Sunday, January 16, 2011
January 16, 2011 [Academic Work Post 1]: Working on Hope
The book I’ve been trying to start—largely unsuccessfully, but I don’t blame you, blog—over this holiday break began almost four years ago, in April 2007. I didn’t know it at the time, and I suppose with every book after the first one (which began as the most planned and focused project one ever produces, the dissertation) that’ll be the case, that these things begin in places we never would have expected and develop organically and gradually from there. In this case, the starting point was a random Wednesday toward the end of the spring semester, and more specifically our discussions in the day’s two literature courses—my second-half American lit survey and a senior seminar (based on that dissertation/first book) entitled America in the Gilded Age—of the concluding sections of two very different novels: my first topic here, Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901); and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977). Despite their differences, both novels feature very prominently in their concluding pages an almost utopian act by their protagonists, a choice—in the face of some of the most dark and horrific personal and American experiences and realities—to be the most ideal version of themselves (and ourselves), to do the noble and impressive thing when everything has led them to make the more understandable and human but darker choice instead.
Teaching those two concluding sections in back to back classes brought that interesting similarity to my attention in a way that might never have otherwise happened (see, a 4/4 teaching load ain’t so bad!), and as I thought about the link further, it led me back to one of my favorite literary moments. In the opening chapter of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (1996), the first volume in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (for my money, at least as of four of a proposed seven books, the best fantasy series ever written), a father dispenses a seemingly paradoxical but deeply meaningful piece of advice to one of his youngest sons .The two are talking about bravery, and the son asks his father whether a man can be brave when he’s afraid; his father replies, “That is the only time he can be brave.” The moment will resonate powerfully with both characters’ experiences and arcs in the novel and series to come, but it’s also to me just the best kind of wisdom, one that challenges our existing and easy narratives (ie, bravery means the absence of fear) and forces us to think with more complexity and depth about some of our most important ideals. When I connected Martin’s line to Chesnutt’s and Silko’s concluding choices, it seemed to me that what their novels could reveal is where and how we can really find hope: not in the ignorance or elision of our darkest realities, but in facing up to them, coming to grips with them, and finding a way to, not transcend exactly, but move through them into a future that can be better and more ideal than (and, in that paradoxical way, because of) what has come before.
Hard-won hope, I began to call that in my thinking about it. And this past fall, as I was concluding my work on book two and thinking about what might be my next project, I kept coming back to the idea, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, over the last few years I have found quite a few examples of texts, otherwise very distinct American novels, that feature similarly darkly realistic topics and utopian endings, including two I’ve written about here (The Grapes of Wrath  and America is in the Heart ) and many others (as different as David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident  and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao ). And for another, my goal for book three is that it be grounded in readings and analyses of texts but still feel relevant to our contemporary moment and conversations, that it be that kind of historically and textually connected public scholarship which, y’know, this blog is also trying to be, and it seems to me that few questions are more meaningful in 2011 America than whether and how we can find hope in the face of—even through engagement with—all of the reasons for worry or even despair that surround us. If we are to do so, I most definitely believe, it will be through better understanding our complex and often dark and always and most significantly shared national histories and stories, and these novels (and I hope, if in a much smaller way, my analyses of them) can help get us there.
The goal of these Sunday posts is to give you guys a quick sense of what else I’m working on when I’m not AmericanStudying or AmericanParenting, and book three is at one and same time somewhat low on that totem pole (without the deadlines and time constraints of conference proposals and articles and assessment work and classes, to name some of the topics I hope to include on future Sundays) and yet probably the work in progress about which I’m most excited. Hopeful, even—in a realistic way. More tomorrow, on the fictional character whose largely fictional history-writing, created two centuries ago and focused centuries before that, can speak very directly to a 21st-century audience.
BenPS. One question to continue with (I’m gonna spare you links in these more Ben-focused pieces): any literary examples of hope that stand out for you? I can’t promise I won’t steal ‘em, but I’ll make sure to give you some of the credit, I promise.