The Guardian presents this interesting and fun infographic on the many ways Poe dreamed up death, murder, and general mayhem. I am a particularly fond of death by orangutan (#s 1 and 7).
300, Action Comics #1, Alan Moore, Ayn Rand, Batman, Christopher Nolan, Comic Books, David Foster Wallace, Donald Barthelme, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerlad, Films, friedrich nietzsche, Gertrude Stein, Herman Melville, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, John Steinbeck, John Updike, Johnny Appleseed, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Katherine Anne Porter, Literary Canon, Miranda July, Moby-Dick, New Sincerity, Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Philip Roth, Postmodernism, Propaganda, Raymond Carver, Richard Wright, Sherwood Anderson, Superman, Terrence Malick, The Great Depression, Watchmen, Yankee Doodle, Zack Snyder
When does something become literary? When does something literary become canonical?
I’ve often come up against the above questions in my scholarly career. Most often I’m confronted by the latter. Academics love to shake up common knowledge, as well as the passive acceptance of canons of all kinds, which is their job, so good, but I feel deep love toward many pieces we regard as central to the American literary canon, and I make no secret of that. Give me Melville, Fitzgerald, Stein, Hemingway, Steinbeck, et cetera, et cetera. So I feel a little cagey when it’s suggested, even tacitly, that they are spent, used up, covered, old and, as such, frail or useless, because none of that is true.
I don’t think that the answers to the questions I’m asking are to be found a stalemate either. Time moves on, new work is produced, otherwise overlooked old work is reconsidered, the canon is not so much an errand in swapping out the exhausted for the fresh because we cannot rightly define how and when a work becomes exhausted so long as new people continue to be born, to grow up, to read, and to be inspired. Similarly, the question of what is fresh must be considered soberly, because it’s too easy to be excited by novelty, only to later realize that, newness aside, behind the façade of novelty is something actually pretty vacuous. (Ahem. Mm. Cough. The Dark Knight Rises. Cough. Mm.)
Somehow, carefully, and recklessly, canons expand, which is really all they can do.
I think few cogent scholars of English literature would deny the importance of a literary figure as contemporary as David Foster Wallace. I like to think Miranda July is someone we can think of as one day becoming a canonical figure in American literature, representative of what some folks have tenderly termed New Sincerity, perhaps the or an artistic movement after Postmodernism. Jonathon Franzen must fall into the neuvo-canonized, as well. I also like to think some of what Junot Diaz has written is worth entering.
But these are all fairly new authors. Above I mentioned “overlooked old work,” and it’s that subject that inspired me to write this post to begin with, so let’s head in that direction.
This is how I got to this question: I was making up a fantasy Intro to American literature syllabus. Some people make up fantasy football leagues; I daydream about a classroom full of eager students and a limitless number of hour-long lectures to pick our way through formative American narratives and stories. At some point in that fantasy, as I moved through American literature period by period, my mind arrived at the 1930s, and while I thought about the Great Depression and Steinbeck and Sherwood Anderson and Richard Wright and Katherine Anne Porter, as well as the births of Barthelme and Coover and Updike and Roth and Oates and Carver, I also thought of Action Comic #1.
Action Comics #1 was published in June 1938 and features the first appearance of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s now iconic American hero Superman.
