The OF Blog

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jean Toomer, Cane

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down.  Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees.  Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls.  God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men.  The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them.  This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her. (p. 5, Library of America edition)

One of the earliest novels of the Harlem Renaissance was a book written by a man of multiethnic descent, Nathan Jean Toomer, who was loathe to identify himself as black or white.  This book, Cane, originally published in 1923, created some controversy and few initial sales as it did not kowtow to either white or black expectations.  Yet for those critics and readers who did read this book, Cane left indelible impressions.  After re-reading it recently, it is one of those fictions that has to be experienced in toto for it to be understood fully; it defies simple, pat descriptions.

Cane is neither beast nor fowl; it moves smoothly and assuredly between poem, short story vignette, and drama.  Toomer himself conceptualized it as being a sort of thematic circle, going from simple to complex, moving from South to North and back South again.  Yet within these intricately woven passages, Toomer narrates the rhythms of black Southern life and the upheavals as some moved north during the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s.  Characters, such as Karintha (initial passage quoted above), appear prominently in one vignette, later to disappear and reappear, sometimes in a slight disguise, in another.  And through it all, there are poems narrating life, such as this one, "November Cotton Flower":

Boll-weevil's coming, and the winter's cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take

All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground –
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance.  Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year. (p. 9)
This poem was of particular interest to me for its combination of traditional couplets (minus two lines, which use alliteration instead to carry the rhythm through to the next couplet) with some daring imagery.  Toomer's writing, whether it be prose or poesy, is often very impressionistic, with descriptors creating vivid, sharp images from text that is often pared down in order to pack more punch per line.  Cane is as much a Modernist novel as anything that Joyce or Woolf produced and this poem of death and beauty and something else, something a bit daring when "brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear" is parsed a certain way, this poem captures several things eloquently in fourteen lines.

Toomer's gift for depicting life extends to his prose passages.  Here is one section taken from "Esther," concerning another major character in his cycle:

Esther begins to dream.  The low evening sun sets the windows of McGregor's notion shop aflame.  Esther makes believe that they really are aflame.  The town fire department rushes madly down the road.  It ruthlessly shoves back and white idlers to one side.  It whoops.  It clangs.  It rescues from the second-story window a dimpled infant which she claims for her own.  How had she come by it?  She thinks of it immaculately.  It is a sin to think of it immaculately.  She must dream no more.  She must repent her sin.  Another dream comes.  There is no fire department.  There are no heroic men.  The fire starts.  The loafers on the corner form a circle, chew their tobacco faster, and squirt juice just as fast as they can chew.  Gallons on top of gallons they squirt upon the flames.  The air reeks with the stench of scorched tobacco juice.  Women, fat chunky Negro women, lean scrawny white women, pull their skirts up above their heads and display the most ludicrous underclothes.  The women scoot in all directions from the danger zone.  She alone is left to take the baby in her arms.  But what a baby!  Black, singed, woolly, tobacco-juice baby – ugly as sin.  Once held to her breast, miraculous thing:  its breath is sweet and its lips can nibble.  She loves it frantically.  Her joy in it changes the town folks' jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone. (p. 29)
There is a lot to unpack here.  The dream imagery is remarkable for how deftly Toomer utilizes repetition of phrases to cast and recast descriptions of people and a fire.  There is a rebellion present, yet the reader has to integrate this with other passages to see it clearly.  This dream sequence certainly has a surreal quality to it, with the juxtapositions of the mundane and the "ludicrous."  But even more so, there is a racial element to it, one that speaks on the divide between white and black perceptions of beauty.  The baby rejected as "ugly as sin," is transformed through the woman's love, changing the others' "jeers to harmless jealousy."

As the narrative of lives unfolds and revelations made beforehand become more prominent, Cain still sticks to its circle of life motif, exploring, through uneven yet frequently brilliant passages and poems, just what is driving folks to move from South to North, from rural to urban regions.  Toomer does an excellent job in capturing these changes, with very few passages that fail to capture at least a fleeting impression of these peripatetic lives.  Excellent as many individual passages and poems are, it is when this work is considered as a whole that Toomer's design can be seen in all its glory.  Cane is not just one of the earliest and best works of the Harlem Renaissance, it is also one of the best 20th century Modernist works ever written.  Even 92 years later, it possesses a power to move readers.  It simply is a remarkable masterpiece.


