Secret Identity Crisis: Does Superman Deserve a Place in the American literary Canon?


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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.

–          Joe

Born Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: On My Now and Again Return to Verba Americana


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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.

– Joe

(Exiting the Office): Concluding 2H06, 2011/2012


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The term is all but over. Classes have ended. The exam period is drawing to a close. McMaster’s English 2H06, American Literature, exam takes place in a few days’ time. It’s been a great year.

We studied sixteen prolific American writers in approximately six months: Poe; Hawthorne; Melville; Thoreau; Whitman; Dickinson; Twain; Frost; Stevens; Faulkner; O’Neill; Cather; Lowell; Bishop; Mamet; Hurston. That’s a staggering list, and yet it only scratches the surface of the rousing and dynamic canon and culture that is American literature. I wish we had had more time to search the art of these writers more. I wish we had had time to consider Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck and and Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor and Richard Yates and J.D. Salinger and Raymond Carver and Cormac McCarthy and David Foster Wallace. And scores more. But, my God, a year is such a brief period of time.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the professors who led us through such important texts. Dr. Adamson and Dr. Donaldson: thank you. Between September and April I made it to all but two lectures, I kept detailed notes, and much of what ended up on this blog was inspired by something mentioned in lecture – I, like so many of you, attended lectures with devotion in large part because it was clear from the outset that here was thrilling literature taught by equally exciting professors. We should all be very grateful for having had this opportunity to learn from such prominent, careful, and learned scholars as Dr. Adamson and Dr. Donaldson.

And to the Teaching Assistants – Deirdre, Sarah, and Karen – thank you, as well, for your hard work, dedication, and leadership, as well as for nurturing what I understand were exciting and fruitful tutorials.

Thanks, also, to the students of 2H06. Most of you attended class diligently, contributed exciting and provocative ideas to class discussions, and inspired the instructors with your palpable interest in American literature.

From my end, I’ve had a good time keeping up with the challenges of each lecture and I’ve enjoyed the work I’ve done on Verba Americana. I only hope this blog has, if even in some minor way, contributed to at least one person’s enjoyment and education of American literature.

This post marks the end of Verba Americana’s association with McMaster as the semi-official blog of English 2H06. As of May 1st, Verba Americana will become my own blog. American literature will remain the focus and I pledge to post at least once a month. As the legalese of Hollywood puts it, the opinions expressed hereafter are solely those of the individual (me) writing and curating this blog.

With that, I bid my final thanks to the professors, TAs, and students of 2H06 for the academic year of 2011/2012. It really has been deeply enjoyable and immensely interesting. Good luck to all of you as you prepare for and then write the final exam. You’re going to do great. Stay until the end. Stay and write until the invigilator steals the exam booklet out from under the fiery pencil clutched in your kung fu grip. Write and then write more. If Moby Dick reminds you of your elusive and menacing geriatric cat, say so. If Whitman came off like a rebellious linguist who should have been featured as a hologram alongside that of Tupac at this year’s Coachella, write it. If such lines as “stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people” seems to you like a warning of the twitterverse to come, a caution against the frenetic 140 character world that today inspires uprisings in places while nurturing self-involved indolence elsewhere, slam that assessment down in your exam essay. Maybe you think the cadence of Mametian dialogue is today copied but effectively bastardized by the likes of The Gilmore Girls or Family Guy, in which case it may be worth making it known in the exam. At the very least, such ideas are more likely to help than hurt. My point is this: once you leave the exam you can’t go back, so stay until the end and analyze, criticize, theorize, rhapsodize until the last possible second. You’ve put a year into this work; don’t skip out on it an hour early. Don’t doubt the value of your original ideas.

Good luck with that which awaits you from this point on. Return and then return again to the great literature we’ve investigated. These stories, like the ocean that swallows the Pequod and all its crew save Ishmael, dwarf us and they will endure long after we’re gone.

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago” (Melville, Moby-Dick, 624).

–          Joe

(US Flag/Octopus image via

Lords of Sounds: Zora Neale Hurston’s Prose in Performance


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Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is the last text we, McMaster’s scholars in English 2H03, study this year. It is a beautiful example of eloquent prose and a great book with which to complete a year’s worth of studies in American literature.

Moreover, Their Eyes Were Watching God turns 75-years old this year. In celebration,  New York Public Radio hosted a radio play interpretation of the novel in it’s Jerome L. Greene Performance Space on February 29 and March 1 of this year. Adapted by writer Arthur Yorkins and performed by the likes of Phylicia Rashad (widely known for portraying Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show from 1984 to 1992), among others. Hurston’s prose sings. It’s worth your time to press play, close your eyes, and simply listen.

Also worthwhile, and also presented by New York Public Radio, is this music and reading salon, featuring different interpretations of the novel by several deeply talented artists. Click through the to website to watch all 121 minutes.

