Archive for October, 2009

Who Would Have Thought It?

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Who Would Have Thought It?, indeed. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s novel was published (anonymously) in 1872 to dismissive notices from the few reviewers who bothered to discuss it. In 2009, it has just been reissued as a Penguin Classic.

The novel’s first reviewers, quoted in the Penguin introduction by Amelia María de la Luz Montes, opined that Who Would Have Thought It? “does not ask the most implicit belief from the reader” and showed a “perhaps too cynical habit of observation” and a “total disregard for the common denouement of novels” (xx-xxi). As so often, negative reviews are the most discerning in their description of a work. To put it less genteelly, Who Would Have Thought It? has plot holes you could march the Army of the Potomac through. Its story, borrowed from the Victorian stock of imperilled-orphan plotlines, eventually fizzles out in rhetoric.

But, as de la Luz Montes notes, “Ruiz de Burton’s works speak to our twenty-first-century world” (xvi). Literary scholars in 2009 are drawn to polemical, overtly rhetorical fiction, and the more cynical its “habit of observation,” the better. We read novels primarily as arguments, even as “projects” akin to scholarly books. Given such an “interpretive community,” Who Would Have Thought It? becomes an ideal candidate for scholarship.

The plot construction of Who Would Have Thought It? would have made Charles Dickens wince. A key to the orphan Lola Medina’s perils is a misdirected manuscript that falls into the hands of her guardian’s brother-in-law Isaac Sprig. Isaac, upon reading the manuscript, travels to Mexico to discover more about Lola – completely unsuspecting that his brother-in-law’s mysterious Mexican ward Lola might be the mysterious Mexican orphan Lola mentioned in the manuscript. “Slow on the uptake” doesn’t begin to describe it.

Enormous blind spots in novels may be forgiven, of course: the plot of Jane Eyre would go nowhere if Jane had investigated all that thumping in Rochester’s attic to begin with. But Who Would Have Thought It? has more grievous narrative sins on its conscience. It’s often dull. Long chapters are devoted to shuttling characters up and down the Eastern Seaboard so that their romantic entanglements can realign. The book ends not just without a denouement, but with its characters pointlessly chasing one another around in boats.

Now, this critique is far beside the point, I realize. Who Would Have Thought It? is valued today not for Ruiz de Burton’s story skills, but for its “intricate ethnic, gender, sexual, and racial relationships to power” (xv). I grant this point completely. In fact, from my own perspective as a desultory student of Civil War fiction, I found Who Would Have Thought It? interesting for its corrosive view of the Union war effort. The most loathsome opportunists, in Ruiz de Burton’s world, become the most decorated heroes. Three separate characters have their fortunes made, respectively, by (1) fleeing the first battle of Manassas in a stolen buggy, (2) spurring a horse the wrong way in an attempt to retreat that turns into an inadvertent charge, and (3) self-inflicting a gunshot wound in another scramble to the rear. The wartime administration is run from an undisclosed location by the sinister Edwin M. Stanton, for the benefit of “shoddy” profiteers who make Halliburton look like pikers. Even Abraham Lincoln comes across as a bloviating buckpasser.

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All very interesting, I admit. But are these historical/rhetorical insights worth the effort of wading through a 305-page novel that is often either preposterous or provokingly tedious? There are good, energetic things in Who Would Have Thought It? – small set pieces like an old maid’s undermotivated chloroforming of her pet canaries, or a proleptic discussion of postwar “leg opera” on the New York stage – but they are embedded in a matrix of rather drossy narrative. Wouldn’t it be more profitable to study essays and letters from the period for their political opinions, than to slog through such a novel?

However, the very word “novel” is still magical. It connotes “literature,” with its guarantee of artistic merit, and its entrenched place in the curriculums and syllabuses of English departments, and publishers’ front- and backlists. Who Would Have Thought It? is of very minor interest in literary history. Even de la Luz Montes concedes as much implicitly, making no mention in her introduction of Ruiz de Burton’s career as a belle-lettrist. But the rhetoric of the novel is of considerable interest. And in a century where literature increasingly tends to reduce to rhetoric, such a text is a Classic indeed.

