Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 2

March 31, 2012

Justice, Injustice, and Places of Meaning

A Lesson Before Dying

Cover of Gaines' 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

Aristotelian Communication Triangle (Source: The Basics of Effective Technical Communication)

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

Ernest Gaines in church (Source: African American Literature Book Club)

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

Cover of Gaines' 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.

Marxist Theory and Death of a Salesman

March 12, 2012

Our second class moved from Karl Marx’ central claim about capitalism, that the exploitive “bourgeoisie” dominated and suppressed the “proletariat,” to a glance at the impact of that nineteenth-century economic theory on twentieth-century literary criticism, especially the idea that great writers jar readers out of their willful blindness to the hegemonic tyrannies of capitalist culture (Abrams, Glossary, 155-61).

Arthur Miller in 1952, photo by Sam Falk, The New York Times

Arthur Miller in 1952, photo by Sam Falk (Source: The New York Times)

Having sketched this theoretical background, I reminded the students that Arthur Miller’s Salesman came to the American stage in 1949, just two decades after the Great Depression, the horrific economic and cultural upheaval that exposed the destructive side of unbridled capitalism and challenged the myth of the American Dream, the idea that hard work always yields personal and economic success; many viewers, therefore, saw Miller’s play as America’s proletarian tragedy.  Stressing these last two words, I challenged my students to think for themselves, to decide to what extent the play reflects Marxist ideology, to what extent it challenges the Marxist critique of capitalism, and to what extent it the play qualifies as a tragedy.

Noting Miller’s passionate belief that an ordinary man or woman could qualify as a tragic character, I referred the students to the first topic on their assignment sheet, which provides the classical definition of “tragedy” and asks them to write an essay on the extent to which they agree with the author about Willy’s tragic stature:

Critic M. H. Abrams defines “tragic hero” as a noble character with intelligence and compassion, a good man or woman who commits an error in judgment that harms those he/she loves and, ultimately, leads to his/her exile or death.  This “error in judgment”—the Greeks called it “hamartia”—grows from a tragic flaw, usually rooted in pride (hubris).  Eventually, when it’s too late, the tragic hero recognizes and accepts his responsibility for the error.  Because the hero’s goodness and flaw twine inextricably together, readers and viewers experience “catharsis” in response to the hero’s inevitable fall.  This catharsis or purge consists of two emotions: we pity the hero because he meant well; we fear his fallen condition, recognizing that we can make the same kinds of mistakes.  Paradoxically, the hero’s crushing defeat, though profoundly sad, uplifts us, causing us to recognize our capacities for loving self-sacrifice as well as for error.  What about Willy Loman?  Can a failed salesman who complains about his “goddam arch supports” (2329) qualify as a tragic hero?  Support your views with close analysis of action from the play, including appropriate quotations.

First edition cover of Miller's Death of a Salesman (Source: Wikipedia)

“Well, what about it?” I asked.  “Even though Biff at one point calls his father a ‘prince,’ Miller of course concedes that Willy lacks the aristocratic pedigree of the traditional tragic character—Prince Hamlet, King Lear, Oedipus Rex—but Willy otherwise qualifies, Miller insists, as a great-hearted man whose blunders crush those he loves but who uplifts us with his capacity to love self-sacrificially.  How about those of you who journaled on this question?  Will you share your thoughts?”

Kadrije quickly volunteered and proceeded to read a full-page entry, complete with quoted key phrases, arguing that Willy deserves our compassion for being “tired to death” but not our respect.  Unlike tragic characters, she said, Willy never succeeds, never reaches a pinnacle of achievement, and therefore cannot be said to fall.  He also fails to acknowledge, she continued, that his teachings to the boys have been “all wrong” and destructive.  Blerta disagreed, saying that both his blunders and his death give him tragic dignity because of the immensity of his love.

