29 April 2013

Twentieth Century Southern Literature...so many choices but not so many weeks.

I'm putting together a syllabus for 20th Century Southern Literature. I've never been immersed in a heavily concentrated bath of southern angst, depression, and morbid obsession with family honor, but I've read my share of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, so I think I have a decent basis on that end of the spectrum.

Since I'm not allowed to make the course 100% Faulkner, I've been tossing the following around in my head:

1. William Faulkner, Light in August OR Absalom, Absalom!
  • Light in August is more accessible than Absalom, Absalom!, but I get such enjoyment out of the latter book that it might make the blank stares worth it. On the other hand, Reverend Hightower's habits and commentary is absolutely priceless.
2. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Contemporaneous with Faulkner and an interesting counterpoint to his world, this text is so beautifully written I'd like to include it on most all my syllabi. I have better luck with this work than with Jonah's Gourd Vine.
3. Flannery O'Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge
  • I like throwing in a collection of short stories, because that allows me to get more mileage out of the textbook -- we can work on O'Connor over a few classes.
4. Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire
  • You can't really have a Southern Lit class without some Tennessee Williams, and I also find that students don't encounter plays very often (unless they're reading Shakespeare or studying the Restoration Era).
5. Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
  • Much like Faulkner and Hurston provide a good contrast, so too do Percy and Williams. The New Orleans of Williams simply oozes sex, whereas Percy's maintains restraint.
6. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
  • Outside of Chuck Palahniuk, no contemporary writer does bizarre so compellingly as McCarthy, but that's about all the two writers have in common.

The list isn't complete, but these are the definite starters. I'm looking for a few more books to fill out the schedule, and I'm looking hardest right now at Alice Walker, contemplating Robert Penn Warren, and putting some outside money on John Kennedy Toole (just to keep up the New Orleans theme, which, by the way, is also another argument for Absalom, Absalom!). Hell, maybe I'll do both of those Faulkner novels.

24 April 2013

Novels You Shouldn't Teach in Introductory Literature Courses, Vol 1: Melville's The Confidence-Man

A little while ago I decided I would mix things up and get away from the tried and true Benito Cereno in my American literature survey. Benito Cereno is an eminently teachable text, with its 3rd person limited omniscient narrator keeping us interested in Amasa Delano's perceptions, fooling us with Delano's own excuses. Students can sink their teeth into the desperation of slavery and the transfer of power from a declining to a rising empire. It's a relatively short read, too.

However, it's also heavily anthologized and therefore one tends to see heavily repetitive essays that can be traced to such centers of scholarly learning as sparknotes and shmoop. Besides, I have never been interested in teaching the same collection of texts semester after semester.

So I decided that I would go for The Confidence-Man, a novel I read in graduate school and really enjoyed, probably for the very reasons that make it so unfit for an introductory undergraduate literature course.

By the time he wrote The Confidence-Man (1857), Melville was a bit pissed at the publishing industry and America in general. Despite early success with his novels of the South Pacific, Melville saw both popular and critical appreciation for his work decline as he produced the works that would become the cornerstone of his posthumous revival and reputation. Moby-Dick (1851) for instance, such a totemic novel that it has become synonymous with The Great American Novel and shorthand for massively serious literate society, was all but dismissed by Melville's contemporary critics.

The Confidence-Man was Melville's last novel and critics received it much as one might receive a flaming pile of dog shit on your front porch. Of course, in a sense, that's exactly what it was, because Melville was providing them with an acerbic and decidedly mean-spirited prank, published precisely on April 1, 1857. It's a fantastic novel that skewers American consumer culture, lampoons provincial attitudes, and questions all manner of trust or confidence, while at the same time it ignores the "beginning, middle, and end" of traditional plots, fails to have any identifiable central characters, and undercuts coherent narrative every chance it gets. It's a terrible novel to teach to undergraduates encountering college-level literature for the first time.

In a nutshell, the novel follows a riverboat along the Mississippi during the course of a single day. Passengers come and go at each stop and it's unclear if one or several confidence men are working the boat in the narrative...we as readers are never let in definitively on the identity of the con artist(s) touching the marks. It lends itself to rich readings in a few post-structural veins (performative identity, to name one), but it does not give the novice reader much to hang his or her hat on: no compelling characters to follow, no plot to unwind (the mystery of the confidence man/men is never really presented as a mystery and in any case there's never a resolution as to the motives or identity of the confidence man or men), and nothing to follow more than conversations among passengers. To make matters worse, Melville sprinkles numerous references to contemporary political, economic, and cultural events throughout, putting those who haven't had a good dose of Emerson, for instance, at a severe disadvantage (and I mean a good dose...not a poem or an essay, but an extended exposure).

I dearly love this novel, but I am seriously considering the less imposing Typee or the intimidatingly iconic, but much more teachable, Moby-Dick for the next go-round.

23 April 2013

Hello, Old Friend, Once Again.

I have taken a break, more or less, from blogging over the past few years. Sure, I had some spurts of energy where I blogged for a month or two on a fairly regular basis, but nothing sustained beyond that...I couldn't even get terribly fired up for the general election last fall.

(Look, Mitt, it really wasn't your fault. You were a complete bonehead and your pandering did set me off, so you did your part, but I couldn't hold up my end of the bargain. I simply didn't care, given that the best you could muster in the polls was a dead cat bounce.)

Do you know I posted all of five times in 2012? Five times.  

Life's been busy. I have a garden to tend. I have classes to teach. I have kids to shepherd around. I tend to regard blogging the same way I regard going to the gym...you have to make a commitment and once you've decided you're too tired or busy to hit the machines one day, well, you might as well tear up the gym membership, because next thing you know you've paid for three months simply to say you're a member.

It's spring. Let's give it another chance.