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Saturday, April 30, 2016

April 30-May 1, 2016: April 2016 Recap



[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
April 4: Remembering Reconstruction: The Freedmen’s Bureau: A Reconstruction series starts with a major reason why the organization failed, and two lasting legacies nonetheless.
April 5: Remembering Reconstruction: African American Legislators: The series continues with three distinct, inspiring stories from the period’s thousands of African American elected officials.
April 6: Remembering Reconstruction: Massacres: Three horrific and historically telling Reconstruction-era massacres, as the series rolls on.
April 7: Remembering Reconstruction: Andrew Johnson: Three telling stages in the life and career of one of our worst presidents.
April 8: Remembering Reconstruction: Du Bois’s Vital Revisionism: The series concludes with the book that revised Reconstruction historiography, redefined a profession, and went even further.
April 9-10: Remembering Reconstruction: The Civil Rights Act of 1866: On its 150th anniversary, why we don’t remember a controversial law, and a couple reasons why we should.
April 11: American Outlaws: Pecos Bill and Joaquin Murrieta: An OutlawStudying series starts with two competing yet complementary frontier folk heroes.
April 12: American Outlaws: Billy the Kid: The series continues with two telling layers to the famous outlaw’s mythos, and the context they both tend to miss.
April 13: American Outlaws: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Beautifying ugly men and deeds and why we should resist it, as the series rolls on.
April 14: American Outlaws: Bonnie and Clyde: How photos and images can reflect and shape but also distort our histories.
April 15: American Outlaws: The Mafia: The series concludes with three telling stages in the evolution of our pop culture obsession with the mob.
April 16-17: Tolkien Takeaways: In honor of my younger son’s birthday, a special post on three AmericanStudies takeaways from one of our current obsessions, The Lord of the Rings.
April 18: Patriot’s Day Special Post: My annual Patriot’s Day post on the easier and harder forms of patriotism—and why we should try for the latter.
April 19: 21st Century Patriots: Alicia Garza: A series on contemporary patriots starts with what’s new, traditional, and perhaps most important about the hashtag activist.
April 20: 21st Century Patriots: Deepa Iyer: The series continues with the scholar and wonderful new book that deserve to reference one of the greatest American poems.
April 21: 21st Century Patriots: Santana Young Man Afraid of His Horses: A young tribal emissary who embodies 21st century communal activism, as the series rolls on.
April 22: 21st Century Patriots: Online Public Scholarship: The series concludes with four places where you can find online public scholarship that embodies my vision of critical patriotism.
April 23-24: Crowd-sourced Patriots: My latest crowd-sourced post, in which fellow AmericanStudiers share their nominees for 21st century (and a couple 19th century) patriots!
April 25: Short Story Cycles: Love Medicine: A series on short story cycles starts with two roles of the framing story of Louise Erdrich’s devastating, beautiful cycle.
April 26: Short Story Cycles: The Joy Luck Club: The series continues with two easily overlooked histories at the heart of Amy Tan’s bestselling cycle.
April 27: Short Story Cycles: The House on Mango Street: Two childhood experiences that Sandra Cisneros’ cycle gets perfectly right, as the series continues.
April 28: Short Story Cycles: The Things They Carried: The value of reading the individual stories in Tim O’Brien’s cycle on their own terms, and the necessity of not stopping there.
April 29: Short Story Cycles: 19th Century Trailblazers: The series concludes with two distinct models for the genre from a century before its rise to prominence.
Next series starts Monday,
Ben
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to write? Lemme know!

Friday, April 29, 2016

April 29, 2016: Short Story Cycles: 19th Century Trailblazers



[This semester, as part of my Ethnic American Lit course, I’ve taught all or part of three short story cycles: Love Medicine, The Joy Luck Club, and The House on Mango Street. So this week I wanted to AmericanStudy those three works, as well as a few other examples of this complex literary genre.]
On two distinct models for the genre from a century prior to its rise to prominence.
Short story cycles became a prominent part of the American literary lansdscape in the postmodern period of the late 20th century, as the 1980s and 90s publication dates of the subjects of the week’s other posts illustrate. Shifting chronologies and structures, multiple narrators and perspectives, challenging demands placed on readers who are required to assemble fragmentary and even contradictory collections of texts—the genre embodies many of the most central elements of postmodern fiction, as well as the kinds of philosophies and identities associated with the postmodern period more broadly. Yet as I have argued elsewhere, in an article on another postmodern literary device (the novelist-narrator), there’s also significant value in crossing period boundaries and considering literary forms as they have existed in multiple moments. And in this case, two late 19th century short story cycles have a great deal to offer as models of the genre.
In Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), the unnamed narrator travels to Dunnet Landing, a small, isolated fishing village on the coast of Maine, to spend a secluded summer in a place that time seems to have forgotten. Although we learn at the outset that she has been there before and knows some of its inhabitants, that fact is perhaps the only concrete details we will ever learn about the narrator, who serves mostly as an observer of the town’s places and people and an occasion for them to share their own voices and stories. Indeed, it is only in the framing stories (describing her arrival and departure, respectively) that the narrator is a focal point at all; the others, in classic local color fashion, center on distinct settings and communities within this unique and perfectly drawn little world. Without overstating a contrast based on one work in particular, I’d say that there’s something to be made of the fact that in this late 19th century short story cycle (compared to the week’s 20th century examples) the first-person narrator is both an outsider to the central setting and experiences and a writer who observes and transcribes much more than she participates or shares in them.
A similar dynamic can be found—if with a key distinction—in Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales (1899). Like Jewett’s narrator, Chesnutt’s narrator John travels (this time with his wife Annie, whose ill health has necessitated the move) to a complex new setting, in this case a former slave plantation during the post-war Reconstruction era. And as in Jewett, John serves mostly as a frame through which one of that place’s inhabitants, the ex-slave storyteller Uncle Julius, shares his own voice and stories, the titular conjure tales that capture (in Julius’ dense, carefully constructed dialect voice) supernatural yet realistic Southern histories of slavery and race. Yet while Jewett located her narrator most fully in the book’s overall frames (its opening and closing stories), Chesnutt makes John and Annie (and their interactions with Julius) the frames of each story, keeping them more consistently present throughout the book and linking his local color and historical fictions to these contemporary, outsider characters. As a result, Conjure not only portrays the past but also and most importantly connects it to an evolving present, a multi-layered non-chronological structure that foreshadows some key aspects of late 20th century short story cycles.
April recap this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other short story cycles you’d highlight?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

April 28, 2016: Short Story Cycles: The Things They Carried



[This semester, as part of my Ethnic American Lit course, I’ve taught all or part of three short story cycles: Love Medicine, The Joy Luck Club, and The House on Mango Street. So this week I wanted to AmericanStudy those three works, as well as a few other examples of this complex literary genre.]
On the value of reading a cycle’s stories on their own terms, and the necessity of not stopping there.
Nearly a year ago, as part of my July 4th series, I wrote about Tim O’Brien’s compelling and powerful short story “Speaking of Courage,” and implicitly made the case for that work as a standalone text, one that can and should be read as a distinct short story. The same can definitely be said for most of the other long stories that comprise the heart of O’Brien’s short short cycle The Things They Carried (1990), the book that also features “Speaking”: the title story, “On the Rainy River,” “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” and “How to Tell a True War Story” (among others) are all amazing works that have plenty to offer if read on their own terms. Indeed, I would go further: although perhaps best known as a novelist, O’Brien is a master of the short story form, and each of those stories is dense and demanding enough that they require us to focus in on them individually, closely, and at length, a form of close reading that it might be more difficult to perform fully or successfully if we’re reading them as chapters of a longer work.
So we can and should read O’Brien’s short stories individually—but at the same time, I would argue that we should ideally do so with the book in hand, because they build upon, engage with, and even complicate and change both one another and the shorter inter-chapters that surround them. That interconnected nature is most dramatically illustrated by “Good Form,” a very short piece that comes late in the book (it’s the 18th of the book’s 22 stories), that opens “It’s time to be blunt,” and that bluntly seems to deconstruct every other story in the superficially autobiographical collection. “I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier,” O’Brien continues. “Almost everything else is invented.” There is, of course, no necessary reason why we should have otherwise read the book’s individual stories as accurate or authentic to either O’Brien’s life or historical experiences—other than that, y’know, they often feature Tim O’Brien as a character, and that they’re part of a book dedicated to many of the story’s other featured characters, and that they deal with specific historical events and moments from the Vietnam War and its era, and that they include sentences like “This is true” (the opening line of “How to Tell”), and…
Okay, so there are lots of reasons to read the book’s individual stories as “true”—and O’Brien likewise engages with but tries to challenge and revise our understanding of precisely that question in “Good Form,” arguing that the “form” he utilizes throughout the collection is because, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” It’s of course possible to capture the former in an individual short story, or even a single moment within such a story, and O’Brien’s collection is full of those moments.  But I would argue that reading them in relationship to each other, and ultimately as part of a whole, offers an even more potent and powerful effect, one that both undermines and amplifies our perspective on war and America, memory and history, identity and perspective, and what works of art and culture can do to portray and help create such themes. O’Brien’s book is one of our greatest short story cycles, and the way it creates both individual and collective effects is one of its greatest strengths.
Last cycle tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other short story cycles you’d highlight?