About rraymond12

Rich Raymond has served as Professor and Head of the Mississippi State English Department since 2004. In addition to his administrative duties, Dr. Raymond has developed and taught online sections of English Composition I, as well as taught Advanced Composition, eighteenth century English literature, and the various literature survey classes. He served as interim director of the Learning Communities program in 2005 and 2006. He continues as an active scholar, having published his composition textbook, Questioning: Literary and Rhetorical Analysis for Writers, in 2007. Prior to coming to Mississippi State, Dr. Raymond served as Professor of Rhetoric, Director of the Little Rock Writing Project, and Department Chair at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, before that serving on the English faculty at Armstrong State College, Savannah, Georgia.

In Their Own Words: Students on Despair and Hope

Raymond Writing Visioins

If you’d like to read the whole story of my students from Kosovo, you’ll find it in this book!  Chapters 1-5 focus on the “visions of hope”–and sometime of despair–that my students found in twentieth-century American literature. Chapter 6 narrates their emergence as researchers on the theme of hope in American literature. Chapter 7 describes how this blog site, “Reflections on Kosovo,” played in classroom and online discussions focused on the theme of blood vengeance as dramatized in American and contemporary Balkans literature. Chapter 8 features samples of my students’ writing. Chapter 9, the most moving and inspiring chapter, narrates the personal stories and “visions of hope” of both students and faculty members as they look back on the last two decades of violence in the Balkans–and as they look forward as students and teachers of literature.

Thank you for supporting my students and me throughout this project, and I look forward to your feedback on the book.

The book may be purchased directly from the publisher (click on link or icon to redirect):

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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 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.

The Kosova-Mississippi Connection

February 25, 2013

I have thought daily of my students in Kosova over the eight months since my return to the USA.  Thanks to emails from Besa, Gezim, Arlind, and Ragip, the seven time zones that separate us seem a bit less immense.  They all report missing me as much as I miss them, a sentiment that means more to me than they may realize; they report, too, that the research writing they did in our Twentieth-Century American Literature class has served them well in subsequent courses, particularly on their major paper on Toni Morrison.

(L to R) Armind, Arlind, Fidan, me, Bajram, Laurita, Dafina, Shkodran, Ragip, Albana, Gezim, June 2012

behind Judy and me, (L to R) Besa, Fidan, Blerta, Kadrie, Edita, Merita, and Xhemile

behind Judy and me, (L to R) Besa, Fidan, Blerta, Kadrie, Edita, Merita, and Xhemile, June 2012

In my next email to these four students and to their 18 colleagues, I will urge them to return to this blog, where they can reminisce with me about our six months together and, just as important, where they will discover how much they continue to influence by writing.  As it turns out, this blog has served as a rough draft for a book I have written.  Titled Writing Visions of Hope: Teaching Twentieth-Century American Literature and Research, the book narrates our collaborative reading and writing in these two courses.  More than an account of writing-to-learn pedagogy, the book narrates my students’ stories and ties their lives to modern and contemporary literature of the Balkans as well as to the literature of America, 1901-2000.  This book will appear, I’m guessing, in May or June of 2013, one year after my departure; it will be published by Information Age Publishing.  I will certainly alert all my blog friends as well as my students when the book enters the world.

Additionally, the journal Pedagogy, published by Duke University Press, will soon publish an article on my work with these Kosovaran students, focusing primarily on our study of poetry.  This piece, titled “Considering Claims and Finding One’s Place,” should also reach print sometime in 2013.

I also hope that my Kosovaran students will return to this blog to see how they continue to influence my teaching here at Mississippi State University.  In the fall of 2012, for instance, I taught a writing course for first year students.  Remembering how much my students at the University of Pristina enjoyed journaling on poetry, not only to learn how to analyze the poems but also to find personal connections to the poet’s stories, I used the same approach with these young American students, who read, among other poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” one of the poems my UP students read.  Using the very same journaling prompts I assigned in Kosova, I asked my students to study the “five-haired beard of wisdom” and other figures and details that taught us to see the beauty of this grotesque fish and to hear the speaker’s joy as she decides to “let the fish go.”

