Tuesday, May 16, 2017
May 16, 2017: Spring 2017 Reflections: Sui Sin Far in the American Novel
[As the Spring 2017 semester comes to a conclusion, a series of classroom reflections, this time focused on new things I tried in my courses. I’d love to hear your Spring reflections in comments!]
On what didn’t work and what did when I used a short story collection in my American Novel course.
Compared to the relatively stable reading lists for many of my recurring courses, the texts for my American Novel to 1950 class have changed a good bit over its handful of iterations. That’s been especially true for the two works in my middle category, Realism (preceded by Romanticism and followed by Modernism): when I first taught the course, I put Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Marrow of Tradition there; subsequently shifted Huck into the Romanticism category (replacing The Morgeons as a second Romantic novel after The House of the Seven Gables) and added The Rise of David Levinsky into Realism; and then (hard as it is to leave Charles Chesnutt out of any class I teach) replaced Marrow with The Awakening. That was where the class stood as of the last time I taught it, a couple years ago; but for this spring’s section, I decided to take out Levinsky (which was by far the longest novel on the syllabus) and replace it with a particularly unusual choice for a novel class: Sui Sin Far’s short story collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), a book that includes not only the dozen or so separate stories under that title, but also another twenty or so in the section “Tales of Chinese Children.”
I’ve written here before (in an entire week’s series, in fact) about the complex genre known as the short story cycle: books like The House on Mango Street (1984) and Love Medicine (1993), in which distinct individual stories are clearly also linked together into an overarching, unified whole that could indeed be called a novel. But while there certainly were 19th century versions of that genre, I don’t think we could describe Far’s book as an example; individual characters recur in a couple of the stories, and many are set within the same setting of San Francisco’s Chinatown during the Chinese Exclusion Act era, but compared to the books highlighted above the stories in Mrs. Spring Fragrance exist separately from one another. Including Far’s book in this course was thus a bit of an experiment, and not one that necessarily worked: many of our discussions across the four class meetings dedicated to Fragrance understandably focused on individual stories, and we thus didn’t quite get to the same kinds of continued, evolving analytical threads that we’re usually able to carry across a series of conversations. I believe that difficulty also made it harder for students to analyze Far’s text as a whole in Papers 2 and 3, and so only a handful worked with the book in either of those assignments (even though it and The Awakening were the two main options for Paper 2, for example).
So I’m not sure I would include Mrs. Spring Fragrance on this syllabus again. But at the same time, there were a couple significant benefits to having done so this semester; one was more expected, and the second more of a surprise. The expected benefit stemmed from the reason I added Far’s book in the first place: it’s one of the most multi-layered and compelling literary representations I’ve encountered of themes like immigration and assimilation, culture and community, multi-cultural and –racial identities and perspectives, language, and more, and our discussions of individual stories allowed us to engage in depth with how Far depicts those crucial American issues and histories through her fictional characters, settings, and plots. Moreover, the division of Far’s book into more “adult” short stories and the children’s stories in “Tales” opened up an expected and interesting conversation about genre and audience, about the similarities and differences across those two sections and forms, and about how authors use young characters in works of fiction (a topic that could then be applied to many of our other texts, from Edna’s sons in The Awakening to the depictions of childhood in The Sound and the Fury, to name just two examples). If including Far’s book in a novel course was thus in some ways a mistake, it was, at the very least, a provocative and productive mistake.
Next Spring reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring semester reflections you’d share?