On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Road Trip Ahead

Tomorrow is the day for my long awaited road trip to Rochester, New York for the conference on Shakespeare as Catholic. I am really looking forward to this. I'm not particularly looking forward to 12 hours of driving round trip, but I am looking forward to getting to spend a couple of days with my former student, Anna. I figure that 12 hours of driving plus an evening in a motel should get us just about talked out and caught up.

Anna is one of the few people I know who can enjoy literary discussions as much as my daughter and I do. Sometimes it simply feels like most people just plain don't READ. I mean, really now, how can you not enjoy Chesterton, Tolkien, Benson, Lewis, Alcott, the Brontes, Dante,Shakespeare, and Chaucer. I will admit that Anna didn't love Langland (she may have been a little young for Piers Plowman), but we had such fun discussing all of those and others. One thing I want to ask her tomorrow is her advice about what to teach my current crop of girls next year. It feels like time to go back and do some of the stuff I've done before which they haven't done yet, but I need to know what the best things for them are. Of course I'm being sorely tempted to go in a new direction and do Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Eudora Welty. I could even be tempted to throw in one Stephen King, and simply call the whole thing American Gothic (not that they are truly all gothic - but it sounds good). I could even do a year of mystery and do the really great mystery writers, but my oldest student hates detective fiction. Probably I'll go back and do my classic "Time Out For the Ladies" which included Alcott, one Bronte, Mary Shelly, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and some women poets. I could just add Flannery O'Connor to that mix.

Of course none of this is your standard public school or correspondence school type reading list. They probably will have great gaps in their literary knowledge at the end of the day since we don't use an anthology. However, what they do know about they'll know a LOT about. I've realized of late how great the gaps in my literary knowledge were even after I got a bachelor's degree in English. The renowned authors I'd never even heard of comprised a list larger than the renowned authors I'd read. For example, I'd never heard of the Sitwells, or Roy Campbell, or Graham Greene, or Maurice Baring, or Evelyn Waugh until I read Joseph Pearce's Literary Converts about 8 years ago. I'd heard of Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, but had read only one short story by Joyce. I'd never heard of Walker Percy, never knew Lewis wrote anything other than Mere Christianity and Screwtape Letters until after I graduated. The only Chesterton I was exposed to was Father Brown. Even of the "standard stuff" I'd never read Tom Jones, or Frankenstein, or Sister Carrie. A lot of what I did read, I read outside of class assignments. So I guess if I managed to get through a bachelor's degree with gaps that these guys will probably have to settle for some gaps as well. At least we're reading something better than The Chocolate Wars or Jonathan Livingston Seagull (both of which I've seen in public school reading lists in the past 30 years).

I wonder what Karen's Atticus would recommend.

One of the joys of doing this particular tutoring project in these years is that my students are all Catholics. Consequently, we get to discuss the Catholic implications and allusions etc. of all this literature. It's fun when the author is Catholic (even a marginal one), but it's also fun when they aren't. It's interesting to see subtle anti-Catholic prejudices in a book and to discuss how this would have effected the Catholic characters or how it reflected the culture of the period.

Of course the big joy of doing this particular project is that I get to know some really great teenagers. It's nice to be their teacher, then their mentor, and finally their friend.

I'm only taking one Joseph Pearce book along to try to get signed. It seems like it would be really tacky to bring the whole stack of his books I own. I'm just thankful he wrote them and helped my education out. I'm also pleased that he and the other excellent presenters are going to be there. It's a rare treat for us. So road trip here we come.


At 7:10 AM, Blogger Karen E. said...

"I wonder what Karen's Atticus would recommend."
I'll ask him.

And, have a wonderful, refreshing, exhilarating trip!

At 8:04 AM, Blogger Karen E. said...

You must begin with Huckleberry Finn. Yes, yes, I know about all the "racist" claptrap let loose some years ago about the book. That's the very reason many schools avoid the book, but you must not. Hemingway was right. American literature does begin with Huck, and to have a really solid grounding in the study of American letters, you must know the book. I don't care how many pseudo-liberal "I'm being picked on" cranks come out of the woodwork. There's never been anything so grand since.

--Karen's Atticus

At 9:11 AM, Blogger brrrtquacker said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger brrrtquacker said...

