ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 26 - Review for Final Exam
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. I’ll go ahead and start, just ‘cause I am not sure how many people will end up being here. So, as promised, today I will tell you a little bit about the exam, and I’ll show you some questions from a past year so that you can see what they’re like. We rewrite the exam every year. Even makeup exams are all different, so I have a lot of these in my files. The exam is two-and-a-half hours in a three-hour slot. We have two rooms, ‘cause we have a big class. They have given us this room and 102, so you can come to either room for the event Friday, May 9, 2:00pm to 5:00pm.
It has three parts. The first part is identifications, and that’s small things from any of the novels. That could be a character. It could be a place name. It could be even a couple of words, a quotation, and you have to give the author and title that it comes from, of the book that it comes from, and tell us what it is and a couple of sentences about its significance, so why that thing is important.
Passages will be little chunks of text from a novel. Again, you’ll have to know author and title, and then you will have to do an interpretation of the passage. And then you have to say in a couple of sentences how that passage as you have interpreted it is important to the book as a whole. Oh, and you have to say the context of the passage. Now this might differ. I’ll give you a couple of examples. This’ll be different. It might be a matter of saying where in the plot it occurs or who, which character, is speaking, what’s going on in the scene from which it’s pulled, some sort of relevant context so that we know that you understand where the thing comes from. So you have fifteen minutes to do each of those.
The essay is 40% of the final grade. You have a half an hour, and–I’ll show you–I have a special way of doing these essays. Usually, they’re big, general questions. A good way to review for that is to look at the old essay questions, the essay topics. You’ll find a lot of clues there about themes that unite all the works on the syllabus, so that can be a good way of studying.
In each of these sections you will get to choose. So, in the IDs usually I give nine, and you get to choose six. In the passages, I aim for seven and you choose four. In the essays I always give three and you choose one. Within the essays you can choose between two lists of books to use to answer your questions. You get to choose three of four on each of those two lists, and I’ll explain a little bit why I do that when I show you one. The one restriction on the essay is that you may only write about one novel you’ve written a long paper on, so only one of the three novels that you choose to write about for the essay question can be one that you wrote about in a paper. So your TF who will be grading the exam will know what you wrote on, so just observe that guideline. It’s written in the directions of the exam.
Now, so, let me show you now what these look like. First of all, I’m going to give you a couple IDs and we’ll play a little game. Who can identify this? So, “sea horses.” Yes. No, I’m not going to call on you, Sarah. That’s not fair. Only if they’re all washed up. Can anyone except Sarah identify this? Okay, Sarah, go ahead.
Student: That’s in Housekeeping.
Professor Amy Hungerford: That’s right. Okay. Did that seem hard? Judging by the paucity of answers it was. Yes, that’s exactly what you need to say. You need to say Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, and you’d have to explain that she always wanted to look at this little drawing that her husband made for her. Let me think of another one. The dancing bear. More of you know that. Yes, Helen.
Student: Blood Meridian.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. Yes. Very good. So you– That’s the end of Blood Meridian. You would have to say that it’s at the very end in order to get full credit for that ID, so you need to know that. Let me think of another one. Oh, Lane as a name, Lane. Yes.
Student: Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes, absolutely, and you might want to say what he represents. So, what would he represent? If you were going to give a sentence about what he represents, what would you say, why he’s important?
Student: He represents kind of the ideas of education, and that education isn’t always a good thing.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes–
Student: And that he’s not necessarily educated at all in the way that other characters think is important.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes, that’s true, and he’s pretentious. So, he’s much more interested in his possibilities for publication and how well he’s done in his course than he is in the wisdom that Franny and Zooey both value. Okay. Yes. So you get the idea. That’s what an ID is. So, now let me show you a passage and we’ll do some of these. Now the important thing about passages is that you talk about the language of the passage as well as just what’s in it. So, these will be chosen for the interest of their language, and you will want to note the words and talk about why things are said the way they’re said.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. So here’s one. Take a moment. “Now is the time and folks, I just couldn’t. In silence I turned shoreward and gravely, dutifully she also turned and still hell screamed its counsel and still I could not make myself drown the poor, slippery, big-bodied creature.” What is this from? Uh huh.
Student: It’s from Lolita.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes, and what is going on in this scene?
Student: Humbert is contemplating killing Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Very good. Yes. That’s all the context you would need to identify this passage. Now, take a minute and look. What do you think in the language of this passage would be useful to comment on? What do you notice about it, about the language? Yes.
