Wednesday, January 11, 2017
January 11, 2017: Spring 2017 Previews: The American Novel to 1950
[Next week, a new semester begins; so this week, I’ll preview five classes and other aspects of that semester, this time through the lens of teaching and working in the age of Trump. Leading up to a special weekend post on book talks and plans!]
On three contemporary topics that six classic American novels help us analyze.
1) Immigration and Empathy: For the first time in my many sections of this course, I’m stretching the definition of “novel” a bit to include Sui Sin Far’s short story cycle Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912). Besides being a wonderful book, Mrs. Spring Fragrance also offers our most in-depth literary responses to the Chinese Exclusion Act, giving extended voice to the effects of exclusionary attitudes and policies. But in its own way, Willa Cather’s lyrical proto-Modernist frontier novel My Ántonia (1918) offers just as intimate a depiction of immigrant identities and communities, as narrator Jim Burden shares his outsider but ever-more emphathetic perspective on the title character and her immigrant American family, peers, and world. Taken together, these two books can help us engage with one of the American communities most likely to be affected by Trump’s policies and administration.
2) Community and Identity: Our second and third novels, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), are linked by more than just shared Southern settings (Twain’s novel along the Mississippi River, and Chopin’s at the river’s Louisiana endpoints). Both also focus, through the perspectives of their protagonists (Twain through Huck’s first-person narration and Chopin through a limited omniscient narrative focus on Edna Pontellier), on how those individual characters are influenced by and respond to broader social and cultural forces in their respective communities. They do so in relationship to different central themes (race and prejudice in Twain, gender and sex in Chopin), and their protagonists come to famously different concluding moments. But nonetheless, both characters struggle with questions facing all Americans in 2017: whether and how to resist and challenge the dominant forces in our society, and whether its possible to create individual and communal identities outside of those powerful trends.
3) Perspectives and the Past: Our first and last novels, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929), are as different from each other as their respective historical and cultural moments. But one clear distinction, between their forms of narration, actually helps both novels portray a shared theme: how our perspectives shape our sense of the past. The storytelling narrator of Hawthorne’s historical romance moves between official histories, “fireside legends,” and the perspectives of different characters and generations, all to engage with how a historical event like the Salem Witch Trials echoes into subsequent moments and communities. The stream of consciousness sections that comprise most of Faulkner’s Modernist masterpiece help him create one of literature’s most intimate portrayals of individual perspectives, and those perspectives consistently focus on the continued presence and influence of the personal, familial, and regional pasts. As I’ve argued already in this space, no lens is more important to understanding 2017 America than whether and how to remember our collective histories, and in their hugely distinct ways both of these classic novels offer valuable visions of those questions.
Next preview tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring plans you’d highlight or share?