More Kosova-Mississippi Connections

May 13, 2003

William Faulkner accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, 1950 (Source: www.emersonkent.com)

William Faulkner accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, December 10, 1950 (Source: www.emersonkent.com)

If you have browsed this blog, you know that in the winter and spring of 2012 my Kosovaran students and I spent many hours talking and writing about hope.  We did so in response to William Faulkner’s 1950 Stockholm Address, where the Noble Prize winner urged young writers to resist the despair generated by atomic bombs that ended World War II but left us all with one question: “When will I be blown up?”  This terrifying question, Faulkner believed, had placed writers under “a curse,” one that seduced them to write “not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all without pity or compassion.”  Such writing, Faulkner claims, no matter how brilliant, comes not from the “heart” but from the “glands.”

To free writers from this curse, Faulkner challenged them to write about the “conflicts of the human heart in conflict with itself” because “only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.”  Once accepting this “duty,” writers would quit spawning more despair over our persistently violent world; instead, writers would hold fast to their truths about our capacities for stupidity and brutality but, at the same time, provide evidence, however limited, of our capacity as mere mortals to think intelligently and to act with “courage and honor,” with “compassion and sacrifice.” Such writers, Faulkner argued, become “pillars” for readers, supporting them with hope that we might “endure and prevail.”

If you will scroll the menu of topics on the homepage of this blog, you will see that we discussed the grounds for hope at the beginning of the course, when we talked and wrote about Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, a play that ends with Linda Loman stunned by her husband’s suicide but also with Willy eager to give his life to make his son Biff “magnificent”; and at the end of the course, when we searched for hope in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s novel that ends with the fire-bombing of Dresden, with a firing squad executing an innocent man, but with Billy Pilgrim’s humane tears and with leaves budding on the trees.  We had the same discussion about Gaines’s novel A Lesson Before Dying, a story that ends with the execution of Jefferson, another innocent man, but also with his teacher Grant inspired by Jefferson’s courage and at one with the community from which he has long felt alienated.  We encountered Faulkner’s challenge to writers again in discussing his own “Barn-Burning,” a Mississippi story that traces the violent and futile history of blood-vengeance but also the possibility of escape from the cycle of violence through compassionate and daring action, a topic central to the current and future Kosova as it struggles to emerge from centuries of violence between Serbs and Albanians.

Remembering these powerful and moving conversations about despair and hope shared with my students at the University of Pristina, I encouraged my students at MSU to measure our philosophers, films, and Western American novels by Faulknerian standards, attending especially to his insistence that writers have a “duty” to ‘lift readers’ hearts’ with hope.  You’ll find the novels and films described briefly in the last posting, as well as a photo of my co-teacher, Dr. John Bickle.  Here, you’ll see the essay topics the students took up after extensive discussion and journaling on the grounds for hope in times of violence and injustice.  Linked to each assignment, you will also find some of my students’ faces as well as their thoughtful responses to these questions.  Please read and enjoy!

**Please click on the students’ pictures below to be directed to their essay responses.**

Assignment on The Big Sky

Rebekah Boden

Rebekah Boden

Please write a critical essay on A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky, focusing on the character of Boone Caudill.

Your essay should identify at least three characteristics that best define Caudill’s character to clarify why novelist Wallace Stegner calls Boone a “doomed” hero of the frontier.  What qualities strike you as heroic?  What qualities undercut that heroism?  How and why is Caudill doomed?  Does his doom result from his heroic virtues, from his flaws, or from both?  Does his doom result from forces exterior to his character?

You should support your claims about Caudill with specific examples and relevant quotes from the novel.  Your analysis of Boone should also offer illuminating comparisons or contrasts drawn from the films “Shane” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  Further, in formulating your thesis (your claims) on Boone, draw on the philosophical ideas from at least two of the following thinkers: Mill, Kant, French (“Ethical Revenge in Westerns”), Vico, Roche and Hösle, French  (“The Death of Death”), Appiah, Lind.

We encourage you to review your journaling responses to the novel and/or your notes on the philosophers to gather ideas for your paper.

Assignment on The Man Who Killed the Deer

Molly

Molly Beckwith

Please write a critical essay on Frank Water’s The Man Who Killed the Deer, focusing on the character of Martiniano.

Your essay should draw on at least two of our readings from Aristotle, Young, Wolf, Sommers, Nietzsche, and Matthew 5-7 to frame your assessment of Martiniano as a morally responsible resister of a corrupt culture.  You should support your claims about Martiniano with specific examples and relevant quotes from the novel and with illuminating comparisons or contrasts drawn from the films “Hombre” and “High Plains Drifter.”

Once again, we encourage you to review your journaling responses to the novel and/or your notes on the philosophers to gather ideas for your paper.

Assignment on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Ryan Smith

Ryan Smith

Please write a critical essay on Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, focusing on the character of McMurphy as a sane Western hero or as a psychopath.

Kit Warren

Kit Warren

You should support your claims about McMurphy with specific examples and relevant quotes from the novel and with illuminating comparisons or contrasts drawn from the film “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and from any other film or novel we have discussed.

Matt Bartee

Matt Bartee

Drawing on your response to journal question #5 on Part IV of the novel, you should also frame your analysis of McMurphy’s motives and actions in definitions of psychopathology and moral heroism.

