was doing at the start of section 15 (“The pure contralto sings in the organ loft, / The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles its wild ascending lisp”) was onomatopoeia. She looked so pleased when I told her she was brilliant for figuring that out.

This is a weird class in many ways. They are all English majors, which is good, but there are two unfiltered talkers who try their hardest to dominate class discussion and pull everything into a titanic digression. The rest of the students roll their eyes at these two, and I have to work to keep them under control. At the same time, now that we have become more comfortable with each other over the past weeks, the rest of the class is ready to give the would-be dominators some competition as they vie for my attention. Even more weird is the class frequently teeters on the brink of chaos, especially when we are delving into the Romantics. In fact, I think that many classes work much better when I can keep them trembling over that chasm, finely adjusting the balance between being too stodgy and too freaked out.

One problem with my near anarchic teaching style is that students sometimes forget their boundaries. Tonight, as I was getting ready to wrap up old Walt, one guy (and, incidentally, one of the loudmouths) in the back of the class started a conversation with the girl sitting next to him. I made my loud, dramatic throat-clearing noise, which means, “Excuse me, but would you please shut up?” When he didn’t shut up, I asked rhetorically, “Am I going to have to come back there and smack you?” And then the balance seemed to tip over into chaos.

“You can’t,” the perpetrator grinned at me, “you don’t have tenure!” That voiceless “whooo!” of two dozen breaths rapidly sighing out swept the room. I walked to the back of the class and stood in front of him.

“Do you know what today is?” I asked, looking out the window.

“Uh, Wednesday?”

“It’s October 24th.” I turned to face him. “And October 24th is the day midterm grades are due.” I could hear the awesomely stunned silence as I returned to the front of the class. I picked up my black marker and wrote “I WIN!” on the board, turned, and smiled.

Then, the kicker: The class stood up and gave me a standing ovation.

I bowed and said, “See you next week.” As they filed out, I overheard one girl say to her friend, “See? I told you you had to take his class!” Her friend nodded.

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In impossible, maddening, and ultimately brilliant The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson argues that a Marxist approach to literary criticism provides the most discerning analysis of a text by “always historicizing” and considering the political, social, and cultural contexts that other approaches, in his view, either minimize or ignore entirely. As Jameson presents this argument, he introduces a concept that, for me, epitomizes the complex task that confronts any serious reader. When approaching a text, the reader discovers the contexts multiplying so that no text exists as a discrete entity, entirely self-contained and readily digested. Instead, we read through a series of always-already existing readings of that text, from the initial reviews in newspapers to the latest literary critical analysis of the text. There is no way, for example, for any reader to understand Shakespeare without confronting, either implicitly or explicitly, the four hundred years of commentary that merge to create “Shakespeare.”

I have been thinking of this metacommentary lately as I read Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong. The cover of the novel itself is so freighted with meaning that one becomes overwhelmed just looking at it. The back cover features carefully wrought blurbs, all vying to construct the ultimate critical apparatus for us; all a reader needs to do is plug in the Michiko Kakutani analysis machine, and you’re ready to read.

Take the title: Plainsong. When I was in an undergraduate creative writing course, one of the students (who happened to be the lone graduate student there) wrote a short story called “Fugue in C Minor,” or something like that. The professor groaned and said, “Any short story with ‘fugue’ in the title…” and then he trailed off in hopeless frustration. And here is Kent Haruf with Plainsong. It reeks of preciousness. It screams seriousness. It is eager, intense, and driven, like a precocious undergraduate creative writer with more enthusiasm than talent.

Then there is the silver National Book Award Finalist badge embossed on the cover. The words “National Bestseller” hover above. The cover illustration shows distant hills in moody, smudged black and white with a dark and stormy sky dominating. “So foursquare, so delicate and lovely…It has the power to exalt the reader,” the New York Times Book Review proclaims. Foursquare? Exalt? Is this a novel or a sermon?

