Posts Tagged Literature
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….
CRN 14458 – TR 9:30-10:45
CRN 14460 – TR 3:30-4:45
Everything By Design: Writing About Chicago’s Infrastructure
Infrastructure is all around you. The roads you drive to work or school, the water that comes out of the faucet in your home, the lights you turn on when it gets dark, and even the schools you have attended are all examples of infrastructure. These intricately designed systems for organizing space are fundamental parts of our lives that we often take for granted until they malfunction. But what is the logic behind the systems that make up infrastructure and how were those systems created? What is the future for infrastructure, particularly in the Chicago area? These are just a few of the questions we will explore in this class as we use the subject of infrastructure to learn some basic skills of academic research and writing.
CRN 24547 / 24548 – TR 11:00-12:15
You Were Never Here: Author’s Writing In And About Chicago
What comes to mind when you hear the word Chicago? For some it’s stockyards and steel mills, but these have been gone from the city’s landscape for nearly three generations. For others it’s the stories of violent crime, but Al Capone is a distant memory and many neighborhoods are not touched by the gang activity on the evening news. Some see the city as a patchwork of neighborhoods with different ethnic backgrounds at their core, but rising rents and mortgage prices have turned many ethnic neighborhoods into urban shopping malls. The Chicago that seems ‘real’ to you depends on what you already believe before picking up the book. In this class, we will examine the strong emotions that readers have about Chicago and the narratives that either seem real or fake to those reading them. Readings for the class will include classic novels such as Sister Carrie and Native Son alongside more recent works by local authors such as The Old Neighborhood. We will also read poems by Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry slam founder Kevin Koval’s recent collection A People’s History of Chicago.
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….
Greetings from Chicago!
Christmas music is now on the radio and stores are all decorated for the holiday season, but it’s 55 degrees fahrenheit outside. From my office window up on the 18th floor, I can see students sitting on the Quad in between classes enjoying their lunch and getting ready for final exams as well as a few students practicing their skateboard skills. This is the last week of class on the UIC campus. Next week begins exam week and a massive grading crunch for faculty as they scramble to get student work evaluated before leaving campus to celebrate the holidays with their families. I have a particularly busy December this year as my brother in law is getting married this weekend. After a whirlwind trip to Missouri to celebrate his nuptials, I’ll be back on campus to collect student writing and begin calculating final grades for my courses. Then I’m only in Chicago for a few weeks before heading off to Vermont to visit my family.
For this month’s blog post, I’d like to take a moment to consider the concept of the “public intellectual.” Public Intellectual is one of those terms that generates highly polarized responses. Some people see the term as reflecting a healthy engagement between faculty and the general public. Others see it as patronizing, an attempt by elitists generally sheltered from society, to meddle in the affairs of people they don’t understand. These polarized responses to the public intellectual indicate two things to me. First, academics are bad at communicating with people outside their areas of specialization, justifying the charge of being patronizing. Second, academics don’t have a clear sense of the social value of their work.
Let’s start with the issue of communication. Last semester I had the privilege of teaching ENGL 240, a course in literary criticism and critical theory designed to prepare English Majors for upper level surveys and seminars. One of the frequent topics of conversation between me and the students in that class involved the density of the language in the texts we were reading. Many of these texts used jargon from disciplines outside of English such as philosophy, economics, and sociology. They were also often poorly translated from their original languages (typically French and German). When students would complain about the difficulty of something we were reading for that class, I would point out to them that sometimes a text is complicated to read because the concepts examined are complicated. However, sometimes complexity of language is an attempt to make something simple sound complex. In my teaching, I instinctively gravitate towards making complexity understandable for novices just learning how to read and write about literature. Yet when I write, I feel compelled to mimic the structure and tone of the experts in the field that I assume will be reading and critiquing my work. Often this means adopted the tortured syntax and vocabulary of “theory.”
Adapting your writing to meet the needs of a specific audience is not a bad thing. I teach students in my rhetoric courses to always keep audience expectations in mind as well as pay attention to the rules of genre. But it’s not always easy to shed the jargon, lengthy sentences, and analytical backflips so common in academic journals and books when speaking to non-academics or even to faculty outside of your own field. I remember a History professor telling me once that the worst books he had ever read where written by English faculty who seemed to think that complex syntax and jargon could substitute for critical insight. Although I tend to agree with that critique and write in all my work as directly as I can, the issue of “code-switching” seems more relevant to me. Often applied to multi-lingual speakers, code-switching describes the ways in which we adjust our language to meet the expectations of our audience. It also recognizes the relationship between language use and membership in a wide variety of social groups. Lecturing is not just a technique. It is a tone of voice. To have a conversation with the general public, some genuine code-switching is in order. Speak to people in a tone that doesn’t deny your status as an expert but that also doesn’t deny the expertise of those to whom you are speaking. Everyone is an expert in something. Share that expertise.