Student: They’re using “folks.”
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes.
Student: He’s addressing the reader.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Absolutely. You would have to talk about that to get full credit for an answer on this one. It’s an address to the reader. You’d need to talk about why he says that, so what would your account be for why he says that?
Student: Because he’s making a plea for his innocence, and he’s addressing people in this formal manner to try and sort of reach them on a friendship level…
Professor Amy Hungerford: Exactly.
Student: Yes, and then he just wants to sort of paint a picture of his own morality.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. Yes. Very good. That’s a very nice way of putting it, when you say he’s making a plea for his innocence. That is the whole context of the novel. That’s what sets up the novel; that’s the frame of the novel. And so, just by making that observation, you’ve done an important thing for the passage identifications, which is that you have drawn its significance in the context of the larger novel, the whole novel. What else might warrant your notice here, what other bits of the language? Yes.
Student: The attention to bodies.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes. What about that?
Student: The opposition he sets up between Charlotte’s body and Lolita’s.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Absolutely, yes, so that would be perfect, nice and economical. What else? What else do you see there that you could comment on? Yes.
Student: The way that he frames the explanation like he’s a hero.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes. Yeah, and what would you make of that in an answer?
Student: Well, that as much as he’s trying to prove his innocence, he also really thinks he’s actually doing the right thing there.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes. Well, we’re laughing about it. You would probably want to note that it’s a comic use of that literary convention, and so you could say something about his deployment of conventional language, either for satirical use or for comedy or to play up the drama of his self-understanding. So that would be a nicer point, a somewhat more subtle observation, that would set your exam-grading TF into a state of happiness, much to be desired. All right. Let me see. I’ll show you another one. Okay. This one. Take a minute and read it. Okay. What’s this from? The Known World. Okay. Sometimes we will take out character names. I’ve done this with Oedipa, in the past, in Crying of Lot 49, just because it’s so identified with her that it seems like too much of a dead giveaway. I don’t do that very often. Here, Augustus is an easy identifier. What would you want to say about this passage? What do you notice about it that seems worth accounting for? Uh huh.
Student: You can probably, with the phrase “I know what I know,” connect to the title of The Known World and make a comment about how our world is defined by what we know and the perception of God’s truth and how that fits in.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Uh huh. Absolutely, yeah, and if you could tie that notion of God’s truth to the godlike omniscience of the narrator in The Known World that would be a great thing to do, and that would be a way to tie your analysis of this passage to the concerns of the novel as a whole, so that would be good to do. What else do you notice that you could make use of thematically or formally here? Uh huh. Eli. Privilege
Student: You could connect it to a vision of morality, like the way Mildred and Henry treat their slaves, related to the way God treats his children…
Professor Amy Hungerford: Right. So both in your example of Mildred and Henry–not Mildred, Henry and….Now I’ve lost her name. What is her name, his wife’s name? Caldonia. Henry and Caldonia have this vision of a pure morality that they could sponsor in their slave-holding life, and, similarly, this is Barnum Kinsey speaking. You’d want to identify the speaker here. Barnum Kinsey dreams of a pure space in which he could do the morally right thing, but as Eli was saying this is a novel in which no such space or light is possible, so you’d want to note that. That’s more a thematic element of this, but you would want to note that. That’s really important. Anything else that we might want to say? Yes.
Student: Well, in the language he repeats “a body could say” and ” a body could stand,” and it’s kind of a way of preventing literary means of being excluding the illiterate.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Uh huh. Yeah. I think you can definitely talk about that. I think there are a couple of ways. One is to associate it with literacy so that just being is a way of testifying, somehow, that Barnum, in behaving the way he would have wanted to behave, could have done the moral thing. But there is a contrast here between saying it, being the moral thing, and his having stood by as a body in that scene and allowed Augustus to be sold into slavery. So, you could certainly make hay of that elocution. And, for any example that uses dialect in this way, you do want to interrogate it. So, don’t just say, “Well, that’s just trying to sound like someone would sound like in this social situation.” Don’t stop there. Know that the passages will be chosen so that any irregularity of language, even if it’s for the purposes of realism and dialect, is probably going to be something you can talk about. So, just be aware of that and creative in thinking about what that variation in language could mean. Okay. Let me show you another. Okay. What’s that from? Yes.