I don't think it's possible to read all--or even close to all--of the great writers by the time one graduates from college. If we open the literary scope from great Western European/American writers to the whole world, I would hazard to say it's impossible to read all the greats in a lifetime.

Although I always hear about it, although I live in Twain's own state, I have not read Huck... or, for that matter, any of his books in full.
However, as a crazy liberal and wannabe educator, I would say that students should read slections that display racism because they stand as examples of why it isn't a good idea, and it gives an important, though sad, bit of our history. Those are the reasons we study the Holocaust, too.

At 9:14 AM, Blogger brrrtquacker said...

Also, I think that blogs should alow us to edit our comments without leaving ugly erasure marks on the page.

At 7:16 AM, Blogger Karen E. said...

This is Karen, not Atticus, but I just wanted to clarify that Atticus would never use the word "liberal" as a slur, in case that's how you interpreted it, brrrtquacker ... he, too, is a crazy liberal in every sense of the word, except in our current society's definition of it regarding abortion. There, he is pro-life. In every other area, he's a crazy liberal, which is one of the reasons I love him. :-)

Also, I'll have Atticus respond more intelligently, but I think it would be a huge mistake to have a student read only the portions of the book that display racism. It would give such an unbalanced view of what Twain was trying to say. Taken in full, the book is a glorious celebration of the humanity of *all* people, and it is an indictment of slavery, racism and all that attends those ideologies. So, yes, by all means, read it as one would read about to Holocaust, to expose the ugliness of Twain's time and society ... but not to expose the ugliness of Twain. He was not a racist, and I think that's what Atticus meant.

At 7:37 AM, Blogger Karen E. said...

I would say that students should read slections that display racism because they stand as examples of why it isn't a good idea.

Huckleberry Finn is a bitter indictment of a society corrupted to its core by slavery and the racism implicit in it. Simply to read the parts which someone has labeled "racist" of course would be to miss the whole point. Racists use racist language, and part of Twain's vision was to capture the society exactly, in its language, customs, mores, and manners. Twain's use of dialect is part of what makes the novel such a watershed event in the history of American Literature. He was attempting to capture a part of Americana in its entirety. Yes, such language is offensive to us, rightly so, but it was the language spoken, and Twain would have betrayed his vision not to have put it in his character's mouths. His book would not have been "true."
Gotta go, more later.

At 4:30 AM, Blogger Liz said...

I'll admit that Huck Finn is not a book that I've taught, yet. I don't have a problem teaching it. It doesn't seem to me that Twain is being racist himself to write about the racism of his time anymore than Shakespeare was being anti-Catholic when he had Falstaff raging against the "whore of Babylon" on his deathbed, or Evelyn Waugh was being pro-homosexual in Brideshead Revisited.

Authors can portray characters and situations honestly, without necessarily agreeing with their position or promoting an agenda. Several years ago Flannery O'Connor's story The Artificial Nigger was banned from some parochial schools in the south because of the title of the story. This despite the fact that there is nothing racist about the story itself. Some educators who will use the literature that promotes a particular agenda seem not to understand how truly great literature really works.

In point of fact I've actually done very little American literature with my classes. I'm not a particular fan of a lot of American authors and there is so much British literature that it's been easy to avoid American lit. Most of the kids have had a goodly dose of American lit with their parents, who have been unfamiliar with folks like Chaucer, Langland, Mallory, Tennyson, Chesterton, Benson, Belloc etc. So I've concentrated on "the other side of the pond" for the most part. I have done Alcott with one group and one Walker Percy with one student, but I've realized of late that perhaps it's time to do a year of American lit because they really haven't been exposed to some really great Amnerican writers.

There is a tendency in public schools around here to major in the very minor, very modern stuff. I've attempted to do something vry different with the kids I've taught. We've looked at books that truly stood the test of time.

The group I currently have is really not up to doing the Dante, Augustine, Chaucer, Langland, Beowulf collection that I did three years ago. For this reason I'm trying to make a new plan. Since they are all girls, a year of women authors would certainly work. Anna suggested a year of just poetry which we've done less of (except in large works of poetry like Dante's Comedy and Piers Plowman, or the plays of Shakespeare).

