02 July 2011

Let's talk literature.

So part of my professional duties is to teach literature. I recently completed a course in American literature in which I asked the students to read Herman Melville's The Confidence Man. It's an amazingly simple story in that it takes place aboard a Mississippi steam boat and involves nothing more than conversations between characters. However, it's also an amazingly intricate story in that it involves shifting roles with one character constantly reappearing in the guise of someone else: in other words, a confidence man.

The story is based on trust, or confidence, and the necessity as well as danger of confidence.

It is, I have decided, not a text to be served up to freshmen in an introductory literature course.

Introductory lit students seem to think the text is plotless, and to an extent it is, and they view that as a great fault, which it can be but isn't always, and I would say that by and large they are not fans of the book.

One of my students, however, did me the great honor of giving me her copy of the book after class: it was the Norton Critical Edition, whereas the official book was the Penguin edition. Now for those of you who aren't in the know, the NCE is a series that includes not only the text of the book with explanatory notes, but also several essays about the author and/or the text. They're very nice scholarly editions, so I appreciated that gift, even though it also told me that the student didn't see much value in keeping the book.

I have a few books that I've decided need to be reserved for more advanced students. Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! are among those books. I also don't think I would surprise them with anything of Toni Morrison's beyond Beloved (although I might think about Jazz). Sula, on the other hand, is a great introduction to Morrison.

I will continue to teach Melville in the introduction to American lit, but it will most likely be my favorite, "Benito Cereno," or "Billy Budd." Maybe Typee.

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