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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

December 11, 2013: Semester Recaps: Short Stories, Then and Now

[Wednesday is my last day of classes, so all week I’ll be highlighting some AmericanStudies takeaways from the Fall 2013 semester. Add your thoughts and fall recaps in comments, please!]

On the benefits of connecting voices and texts across the centuries.
This fall I had the chance to teach for a third time in Fitchburg’s Adult Learning in the Fitchburg Area (ALFA) program, and I decided to push my expectations—both of the program’s very impressive students and of my own work in the class—a bit further than in either previous course. I’d ask them this time to read two short stories for each class meeting, one from a contemporary American female author (which had been the course’s original planned focus) and one from a 19th (or turn of the 20th) century American female author whom we should better remember (which is obviously the kind of project I’m passionate about). Besides asking us to juggle those multiple texts and all their possible topics and frames, this plan would also require us to put seemingly very distant—chronologically and in many other ways—voices in conversation with each other.
It worked, and did so in a couple distinct but equally significant ways. For one thing, some of the pairings helped us to think about identities, issues, and communities that have not changed nearly as much as we might expect—or, at least, that face many of the same challenges and histories today that they did a century and more ago. When we discussed two stories by Chinese American authors, for example—Sui Sin Far’s “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” (1912) and Gish Jen’s “Who’s Irish?” (1998)—it was remarkable how many moments and details seemed interchangeable, felt as if they could have been part of either story and community with equal accuracy. Although the stories are narrated very differently (Far’s by an outside third-person narrator, Jen’s a first-person narrator who is also one of the story’s main characters), even their voices feel quite similar, particularly in their use of humor and irony to provide a lighter touch on what could be very serious and even dark cultural conflicts. Had I not provided the publication dates, it would have been easy to locate the two stories much closer to one another in time, a telling reflection of the persistence of immigrant American identities, experiences, and communities.
On the other hand, some of the pairings reflected and embodied sweeping changes in their settings and subjects, shifts that were likewise eye-opening about American history and culture. For example, I paired Kate McPhelim Cleary’s “Feet of Clay (1893) with Sandra Cisneros’ “Woman Hollering Creek” (1991), as both portray young women moving to a new, Western world with new and far from ideal husbands. Yet despite those central similarities, and despite the way in which each author contrasts the protagonist’s prior perspective with her current realities, what struck us most were the differences: not only between Cisneros’ Mexican American protagonist and McCleary’s Eastern and Anglo one, but also in the worlds to which they moved—the stark Great Plains frontier of McCleary’s Kansas contrasting so fully with the strip malls and suburban worlds of Cisneros’ Texas. And, in perhaps the most time period-related difference of all, the contrast between McCleary’s ending, with her protagonist seemingly trapped forever in this place and marriage, and Cisneros’, with hers making an escape from her abusive husband with the help of a strong female mentor. Some of the things that have changed from then to now, that is, seem pretty positive.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fall classes, work, or other happenings you’d recap?


  1. One of the most meaningful pieces of work I did this semester was a multifaceted exploration of William Faulkner’s “The Bear”. This story plays a singularly important role in my engagement with literature, and my connections to it are that deep and strong. It was moving to discover just what a conflicted and paradoxical man Faulkner was. His work explores the complications in the concept of American identity in unique ways, his invented corner of Mississippi a microcosm from which so much about our nation’s tumultuous history can be extrapolated.

    The most interesting take-away from the project was an understanding that Faulkner’s artistic genius is manifested in his relationship to and juxtaposition against traditional storytelling styles and methods. It makes me think about other artists, musician especially (as I am one, myself)—transcendent figures such as Bob Dylan or Jimi Hendrix, whose brilliance can only be defined as such by its connection to tradition. Hendrix took the blues and the guitar and made them something else. Dylan took folk music and turned it upside down. Faulkner took storytelling, derived directly from oral traditions, and painted over it with the stroke of an impressionist. These are but a few of the amazing men and women who have added to our culture in such important ways.

    This is a profound and resonant thing to consider—that the concepts we have of American identity, of those American figures who have applied their brilliance to our wide range of traditions and added to the diversity and beauty of our culture in immutable ways, are all building upon things which we already have. The raw material of genius and beauty in America is all around us, waiting to be turned into more than the sum of its parts—inspiring stuff for an aspiring educator.

  2. Hi Ben--I'm really interested in your course pairing contemporary women writers with forgotten nineteenth-century ones. Have you posted anything more about this course online? I'd love to hear more about it.

  3. Hi Anne,

    Thanks! I haven't posted elsewhere online about it, and don't even have a syllabus as these ALFA classes are a bit more informal than that. But I'll list my pairings here anyway, and would love to chat more about it (and should add, seeing your own work, that I thought long and hard about including Woolson's "Miss Grief," and decided not to only because of length--I love that story!). The pairings:

    Week 1 (poems as they didn't have them pre-class): Lucy Larcom's "Weaving" and Rita Dove's "My Mother Enters the Workforce"

    W2: Sui Sin Far's "Mrs. Spring Fragrance" and Gish Jen's "Who's Irish?"

    W3: Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman)'s "The Revolt of 'Mother'" and Jhumpa Lahiri's "A Temporary Matter"

    W4: Kate McPhelim Cleary's "Feet of Clay" and Sandra Cisneros' "Woman Hollering Creek"

    W5: Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Karen Fowler's "Face Value"

  4. Thanks for sharing your pairings, Ben! I am very invested in the project of recovering 19th-century women writers, but I'm increasingly concerned about extending that project beyond scholarly journals and the college classroom. It seems that contemporary writers and readers should know about authors such as Freeman and Woolson and Sui Sin Far. I love your idea of pairing them with more recent women's stories! I may borrow it for a future course, if you don't mind. I'm curious, did you have a contemporary story you were thinking of pairing with "Miss Grief"?

  5. Agreed, Anne! And no, I hadn't gotten to a contemporary pairing for the Woolson story yet--was trying (and at that early point failing) to think about contemporary stories about fellow writers or artists. Still thinking about it!