But, remembering the energy of my Kosovaran students, prompted by our readings, as they narrated their lives, I asked these American students to consider writing an essay, grounded in their journaling on Bishop’s “The Fish,” that narrates one of their own experiences in the world of nature, one that changed the way they think about nature and their own place in the natural world.  Many students took this option, one which produced some of the best writing of the semester.  Attached, you’ll find a sample of this nature writing, Trip Kennon’s essay on “The Face of the Ozarks.”

John Bickle, Professor and Head, Philosophy & Religion (Source: Univ. of Cincinnati)

John Bickle, Professor and Head, Philosophy & Religion (Source: Univ. of Cincinnati)

This winter/spring semester, with philosopher Dr. John Bickle, I’m team-teaching a Humanities course for third-year undergraduates, a course that blends studies in philosophy—Dr. Bickle’s department—with readings in Western American novels focused on the Frontier experience—my department.  Our students also relate their readings in philosophy and literature to classic movies on the American West:  “Shane,” the 1953 film on the clashing destinies of cattle men, “sod-busters,” and loners like Shane; “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” the 1962 cinema that examines frontier justice, juxtaposing the rule of the gun with the rule of law; “Hombre” (1967) and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), films that explore the tension between selfishness and self-sacrifice that informs the heroic code.

A.B. Guthrie, Jr. and his daughter Gus Miller (Source: Main Hall to Main Street, University of Montana)

A.B. Guthrie, Jr. and his daughter Gus Miller (Source: Main Hall to Main Street, University of Montana)

Drawing again on my experience with students at the University of Pristina, I asked my American students to keep a journal as they read our first novel, A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s The Big Sky (1947), the story of mountain man Boone Caudill, the ‘white Indian’ who ironically clears the way for westward expansion even as he flees from mid-nineteenth century American civilization east of St. Louis.  For their first essay, we asked the students to “identify three characteristics that best define Boone 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 in part from forces exterior to his character?”

Cover of A.B. Guthrie's The Big Sky

Cover of A.B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky (Source: amazon.com)

To help students to gather material for this essay, we asked them, just as I asked students in Kosova, to journal in response to analytical questions like these below, focused on Part Four of the novel, where Boone seems so happy with his Piegan wife Teal Eye, but then gets caught up in trail-blazing to Oregon and in jealousies that lead to his shooting of his dear friend Jim, the man whose life he had earlier saved from the frozen mountains:

  1. Boone has reached the age of 29, Teal Eye 22.  How would you describe the sources of Boone’s happiness in this relationship and in his life as a Piegan?
  2. What evidence do we see here that the end draws near for Indians and for mountain men?
  3. How, why does Boone get drawn into Peabody’s Oregon project?
  4. Boone’s fatal choice to trail-blaze for Peabody leads to even stronger evidence of nature’s brutality and indifference to men and their “manifest destinies.”  Find at least three passages that use description to develop this naturalistic theme.
  5. What qualities in Boone stand out here as he and Jim face death by freezing and death by starvation?
  6. Look up “pantheism” in the dictionary.  Do you see any pantheism emerging here?  Who seems to think most deeply about the spiritually of nature?
  7. We see Boone’s love for Jim even after it appears that Jim has betrayed him.  What sequence of bad news and mistakes leads to Boone’s suspicion of Jim?  How do the causes and effects of Boone’s rage help you to understand Stegner’s notion of Boone as a “doomed” hero?

As of this writing, the students haven’t written this essay yet, but their brilliant responses to these journaling prompts, which they shared in class—just like we did in Kosova—bode well for some wonderful essays.

In addition to these undergraduate courses, I have taught two MA-level courses: in fall 2012, Writing Center Tutor Training, in spring 2013, Composition Pedagogy.  Writing Center pedagogy, of course, focuses on one-on-one teaching; I went into this course with great enthusiasm, having seen conferencing work so well at UP as my students moved through three drafts of their research papers on Death of a Salesman, A Lesson Before Dying, or some other work of their choice.

I approached the Composition Pedagogy course with equal enthusiasm, remembering that many of my students in Kosova aspire to become teachers.  I recalled, too, that all of my UP students responded generously to my request to interview them concerning their literacy histories, particularly as those histories relate to their memories of the 1990s wars in the Balkans and to their aspirations as students and professionals.  After my American MA students had read and journaled on several articles focused on how we learn to read and write and on how we might best help students in our classrooms to develop these literacies, I asked them to write a narrative essay, focusing on their own literacy histories, on their own writing processes, or on their observations of a master writing teacher (see assignment pdf), a request preceded, of course, by rough drafting and peer response sessions—precisely the strategies that worked so well in Kosova.  If you will click on the attached files, you will find the excellent responses of Kiley, Aaron, Kayleigh, Jessica and Sharon; you will also see them depicted below.


(L to R) Kayleigh Swisher, Aaron Grimes, Sharon Simmons, February 2013

(L to R) Jessica Moseley, Kylie Forsythe, February 2013

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part III

June 9, 2012

Example of cattle car used to transport prisoners circa World War II (Source: Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team)

At the start of the next class, I divided the students into four groups, according to which of the four subjects they had chosen to explore in their journals.  I then asked each group to share their entries with their peers and prepare an informal group report, highlighting evidence that relates to their focus. After twenty minutes of sharing journals and preparing reports, I called on the first group and prepared to serve as their scribe at the board, listing key phrases, examples, and page citations.  Not surprisingly, the first group had to be particularly selective, as nearly every page in the novel provides some evidence relative to their subject, “the horrors and absurdities of war.”  They began their list with the death of Roland Weary in the cattle-car, a victim of gangrene from his feet getting shredded by the clogs that Billy had once worn; they noted, too, that Billy took the blame, and that Lazzaro promised to revenge Weary’s death one day (pp. 101, 106).  They also listed

    • The first prison camp: the freezing prisoners running through the scalding process of de-lousing (p. 107), the American getting his teeth knocked out for a comment a German soldier didn’t like (p. 116); in the Dresden slaughterhouse, where Billy’s body shakes with “ravenous gratitude and applause” (p. 204) as he and his fellow prisoners sneak malt syrup to nourish their starving bodies, nourishment that proves far too little to eliminate all their sores (p. 208)

Aftermath of the fire-bombing of Dresden on February 13, 1945 (Source: www.neatorama.com)

  • Dresden: the shooting of Edgar Derby, tea-pot thief (p. 274); the “fire-storm” that incinerated “everything organic, everything that would burn” (p. 227); Billy and other prisoners, who survived the bombing in the meat-locker, serving with shovels and wheelbarrows in the Dresden “corpse mines” (p. 273); the Official History of the Army Air Force that said “almost nothing” about the raid on Dresden, keeping it a “secret from the American people” (p. 244)

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, White House, June 22, 1963 (Source: rolexblog)

The second group provided an equally disturbing list of the cultural decadence spawned directly or indirectly by the recurrence of ‘children’s crusades’ and the devaluation of life.  They spoke of Kilgore Trout, the science fiction writer, who recruits children to sell subscriptions to the Illium Gazette and motivates them by telling them to “get off their dead butts and get their daily customers to subscribe to the fucking Sunday edition, too” (p. 212); they mentioned the bookstore that carries Trout’s novels as well as photographs of naked children performing sex (p. 256); and they cited a talk show focused on the “function of the novel in modern society,” one guest suggesting that books provide color in rooms with white walls, another praising novels that “describe blow-jobs artistically,” another favoring novels that give advice on how to behave in French restaurants (p. 264).  They also listed the racist American Nazi, Howard Campbell; Eliot Rosewater, the former infantry captain, who told Billy in the veterans’ hospital that psychiatrists will have to “come up with a lot of wonderful new lies, or people just aren’t going to want to go on living” (p. 129); and finally Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, both shot within one month in 1968 (p. 268).