Moving on now to the issue of the social value of academic work, the problem varies from discipline to discipline. In my own field of English studies, the problem has arisen that no one is clear anymore on what counts as literature, why we should read it, and how we should talk about it after it is read. It is kind of a paradox that our abundance of creative writing is paired today with the lack of an audience. Particularly an audience that knows what to do with creative expression. My approach to the problem has been to contextualize creative expression in the classroom and in my publications. I try to help students see the factors that went into the production of a piece of literature, including the cost of printing and purchasing a book, and also to consider the responses of prior audiences when they read a work of literature. We then discuss why we believe that a book remains a subject of discussion as a way of answering the “literary question.” I also engage in the thorny issue of evaluation (i.e. Is the book really any good?). In my publications, I also contextualize the works I examine but I tend to assume the “literariness” of the material I analyze. Since I’m writing for experts, I assume that they will see the works I examine as worthy of examination. Particularly since other scholars have already written on the authors I am analyzing.
None of this addresses the problem, however, of how to convince the general public to see the value of your scholarship. For me the essence of the problem is how to create the kind of spaces outside the classroom that mimic some of the elements of what I do in the classroom. Public lectures like those held by Emerson and Twain in the 19th century are rare today. As are book clubs. Thus far, my only answer to this dilemma has been to blog. My blog posts serve as a quasi-lecture series for the general public. I’ve also offered book reviews on occasion in my blog for academic works related to my field hoping that some non-experts might be tempted to read those works. Obviously, however, this is not enough. What is needed is a recommitment to the concept of lifelong learning. Faculty need to become more engaged in what remains of their campus extension programs and courses for adult learners who are auditing courses rather than pursuing a degree. Improve what is there and expand it. We also need to become more comfortable on television, radio, and other forms of media not commonly used by experts to speak to other experts. Who among us is brave enough to be the Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson of the humanities?
I think I’ve said enough for this month’s post. But a long post is in order since I won’t be writing to you this December. I’m taking the month off to celebrate Christmas and New Years. I hope whatever holidays you celebrate are enjoyable, spent with family and friends. I look forward to continuing my communication with you, my readers, in January.
Until next time…
(Note: This piece is also posted on my current events blog Man Without a Newspaper.)
By now I’m late to the discussion of the controversy surrounding De Paul University Theater Professor Rachel Shteir’s April 18th review of three recently released books on Chicago– Thomas Dyja’s The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream, Jeff Coen and John Chase’s Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison, and Neil Steinberg’s You Were Never In Chicago.
Her article has started a heated debate between those who agree with her that Chicago has an unwarranted sense of self-confidence (i.e. “boosterism”) and those who feel that she’s a bitchy New Yorker carrying on in the age-old rant that Chicago is a provincial or “second city” in comparison to the coastal greatness and finesse of the Big Apple.
As fascinating as these critiques are to rehash (they are at least a century old), their writers have neglected to point out three of the largest flaws in Shteir’s piece.
The first is one of genre. Shteir is a terrible book reviewer. Perhaps she thinks that she has attained the status of an Edmund Wilson or Susan Sontag who could ramble on about whatever they liked while ostensibly “reviewing” a book or film. That, at least, is what Shteir does throughout much of her review. In fact, the only section that truly feels like a book review involves Thomas Dyja’s masterful book, which deserves a much more incisive commentary than Shteir can provide.
A second flaw manifests itself in her categorical confusion between literary writing and public policy. Rahm Emanuel and his staff are indeed”swaggering” in their boostership for Chicago. So are local businesses and developers. That’s their job. Chicago literary writers, on the other hand, are beholden to their own idiosyncratic ideals. Part of our problem as a city is that the published writers who are labelled “Chicago authors” are so divergent that a clear picture is hard to assemble. What is the common thread that links Gwendolyn Brooks, Nelson Algren, Mike Royko, Ida Wells, Aleksandar Heman, and Brigid Pasulka? Immigration is about the best I can do, but that applies to many U.S. cities.
This leads me to my final point, and that is Professor Shteir’s silence on the role the publishing industry (most of which is located in her beloved New York) plays in skewing the image of Chicago writing and culture that she purports to explain to NYT readers. I can think of many Chicago authors, quite a few of whom are close friends, whose works answer Shteir’s charge that Chicago needs to be more self-critical. Yet they can’t find a publisher willing to take a risk on their fiction or they publish in small presses who hardly ever come under scrutiny by the likes of the NYT book review.
Shteir’s review should remind cultural critics that public intellectual work has standards of its own. Just because you’re not under the unrelenting microscope of the peer-review process doesn’t mean that you can get away with sloppy reasoning and evidence. It should also remind us that generalizations about cities (or anything for that matter) are limited by thousands of qualifiers. “Chicago literature” or a “Chicago style” are simply heuristics.
On a more personal note, I’ve lived in Chicago for 13 years. A transplant from Vermont, it took a while for me to get used to how flat the landscape is in the city. I’ve grown to love Chicago over that time in the complicated way described by Nelson Algren in his book Chicago: City on the Make–“Yet once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
Like any city, town, or village, a resident needs to learn how to take the good along with the bad if they plan to become “part of this particular patch.” I’ve learned how to do this in my time in Chicago. Shteir apparently is still deciding if its worth her time. I wish her luck.