Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lumps in the Melting Pot

" . . . Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

One of the ironies, not to say tragedies, of the 21st Century is that Americans have forgotten their immigrant past. We can read Emma Lazarus' inscription on the Statue of Liberty and think, even if we don't say, "We've got enough of those, thanks." We utterly forget that most of us have ancestors who were probably part of the "tired, poor, huddled masses."

Now, it is quite true that a number of these folks came and huddled over here, mostly as wretched as they were at home, only here they were free to starve in a democratic republic. Some of these, however, brought with them deep memories of their cultural tradtions (which were once ours), and fresh ways of expressing those memories. They wrote, published, failed to starve, and thus did what we call "enriching the local culture."

We can debate whether this is "American" literature, since it is written by people who didn't start out as "American." Interestingly enough, this forms the heart of the debate we had last fall when we started this adventure -- can we count people who aren't "American" by birth?

My answer, of course, is "yes!" I mean, Saul Bellow, for instance, came from Canada to Chicago when he was what? nine? He grew up in American culture. Even people who didn't grow up in the culture appreciated the freedom of expression that it gave, and continues to give, them. Consider the list that includes Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elie Wiesel, Vladimir Nabokov, Isabel Allende, Ayn Rand, and newer writers like Elmaz Abinader, Chimamanda Adichie, Edwidge Danticat. A bunch of other writers are American by birth, but strongly identified with their parents' countries of origin. Amy Tan falls in this group, along with Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, Luis Valdez and a host of others. Each one of them (and there are scores of others) not only brings his or her orignial national and ethnic heritage, but brings a writer's eye to look at America in new ways.

As we've said before, American literature is a real patchwork of different voices from different cultures. Today's question is, what constitutes an "American" voice?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Eudora and A Bunch of Others

Once upon a time, at Virginia Tech, I taught a whole semester on Eudora Welty. I can't say it was a rousing success with all my students, but some people loved it. I confess to being a fan, so I'm not going to pretend to be objective.

Eudora Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1909. Her family was a comfortable one -- parents, two younger brothers, a fixture in Jackson society -- and they did not hinder Eudora's creative impulses. In fact, her autobiography, One Writer's Beginnings, speaks very descriptively and lovingly of this family milieu. She attended Mississippi State College for Women, where she distinguished herself as a writer and artist, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin.

She went to New York City for graduate school in 1930, attending Columbia University and studying advertising. New York expanded her brains and her horizons, and deepened her fiction in a way that Faulkner could envy. When her father died, in 1931, she came home to Jackson, and never really left. In fact, despite having written a first novel and won several O. Henry Short Story Awards, she actually gave up writing completely from 1951-1966, to take care of her mother and brothers.

Her 1972 novel, The Optimist's Daughter, won a Pulitzer Prize, and it is among my favorites, although her short story, "Why I Live at the P.O." is also a winner. I'm not going to spoil them for you. Read them. They're short!

Welty's artistic talent manifested itself in many ways, but photography was her medium of choice. You can check out her photographs on the web, and recognize the eye for emotional content that makes her so outstanding as a writer of description. This ability come across in "The Worn Path," as Aunt Phoenix's entire trek unrolls before us, almost as if we were watching a movie. Again, I'm a sucker for detail; Phoenix dancing with the scarecrow, pulling her skirts out of the thorn bush, lying on her back in the ditch . . . it's as if Welty had photographed those things, but not, thankfully, sentimentalized them at all.

For me, good fiction should give me room to think and breathe. I just cannot stand being hit over the head with a point, which is possibly why I don't like Joyce Carol Oates. Welty is subtle, generous, optimistic, but never cloying, mushy, or trite. After I have read her work, I feel more alive, not less. (Consider that ominous foreshadowing.)

The 20th Century spawned a bundle of writers that we won't have time to read. Here is the quick skinny on them, nothing like enough information, but you can pick the ones you might be interested in.

Flannery O'Connor. Southern gothic with Catholic overtones, good if you like your fiction moral with a grotesque aftertaste. I recommend "Good Country People."

Joyce Carol Oates. A dark, full-bodied fiction, or perhaps it's just full of bodies. I don't like her, but perhaps you will enjoy the creeping horror of "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been."

Toni Morrison. Raw-edged, not to say brutal, but absolutely worth it in every sense. If you can't read all of Sula, at least dip into it.

Amy Tan. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, explores the lives of four Chinese women and their daughters, in a structure that parallels a Mahjonng game. Crisp and inviting.

Stephen King. I feel about reading horror the way some people feel about reading the phone book. But King can write. His autobiographical On Writing is fantastic. This is not literary wine, though; more like some horrible spiked Kool-aid.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

How to Read Poetry

It occurs to me -- right before the test, unfortunately -- that we've lost the art of reading poetry. We read a poem the same way we read a newspaper, and then wonder why we don't get much out of it.

Here, then, is a handy rubric for ways to read poetry. It won't work with everybody, i.e., you'll have a hard time applying it to Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, but it will help get you through.

Step One; Read the title. Yes, I know this is obvious. You'd be amazed at how many people just skip right over it. They read the words, but they don't allow the words to register. Titles are important. "Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner" tells you everything you need to know, right there.

Step Two: Read the poem all the way through, out loud, without stopping but with -- and this is REALLY important -- the pauses in the right places, where the punctuation is. Pausing at the end of every line is a common mistake, and it makes the poem more confusing than it has to be. The punctuation is there to guide you, so let it.

Step Three: Stop and register your impression of what was said. Make a note if you need to. You'll probably revise this, but first impressions are important with poetry.

Step Four: Read the poem again, slowly, silently, and make sure you know what all the words mean. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Who is the speaker?
  • What is the setting?
  • What is happening, or being discussed, in the poem?
  • What kind of rhyme or meter does the poem have?
  • Does anything strike you as symbolic, or metaphorical?
  • What tone does the poem have -- joyous, melancholy, playful, serious?

Step Five: Paraphrase. Put the poem in your own words. It proves that you understand it. Be careful not to change the meaning, though. If you can't paraphrase part of it, then you know you don't understand that part. If you can't paraphrase ANYTHING, repeat steps one through four, expecting different results. (Isn't that the definition of madness?)

If we did this with, say, "In a Station of the Metro," we might discover that we have no idea who the speaker is (that's Modernism for you), the setting is a Parisian subway stop, people are walking past, the poem has no rhyme scheme, and there's a metaphor here, but it's purely visual. The tone of the poem is artsy, and we might paraphrase it by saying "The pale, blank faces of people getting off the trains look just like the petals of blossoms on a wet tree branch."

Admittedly, this takes all the charm right out of it, but you could argue that Pound doesn't have a lot of charm to begin with. It still helps.

It's Time to Ponder Some Questions

Yes, campers, we are almost ready to say goodbye to the turn of the (20th) Century, with all its concomitant hoo-ha. We can't let it go without a few remarks, though, and a few more questions.

Has anybody been paying attention to the portrait of marriage that emerges in "The Yellow Wallpaper," "The Second Choice," and Trifles? If you haven't, you might want to go back and do that, because it's unsettling. We have husbands being paternalistic ("The Yellow Wallpaper"), which is much better than husbands being abusive (Trifles), or being hapless dupes ("The Second Choice").

Notice that in all three of the marriages and near-marriages, the woman is trapped and helpless. No one listens to her, no one understands who she really is, and no one is on her side, when things go bad. Even Theodore Dreiser's Shirley is stuck in the belief that her life has to contain a husband, albeit a stout, dull, uninteresting one. How sucky is that?

People who believe that the women's movement was just a lot of -- pardon me -- hysteria, need to remember that women really were at the mercy of their fathers, brothers, and husbands. Some lucky women married men who respected and admired them, and encouraged their intelligence. Others, though, married men like John in "The Yellow Wallpaper," men who believed they had weak brains, hair-trigger nerves, and limited usefulness. There's not much worse than having a lot of intelligence and talent and being denied the opportunity to use those things in productive work.

And while we're on the subject of marriage, let's think about the different responses of some women. Shirley, in "The Second Choice," is forced to let go of Arthur because, well, he was never hers to begin with, and he had the good sense to go and stay gone. But Emily Grierson, in Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," now there's a woman who knows how to hang onto a man. Which of them is the stronger? Who would you rather see dating your brother? We thought so.

Shirley falls victim to her own romantic fantasy, and when it collapses, she blames herself. A clearer thinker would blame Arthur, but she's not one of those. Emily, on the other hand, has a brain that is as clear as a bell, even if she's as mad as a weasel -- she knows that Homer Barron is likely to leave again, and she's going to make sure he doesn't. Fortunately, among her requirements for the perfect man, she does not list a pulse.

If I have a favorite among these women, it might be Mrs. Hale, from Trifles, who is an excellent detective and who has all kinds of brains, but Emily Grierson is a close second. I don't admire her -- it would be like having a fondness for dirty sheets -- but I respect her. She doesn't lie around all day being helpless, waiting for someone else to fix her life.