Friday, February 20, 2015

William Faulkner, The Hamlet


He had quite possibly been a foreigner, though not necessarily French, since to the people who had come after him and had almost obliterated all trace of his sojourn, anyone speaking the tongue with a foreign flavor or whose appearance or even occupation was strange, would have been a Frenchman regardless of what nationality he might affirm, just as to their more urban co-evals (if he had elected to settle in Jefferson itself say) he would have been called a Dutchman.  But now nobody knew what he had actually been, not even Will Varner, who was sixty years old and now owned a good deal of his original grant, including the site of his ruined mansion.  Because he was gone now, the foreigner, the Frenchman, with his family and his slaves and his magnificence.  His dream, his broad acres were parcelled out now into small shiftless mortgaged farms for the directors of Jefferson banks to squabble over before selling finally to Will Varner, and all that remained of him was the river bed which his slaves had straightened for almost ten miles to keep his land from flooding, and the skeleton of the tremendous house which his heirs-at-large had been pulling down and chopping up – walnut newel posts and stair spindles, oak floors which fifty years later would have been almost priceless, the very clapboards themselves – for thirty years now for firewood.  Even his name was forgotten, his pride but a legend about the land he had wrested from the jungle and tamed as a monument to that appellation which those who came after him in battered wagons and on mule-back and even on foot, with fling-lock rifles and dogs and children and home-made whiskey stills and Protestant psalm-books, could not even read, let alone pronounce, and which now had nothing to do with any once-living man at all – his dream and his pride now dust with the lost dust of his anonymous bones, his legend but the stubborn tale of the money he buried somewhere about the place when Grant over-ran the country on his way to Vicksburg. (pp. 731-732, Library of America edition) 
 
One of the more striking features of William Faulkner’s writing is how well he establishes mood and setting with just a few paragraphs.  In this long second paragraph to The Hamlet (1940), he fleshes out the Frenchman’s Bend territory, located at the southern end of Yoknapatawpha Country, and makes its denizens into the hard-scrabble, barely literate heirs to antebellum nobility.  In this seeming-paean to the lost grandeur of a pre-Civil War planter, Faulkner does a clever bit of foreshadowing in hinting at the rise of the common classes with the fall of the established landed gentry.  By creating something almost epic about the movement of the Anglo-Celtic descendents of the Appalachian mountain people into northeastern Mississippi, Faulkner creates an environment in which the decline of Will Varner’s power due to the machinations of Flem Snopes becomes something more than just a changing of the guard; it is in miniature a palace coup in which a plebeian is raised up to become emperor.

Faulkner began developing the shrewd, nefarious character of Flem back in the 1920s, but it is in the 1932 short story “Centaur in Brass” where many of the events later covered in The Hamlet first occurred.  Flem’s accomplishments here, from rising above the shady past of his barn burning father to becoming first Varner’s store clerk and later his boss and son-in-law, do not quite possess the Machiavellian air found in “Centaur in Brass.”  Yet when viewed as a first act in another rise-and-all, Flem’s character here is impressive in his combination of detached coolness and ambitious shrewdness.  This Flem is a more nuanced, fleshed-out character and while he influences much of the events in The Hamlet, he does not overshadow some of the other important characters.

The Hamlet is divided into four sections, with the first, “Flem,” devoted to the Snopes family and their arrival at Frenchman’s Bend.  Some of Faulkner’s finest writing is found here, especially in his establishment of the “horse trading” prowess of the Snopes.  Two important characters, Mink Snopes and V.K. Ratliff, are introduced for the first time.  Mink’s own trading of notes proves to be vital for Flem’s later rise at the store, while Ratliff’s observations about local life serve as a sort of moral anchor against which the Snopes’ machinations twist and tug against.  The narrative is rich with the little details of Flem’s beginnings at the Varner store that enhance reader understanding of latter events.  One example of this is the story that Ratliff tells of the goat scarcity.  It is a humorous piece, a smaller brother of sorts to the “Spotted Horses” story that later formed the nucleus of the fourth part, “The Peasants.”  Yet it also reveals the Snopes’ deviousness without being too heavy-handed with the details; it manages to pull off being a funny interlude and a foreshadowing of future events without the narrative feeling stretched or overworked.