At this moment, in summer of 2012, as comic book inspired mega-blockbusters assault every sense wherever you turn, the cultural impact and interest in superheroes and their genre is impossible to ignore. Really, it is.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: the bigness of superhero movies right now, isn’t that the vacuous novelty I just mentioned. I think, 95% of the time, certainly. Absolutely. Wolverine, Iron Man, Christopher Nolan’s military-industrial Batman eulogy, that god-awful bit of pot-philosophizing Watchmen (dry-heave…wait, does this count as “American”? Alan Moore is an Englishman) – they don’t really deserve a place alongside the giants of American lit right now. Maybe not ever. In some cases, I hope not ever. But Superman. Hm…Superman…
Now, I know the problems inherent in the Superman figure. The Ayn Randian interpretations, the Nietzschean Übermensch angle, the deification of white masculinity, of American exceptionalism, of the nonindigenous man from afar conquering a new world and doing it better than anyone else ever…there’s all that. In fact, all that and more makes the Superman story all the better for discussion in the context of American literature and its canon(s). Let’s mine the problems. He’s been a figure for war propaganda, so let’s look at that. Let’s also look at his embodiment of American folk figures like Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Yankee Doodle, Pecos Bill. Talk about American pastoral: young Clark Kent growing up on a farm in Anytown USA before pulling up his bootstraps and heading off for the big city to become a seemingly mild mannered newspaper reporter when he isn’t flying and wearing a big red cape evocative of a flag.
So in my fantasy Intro to American lit course, we read and we discuss Superman. We read Action Comics #1 and learn that before he was the image of perfect nobility, Superman was a chauvinist and a dickhead who performed generally good deeds. And we wonder, together, what this all means and if, indeed, it would be more accurate (if realism is our concern) to maintain his dickheadedness or what the fairly recent turn toward muscular martyrdom may mean.
Look. Superman’s a year away from being big again. Next summer, slow-motion aficionado Zack Snyder will release his interpretation of the story to megaplexs ev-er-y-where. (Yes, the very director of endless drivel, including the xenophob-adventure tale 300 and the already bemoaned Watchmen.) And adding doubt to doubt, Christopher Nolan is producing. I’m not sure how I feel about this. But as a Terrence Malick fan, I like the film’s trailer if only for Snyder’s schoolboy desire to impersonate a far superior auteur:
Hopefully, the film somehow miraculously turns out as good as the trailer.
Either way, you can read Action Comics #1 here. It’s fun. And it would be more fun in the classroom, read alongside the greats we already appreciate. This may serve as a slight indication of Superman’s potential value in the undergraduate literature introduction: a search of “moby dick” on Google Scholar turned up 33 900 in 0.06 seconds; when I searched “superman” on that same engine it retrieved 67 800 in 0.05 seconds. Mind you, I did not review each article for quality or applicability, and we are talking about the Internet here, so take that example with a grain of kryptonite.
Up, up, and away.
I just wanted to issue a quick “hello” to anyone who may still follow Verba Americana, as well as to new-comers and stumble-acrossers.
Confession: I feel like an impostor, a sort of psuedo-Jay Gatsby, because I declared an ongoing commitment to this project a few months ago and since then I’ve left it to fallow, though I often profess the importance of young academics creating online spaces that spotlight the ongoing immediacy of cultural artifacts that we want to say, in the laziest of ways, may be outdated. We need to do this, as young academics, to remind ourselves that value persists in things often eclipsed by the sexiness of Twitter and, yes, blogging – newer, faster, media. We need to do this, as well, to tell others, to educate, as it were, even as we prepare and hope and sweat toward one day thinking of ourselves as educators, proper. And yet here I am, apologizing because I’ve been absent from Verba Americana for, well, months (yuck).
I won’t further my Gatsby-ness by promising daily posts from here on out. If I were to do that, well, you may as well slap a white suit on me and put me up in a mansion in West Egg. I’d be doomed. But I will say this: I’ll post now and then, and come September, Verba Americana will resume with some regularity, in step with the school year.
I’ve referenced it enough now that I can no longer ignore it, nor would it be responsible of me to do so – The Great Gatsby. As a testament to it’s ongoing importance, Fitzgerald’s shockingly brilliant novel of financial affluence and interpersonal poverty and betrayal is once again destined for the silver screen. Aussie director Baz Luhrmann’s 3D interpretation of the story lands in cinemas next summer, so read the book now, that you may leave the theatre far superior in your critique than the people you see it with. I can take or leave Luhrmann: Romeo + Juliet was good, Australia made me dry heave. I’ll be honest, I want to not like his rendition of Gatsby, but when I saw the trailer for the film in theatres, I think I may have perhaps felt a small shiver of excitement.