Ruiz de Burton, María Amparo. Who Would Have Thought It? 1872. New York: Penguin, 2009.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on October 30th, 2009 |No Comments »

2009 Book Awards Roundup

‘Tis the season for book awards. Below is a list of the major awards, mostly for literatures in English. Where winners have been announced, I’ve included them, but the lists of award finalists are great places to find new avenues for reading.

• American Booksellers Association: Indies Choice Book Awards

Caldecott Medal

2009 Winner: The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Beth Krommes (Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Commonwealth Writer’s Prize

2009 Regional Winners: Mandla Langa, The Lost Colours of the Chameleon (Africa); Marina Endicott, Good to a Fault (Canada and Caribbean); Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth (Europe and South Asia); Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (East Asia and South Pacific)
• Man Asian Literary Prize: 2009 Finalists
2009 Winner: Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall
• National Book Award: 2009 Finalists
2009 winner: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean (HarperCollins)

Nobel Prize

2009 winner: Herta Müller (See Tim Morris’ previous post on this selection.)

Pen/Faulkner Award

2009 winner: Joseph O’Neill, Netherland

Pulitzer Prize

2009 winners: Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge (Fiction); Lynn Nottage, Ruined (Drama); W.S. Merwin, The Shadow of Sirius (Poetry)

And, while not strictly a book award, I must add a link to one of my favorite sites: The Book Design Review, which surveys book covers and overall design. While they haven’t yet listed the best for 2009, you can examine the favorites for 2008 — amazing works of art!

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on October 26th, 2009 |1 Comment »

Halloween

My favorite Halloween poem by one of my favorite poets:

All Saints Eve
- Bruce Bond

Here where the last of October tears
at the tiny hinges of its great machine,
where all the ten thousand TV’s stare
dazed as clear stones, lit with some bad dream
or other, some gang hit or dilapidated
condo, the fatal rubble of a ground floor,
we dress up our children like the dead,
though no one in particular, and scatter
them down the dark street. It’s all a bit
too exciting, the shakiness of the dear
earth beneath them. You can see them skip
with pure white greed, expectant. It’s nearly
criminal, this heaven—ah, to be young
and dead again. Go on, let your TV flicker
behind you. With every hungry bag they open,
a few sins fall in, the sweets they die for.

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on October 23rd, 2009 |No Comments »

Words we use thinking we know what they mean when in fact they mean something quite different

Apologies for the long title, which is almost a post in itself. I wish there were a word (and there probably is) for the linguistic category I want to discuss: those words that we use thinking we know what they mean only to find out, sometimes after many years and multiple degrees, that they mean something quite different. I am not referring here to malapropisms: comedic confusion of one, generally multisyllabic, word for another. Uttering a malapropism involves substituting one word for another with a similar sound, thereby generating a humorous and nonsensical sentence. I am also not talking about faux amis, those words in two languages that sound similar but have different meanings, such as embarrassed in English and embarazada in Spanish. No, what I have in mind is something more sinister: words that we trust, and that we have good reason to think mean what we think they mean, but that turn out not to be our friends at all.

For me, one such word was malinger. For years I thought that this word meant “serious and longlasting” in reference to an illness, when in fact it means, in the words of the OED, “To pretend or exaggerate illness in order to escape duty or work; to feign or produce physical or psychological symptoms to obtain financial compensation or other reward.”

Really, though, my supposition about malinger made sense. I had read it literally as a compound of mal and linger, and thus produced my definition. According to the OED, mal in malinger is probably the negative prefix derived from French and ultimately Latin, but in this case it is compounded with “heingre, haingre thin, emaciated.” Thus the meaning has nothing to do with lingering, although the form of the word probably is influenced by linger. None of this would have helped if I had ever solicitously said to a colleague or associate, “Oh dear, I’m so sorry to hear of your malingering illness.”

Had I been a Renaissance spelling reformer or an eighteenth-century grammarian, though, my mis-definition could have had much larger consequences. They didn’t always get their etymologies right either. Take island, for instance. Ever wondered why it has an s in it? Renaissance spelling reformers mistakenly thinking it descended ultimately from Latin insula, and so concerned about signaling this etymology that they stuck the s in. In fact island came from a perfectly good Old English word, igland (pronounced eelond), which was doing just fine without the s. (Such smug meddling has of course made spelling bees a lot more challenging).