Student: On the Road?
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yes, it’s from On the Road, and what would you want to say about it? What’s important to notice about the language and what’s important in the thematics of it and the content of it? Yes, Sarah?
Sarah: You could talk about the way that Sal looks at Dean’s language as a way of getting at a more intimate way of understanding language…
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah, absolutely. So words like that–You’d need to talk about Dean’s language and, just as Sarah has done, put it in the context of our understanding of Dean’s language and its evolution over the course of the novel, so that does the work of getting your interpretation into the context of an entire interpretation of the novel. And there is that sense of immediacy; so, making up words in an attempt to get at an unusual proximity to experience. Okay. What else would you want to notice? Well, what’s he talking about? Yes.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. Yes.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Especially in what? Sorry.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Yeah, absolutely. The language and the way Dean’s language falls apart over the course of the novel is one way that he’s trying to get at a different kind of language. But music is the figure for another way, or it’s another figure for that effort to get beyond the limitations of language. And here the way jazz is being described, its ability to capture some ineffable thing, “it,” is what you’d want to highlight. So, you’d want to connect that analysis of how jazz is being described, here, with the role of jazz in the novel as a whole, especially in the novel’s linguistic ambitions, its literary ambitions. You might want to notice the empty space that’s highlighted here. It’s another version of the vagueness of spirituality in a couple of our novels on the syllabus, but certainly in On the Road, the vagueness of that thing that they are looking for.
And also, you could talk about the communal dynamics of meaning-making, here, and you could connect that with how it’s important that Sal and Dean operate in this larger set of people that sort of ebb and flow throughout the novel. This is not the individual artist sitting alone, but rather a dream of an American identity that is somehow built in a free-thinking community of people, or a free-acting community of people. So, you get that, and all of a sudden, somewhere in the middle of the chorus, he gets it. Everybody looks up and knows. There is a dream there of a shared meaning-making moment that everyone will know. It will be immediately compelling. “Rehashes of old blowing.” He’s talking about how jazz musicians are in conversation with a tradition. You could use that little piece and talk about the way that On the Road is in conversation with other literary traditions, how it imagines itself as a revision of modernism. We had a wonderful paper that I think some of you saw as a sample about the relationship between Hemingway and Kerouac in this novel. I didn’t lecture on this, but if any of you saw that paper, that’s an example of what you might want to say about the relationship between tradition and innovation, which is thematized here in jazz, but it’s acted out in the novel as well.
Okay. Do you get the idea of how these work? Okay. So this is what I’m looking for in the passages. Now, in the essays, usually, we have extremely broad questions, some of which are more theoretical than others. Some are more thematic. We had one I’ll show you in a minute about work that looks quite different from this one, but here is the question: “It is often said that many of the humanistic disciplines of the second half of the twentieth century are marked by their interest in language itself. In other words, language becomes not just a medium but a problem. To what extent are the problems of language foregrounded in the novels of this period? What are the consequences of this turn for the writing of fiction? How does such a foregrounding affect the traditional terms of the novel, concerns of the novel, the creation of character, the relationship between style and content, problems of verisimilitude, etc.?”
Now, you would have to choose one of those groups, and then within one of those groups of novels you would need to choose three of the four to talk about. So, the essay will be bringing together three novels around one of these questions. The reason I group them this way is because some of the novels on the syllabus you could put together and have a very partial account of what fiction in this period looks like. So, say your novels were Barth, Pynchon and Foer. All of them have very similar formal ambitions. Okay. I would not make it possible for you to do that. So, I’m looking for you to be able to take texts that seem unlike in their concerns and in their formal elements and put them into conversation with each other around a particular question. Okay. Similarly, I would not ask you to do Woman Warrior, Bluest Eye, and Known World. I wouldn’t ask you to do probably Woman Warrior, Bluest Eye, and Human Stain, either. It’s all too much about identity in somewhat similar terms, so I wouldn’t ask you those novels together. So, you can see that I mix them up. Don’t forget Black Boy. That will be on the exam. If you joined the course in the middle of reading week–in the middle of shopping period–you might want to go back and fill that into your reading, if you haven’t read that.
Let’s see. Questions about the essay questions. I highly, highly recommend that you take the time to outline. If you’re not used to taking essay exams, or even if you are, it is a huge help. It’s actually a time saver. It ensures that you don’t get bogged down in sentence constructions. When we grade these, typically what we do is make checks in the margin every time you make a specific point and use a specific citation of a specific part of a novel. So, you can’t quote ‘cause you don’t have the books in front of us, in front of you, although if you do want to use passages that are on the exam you can quote from those. You can use parts of the exam for quotation in the essay, but you do need to say, “When Morrison starts each chapter of The Bluest Eye with that quotation from the primer, she is highlighting how learning language is also learning a kind of racial prejudice and it’s a kind of racial prejudice rooted in aesthetic appreciation. She highlights the colors that appear in the primer and prettiness of Jane’s dresses.” Okay. I didn’t quote anything from The Bluest Eye, but I’m pointing to it in such a way that that would have several checks in the column in the margin, and basically what we do is we rack it up and we see whether for each novel you’ve made a number of specific points that add up to an argument.
Now, in this essay this is the only place where we really don’t want you simply coughing up lecture or something that you’ve discussed in section. This is, like the papers, something of an opportunity to draw things together in an original way. There are lots of threads that connect the novels in the syllabus. If you’ve been attending the lectures, you will already have lots of those in your notes, so you can draw from that, but you should be thinking about it on your own. For the passages, when you start to make claims about why the passage is important, in the context of the novel as a whole, you may find yourself using arguments that were made in lecture or in section, and that’s fine. So, it gives you the larger context in which you can show us that you’re able to look at the specific words on the page and tell us something about them. That’s the skill we’re testing in the passages. Here, it’s more your synthetic knowledge and your way of bringing things together. So in studying for the exam portion, as I say, read over the paper topics and make little lists for yourself of kinds of evidence that you would point to, maybe four or five bits of evidence for each novel, or for a number of novels, that might help you answer a question like that on the exam. Or, sit and think; read a question and think to your mind, “okay, which scenes would I note; which scenes would I want to talk about?” That’s a good exercise for studying. Any questions about this? Okay.
Let me show you one more. So, that’s a very, sort of, literary kind of version of the exam question. Let me show you something of a more, perhaps a cultural studies version. Here’s one about work. The quotation is from Plot Against America, Philip Roth’s recent novel, which is what I taught of his last year, so that obviously would not occur on our exam. “”The men worked fifty, sixty, even seventy or more hours a week. The women worked all the time with little assistance from labor-saving devices.” Discuss the status of work in the post-1945 American novel. Who works and who doesn’t? How is work represented? What kinds of work are valorized? What kinds are vilified? What is the place of labor in these novels’ vision of America?” So, that’s a more thematic question, but in all of these we really want you to be noting how narratives are put together, how language is used, what choices the novel made in privileging either description of character and development of character, development of setting, creativity in voices and tones.
So, all those formal things that have to do with language choices would still be relevant. Here you might want to talk about the work of the writer as that novel imagines it. We’ve talked about that over, on and off over the course of the term. What is the literary project? What does the literary project have to do with other kinds of work? So, generally, partly because this course is cross-listed in American Studies, I like to have something of a balance between those very literary formal questions like that first one I showed you and this one, which is a little bit more about a vision of America. Okay. Any questions?
You probably have your ways of studying by now. Even freshmen have been here for a year. Let me just say a couple things about the process of studying and of taking exams that maybe will be helpful to you. My ideal way of studying for an exam is to use sleep strategically. Sleep can do amazing things for the consolidation of knowledge in your brain. Maybe some of you have discovered this already. Maybe some of you have discovered its negative, what it does not do for you when you do not sleep. If you can arrange it so that you spend time so you get all your reading done, read over all your notes, then sit down with those paper topics, and while you’re sitting with the paper topics, that’s when you move from going from the passive mode to the active mode. So, you review all your notes, sit down with the paper topics. In that active mode, do what I was suggesting. Think of scenes that pertain to those topics for a number of the novels, for each one. Just work through that for awhile, until you can’t do it anymore, and then go to sleep right away. Do not check your e-mail. Do not browse the web. Do not shoot the breeze with your roommate. [laughs] Just go to bed. There is a lot of research that’s been done about the effect of doing this without distracting yourself. You still get a benefit if you distract yourself and then go to bed. You still retain more of the knowledge the next morning, but it’s even better if you do it without distracting yourself. So, take it to bed with you, so you can sink right into bed, into sleep, later. Even if you can only nap even for twenty minutes or half an hour, it still has an effect. So, say you have to study for this exam during one half of the day, and then you have to go and take another exam during the second half of the day. Take a nap in between. It’s probably worth the half hour you don’t spend thinking about more paper topics, or reading your notes over again, or looking at the novels to do that. It’s probably worth it. Okay. So that’s my first tip: Use sleep strategically.