Postmodern Poetry

May 14, 2012

As we gathered for the next session, I referred students to the board, where they saw a list of works from the postmodern period—post-World War II—that we had already read and discussed:

In reviewing the list, I suggested that we could begin thinking about postmodernism as a continuation of modernism, particularly the interrelated themes of remembering as a basis for moving on, for making decisions about how to use our time, themes addressed in all the works listed here and in many of the works we would take up in these last four weeks.  But the horror of World War II, especially its atomic ending, had such a traumatic effect on the entire culture, I said—as we saw in Faulkner’s question, “When will I be blown up”—that literary voices began to explore with new urgency the flux of our existence and its apparent absurdity.  “Some of these voices,” I continued, “sound post modern in their rejection of T.S. Eliot’s allusive, academic ‘high modernism,’ as we will hear today in ‘The Fish’; others, as we will see in Vonnegut, sound postmodern in their unflinching explorations of the violent absurdities of our culture.”

I also spoke of postmodern “chaos theory,” the idea that human beings can collaborate in creating order, however tentative, from the randomness of experience, as we saw in Lahiri’s “Sexy.”  “Miranda and Dev,” I reminded the students, “met by accident; then Miranda babysat for Rohin, an encounter she never planned; but she and Rohin collaborated in shaping a tentative order from the chaos the father’s adultery had caused, an order that disallows ‘loving strangers’ when such relationships root in deceit and crush the deceived.”  By the end of that story, I concluded, Miranda had learned to open her eyes, “and her new wakefulness gave her the courage to end the affair.”  This insistence on open eyes, I told the students, would inform every postmodern work we would read, and I challenged them to reflect on this idea of wakefulness as it might relate to Faulkner’s call for literature that gives us “hope,” that persuades us we can ‘endure and prevail.’

Bishop and Jarrell

Elizabeth Bishop (Source: Poetry Foundation)

Before we turned to Elizabeth Bishop’s 1946 poem “The Fish,” I asked the class to turn to her letter to her friend and fellow poet, Robert Lowell, whom she takes to task for writing poems about his recently divorced wife, poems that explore suffering but combine fiction and fact.  In doing so, she tells Lowell, he has violated a trust with his former wife and with his readers, who can’t know “what’s true, what isn’t” (2498).  “Postmodernists may consider “truth” a fluid, ever-changing phenomenon, but what does her remark to Lowell tell you about her sense of duty as a poet?” I asked.  Earning a “10” for the day, Besa said the she shares Martin Luther King’s commitment to seeing accurately and publishing what one sees.

I thanked Besa for providing us a perfect transition to “The Fish” and asked Arlind to read the poem aloud.  After Arlind’s reading, I re-read the first and last lines aloud: “I caught a tremendous fish….and I let the fish go.”  I then asked for a show of hands, fisher-hands.  Singling out Gezim among the fishermen and fisherwomen, I asked if he ever lets fish go.  “Only if it’s too small,” he answered.  “So why would she release a “tremendous” fish?  Does her description, her use of figurative language in between the first and last lines, help us to understand her bizarre decision?”  I asked.  With no quick response forthcoming, I asked the class to focus on the first two lines, on facts and details about the fish.  “What first strikes you as odd, given his size?”  I asked.  Ragip read line six: “He hadn’t fought at all.”  He then mentioned that the “homely” fish looks warn-out, “battered.”  “What about ‘venerable’?  What does this word suggest?”  Gezim offered that the fish must be venerated, respected, because he has fought many battles, “and his ‘skin hung in strips’” (ll. 8-10).  “Don’t we normally use words like ‘homely’ and ‘venerable’ and ‘grunting’ to describe people?  Why would Bishop want to personify the fish?” I prodded.  Edita suggested that the speaker begins to see more than a fish, something to eat; she sees a fellow being who has known struggle and deserves respect.

Commending the students’ close-reading interpretations, I asked what figures of speech Bishop uses in these lines to help us to see the fish more clearly.  After we noted the skin “like ancient wall-paper” decorated in “rose” patterns and barnacles, “rosettes of lime,” I asked what we begin to notice about this ‘homely’ fish?  Edita mentioned the “sea-lice” and “rags of green weed” hanging off its huge body, but she said that the simile and metaphor suggest beauty, not ugliness.  Praising her insight, I asked what other images and figures suggest beauty and further personify the fish.  We then quickly catalogued the details of Bishop’s portrait: the gills “fresh and crisp with blood,” the “white flesh/packed in like feathers,” the swim-bladder “like a big peony,” the eyes “larger than mine,” the “sullen face” from which “five old pieces of fish-line” hang down “like medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering,/a five-haired beard of wisdom/trailing for his aching jaw” (ll.25, 27-28, 33-35, 45-63).  “So what does the speaker realize as she stares down at the exhausted but honorable old fighter that fills her boat with ‘victory,’ surrounded by a ‘rainbow’ of oily water and rust? (l. 65, 68-75)?  Why does she let her ‘victory’ go?”  I prodded further.  We then discussed the paradox that Bishop develops, the beautiful becoming one with the grotesque.  Such wakefulness, we agreed, allowed her—and her readers—to see the respectability, even honor of fellow non-human creatures, insights, I suggested, that Black Elk would have commended.