I certainly will consider Atticus's suggestion, although I think I would heatedly debate Hemingway's contention that American literture begins with Huck. What about Hawthorne and Cooper? Even Melville was writing before Twain. Certainly Twain represents a section and a view of America not touched on by writers like Hawthorne and Melville, but it's hard for a New Englander to see how you have to have midwestern culture portrayed in order to have it be American in scope. That sounds a bit too much like red state versus blue state attitudes. By the way, I say that despite the fact that I have never particularly enjoyed either Melville or Cooper (I may have been subjected to them when I was too young, but since I've read Moby Dick no less than three times, loathing it every time, I don't know that my opinion is going to change) Hawthorne on the other hand, I have enjoyed.

One of the things that, it seems to me, makes American literature so fascinating is the regionalism. English literature is marked chiefly by period, not by section of the country, although geographical and dialectical details can be important occasionally. American literature is incredibly influenced by region. This is why in the same era there can be such a huge difference between the writing of someone like Twain, and someone like Dreiser, for example or between someone like Flannery O'Connor and someone like Mary McCarthy or Grace Metallius (whose name I probably just butchered -author of Peyton Place). Obviously, even in England, different schools and philosophies produce different writers as well Tolkien and Lewis do not produce the same sorts of things as Joyce and Woolf. It's simply that in American literature the author's regional background and the setting can make such a huge difference. No New Englander would have written the novels of Faulkner, they are too rooted in the results of the Civil War and Reconstruction. When New Englanders write about the Civil War it's from an entirely different perspective. A southerner could have written at least some of Stephen King's novels, but not Moby Dick or Ethan Frome.

Regionalism is perhaps becoming a less important factor as the television/movie era turns us into a more homogenized nation, but there are still some things being written that are heavily influenced by region (Fried Green Tomatoes and The Color Purple are good modern examples).

Even in Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court seems to be very much the work of someone other than a true Connecticut Yankee (I just remembered that I actually taught that one to a student a couple of years ago).

Of course I would be apt to debate Hemingway, because he's not one of my particular favorites either. I always preferred Steinbeck to Hemingway.

My own college course work was in earlier, rather than later American authors until I took one graduate course that covered Twain, Dreiser, West, London, and the other naturalists/realists. About the only other modern novelist that my college curriculum dealt with at all was John Updike, other than the authors whose short stories I read in Modern Short fiction. Too accurate I didn't do a lot with British novelists either. I never managed to take either Victorian Novel or Modern British fiction, so I've had to do all that on my own.

Joseph Pearce's Literary Converts and his biographies of major British writers have opened up a world of literature to me that I'd never encountered. Since most of that has been ignored by anthologies and even Catholic parents tend to be unfamiliar with it, I've tried to introduce my students to it.

Dale Alquist may be incorrect in seeing Chesterton as the greatest English writer of the twentieth century (there are certainly arguments for others), but to never be exposed to Chesterton at all, especially for Catholic kids, would be a real pity. Even secular critics admit that he is the master of paradox as a technique.

By the way Karen, when we did Alcott a few years ago we read some of her pot-boiler stuff. It's a very, very different look at Alcott. It does, however, give you a real look at the sort of stuff that Jo might have been writing before Professor Baer took her in hand. Did you know that Alcott wrote a story about some people who took hashish?

Atticus sounds like my husband's brand of liberal. Of course in many respects what they really are are Crunchy Cons (as in many ways is brrtquacker-whose other name is Laura, my lovely niece). Now if I can just convince my daughter's boyfriend's brother that reading Latin Mass does not make me a rabid conservative...I actually hate liberal/conservative as labels depending on who you talk to I'm a far too liberal or far too conservative. Yet I'm still the same person. Chesterton poked fun at those who would call the same person to tall or too short, too thin or too fat. I think he would see the irony in the fact that in some circles Atticus would be seen as a flaming conservative because he's pro-life, despite his seeing himself as a liberal. In other circles he would be seen as a leftist liberal despite his pro-life views. Wouldn't it be better to simply see him as a consistant Catholic Christian (since the Church also is viewed as either too liberal or too conservative)?

Oh, well, I've rambled on long enough. I have to go do elder care this morning since our caregivers both have childcare "issues" today.

At 7:05 AM, Blogger Karen E. said...

Loads of good stuff to respond to here, Liz, but for now, I'll just say that, along with you, Atticus and I hate labeling Catholics as "liberal" or "conservative" ... we are Catholics who are faithful to the Magisterium. Period.

Gotta go, but will forward your note to Atticus ....


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