My second reflection on exam taking is that–you may dismiss this out of hand, given the profession that I then took up–but I actually used to like taking exams. And the reason was that, once you went through that work of reading things over, processing it, after you took the exam itself, I always felt that the knowledge of a course was really my own then. It came together in a way that was much more solid for me than before I took the exam. So, right now the themes of the course might just be a collection of memories, or partial memories, and in your notes, and sort of chaotic. But once you study for the exam, and you get some distance from it–with sleep–and you actually write the exam, that knowledge is really your own. So, I would encourage you to see exam period, not just in this class but in all your classes, as a real time, an important time, of consolidation. You worked very hard during the term in all your classes, I hope, and whatever you did can really become yours in a new way during this time. So use it well. And, I hope that you’ll-in some way, some part of you–will enjoy that process of really coming to own that knowledge. Okay. Any questions about the exam? Okay. Any questions about anything in the course? Eli.
Student: I wanted to ask why “1945” is particularly important.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Why postwar? Well, in America that marks two things for me. One is the rise of the mass market and that changes…Well, actually I would say three things. The rise of the mass market changes the relationship between readership and the literature that’s out there. So, it used to be that “high literature” was not published in paperback, but the rise of the mass-market paperback meant that suddenly books that would never be accessible to a sort of average middle-class or working-class person suddenly became so. So, it’s a huge watershed in the demographics of readership. So, that’s one reason.
A second reason is related to this, and that’s that hundreds of thousands of men came back and went to college on the GI Bill who had never been to college before. Nobody in their families had ever been to college before. This also changed the readership dramatically. It was a time of an enormous boom in college enrollments, and part of that was a huge boom in English enrollments. Literature was a way for people who had never been to college before to feel that they were entering in to the upper middle class because it was a kind of pursuit that was marked by its bourgeois prestige, or its prestige marked you as bourgeois. So, for people interested in raising their class status, and that was lots of people, coming into the educational system, higher education, for the first time, literature was very important. There is a whole story about why literature is no longer that class-marking enterprise that it was at mid century that has to do with the rise of writing, the competence in writing being more important than the competence in literary tradition to mark you as an educated person. So, that’s an interesting story in itself, but in general 1945 is the beginning of that.
The third thing is that, by 1945, the innovations of modernism are really very well established. The big careers of early century literary enterprise are totally established, and they have been assumed almost fully into the institution of the university through the New Criticism. The New Criticism was that method of reading literature that was determining how people were reading in classrooms, how all those new college students were reading in classrooms. That set the agenda for what would come next, so in that context someone like John Barth, trained intensively in the New Criticism, had to decide what he was going to do as a literarily ambitious writer to innovate. So, it was a question of, how could literature carry on and do something new? And there are lots of different answers to that.
And another answer to it, that is partly the result of the GI Bill explosion of education, that’s the changing demographic of who gets to read and who gets to write. So, women, people of color, begin to change the agendas of modernism simply by getting that education and entering into the academy. So, Toni Morrison is a great example of that. So is Maxine Hong Kingston. There was this sense that modernism had not even begun to touch on the experience of vast swaths of society, and writers like Morrison and Kingston were very busy wanting to rectify that. So, it marks a change that’s beyond just a change in readership. The demographic change in readership and in education really begins to change the agenda of literature. So, that’s why ‘45 is my marker. It’s a crude one, like all these things. You can’t say, “Well, why not 1942?” It doesn’t quite work that specifically. Okay. Other questions about the course, about terms, about books. Yes.
Student: Of the novels you read, what are your favorite ones? I know you have them, too.
Professor Amy Hungerford: You do, do you? Gosh. That’s really, really hard. I do love The Known World. I really admire it. I think it’s genuinely doing something new, and that’s hard to do right now; so I love it, and I loved it as a reading experience, even when I first read it. It really captured my imagination. I have always loved and hated Blood Meridian. I love and hate Cormac McCarthy. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about him, writing about him, reading his work, and while I am really in awe of his ability especially to use the far reaches of our vocabulary in English. Talk about someone who really makes room in the language. He can really do that. If you read the first few pages of one of his earlier novels, Suttree, you get a fantastic image of this. It’s a very Joycean novel, that one. The vocabulary– You just have to look up every third word. It’s really incredible.
And I’m really interested in the way he is focused on craft, both as a writer, but all kinds of crafts. He has this play called The Last Stonemason. I think it’s called The Last Stonemason or just The Stonemason. The Stonemason. He’s interested in these old arts, physical arts like forging. There’s a great chapter on smithing in a novel called The Child of God where the language of the smithy is folded into this meditation on aesthetics, talks about what color the fire and the metal should be at every moment of reforging an ax handle. Of course, in true McCarthy style, the ax handle will then be used to chop up dead bodies and skin people, so that’s very McCarthyesque too. But at the same time I just find him frustratingly empty.
The Road I adored. It was a terrifying read. I had insomnia one night, and I started to read it at about 1:30 in the morning, and I finished it about 5:30 and I was terrified. Have I told you about The Road, what it’s about? It takes place ten years into a nuclear winter, and it’s about a father and son making their way down from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, for no apparent reason except that the father seems to think that somehow they’ll be able to survive better once they get to the coast. Meanwhile, in this world, there are all these cannibalistic gangs that have started. Women are used to produce babies that they then eat. It’s really completely bleak and terrifying and the relationship between the father and the son is extremely touching, and I have a little boy who is about the same age and oh, my God, I was just–it was really terrifying to read this all alone in the middle of the night. I sort of got in bed with my son later and just kind of cuddled with him to remember that he was still alive.
But, at the end, there is this sense of the boy carrying the light. The father says, “We’re carrying the light. We’re the good guys.” And the son sort of repeats that. By the end–and I won’t tell you what happens ‘cause you should read it–but there is this affirmation of that light, but what the light is, who knows? There is sort of a Promethean narrative there. There is also a messianic narrative there. I think, personally, my own meaning of it, is that it’s McCarthy meditating on the end of his own life. McCarthy is a very old man with a very young son, and I think he was thinking about his own death. And the fate of the father in that novel, I think, is very much about McCarthy’s sense of himself. So yeah, McCarthy is a tough one.
Marilynne Robinson I like a lot also. I like the beauty of her prose. That biblical cadence that she and McCarthy both have I really like. I love the outdoor imagery, the nature imagery, of that novel. And I love Roth for my own obscure and perverse reasons. Yeah. So I sort of have my favorites, but I like them–I, really, there are things that I like about all of them. An interesting story about liking novels: I hated Salinger. I really hated Salinger, because I found him so pretentious and affected. I just hated that tone of voice, until I was working on this book on religion and I read Franny and Zooey. And here you can tell most of my great thought happens in the middle of the night. So, I had been thinking about Franny and Zooey, and I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night thinking, “I know what style is for in Franny and Zooey!” So, I got up and I wrote it down, and that lecture that I gave on Franny and Zooey is part of my new book. And when the book was reviewed for presses, a part of it, one of my readers said it was the best reading he had ever seen of contemporary fiction. And it made me love Franny and Zooey ‘cause suddenly I had something to think about other than well, this is so pretentious. I had a reason why that tone and that style was there. So, thinking about books can really change your sense of whether you like them or not in a self–I know–in a self-serving way. Now who’s pretentious? Okay. Other questions. Oh, yes.
Student: I really love Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, and I was talking to my roommate about it, wondering why it isn’t on the syllabus. I know it’s taught in American literature courses, but he thought it might be like, academic snobbery, because it’s popular, and Oprah Winfrey talks about it…
Professor Amy Hungerford: Oh, no, not at all. I used to teach Beloved, and I stopped because of that, because we put it on the 127 syllabus, partly. And that wasn’t here when I first started teaching; so, the first time I offered this lecture course, 127 didn’t exist. And then we put it in place in the department, and because it was on that syllabus, I held off. I still think Beloved is an amazing novel. I also have the length problem in that part of the period. I’m sure you didn’t notice that the novels are long in that part of the syllabus. Beloved is another really huge novel, so that it’s a problem. So, I decided instead of putting it on, to rely on the fact that most people would either have read it in high school, or at least a majority would have read it in high school, or in 127, and that I could count on that knowledge, at least in a contextual sense. But no, it has nothing to do with academic snobbery. Now, I used to get pissed off because when it was on the syllabus I would always get, certain evaluations would come in and say, “I don’t know why we read Beloved. It’s so overrated.” That was the snobbery, and that made me upset ‘cause I thought well, that’s just a failure of openness as a reader, not to think about why it was so powerful, even if you don’t like it yourself. But, your answer was right. It’s simply because it’s taught a lot elsewhere, and then those other practical reasons of length. What else? Uh huh.