The other, unavoidable, certified giant of American lit is, as always, Melville’s Moby-Dick. I favour short fiction, but Moby-Dick is so elemental, so messy and amazing, so studied and reckless, so wild and obsessive – so American – it drives me…bonkers. In an interview with Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), the American writer Gore Vidal (above), who died about a week ago – 31 July 2012 – had this to say of Melville’s epic:
Hitchens: Why does Moby Dick stink? Why is it revered?
Vidal: I wouldn’t say it is all that bad, but it is not very good, either, unless one wants to know a great deal about whales. It is revered because it is very much in the American manner -pompous, humorless, self-important, and ill-written. There are some interesting annotations in Melville’s copies of Shakespeare where you can see him aiming at magnificence and falling with a splash into the old-man-and-the-sea shallows.
While I respect Vidal and deeply admire his writing, I think he’s somewhat hard on Melville. Perhaps the great E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) and Canada’s own Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale) might be considered kinder to old Herman:
With that, I’ll depart, for now. And, as I said, I’ll try to be back before September, at which time I will return regularly. Thanks to those who care to check back, who continue to read, and who encourage me to keep this effort going.
Hick’s painting is based on Isaiah 11, which prophesies the coming of the Messianic Kingdom:
11:5 And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
11:6 The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
11:7 And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
11:8 And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
11:9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
Readings for Monday’s Class, November 14:
Chapter 36: The Quarter Deck
Chapter 72: The Monkey-Rope
Chapter 87: The Grand Armada
Chapter 96: The Try-Works
Readings for Wednesday’s Class, November 16:
Chapter 99: The Doubloon
Chapters concerning Pip:
Chapter 93: The Cast Away
Chapter 125: The Log and Line
Chapter 129:The Cabin. Ahab and Pip.
Chapter 128: The Pequod meets the Rachel
Chapter 132: The Symphony
ENGLISH 2H06 / AMERICAN LITERATURE
TOPICS FOR THE SECOND ESSAY
Length: 2000-2500 words; percentage of total mark: 20%; due date: December 5, 2011, in class.
PLEASE NOTE: Essays should be typed, double-spaced, with proper margins; back-printing is fine. Include the title of the essay, your name, the course name and number, my name, and the date. Essays are due at the beginning of the class on the date specified; the penalty for late submission of assignments is 3% per day. Please give the essay directly to me, and keep a copy of the paper until the original is returned to you.
There is no need to use secondary sources, but they must be properly documented if they are consulted. Please use the MLA handbook for style and citing of sources (you must acknowledge all borrowed ideas and quotations.) Be sure to read the “Statement of Academic Ethics” included in McMaster’s Senate Policy Statements booklet.
I. Literature often depicts the inner conflict of individuals who feel compelled to make choices that go against their conscience or divides their loyalties. Discuss the theme of psychic or moral conflict as it appears in Melville’s Moby-Dick or Billy Budd.
2. The use of counterpoint, or the entertaining of very different perspectives on the same phenomenon–whether it is life, Nature, the human condition–is an integral aspect of Moby-Dick. Each character embodies a different view of reality, which is a projection of his personality. Discuss this use of different perspectives in the novel.
3. Compare the archetype of the Noble Savage as it is used in Moby-Dick and Billy Budd.
4. Discuss the function or role of one or two of the secondary characters in Moby-Dick (that is, any of the characters other than Ahab or Ishmael).
5. Moby-Dick is, among other things, a powerful treatment of leadership and group psychology, the subjection of a group to the emotionally compelling personality of a charismatic leader. Discuss.
6. The question arises in reading Moby-Dick: to what extent are the monstrousness and evil that Ahab sees in Nature really there, or only a projection of his own maddened mind? Discuss with reference to other possible interpretations
7. Come up with a topic your own in consultation with me or your TA. The topic must be approved by me, or the essay will not be accepted.
