Thursday, December 13, 2018
December 13, 2018: Fall Semester Recaps: Major American Authors
[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 three complex, inspiring characters from my Major American Authors of the 20th Century class.
1) Carrie Meeber: I wrote about the contemporary relatability of the title character of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) in one of my earliest posts, and almost exactly eight years later (!) have continued to find that both she and the novel speak to 21st century students and readers very fully and powerfully. But this time I was also struck by my response to the novel’s ending, where Dreiser’s narrator criticizes Carrie for her pursuit of wealth and fame and the solitude and unhappiness it seems to have produced. Maybe, and certainly we all should think about what we most value, individually and societally; but maybe Dreiser’s narrator is also a bit limited in how he’s able to examine a young woman and her potential identities and futures. This time around, anyway, I found Carrie’s present location and future potential at the novel’s end to be, while unquestionably complex and not without their sadder sides, much more inspiring than does Dreiser’s narrator.
2) Albertine Johnson: I talked a bit about the first-person narrator of the first story in Louise Erdrich’s short story cycle Love Medicine (1984/1993) in this post on that story and book, but to be honest have never focused too much of my reading or teaching of the book on Albertine. After that story she largely disappears from the novel, appearing in one other, very dark and complex story toward the book’s end, “A Bridge.” Part of the reason is that Albertine no longer lives on the Turtle Mountain Chippewa reservation with her family, having moved away to attend nursing school in a city (probably Fargo). This time around those details got me thinking about the ways that Albertine parallels Erdrich herself, including mixed-race parents (Albertine’s Dad is Swedish American and Erdrich’s German American), that education away from the reservation (Erdrich attended Dartmouth), and that complex insider-outsider relationship to the Chippewa community as a result. Which might mean that Albertine is more than just our first narrator—she is in some compelling ways our narrator and writer throughout the book.
3) Nath Lee: As I mentioned in my Preview post for this class, my difficult decision to remove Oscar Wao from the syllabus freed up a spot for our FSU Community Read book for the year, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You (2014). Ng’s book is a mystery/thriller, and I’m not going to reveal any of its climactic revelations or scenes here. So I’ll just say that while those scenes focus on Lydia Lee, the teenager whose death (no spoilers there) drives the novel’s plot and its revelations alike, they also have a great deal to tell us about her older brother, Nath. I suppose I’ll spoil enough to say that Nath lives on beyond the novel’s ending, and thus represents questions of whether and how the next generation of this family and American story will endure into the future. Questions we should all be thinking a lot about these days, and ones that Ng’s book, like so many great American novels, helps us examine.
Last recap tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Semester reflections you’d share?