Saturday, February 12, 2011

Poe's (Ir)Rational Artist in The Philosophy of Composition

My American literature survey class is starting to breathe easier.  We are out of the 17th and 18th centuries with the dominance of personal narratives, sermons, and devotional poetry.  We have moved into the beginnings of short fiction.  Most importantly, we have been reading Poe.  Students love Poe.

As part of our three-days binge on Poe (along with Emerson, Poe is the one writer that I devote multiple days to in the course), I ask students to read "The Philosophy of Composition" (originally published in 1846).  Early in the essay, he writes, "I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would -- that is to say who could -- detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion."  (Poe's thinking here puts me in mind of Mark Twain's "How to Tell a Story" or, in another way, the addendum to Puddn'head Wilson, "Those Extraordinary Twins," but that is another topic for some other day.)  The essay gives a tightly focused description of the process behind Poe's "The Raven" and offers a look into the writer's exceedingly careful approach to story telling.  I have taught the piece before, but this time I had a rather strange reaction to it.

Like many of Poe's narrators, the speaker in this piece presents a picture of obsession.  That picture is, I think, a counter to our impressions of Poe as a tortured artist, as a writer given to excess and who meets the most stereotypical image of the romantic writer who gives himself over to the depths of emotion both within his life and the life of his characters.  Here we have Poe's very careful, even methodical and rational approach to setting the effects of his poem.  While the narrator in "The Raven" struggles to make his way through a world now dark because of the death of his lovely Lenore ("Nameless here for evermore"), the description of the creative process in "The Philosophy..." is strident in its care and focus on bringing a reader to a full aesthetic experience prompted by grief.  The whole description follows a direct path from a notion of the denouement ("Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth its name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen.") to the strategies for assuring the final effect.  In essence, Poe seems to be arguing against the organic quality of the creative process and, instead, arguing for the intensity of explicit planning during each step of composition.  How unromantic of him.

Yet, this is also in keeping with the obsessive quality of his most crazed narrators.  The cool and obsessive planning and the careful and intricate plotting seem to unite the writer Poe with his creations.  And that might just be the main point here -- that the seeming logic and rational approach to composition is, in reality, one more example of the obsessive nature.  And what seems inconsistent and atypical actually offers a complete identification of the writer (through the description of his writing process) with his damaged narrators.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Of Sin and Humility: Embracing the Puritans

This winter I am teaching the first third of the American literature survey -- beginnings to 1865.  I begin the course with in a fairly traditional way:  I start with the early writings of the British separatists, especially William Bradford and John Winthrop.  This first week of reading moved from the two early male leaders of New England to the poetry of Anne Bradstreet and the captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson.  It's all a heady brew of self-effacement and an embrace of humility in the face of an all mighty and all consuming God.  Students find much of the material alien, even with the observation that these writers were (or nearly were) contemporaries of Shakespeare (his Tempest was produced in 1611; nine years prior to Bradford's and Winthrop's journey to their new world).

The focus on humility grew, of course, out of the belief in the degeneracy of the human soul.  I find it interesting that within the past week -- and in conjunction with the reporting and commentary generated by the shootings in Arizona -- a few observers have resurrected the Puritan sense of sin and have begun to argue that contemporary America can benefit from a heightened sense of sin and the resulting humility, that perhaps those lessons could help transform our immediate and chaotic embrace of extreme and even narcissistic discourse into a more reasonable or certainly more measured discussion.  It's an interesting idea (most recently offered by David Brooks in his NY Times column and during an appearance yesterday on Meet the Press; it' a point made by Sarah Vowell in her 2008 book The Wordy Shipmates).  The point, perhaps, is not to return to the religious myopia of the puritans; rather, we should regain some sense of our failings and the reality that we cannot locate perfection in this life.  That if we acknowledge our own sense of human failing, we are likely to approach others with a sense of compassion. 

Of course, the Puritans were not knows for their tolerance (ask Roger Williams or Anne Hutchinson).  But the point to this updating of the reality of "sin" is not religious dominance.  It is a hope that humility in the variety of venues (political, social) can lead to less dependence on self-righteous bloviating and more awareness of the complicated nature of life and the inherent challenge of social and personal improvement.  I would like to think that we can get there without the deep dependence on God and self-loathing that leads to the extremism of the neo-calvinism of Jonathan Edwards.  It would be worth a try.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Beneath the Canon, Three

In December, I decided to put this blog on hiatus.  It seemed that my original (Kiskislog) was going along fine, and I would concentrate my writing on that one site.  Since then there have been a couple of interesting developments in the world of Mark Twain scholarship, related to the publication of Twain's autobiography and then a recent new -- and sanitized -- edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and those have taken up a good deal of attention (including mine).  I didn't expect really to spend so much time on Twain, though I continue to be surprised at how much attention is paid to anything that has his name in the title.  So it goes.

So I thought it time to come back to this second site.  I will try to offer comments on the reading that I and my students will be doing this coming term.  And I will try to break free of the hold that Twain has had on my comments.  There are, after all, other writers.  That is something that some in the Twain community seem not to realize.  It's perhaps time to give them more time and comment.

So we will see if this is a useful decision.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Beneath the Canon, continued

When I last wrote I was awaiting approval of my proposal for a new course using electronic texts.  I will be able to offer this new course during our coming Spring term (that runs from mid-April to late May).  I will ask students to purchase an Amazon Kindle, and we will use the vast catalog of out-of-print texts as the jumping off point for our reading.  This holds both promise and anxiety, and I will write more about this as I begin preparations and try to navigate the demands.

My seminar this term (for senior English majors) has 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 or context. 

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.  Maybe.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Beneath the Canon -- electronic resources

I am awaiting the decision by our Course Approval Committee whether or not I will be able to teach a new course in the Spring term.  The course will use an Amazon Kindle as the primary technology, and I hope 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 of titles by Mark Twain, Frank Norris, and Louisa May Alcott.  Each of the three files offers stories or novels that are no longer available in print.  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.  I will next approach Alcott's Hospital Sketches.  

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.

All of this will be an experiment.  Students may be drawn to this because of the "new" technology.  I hope they will stay for the literary lesson.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Canon Babbling

I intend to use this space to comment on reading and the variety of questions that spark from works both canonical and noncanonical.  I am now teaching a seminar based on these kinds of questions, and I hope to use the conversations in that course to begin a (perhaps long-term) exploration of canonical issues.  I also intend to try to have fun playing the categories and the range of reading that I do. 

In a book titled The American Adam R. W. B. Lewis takes the position that canons and culture form not from artifacts but out of the on-going conversation between writers or among their works or about their books and ideas.  He writes, "The debate, indeed, may be said to be the culture, at least on its loftiest levels; for a culture achieves identity not so much through the ascendancy of one particular set of convictions as through the emergence of its peculiar and distinctive dialogue."  I hope to start a conversation.  Or at least to keep up one end of it.