Monday, September 19, 2011

September 19, 2011: Still Fresh

Many of my favorite American novels are explicitly historical novels, texts that are centrally interested in creating stories and images of the past; that interest, whatever else it might mean, tends to make the texts feel particularly distant or distinct from our own, 21st century moment. To me that’s one of their selling points—what Chesnutt’s Marrow of Tradition can reveal about the turn of the 20th century and the aftermaths of slavery and Reconstruction in it; what Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! constructs as the 1930s South and its fraught relationship to its own past; how Silko’s Ceremony engages with the spiritual rebirths of the Native American Renaissance while reflecting the continued impacts of histories as diverse as the Indian Wars and post-World War II trauma—but there’s no question that it can also make it tougher to sell them to a group of contemporary students, to argue for why these themes and questions still resonate just as fully in our own moment and world. Needless to say, I try very hard to do just that, but I likewise try to balance such explicitly historical (in every sense) texts with ones that, whenever they were published, feel in some crucial ways as if they could have been released just yesterday.

I just got done teaching one novel that fits that description perfectly: Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), about which I blogged at length here. Carrie’s contemporaneity is at least somewhat ironic, since Dreiser goes to great lengths from his opening paragraphs to highlight the fact that he is setting his novel about a decade prior to its release, and to trace many of the elements that have already changed in those intervening years (aspects of the blossoming city of Chicago, particular social character types, broad Gilded Age emphases, and so on). Yet this most recent experience with the novel, and particularly seeing once again (as I had in each prior instance) how fully the students connected to Carrie, to Hurstwood, to the themes of ambition and wealth, class and status, dreams and disasters, to the seemingly clich├ęd (country girl comes to the city, older man overtaken and eventually destroyed by his infatuation with younger woman, realizing your dreams but paying a price to do so) but still resonant plot threads. Like another novel that has consistently worked for my students, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, what Dreiser’s book does best is just force us to think about how we define success, what the American Dream is and should be, whether it’s possible to be happy in our society and what that happiness entails and costs, and other questions that it’s vital for every American (and especially every young American) to consider, whatever his or her answers might be.
Tomorrow, in another of my classes, we start two weeks of conversations on another hugely resonant and timeless American classic, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). As with Dreiser’s book, Miller’s play can be read at least partly as marking the passing of an era, the changes of one world into another, and its title character as thus already historical in his moment, much less half a century later. Miller’s play is also more overtly and at times troublingly dated than Dreiser’s (despite its later publication) when it comes to gender—Willy Loman’s wife Linda is not a terrible character but is to my mind a lot flatter than the three men in her family, and the complex and interesting supporting characters are entirely male (with the most explicitly “bad” character known only as “The Woman”). But those historical or dated qualities ultimately cannot compete with the play’s absolutely perfect and still completely resonant themes, its engagement with not only many of the same questions to which I connected Dreiser’s novel, but also its extension of them to a vital question that Dreiser entirely elides: how fully our own answers to all those questions are influenced by our parents, by the lives and identities and experiences and dreams that they inhabit and give (consciously and unconsciously) to us. Willy is certainly the best character in Miller’s play, and one of the best in American drama and literature period—but he wouldn’t be nearly as great without his son Biff, and it’s the dynamic between them that is to me the play’s most powerful and most timeless element.
Should be a fun couple weeks! More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Great scene from Dustin Hoffman’s take on Willy (with, I believe, Chinese subtitles!):

2)      Interesting and informative 2001 interview with Miller:

3)      OPEN: Any books (American or otherwise) that you’d highlight as still fresh after (however many) years?

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