Once I open the book, I am again assaulted by messages urging me to remember that I am in the presence (or Presence) of Literature. “Here was this man Tom Guthrie in Holt standing at the back window in the kitchen of his house smoking cigarettes and looking out over the back lot where the sun was just coming up,” the story begins. As beautiful and evocative as this line is, it clearly arrived here after following dusty roads through the Exodus-reeking desert, along washed out rocky creekbeds and apocalyptic gorges, jerking awake as the other passengers on the Cormac McCarthy bus shout dire imprecations against the marauding hounds of hell chasing their tails in their fevered imaginations.

And then when he speaks, he does so without the benefit of typographical convention. No quotation marks, the true sign of Quality Writing(tm).

But why am I savaging this book? The truth is, I liked it. I liked it a lot. The story unfolds at the calm, quiet pace of a cowboy (in this case one of the McPheron brothers) methodically and carefully using a calf-puller on a pregnant heifer. Like McCarthy, Haruf loves work, and spends pages in the minutiae of real work, the kind that leaves your hands covered in mud, blood, and deep scratches. His characters are tough western types, and even the main character, history teacher Tom Guthrie, can throw a punch harder than any history teacher I ever knew. The rest of the characters, from poor, pregnant Victoria Roubideaux to sensually steaming Maggie Jones to taciturn Raymond and Harold McPheron, are believable, friendly folks with the interesting but subtle stories that hide under the surface of small towns across the country. The language is spare but as starkly beautiful as the high western plains locked in the deep freeze of January. The plot moves along at its own unhurried pace, with each character’s crisis crashing in excruciating slow motion into each other character’s crisis.

The problem for me is the metacommentary. The book told me too obviously what it was and how I should read it. Take away the slobbering praise on the covers and throw in a bushel or two of quotation marks, and you have a straightforward, honest, and deeply affecting book. With all of the cultural apparatus stitched to the book, it becomes a threatening monster, the Book That Must Be Read Seriously.

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Who’s Afraid of Henry James?

Henry James intimidates me.  Wordy, erudite, complex, profound, his works tend to make me feel as if I have not really earned my doctorate.  Nevertheless, I have thrown a couple of his works at classes and managed to make sense of them and even convinced a few students to like the stories.  A couple of years ago, I taught The Turn of the Screw to my American Gothic class, and although the result was very successful, I still feel that small crumpling of my ego when I contemplate James.

Last night, I led a group of students to the Westport Country Playhouse to watch an adaptation of James’s Gothic story.  My thoughts about leading student excursions are similar to my misgivings about teaching James–I always feel as if some catastrophe is about to happen, but once it is over, I am always glad to have done it.  I am a past perfect sort of field trip leader.  The group this time around consisted of several students from my American lit classes, a contingent from the English club (I’m the faculty adviser), and some of my regular groupies.

The stage set was spare and gloomy.  On one side, a black spiral staircase rose out of sight, while the other side had an armchair in front of a gauzy curtain.  The floor and walls were painted in splotches of brown and clack, adding to the colorless gloom.  The adaptation was cleverly done, with only two actors playing all of the roles.  Tom Beckett played the benefactor, Mrs. Grose, and Miles, while Charlotte Parry played the governess.  Flora was played by a ghost; that is, she was imaginary, something that was slightly annoying at first but quickly grew appropriately eerie.

The week before we went to the play, I was puzzled over how the director and playwright would solve the problem of the completely unreliable narrator.  In the novella, there are at least three layers of framing and screens to keep the reader guessing about what exactly happened to the governess.  Did she really see a ghost?  Was she insane?  Was she making it up?  By having the same actor portray both Mrs. Grose and Miles, the tale’s uncertainty remains while still allowing for a visual representation.  Beckett does this brilliantly, by the way, showing that he is changing characters simply by changing his posture and voice.

Another strange innovation was having the governess narrate large portions of the story.  For example, we see her stalking uneasily to the front of the stage, and, as she is doing that, she tells us that she is carefully approaching the lake.  At times I found this narration to work well, since it gave us a glimpse into the strange workings of her mind, but at others it caused that fourth wall to slam into place and lock me out.

