Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

On my most recent re-read of this novel, I was struck by Thomas Sutpen's racial ambiguity, especially in the eyes of Miss Rosa. It seems partially to be a class thing, but it also makes him align more neatly with his son, Charles Bon.

I was also struck by (but don't know how to handle) the multiple references to the "fairy tale" or "ogre tale" (in Miss Rosa's words) of the Sutpen story. If this story could be considered a fairy tale (and this claim might be a way at getting at the mythic status of the story in the community), it is an original fairy tale (one with a dark ending), scaring the children back into submission, rather than a Disney one that ends happily ever after.

Finally, in my discussions of the book this time around, I heard another compelling explanation of the Haiti thing. I had always chalked the reference up to Haiti's compelling power in the culture--you could say "Haiti" and even in the wrong time and place it would conjure up the memories of the only successful slave rebellion. But someone else pointed out that it could be Faulkner playing with his readers, intentionally misplacing it to show the constructed and contingent nature of the history that he is relating, telling them that the novel is all, in some important sense, just a story that couldn't possibly have happened. I'm not entirely convinced by this explanation, either, but it's another way of thinking about one of the novel's thorny problems. I find this book opening new possibilities and new depths every time that I read it.

Without Sanctuary by James Allen, Jon Lewis, Leon Litwack, and Hilton Als

This book contains a few essays and almost 100 images of postcards produced at lynchings across the South and the West of the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. One of the essays gives a moving history of lynching, highlighting the offenses (many minor, many non-existent except in the minds of the lynchers) for which prominent members of the white community often brutally tortured and killed men, women, and children. Another reflects a little on what it means to collect these postcards and display them (the book accompanied an exhibit put together by the man who collected these postcards).

The power (and, in some ways, the point) of lynching lay in its ability not only to inflict pain, suffering, and death on one person, but in its terrorist hold over an entire race of people--sometimes these lynchings occurred only because one hadn't happened in a while. Thus, the postcards became an essential part of the lynchings' work: they let everyone who hadn't been at the lynching see exactly what had happened. Although towns eventually grew embarrassed by the postcards, and some went so far as to prohibit their sale, and though some anti-lynching organizations published similar images to show the brutality that was happening throughout the South, these postcards still objectify and subject the black male body to a viewer's gaze.

I think it is very important to remember and grapple with the (not-that-long-ago) history of lynching as part of our past, and I think the preservation of postcards such as these helps us do that, but I remain divided on the value of putting them all in a book and selling them.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

It has been a long time since I first read this book. I remember enjoying Jane Eyre as a child, but I didn't remember much about the plot, beyond the first chapter at Gateshead, a scene that made a large impression on me. This time, I have read the book in conjunction with lots of criticism, especially of the Madwoman in the Attic type, so I am seeing a lot of Jane in both Bertha Mason and Helen Burns.

I was particularly disturbed by Mr. Rochester this time through; he was a bit more controlling than I had remembered. Neither did I particularly care for St. John Rivers, who forces Jane to learn Hindustani and wants to force her to marry him and sacrifice her to his missionary missions.

The racial ambiguities in this novel (especially as they center around Bertha (the creole), Mr. Rochester, Blanche Ingram, and Mrs. Reed taint both the colonized people and the colonists by association. Brontë seems to contrast the "fairy" and "elf-like" Jane with Bertha Rochester, who is figured as a witch and a vampire. Ultimately, though, Jane is tainted by the same colonial money that taints Rochester--and even from the same family as Uncle Eyre is an agent for the Masons. So while Jane's return to Rochester seems to be from a position of more independence (she has money of her own, and he can no longer subject her to his possessive gaze as he is now blind), that return is complicated by her accession into the colonialist part of the British Empire.

Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to García Márquez by Franco Moretti

This book examines a class of literary works it classifies as modern epics, including Faust, Moby Dick, The Nieblung's Ring, Ulysses, The Cantos, The Waste Land, The Man Without Qualities, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. Moretti argues that these works all come from places in a world-system, rather than a nation state, and that the question of the epic form is not whether it appears, but whether it is possible to be successful. Moretti takes a very Darwinian approach to literary criticism: he argues that the form evolves as authors experiment with existing forms--and that some developments work better than others. He begins by looking at the 19th century epic and Faust--in which Goethe uses Mephistopheles in order to give Faust his innocence. Another epic innovation in the 19th century, according to Moretti, is history as a metaphor for geography. These epics have lots of polyphony and contain allegory run amok, in a fragmented, encyclopedic, mechanical presentation of information.