Randall Jarrell (Source: Poetry Foundation)

As we turned to Bishop’s contemporary, Randall Jarrell, I asked the students what this master teacher and military man insists that we see in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” beyond the fact stated in the title. With no quick answer coming, I asked Bajram to read the five-line poem aloud:

 

 

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

When he finished, I asked for his response to the last line.  He said that the speaker uses the past tense, suggesting that he looks back on his own death from the perspective of eternity.  “And does he seem at all emotional about the removal of his remains from the plexiglass glass gunner’s station of the bomber?”  “No,” he responded, “he describes the removal of his guts as though he were describing the wiping of mud from a windshield.”  “Right,” I said, “so matter-of-fact, an everyday occurrence, yet such a shocking image of the consequences of aerial warfare.  What do we learn about this victim?  How old is he?” I asked.  We then wrestled with the equally horrible metaphor in the first line, which describes a baby falling from its “mother’s sleep,” from his mother’s womb, into the “belly,” the womb of the State, the bomber.  “How does the verb “fell” underscore the youth of the airman?”  I asked.  Fidan responded, stressing the almost instantaneous transformation of the infant into a soldier.  Complimenting him on his interpretation, I said we would see the same idea explored in Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, subtitled The Children’s Crusade, stressing that ‘children’ do most of the dying in wars.  “Babies of course come wet from the warm uterus.  What happens to the wet baby in the bomber?” I asked.  Several voices responded, citing the frozen “wet fur” on the flight jacket.  I then asked what they made of the fourth and fifth lines, the reference to getting loose from the “dream of life” and waking to the cacophonous “nightmare” of “black flak.”  Arlind suggested that peace must be a dream, an illusion, that reality must be the hell of war.  “Why doesn’t Jarrell end of the poem with such a statement,” I wondered.  “Who needs it?”  Arlind responded.  “Precisely,” I said.  If we have seen the image, we don’t need a tacked-on moral.  It’s all about seeing—and having the courage to keep your eyes open.”

I then invited readings from journals, those prose or poetic accounts of everyday objects or animals that ‘so much depends’ on seeing.  Remembering Merita’s reading from her journal the previous week, when she spoke of her frustrations with poetry, her skepticism that ‘so much depends’ on poetry, I feared that no one had responded with a poem.  To my delight, hands shot up across the room, and nearly everyone had a poem to share.  Many of these poems centered on their memories of their mothers.  Blerta, for example, read her poem about her mother’s “sun-beam” smiles; Xhemile described her mother’s “wrinkles” and her “vigorous eyes,” images of her “unconditional love” and her abiding guidance; then Merita brought the whole class to tears with “I See You Coming In,” her memory of her deceased mother:

I see you coming in, little by little, in small steps,
With an albatross round your neck,
I wonder will it ever go away.
You have the snow in your hair; I didn’t notice it’s already winter.
The wrinkles on you face tell that it was heavy all the way through.
I lift you in my arms as you are tall as an eleven-year-old girl,
Oh, no, the great soul of yours makes you big as a mountain.
I kiss your tired face, and then you cry.
Inside your eyes I see a mirror of me.
You kiss me back.  Don’t worry, I am fine, you say.
And I want to hold your hand until I count your ages spots
And start over, all over, again, so you don’t ever go for a second time.

As we all mopped our faces and prepared to leave, I thanked those who had read for demonstrating the power and accessibility of poetry.  I reminded them, too, that we would sample postmodern fiction next time, as represented by Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.”  After they finished the story, I asked that they write an interpretive response in their journals to the end of the story, where we see another startling revelation, Joy-Hulga in the barn-loft, legless.

King and Logos–Deductive and Inductive Reasoning: Part III

May 5, 2012

I began the next session by returning students’ papers on A Lesson before Dying, congratulating them on their solid work, and inviting them to meet me during office hours if they had questions about my comments and their grades.

Returning to our discussion of King’s letter, I said that effective logos, the substance of any argument, requires more than presenting evidence in support of a claim, that it requires leading the reader through the evidence toward a conclusion, using deductive and inductive methods of reasoning.  To begin demonstrating the inter-connectedness of the deductive and inductive processes, I referred them to three sentences on the board, quoted below, each extracted from King’s fifteenth paragraph, the one alluding to Martin Buber and Paul Tillich and their condemnation of segregation as sinful.  Together, the three sentences, I said, represent a syllogism, a three-part deductive statement:

Major Premise: All laws that degrade the human personality are unjust.

Minor Premise: Segregation laws degrade the human personality.

Conclusion: Segregation laws are unjust.

All syllogisms, I explained, begin with a major premise, a generalization about a class or genus—all laws—a premise that King rightly assumes his primary audience, the clergymen, will accept without challenge.  The minor premise, I continued, then makes a generalization about a member or species of that group, “segregation laws,” asserting that they “degrade the human personality”; therefore, the deductive logic runs, if the major premise is true, and if the minor premise is true, then it necessarily follows that all segregation laws are unjust.

