Thursday, 05 March 2009

What would you title a post about a student's parent trying to beat you up? It is guided-tour-of-campus season at UCI. Bubbly undergraduates escort groups of thirty or so prospective students and their parents around Ring Road. After conferencing with students for a few hours, SEK runs to the Zot-n-Go for coffee. He wears his typical day-of-office-hours attire: an expensive sweater, rumpled jeans, trusty shoes and a backwards New York Mets cap. As he leaves he bumps into a FORMER STUDENT escorting prospectives and their parents around Ring Road. FORMER STUDENT: To your left you'll see the Student Center and the Zot-n-Go. Coming out of the Zot-n-Go is my favorite composition teacher ever (SEK waves and smiles politely as she puts her hand to her face and in an exaggerated whisper says) who actually wears that cap to class sometimes. PARENT: (loudly) Fucking loser. SEK: (stops) Excuse me? SEK turns to confront PARENT and sees the sort of uptight wealthy white folk who grow on trees out here. He comes from money and married young and is likely upset at how much a college education costs. He has a foot and about 100 lean lbs. on SEK. PARENT: You heard me. (steps to SEK) SEK: (walking backwards) I have office hours to attend to. PARENT: That's what I thought. SEK: (confused) You thought I had office hours? Because he ain't too bright, it is only now that SEK realizes that this forty-year-old in a starched business suit complete with snappy suspenders is trying to pick a fight with him. In broad daylight. On Ring Road. In front of his kid and a group of strangers. The PARENT makes for SEK, who shoots him a look and says . . . FROM THE DESK OF THE ACEPHALOUS INDUSTRIES LEGAL DEPARTMENT: SEK hereby declines to inform you what he allegedly said because his response might be construed as lame and unnecessarily inflammatory. In lieu of gratifying your desire to know what SEK allegedly said, SEK respectfully requests you guess what words were expelled by his constitutionally "smart mouth." Furthermore: SEK acknowledges that although the unflattering description uttered by PARENT may not be inaccurate, at the time of the utterance said PARENT had no knowledge of this fact.
I performed an experiment on myself and I do believe I failed. A friend sent me the text of a recent WSJ editorial entitled “Will This Crisis Produce a ‘Gatsby’?” I’ll link to it later—for now I want to recreate my bad-faith reading experience in all its glory. My first reaction was to the title, even though I know authors never write their own titles. But this one seemed sufficiently troublesome to warrant criticism. I wrote: You would think someone at the WSJ would know that enough about literature to know that The Great Gatsby was published in 1925. If you grant the title its premises, the question should be “Did Someone Write a ‘Gatsby’ in 2004 and If So Who Was He or She and What Was the Title of It?” But that’s not quite right. The WSJ‘s infuriating decision to publish the titles of books in quotation marks means that we’re not even sure whether the current crisis will be producing a novel affectionately called Gatsby or a fictional Jew with class insecurities who meets an untimely end. Because we have umpteen examples of the latter—Curb Your Enthusiasm may even be a Gatsby-in-progress. Tune in next season to find out! But even that’s not quite right. Given that The Great Gatsby preceded the financial crisis by more than half a decade, maybe the author wants to claim that Fitzgerald’s slim volume caused the Great Depression. In which case we must discover and burn all copies of the mysterious 2004 novel or unwrite the fictional Jew. Obama said we all needed to chip in. This is how we, as literary scholars, can do our part! Then I started reading the text itself. The mention of Louis Adamic seemed promising, and the rest of the article built what I took to be a fairly solid case until the last few paragraphs: John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath” made the Joad family’s flight from the dust bowl into an emblem of people coming together to remake their world. A similar image was implicit in the very title of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s documentary book “An American Exodus.” Even works of light entertainment like the massively popular “Gone With the Wind” or John Ford’s landmark Western “Stagecoach” were in keeping with the prevailing message of the times. All these works told of epic journeys in which a group of people overcame destructive competition in their discovery of a common destiny. Each called for Americans to act collectively to remake a democratic society where opportunity would be open to all. In effect, such declarations helped lay the cultural groundwork for the New Deal, providing the ideological infrastructure for the new governmental institutions created during the ‘30s. My response? If there’s one thing I learned writing my dissertation, it’s that you can’t throw words like “ideology” around like that—especially not when you’re claiming that a book published in 1939 laid the groundwork for the policies that were curtailed in 1939 by “Dr. Win-the-War.” If I’d tried to end-around history like that I would’ve—I don’t...

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