All of this made me nervous.  I have seen quite a lot of drama, both traditional narratives on and off Broadway, and more experimental plays, so the spare set and unorthodox acting did not bother me.  However, I worried that my students might not like it.  Just as the curtain rose, the students sitting next to me hopped up and down in their seats, unable to contain their excitement at seeing live drama.

After the curtain call, they were just as enthusiastic, with more than one proclaiming the play “brilliant,” while solemnly nodding. They were, not surprisingly, completely fascinated and grossed out by the strange sexual subtexts that pervaded the performance.  They found the set creepy, and more than one worried that the play would cause nightmares.  To my great relief and happiness, they appreciated the play just as one might expect a group of smart English majors to appreciate it.

I know I should have been less apprehensive about the play, just as I should be less apprehensive about teaching James.  Most of the time, if I try something difficult, students will appreciate it and respond well.  I keep finding that I need to learn this lesson over and over.

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I’m Going to Cry

Yesterday I went online and ordered a desk copy of the anthology I will be using in a class this spring semester.  Today I received an e-mail from the McGraw-Hill (and, yes, I’m naming names) telling me they are sending the book.  It was a stock boilerplate form e-mail with my name and the name of the book stuck in the proper places, so this was not a quickly dashed-off missive.  Here is part of the text:

Thank you for your interest in Perkins: American Tradition in Literature, Volume 2, 11/e.   A copy of the text is on it’s way to you and should arrive in about a week.

I’m thinking of calling Lynne Truss.

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Bradbury the Martian

I was ten or so when I pulled my dad’s copy of The October Country off the bookshelves, looking for something that would scare me in that thrilling way. I had read The Halloween Tree and was anxious to jump back into that strangely poetic-sounding but eerie world of Bradbury’s Green Town Gothic. The stories in my dad’s book did their job well, from “The Small Assassin” to my personal favorite, “The Lake.” Other Bradbury works called to me, and, although I liked the science fiction of The Martian Chronicles and R Is for Rocket, the scary stories were always my favorites.

A Graveyard for Lunatics is one of Bradbury’s later efforts, published in 1990. It combines many of his favorite themes: the movies, the nature of friendship, and the allure of the land of illusion and fantasy. It begins in Hollywood on Halloween night (Bradbury’s favorite night) in 1954, when a young sci-fi author and screenwriter stumbles across what appears to be the body of a legendary studio mogul…who had died in a mysterious accident exactly twenty years before. As he tries to find the answers to the mysterious events that happen in rapid succession after his discovery, we see his encounters with a megalomaniac German-Chinese film director, an aging starlet, a paranoid and reclusive autograph hound, an actor who not only plays Jesus Christ but thinks he is J.C., and an amazingly talented special-effect model maker. The usual gang, in other words.

When I first read Dandelion Wine many years ago, I decided, in my undergraduate wisdom, that Bradbury really wrote poetry disguised as prose. His wildly evocative descriptions and headlong emotional rushes were fine as stories, but they really sang as poems. This time around, though, I’m not so thrilled. Bradbury’s Midwestern Baroque has twisted and decayed to become Nostalgic Mannerist.

The flights of linguistic fancy and wildly racing, enthusiastic shouts would work, but they overwhelm everything. Every character talks exactly like every other character–with long, wild rants that are probably meant to sound both homespun and wise but end up sounding like a precocious autodidact trying to show off what he has read. Every statement is an oracular speech, complete with wild imagery, copious italics, and plenty of exclamation points!!! Take this as an example: “Insane people give me hope,” one character says to the narrator. The narrator replies, “What!!!!” Now, okay, saying that insane people give you hope when you’re trying to track down some strange Beast who may be a murderer is a bit strange perhaps, but that response has at least three and probably four too many exclamations for my comfort. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy any of the characters or their feelings. I felt through the whole novel that it had been written by an alien who had heard of these things you strange humans call “emotions,” but had never actually experienced them. This alien then set out to write a “story” filled with “eccentric” characters who feel real “emotions.”

It is a bit disappointing to realize that one of my childhood idols is a hack and an alien one at that, but it does fit. It explains, for one thing, how Bradbury was able to write so well about Martians.

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The Mileage Messiah

Today I rode another century, making two centuries on two consecutive Saturdays. Fendergal and Dorothy had arranged to meet in Manhattan and ride the Escape from New York Century, and they invited me along for the fun. After having a decent ride last weekend, my legs felt up to another big ride, and, on top of that, I am starting to learn just how addictive it can be to ride high miles; ordinarily, my race training keeps me from very long rides since I have to prepare for shorter, faster races.

The course for Escape from New York took me and Dorothy on some roads we had never before explored on our bikes. It started at Grant’s Tomb and headed north, crossed the Hudson on the George Washington Bridge, and then meandered all over northern New Jersey before heading back south. Good roads, fun terrain, and pretty scenery, marred only by the presence of Jersey drivers, who have their thumbs permanently welded to their horn buttons.

Fendergal is an absolute kick to ride with. For one thing, she knew the roads we were riding on quite well, so she acted as our guide. She is also very strong and rides with a beautifully smooth, fluid style that most racers seem to develop–either they develop it or they quit racing because they crash too much. At one point when we were riding side-by-side, we started goofing off, elbowing each other and riding with our handlebars almost touching, something I only do with riders I really trust.
The other extremely cool thing about riding with her is that she takes absolutely no crap from other riders. On a century, you get riders of all levels of fitness and experience, and many of them seem to be reasonably strong but just do not have the real riding abilities–the bike handling and group riding skills–that separate the enthusiasts from the serious. Usually, when I am riding a century and encounter these trying souls, I try to ride them off my wheel so I don’t have to deal with them–classic passive-aggressive behavior, I guess. Fendergal, though, is an enforcer. One dude was riding very obnoxiously, half-wheeling, listening to an iPod (on a group ride?!? What are you thinking?!), and generally riding like a doofus. Plus, we all rather snobbishly decided he was wearing a really stupid and ugly jersey. She yelled at him and told him to stop riding so dangerously. He complied for a while but finally decided to ride on his own. Snarkiness is so much more fun when you do it in a group–I highly recommend it.

After getting home from the ride, we went out to dinner, where I ate far too much, but since I probably burned close to 5,000 calories, I figured it was okay. I started to think more about these longer rides I have done lately, and I began to feel the urge to ride more longer rides, trying to do 150 miles or even 200 miles on my own. I need to become the Mileage Messiah.

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Emily Is Awesome

Last week, one of my favorite students came to see me.  She is one of the good ones–smart, thoughtful, nice–and she’s also one of my TAs.  She had decided after much agonizing and soul-searching that she did not want to be a teacher but wanted to follow her true love, which is publishing.  “What do I need to do?” she asked.  I suggested internships might be a good place to start.  “How do I do that?” she asked.  I had no idea.

Then it hit me.  I know someone in publishing, and I know that this someone has connections to a publisher just a few miles from campus.  After jumping to their website, I discovered that they do hire interns.  My student–let’s call her C, shall we?–and I were happy about this.  “Let me e-mail my friend,” I told C.  “Maybe she can give us some insider help.”  I dashed off an e-mail to Emily, who, despite her huge move and worry about her nieces, replied.  The internship contact listed on the website already had enough interns, but another person in the company needed someone.  Emily said she would put in the good word for C.  I forwarded this information to C, who immediately called the new contact.

Today C bounced into my office.  She had the interview earlier in the morning and got the internship.  She loves the company.  She loves the company’s website and online work.  She loves the people at the company.  She is already planning her career there.  “I owe it all to you,” she said.  But she’s wrong.  I’m the conduit, no more praiseworthy than ATT is when you get good news over the phone.  C did it with her obvious talents, and Emily did it, helping out a friend even when she was busy.

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