However, it is in the second part, “Eula,” where Faulkner’s skill at characterization truly is on display.  Eula is such an exaggerated caricature of early 20th century Southern femininity that it would be easy to dismiss her as being nothing more than a piece of meat for the local men to drool over.  Yet there is something within this lazy, sexualized woman that transcends the confines of such parodic characters.  Her effortless seduction of a previous schoolteacher, her desire to lose her virginity, and the series of events that leads her to become married to Flem are remarkable in that despite in most cases such events would be too wild to be narrated effectively, Faulkner manages to pull off the great feat of making this seem not only plausible, but also integral to the overall plot (it also contains connections to Eula’s unstated seduction in “Centaur in Brass”).

The third section, “The Long Summer,” is an interlude of sorts, as Flem and Eula are absent due to their honeymoon in Texas.  Yet the scenes involving the idiotic Ike Snopes and his love for Houston’s cow are hilarious, albeit in a slightly unsettling way.  On a more somber note, the Mink/Houston/wife/horse events that leads to Houston’s murder at the hands of Mink is presented in a more tragic, yet still memorable fashion.  Despite the absence of Flem, this section does not falter much in the way of narrative development, as the other Snopes, themselves in their own ways as much a danger to ordered society as Flem is becoming, prove to be interesting characters in their own right.

As noted above, “The Peasants” contains the nucleus of the story of Flem bringing back wild, unbroken ponies from Texas and engaging in a series of horseflesh tradings that enriches him at the expense of others.  Now the owner of the old Frenchman plantation house, Flem’s last exploit involves his manipulation of local legend regarding buried treasure to cement his new position as the new lord of the land.  The story ends with Flem setting off for Jefferson and the events chronicled in “Centaur in Brass.”  It is an effective conclusion to this stage in Flem’s rise to power, as it sets the stage for future events without feeling like the story was ending on a cliffhanger or hadn’t been developed properly.  The Hamlet can function well as an independent novel, albeit one full of references to other stories published both before and after its initial release.  It is not one of Faulkner’s greatest novels, but it certainly is an excellent story in its own right, full of well-developed characters and some of the funniest scenes in any of Faulkner’s fiction.  It sets the stage for several stories to follow, making it a valuable part of Faulkner’s œuvre.

Brief thoughts on the Nebula shortlists

So the latest installment of the Nebula Awards shortlists have now been released.  It's a list, yes, but as a reader of all sorts of fictions, it is a disappointing list, one that (especially in the novel category, but to some degree in other categories) still gives off that faint miasmic whiff of logrolling and "political" blocs.  Yes, there are some very good works on there (including two on the Novel shortlist), but really do we have to nominate yet another Jack McDevitt or his seeming generational successor, Ann Leckie?

Perhaps as an increasingly distant outsider, I am missing some subtly great stories, but it seems, based on admittedly spotty sampling of the finalists, that while there is some experimentation and broadening of scope beyond the so-called "core genre," that no matter how much some gussy up their tales with needed socio-cultural diverse characters and locales, the main content and story focus remain very much stuck in the same paradigms of the past four decades.  The majority of the stories I've read from these SF publishers are stagnant; they seem to focus more on demonstrating too much of an "awareness" of previous genre stories, skimping too much on developing new models, new techniques for these changing worlds of ours.

Maybe I'm just disappointed that this feels like the literary equivalent of Nickelback or Coldplay.  Sure, many loved them once, but the repetition of formula yields diminishing returns over the years.  Same seems to hold true with contemporary SF, or at least that which is heralded as being of it, by it, and for it and its dedicated readers.  The best SF these days, ironically, seems to be written by "literary fiction" writers.  Whenever it is translated into English, Antoine Volodine's Terminus radieux may be one of the better post-Collapse novels written this decade.  David Cronenberg's Consumed easily can be read as a SF novel, albeit one that focuses more on characterization and how people slot into an increasingly voyeuristic world.  John Darnielle's Wolf in White Van does a much better job at portraying a SFnal community/ethos than did Jo Walton's Among Others.  These books, which are just the tip of the iceberg of 2014 releases that contained SF elements, certainly would have made for a more interesting novel category than the majority of the nominees.  Again, McDevitt?  Leckie?  A disappointing Addison/Monette novel (she's written much better work, especially her short stories)?  These are the best SF novels of 2014 according to SFWA?  I cannot help but think either whole swaths of excellent stories were not read by the majority of the voters or that perhaps self-interest justified supporting some tales at the expense of plausibly much more qualified narratives.