Having emphatically praised these candid, thoughtful responses, I asked if anyone else would read his or her preliminary comments of one on the other three topics, which invite papers on Willy’s wife Linda, on models of business men in the play, or on Biff and Happy, the troubled sons of Willy and Linda:

  1. Willy credits Linda with being his “foundation and support” (2331).  Do you agree?  Has her love for Willy been constructive?  Destructive?  Both?
  2. Training his sons to become businessmen, Willy proclaims that if they are “well liked” they will “never want” (2339).  Focusing on Willy, Charley, and Bernard, discuss Willy’s formula for success.  Does the play imply another route to success?
  3. After Biff and Happy desert their father in the restaurant, Linda calls them a “pair of animals” who never loved their father (2384).  To what extent do you agree with Linda?
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in Broadway revival of Miller's Salesman, opening 15 March 2012; photo by Brigitte Lacome for New York Magazine (Source: The Economist)

Happily, more enthusiastic responses followed.  First, Xhemile read her entry, which supported Kadrije’s view of Willy, condemning particularly his lack of integrity as both husband and father; she then praised Biff, who finally acknowledges the truth about all their failures and tries to save Willy with his sobbing plea to let go of his “phony dream” that the “well liked” succeed.  Bierta next read her entry on Linda, conceding that she deeply loves Willy but insisting that her misguided support of Willy’s fictions makes his suicide inevitable, particularly after she refuses to confront him with the nipple he has placed on the gas pipe.

Encouraged by all these responses and the students’ willingness to read aloud, I reiterated my praise and asked them, for the next session, to commit to a topic and come to class with a rough draft.  Looks like I’m in for some good reading.

The Bridge on the Drina

February 29, 2012

Ivo Andrić, 1961

Ivo Andrić, 1961 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

Yugoslavian diplomat Ivo Andrić died in 1975, but Bosnia and the Balkans honor him, as does the world, not only for his diplomacy but also for his fiction, particularly The Bridge on the Drina, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1961.

Set in Andrić’s native Bosnia, this historical novel spans three hundred years, beginning with the new wave of Ottomans in the late sixteenth century and ending with 1914 and the start of World War I, the life-time of the magnificent bridge that spanned the Drina River.  Covering this period with the precision of a scholar, Andrić narrates the parade of Turkish and Austrian powers that occupied this stunning mountainous region, but with the eye and heart of a poet Andrić populates this vast canvas with images of human beings so ordinary in their capacities for celebration and passion, so extraordinary in their capacities for brutality and courage.

Cover of The Bridge on the Drina

Cover of Andrić's The Bridge on the Drina

The novel begins with indelible images of the brutality that grows from the lust for power and land.  Though eventually a work of engineering art, its “eleven arches…perfect and wondrous in its beauty” (64), the bridge begins when a Turkish Vezir arrives and conscripts laborers, beating and even killing any man who resists, turning this town on the Drina “into a hell, a devil’s dance of incomprehensible works, of smoke, dust, shouts, and tumult” (29, 31).  Painfully aware that the bridge will benefit Turks, not Bosnians, workers grumble; some even plot to sabotage the bridge. Enraged by such covert resistance, the Vezir finds a scapegoat, a brave peasant who pays for his alleged sabotage by having his toenails torn from his feet, his chest wrapped in red-hot chains, and his anus pierced by a pike that runs out through the back of his neck.  Raised high on the emerging bridge for all would-be resisters to see, the impaled peasant “writhed convulsively” for hours before dying, just as the Vezir ordered (49).

We see the same brutality at the end of the novel, when World War I releases the “wild beast” inside us all that “does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed” (282).  That beast obliterates this town and even its seemingly indestructible bridge, as a bomb planted on a pier causes it to “crumble away like a necklace; and once it began no one could hold it back” (313).  Perhaps the greatest cruelty, the survivors have no home, no place.

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, 1900

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, 1900 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

But between these bookends revealing our hearts of darkness, Andrić paints lighter hearts of those over these three centuries who take joy in simple pleasures, like fishing under the bridge (15) or meeting on the bridge to exchange flirtatious glances, to celebrate weddings, or to drink brandy and tell stories (19-21).