Tralfamadorian (Source: complexoperations.org)

Turning to the third group, I asked if they had found more evidence of insanity or sanity in Billy’s responses to this corrupt, brutal culture.  Dafina, a member of group three, said that they had found several references to Billy’s mental or emotional instability.  Her list included Billy’s terror at the rim of the Grand Canyon, not long after his father had thrown him in the pool to ‘sink or swim’ (p. 127); his certainty that “he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage” to the enormous Valencia Merble, a “girl nobody in his right mind would have married” (pp. 137, 151); his daughter Barbara chastising him in 1968 for acting like a “child,” failing to turn on the heater in his freezing house (p. 167); a mother at Billy’s optometry office telling Barbara that her father had gone “crazy,” telling her son about Tralfamadore as he tended to his eyes (p. 172).  Dafina then launched into a second list, one that, in her words, “makes Billy seem the only sane person in the book”: Billy’s excitement on Tralfamadore when he learns that their planet lives “in peace,” a lesson he wants them to teach to Earthlings (p. 148); Montana Wildhack, stunned by his modesty and gentleness, coming to “love and trust Billy Pilgrim” (p. 170); and, in the aftermath to the fire-bombing at Dresden, the sight of horses pulling a wagon loaded with objects looted from suburban houses, but doing so “insane with thirst” and tormented by their “bleeding” mouths and broken hooves, a sight that makes Billy “burst into tears” (pp. 251, 252).

Gezim, spokesperson for group four, volunteered at this point that his group had also selected Billy’s tearful response to the horses as their prime example of the kind of intelligence and compassion that Faulkner charged all novelists with weaving into their fictions that tell the truth about an otherwise chaotic and violent postmodern reality.  I then asked the group to what extent Vonnegut’s dark novel engenders hope that humanity will endure its often self-inflicted suffering and “prevail” over its penchant for self-serving, destructive behavior. Gezim reported that they struggled with this question.  On the one hand, he explained, his group admires Billy’s acceptance of death as simply a moment, not to be feared (p. 180), but they also find it depressing to watch Billy Pilgrim’s death, the consequence of Lazzaro’s bullet to his forehead (p. 182).  Similarly, he continued, they admire Billy’s courageous acceptance of the randomness of experience, which allows him to get on an airplane he knows will crash, but they also find it discouraging that the report of the crash leads to Valencia’s death (p. 234).  Noting the same pattern—a note of hopefulness followed by gratuitous suffering and death—he explained that they admire Derby’s patriotic speech in defiance of the Nazi Campbell (p. 209), but that his patriotism makes it all the harder to watch him stand before the firing squad in the ashes of Dresden (p. 274).

“So you’re saying,” I asked, “that Vonnegut provides credible examples of badly damaged but admirable human beings, Billy and Edgar most notably, but that Vonnegut holds out little hope that Children’s Crusades will end or that we will quit assassinating those who dare to effect positive change, people like Kennedy and King?”  Members of group four all shook their heads “yes.”  Thanking the group for their thoughtful analysis, I said that the last page would seem to support their sense that cruelty and injustice will prevail, ending as it does with the birds’ meaningless song, “Poo-tee-weet,” and with the image of horses pulling a “coffin-shaped” wagon out of Dresden.  “Yet did you notice the next-to-last image?” I prodded.  Edita read it for us: “The trees were leafing out” (p. 275).

Budding trees (Source)

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part II

June 2, 2012 (cont.)

Artist: Alida Rosie Sayer. Second part of Slaughterhouse-Five: Type and Form project, a hung piece made from 78 layers of hand-cut letterpress prints, April-June 2009. (Source: Alida Rosie Sayer blog, used with permission)

