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

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

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

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

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

The Rhetoric of Faulkner’s Stockholm Address

April 21, 2012

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

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

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

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Lahiri’s “Sexy” at the American Corner & in the Park

May 2 & 9, 2012

Mark Lake, Educational Director for the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention

Mark Lake is a fellow American in Kosova. He is the Educational Director with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. As part of his program, Lake offers English conversation courses for students at the American Corner.

I joined his class on May 2 and 9 to lead them in a discussion about Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy.”  For the first class, we met at their usual place, the American Corner in the National Library on the University of Pristina campus. For the gathering on the 9th, we met at local park instead because the library was closed in observance of Europe Day.

**Click on the first image to view pictures in a larger, “slideshow” format.

Poets Remembering Parents, Part II

April 21, 2012

Li-Young Lee (Source: timesunion.com)

Turning our attention to Li-Young Lee’s poem “The Gift,” I began with the obvious but important fact that Lee’s poem establishes as we come to it from the work of Plath and Dove, namely, that men share with women this intense need to remember their fathers clearly, to ‘get back’ at them or to them, to understand them and love them, perhaps to forgive them, perhaps to get past them.  “Do you recall from the introduction what distinctions Lee’s father achieved?” I wondered.  Several voices responded with “physician to Chairman Mao” and “political prisoner in Sukarno’s Indonesian jail.”  “Right,” I said, “and our editors also credit Lee with using the same techniques that Dove used in resurrecting her remorseful but menacing father, relying on multi-sensory appeals to recreate his father and to remember him faithfully and accurately.”

Noting that the word “gift” never appears in the poem, except in the title, I asked, “What is it?”  Arlind responded with “his ‘stories,’” Dafina with “his ‘tenderness’ and ‘discipline.’”  Praising both answers, I asked how Lee uses sensory imagery to reveal that tenderness and firmness.  We then explored Lee’s use of synecdoche and metaphor, the “voice” that sounds like “a well of dark water,” the “hands” that embrace Lee’s young face but also raise “flames of discipline” over his head (ll. 1-13).  We then noticed the long-term effect of these remembered images, as Lee sees himself, years later, lifting a splinter from his wife’s hand with the same healing gentleness that his father had ‘planted’ in his hand decades before.  “And how does Lee express his gratitude for these gifts?” I asked.  Edita responded by citing “what a child does….I kissed my father” (ll. 33, 35).

“When you juxtapose Lee’s poem to Plath’s “Daddy,” or even to Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, what do you realize about the American family and about the need of grown children to look back and understand their parents?” I asked.  This prompt led to some interesting comments on the need of children to reconstruct family narratives of justice and love as well as stories of injustice and abuse.  “What do adult children receive, other than some joy and lots of pain, from remembering such stories?” I wondered.  “Is it just about assigning blame, condemning mom or dad for what we have become?  Or about kissing the parent who loved you well?”   Wisely, Merita responded, “It’s more about the adult child making a choice, saying ‘you had the wrong dream,’ or ‘I’m through,’ or ‘I choose to pass on your love to my family.’”

Applauding this perceptive insight, I asked the class where Louise Glück’s poem “Appearances” stands on spectrum of remembering family narratives and choosing what the next chapter will be.  After Laureta read the poem aloud, I reminded the class of the introductory comments on Glück’s “complex family relations,” her psychoanalysis to deal with the resulting pain (3000), and then asked where they saw pain and coping mechanisms in the poem.  We quickly caught the reference to being “analyzed” but also the humor, the reference to portraits of her and her sister hung “over the mantel,/ where we couldn’t fight” (ll. 2-3).  When I asked what she remembers about her mother, we reviewed key descriptors of the “strong,” ‘controlling’ woman who valued “order,” who grieved always over another daughter who died, who “ministered to” her living sister and, in so doing, “damaged the other” (ll. 28-36).  “So what does the adult child now realize about the consequences of her mother’s unequal love?” I asked.  Besa rose to the challenge: “She understands that because she always wanted to be “child enough” for her mother, she became “too obedient,” too ready to be shaped—“If you want me to be a nun, I’ll be a nun”—to earn her mother’s approval (ll. 26, 43-44).