When William Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1950, he called on novelists not to paint portraits of despair; instead, he challenged writers to celebrate our strength, our ability not only to “endure” but to “prevail.”  As though accepting Faulkner’s charge, Andrić describes hearts capable not only of simple joys but also of endurance, as these Bosnians must suffer floods and droughts as well as invasions (76-79).  Following another Faulknerian challenge, to tell stories of the human heart “in conflict with itself,” Andrić weaves together numerous tales of such inner-conflict we can expect to find in any  century, such as Peter’s struggle with his addictive gambling (145-152); Fata’s torment over a marriage, having to obey her father or to obey her heart (104-112); or Zorka’s agony over two men, having to choose a good man who loves her but for whom she feels no love, or to wait for a lesser man indifferent to her passion (276-281).

Finally, Faulkner urged writers to uplift us with stories of human beings—however few—who show “compassion” for others and the willingness to “sacrifice” to relieve others’ pain.  Among several of Andrić’s characters who fit this description, Lotte stands tallest.  We meet her first in the middle of the novel, a beautiful young widow with “ivory white skin, black hair, smoldering eyes,” and a “free tongue,” and therefore enough brass to start a hotel in a patriarchal culture (177).  Far more than a shrewd business woman, Lotte serves as benefactress to many families, providing counseling and money for those whose lives have run amuck (180).  By the end of the novel, Lotte has “grown old.  Of her onetime beauty only traces remained” (257).  Unconcerned about her physical decline, Lotte worries instead about her ability to help others.  As the town has declined, Lotte’s once prosperous hotel has declined, too.  As a result, she suffers nightly over those in “hopeless poverty” that she can no longer relieve.  Though “tired” to the soul, Lotte still gives others what she has left, her sage counsel (262).  When we last see her, just before the bridge falls into the Drina, Lotte crosses bridge with a few other displaced old women—and with a “sickly child on a push-cart” (300).

Thanks to this Nobel Prize winner, then, no history of the Balkans can be complete that finds only cruelty in the human heart.

Ivo Andrić at Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, c. 1970?

Photo of Ivo Andrić at Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, c. 1970?; on display at his birthplace in Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

The Battle of Kosova

February 25, 2012

Battle of Kosovo, 1389, by Adam Stefanovic, 1870

Battle of Kosovo, 1389, by Adam Stefanovic, 1870 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

In 1389, the Turkish army defeated the Serbian army at the Battle of Kosovo (Serbian spelling); blackbirds feasted on the carrion (Pettifer, James. Albania and Kosovo: Blue Guide, 3rded. New York: Norton, 2001, 309).

Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare focuses on this battle in his Elegy for Kosovo, where he recounts the long history of “the Serbs cursing the Albanians and the Albanians cursing the Serbs”; he also laments more than once that “we ourselves have brought this disaster on our heads, my brother!  We have been fighting and slaughtering each other for so many years over Kosovo, and now Kosovo has fallen to others” (68).

Cover for Elegy for Kosovo

Cover for Kadare's Elegy for Kosovo

The narrator, of course, refers to this fourteenth-century battle on the Plain of the Blackbirds (Elsie, RobertA Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology, and Folk Culture. NY: New York University Press, 2001, 122), but Kadare alludes to a struggle that has continued into his own time, as evinced in 1989, 600 years after the Ottomans crushed the Serbs, when Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, standing on the same Field of the Blackbirds, urged Serbs to resist, with violence if necessary, what he called the Albanian aggression in Kosovo (Kearney, Philip.  Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo.  Beverley Hills: Phoenix Books, 2008, 66-69).

The Battle of Kosova, 1389

The Battle of Kosova, 1389, old Russian miniature (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

In view of the parade and celebration here in Pristina on Friday, February 17—the fourth Independence Day for Kosova—I try not to despair over the vision painted by Kadare, especially because talks continue in Belgrade, where the Serbian government, hoping for EU status, inches toward recognizing the independence of Kosova, its former province.  Still, I can’t shake Kadare’s elegiac mood, perhaps because Serbs living in northern Kosova just voted 97% against recognizing Kosova’s independence from Serbia, a vote that renders prophetic Edith Durham’s remark in High Albania over a century ago: “the real policy of Serb and Albanian should be to unite and keep the foreign intruders from the Balkan Peninsula.  But this will never be” (276).

The poem below reflects this mood.  Though it begins domestically, it ends on the same Field of Blackbirds, where it tries to honor both Albanians and Serbs and to lament their shared pain.