– Joe

Explicit Lyrics: Third Prize is You’re Fired


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How does one even begin to levy words for or against David Mamet’s welding torch of a play Glengarry Glen Ross? It’s such an expertly-worded piece of literature, any thing I could come up with in response would feel lifeless in comparison. So I’m going to back down. I’m going to let A.O. Scott, Chief Film Critic for the New York Times, speak instead. His assessment of the 1992 film-adaptation directed by James Foley says it all.

Also worth sharing is this eight minute clip, in which Alec Baldwin spits fire at his subordinates. Be warned, his language is very choice.

I should also mention that the image at the top of this post is by an artist named Sam Weber. More by him may be seen at Gallery Nucleus (

Best of luck to all as the term nears an end.

– Joe

Honest in Stink: Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Bad Faith, and Non Sequiturs


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An old hermit’s heiress surviving winter in a Spartan cottage executes a small apocalypse on the adjacent shore. A lost millionaire poses in a decidedly rustic wardrobe. A broke decorator channels his angst into his work, wishing he was married. Lovers hiding lust in cars far from town. A narrator who stops short of confessing his demons; his ideas are dark, his interpretations are consistently bleak and whenever his thought-process stumbles toward how disturbed he may be, he lurches, stops short of self-revelation, and returns to watching the maritime scene.

All of these people – the hermit’s heiress, the lost millionaire, the unmarried decorator, the secret lovers, the wandering narrator – proceed through life in fear of something. In turn they deny themselves much, deny themselves an honest living (in the sense of an honest consciousness, not necessarily profitable employment).

The hermit’s heiress is a hermit herself, afraid to leave her Spartan cottage – Spartan, as was mentioned in lecture, being a warrior people who lived in a state of privation, of self-denial, for the purpose of discipline.

The millionaire’s clothes, rather than advertising his skill, maybe reveal him as a kind of poser, a man more concerned with looking expert than being expert.

The decorator keeps up an attractive shop, though it makes no money – why? Is he afraid to admit aloud that he’d rather be married, than admit that he is not? Is he afraid that if he doesn’t put such care into brightening his shop his longing to marry will overflow?

The lovers are afraid of how their lust will be judged if it is made public.

The narrator feels his mind isn’t right. But he’s afraid to admit to and thus confront his demons, as we all are, because what would that mean? What kind of person would he be if he was honest with himself? Where would directly confessing and admitting to the depth of his darkness leave him psychologically?

It seems to me that the humans in Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” live in a state of personal privation. Existential philosophy calls this bad faith. Sartre describes bad faith as the individual freely denying freedom, living in a state of self-deception and deprivation and denial. Sounds Spartan to me.

But who in “Skunk Hour” is not afraid. (I’m afraid of over-simplifying the poem, of a reductive reading, so please know that this interpretation is in fact the germ of an interpretation, and one interpretive germ among myriad others.)

Skunks inherit the town after dark. The narrator stands on the step of his back porch watching them forage, and he calls the air “rich” – when has anyone ever associated the scent of skunk in the air with richness other than in this poem? Why “rich”? Where everyone else lives in a state of self-deprivation, the skunks make the air rich. Of course they do. The humans are poor in spirit. The skunks are rich because they don’t deny their true selves. Thus, the mother skunk, followed by her kittens and captivated by a cup of sour cream, “will not scare.”

The humans in the poem are themselves not being themselves. The animals – skunks who stink richly (who are not stinking rich) and who travel in groups – are, at least, honest in stink, honest in their pursuit of food, are not burdened with fear, and will not scare.

Also worth some comparison is Lowell’s use of the phrase from Paradise Lost, “I am hell,” with a similar phrase from Sartre. In the play No Exit, Sartre wrote what has since become his most famous quote: “Hell is other people.” (…both are f*cking depressing – if I am hell and hell is other people, then there is no escaping hell. Yeesh.)

That’s all I’ll say in that regard, so as to avoid overstating a still underdeveloped and potentially all-to-limited interpretation of what may be, on some level, at work in Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.”

Non Sequitur #1

The dusk rural/suburban east coast setting of “Skunk Hour” reminds me of some of the photography of Gregory Crewdson, whose cinematic stills of human isolation amid domestic scenes echoes in imagistic form something of Lowell’s written aesthetic. Crewdson’s photos feature, mostly, lone people appearing bewildered by some inexplicable phenomena, either on or off camera, usually during dawn or dusk, those transitional times that are neither day or night but something other and in between.

Non Sequitur #2

For those of you who wondered what the song “Careless Love” sounds like that Lowell’s narrator should describe it as bleating from the car radios of “love-cars,” here’s a version recorded in 1957 by Slim Whitman, two years before “Skunk Hour” was published: 

Non Sequitur #3

Lowell dedicated “Skunk Hour” to Elizabeth Bishop. “Skunk Hour” was inspired by Bishop’s poem “The Armadillo,” which she dedicated to Lowell. For your comparison:

“The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars —
planets, that is — the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft! — a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!

