Tuesday, May 8, 2012
May 8, 2012: American Studies Insights, Part Two
[With work on my current book project ramping up to a fever pitch, at precisely the same time that the end of semester grading pours in—thanks, universe!—this week’s series will be particularly quick hits: each day a single American Studies insight, not necessarily earth-shattering but on my mind, courtesy of one of my classes this semester. Your insights and responses very welcome in the comments!]
Today’s insight came in the course of the final unit (Post-modernism and the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries) in my American Literature II survey course.
I base the units in my Am Lit II survey around a couple of main longer readings, and then shoehorn in shorter supplemental works (ones available online) by other authors I feel it’s important to present as well (if only briefly). The two longer readings I always hope will speak to each other—I call the units “Dialogues” for that reason—but with the shorter ones, it can be hard to bring them into the conversation in that same way. But this time, as we talked about Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” and “Lazy Lazarus” (both from the early 1960s) and then transitioned back to our first longer reading, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977), I started to think about how much both Plath’s speakers and Silko’s protagonist Tayo are defined by the loss and absence, yet still significant presence, of a key parent: Plath’s father and Tayo’s mother. Many of these young Americans’ difficult and crucial identity issues stem from those absences and presences, and how they impact their self-images and choices (negative and positive).
Certainly such issues are not new to the late 20th century, yet I’d say that they’re newly central to works like these—in our first long reading, Huck Finn, for example, Huck has no Mom and a largely absent (and horrible) Dad, but seems relatively unaffected, at least compared to Plath’s speaker and Tayo, by those absences. Moreover (slight spoiler alert ahead!), the titular protagonist of my last unit’s second longer reading, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003), has his whole trajectory in the novel shifted by the loss of his father at the book’s halfway point. So it seems to me that this theme is at least somewhat specific to late 20th and early 21st century American literature and identity, and that it could be interesting to consider why, in the land of the “self-made man” and “rugged individualism” and the like, many of our current cultural works seem centrally concerned with the effects of an absent or lost parent on the identities of younger Americans.
Next insight tomorrow
PS. What do you think? And any insights to share from this semester (or any other time)?5/8 Memory Day nominee: Harry Truman. I hesitate to put presidents and other already famous Americans on this list, but Truman assumed the presidency at a crucial time and (imperfectly but definitely) helped the U.S. end World War II and move into the years beyond, and then he desegrated the military. That’s enough for a Memory Day in my book!