Pigeons on my sill

Pigeons on my sill

Pigeons and Blackbirds

 Each dawn they perch on my sill, grumbling and

 Gray, iced, unpreened, like old men swaddled in

 Great coats, huddled and waiting for spring.  Then

 They spy my porch, littered with crusts, seeded

 And brown, manna torn from my loaf.  Swooping

 Down, beaking the prize, they jack their tails and

 Strut like victors.  Then blackbirds screech attack,

 Driving my guests from the feast, tearing the

 Bread like flesh they plucked from the Serbian

 Plain, then circled the Field for six hundred

 Years, ravenous still, always hot to gorge.

The Three-Arched Bridge

February 21, 2012

If you read the Valentine’s Day posting on the legend of Rozafa, you no doubt found inspiring the purity of Rozafa’s self-sacrificial love for her child and her country, yet you also noticed the ambiguity surrounding the brothers’ decisions and actions.  On the one hand, to their credit, the two elder brothers break their pledges to keep secret the imminent human sacrifice in order to protect their wives, and the youngest brother, seemingly a man of honor, keeps his “besa,” his pledge to say nothing about the immurement to Rozafa.  On the other hand, the elder brother hangs his head in shame when he tells Rozafa that the wall demands a human life, for Rozafa has been chosen not by “chance,” as he claims, but rather by the elder brothers’ manipulative hypocrisy.  Further, if the sacrifice must be determined by chance, then the three brothers might have drawn lots so that one of them, not one of their wives, would die.  The men, in other words, find motives for their actions in self-preservation and fear.  Only the woman, Rozafa, overcomes her ‘trembling’ and gives her life for her child and for Albania.

Cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Albania’s great novelist Ismail Kadare draws on the legend of Rozafa in his 1976 novel  The Three-Arched Bridge (Ura Me Tri Harqe), another story of immurement that roots the theme of sacrifice in the ambiguity of motives.  Kadare has set his story in the late fourteenth century, just one generation before the Albanian hero Skanderbeg leads the resistance to the Ottoman invasion of 1444, a resistance that ends in 1479 at the Siege of Shkodra, where the triumphant Turks littered the Citadel of Rozafa with 60,000 Albanian corpses to be shredded by vultures.  With the monk Gjon narrating Kadare’s novel, we learn that Albania stands in need of another building project, this time a bridge, to link Albania to the rest of the Balkans at a time when Ottomans have already infiltrated the culture, a precursor to invasion.   Though this bridge, just like Rozafa’s castle, goes up quickly, after each night the piers and arches show signs of damage no hammer or claw could inflict, generating wide-spread gossip in favor of another “sacrifice for the sake of the thousands and thousands of travelers” who will cross the bridge “down the centuries to come” (105).

Well informed about Rozafa’s patriotic act, Gjon immediately notices that this call for sacrifice has more to do with commerce than with defense, so he wonders who might be willing to die for a significantly lesser cause.  But someone does volunteer to be walled in the bridge, Murrash Zenebisha, an “ordinary” man, a mason, just like Rozafa’s husband (114).  Yet instead of responding with adulation for Murrash when Gjon hears rumors of his heroism, Gjon reacts with confusion over the mason’s lack of a clear motive for martyrdom, then with horror when he sees Murrash “planted in the stone,” his face “splattered” with a “mask” of plaster, his “arms and legs…merged with the wall (115), his “oblivious white eyes” staring out at the monk (117).  Gjon’s terror grows, too, when he notices Murrash’s “wounds…between the neck and collar bone” (122), and when Murrash’s family members, seemingly “petrified” with grief initially, soon bring suit against one another after quarreling over “compensation” for their kinsman’s death (131, 177).  Has Murrash been murdered, caught sabotaging a bridge he believed would benefit only foreigners and a corrupt local Count?  Has Murrash’s family sold him out for profit?