The Logic of Deductive and Inductive Reasoning (Source: TOKnow-11)

“But where,” I continued, “has King provided his proof—beyond these allusions to Jewish and Christian theologians—that supports the minor premise, that segregation laws ‘degrade the personality’?”  Hearing no response, I referred the students to King’s fourteenth paragraph, where King presents abundant and passionate evidence that “segregation laws degrade the personality,” and he does so, I explained, by using inductive logic, which begins with an hypothesis, then moves through a series of experiments or examples to confirm or contradict the hypothesis.  I then referred the students to the inductive outline of King’s fourteenth paragraph, which answers the clergymen’s question about waiting for freedom and, in so doing, tests the hypothesis about the degrading effect of segregation:

Hypothesis: Segregation laws degrade the personality.

Results of Testing Hypothesis:

Experiment #1: “Vicious mobs” lynch your family members.

Experiment #2: “Hate-filled policemen…kick…brothers and sisters.”

Experiment #3: Twenty million African Americans live in an “airtight cage of poverty.”

Experiment #4: African American children are excluded from amusement parks, and fathers have no explanation.

Experiment #5: African American adults are barred from motels.

Experiment #6: African American women and men are never accorded respect, never called by their names; they suffer, therefore, a “degenerating sense of nobodiness.”

Conclusion: Segregation laws degrade the human personality.

After reviewing this inductive process, I asked the students to note that the inductive conclusion becomes the minor premise for King’s syllogism two paragraphs later.  This blending, I said, quoting from Questioning,

shows that our minds work inductively, helping us interpret to experience, and that our minds also work deductively, helping us to reason from our discovered premises to further conclusions.  Persuasive writing…makes transparent this blending of inductive and deductive thought.  To put it negatively, had Dr. King omitted paragraph 14, with all its examples—proofs—of the damaging effect of segregation laws, then his minor premise in paragraph 16, that segregation laws damage the personality, would be a logical fallacy.  That is, King would have been guilty of begging the question, the fallacy of assuming as proven the very idea that needs to be demonstrated.  (156-57)

This blending of induction and deduction, I continued, also further strengthens King’s ethos, as “he offers his readers cool logic and sound evidence to persuade them that they cannot ask his followers to ‘wait’ any longer for freedom” (157).

Finally, I asked the class to recall King’s deliberative purpose, to advise the clergymen and all Americans to guarantee the country’s ‘enduring and prevailing’ by rising to its high ideals of brotherhood.  Such a purpose, I said, moves him away from judicial discourse, away from accusing and defending, and toward meditational discourse, striving “to bridge the gap between ‘you,’ the clergymen who have criticized him and the racists who have jailed him, and ‘we,’ the victims of segregation”(157).

To support this claim, I asked the students to consider one more sentence on the board, a line rich with parallel rhythms and imbedded figurative language that, together, help us hear and see his vision of unity as he praises blacks and whites working together:

They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.

By juxtaposing these contrasting images, I said, King not only praises those who have carved the “tunnel of hope” but also invites his critics and those “white moderates” to join in the carving. We see this invitation again in his last sentence, where he urges all his readers to share his hope that “in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”  As noted in Questioning, “by saving this inspiring image for the end of his letter, the point where he hopes to have won supporters, not vanquished opponents, King has shown that arrangement works together with parallelism and metaphoric language to move his readers toward embracing a positive common destiny” (158).

Cover of Black Elk Speaks

Cover of Black Elk Speaks (Source: Wikipedia)

As we neared the end of the session, I reminded the class that our next meeting would focus on an excerpt from John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, another passionate call for justice and ‘prevailing’ through unity.  Neihardt, I explained, was a white poet from Nebraska, but his book grew from extended interviews with Black Elk, a holy man of the Lakota tribe, whose vision of tribal and world unity died in 1890 at the Battle of Wounded Knee, where the US Calvary crushed rebellious Native American tribes.  From the point of view of the US government, I further explained, Wounded Knee affirmed the doctrine on “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that God ordained white people to move always westward, acquiring land by purchase or by force so that the nation could grow and prosper economically.

However, I continued, from the Native Americans’ point of view, the US government committed genocide at Wounded Knee, a crime made even worse by herding Indians onto reservations, essentially concentration camps, places where Indian culture died and survivors felt utterly broken in spirit, which explains the extremely high rates of unemployment, alcoholism, and suicide on reservations, then and now.

Cover of The Way to Rainy Mountain

Cover of The Way to Rainy Mountain (Soure: Wikipedia)

We would read another excerpt for the next meeting, I noted, this one from N. Scott Momaday’s book The Way to Rainy Mountain.  Another Native American with Kiowa and Cherokee blood, Momaday, I said, wrote his book in celebration of Kiowa culture, a culture also crushed when the US Army forced them onto the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and deprived them of their Sun Dance, their religion.

Finally, as they read these works, I asked the students to keep Kings’ “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in mind and to reflect on what the three works have in common as protests of injustice and as pleas for unity.  “And think of historical patterns in these passionate writings, too,” I said, noting that Neihardt recorded Black Elk’s vision in 1932, when King was a small child, and that Momaday wrote about the fate of the Kiowas in 1969, one year after King was assassinated.  To help them find a personal focus for their reflections, I distributed the following journaling prompts, asking student to pick one and to fill up at least a page of their journals in response:

  1. Describe a holy man or woman from your culture that you have found inspiring.
  2. What feelings do you have as a Kosovaran as you read about a vision that strives to avoid genocide?
  3. Narrate a memory of a grandparent and an old custom.
  4. What do you think Dr. King would say in response to these readings?

