Monday, December 15, 2014
December 15, 2014: Semester Recaps: The American Novel
[The Fall 2014 semester is coming to a close, and as usual I wanted to end the semester with some reflections on my courses and other conversations, leading up to a weekend post on some anticipations of spring (and not just the season; although, yes). I’d love to hear some of your Fall 2014 reflections in comments!]
On endings, happy, sad, and perfect.
For purposes of syllabus structure and helping us move through 150 years of texts and their contexts, I break my American Novel to 1950 class up into three sections: Romanticism, Realism, and Modernism. Such categorizations are, as always, at least somewhat forced and inexact: for example, my first Romantic text, The House of the Seven Gables (1851), pretty clearly fits (Hawthorne identifies his novel as a Romance in his famous Preface); while my second, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), is a lot trickier to connect to that genre or movement and certainly relates just as closely to realism and its various sub-genres such as local color/regionalism. But the categories help the students think about that very question (how we categorize and define novels and their genres)—and, as I was reminded this semester, they also can help me come to new ideas about these works I’ve read and taught many times.
The new idea that struck me most forcefully this time around has to do with the novels’ endings (long a subject of literary critical investigation). Despite their many differences, both of those Romantic novels come to strikingly and (to this reader, and to many students as well) frustratingly happy endings, too-neat resolutions that tie up virtually all their historical, social, and thematic conflicts and send their protagonists off into a feel-good future. Similarly, despite their own significant differences, both of our Realistic novels (Chopin’s The Awakening and Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky) end on far more negative and even tragic notes, their protagonists feeling hopelessly pessimistic about not only their futures but their very identities (the last book of Cahan’s novel is titled “Episodes of a Lonely Life,” which could describe Chopin’s culmating section as well). And it seems to me that these respective kinds of endings are at least somewhat necessary for these two genres, and thus that one way to make sense of Twain’s notoriously controversial ending is to see it as a retreat into the more Romantic aspects of a novel that has featured plenty of realistic elements as well.
Perhaps it’s because I had been thinking about these questions of endings throughout our first two units; but in any case, when we got to our fifth novel and first Modernist text, Cather’s My Antonia (1918), I was even more affected by its ending, which I have long found to be among the most beautiful in American literature. On the one hand, the ending’s lyrical description of her novel’s Nebraska setting echoes multiple moments from throughout the text, especially those located at or near the end of its structuring Books (including Book II’s famous plough and sun description). But on another, the ending’s true power depends on where we, along with our narrator Jim Burden and his lifelong friend Antonia Shimerda, have arrived; it’s a moment defined equally for me, as is Jim’s appreciation of the Nebraska landscape, by a Romantic temperament and a Realistic subject, by the intimate details of Antonia’s life as an immigrant on the frontier and by the sweeping lens of Jim’s love and admiration for her. Perhaps this ending’s perfection, that is, is due to its combination of categories—a combination that, like Antonia’s story, feels particularly American.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What stands out from your semester or fall?