Ura e Mesit (Mes Bridge), Shkodra, Albania

Ura e Mesit (Mes Bridge), Shkodra, Albania

With Murrash supporting the bridge, Gjon concedes that it quickly becomes a splendid “rainbow” structure.  But this supposed guarantor of a prosperous future, Gjon knows, has “death at its foundations” (157, 151), a martyrdom tainted by lies.   Eventually, Kadare’s narrator acknowledges his own complicity, confessing his presence as the Count and the bridge-builders planned the murder of Murrash (184, 122).  Yet Gjon persists courageously with his chronicle to the end, even as the Turkish horsemen clash with Albanian patriots on the bridge (179), thus mitigating his role in the death of the mason.  But fear for his country blends with his courage, and that fear roots in self-knowledge, as Gjon imagines his ethnic identity plastered and dead in the bridge, a bridge built—as was Rozafa’s castle—with sacrificial blood and soul-withering lies.

The significance of Kadare’s novel rests not only in the morality tale—break not thy besa—but also in Kadare’s Faulkner-like capacity to paint so vividly the truths of the human heart, a heart sometimes strong enough to die for others but often weak enough to succumb to fears and lies.  If these same kinds of hearts beat in Asia and the West as well as in Albania, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe, then we may read Kadare’s work as a prophecy for us all.  As we behold Rozafa’s milk streaming down the fortress walls, then Murrash’s eyes peering from the bridge, we witness at once our past and our future, our collective magnificence and our self-inflicted doom.

For a full discussion of Kadare’s novel in the context of the legend of Rozafa, see my article “Albania Immured: Rozafa, Kadare, and the Sacrifice of Truth,” published in the South Atlantic Review, volume 1, number 4, fall 2006, pages 62-77.  The ideas above and much of the language come directly from the article.

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

February 15, 2012

Cover of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

Cover of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

Nine years have passed since Paula Huntley published her superb memoir, The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo.  Narrated in journal format, Huntley’s book records her experiences in 2000-2001, just one year after NATO troops drove Serbian forces out of Kosova.   Naturally, after a decade of civil war, most Kosovarans had suffered all the horrors that go with urban warfare and displacement, and when the shooting stopped, many Kosovarans found themselves homeless and jobless, and everyone found that the educational and legal systems had suffered the same battering.  So when Paula Huntley and Ed Villmoare chose to come to Pristina, they did not come as mere observers.  Instead, they came to help, Paula by teaching English as a second language to Albanian students, Ed by working through the American Bar Association to help Kosova to rebuild its legal system.

Paula Huntley

Paula Huntley, author of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

Having just re-read this inspiring book, I must applaud the way Paula and Ed came to help.  Eschewing know-it-all posturing, they couched their offer to help in compassion for those who had suffered so much and in full awareness of their own limitations.  Describing Ed’s need to “do something” in response to the wide-spread agony, Paula records her doubt that “Ed really believes he can do anything of great significance here.  He is a man of few illusions.  But he is also a man of character and compassion.  He can’t just do nothing” (29).  Similarly, three months into her teaching, Paula wonders if she has “really [done] anything to help” (129).

Ed Villmoare, Paula Huntley's husband

Ed Villmoare, Paula Huntley's husband (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

They also came to help as partners and peers with the Kosovarans, fully expecting to learn as much as they teach and to receive as much as they give.  This respectful stance, their doubts about effectiveness notwithstanding, earned Huntley and Villmoare the trust they would need to help Kosovarans build a future on a foundation of justice and learning

We can see that earned trust in the stories that Kosovarans come to share with Paula and Ed.  In working with his legal assistant Blerta, for instance, Ed hears the story of her mother’s gang-rape, a war crime that has silenced her mother permanently (179).  Similarly, in teaching stories such as Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Paula engages Ermina and other students in eager discussions of marriage as a relationship shared by “equal partners,” not by a jailer-husband and his prisoner-wife, too often the case, says Ermina, in Pristina (183).

By starting her book club in her Pristina home, Paula also used Ernest Hemingway’s stories to generate more discussions on the power of language to assert human dignity and to effect positive change for Kosova.  In reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, for example, Paula and her student-guests reflected on the old man’s wisdom: “It is better to be lucky.  But I would rather be exact.  Then when luck comes you are ready.”  Naturally, this quote led to discussion of the old man’s tremendous suffering as he battles the great fish, then, thanks to the sharks, his failure to bring the great fish to the dock.  But once again, the old man’s words—“a man can be destroyed but not defeated”—helped her students to realize that the old man had not been defeated, that, in Paula’s words, he had “won self-respect and the renewed respect of the villagers.  He maintained his dignity and showed courage in the face of overwhelming adversity” (167).

