Director’s Corner (NeMLA Blog Post #23)


View Outside My Classroom Window. February 22, 2018. Photo by John Casey.

Greetings from Chicago!

Looking at my list of Blog Posts, I see that it has been since October that I’ve last written anything for this column. I guess the easiest way to explain that (aside from Holiday planning and travel) is that I didn’t have much to write about in those intervening months.

Today I decided to open my computer and write what will be my second to last post as Director of Anglophone/American Literature at NeMLA. My position ends at this year’s conference in Pittsburgh.

Before I launch into the topic for this post (the role of the imagination in literary studies), I just want to take a moment to thank a few people who have made my experience as Director incredibly rewarding. First, there’s Ben Railton, who put into my head the idea that I could self-nominate for this position and actually get elected. Then there are my fellow Director’s Susmita Roye and Lisa Perdigao both of whom I have had the privilege of collaborating with on Special Events programing. I learned a lot from their past experience. Thanks to Carine Mardorossian for being so patient with me as a newbie to NeMLA and to Brandi So who helped me with more than a few software glitch issues. Finally, I’d like to thank the members of NeMLA, without whom there wouldn’t be a need for a board at all. It’s been a privilege to serve you in the role of Director and a real treat to get to view the session proposals for the entire conference. Let no one tell you that literary studies isn’t strong as a field. It’s simply evolving (perhaps a bit slowly) to meet the times.

I hope to meet some of my readers in Pittsburg and hear the wonderful research projects you are working on. Remember to look for my signature bow tie. : )

Several semesters ago, I taught a version of a course on Literary Criticism and Literary Theory that began with a pair of essays. One was by Susan Sontag and the other by Jean Paul Sartre. In the first of these essays, Sontag decried the violence of literary analysis as it is taught in schools, ripping apart a work of art to see how it works rather than appreciating it for what it is–a mode of expression where the parts are greater than the whole and meaning can never fully be discerned. She made the daring claim that we should simply learn to emotionally engage with art as art rather than forcing it to mean something. Sartre, in contrast, argued that art and artists had an obligation to engage their audience to effect change in the world. (It’s not accidental that Sartre is probably better known and understood for his fiction than his philosophical treatises.)

These essays were meant to provoke a semester long conversation on what exactly this thing we call “literature” is and what as dedicated readers we are supposed to do with it. Not surprisingly, we came to no consensus on these issues. Here are how my thoughts have evolved on the subject since I first chose to introduce it in this class.

On the one hand, I find myself agreeing with Sontag. Poems, Short Stories, Novels, all the ways that humans can be creative are not like machines that can be ripped apart and studied for how and why they work. Perhaps the best critique of this reductionist approach to literature comes from Edgar Allan Poe when he explains his poem “The Raven.”

Yet, on the other hand, I can’t help but feel drawn to Sartre’s perspective that no form of communication is disinterested. Even artists want something from us.

How do I reconcile these twin beliefs? I focus on characters in fiction who become more real to us than the people we see on the streets every day.

This semester I am teaching an Introduction to American Literature course. I’ve always been committed to teaching works by lesser known and local authors. This spring I chose to meet that goal by teaching a course on Chicago Literature.

So far we have read poems by Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks. Works by contemporary poets Eve Ewing and Kevin Coval are yet to come. We’ve also read novels by Theodore Dreiser (Sister Carrie) and Richard Wright (Native Son) and still have works by Nelson Algren and Bill Hillmann waiting for us towards the semester’s end.

Since our classroom looks out on the loop and the Sears Tower, it’s not hard for us to envision the world these writer’s create.

Teaching the Sandburg poem “Halsted Street Car,” I told my students to think of their morning commute. How many of us have seen the exhausted workers whose faces are “tired of wishes / empty of dreams.”

Reading Sister Carrie, I asked them to imagine her walking through the State Street shopping corridor, arm in arm with her dapper salesman boyfriend Charles Drouet. Who, I asked, are the Carrie’s they see walking that same street today? Where are the Drouet’s? The materialist desires both represent are far from gone. Otherwise, why would the stores still be there?

With Native Son, we reflected this week on the legacy of the Kerner Report and the growing number of black males in prison. I asked my students to find cases similar to that of Bigger Thomas and they delivered. I asked them to imagine what Bigger’s life would be like without racial barriers and we couldn’t. Even in our imagination he remained a criminal, just maybe not a double murderer.

Now as we move on to Gwendolyn Brooks, we are considering the role of black women in the worn out communities of the South and West Sides who are asked to hold the tattered fabric of community together against tremendous odds.

I see Sister Carrie and Charles Drouet, Bigger Thomas and his mother, Sandburg’s Contemporary Bunkshooter, and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Sadie and Maude and Chocolate Mabbie. I see them all when I walk the streets of my Chicago.

And what do these fictional characters become real mean to me?

First, they remind me to be careful. That it is easy for the imagination to wander into the realm of stereotype and through that engage in prejudiced actions.

Second, they remind me that although Chicago is a city that isn’t kind to fools and where a wrong turn can lead to a quick end, it is also a city of resilience and incredible kindness (especially among those who have nothing). Some of the kindest and most decent people I have meet are from areas in the South Side that outsiders are warned to stay way from.

And third, they remind me that the imagination is about envisioning what isn’t there or what might be and not simply a way to see “what is” in a different light. One persons’ realism, after all, is another person’s utopia.

As a teacher, I never know what my student’s will take away from my classes. Teaching literature itself can be as unpredictable as the art we examine. I do hope, however, that my students will think about the thorny issue of how “art follows life” and use that as a spur for action. To create the neighborhoods they want to live in rather than driving over the same damn potholes their grandparents cursed at.

Until Next Time….

John Casey

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