I don’t remember if I have ever used the term malinger in speech or in writing; it’s not a term that comes up a lot (with either the correct or my erroneous definition). But finding out that you have been cherishing a word with the wrong meaning is a big shock (it’s okay, I’ve known for a while, and so I’m over the worst of it). Frankly it makes you wonder about all the others.

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on October 20th, 2009 |1 Comment »

Whither the Nobel Prize in Literature?

muellerLast week, the German-speaking, Romanian-born novelist Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I had never heard of Herta Müller, which is not very surprising. If all the great world writers I’ve never heard of were laid end to end, they would reach from here to Romania.

But come to find that nobody I talked to that day had heard of Herta Müller, including our Europhile ENGL 3362 “History of World Lit II” instructors here at UTA. The UTA Library holds none of her works, only a couple of which are available in English translation even in the UK. My hopes of reading a few Herta Müller novels on the fly and composing a learned blog post on her achievement were dashed. This isn’t just a writer obscure to me; this is a writer obscure to everyone outside of a few corners of Europe.

euckenWell, that’s OK too. After all, the Swedish Academy kicked off the Literature Prize over a century ago by giving it to people like Rudolf Christian Eucken, when they could have given it to Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, or Henrik Ibsen. Hey, Eucken, you just won the Nobel Prize! Think you could buy a hairbrush?

More troubling to red-blooded Americanists was that the Prize, for the 16th year in a row, eluded U.S. writers. Only three English-language writers from the U.S. have won the Nobel Prize in my lifetime (Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, and John Steinbeck). Several American emigré writers (writing in European languages, naturally) have won it. But even at that, Vladimir Nabokov didn’t, possibly because he went too native in his adoptive United States.

The Academy is getting self-conscious about its Eurotrend. Chairman Peter Englund admitted that the Prize has become “Eurocentric”, reversing course from his predecessor Horace Engdahl, who disparaged American literature because American writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” (Some of us would say that American writing becomes more valuable the more it engages our mass culture, but YMMV.)

harper_leeIs any living American writer really a major world literary figure? The two most durable living American classics are Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger, but the Prize is not likely to go to writers (a) known for a slim œuvre or (b) unlikely to turn up in Stockholm and make a nice acceptance speech.

albeeThe most widely-performed living American playwright is probably Edward Albee, who would be a respectable Nobelist. Our most distinguished living poet is perhaps Adrienne Rich, who would make Stockholm a bully pulpit; but one wonders if anyone in Scandinavia has ever heard of her. Our greatest living fiction writer . . . I might say Tim O’Brien, though the larger consensus would argue for Philip Roth. Again, I doubt anyone in Sweden has heard of O’Brien, but Roth is known worldwide and often touted for the Nobel Prize. I guess Roth’s problem is exactly what Horace Engdahl was talking about. Roth’s books are about (among other things) baseball, radio, pornography, stamp collecting, and in one notorious instance, an enormous human breast.

mosleyI’m tempted to make a Nobel case for Philip Roth just out of pop-culture solidarity, but my patience with his shtick is thin enough that I hesitate. Still less do I think that Joyce Carol Oates, the most prolific of highbrow U.S. novelists, has written anything prizeworthy. Louise Erdrich? One of her best books is called The Bingo Palace. I like Don DeLillo, but there you go again: football, baseball, the JFK assassination, paranoid fears of airborne toxic events. I would love to see the British-born emigré Oliver Sacks win the Prize, but authors of bestsellers made into Robin Williams movies are, sad to say, never going to be tapped. Nor can I imagine that Walter Mosley, a gifted writer in various modes, is ever going to win: no detective novelist need apply. And it goes without saying that Bob Dylan is not on the shortlist. Yucky mass culture!

haruki_murakamiPerhaps the Eurocentricity of the Nobel Prize has hurt no American writers. But it has kept the spotlight from African, Asian, and Latin American writers who richly deserve it. The next few Nobel Prizes should go to Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Haruki Murakami, Ma Jian, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes, in whatever order seems to maximize their chances of staying alive till they’ve all won.

Barring that, I look forward to learning more about the obscurer writers of Central Europe.

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on October 15th, 2009 |4 Comments »

Your Brain On Literature

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Last week the New York Times reported a recent study on brain function published in the journal Psychological Science. This study, conducted by Travis Proulx from the University of California, Santa Barbara and Steven J. Heine from University of British Columbia, sought to examine how the brain responds to unusual, surprising, or disturbing experiences – the kind of experiences that would provoke sensations of shock, fear, or unease.

According to the New York Times,

Researchers have long known that people cling to their personal biases more tightly when feeling threatened. After thinking about their own inevitable death, they become more patriotic, more religious and less tolerant of outsiders, studies find. When insulted, they profess more loyalty to friends — and when told they’ve done poorly on a trivia test, they even identify more strongly with their school’s winning teams.

Proulx and Heine’s research suggests that the brain functions, in part, by turning disorder and danger into order and normalcy.

The brain evolved to predict, and it does so by identifying patterns. When those patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.

What’s interesting about this study was the mechanism that Proulx and Heine employed to test their theories. If you want to replicate, in a controlled environment, the experience of being destabilized, disturbed, shaken out of your sense of normalcy and complacency, where do you turn? To literature, of course.

Proulx and Heine’s study consisted of having college students read a particularly strange and challenging story, Franz Kafka’s “The Country Doctor.”

After the story, the students studied a series of 45 strings of 6 to 9 letters, like “X, M, X, R, T, V.” They later took a test on the letter strings, choosing those they thought they had seen before from a list of 60 such strings. In fact the letters were related, in a very subtle way, with some more likely to appear before or after others.
The test is a standard measure of what researchers call implicit learning: knowledge gained without awareness. The students had no idea what patterns their brain was sensing or how well they were performing.
But perform they did. They chose about 30 percent more of the letter strings, and were almost twice as accurate in their choices, than a comparison group of 20 students who had read a different short story, a coherent one.

In other words, as Proulx and Heine concluded, the experience of reading Kafka’s absurdist story had primed the student’s brains to make intuitive connections that would re-establish order to their worlds. (The researchers themselves wrote the “control story,” which they describe as a conventional version of Kafka’s story. Both stories are available online at:

http://www.psych.ubc.ca/~heine/ImplictLearningStoires.doc.)

Proulx and Heine’s findings will come as no surprise to students and teachers of literature, or to passionate readers and writers more generally. We have all had the experience of reading something that caught us completely by surprise, stirred us up, or awakened us to new ideas. But, I must quibble with two aspects of this study, based purely upon my own experience:

1) I disagree with the idea that it is only the “absurd” that would have this effect. Sometimes it does require works like Kafka’s or those by other modernist and post-modernist writers, to test our sense of the norms of literature and life. But, I am confident, it is not only these works that cause the reading brain to re-orient itself, to look for new patterns and meanings that were not visible before.

2) I also question the researchers’ conclusion that exposure to surprising, terrifying experiences inevitably causes us to recoil into a position of self-defense in which we “cling to [our] personal biases more tightly.” Rather, it seems equally probable (and, again, true to my own experience) that the reader would find something appealing or seductive about that which shocks and challenges. How else, I wonder, would we continue to develop new literatures, new forms of artistic expression, new identities, lifestyles, and politics, if we only retreated to the known when confronted with the unknown?

So, embrace the absurd, read something new, and watch those neural pathways grow.

– Desiree Henderson

Published in:Desiree Henderson |on October 11th, 2009 |No Comments »

The New Fabulists

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Does even the idea of reading one of those contemporary, New Yorker-ish short stories about yet another middle-aged couple with a wounded relationship make your eyes close and your snoring begin? Well what if a UFO suddenly landed in the pristinely-landscaped front yard of that middle-aged couple’s suburban New Jersey house? Or if a ghost suddenly turned up and impregnated the mild-mannered wife while the husband, unaware, kept right on sleeping? Or perhaps this family struggles through their marriage in a post-apocalyptic world where their slightly charred Colonial two- story is the only one left standing on their tree-lined block?

If reading genre gets you to stop snoring, but if (as a respectable literary type) you’ve always kept your hankering for aliens and zombies closeted, then maybe the new wave of “Fabulist” fiction is for you. The term comes from Bradford Morrow, novelist and editor of the literary journal “Conjunctions,” which has published stories by Robert Coover, William Gass, and Ben Marcus. “Fabulist Fiction” is a nod to the New-Wave science fiction movement of the 1960s and 1970s, where experimentalism in writing sought to create a new literary landscape. As Morrow puts it, “A new wave fabulist is a writer who has transcended the conventions of sci-fi and fantasy fiction, lifting the traditional genre form into a new literary realm. Any effort to narrow down the category much further than that would be like trying to nail a raindrop to the wall.”

As a fan of George Saunders, Angela Carter, Aimee Bender, Cormac McCarthy, and many other writers who have been blurring the line between literary fiction and genre fiction for many years now, I don’t quite know what makes this new “wave” different from the old wave (maybe the snazzy label?). Still, I’m thrilled to see all of the new anthologies coming out. Currently I’m reading McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon, and then I’ll probably move on to Kelly Link’s collection Magic For Beginners. There is also, apparently, an anthology of Caribbean Fabulist Fiction (Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root) and a Jewish mid rash collection (On Moonflowers and Magic).

Like many writing instructors, I’ve always steered my students away from genre fiction because each genre requires its own set of rules and methodologies.  But inspired by this new enthusiasm for genre-bending literary writing,  I have recently begun to allow genre stories in workshop because (I have finally realized) the rules seem to be the same for a fabulist short story as for a good ole, New Yorker-ish, taditional literary short story. Give me  precise prose, an interesting main character, and a compelling plot.  I don’t care what you call it.

-Laura Kopchick

Published in:Laura Kopchick |on October 8th, 2009 |1 Comment »

Knick Knack Know How

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Recently I have been spending a lot of time listening to nursery rhymes. It’s been at least three decades since I last paid attention to most of these songs, and I certainly didn’t notice the first time around how very odd many of them are. Take “It’s Raining, It’s Pouring,” for instance:

It’s raining; it’s pouring.

The old man is snoring.

He went to bed and he bumped his head,

And he wouldn’t get up in the morning.

Now maybe this old man just wasn’t a morning person, but it seems more likely that he has suffered some sort of terminal head trauma. Not that, present weather excluded, you get to sing this song much in Texas anyway. The persistently sunny climate just doesn’t lend itself to the sub-genre of nursery rhymes dealing with rain. These songs bespeak their origin in a damper, drearier clime, where you might want it to stop raining so that children may play. (“The Sun Has Got His Hat On” also doesn’t get much play here, since it seems to point out the blindingly obvious).

Even the less odd (or perhaps just more familiar) rhymes start to seem peculiar the more you think about them. Take “Humpty Dumpty,” for instance. As the song goes, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” Really, what help could a horse be expected to offer in such a situation of accidental dismemberment? In the absence of opposable thumbs (or even fingers), what were the horses trying to do? Nose Humpty back to his original wholeness?

But the undoubted winner of nursery rhyme weirdness is “This Old Man,” a careering, repetitive ditty featuring an ominous ancient who plays a wild game of “knick knack” on various objects and body parts. The questions raised by this narrative are multiple: Who is this old man? What is knick knack exactly? What is meant by “rolling home”? (it’s hard not to connote this latter as drunkenness).

The more you think about it, in fact, the more you find violence, excess, and ethnically inappropriate sentiments (Paddywhack, for instance) coursing through these songs. To be sure, they are vehicles that teach skills like counting and color recognition and, as such, perhaps it doesn’t really matter what their particular content is, as long as it has a good beat and you can dance to it. For the adult listener, however, these rhymes fascinate because a coherent and fully historicized interpretation seems to wait just around the corner, a reading that will explain away all their oddities and surprising juxtapositions. The history of scholarship on nursery rhymes has offered many such interpretations, probably the most well-known of which is the connection between “Ring a Ring o’ Roses” and the bubonic plague. According to this reading, the “roses” of the song refers to the rosy rash presaging the illness; the “posies” to the flowers or herbs carried because they were thought to ward off infection; “atishoo” to the sneezing symptom; and “all fall down” to the most likely outcome of contracting the plague.

Although most such specific historical readings of nursery rhymes have been discredited, especially since the majority of these songs were written down for the first time only in the late eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, the rhymes themselves continue to delight with their quirky, even post-modern lack of regard for realism, reason, and closure (Polly never gets her tea). They are a rare place of survival for what must be, in many cases, an ancient tradition that is still passed on orally, even in today’s highly literate culture. They allow you glimpses into the societies that originally produced them (I never heard “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” as a child, for instance, because it is an American song about American issues) but they never completely reveal themselves.

And what does this all have to do with English? In short, it reminds me that our subject is, well, the world—and that, for us, the pleasure and promise of a recalcitrant text is almost as great as belting out a round of “This Old Man” at the top of our lungs. Go on. Try it.

–Jackie Stodnick

Published in:Jackie Stodnick |on October 6th, 2009 |2 Comments »

Literary Triskaidekadecennary: Wallace Stevens

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American poet Wallace Stevens was born on 2 October 1879, which makes today his triskaidekadecennary. (Before you reach for your dictionary, I just made that word up. As a triskaidekaphile, I think there should be a lot more words for multiples of thirteen.)

Because he was born 130 years ago, not 65 years ago, Stevens never held an academic job in creative writing. While writing the most distinguished poetry of his generation, he had a a day job. His day job was “insurance lawyer.” His specialty was bonding – not the kind of bonding you do with the kids over BBQ and touch football, but the bonding that contractors do to make sure they pay attention to their contract. Stevens had the legal skills and the Sitzfleisch to rise to the top, becoming a vice president at The Hartford.

During business hours at The Hartford, Stevens was just Wally from the home office. But on his lunch hour, he would compose poems in his head. He’d have them typed, then slip them into a desk drawer. Other times, he’d think of titles for poems, much as you or I might think of names for garage bands. He’d slip the titles into another drawer. When the time came, he would grab a poem from one drawer and a title from the other. This helps explain why Stevens’s poems have titles like “Frogs Eat Butterflies. Snakes Eat Frogs. Hogs Eat Snakes. Men Eat Hogs” and “The Revolutionists Stop for Orangeade.”

His most famous poem is called, for no apparent reason, “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” It is about growing old, though Stevens was just a lad of 39 when it was published. Stevens thought in pictures and phrases, with no explanations attached:

The measure of the intensity of love
Is measure, also, of the verve of earth.
For me, the firefly’s quick, electric stroke
Ticks tediously the time of one more year.
And you? Remember how the crickets came
Out of their mother grass, like little kin,
In the pale nights, when your first imagery
Found inklings of your bond to all that dust.

He had a persistent theme: why be a poet if you’re on a one-way journey toward death? “A Postcard from the Volcano”:

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill.

Later he would say (of his own poems, perhaps):

It was not important that they survive.
What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament or character,

Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words,
Of the planet of which they were part.

“The Planet on the Table”

That’s why be a poet. Life, the universe, and everything.

In those days, you didn’t need a college degree to be admitted to the bar, and Stevens never earned a B.A. He studied at Harvard for three years, dropping out in 1900 when his family ran out of money. 110 years later, Wallace Stevens would be an attrition statistic. But Harvard was more concerned with educating whole people than meeting statistical benchmarks. His professors introduced him to literature, and Stevens began to write poetry at Harvard.

Nowadays, emerging research universities are tempted to remove the liberal-arts core from a college education. Meanwhile, “fast-track” degree plans strip away everything but the minimum of courses needed for degree production. But what if Wallace Stevens hadn’t taken literature at Harvard? What if his father had said, “I’m paying for pre-law, not for poetry! Get on the fast track and produce that degree!”

We can’t immediately measure the benefit of literature for college students. Some college administrators seem to think that literature is only in the curriculum to slow down business majors. But a literary education didn’t seem to hurt Wallace Stevens in the business world. And if you never study literature at all, what are your chances of growing old, rich both financially and intellectually?

—Tim Morris

Published in:Tim Morris |on October 2nd, 2009 |3 Comments »