Submitted by Jon Wiener on October 19, 2012 - 3:00am
Gore Vidal, who died in July, was one of our greatest novelists and essayists – and yet he never went to college. In a 2007 interview I asked him why not.
"I graduated from [Phillips] Exeter,” he explained, “and I was aimed at going to Harvard. Instead I enlisted in [the Navy] in 1943. When I got out, in '46, I thought, 'I’ve spent all my life in institutions that I loathe, including my service in the [Navy] of the United States.' I thought, 'Shall I go for another four years?'
"My first book was already being published" — it was the novel Williwaw, and it got good reviews. "I said ‘I'm going to be told how to write by somebody at Harvard.’ I said, 'This is too great a risk.' "
The audience of 2,000 at a book festival at the University of California at Los Angeles laughed and applauded.
"But I did go there to lecture," he added. "This was about '47 or '48. There was a big audience, and many of them were my classmates from Exeter, who were overage juniors and seniors in what looked to be their mid-forties. I came out cheerily, as is my wont, and I've never felt such hatred radiating. They’d all predicted my total failure, because I was not to go to Harvard and meet a publisher or an agent -- which is, I think, why they went."
But what about getting a college education? "I graduated from Exeter, and you really don’t need any more education after that," he replied, "unless you’re going to be a brain surgeon. I had read Plato and I had read Milton. I had read Shakespeare. I had had fair American history. And a lot of Latin. That’s all you need."
At another book event, this one on the University of Southern California campus, he arrived wearing a Harvard athletic letter jacket. He opened the event by explaining "I didn’t go to Harvard, but I have gone on, as you can see, to be a professor of Harvard. I was in a terrible movie in which I played a Harvard professor.”
The "terrible movie" was the 1994 film "With Honors." In it, a student finishing his senior thesis — Brendan Fraser -- finds it being held hostage by a homeless man — Joe Pesci — who ends up teaching him "a thing or two about real life." Vidal played the student’s faculty adviser, a conservative professor of government.
Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from?"
Vidal as the professor: "At Harvard we don't end our sentences with prepositions."
Homeless Man: "Which door do I leave from, asshole?"
The New York Times reviewer Caryn James called it "a half-baked movie" with a plot that "shouts cliché." However, James, added, "Gore Vidal is absolutely on target as Monty's priggish mentor.”
Two years earlier Vidal had gone to Harvard to give the prestigious Massey Lectures, for which he wrote a memoir about his early love of film. Vidal later recalled that, "When I gave the Massey Lectures at Harvard, I had mostly graduate students in the audience, Very bright. A great many Chinese from mainland China, who know a great bit more about American civilization than the locals know. So it was quite a treat talking to them.
"But I noticed something interesting whenever I took on a class at Harvard, undergraduate, postgraduate, whatever: no one ever mentioned a book, or a poem, or anything to do with literature.
"I finally broke the ice with my Chinese friends. I said, 'Has anybody here seen 'The Doors?’ " (The Oliver Stone film starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison.)
"Well the whole room fell apart. Everybody had seen 'The Doors.' I got away with an hour without having to do anything while they told me about 'The Doors.' "
If the student audience wasn’t engaged with the lectures, the critics loved the book of the lectures, which Harvard University Press published in 2004. The Atlantic called it "witty and sweepingly disrespectful." Michael Kammen, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described it as "vibrant" and compared it to Eudora Welty’s "wonderful" memoir One Writer’s Beginnings. And in the daily New York Times, reviewer Herbert Mitgang called the book "a small gem."
"On almost every page there is an observation worth admiring," he wrote, "whether it is about Hollywood and television, politics and history, or the paranoia and hypocrisy of the commercialized American dream."
In the 1960s Vidal had donated his papers to the University of Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, at a time when he was working primarily in theater, television, and film But in 2002 he transferred those papers and the rest of his archives to Harvard’s Houghton Library. That collection consists of 394 boxes, cartons, and film reels, and includes "drafts of GV's novels, theatrical plays, television scripts, screenplays, essays, poetry, short stories, and speeches," as well as legal records including files on the lawsuits William F. Buckley v. Gore Vidal and Gore Vidal v. Truman Capote.
So although Vidal did not start out at Harvard, his work, and the record of his life, ended up there.
In the early 1980s, I became friends with a student from the People’s Republic of China who was in the United States to do graduate work in English. He was roughly a decade older than me by the calendar, but a lifetime older in experience. He started school during the Cultural Revolution, when the curriculum had been “Mao in the morning, math in the afternoon.” Possibly it was the other way around, but that was the combination. As an adolescent, he was, like everyone of his generation, “sent down” to the countryside to “learn from the peasantry.” What he mainly learned, it sounded like, was not to idealize the peasants too much. “Some of them were really mean,” he said, without elaborating.
