Carson McCullers, Coachella, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace, David Mamet, Edgar Allan Poe, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O'Neill, Exam, Family Guy, Flannery O'Connor, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, J.D. Salinger, Jeffery Donaldson, John Steinbeck, Joseph Adamson, Long Day's Journey into Night, Moby-Dick, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Raymond Carver, Richard Yates, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, The Gilmore Girls, Tupac Shakur, Twitter, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston
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).
(US Flag/Octopus image via http://www.flickr.com/photos/hulk4598/3745143397/in/photostream)
Above is a oil on canvas portrait of Walt Whitman by the American realist painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916). The photographed portrait of an elderly Whitman I posted on January 1st, as well as the image that is this blog’s banner right now, are also Eakins’ work.
More of Eakins’ work featuring Whitman as the subject is easily accessible via a simple Google search, as well as a Google Image search. I especially like the photograph taken by Eakins of the sculptor William Rudolph O’Donovan working on a bust of Whitman – there are so many different and intersecting levels and kinds of artistry present in the image; artists celebrating one another. As though Eakins was looking for Whitman everywhere, in myriad incarnations: in oil and flesh as well as in stone or clay. And don’t even get me started on O’Donovan’s impressive mustache!:
But back to Eakins.
Here is the painting he is possibly most famous for, titled “The Swimming Hole” and completed between 1884 and 1885, it depicts with near exactitude the scene looked upon by the lonely voyeur in section of 11 of Leaves of Grass:
Of all Eakins’s portraits of Whitman, this one seems, to me anyway, like another. Only, rather than looking at Whitman, Eakins is looking into Whitman, or even into Whitman with Whitman, if that makes any sense.
Once again, here is section 11 of Leaves of Grass:
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore;
Twenty-eight young men, and all so friendly:
Twenty-eight years of womanly life, and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank;
She hides, handsome and richly drest, aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah, the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you;
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather;
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair:
Little streams pass’d all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies;
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs—their white bellies bulge to the sun—they do not ask who seizes fast to them;
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch;
They do not think whom they souse with spray.
I’m re-posting the Levi’s ad (part of a larger campaign) that uses the Whitman recording we listened to in lecture today. Dr. Donaldson did us a huge favour by asking us to carefully consider the poem and recording on its own, without the agenda of a product attached to it. Having done that to some extend, I want to think about the poem and recording as they have been used, perhaps even commandeered or hijacked, by Levi Strauss & Co.
At face value, this ad, which is directed by American filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga (b. 1977; dir. Sin Nombre in 2009, Jane Eyre in 2011), certainly communicates a very romantic and ostensibly antinomian aesthetic and spirit, but it’s coming from a huge business that, while promoting an narrative about the United States recapturing a kind of bygone tenacity and industriousness (a manifest destiny, if you will), does little to profoundly contribute to that promise.
Indeed, the add campaign centered around the down-and-out town of Braddock, PA, is uplifting and portrays Levi’s contributing to the economic revitalization of the area, but is giving 1 million dollars to a community center enough, when the jeans are still made for pennies a day in less economically prosperous countries? (Though the definition of national economic prosperity is, today, utterly problematic.)
My point: wouldn’t manufacturing their products in the US provide Braddock with far better and longer lasting help than writing a one-time cheque for a community center and walking away?
Yes, the “creative class” hipsters who populate most of these Levi’s ads are nice to look at – all lithe and sweaty as they shoot bottle rockets in wheat fields under a full moon. Aesthetically, I’m there. I like the Ryan McGuinley-esque look. I admit it. And a part of me wants to be all, “Hey, at least Whitman isn’t forgotten. At least he lives on somehow and people are being exposed to his work whether they know it or not.”
But the more logical part of my brain thinks Whitman would be like, “Seriously? I poured my soul out! I gave you myself as a song! I offered the very atoms of my blood, and you fools use my poetry as ad copy for an ‘American’ company that manufactures its ‘Americana’ clothing anywhere but the United States and posted a 2011 net income of $32 million? You’re fucking with me, right? So not antinomian, man. So not antinomian.”
Seriously, this reads like something a ninth-grader rewrote from a Wikipedia page:
His hand on his tilted hip, his head cocked all judgmental-like. I think he’d call the ads pretty, but also pretty vacuous.
This is the last time I’ll mention the Levi’s campaign – which I’ve written about too much already. But it’s worth stressing that while this work should live on, how must it live on? To read Whitman is an exciting experience. Do we need the pizzazz of commercials for jeans that are generally more expensive than an everyman can afford to be reminded of that? What would Whitman, a self-promoted everyman, have thought?
It seems there was some characteristic beginning-of-term tutorial confusion. Indeed, it was mentioned in Wednesday’s lecture that tutorials commence this week. And they should. But if for some reason there’s some confusion, and your tutorial doesn’t take place this week, it will be back in full swing next week.
Oh, how I love the beginning of a new term and the hick-ups in communication that it brings.
In the meantime, enjoy some Whitman care-of Dead Poets Society:
I deeply hope that everyone enjoyed a relaxing and food-filled holiday. McMaster reopens on Monday, January the 2nd; classes resume as of Tuesday, January 3rd, which means 2H06 starts back up on Wednesday, January 4th at the usual place and time.
On behalf of the teaching assistants and the students, I’d like to extend the deepest gratitude to Dr. Joseph Adamson, who expertly educated us on the magnificent works of Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Thoreau. While Dr. Adamson will be missed, his equally exciting colleague, Dr. Jeffery Donaldson, takes the reigns from here on out, and so the second term promises as much fascinating and enlightening leadership as the first.
Thank you, Dr. Adamson. And welcome, Dr. Donaldson.
On Wednesday’s lecture, Dr. Donaldson will present the first of three lectures about the great American poet Walt Whitman. (For Wednesday the 4th read “Song of Myself” Sections 1-15 & 24; see the syllabus for more details.)
I mentioned Whitman four posts ago, while discussing the Thoreauvian aesthetic in the advertising campaigns of Levi’s (https://verbaamericana.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/thoreau-and-tomorrow-observing-henry-david-thoreaus-legacy-of-deliberate-disobedience/). One of those ads features a reading of Whitman’s “O Pioneers”:
The second of nine children, Walter Whitman was born on May 31, 1819. He initially self-financed the publication of 795 copies of what is now his best-known work, the collection Leaves of Grass, in 1855, at the age of 36 – a loner and a bachelor living in the attic of his parents’ home. The book was labeled an oddity and sold poorly, though Whitman remained motivated. Leaves of Grass was very much a living text: Whitman revisited and revised the poems therein until his death in late March 1891, at the age of 71.
In March 1882, the book was criticized (read: attacked) by Boston District Attorney Oliver Stevens and the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, calling the collection “obscene.” Indeed, controversy over the sexual currents in Whitman’s verse remains a focal point to this day. Among the many gifts exchanged between former-President Bill Clinton and his mistress Monica Lewinsky, it’s widely-known that Clinton gave Lewinsky a special edition of Leaves of Grass.
Levi’s, Lewinsky, and the popular “O Captain! My Captain!” scene in the film Dead Poets Society, even a poorly-received 2009 dark comedy starring Edward Norton and directed by Tim Blake Nelson – Whitman’s influence, his importance, permeates the cultural narrative of the United States. Even Breaking Bad (one of the best shows on television now).
What luck, that we should spend time with his brilliant work, that we may absorb and think with his ideas, his artistry, and his daring.
“Who need be afraid of the merge?
Undrape….you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless….and can never
be shaken away.”