But in the end, does it really matter, any of this?  Increasingly, I've become convinced that it doesn't.  I'm surprised that I wrote this much about a matter that is less important than discovering and championing stories that are published on the margins of these literary subfields.  Now back to reading other imaginative fictions, perchance to marvel over.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Jack London, The Call of the Wild

During the four years since his puppyhood he [Buck] had lived the life of a sated aristocrat; he had a fine pride in himself, was even a trifle egotistical, as country gentlemen sometimes become because of their insular situation.  But he had saved himself by not becoming a mere pampered house-dog.  Hunting and kindred outdoor delights had kept down the fat and hardened his muscles; and to him, as to the cold-tubbing races, the love of water had been a tonic and a health preserver.  (p. 6, Library of America edition)
The story of Buck, a St. Bernard-Scotch shepherd dog, is Jack London’s most famous tale.  In less than a hundred pages, he explores the changes in Buck as he transforms from a symbol of civilized life to the epitome of “savagery.”  Yet this simple description does not hint at the wealth of social commentaries that London makes in this novella.

The Call of the Wild begins in the Santa Clara valley in California in 1897 with a description of Buck before he is stolen away and told to trainers seeking suitably large dogs to haul the dog sleds during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-1899.  The depravities that Buck endures, learning the “law of club and fang,” are vividly described in the second chapter:
 He had never seen dogs fight as these wolfish creatures fought, and his first experience taught him an unforgetable lesson.  It is true, it was a vicarious experience, else he would not have lived to profit by it.  Curly was the victim. They were camped near the log store, where she, in her friendly way, make advances to a husky dog the size of a full-grown wolf, though not half so large as she.  There was no warning, only a leap in like a flash, a metallic clip of teeth, a leap out equally swift, and Curly’s face was ripped open from eye to jaw. (p. 15)
In the span of less than ten pages, we witness Buck’s initial transformation.  Exposed rudely to the violent code of kill or be killed through the sudden killing of the friendly Curly, Buck is confronted with a dilemma:  does he try to resist the changes being forced upon him, or does he learn to adapt to this brutal code of life in which there are no such concepts as “fair play” or “equal treatment.”  London does an excellent job of using Buck’s situation to allow us greater insight into not only what the more “civilized” dogs had to face in the harsh Arctic clime, but also how humans themselves had to shed off layers of civilized behavior if they were to able to survive.

London’s prose mirrors the changes in Buck.  At first, there is almost a staid pomposity to Buck’s initial self-description, but as he becomes acclimated to the sled pack and learns how to fight back against the cruel, imperious Spitz for control of the pack, his observations and thoughts become sharper, more staccato in their bursts of activity.  There is lesser and lesser room for introspective thought as the pack makes their way toward Dawson City, the hub of activity during the gold rush.  The focus shifts more to the immediate, materialistic aspects:  will there be enough food to eat tonight?; how shall dominance be shown or rejected?; and how to make shelter against the blistering wintry winds?  This narrative shift occurs gradually, enabling readers to make connections between events and their subsequent effect on Buck’s behavior and thoughts.
 
It is tempting to describe what The Call of the Wild is about:  a staging of Social Darwinist “survival of the fittest” in the Klondike; a reverse “hero’s journey” through the shedding of layers of civilization to reach a pristine primordial state; or conflicts of an anthropomorphic dog against self, nature, and other dog-men.  There certainly are elements in the story that supports each point of view, especially in how Buck comes to relate to his succession of so-called masters and his increasing unwillingness to follow the “law of club” blindly.  This can be seen in how he subverts Spitz’s authority before dethroning him in a fight to the death that resembles that of Spitz’s savage treatment of Curly; but even more in how he refuses to follow the inept Hal down into certain death in a Yukon about to shed its icy mantle.

