Monday, May 7, 2012
May 7, 2012: American Studies Insights, Part One
[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 toward the end of the semester, as my American Novel to 1950 students discussed our different authors and texts from across the semester.
As we talked about two of our more interesting characters, Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier and Willa Cather’s Ántonia Shimerda, the link between literary elements like narration and perspective and American Studies questions of identity and community really hit home to me. Chopin’s conventional realistic narrator—who has the ability to give us many characters’ thoughts but also creates a great deal of ambiguity about how we read those characters—is hugely different from Cather’s more modernist and artistic one (who is consciously writing a novel about his memories). There are lots of potential reasons for those choices, and an equal number of important effects—but without question, these narrative choices drive our readings and responses to both key women, and to the many important issues (women’s rights, marriage, romance and reality, immigration, work, and more) to which they connect.
I could write a lot more on that topic, and unfortunately don’t have time at the moment. So for those who know the novels, I’ll just pose this thought experiment: what if Chopin’s novel were narrated by Robert LeBrun, highlighting the stages of his love for Edna? And what if Cather’s had an outside narrator who could both show us the complexities of Ántonia’s perspective and comment critically on her identity and live (even representing the critical perspective of Black Hawk, for example)? How different would both novels be as a result? And how much does this help us see the centrality of a choice of narrator to every other aspect of a novel?
Next insight tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? And any insights to share?
5/7 Memory Day nominee: Archibald MacLeish, the World War I veteran and poet whose career included some of the most innovative Modernist poems, important tenures at the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Library of Congress, and an impressive willingness to evolve and grow with the twentieth century.