We then took up chapters two and three, where Vonnegut introduces his main character, Billy Pilgrim, through whom Vonnegut does his ‘looking back’ throughout the rest of the novel, but that looking back, I noted, violates chronological order because Billy has “come unstuck in time” (p. 29).  “What do you make of Billy’s time-travels,” I asked, “and of his abduction by Tralfamadorians?  Do you see Billy as deranged, driven mad by the absurd violence that punctuates his life, beginning with his experience as a prisoner of war and as a witness of the fire-bombing of Dresden and ending with the plane crash in 1968 that kills everyone but Billy?” My question quickly generated evidence for such a view, evidence focused primarily on the cartoonish goofiness of the Tralfamadorian aliens, described as “two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends,” and on Billy’s equally improbable union with movie-star Montana Wildhack, with whom he starts a family inside their glass bubble on Tralfamadore (p. 32).  We noted, too, the reference to shock-treatments some veterans, including Billy, received after the war, suggesting that those driven mad by the war needed to be numbed and pacified so that they might re-enter society as seemingly normal (p. 30).  While commending such close reading, I suggested, too, that they remain open to competing interpretations of Billy’s insanity, particularly given the striking similarity between Billy’s time-travel, which allows him to see “his birth and his death many times,” to the Buddhist idea that our notions of time are illusory, that all moments occur simultaneously (p. 29), or, as Billy learns on Tralfamadore, that “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist” (p. 34).  Persuaded of the truth of this perspective on experience, I continued, when Billy tries to teach others about the simultaneity of every moment, he sees himself as a good postmodern optometrist, “prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls” (p. 36).

Offering to serve as scribe at the board, I then asked the students to list, focusing on chapters two and three, precisely what we see of the war through Billy’s corrective lenses.  Their listing kept me busy at the board:

  • Billy’s suffering as a front-line survivor: no helmet, no boots, feeling “cold, hungry, embarrassed, incompetent,” a “filthy flamingo” who saw “no important differences…between walking and standing still” (pp. 40-43)
  • Roland Weary, another child but a warped, sadistic one, who mocks Billy and torments him with talk of his brass knuckles and the blood-gutter on his ten-inch knife (pp. 44-47)
  • After their capture, Weary’s feet shredded by forced march in clogs (p. 70), splattered with “snot and blutwurst and tobacco juice” coming from a drunken German soldier (p. 82)
  • The crazed patriot colonel, “Wild Bob,” whose “lungs rattled like greasy paper bags” (pp. 84-85)
  • The grossly over-crowded, poorly ventilated, freezing train cars used to transport Billy, Weary, Wild Bob, and other prisoners to work camps (p. 90)

“Do you see Billy’s time-travel, then, as a way to escape an absurd, intolerable reality?” I asked.  In response, students found some evidence for this view: Billy’s travel to his successful optometry practice (p. 73), Billy riding in his Cadillac El Dorado (p. 72), his election as president of the Lions Club (p. 63).  “But does other evidence,” I asked, “undercut this view of time-travel as pleasurable escapism?”  Just as quickly, this question generated evidence of Billy traveling from the war to other horrible moments: his father throwing little Billy in the pool and telling him to “damn well swim” or sink (p. 55), his mother’s demented confusion (p. 56), the execution of Private Slovik (p. 57), the plane crash (p. 31).

Artist: Wiley Smith. Digital media collage, July 6, 2007. (Source: http://www.teachmix.com/litstudio128/)

All this suffering before, during, and after the war, I noted, makes Billy question his own stability, the condition of “his mind in general,” for he “tried to remember how old he was, couldn’t.  He tried to remember what year it was.  He couldn’t remember that, either” (p. 71).  “But do you see any evidence of sanity in Billy’s responses to the absurdity and violence that inform most of his moments?” I asked.  Silence followed.  I tried again: “What do we often see Billy doing, even in moments of comfort and prosperity?”  Blerta responded, saying that she finds sanity in these key quotations: “Every so often, for no apparent reason, Billy Pilgrim would find himself weeping….Sleep would not come.  Tears came instead” (pp. 78, 79).  Praising her insight, I asked the class if they could think of a more reasonable response to the horrors that Vonnegut has forced us to see.