–         Joe

The Tipping of an Object Toward the Light: On Elizabeth Bishop, poet and painter


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Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish” is her most anthologized piece of writing. It’s so anthologized, in fact, that Dr. Donaldson said something to me after lecture about the poet growing to loath it. That’s too bad, I think, because it’s such a great piece of writing, but can you blame an artist for wanting the breadth of their work to not be outshone by one piece. We call it the “one hit wonder,” though Bishop certainly is not this, but knowing one poem gets so much more attention than the rest of her work it’s understandable that she would find this upsetting.

It’s “The Fish”‘s prosaic tone that I connect with. Admittedly, I struggle (a struggle I  enjoy) through noticeably molded poetry – by which I mean poetry steeped in play, experimentation, patterning upon patterning, stanzas packed with tongue-twisting and mind-dizzying schemes and metres and devices. Many of my favourite pieces of written art include such things, but at the end of the day, when I’m choosing something to read before my eyelids can no longer stay apart, I reach for prose, often spare prose. Which is why I like “The Fish.” It is prosaic, narrative. It reminds me of my favourite prose writers. Anton Chekhov. Ernest Hemingway. John Steinbeck. Raymond Carver. Amy Hempel. Denis Johnson.

In fact, when Bishop completed “The Fish” she sent a copy to her friend, the poet Marianne Moore, comparing it to something Hemingway would write. As it were, Bishop and Hemingway were neighbours in Key West. Bishop considered Hemingway’s wife, Pauline, a close friend and the wittiest person she had ever known. Of Hemingway himself, Bishop possessed mixed opinions, though she admired his work, especially his short stories. More on the Bishop-Hemingway connection can be found in Dr. Thomas Travisano’s article “Hemingway, Bishop and Key West: Two Writers’ Perspectives” (June 2011) at Berfroise: Intellectual Jousting in the Republic of Letters. 

Exchanging Hats book: The Armory, Key West, a painting by Elizabeth Bishop

But back to Bishop beyond “The Fish.”

As well as a poet, Bishop was a talented water-colourist. Her paintings are charmingly crude, lacking mastery over depth of field, but perhaps intentionally so, because Bishop’s eye seems to dwell (there’s that word!) on solids, big blocks of colour, small bursts of yellows and reds, quick brush strokes juxtaposed by large objects, light touches everything equally, but none of it without care. There’s honesty in the paintings. She’s faking nothing, nor is she trying to.

Exchanging Hats book: Brazilian Landscape, a painting by Elizabeth Bishop

I’m particularly transfixed by the painting called “Brazilian Landscape” (above), which bears a striking resemblance to a small water colour painting by my late grandfather, no painter himself, rather he was a military man. As a Canadian Peace Keeper in North Vietnam, he painted the landscape of Communist China as seen from the balcony of his accommodations, which he folded up and sneaked out of the country in his sock, or so the story goes.

More worthwhile readings on Bishop may be found here and here.

– Joe

Exchanging Hats book: Sleeping Figure, a painting by Elizabeth Bishop

The Immense Design of Things: Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” (or the hokey post title: Cather in the Rye)


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During lecture today, Dr. Donaldson singled out a phrase in Cather’s The Professor’s House that summoned up a memory of Cather buried deep in my mind. The line Dr. Donaldson singled out: “Convenience often dictates very sound design.” In that moment, I wondered if this is true. I thought of the human body, for one, as a design dictated by convenience. Also houses – another thing Dr. Donaldson focused on, regarding Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958) – even chairs, and especially story designs. A succession of seemingly disparate designs, I know. But in my memory, the phrase “convenience often dictates very sound design” recalled another reference to design by Cather in another of her brilliant stories.

The final words of her tragic short story “Paul’s Case” are this: “…and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things.”

I was an undergraduate when someone, somehow, introduced me to Willa Cather through her widely-anthologized short story “Paul’s Case” (1905). I like to think that it contributed to my love of American literature and the short story, as well as the bildungsroman. I know it contributed to my love of another great American work of fiction about a misunderstood and unsettled young man who escapes the confines of his family for New York city, where, for a brief time, he explores his thoughts and the life he thinks he wants: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

It’s interesting that, in the novel The Professor’s House, design is referred to for exactness, convenience, soundness. In her short story, she thinks of design in terms of immensity, capaciousness, its ability to subsume, which I guess relates to ‘convenience’ in terms of ‘convening.’ In the longer form (novel), her idea of design tends toward its specificity; in the shorter form (short story), Cather thinks of design in terms of immensity. I think this is a lovely inversion. Though I can’t put my finger on exactly why this instance of inversion has captivated me enough to go on at length.

What I intended to do at the beginning of this entry was encourage a reading of “Paul’s Case.” I’ll do that now: read it.

– Joe