However, there is more to The Call of the Wild than these plausible themes.  Although it is rarely stated until the final chapters, there is the condition of affectionate love that is part and parcel of Buck’s transformation from civilized dog to one who ultimately answers “the call of the wild.”  This is most evident in his time spent with the outdoorsman John Thornton and how theirs is a bond that transcends normal civilized niceties (Thornton’s swearing at Buck and Buck’s leaving teeth imprints in Thornton’s hand both are signs of rebellion against “normal” polite signs of affection).  This is most readily apparent in a wager that Thornton makes that Buck, without any cracks of the whip from Thornton, could haul a half-ton sled 100 yards.  When Buck manages to achieve the seemingly impossible, winning Thornton $1600, Thornton is made a staggering offer for Buck:
Every man was tearing himself loose, even Matthewson.  Hats and mittens were flying in the air.  Men were shaking hands, it did not matter with whom, and bubbling over in a general incoherent babel.
But Thornton fell on his knees beside Buck.  Head was against head, and he was shaking him back and forth.  Those who hurried up heard him cursing Buck, and he cursed him long and fervently, and softly and lovingly.
“Gad, sir!  Gad, sir!” spluttered the Skookum Bench king.  “I’ll give you a thousand for him, sir, a thousand, sir – twelve hundred, sir.”
Thornton rose to his feet.  His eyes were wet.  The tears were streaming frankly down his cheeks.  “Sir,” he said to the Skookum Bench king, “no, sir.  You can go to hell, sir.  It’s the best I can do for you, sir.”
Buck seized Thornton’s hand in his teeth.  Thornton shook him back and forth.  As though animated by a common impulse, the onlookers drew back to a respectful distance; nor were they again indiscreet enough to interrupt.” (p. 70)

It is here, and in two scenes at the very end of the novel, where the bonds of affection are shown to be both the last tie to civilization and the first bond to savage, pristine communion with the wild.  Here is the antidote to Buck’s first harsh treatment at the hands of the man in the red sweater, there is the rejection of absolute authority as seen in the futile attempts of Hal to drive Buck into mortal danger.  By building up Buck’s voluntary bond to Thornton, London provides a deeper answer to Buck’s series of internal conflicts:  the shedding of civilized values does not mean a rejection of communal ties but instead a truer reaffirmation of them.  This in turn makes the final scene in The Call of the Wild one of the most powerful moments in American literature and the novella one of the most moving works of American literature.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

William Wells Brown, Clotel, or the President's Daughter



What words can tell the inhumanity, the atrocity, and the immorality of that doctrine which, from exalted office, commends such a crime to the favour of enlightened and Christian people? What indignation from all the world is not due to the government and people who put forth all their strength and power to keep in existence such an institution? Nature abhors it; the age repels it; and Christianity needs all her meekness to forgive it.
Clotel was sold for fifteen hundred dollars, but her purchaser was Horatio Green.  Thus closed a negro sale, at which two daughters of Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the presidents of the great republic, were disposed of to the highest bidder! (pp. 67-68, Library of America edition)

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is the best-known of the antislavery novels published during the antebellum period, but there was another, relatively obscure novel that perhaps is even better at getting to the heart of the pernicious evils of chattel slavery.  This novel, William Wells Brown’s Clotel, or the President’s Daughter, was first published in Great Britain by a former slave fleeing from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  Clotel is a remarkable novel for a number of reasons, not least of which being that it is the first known novel published by an African American writer.  Yet for nearly 125 years after the end of the Civil War it languished in obscurity, more a curiosity than anything actively taught or studied by historians or literature professors.  Some of this lack of attention may be due to the end of slavery and the desire to forget, even when it concerns antislavery literature, the particulars of that sordid business, but this does not explain the continued popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  There are two competing reasons remaining:  either Clotel‘s narrative style was not appealing to later generations of readers or there was a growing prejudice against reading works by black writers.  There likely is an element of truth to both of this, but then what explains the recent rise in interest in Brown’s writings?  It may be that as a historical artifact, Clotel is a superior example of not just antislavery literature but also that it captures the espirit du temps of the 1850s even better than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, even if much of its initial impact was not in the United States but across the Atlantic Ocean.

One of the more striking features of Clotel is its didactic tone.  Early 21st century novels very rarely are polemical in nature, so it can be a bit jarring at first to read a novel whose very first lines lays out for the reader the bleak, horrid setting:
With the growing population of slaves in the Southern States of America, there is a fearful increase of half whites, most of whose fathers are slaveowners, and their mothers slaves. Society does not frown upon the man who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee, whilst its mother stands a slave behind his chair. The late Henry Clay, some years since, predicted that the abolition of negro slavery would be brought about by the amalgamation of the races. John Randolph, a distinguished slaveholder of Virginia, and a prominent statesman, said in a speech in the legislature of his native state, that “the blood of the first American statesmen coursed through the veins of the slave of the South.” In all the cities and towns of the slave states, the real negro, or clear black, does not amount to more than one in every four of the slave population. This fact is, of itself, the best evidence of the degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America. (p. 61)
Clotel and her family do not appear until a few pages into the narrative; Brown is more concerned with establishing for his mostly-white audience (at least for this original edition; he extensively edited it later, changing some details, for a more mixed-race American audience in later editions) in Great Britain just how horrible American chattel slavery truly was.  In a sense, Clotel and her family are not as much original characters as they are emblems for what millions of enslaved Americans suffered in the mid-19th century.  It is best to keep this in mind, as some of the narrative elements otherwise might seem too melodramatic.

Clotel’s ancestry is based on the then-rumors about Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings but more so than that, it is meant to establish just how deep racial prejudices ran, so that while some fathers of biracial children might dandle a child on his knee, he would be just as likely to whip them or sell them down the river to New Orleans.  Although the fictional Currer, Clotel’s mother, was not the property of Jefferson but instead lent out to him, she and her daughters were sold off with nary a mention of Jefferson himself afterward.  It is a brutal, effective way of establishing the dehumanizing experiences that Clotel and her relatives experience throughout the novel.

Clotel is bought for $1500 (roughly $30,000 in today’s money, or the cost of a well-equipped new car or truck, to put it in the perspective of those who equated African-descended people with labor machines) by Horatio Green, who was earlier struck by her beauty and who desired her as a concubine.  Although Brown does not explicitly label this as rape, showing some reciprocal feelings on the part of Clotel, there is enough to be read between the lines to indicate that there is some level of coercion involved; after all, Clotel is Green’s property.  Yet regardless of whatever attachments, real or feigned, that might have developed between them, according to Virginia law, no slave could marry a white person.  This plays a role years later, when Green enters into a marriage agreement and his new wife forces him to sell Clotel and their daughter, Mary.

Meanwhile, the lives of Currer and Clotel’s sister, Althesa, are little better.  Currer is sold to a preacher and dies of yellow fever before his daughter is able to emancipate her.  Althesa and her new owner also enter into a common-law marriage, as Althesa is able to pass for white, but she and her master, Morton, also die, leaving their daughters to be sold into slavery (one, Ellen, chooses to commit suicide, and the other, Jane, dies of heartbreak).  Their stories, which are permutations of Clotel and her daughter’s experiences, are told with a detached yet highly charged emotion similar to those passionate tales which were the forerunners of late-19th century sensational novel.  Although at times the individual reactions border on the melodramatic, for contemporary audiences it had the effect of a series of blows to the gut.

Clotel has at this point been sold to a planter in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  There she meets and falls in love with another slave, William, and they plan their escape, with Clotel passing as William’s master.  Their escape, based heavily upon the remarkable 1849 escape of Ellen and William Craft, succeeds, and William goes forward into Canada, while Clotel returns in disguise to Richmond in order to attempt the rescue of her daughter.  However, things go awry and forced to choose between death by drowning or a return to slavery, Clotel chooses the former.  Although the novel could have ended effectively at this point, Brown extends it over another ten years, showing how Mary manages to gain both her freedom and a lover she thought she was forced to leave behind.  It is a touching, tenuously hopeful conclusion to a novel that repeatedly batters its readers with its blunt, horrific descriptions of the degradations that Clotel and her family had to experience.

Taking into consideration the differences between mid-19th and early-21st century literary conventions, Clotel is a very evocative novel, one that gains its narrative power not so much from the force of its individual characters but from the polemical nature of the third-person narrator.  There are very few wasted passages; Brown knows exactly what effect he seeks to effect and for the most part, he manages to execute this very well.  The characters themselves, while perhaps not as immediately memorable as a Simon Legree or an Uncle Tom, are also effective in presenting humanity in the midst of degradation; love surviving callous brutality; hope enduring while surrounded by hatred and despair.  While some of the scenes might seem a bit too flashy or sensationalist for modern readers, on the whole they are rendered vividly, leaving a lasting impression in readers’ minds.  Today, Clotel should be remembered not just as the first known African American novel, but also as one of the classics of mid-19th century American literature.  Over 160 years after its initial publication, it still possesses a power to move the hearts and souls of its readers.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

January 2015 Reads

This won't take long, as this past month's reads ties for the least amount read over the past half-decade or so.  This month is not shaping up to be any better.  Oh, I'm reading, here and there, but I'm purposely limiting the time I spend reading as I have other things I'm gearing up to be working on.  However, there will be a few reviews in the coming weeks, albeit not of complete books/volumes, as I do plan on covering some historical non-fiction and contemporary fiction for Black History Month.  But enough of this editorializing, here are the few and good books I read in January:

1.  Kelly Link, Get in Trouble (collection; already reviewed)

2.  Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (already reviewed)

3.  Zoran Živković, Pisac (re-read; Serbian; already reviewed)

4.  Megan Mayhew Bergman, Almost Famous Women (collection; review forthcoming)

5.  Sarah Gerard, Binary Star (review forthcoming)

6.  John Updike, Collected Early Stories (review forthcoming)


Monday, January 26, 2015

Testing canons or the constant restructuring of literary corpora

For a long while now, I have considered the issue of literature and its places and uses in contemporary society.  It was a secondary interest of mine when I was in graduate school (the primary being cultural religious concepts in practice in the early 20th century), ever since I had to present a brief summary of Paul Fussell's Wartime in a class and I found myself thinking about how certain literary concepts had become transformed when shifted back into an oral form and retransmitted through often-crude soldier compositions.  Nearly 20 years later, my opinions on it may be as fluid as ever, yet there are some interesting restructurings that have occurred in the interim.

The very concept of a "master list" or, which is much more palatable for the anarchist within me, a broadly-defined series of literary corpora is one that many can accept at a theoretical level.  There are, after all, certain works that a nation (defined here as a large cultural group that shares certain deep socio-cultural bonds in common and not as a synonym for a particular political organizing of peoples) very well might hold as being intrinsic for understanding that people:  religious texts, political tracts, histories, epic poems and fictions.  Things like Robert Burns' poetry being quoted in Scotland on Burns Night or recognizing who said "to be or not to be" or "behold I make all things new" are so familiar to certain cultures that one does not have to have been intimately familiar with the source material to understand the reference being made.

However, it is when we delve a bit further into the literary corpora that certain questions arise:  Is this material suitable today, centuries after its composition?  Are we neglecting other streams of thought by favoring this particular body of literature?  An old truism, albeit one fraught with fallibility, is that history is written by the "winners."  (In truth, histories are like any other power paradigm, with different expressions and strengths to those expressions.)  Are non-majority groups (working class, women, non-whites, non-Christians) adequately represented, whatever might be meant by "adequately?"

These are questions that not only should not be avoided, but instead they should be embraced if one wants to set about constructing any sort of national literary corpus.  I am the son of a retired high school English/literature teacher and I myself have taught literature and grammar in addition to social studies.  As is common practice, there were the sets of five books that we were required to read (and later, to teach) for certain high school lit courses.  Although I managed to avoid having teaching it, I remember questioning the validity of having John Knowles' A Separate Peace on the sophomore reading list when its setting (an all-white boarding school around the time of World War II) and characters were almost polar opposites of the experiences of the majority-black urban public school students I was teaching at the time.  Although there are many elements to Knowles' story that recommend it to many sorts of readers, it would have been very difficult to present it as something vital, something important to readers who had become accustomed to not being represented at all (or even worse, in token fashion) in school reading curricula.

What does a teacher or literature professor do when confronted with this reality?  After all, it isn't feasible to develop multiple, parallel reading lists or other literary canons in miniature without destroying the very concept of a national literary corpus.  Yet the possible solutions are fraught with difficulties, which those who are opposed to the reimagination of the reading lists take glee in pointing out.  How should we go about making the reading lists, and by extension, our understanding of what constitutes national "literary canon" more inclusive without seeming to "dilute" the quality of the literature or destroying even the shredded remnants of what formerly was a universally held understanding of what "all Americans should know?" (I use American literature here as an example as it is my native culture; similar arguments, albeit with different constituent works, would apply for other national literatures).

One solution, albeit not a perfect one (none are; we are a fractious species, after all) is to expand and to make the incorporation of diverse perspectives a foundational principle of understanding American culture and its literatures.  By all means introduce students to the First and Second Great Awakenings and the Transcendentalist Movement.  Just also introduce them to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance or the socialist writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Have them question why certain writers outside dominant American literary circles utilized similar sources (the Bible, Shakespeare, the Declaration of Independence, the letters of Lincoln, etc.) to argue for radically different paths for American society in the fiction, poetry, and non-fiction of the past two centuries.  By being aware of the similarity in sources as well as the divergences in interpretation and application, readers can be exposed to a wealth of different understandings of American history and literature in a way that shows the full truth of e pluribus unum without whitewashing the ideas or smothering dissenting views.

National literary corpora are not made to be static entities; they must be tested, tried, and occasionally discarded lest the national discourse become stale and enfeebled.  Two centuries ago, a "well-read" American would be able to quote Thucydides and Horace in the original Greek and Latin.  Today, while still esteemed by some, knowledge of either, in translation or in the original tongues, is not essential; their ideas, however, have been disseminated through others influenced by them.  Sometimes, it is preferable for certain texts, or at least certain interpretations derived from them, to fall away and be cast in the dustbins of history.  Surely few lament those execrable justifications for chattel slavery derived from Biblical passages!

But at the same time, as the literary corpora expand at a time when "deep" reading appears to have declined, there also should be a fight of sorts to find ourselves within our literary texts.  What does it mean to be a member of a nation?  In what do we really believe?  What is "natural law" and why do some believe that not only does it exist, but that it is essential to explaining just what we are?  Why should we study history and politics and literature in the first place, if each is controlled by other groups?  It is easy to acquiesce to current situations and to accept passively what is presented to us.  It is much more difficult, yet much more rewarding (and challenging!) to question all that is around us.

That notion of "critical thinking," however is much more easily packaged and pitched as a panacea in education than it is anything that can be instilled in readers.  To become a "critical thinker" means, at least in part, an abnegation of our own selves.  We cannot remain unchanged in this endeavor.  We have to test ourselves, deny certain preconceptions we have made.  We have to be remade anew through this enterprise.  To be anything less than "all in" is to become but a consumer of content, guzzling down pre-digested ideas and concepts and doing little else with the information but to argue matters of plot and favorite characters, with no real interest in what it all means.  I say this not to belittle those who do read for these purposes, merely to note that there are other literary worlds undreamt of in their philosophies.

All this, however, is so far only posturing.  However, I have also put into action certain practices that I hope will further and deepen my own literary education.  One such thing is a renewed focus on reading and reviewing both older and current American literary works, including non-fiction.  Over the next few years, I plan on reading and reviewing at least 20 books from the Library of America series.  These reviews (including the dozens I have already written over the past three years) shall help me in testing whether or not these works still retain their importance or if, as I suspect might be in the case for at least a few, they represent more past strains of American literary/social thought than current or future trends.

By writing about these hundreds (I have 139 volumes at present out of 266 due to be published by June) of works over a long period of time, I suspect I'll be exposed to more than just the "familiar suspects" of American letters.  Although there are certain key omissions to the Library of America series (some of which are slowly being rectified over the past two decades, namely works by women and people of color), there should be enough of a spectrum of American literature provided to make for several in-depth essays.  Hopefully, this reading/reviewing project will help me develop further as a literary critic and as a human being as well.  If this is not the ultimate purpose in testing literary canons and reconstructing my understanding of literary corpora, then what purpose is there to engage with these works at all?


 
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