Moretti examines Ulysses and the 20th century in terms of both stream-of-consciousness (and Moretti distinguishes between stream-of-consciousness used to highlight a crisis or move the plot forward and the ordinary, everyday stream-of-consciousness) and polyphony.

Finally, Moretti closes with a look at One Hundred Years of Solitude in which he identifies a different epic project--whereas Ulysses expands spatially but only has a single day, García Márquez's book is very locally centered (on Macondo) in a Buddenbrooks model, but expands over a long period of time. He also considers lo real maravilloso--a move that rehabilitates narrative. Overall, I found this book fairly helpful--while I wonder about his criteria for defining epic, I think his discussions of both stream-of-consciousness and polyphony quite illuminating.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Before Novels: The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth Century Fiction by J. Paul Hunter

I found Paul Hunter's Before Novels a helpful approach to understanding the coming of the novel to English literature during the 18th century. In this book's first and shortest section Hunter begins by justifying discussing the beginning of the novel at all (while "novelistic" elements have existed as long as literature, the novel represents a specific conjunction of them), strongly argues against the idea (often associated with followers of Northrop Frye) that the novel develops out of romance, and challenges Ian Watt's thesis of the immediate "triple rise"of the novel (rise of middle class leads to rise of literacy leads to rise of novel). The second part of this section identifies elements of the novel that seem counter-intuitive but were quite present in the eighteenth century that reflect the contexts and pretexts of the novel. In Hunter's second section, he makes the case that the rapid growth in the literate population occured two or three generations before the novel developed. He identifies several new needs in this population's reading materials (looking forward in time, awareness of place, and a loss of traditional oral culture [especially fairy tales]). In his third, and major, section Hunter identifies several types of writing that met the needs of this population before the novel developed, and thus were predecessors of a sort to the novel: newspapers and journalism, didactic tracts (especially guides), diaries, autobiographies, and histories.

Overall, I found Hunter's arguments persuasive. His arguments about the novels themselves make sense to me as a sometime reader of such novels, although I am less familiar with the extraliterary texts that form the basis of his analysis in the bulk of the book. He is quite candid about the difficulties in calculating literacy rates during this entire period, but his arguments make some sense, especially insofar as they do note require the novel to develop immediately in response to a rapid change.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Web of Words: The Great Dialogue of Southern Literature by Richard Gray

In A Web of Words: The Great Dialogue of Southern Literature Richard Gray investigates the Bahktinian dialogue present within the tradition of Southern literature. His first chapter traces the voices of disaster through Southern literature, but instead of beginning and ending with the trauma of the Civil War, Gray includes many different types of voices rehearsing defeat including Native Americans and African Americans and ends his chapter with Southern writers dealing with the Vietnam War. Gray’s second chapter looks at the dialogue of agrarianism: the pastoral voices of Jefferson and the Agrarians, the anti-pastoral responses that query the agrarian dream, and finally “a contemporary and radical rewriting of agrarianism that offers one of the few plausible remaining alternatives to global capitalism” (x). Gray concludes his book by looking at the Southern tradition in its larger context: a transnational dialogue that occurs at the borders and that helps to move the south beyond the popularly conceived “bipolar biracial model of the region and so of the regional dialogue” (xi).

I found this book very helpful. Its methodological approach contests Harold Bloom’s theories presented in The Anxiety of Influence by using a Bahktinian model of dialogue in the strain of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” rather than a Freudian model of influence. This model of dialogue, I think, is a particularly helpful way of dealing with Faulkner in concert with other Southern writers. It also allows critical discussion of the Southern experience to move beyond the trauma of the Civil War (although not beyond trauma entirely) to consider more recent events (like the Vietnam War) and to deconstruct the monolithic Southern past into something more fragmented and fluid.

Gray uses a wide range of examples in his text, never neglecting Faulkner and other famous writers, but including modern authors and concerns as well. He does a better job fitting new voices into the dialogue than he does finding older, ignored voices to include. For example, in the first chapter, Gray acknowledges the dispossession of Native Americans and their experience of defeat long before the Civil War, but the focus of his chapter is incorporating two Vietnam War narratives into the dialogue of loss.

Ultimately, this book does a good job of investigating borders and old formations in order to participate in the documentation of the global south. Gray starts by taking two Southern clichés, the experience of defeat and the agrarian dream, and showing in a detailed history how current authors join an old, tired dialogue and reinvigorate it with contributions valid beyond the borders of the South. These contributions become even more valuable in the third chapter, when Gray demonstrates that not only is the Southern dialogue an integral and organic part of a larger dialogue, but also that the incursion of the larger dialogue in the Southern context helps enable writers to talk back to their predecessors more meaningfully and hopefully than before.