With the period ending, I asked the class to complete the novel for the next session. I also asked them to choose one of the overlapping subjects I had written on the board and to write a substantial journal reflection, at least one page, focusing on chapters 4-9:

  • Further evidence of the horrors and absurdities of war
  • The decadence of twentieth-century culture
  • Further evidence of Billy’s insanity/sanity
  • Reasons for Faulknerian hope

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part I

June 2, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut

In 1998, Mr. Vonnegut returned to Dresden, Germany; he revisited the slaughterhouse that served as an air-raid shelter during World War II where he and his fellow prisoners of war survived the fire bombing of Dresden. (Source: New York Times; Photo credit: Matthias Rietschel/Associated Press)

As the students settled in for our next session, Ragip accepted my invitation to read aloud the first two pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. When he finished, we talked about the autobiographical nature of this preface to fiction, Vonnegut’s insistence that “all this happened, more or less,” that shortly after Dresden had been fire-bombed to ashes, a soldier much like the character Edgar Derby really did get shot by a firing squad “for taking a teapot” from among the ruins, that a soldier much like Paul Lazzaro really did pledge to murder one day those who slighted him or his friends during the war, that Vonnegut “really did go back” to Dresden in 1967 with his “old war buddy” Bernard V. O’Hare to visit the Dresden slaughterhouse where they had spent their nights as prisoners of war (p. 1). After I asked why Vonnegut would want to stress this factual basis for his fiction, our conversation, much to my delight, turned back to Ernest Gaines, whose fiction about injustice and transformation also rooted in Gaines’s experience growing up in Louisiana in the 1930s and ‘40s, and to William Faulkner, who challenged all fiction writers to tell the truth about human brutality and the conflicts of the human heart, but also to uplift readers with evidence of “compassion” and “sacrifice.” Having congratulated the students on their insights to the great paradox of literature, the fictions that reveal truths, I asked them to keep Faulkner’s speech in mind as we discussed Vonnegut’s novel. “Has Vonnegut written one of those visions of despair that Faulkner condemned, or does he manage to tell these terrifying truths and, at the same time, to inspire hope that we—as individuals and as a culture—might not only endure but ‘prevail.’”

First edition cover of Slaughterhouse-Five: Or the Children’s Crusade (Source: Wikipedia)

Leaving this question hanging in the air, I noted Vonnegut’s admission of the futility of writing an “anti-war book” (p. 4), which he follows immediately with a description of himself in the late-1960s, materially comfortable but given to drinking too much and making late-night phone calls to old veterans of World War II (p. 5). “Does this description clarify why he would write this book, if he considers its anti-war position pointless?” I asked. Albana said that he seems haunted by the past, which leads to self-destructive behaviors but also to the need to talk to those who remember. “Maybe the writing comes from this same need to talk about it,” she offered. “Yes,” I responded, “and notice that he feels compelled to tell us again, the second time in six pages, that the story will end with ‘the execution of Edgar Derby’ (p. 6). Can you name another work we have read where we find out about the ending, an execution, on the first page?” Many voices responded with Gaines’s Lesson and the promised execution of another good man, Jefferson. “How might this up-front emphasis on the brutal, senseless death of a good man relate to the Faulknerian challenge for uplifting fiction?” I asked. Besa responded, suggesting the symbolic power of both executions, images simultaneously revealing our capacities for mindless cruelty and for goodness.

Applauding Besa’s interpretation, I asked the class to consider another image that Vonnegut juxtaposes to the execution of Derby, that of the “rabid little American” Lazzaro heading home from the war with “emeralds and rubies” he snatched from dead people “in the cellars of Dresden” (pp. 7-8). “Did you notice that after both images, Derby’s death and Lazzaro’s violation of the dead, the narrator says, ‘So it goes’? What do you make of this refrain, which you’ll hear throughout the novel?” Fidan suggested that line acknowledges not just the inevitability of death but also our inability to explain the injustice of men like Derby dying and men like Lazzaro thriving. “It just happens,” he said.