Student: Are there authors that you would have included, if it were a longer semester.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Oh. Well, I’m sure, yeah. So, let’s see. What else would I put on there? Well, let me think. Louise Erdrich is interesting to me. There is a long novel of hers called The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, which I think is an imaginative conceit. It is really fascinating. The premise of the novel is, it’s this young woman who is a wonderfully gifted pianist who goes–I can’t remember where she’s heading. It’s been now a long time since I read the novel. She’s traveling, and she gets washed away in a flood, a freak flood of a river. This is out West. And, when she finally surfaces, she crawls up on the bank, and she finds the body of a young priest who was on his way to be the priest at a mission on a reservation, on an Indian reservation, I think, in the Dakotas. So, she cuts off her hair, and she puts on the priest’s robes, and she pretends to be that priest. And she becomes–she cross-dresses and is the priest at the reservation for her entire life. And I just think it’s a fascinating premise for a novel, and it’s very well done and her language is quite wonderful. Again, I am ambivalent about it, because I find the ending facile. It finally resolves all the problems that this situation produces in a way that I don’t find complex enough, or challenging enough. It’s just too easy to make it all come together the way she does. So, that’s one.
Let me think. There are many, many other novels. I’m perpetually torn whether to put The Road on, or Blood Meridian, or some other McCarthy novel. I’ve taught at least four different Roth novels spanning the period from 1960 to the present. Other writers… Now, I don’t know why I’m blanking, now that I think about this. Who else would I like to put on there? Oh, Eggers. Now I “fess up.” I really would have loved to do What is the What as our last novel. Now, Eggers started out immature, in the same way that, I think, Jonathan Safran Foer is. But he grew up, and it’s a beautiful thing. So, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has a lot of that sort of kind of clichéd, postmodern trickery in it, but by the time he gets to What is the What, that novel is like nothing else. There is no equivalent of that novel, to my knowledge, anywhere in our tradition. It’s just an astonishing inhabitation of another person’s life, but in real time. I was able to have dinner with him and some other people when he came as the Schlesinger writer a few years ago, and I said, “Did you find it confining to give yourself over in that creative way to this other person’s story?” And he said, “Yeah. It was terrible. I’d be writing ‘The truck went down the road.’” He’d have to call Valentino and say, “Valentino, that truck–was the road gravel, or was it paved? And was it dusty? Was there stuff kicking up, or was it just flat?” It was just amazing, the degree to which he put his writing pen at the service of another person and their story. It’s really remarkable, so, given that extremely confining setup, he makes that novel truly literary, in my mind. It has a real form, it has a very lively voice, and it’s extremely powerful and affecting. So, that’s something I would love to have, but again it’s a huge novel, so this is the problem. It’s so long. I think I just need two semesters. I think that would be better. Yes.
Student: What about Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest book?
Professor Amy Hungerford: I haven’t read it yet, but I have to say the reviews that I hear about it–so, was it Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close?–the structure of the plot makes me doubt, a little bit, because it’s just another hunt. So, it’s this nine-year-old boy who loses his father on 9/11, and he finds in his father’s effects a key that’s marked “Black,” I think. It has a little label on it, and so he goes around in New York City finding everyone by the name of Black that he can find. So, it has this structure that’s so similar to Everything is Illuminated. That hunt structure just made me think, I wonder whether this is just a one-trick writer, that he has this idea and this is what it’s always going to be? That doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is not a great writer. Roth is kind of a one-trick pony, in this way, too. He has his own repetitions from novel to novel. Most writers I know do, but that seemed a little too–It was a little too close for me, so I don’t know. I have to find time to read it. Denis Johnson: I did actually– I was very interested in having Jesus’ Son as the last novel, too. I’m going to write a review for the Yale Review on Denis Johnson’s work by the end of July, so by then I’ll know what I think about him, too. Other questions? Or shall I let you go? Any other questions? Okay. So I will see you at the exam, and I think some sections are having review sessions, so check with your TF.
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