NOTE: feel free to email me at email@example.com if you have any questions about the topics.
WE HAVE A WINNER! THE CONTEST IS CLOSED. DETAILS COMING SOON…
“[Ahab] advanced towards the main-mast with the hammer uplifted in one hand, exhibiting the gold [doubloon] with the other, and with a high raised voice exclaiming: “Whosoever of ye raises me a white-headed whale with a wrinkled brow and a crooked jaw; whosoever of ye raises me that white-headed whale, with three holes punctured in his starboard fluke – look ye, whosoever of ye raises me that same white whale, he shall have this gold ounce” (176).
For those of you in 2H06 who have ventured as far as chapter 36 of Moby-Dick, titled “The Quarter-Deck,” (175), you’ll recall the dramatic scene of Ahab nailing a sixteen dollar piece Spanish doubloon to the Pequod’s main-mast and promising it to the first crewmember who spots Moby Dick. For those of you who have yet to reach this chapter, the scene explains itself: Ahab presents his crew with a contest and a prize (a prize, as far as my quick online research reveals, worth roughly $500.00 today).
I, too, would like to nail a figurative doubloon to the mast of this blog. A contest. There is a challenge and there is a prize (no, not $500.00), and they are as follows:
Within the last five years, a fragment of a sentence from Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale (1851) was used as the title of an original song in the musical soundtrack of a celebrated (and polarizing) American film.
If two identical answers tie for first place, that tie will be broken and determined by the amount of accurate elaboration provided by an entrant. Such details include the context within which those six words appear in the novel, the background of the film’s musical composer, a short analysis of the film’s connection to Moby-Dick, et cetera.
The first correct answer wins.
The Prize, or “The Doubloon”
The winner will receive a $15.00 gift certificate to Titles, the McMaster University Bookstore.
This contest is open to students currently enrolled in McMaster University’s English 2H06 American Literature class in the year 2011. This contest becomes void at midnight on December 31st, 2011. I, Joe Frank, Senior Tutor of 2H06, reserve the right to redact this contest, its terms, and its duration at any time. There will only be one winner.
Email answers to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject “2H06 Blog Contest” and include your entire answer in the body of the email, no attachments will be opened. The winner will be notified by email, non-winners will not be contacted, and the answer will be revealed in class as soon as possible.
There it is. Good luck.
– Joe Frank
The image accompanying this post was created by the American artists Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) for the Lakeside Press illustrated edition of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, or the Whale.
The essential difference between novel and romance lies in the
conception of characterization. The romancer does not attempt to
create “real people” so much as stylized figures which expand into
psychological archetypes. It is in the romance that we find Jung’s
libido, anima, and shadow reflected in the hero, heroine, and villain
respectively. That is why the romance so often radiates a glow
of subjective intensity that the novel lacks, and why a suggestion
of allegory is constantly creeping in around its fringes. Certain ele-
ments of character are released in the romance which make it
naturally a more revolutionary form than the novel The novelist
deals with personality, with characters wearing their personae or
social masks. He needs the framework of a stable society, and many
of our best novelists have been conventional to the verge of fussi-
ness. The romancer deals with individuality, with characters in
yacuo idealized by revery, and, however conservative he may be,
something nihilistic and untamable is likely to keep breaking out
of his pages.
The prose romance, then, is an independent form of fiction to
be distinguished from the novel and extracted from the miscellaneous
heap of prose works now covered by that term. Even in
the other heap known as short stories one can isolate the tale form
used by Poe, which bears the same relation to the full romance
that the stories of Chekhov or Catherine Mansfield do to the novel.
