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.