Naturally, I commended this intelligent remark but also stressed Vonnegut’s postmodern need to tell the story, to help us see what happened, however futile his protest against war and against “plain old death” might seem (p. 4). Vonnegut admits, I continued, that his story has generated a “short and jumbled and jangled” book because “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (p. 24); still, he must write to set the record straight, to discredit versions of reality that ignore or hide that record. “Can you recall examples from chapter one of Vonnegut exposing others’ invitations to close our eyes to the truth?” I asked. Blerta mentioned Vonnegut’s anthropology professor, who teaches that “nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting,” a theory that would make no distinction between Derby and Lazzaro (p. 10). Her example sparked Gezim’s comments on Vonnegut’s boss, a man whose military service took him no further than Baltimore, who sneers at Vonnegut as an enlisted man and approves of war as a way for officers to advance. Gezim then quoted Vonnegut’s reflection on this smug non-combatant: “the ones who hated war the most were the ones who’d really fought” (p. 13).

“What about the episode at the O’Hare house? What terrible truth about war does Vonnegut insist that we see here?” I prodded. Hearing no answer, I asked, “Why do you think that Vonnegut mentions taking his daughter and her friend with him when he visits O’Hare to talk about the war?” Dafina said they he took the girls along just to see Cape Cod (p. 15). “Yes, I agreed, “but he has Dresden on his mind, and he knows that among the masses who died in the firestorm were thousands of little girls. How does one explain fire-bombing to children? Do you recall why Mary O’Hare, to whom Vonnegut dedicates his novel, initially resents Vonnegut’s visit? What does she assume his book will declare about war?” Albana promptly cited Mary’s anger, believing that Vonnegut would write a novel celebrating war, hiding the fact that “babies,” not men, do most of the dying (p. 18). “Yes,” I said, “and do you remember Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” the ‘baby’ who dies in the belly of the bomber? How does Vonnegut respond to Mary?” Albana answered again, quoting Vonnegut’s promise to tell the truth about the “Children’s Crusade” in World War II, much like the Children’s Crusade that Vonnegut and O’Hare read about from the thirteenth century, when thousands of children were forced to fight in Palestine and then sold into sexual slavery (p. 20). Thanking Albana, I asked the class if they could explain why Vonnegut ends this chapter with an allusion to the Biblical story about Lot’s wife. Finding the reference, we all quickly agreed that Vonnegut the writer, like Lot’s wife, must “look back,” and he insists that we look, too.

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.

Travel in the Balkans: Peja, Skopje, & Sofia

June 13-June 20, 2012

Over the last two weeks, fellow Fulbrighter Dave McTier and I have enjoyed traveling in the Balkans, a region as rich in scenery as in history.

On June 13, we made a day trip to Peja (Peć), about 90 minutes west of Pristina, just east of Montenegro.  As you’ll see in the photos, this area features the Rugova valley and some of the most spectacular mountains in Kosova.

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

Then on June 19, we took a bus to Skopje, Macedonia, where we followed winding stone streets to specialty shops, produce markets, and film festivals; we also sampled several of the hundreds of out-door coffee shops.  Macedonia’s capital also boasts a town center with huge new government buildings and countless statues celebrating the conquests of Philip and his son, Alexander the Great.

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

The next day, we boarded another bus for Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.  En route, we marveled at Macedonia’s countryside, stunningly mountainous and green.  Once over the Bulgarian border, we saw more mountains but also frequent grim reminders of the Soviet era, small towns filled with dilapidated, boxy grey buildings, abandoned factories, squalid apartment buildings, and shacks.

The outskirts of Sophia reveal the same signs of poverty and displacement, but, as you will see in the photos, the inner city features grand government buildings, archeological museums, and innumerable mosques and Orthodox churches.  As do other houses of worship in Europe, these offer rich iconography celebrating the faith-narratives of the past, but these shrines attract active believers, not just tourists.

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

For more historical details, please visit Dave McTier’s blog posts for Peja & Rugova as well as Sofia.

My Students

I have been blessed with wonderful students at the University of Pristina.  They and their families suffered so much in the 90s, and now they lead impossibly complicated lives as they juggle commitments to family and to jobs.  But they still make time for MA studies and remain sweet tempered and hopeful about the future.

After our last classes, the Monday/Thursday students and the Saturday students took me to coffee, a fine old Albanian tradition.  I offer these pics as proof that they like me!  The ‘student’ sitting on my lap (my wife Judy) likes me most of all ;).

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