“Pure” examples of either form are never found; there is hardly
any modern romance that could not be made out to be a novel, and
vice versa. The forms of prose fiction are mixed, like racial strains
in human beings, not separable like the sexes. In fact the popular
demand in fiction is always for a mixed form, a romantic novel
just romantic enough for the reader to project his libido on the
hero and his anima on the heroine, and just novel enough to keep
these projections in a familiar world. It may be asked, therefore,
what is the use of making the above distinction, especially when,
though undeveloped in criticism, it is by no means unrealized. It is
no surprise to hear that Trollope wrote novels and William Morris
The reason is that a great romancer should be examined in terms
of the conventions he chose. William Morris should not be left
on the side lines of prose fiction merely because the critic has not
learned to take the romance form seriously. Nor, in view of what
has been said about the revolutionary nature of the romance, should
his choice of that form be regarded as an “escape” from his social
attitude. If Scott has any claims to be a romancer, it is not good
criticism to deal only with his defects as a novelist. The romantic
qualities of The Pilgrim’s Progress, too, its archetypal characteriz-
ation and its revolutionary approach to religious experience, make
it a well-rounded example of a literary form: it is not merely a
book swallowed by English literature to get some religious bulk in
its diet. Finally, when Hawthorne, in the preface to The House of
the Seven Gables, insists that his story should be read as romance
and not as novel, it is possible that he meant what he said, even
though he indicates that the prestige of the rival form has induced
the romancer to apologize for not using it.
Romance is older than the novel, a fact which has developed the
historical illusion that it is something to be outgrown, a juvenile
and undeveloped form. The social affinities of the romance, with
its grave idealizing of heroism and purity, are with the aristocracy
(for the apparent inconsistency of this with the revolutionary
nature of the form just mentioned, see the introductory comment on
the mythos of romance in the previous essay) . It revived in the
period we call Romantic as part of the Romantic tendency to archaic
feudalism and a cult of the hero, or idealized libido. In England
the romances of Scott and, in less degree, the Brontes, are part of a
mysterious Northumbrian renaissance, a Romantic reaction against
the new industrialism in the Midlands, which also produced the
poetry of Wordsworth and Burns and the philosophy of Carlyle.
It is not surprising, therefore, that an important theme in the more
bourgeois novel should be the parody of the romance and its ideals.
The tradition established by Don Quixote continues in a type of
novel which looks at a romantic situation from its own point of
view, so that the conventions of the two forms make up an ironic
compound instead of a sentimental mixture. Examples range from
Northanger Abbey to Madame Bovary and Lord Jim.
The tendency to allegory in the romance may be conscious, as
in The Pilgrim’s Progress, or unconscious, as in the very obvious
sexual mythopoeia in William Morris. The romance, which deals
with heroes, is intermediate between the novel, which deals with
men, and the myth, which deals with gods. Prose romance first
appears as a late development of Classical mythology, and the prose
Sagas of Iceland follow close on the mythical Eddas. The novel
tends rather to expand into a fictional approach to history. The
soundness of Fielding’s instinct in calling Tom Jones a history is
confirmed by the general rule that the larger the scheme of a novel
becomes, the more obviously its historical nature appears. As it is
creative history, however, the novelist usually prefers his material
in a plastic, or roughly contemporary state, and feels cramped by a
fixed historical pattern. Waverley is dated about sixty years back
from the time of writing and Little Dorrit about forty years, but
the historical pattern is fixed in the romance and plastic in the
novel, suggesting the general principle that most “historical novels”
are romances. Similarly a novel becomes more romantic in its appeal
when the life it reflects has passed away: thus the novels of
Trollope were read primarily as romances during the Second World
War. It is perhaps the link with history and a sense of temporal con-
text that has confined the novel, in striking contrast to the world
wide romance, to the alliance of time and Western man.
(Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: 303-306)
The Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore, MA, is nearing its demise. Reuters.com published an article today on the sad state of the museum’s finances. The small, unassuming brown building has been cut off from all public funding and has been relying on private donations to make up the $85 000 a year cost to operate. Jason Tomassini predicts the museum will close by June 2012. Sad news.
Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum: