Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The Library of America Presents... (X-posted to the Valve) ...some “Xtre-heeemely Cheezy Sci-Fi Ga-haaarbage.” (Credit CR and Dr. Percival Cox for the words and music there.) The popular canonization of pulp writers—The Library of America doesn’t reflect academic sensibilities as much as one might think—will directly influence the way future generations of scholars view the latter half of the twentieth century, but how accurate will it be? I ask more as an historicist than a cultural anthropologist, and largely because Daniel Green’s recent post about the relation of literary language to the world represented through it has me thinking about turn-of-the-last-century debates on the verisimilitude of “realist” and “naturalist” works. To bandy in some gross overgeneralizations, the naturalist perspective is often shorthanded—via Tennyson—“nature, red in tooth and claw.” Jack London and Frank Norris did not represent the world as it is, but as it would have been were it not for the patina of civilization. Their work may not reflect or represent society, but it does register the fact that something shook the cultural landscape, and that this something related to the crumbling of anthropocentric conceit. Daniel invokes another metaphor, that of fiction as a window through which one peers into the past, but my three models—reflection, representation and registering—seem a more useful way to consider the relationship of literature to history. M.H. Abrams already covered reflection and representation, so I’ll focus on registering here. To pick a random example: I consider myself a literary seismologist, scouring the written record for subtle signs of a larger catastrophe. I sometimes dream of stumbling into the literary equivalent of “a gaping open wound in the earth’s skin,” but mostly I content myself with reading rock face for signs of deformities evolutionary in origin. The rocks will reveal their secrets, but only if one speaks the language. To choose another entirely random example, one cannot identify Silas Weir Mitchell’s influences without being familiar with the conventions of the historical romance; the development of the Darwinian and Lamarckian branches of evolutionary science; American politics, foreign and domestic, &c. Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker: Sometime Brevet Lt. Col. of His Excellency General Washington is less a window through which you can spy the nineteenth century prancing around in its unmentionables, and more an Ozarks—deceptively flat, its plateaus are all that remain of a mountain thrust high back when Bermuda waltzed into the Atlantic. Just as it takes a trained eye to look at flatland and see a mountain island surrounded by vast coral complexes, so too does it take a trained historicist to read a novel about the Revolutionary War and witness competing theories of physical and social evolution attempting to account for McKinley-era American imperialism. To return to the top now: thinking about the present in historicist terms affords me perspective I would otherwise lack, what with the contemporary moment being so contemporary and momentous. So, presuming the eyes who scan our outcrops are trained, what will they make of the twentieth century as represented in its pulpier moments. What...
And Yet, I Still Miss Teaching A slightly redacted version of my favorite student complaint ever: My Teacher, I appreciate you taking your inconvenience to instruct us but I really had some problems in your class and I would like to explain them to you now. Every day I wanted to discuss with you about the way you grade my papers and the way you teach the class, but I could not because the things you say in class and your words disturb me so much I can not. You make me completely uncomfortable with the little things you say in the class like how you talk about television or how you talk about when you are grading our papers and trying to be fair. You do not seem to care about our grades only that they are up to your too high standards and I can not talk to you because you make me completely uncomfortable. For example, you say you will talk to us about our grades but you really will not because of how uncomfortable you make me feel with your words and what you say. I will plan to contest the grade you have given me in this class when I get it because I know it will be much higher with any other teacher. I am a very religious man and you are not a bad person but you do not choose your words with enough care like a teacher should. You try to be objective and the very attempt becomes your flaw because you try so hard to grade fairly and comment wisely that you become biased to your own ideas. You criticize our writings because we are college students and young but do not realize that you offend most of us when you do this. I am always offended when I go to your class and have been on many occasions but I never tell you of my offense because you make me completely uncomfortable so I never say a word. You like to lead discussions and that is bad because it is the entire means by which we learn but we do not know what you want from us on our papers. I have honestly no idea what I learned from you in this class because so much time was spent discussing the tiny details in the passages in the book and so if I learned anything it is how to read things in too much detail. I could have read books in too much detail on my own but that is not what I came to college to do because I already know how to read and I would have told you this but you make me completely uncomfortable with your words so I never said a word. By doing this you give us no guidance on our papers. I thought it was lame that you decided to show a movie and a cop out because you chose not to give us any instruction. I know that...

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