Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #20)

Greetings From Chicago!

It’s hard to believe that August starts tomorrow.  Summer is moving along fast.  My summer has been both restful and productive this year.  Reading for my book progresses nicely and I even managed to finish revisions on my First Year Writing course early.  Now I can enjoy the weeks leading up to the Fall semester without stressing over the changes needed to my course schedule and writing assignments.  This year I’m teaching four sections of Academic Writing I in the Fall and I decided to focus more consciously on the concept of genre.  I’ve always felt that genre represents something of an unspoken contract between the reader and the writer.  It generally gives you a sense of what you are about to read and (as a writer) it gives you some parameters to work within to make sure that what you are writing is properly understood.  Beyond that, I’ll be using the class to focus on implicit versus explicit argumentation.  The plan is sketched out.  Now I just need to make sure it actually works for the students.  I should have a greater sense of this by about week 4.  Stay tuned.

Tomorrow I head off for my last trip of the summer.  I’m flying north to Vermont to visit my family.  It’s interesting to read about my home state in the books associated with my research.  The Green Mountain State keeps coming up in discussions on the various attempts throughout US history to reform agriculture and improve human relations to the land.  Apparently Vermont is not only imagined as some sort of vacationer’s paradise but also as an Agrarian Utopia.  Having living in Vermont for nearly 21 years of my life, I can’t help but laugh.  This isn’t really the Vermont I know.  Author’s on the topic of agriculture and environmentalism seem obsessed with the eclogue.  I lived the georgic.  I was part of the labor mechanism that supported the outsider’s illusion.  Oh well, it’s good for local business and there are worse ways to make a living.  Like painting old dumpsters.  (Yes, this is a job I have done.  Don’t recommend it for people with weak stomachs.)

For this month’s post, I want to comment a bit on the relationship between history to literature.  This topic seems especially important now that shows like The Man In the High Castle and Confederate are being produced.  Generally speaking, I have no problem with counter-factual narratives.  Some are quite entertaining.  We shouldn’t hold fiction to the same standard as non-fiction.  Engaging the imagination is the point, after all, of figurative language.  Getting us to imagine a world of “what if’s.”  History is a different story.  It relies on narrative and imagination, just like literature, but it should be held to a more vigorous standard.  History needs to show us what the world was actually like at a specific place and time (good, bad, utterly horrific).  We should then be able to imagine as accurately as possible what people lived through during the time period examined.  Perhaps a good way to sum up the distinction I see between history and literature is that history complicates and literature creates empathy.

Of course, there are exceptions to the little schema I’ve provided above.  Many of the historians I enjoy reading create empathy with the characters in their non-fiction narratives.  Ken Burns is a great example of this in a visual narrative medium.  Also, there are plenty of good fiction writers who complicate our relationship to the fictional world they have created.  Empathy in Gone Girl is a difficult enterprise.  What worries me, however, is that the line between history and literature is starting to blur to an unhealthy degree.  Even more worrisome, we don’t seem to be talking enough about this blurring.  It’s like I tell my writing students, you have to know the rules of writing before you can break them.  Otherwise it’s just a grammatical error and not a cutting edge technique.  The same is true when mixing elements of history and fiction.  You have to know (or want to know) the truth before you can start engaging in the act of imagination.  Otherwise you end up with narratives that consciously or sub-consciously serve dangerous ends.  You start to forget what is the fictional story and what was the real course of events.  You also might start to not even care anymore about the distinction.

Others have written more eloquently than me on the problems of our “post-truth” era and its relationship to “fake news” and “reality TV.”  So I’ll spare you my analysis of those trends.  What I want to end this discussion with instead is a provocative juxtaposition of Mad Men with The Walking Dead.  Neither of these, of course, are history.  They are both Television shows.  What they share, however, is a similar emotional starting point.  Nostalgia.  In Mad Men, this nostalgia is painfully obvious in the mid-century modern details of each frame.  (Material nostalgia is rampant right now and deserves a good book.)  Yet it is also ambiguous in its message.  Are we supposed to mourn the loss of a world where straight white men ruled the world?  Where smoking and drinking happened everywhere with impunity?  Or are we supposed to look back at this episode of US history as a warning and take a moment to reflect on how far we have come and how far we have yet to go?  With The Walking Dead, more subtle messages (at least for me) are hidden behind the gore.  If you can set aside for a moment the fact that the living dead are killing  and eating people, you start to see that the show both feels nostalgic (for a world before the crisis) and also points to that nostalgia as a source of crisis.

Will we choose the Zombie or the ash tray?  And are they not the same thing?  A reminder that obsession with the past can be unhealthy.  That what is past is never truly past.  Perhaps HBO can redeem itself by staging one of Faulkner’s works like Go Down, Moses instead of a  stupid fictional docudrama imagining a world where the southern states won the Civil War.  Or we can take a break from imagining the past or the future and look at our present.  Beautiful, Scary, Confused, Ugly, and Poignant.  I’d like to see that on the page and screen.

Here is where I end my post.  I just have one more thing to add.  A reminder that the deadline for NeMLA paper submissions is fast approaching (September 30).  You can check out the various CFP’s here <https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/cfp>.  I have several sessions that I have proposed.  You can see descriptions of them in my last NeMLA post (#19) along with links to the CFP for those sessions.  Let me know if you have any questions about what I’m looking for.  If you can possible afford to attend and see a session of interest, I would very much like to meet you in Pittsburg.

Until Next Time….

John Casey

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