First meeting of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

First meeting of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

With such courage placed within reach through language, Paula’s students began to think of “overcoming” their Kosovaran  “adversity” as a realistic goal, particularly if, like the old man, they became “ready,” a condition made possible by education and a willingness to use their “new words” (204).  Without these new words to “express their fears, frustrations, angers, desires, and ambitions in ways other than violence,” Paula concludes, Kosovarans can have no hope for the future (150).  Neither can we.

“A Greater Love…”

February 14, 2012

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to recount a love story honored by Albanians throughout the Balkans, the story of Rozafa.  Though the love shared by Rozafa and her husband threads throughout this tale, the central story celebrates Rozafa’s love for her child and for her country.

In brief, the story opens with Rozafa’s husband and two brothers, masons all, building a castle atop the mountain above Shkodra, a fortress where they may defend Albania against its invaders.  Mysteriously, however, their fine work crumbles to the ground each night.  Just as mysteriously, while the brothers sit idle in despair, three consecutive nights having reduced each day’s work to shambles, a white-bearded old man appears out the mist and explains that their work will never stand until they make a sacrifice.  The oxen and sheep already sacrificed won’t do, the old man explains; instead, they must offer the mountain and God a human sacrifice, one of their own wives.  Before he vanishes, the old man swears the three brothers to secrecy, explaining that the wife who must die will be the one who brings them their lunches the next day.

Predictably, fearing the loss of their wives, the two oldest brothers break their pledges, whispering in the night to their wives that they must not come to the work site the next day.  The younger brother, Rozafa’s husband, has the same fear, but he keeps his pledge, his “besa,” the center of Albanian ethics and morality.

The next morning, when the brothers’ mother has prepared the lunches, the wives of the eldest sons make excuses when the mother-in-law asks for their help with delivery.  Rozafa, ignorant of the call for a human sacrifice, cheerfully agrees to take the food to her brothers-in-law and her husband.

When the youngest brother sees his Rozafa coming with their bread and fruit, their water and wine, he “dropped his hammer upon the stone, splitting it in two, as if his heart had just broken.”  With his youngest brother ghostly pale and speechless, the oldest brother, his head held in shame, explains to Rozafa that the castle walls “will not stay up without a living sacrifice,” that this person, chosen by “chance,” must be immured in the castle.  Recovering quickly from this shocking revelation, Rozafa comforts her husband with her “trembling hand” and pronounces herself “ready” to become one with the wall.  She also urges her husband and his brothers to play their roles in protecting Albania, to carry themselves “high, as high as the castle walls, for the people are waiting for you all to finish your work.”

Sculpture of Rozafa immured in the castle wall, still nurturing her son

(Source: Albanaian Canadian League Information Service--click image to view)

Before they begin their grim task, however, Rozafa pleads that they immure her in such a way so that “my right eye, my right foot, my right hand, and my right breast are left out through the stone.”  In this position, she explains, she can watch her baby, “cradle him with my foot, caress him with my hand, and nurse him with my breast.”  Such nurture will pay off, she prophecies: just as the castle will protect against invaders, so her son “may be king one day and reign upon this proud land.”

Though the narrator of the tale provides no details on the fate of Rozafa’s son, he does assure us that her wishes were “honoured” and that “even today, after many hundreds of generations, her castle remains high above the city of Shkodra in northern Albania.”  Having lived there for six months, I can vouch for the narrator’s veracity.  I can vouch, too, for his claim that “the white stones of the castle…are continuously damp,” damp, as legend has it, with “the tears of Rozafa and the milk of her breast” (see photos of the Citadel of Rozafa).