Yusef Komunyakaa (Source: Indiana Review)

“Yes,” I responded, “and such realizations can liberate the adult, as we saw in Biff at the end of Salesman.  Isn’t it interesting that when adult children take a different route than the parents took, they usually do not try to ‘kill’ the parent, as did Plath; on the contrary, they try to preserve the parent, as did Biff.”  I then asked if they could recall where Yusef Komunyakaa got his name and how that naming might relate to the instinct to preserve the parent.  No one remembered, so we scanned the introduction for this sentence: Komunyakaa “adopted the lost surname of a Trinidadian grandfather who came to the United States as a child” (3075).

Noting, too, the statement that Komunyakaa devoted his poetry to restoring black faces—from rural Louisiana, from Bourbon Street, and from Vietnam—that have been ‘erased’ from cultural memory (3075), we sought to discover how he remembers his father in “My Father’s Love Letters.”  After Fidan read the poem aloud, we spoke of this illiterate alcoholic mill worker, who asked his son to write his love letters to his wife, “promising to never beat her/Again” (ll. 6-7).  “But what else does Komunyakaa refuse to erase?” I asked.  Arben answered, listing the tools of his trade, the “carpenter’s apron,” the “gleam of a five-pound wedge” that “pulled a sunset/Through the doorway of his toolshed” (ll. 12, 22, 24-25).  “Right,” I said, “and he also remembers that his father could look at a blueprint and instantly know ‘how many bricks/Formed each wall’” (ll. 30-31).   Asked for his conclusion, Arben added that the drunken brute also seems to be a true craftsman, an artist “almost redeemed by what he tried to say” in his letters (ll. 35-36).

Thanking all for their patient, insightful readings, I asked for volunteers to read from their journals about their parents.  Bajram responded with a full-page tribute to his mother, the “goddess” who never failed him as he grew from childhood to adolescence and manhood.  Though he had not attempted poetry, we all praised the poetic quality of his prose, poetic in the sense that it relied on imagery from her kitchen table, site for buttering home-made bread and learning letters, and from his bedside to stress her nurturing tenderness, and from the war—school doors closed, soldiers ruling the streets—to stress her dignity and courage in a time when ethnic cleansings made it difficult to sustain either quality. Thoroughly impressed by Bajram’s tribute, I thanked him for celebrating the ‘gifts’ his mother provided, much as Li-Young Lee had done in his poem about his father.

Poets Remembering Parents, Part I

April 21, 2012

Sylvia Plath (Source: http:/www.poets.org)

At the beginning of the next session, as I gathered students’ drafts on Lesson, I noted that Sylvia Plath was born a full generation after Richard Wright, but that she died in 1963, a victim of suicide, just three years after Wright’s death. Circulating a picture of Plath, I then asked what they learned in the introduction that made her death hard to understand. Several voices spoke at once, mentioning her marriage to poet Ted Hughes, their two children, her prestigious degree from Smith College, her Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University, her publications. Next, I asked the painfully obvious question: “Why would a young, attractive wife and mother and successful poet have to take her own life? Does your book offer any help?” Dafina then mentioned the death of Plath’s father when she was only eight, saying that “it seems she never got over the anger and grief.” Then Shkodran mentioned the father’s authoritarian manner, a quality shared by her husband, who also resembled her father. I congratulated both students on their attentive reading and mentioned another key point from the introduction, that the merger of father and husband in the poem makes “Daddy” more than self-expressive, suggesting an attack on all oppressive men, possessors of the phallus, abusers of power.

I then asked that two women, two female voices, read “Daddy” aloud, each taking eight of the sixteen stanzas of the poem. Merita and Edita obliged; we all followed along as they gave voice to this anguished, angry poem. Thanking Merita and Edita for their voices and their daring, I asked the class to think about the images—both visual and auditory—that give the poem its power. “What about in the first two stanzas? What images define the child’s experience of the father’s tyrannical power?” In response, many voices spoke of the “black shoe,” the child smothered in the paternal shoe “like a foot,” afraid to “breathe.” Stressing Plath’s craft, I mentioned the visual intensity she creates with the “shoe,” this specialized form of figurative language, a synecdoche, which allows her to define the whole man by focusing on a cruel, suppressive part. “But does the narrator’s voice sound submissive, defeated?” I asked. Several voices responded with the defiant line, “I have had to kill you.” “What images suggest her contempt for the father?” Ragip responded, saying that she mocks his self-importance by calling him a “bag full of God” with a disgusting, “ghastly,” swollen toe.

Moving to other stanzas, I asked the class if they heard any love mixed in with the anger and contempt. Kadrije said she “used to pray to recover” (l. 14) him, that she tried to kill herself to “get back to you. I thought even the bones would do” (ll. 59-60), and Edita added that she “made a model of you” (l. 64) by marrying Hughes. I praised their answers but wondered why she uses Nazi imagery to describe this man, these men, she loves. Perceptively, Blerta stressed the metaphor: all men become Nazis, and all their women become “Jews,” receptacles for his dominating “root” (32, 23). “Why does she shift to the vampire imagery?” I asked. Besa replied that the blood-sucking imagery further stresses the way men use up women, drain them of life after biting the woman’s “pretty red heart in two” (l. 56). “Does she leave you with this image of victimization?” I asked Besa. She answered by reading the last two stanzas aloud, sounding the anger as the narrator-daughter-wife drives a “stake in your fat black heart” and proclaims, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (ll. 76, 80). Complimenting Besa’s strong reading, I mentioned again Plath’s craft, her alliterative use of harsh “b” and “d” sounds, the sequence of strong stresses in “fat black heart”; such cacophony, I said, creates the angry tone and complements the violent images of her final rejection of her father.

Just nine years old when Plath committed suicide, Rita Dove as an adult also wrote about her father, and she did so, according to our text, with the same “friction” that we found in Plath’s poetry (3135). Reminding the class of this claim, I asked, “Where do you see and hear friction in Dove’s ‘Adolescence III,’ which begins with the father’s absence and ends with his presence. What happens in between? What’s going on inside of her as she shares gardening with her mom?” Dafina noted the simile, with the girl keenly aware that, like the tomatoes, she grows “softer, swelling out” (l. 5). “Why does she have to wrap her scarred knees in the second stanza?” I pressed Dafina. She answered quickly, “She also feels the consequence of her hard work, and she wants to cover the scars with fancy old dresses “that once went to big-band dances” (l. 9). Thanking Dafina for her sensitive answers, I asked the class how this ‘friction’ between a hard reality and romantic fantasy plays out in the third stanza. Fidan responded, saying that she stands in “rows of clay and chicken manure” dreaming of a young man who would come, profess his love, and make the “scabs fall away,” until the “father” ends the fantasy (ll. 14-21). “What do you make of the closing image,” I asked Fidan, “carrying his ‘tears in a bowl’ as ‘blood hangs in the pine-soaked air’?” “Maybe the tears show his regret for deserting them, but the blood shows that his return threatens more abuse,” he guessed.

Praising all for their close readings, I then asked if anyone cared to share his or her journaling on suicide or on adolescent memories. Gezim responded first, reading an entertaining account of adolescent sibling rivalries and his great sufferings as the ‘oldest child,’ always having to tend to the younger brothers and getting punished for their pranks. Changing the mood dramatically, Besa read of her opposition to suicide, calling it “weakness,” a choice never justified even in times of immense suffering. To support her view, she described the persecution her Albanian family suffered at the hands of Serbian soldiers in the 1990s, the loss of home, the fear of the ever-present AK-47s. She acknowledged that she thought of suicide then, just to escape the terror, but her parents’ heroic example made her put aside such despairing thoughts.

Seeing that everyone had been as moved to smiles and to deep sadness by this journaling, I thanked the readers for their candor and courage and the listeners for their attentiveness, and then asked everyone to prepare for the next session by reading three more poems packed with complicated memories about parents: Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift,” Louise Glück’s “Appearances,” and Yusef Komunyakaa’s “My Father’s Love Letters.” I also asked the students to prepare a journal entry, either in prose or in poetry, describing their fathers or mothers by using images, not abstractions, just as Plath and Dove had done.

Gaines at The American Corner

April 20, 2012

See the class featured on The American Corner facebook page.

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

Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 3

April 7, 2012

A Lesson Before Dying

Cover of Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying

Returning to our discussion of Gaines’ Lesson, I said that, even as they prepare the final version of their Salesman papers, they would need to draw on their journaling to begin planning their essays on Gaines’ novel.  To help them begin this process, I passed out their assignment sheet, which featured the following subjects as possible focuses for their essays:

  • The effects of racism on the American justice system
  • The relationship of liberty to literacy
  • The love story of Vivian and Grant
  • Grant: the man and the teacher
  • Jefferson: His transformation from “hog” to man
  • Reverend Ambrose, Grant, and the dynamics of faith and doubt
  • The women in Gaines’ novel

I then suggested that we spend our last hour talking about approaches to one or two of these overlapping subjects, focusing particularly on chapters 20-31, the ones we had not discussed.  By common consent, we began with “Grant: the man and the teacher.”  Reminding students that we saw a new Grant emerging at the end of our last session, I asked what evidence they saw of Grant’s effective teaching.  Kadrije mentioned the radio that Grant bought for Jefferson and his defense of this purchase in a confrontation with Reverend Ambrose, who calls it a “sin box” (181).  “So how can we consider a radio a teaching device?” I asked Kadrije.  She responded by reading key quotes from Grant’s defense:  “I found a way to reach him for the first time….He wants something of his own before he dies….The only thing that keeps him from thinking he is not a hog is that radio” (182, 183).

After commending Kadrije on her insights and evidence, I asked if anyone else could uncover some effective teaching that emerges, rather ironically, from his conflict with Reverend Ambrose.  “You recall,” I said, “that Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to pray, to kneel; Grant refuses, saying that he has tried to teach him to stand.  But what kinds of teachings does Grant share with Jefferson in the meetings that follow?”  Edita answered, referring to Grant’s lesson about heroism, his teaching Jefferson to be a hero; she then read some key quotes from the lesson: “A hero does for…people he loves because he knows it would make their lives better….You could give something to Emma, to me, to those children in the quarter” (191).  “Can you tell me what Grant has to say about Mr. Farrell’s slingshots?” I asked her.  “It’s a metaphor,” Edita explained; “Farrell turns rough wood into a beautiful slingshot handle; he wants Jefferson to “decide to become something else” (193).  “And what irony does this lesson have, given Grant’s recent fight with the Reverend?”  “Grant speaks like a pastor, teaching about love,” Edita answered.  “And what does Grant tell Jefferson as they walk around the day-room, Jefferson in shackles?”  Edita answered with another quotation from Grant: “I think it’s God that makes people care for people” (223).  Naturally, I had lots of praise for Edita, too.

Delighted by these insights, I asked the class what other brilliant teaching idea Grant has just before he begins this ‘sermon’ about love.  Several answered with “the pencil and diary.”  I then asked how this teaching strategy works, and how it relates to the “liberty and literacy” subject on their assignment sheet.  “What do we learn about Jefferson from his journaling, besides the obvious fact that he had minimal literacy skills?  What does he write about?”  These questions led to an array of answers: Jefferson’s dream about the execution, his feeling that God “just work for wite folks” (227), his gratitude to his teacher, his tearful response to the children who bring him pecans and kisses and marbles, the kisses he gives to Emma at her last visit, his admission that he “been shakin an shakin but im gon stay strong” (233).  I then asked what they would call a person who admits his fears but faces them, a person who can show tenderness to children, compassion for his godmother, and gratitude to the man who made him “think im somebody” (232).  Several answered instantly: “a man.”  “Yes,” I responded, “so what does Gaines suggest here about the power of writing?  Jefferson still wears chains, he still will die, but what has he achieved?”  “Freedom,” Fidan said.  “He has escaped the ‘hog’ identity.”

Thanking the class for their thoughtful responses, I encouraged them, as they began to draft on their chosen subject, to think about blending a critical theory or theories with their analysis.   For example, I noted that the subject of Jefferson as well as the first two subjects focus on racism and the justice system and on the relationship of literacy to liberty; therefore, these subjects might invite a Marxist reading of the novel, arguing that the injustices of capitalism appear in the arrogance of the ruling class and in their oppression of the proletariat or working class.  On the other hand, I said that if they chose to write about Grant, they could take a deconstructive approach, arguing that Grant’s transformation and its effects on Jefferson and the deputy Paul undercut the Marxist critique, showing that capitalist injustices can, eventually, be overcome.  Further, I suggested that a paper on Vivian and the other women in the novel would invite a feminist reading, stressing the failed attempts to silence women, and a paper on Grant and Reverend Ambrose could take a psychoanalytic approach, tracing the conflict between the agnostic and the man of faith as a clash between a ‘son’ and a surrogate father/authority figure.

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.