Faulkner, King, and the Call to “Endure” and “Prevail”: Part I

This three-part series features my students’ responses to Faulkner’s Stockholm Address (The Faulkner Reader) and to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (Questioning, 137-58). When asking the class to read both nonfiction works, I explained that they would find in both pieces continued emphasis on our theme of “Justice and Injustice,” as reflected in the quotation from King’s letter on the first page of their syllabus: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Further, noting that they would hear in King’s letter his passionate concern with our other theme, families and the pursuit of the “American Dream,” I encouraged students to listen in both pieces for a challenge to look beyond selfish interests in pursuing justice and the “Dream,” a challenge, in Faulkner’s words, to “prevail” as individuals and as a nation by learning to “sacrifice.”

After the students submitted their final versions of their papers on Gaines’s novel, I asked them whether or not they would agree that A Lesson before Dying represents precisely the kind of fiction that Faulkner called for when he urged writers to write novels that ‘lift our hearts,’ that help us to “endure and prevail” by showing us evidence of humanity’s capacity for “courage…compassion…and sacrifice.” The verdict came in swiftly and unanimously in Gaines’s favor, with students citing Jefferson’s courage as he walked to his death like a man, Grant’s compassion at the end, inspired by the triumph of his student, and Emma’s sacrifice.

Elements of Persuasion: Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle (Source: paulcharltoncoaching.com)

Stating my hearty agreement with their view of Lesson, I said that I wanted them to appreciate not only what Faulkner says about the “duty” of writers but also how he says it. Referring the class to the terminology on the board, I reminded them that we had already spoken briefly in the Research class about the elements of persuasion—ethos, the credible persona; logos, the evidence logically arranged in support of a claim; and pathos, the word choice and sentence structure that color logic with passion. In this class, I continued, when we had used Aristotle’s communication triangle to define critical approaches to literature, we had talked about the varying aims of fiction—to create a unified work of beauty, to express the writer’s feelings, to mirror the real world, to persuade the reader to engage with a myth and its implications for our lives. But we had said nothing to date, I admitted, about the aims of nonfiction when it rises to the heights of literature; Faulkner and King, I assured them, give us occasion to do so.

The Rhetoric of Faulkner’s Stockholm Address

April 21, 2012

To begin our analysis, I read Faulkner’s speech aloud and then wrote on the board the two claims Faulkner makes to prepare for his conclusion about the writer’s duty: we fear being “blown up,” and therefore young writers write visions of despair, not “truths of the heart.” “Did you notice,” I asked, “that Faulkner provides no logos, no evidence to support these claims? Why not?” Waiting patiently for an answer that never came, I finally pointed to another term on the board, ceremonial discourse, and explained that when audiences come to public ceremonies—memorial services, inaugural addresses, presentations of high awards—they come to hear a speaker who has already established his or her ethos or credibility. Faulkner himself, I noted, says he has reached a “pinnacle” by receiving the Nobel Prize, the highest “acclaim” in literature, so no one expects him to provide evidence to support his claims or to describe the horror resulting from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki five years before, the cause of the universal fear of getting blown up. “His ethos, in other words, can rise no higher. But the audience,” I said, “does expect eloquence, passionate language that pursues the aims of ceremonial discourse, praising the honorable and blaming the dishonorable. In this case, he praises the power of literature to uplift us and of young writers with the skills to do so, but he blames those same young writers who have allowed their despair to distract them from their duty to ‘lift our hearts.’”

Pointing then to the definition of “pathos” on the board, I asked the students if they could cite some examples of powerful “diction” and emphatic “parallel sentence structures” that created the emotional appeal of Faulkner’s speech. To provide a nudge, I asked why Faulkner uses such formal diction in the first paragraph, why he describes his life-time of writing in “the agony and sweat of the human spirit” instead of ‘on the pain of human life’; or why he says he will find a “dedication” for the money “commensurate with” its “origin” instead of saying a ‘use’ for the money that ‘suits’ its ‘beginning’; or why he speaks of young writers as dedicated to “the same anguish and travail” that he has experienced instead to saying ‘the same pain and hard work.’ Gezim responded that my revisions sound too informal for such a high occasion. “Right,” I said; “Faulkner speaks as a learned, passionate writer speaking to other learned people; he needs to use language that matches his tuxedo, metaphorical language that underscores the seriousness of his challenge to young writers to become “pillars” to help readers “endure and prevail.”

“What about sentence rhythms?” I asked. “Where to you see and hear Faulkner setting up a beat that underscores his passion?” Dafina then read the charge in paragraph two that young writers have “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” I congratulated Dafina on her keen eye and ear, noting the parallel “worth” phrases stressing the heart-conflicts that writers feel compelled to explore, as we had recently seen in the poems about parents, in Gaines’s novel about Grant’s inner struggles, and in Willy Loman’s inner anguish. I then referred students to two other rhetorical schemes in paragraph three: Faulkner’s use of polysyndeton, the unexpected repetition of “and” to define the range of “compassion and sacrifice” that must fill the writer’s “workshop”; and his use of “antithesis” to contrast writing of “love” with writing of “lust,” writing of “the heart” with writing of “the glands.” When I asked for examples of antithesis in the final paragraph, Edita referred to Faulkner’s definition of “man” as “immortal” not because of his “inexhaustible voice” but because of his “soul”; and Besa pointed to the last sentence, contrasting writers who provide the “record of man” with writers who provide the “props” and “pillars” that sustain readers.

Gaines at The American Corner

April 20, 2012

See the class featured on The American Corner facebook page.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery images in a larger, “slideshow” format.

Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 2

March 31, 2012

Justice, Injustice, and Places of Meaning

A Lesson Before Dying

As the students entered for the next session, I directed their attention to the board, where I had written “New Criticism,” “New Historicism,” and “Deconstruction,” as well as the names of important theorists associated with these critical approaches to literature.  In applying these critical theories to Gaines’ novel, I explained, we would abandon neither feminist nor Marxist approaches, as the novel provides plenty of examples of extremely strong women and of economic inequities that reflect the Marxist critique of capitalism.   But these additional critical tools, I assured the class, would enrich their understanding of Gaines’ Lesson by complementing feminist and Marxist perspectives and by providing a fuller sketch of critical thought in the twentieth century.  These varied perspectives, I said, would also help us to see the connections between our theme on “Marriage, Family, and the American Dream” and our theme on “Justice and Injustice.”

Aristotelian Communication Triangle

Pointing to the Aristotelian communication triangle I had written on the board, I encouraged students to think of New Criticism as focused on the literary work itself, the center of that triangle.  Often associated with its Southern practitioners, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, New Criticism, I explained, dominated American critical thought at mid-century for over three decades.  Rejecting critical approaches unduly focused on the writer’s intentions (one corner of Aristotle’s triangle), the reader’s responses (another corner), or literary history (another corner), the New Critics, I further explained, insisted on an “objective” reading of a work, a “close reading” that savors the ironies and ambiguities of a given poem or fiction but finds and defends the “organic” unity of its imagery and structure.  We would practice this New Critical approach, I said, as they shared their thoughts on the study questions I provided.

Continuing my sketch of critical currents, I explained that by the 1980, influenced by French theorist Michel Foucault and his concern with the “discourse of an era,” scholars such as Louis Althusser declared themselves New Historicists, critics who employed New Critical close-reading strategies but extended their analysis beyond the work itself to the cultural practices that shape a given work and define its “situatedness.”  To reinforce this dual focus of New Historicism, I pointed again to the triangle, to the work in the center and to the “situation” at the ‘real-world’ corner.  We would practice New Historicism, I said, when we discuss the character Grant, who, like the author, grew up in a Louisiana share-cropping culture in the 1930s; who, like the author, attended elementary school in a one-room plantation church; who earned a university degree in California, just as the author did; who returned to Louisiana, just as the author did, because of the irresistible pull of this very real place he is “unable to leave” (102), and because of his outrage over the racial injustices that defined it in the 1940s, the historical setting of the novel, two decades before the emergence of Dr. King and the civil rights movement.

Concurrent with the New Historicists, I continued, the Deconstruction critics emerged, following the thought of Russian dialogic theorist Mikhail Bakhtin and French theorist Jacques Derrida.  Also deploying New Critical close-reading strategies, these critics reached decidedly un-New Critical conclusions about literature, arguing that no work possesses unity, either as a free-standing work or as a reflection of its cultural situation.  Instead, I explained, Deconstruction critics argue that every “text” contains a line of interpretation that undercuts another reading, so that no fixed meaning can ever be discovered.  While New Critics talk about ambiguities worked out via art into a unified meaning, I clarified, Deconstruction critics argue that the flux of a text, like the flux of life, can never be fixed, never settled beyond dispute.  We would see this flux, I said, in trying to assess Grant’s teaching, his resistance to authority figures, and his relationship with Vivian.

A Lesson Before Dying

Having completed this description of critical trends and their relationship to Gaines’ novel, I divided the students into three groups, assigned each group five of the study questions I had asked them to consider as they read, and then asked them to collaborate on answers, grounded in evidence from the novel, that they would share with the whole class.  I explained that they had 20 minutes to do their work, after which each group would have 15 minutes to report their findings to the other two groups.  Though the students had already experienced peer-response groups, they had never worked together on an interpretive problem.  Nevertheless, the pressure of the time limit seemed to distract them from anxieties over this charge to construct meaning communally; as they got to work, I roved, listening to their tentative answers, watching them scramble for evidence.

After 20 minutes, I interrupted them, telling them that they need not worry if they had not finished their task, that we would go ahead and see what each group had discovered.  I then called for a report from group one, reminding them that we wanted evidence, including page numbers, not just general answers, to the questions below:

1. How does the defense attorney’s case affect your feelings for Jefferson (pages 7-8)?

2. How do you explain Grant’s anger—as a black man and as a teacher—when Miss Emma’s face (12) and Tante Lou’s words (13-14) urge him to talk to Henri about visiting Jefferson?

3. How do Grant’s feelings for Vivian and for the town (29) explain his reluctance to intervene in Jefferson’s case?

4. Describe Grant’s teaching and disciplining methods.  Do they seem effective?  Explain.  How do Grant’s situation and the students’ lives influence and explain Grant’s harshness (29)?

5. What similarity do you see between the attorney’s defense of Jefferson (chapter 1) and the way Mr. Pichot and Sheriff Guidry treat Grant (chapter 6)?

New Historicists at Work

Group 1: New Historicists at Work

Group one began by responding to #1 and #5 together, saying that they felt great sympathy for Jefferson and Grant.  When I asked for their evidence, they referred to page eight, where Jefferson must endure the remarks of his attorney, who ‘defends’ him in front of the all-white jury by calling him a “hog,” not a man, a beast capable in his panic of looting the liquor store cash drawer, but incapable of thought and therefore incapable of planning the murder of the store owner.  They reported sympathy, too, for Grant, a black man with a university education, who must endure the arrogance of Sheriff Guidry and Henri Pichot, powerful white men who keep him waiting for hours when he comes to ask permission to visit Jefferson in jail.  “But what difference do you see between Jefferson and Grant in the way they deal with the insults?” I asked.  Laureta, a member of group one, quickly observed that Jefferson keeps his head down and remains silent, but Grant reports that he has waited “two-and-a-half hours” and offers no smile, knowing that the white men expect a smile and a “not long” in response to their question, “Been waiting long?” (47)  “Did you notice Grant’s verbs?” I asked her.  Laureta then pointed to his saying “doesn’t” instead of the ungrammatical “don’t,” revealing his defiance of these white men, who expect Grant to show his subservience by using dialect (48).

Some of this sympathy and admiration for Grant melted away, however, when the group responded to questions 2-4.  They reported understanding Grant’s anger when his Tante Lou demands that he visit Jefferson in jail, that he teach Jefferson to feel like a man, not a hog, before he dies in the electric chair, but they argued that Grant shows too little respect for Miss Emma, Jefferson’s godmother, when he tells her that he can’t make Jefferson a man, that he can only “keep others from ending up like this” (14).  They also reported understanding why Grant would want to move with Vivian to someplace where he could feel alive, less stifled (29), but they had no respect at all for his use of foul language and his whining tone, especially when he says, “I’m supposed to make him a man.  Who am I?  God?” (31).   They said, too, that they understood why Grant would be frustrated with his one-room school and inattentive students, but they roundly condemned Grant’s cruelty to his students, releasing his own stress by shouting in their faces and hitting them with a ruler for lapses in concentration, for writing crooked sentences on the board and for playing with bugs (35-41).

Congratulating this group on their excellent work, I called on group two.  Apologizing for coaxing the first group into answering their question on Grant’s use of language to assert manhood, I asked for their comments on questions 7-10:

6. How does Grant use language to assert his manhood in chapter 6?

7. At the top of page 62, Grant compares the “old men” laborers to the student woodchoppers.  What do his thoughts reveal about his goals as a teacher?  Why had his former teacher urged Grant to “run”?

8. Why does Grant believe his aunt is “stripping” him of “everything you sent me to school for”?

9. Give two reasons why Grant tells Jefferson that he will “lie” to Emma about Jefferson’s refusal to eat.

10. Why do Grant’s memories of Joe Louis and the old men’s talk of Jackie Robinson—both black sports heroes—make Grant think of Jefferson?  What irony do you see in the achievement of these heroes?

Deconstruction Critics at Work

Group 2: Deconstruction Critics at Work

This group commented first on #8-9, for their answers here, they said, return Grant to a more favorable light.  To this point, they argued, Grant’s visits to Jefferson have confirmed his reasons for resisting this seemingly impossible job of persuading Jefferson of his manhood.  When I asked, “How so?” they pointed to Jefferson’s sarcasm about his execution date, his eating from Emma’s food bag on all fours, like a “hog”; then Arlind read Grant’s passionate speech aloud:

Everything you sent me to school for, you’re stripping me of it….The humiliation I had to go through, going into that man’s kitchen.  The hours I had to wait while they ate and drank and socialized before they would even see me.  Now going up to that jail.  To watch them put their dirty hands on that food.  To search my body each time as if I’m some kind of criminal.  Maybe today they’ll want to look into mouth, or my nostrils, or make me strip.  Anything to humiliate me.  All the things you wanted me to escape by going to school.  Years ago, Professor Antione told me that if I stayed here, they were going to break me down to the nigger I was born to be.  But he didn’t tell me that my aunt would help them do it. (79)

Gezim mentioned, too, that Grant really impressed him at the end of the next visit to the jail, when Grant tells the still-hostile Jefferson that he intends to lie to Emma about Jefferson’s refusal to eat her pralines because telling the truth, he tells Jefferson, “would kill her”; he also tells Jefferson that he plans to return so that the “white man” can’t “win” (84).

Everyone agreed that such language makes Grant seem much less whiny than he seemed at first, more combative, even daring.  When I asked what they learned about Grant from his thoughts on the woodchoppers in #7 and the old men in #10, Dafina stressed Grant’s compassion for his students, many of whom would end up as woodchoppers (61), and his compassion for Jefferson in that “depressing cell uptown” while the old men at the bar can only talk about their boxing hero Joe Louis and their baseball hero Jackie Robinson (90).  Praising these insightful answers, I asked them to consider how Grant’s compassion here would attract the interests of a New Historicist or Marxist critic, who would see Grant’s thoughts as a commentary on the rural South in the 1940s, when most black children really had no access to the American Dream, a time when even black heroes like Robinson and Louis could stir hope but do nothing to change the everyday reality of the plantation.  “And what might a Deconstruction critic want to point out about the Grant we have seen so far?” I asked.  Blerta responded by describing the two narratives on Grant, the cruel, selfish whiner and the bold, compassionate man.

Finally, with little time remaining, we turned to the third group for their report on these questions:

11. How do you explain the tension and anger between Grant and his Aunt, and between Grant and Reverend Ambrose?

12. What does Grant mean when he says he is “unable to accept what used to be my life, unable to leave it”?

13. This novel on racism and injustice is also a love story.  How does Grant’s tenderness for Vivian affect your view of him?  What effect might their love have on Grant’s ability to “teach” Jefferson to be a man?

14. At the end of chapter 18, Grant wants to give up on Jefferson, but Vivian insists that “something is changing” (141).  What evidence do you see in chapters 16-18 that suggests that Grant and Jefferson are both changing?

15. In chapter 19, why does Gaines provide so much detail about the Christmas party, the play, and Ambrose’s prayer?  What irony do you see in Grant’s prominence at this event as the director of the children’s play?

New Critics at Work

Group 3: New Critics at Work

When I asked if they saw any irony in Grant’s prominence in the town as Jefferson’s teacher (#11) and as the director of the annual Christmas play (#15), Ragip said that Grant’s apparent atheism makes him an outsider in a church-going community led by Reverend Ambrose, who humiliates Grant by praying publicly, before and after the play, for doubters like Grant who think they don’t need God.   When I asked if this tension between belief and doubt explains the quote in #12 about Grant being “unable to accept what used to by me life,” Ragip agreed.  “What about  #13?  Do you see the same Grant you saw earlier in his relationship with Vivian?” I asked.  This question led to some blushing and looking down at desks, but Albana spoke up, saying she admired the tenderness she sees in Grant’s love-making with Vivian (108-109).   “And Vivian believes in God,” Albana added, smiling; “Maybe she will change Grant’s mind on that topic.”  “Do you see any irony in her dual roles as believer and as Grant’s lover?”  I asked.  “Remember that Vivian’s divorce has not been concluded yet, so this romantic scene also raises issues about adultery.  Do any of you have concerns about her morality?” I prodded.  Wisely, Albana said that “life gets complicated.”

“Do you think that Vivian has a point that “something is changing” in Grant, particularly in his relationship with Jefferson?” I prompted.  Gezim responded with Grant’s comment that he “wasn’t so angry anymore” (125), reflecting Vivian’s influence; he also applauded Grant’s defense of Vivian after Jefferson crudely insults her: “That lady you spoke of, boy, cares about you” (130).  “Does this flash of anger in defense of the woman who keeps Grant “coming here” have any impact on Jefferson?” I asked.  Several voices spoke up, citing the “tears in those big reddened eyes” (130), a major crack in Jefferson’s wall of resistance.

With our time ending, I reminded the class that we would finish discussing Lesson next time and that they should write journal responses to two more of the remaining 13 study questions, all focusing on this transformation of Jefferson and Grant that we had already begun to see.

Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 1

March 31, 2012

Ernest Gaines

This posting introduces Ernest Gaines’s 1993 novel A Lesson Before Dying, which I have been reading with my students.  The two postings that follow highlight their responses to the novel.

Set in the share-cropping world of rural Louisiana in the late 1940s, this novel features the teacher-student relationship between Grant Wiggins, a thirty-five year old African American teacher, and Jefferson, a twenty-one year old, semi-literate African American on death row for a murder he did not commit.

Jefferson has, in fact, committed theft, as his attorney acknowledges at the murder trial, explaining to the all-white jury that his impoverished client panicked at the scene of the murder, looting the liquor store cash register as the murderers and their victim, the owner, lay dead at his feet.  But surely, he reasoned, this black “boy” could not be smart enough to plan a robbery and murder: “Why, I would as soon put a hog in the electric chair as this” (8).

Initially, Grant resents and resists his new charge, thrust upon him by his Tante Lou, to go into the local jail and, over the few months before Jefferson’s execution, to persuade him to go to his death feeling like a man, not like a “hog.” How, Grant wonders, can anyone expect him to reverse the legacy of slavery, the three-hundred-year-old cultural conviction that black ‘boys’ need not expect education or justice, need not aspire to the American Dream.

A Lesson Before Dying

In addition to tracing these interconnected themes of racism and justice, of literacy and liberty, this masterful novel also explores the relationship between Grant and Reverend Ambrose, the parish preacher, and between Grant and Vivian, a strong woman and committed teacher stuck in a bad marriage she seeks to end.  Naturally, the old black preacher and the young black agnostic come into constant conflict, for Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to “kneel” before he dies; instead, once committed to the process, Grant insists that he will teach Jefferson to “stand.”  Grant and Vivian also experience tension but of a much different sort, for their truly tender love story gets entangled with her Catholic faith and with a passionate cane-field conception that precedes her divorce.  Yet the conflict with Ambrose and the tensions with Vivian open Grant’s eyes to the futility of his own anger, a transformation that softens his heart and strengthens his resolve to coax Jefferson to his feet.  By the end, Jefferson walks to his death, having learned from Grant how to write his way to manhood; in turn, the student has taught his teacher the value of compassion, courage, and community.