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

Credits: The quotes from my summary of Rozafa’s love story come from Mustafa Tukaj’s “Rozafa’s Castle,” published in Faith and Fairies,  a collection of stories edited by Joanne M. Ayers and published by Skodrinon Press, 2002.  Also, the last three paragraphs come, almost verbatim, from my article “Albania Immured: Rozafa, Kadare, and the Sacrifice of Truth,” published in the South Atlantic Review, Vol. 71, No. 4, Fall 2006.  Finally, since I would not be in Kosova without the support of my Valentines, I would like to picture them here, my mom Kay, and my wife Judy.

My Valentines: my mom Kay, and my wife Judy

My Valentines: my mom Kay (L), and my wife Judy (R)

Trip to Shkodra, Albania

February 8-10, 2012

On Wednesday, February 8, I boarded a minibus headed from Pristina to Tirana, Albania, where I met my dear friend Agim K., who accompanied me in another minibus to Shkodra, Albania, the site of my first Fulbright in 2003.   During the first six months of that year, I taught American lit and research strategies to sophomores at the University of Shkodra; while doing so, I lived in an upstairs apartment of Agim’s house.  He shared the lower floor with his wife Zushi and his then-18-year-old daughter Afrora.

Cover of Teaching American Literature at an East European University

Cover of Teaching American Literature at an East European University

I wrote a book about this experience in Shkodra.  Titled Teaching American Literature at an East European University: Explicating the Rhetoric of Liberty (Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), the book focuses primarily on the academic adventure of teaching American literature—its powerful narratives of liberty and slavery, of justice and oppression—to twenty-year olds who aspired to those liberties because they knew from their own and their families’ experiences what it meant to grow up under communist oppression and an educational system that privileged lecturing and scorned writing-to-learn.

But, as the preface explains, the real inspiration for the book came from my Albanian family.  Though relatively well-off now, the Ks endured tremendous hardships, as did most Albanians, during the communist years, 1944-1989, and during the hard economic times that followed.  In narrating his family’s struggles, Agim always asked, in tearful, despairing tones, “What is possible?” after describing the horrors of labor camps and suppressed faith.  In far more hearty tones, he asked the same question after outlining his hopes for the future, always keeping despair at bay with his mantra, “step-by-step,” his courageous Faulknerian conviction that he and his family will ‘not only endure but prevail.’

Naturally, thoughts of the Agim, Zushi, and Afrora filled my head and my heart as I rode with five other passengers for six hours through Kosova’s deep snow and then through Albania’s stunning northeastern mountains pictured, however inadequately, here.  After this (roughly) 250 mile trek, we found sun and no snow in Tirana, Albania’s capital (see photo).  After Agim and I met up, we took another van to Shkodra, about 70 miles to the north, almost to Montegro.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

Though I had only two days to spend with them, we used the time well to reminisce about 2003 and to brag shamelessly about our families. They couldn’t hear enough about my wife Judy; our ‘kids,’ Heather, Anna, and Matt, our son-in-law Roy, our daughter-in-law Kristen; and our grandkids, Josh, Nate, Roy, and brand-new Ellie.  Returning the favor, Agim and Zushi told me at length about Afrora’s plans to marry Erjon, a young man in Vienna; they also described their up-coming trip to the United States to work and live near their son Andi, who will soon marry Ilma, the beautiful, dark-haired young woman pictured here, next to her lovely soon-to-be sister-in-law Afrora.  The other photo features Agim and Zushi, the smug parents.  Life is good.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

A Red Coffee House

February 6, 2012

Three more inches of snow fell last night, warming us up to near zero.  The morning brought little improvement in the weather, but I enjoyed my snug new office in the English Language and Literature Department, pictured here.  Colleagues at Mississippi State, as you pack up for our temporary home, Howell Hall, eat your hearts out!

My Office, English Language & Literature Department, UP

My Office, English Language & Literature Department, UP

My office again

My office again

Returning to the dorm in the afternoon, I prepared some lessons on American “modernism” and the work of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.  Taking a break, I walked out on my balcony and saw this frozen scene filled with persistent life.  My photo does little justice to the magnificent flocks of blackbirds, and the ‘poem’ below does even less justice to Dr. Williams*.  But I couldn’t resist.

so much depends
upon

a red coffee
house

warmed with
students

beside the black bird
trees

Click here to read Dr. Williams’ poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow”