Monday, December 10, 2018
December 10, 2018: Fall Semester Recaps: American Lit II
[The final papers are coming in and the blue books have entered the building, so it must be the end of another semester. This week I’ll recap some inspiring moments from my Fall 2018 semester, and I’d love to hear some of yours in comments!]
On one expected and two unexpected inspirations from my American lit survey class.
Two of the six books at the heart of my American Lit II survey class are among my very favorite American novels (Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony), and a third is very high on the list as well (Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake), so I knew there would be plenty of inspiration in the course of our semester. And I wasn’t the slightest bit disappointed—I find each of those books more moving and more important each time I read them, and certainly doing so amidst the Trump era and the 2018 midterms and other contemporary contexts only amplified those effects and meanings. To be honest, I think much of the last few years (if not much of American history and identity overall) can be summed up entirely with two quotes from the first two of those novels: Chesnutt’s “our boasted civilization is but a thin veneer, which cracks and scales off at the first impact of primal passions”; and Silko’s “The only thing is: it has never been easy.”
Perhaps inspired by the particularly resonant lessons of those works and authors, I was also unexpectedly inspired to rethink my syllabus for the next time I teach this class. In particular, I need more multi-cultural and immigrant texts on the syllabus earlier than the late 20th/early 21st century unit; while my scholarly work has focused a great deal on such texts and histories from the 19th and early 20th centuries, my American Lit II syllabus hasn’t quite caught up. It won’t be easy to take any of my current authors and texts out, but that’s how it goes when you’re making a syllabus, and I need to make room for (for example) Abraham Cahan’s “A Sweatshop Romance” (1898) and Sui Sin Far’s “In the Land of the Free” (1909). Right now the histories of both labor and immigration are largely absent from my late 19th century unit in this class, and while a literature survey is not the same as a history one, you can’t really engage with literature from that period either without those threads as part of the pattern. So I look forward to finding room for them on my next iteration of American Lit II!
I don’t want to suggest that it is only particular works that can offer inspiration, however—and I was also struck this time around by the unexpected inspiration I found in one of the class’s most familiar texts, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). As I argued in that post, Fitzgerald’s book can and should be complemented by other 1920s works, and sometimes is over-emphasized as either a 1920s text or a representation of the American Dream. But besides its own aesthetic and storytelling pleasures, the novel still has a great deal to tell us about both its world and our own, and this time I was struck in particular by the character of Tom Buchanan. Tom feels very, very familiar: the spoiled son of a wealthy family who abuses and mistreats women, tries to bully and intimidate all those around him, buys into white supremacist conspiracy theories and xenophobia, and is quick to call out the criminal and unethical behavior in others that he’s so desperate to mask in his own life. He’s unquestionably the novel’s chief villain, and while he emerges victorious (as villains too often do), reading about such a character and perspective just might help us encounter and respond to the Trumps—I mean, Toms—in our own world.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Semester reflections you’d share?