For there was only just so much he was willing to discuss. There was nothing gloomy about him, but he seemed to be making up for lost time. When we met, he was about halfway through reading every word Thoreau had ever put on paper -- an enterprise he pursued with admirable discipline, although (beginning at some point in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) diminishing enthusiasm. One day he seemed very excited by something, and it wasn’t Transcendentalism. He had been reading about some novels that were stirring up discussion back home. One of them was about some chapter in Chinese military history, which the author had narrated with more realism than certain critics thought healthy.
Others were defending the new spirit in the arts -- taking courage, presumably, from a recent official resolution on the country’s history that seemed to justify criticism and re-evaluation. My friend was on their side, as much as anyone could be while toiling in a grad student carrel for 80 hours a week. The sparks flying over theory in our seminar interested me a lot more than they did him. Even so, I knew that the stakes were a lot higher in the debates he was following. Everything about American literary culture was decidedly small beans by comparison.
Last week, the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Mo Yan, a novelist who began publishing in the early 1980s. It’s possible -- if not likely -- that he was one of the authors my friend was so excited by, almost 30 years ago. The early- to mid-1980s are now sometimes called a golden age or renaissance of Chinese literature. Mo Yan and my friend were born within two or three years of each other, at most, and the novelist describes throwing himself into writing fiction with what sounds like the absolute concentration that his peer was bringing to 19th-century American literature.
In China, Mo Yan's publisher has announced plans to bring out his collected works in 16 volumes. We’ll have a seventh volume of his fiction in English when the University of Oklahoma Press brings out his novel Sandalwood Death in January. Mo Yan is the first Chinese citizen to receive the award; the response within China is an understandable mixture of pride and irritation.
An article from the official news agency Xinhua quotes Chinese academics who identify a number of authors who ought to have won it in decades past. They exhibit a healthy disregard for the Swedish Academy as arbiter of an author’s world-class significance. (The Swedish committee’s choices for the literature award have at times been as dubious as its omissions are criminal.) Xinhua cites the argument of Zhang Hongsheng (dean of the literature department of the Communication University of China) that Mo Yan’s blend of “hallucinatory realism with folk tales … is more appealing to the taste of Western readers than the styles adopted by many of his peers.”
That may be, although Mo Yan has also enjoyed another great advantage over his colleagues that we’ll consider shortly. And whatever the reasons for his appeal abroad – beginning with the international acclaim for Red Sorghum (1987), a film based on his early novel of the same title – the award has only enhanced Mo Yan's reputation at home. After the announcement last week, his most recent novel jumped from 560th to 14th place on China’s Amazon site, and his work is selling out in stores there.
The only book by Mo Yan that I’ve read so far is Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, a collection of short fiction, while it’s his novels that are supposed to reveal the author in all his epic sweep. Even so, Mo Yan’s stories do corroborate Professor Zhang’s point about the Nobel laureate’s sensibility. While Mo Yan denies being influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the grounds for comparison are obvious. But it is -- to rework one of Deng Xiaoping’s expressions -- “ ’magical realism’ with Chinese characteristics”: the folkloric elements and supernatural events unfold in a landscape marked by real and recognizable political upheavals.
Mo Yan’s vision has a touch of the grotesque. There are vivid sensual descriptions (smells and textures defined so clearly that they seem real from half a globe away) and surreal twists, sometimes involving elements of visceral horror. A character in one story learns that his mother’s cataracts might improve if treated with the extract of an animal’s gall bladder – though he’s also told that one taken from a human body is much more effective, according to tradition. He is able to perform his filial duty thanks to the state execution of enemies of the people. But the result is something from an O. Henry ending.
But foreign influences or resonances only count for so much. Mo Yan’s tale seems to echo the work of Lu Xun -- perhaps the most canonical of 20th-century Chinese writers -- whose story “A Madman’s Diary” has a similar mixture of dark humor and grim irony. Or so it seemed to me, taking what amounted to a shot in the dark, given that my knowledge of modern Chinese literature is mainly limited to Lu Xun’s prose and Mao Zedong’s poetry. That guess seems confirmed by Shelley W. Chan’s A Subversive Voice in China: The Fictional World of Mo Yan (2010), which its publisher, Cambria Press, calls “the most comprehensive exposition of Mo Yan’s fiction in any language.” It is certainly the only book-length study in English, bringing together enough biographical and historical background to anchor its treatment of Mo Yan’s formal experiments and thematic preoccupations.
She notes that Mo Yan has often been called an experimental or avant-garde writer (even a postmodernist: in one novel, a character named “Mo Yan” hears from a half-crazy Ph.D. candidate in liquor studies who seeks help in publishing his short stories about certain horrific matters) but that he is not usually understood as a satirist. But in keeping with the outlook of satire at its most savage, Mo Yan creates a world in which all the absurd, cruel, or vicious parts of everyday life that we try to downplay are magnified and intensified until they become inescapable.The effect can elicit laughter or disgust, or both. It is a natural means to expressing social criticism, and Mo Yan's use of it calls to mind Jonathan Swift as well as Lu Xun.
Mo Yan combines this satirical outlook with one of “nostalgia for the past,” Chan writes, “complicated by his strong and sometimes scornful criticism of tradition.” Nostalgia is also complicated by the record of carnage left by foreign invasion, civil war, famine, and ideological campaigns. He is left “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present.”
The Nobel laureate must embody everything that worried the conservative Chinese critics whose articles my friend described in the early 1980s. No doubt there are still readers in China who turn away from his work with a sense that it represents the spiritual contamination created by foreign influences. But being “not only skeptical about history but also sardonic about the present” is the default mode for modern consciousness once sufficiently overwhelmed by available information about how things are. If Mo Yan is emerging as a figure in world literature, that may be part of it.
But as mentioned earlier, Mo Yan enjoys one benefit that has certainly helped him find a transational audience: the dedication of Howard Goldblatt, professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame from 2002-211, who has translated a great deal of contemporary Chinese fiction, including a number of Mo Yan’s novels.
A dozen years ago, World Literature Today (an indispensable journal published by the University of Oklahoma Press) published a special issue on Mo Yan that included the transcript of a talk he had given while visiting the United States. “Friends of mine who know both Chinese and English have told me that [Goldblatt’s] translations are on a par with my originals,” he said. “But I prefer to think they've made my novels better.” There may be more to that statement than exaggerated appreciation: an article in Translation Review points out that Goldblatt has, in consultation with the author, sometimes tightened up his novels with judicious editing, which Mo Yan himself has then incorporated into later editions of his work in China. When Goldblatt's translation of Sandalwood Death appears early next year, I hope we can run an interview in this column.
Until then, there is an off-chance that someone out there may know the whereabouts of my friend of three decades back. At last report, he had become deeply involved in support for the student movement in China, which meant that he lost his stipend after the Tiananmen Square massacre while also being unable to return to China. There seems to be no trace of him in the U.S. after 1989. It seems best for me not to give his name, but it would be great to get back in touch. Someone said that he translated "Civil Disobedience," and I'm hoping that's true.
“Why have you come here to study world literature?”
The answers are as diverse as the 100 participants in this month-long summer school. A philosophy student from New York wants to study literature through the lens of world-systems theory. Two Turkish students hope to look beyond the nationalist curriculum they were taught in college. An associate professor from Lisbon has been charged with starting a world literature program and needs institutional advice. An American student has become weary of postcolonial studies and is looking for alternatives. A Chinese postdoc based in Canada believes that studying literature across cultures will generate a new humanism. They may not agree on what world literature is, but they speak about it in a tone of authentic urgency I have not heard in a humanities context in a long time.
They are in the right place: Istanbul. Although the term "world literature" was coined by Goethe in 1827 in the small duchy of Weimar, it was developed in Istanbul during World War II by German Jews such as Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer who were seeking refuge from Hitler. After the war, they moved to the United States and took their version of world literature with them. It was in the United State that world literature took root during the Cold War, slowly turning a humanities education centered on the Western canon into a more global undertaking.
Having imported world literature, American institutions are now exporting it to the rest of the world, including Istanbul. Which is why we are sitting here, at Bilgi University at the end of the Golden Horn, under the auspices of a World Literature Institute, which is loosely anchored at Harvard University. We, that is, an international faculty originating in places like Romania, Brazil, Germany, and Cyprus, but based in American institutions or their global satellites, such as NYU-Abu Dhabi. Bilgi University itself is an example of a similar process. Originally a private university financed by a Turkish businessman with ties to leftist dissidents, it is now part of a U.S.-based for-profit company, Laureate Education, that runs educational programs worldwide.
World literature isn’t just something that Istanbul imports, of course. The two chairs of comparative literature here at Bilgi University, Jale Parla and Murat Belge, have been stalwarts of a non-nationalist approach to literature, often against much opposition.
But the star of the summer session is Orhan Pamuk, something of a poster child of the new world literature. His international success, crowned by the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, catapulted him into the rarified stratosphere of global authorship where novels are published simultaneously in many languages and distributed to a global readership. This success has led to a nationalist backlash, with some Turkish readers fearing that he no longer writes for them. Pamuk is irked when accused of writing for a global authorship only, just as he is irked when his novels are approached as postcolonial literature. "Turkey has never been colonized," he pointed out to Gayatri Spivak in Istanbul in 2009, and reminds everyone of the history of the Ottoman Empire, whose demise modern Turkey still mourns. All this is tailor-made for the new world literature studies, which focuses on global prizes, distribution, and translation, as well as a deep history of empires, including non-Western ones.
Although Pamuk had to leave Istanbul for a number of years because right-wing thugs were threatening to kill him for defaming Turkishness, he has since returned to his home city with a vengeance. As if to make an indelible mark here, he has just opened a museum near his office apartment in a bourgeois-bohemian part of Istanbul. "The Museum of Innocence is not an Orhan Pamuk museum," he tells the summer school participants during a dialogue with David Damrosch, the school’s founder and my Harvard colleague. Instead, he explains that it is an extension of the fictional universe created in his last novel by the same title, in which an obsessive lover collects objects belonging to or associated with his beloved and exhibits them to the reader as if giving a tour of an imaginary museum.
We are taken on a tour of the actual Museum of Innocence by Pelin Kivrak, one of the many artists, artisans, and assistants who have helped Pamuk realize this museum over the course of many years. Some of the objects came from his own collection of '50s memorabilia, others had to be bought at antique shops. Made-up brands had to be manufactured especially for the museum. The objects are displayed in removable wooden cases that are artfully stacked, reminiscent perhaps of Joseph Cornell boxes. Except that here, you are wandering amidst objects and scenes animated by a novel, which in turn is animated by the idea of a museum. In fact Pamuk conceived of both, the museum and the novel, simultaneously; the museum just took much longer to complete. “Writing a novel is difficult,” Pamuk observes in a conversation with me, “but it is nothing compared to creating a museum.”
Now that it is finally finished, the museum is reshaping the city. The most visible sign of this are the six or seven street signs placed across Istanbul pointing to the museum, in both Turkish and English. The museum is hidden away in a maze of small streets, without a large banner on the outside. The signs actually don’t help much in finding it, but they announce its presence elsewhere in the city. In addition, the museum radiates outwards to the fancy neighborhood in which the novel begins and where Pamuk grew up. Kirvak, the assistant who helped finish the museum, has started to offer tours in which events from this and other novels by Pamuk are explained. The museum, the signs, and the city tours are ways for Pamuk to take back the city that he had been forced to leave, imposing on it his own type of world literature.
Pamuk plays a significant role in the summer school, but the best seminar session focuses on Goethe. To say that Goethe coined the term "world literature" is perhaps an exaggeration: he dropped it casually in conversation late in his life. By that time he had been doing world literature as a reader, translator and writer for decades. One of the Chinese students had studied his engagement with Chinese novels and his translation of a poem embedded in one of them: “an active re-creation,” she called it. A professor of German was interested in the ways in which Goethe used older literary forms, culled from world literature including the classical Sanskrit play Shakuntala by Kalidasa, the framing encounter between God and the devil from Job, and Greek tragedy. We talk about his “West-Eastern Divan,” the poetry collection that Goethe considered his literary response to his “brother” Hafez.
The most important ingredient of Goethe’s practice of world literature, however, was travel. In his late thirties, he undertook his two-year long trip through Italy, which culminated in Sicily. Goethe was drawn to the remnants of the classical past, but he also studied rock formations, the river system, and soil conditions. Traveling to Sicily, he noted in his travelogue, was the best commentary on Homer.
World literature needs to be studied on location, Goethe is telling us, and this is what we are doing here, in Istanbul, the city that keeps haunting world literature to this day. If traveling to Sicily is the best commentary on Homer, then traveling to Istanbul is the best commentary on world literature. Thanks to Pamuk, the museum, and the city tours, as well as the international participants, Goethe was right.
What is so fraught as the choice of the freshman reading selection -- the one book that must engage and inspire all incoming students? The single defining text that says, "Welcome to your new world -- a world of joy and sorrow, of new experiences, of possibility." The one book that representatives of anywhere from four to 40 disciplines, in hours of meetings, must agree upon. The one text that will encompass all aspects of the oft-revised mission statement and will guarantee an unprecedentedly high rate of retention.
First-year committees might be tempted to take a page, or freeze frame, from a neighboring college of mine, and choose a film for the required text, but that just seems wrong, and so on we go, in fear and trembling, confident that this time we will find the one perfect book.
We had tried this once before, several years ago. The initial goal was to agree upon a book by a woman about women (we are a women’s college -- at least by day); the final compromise was A River Runs Through It: a novella by a man about two men and fly fishing.
After abandoning the idea of a common reading experience for three years, the college decided to try again. The first-year program was high on the list of projects in the new(est) strategic plan, and the search for the perfect book was at the center. This time, the selection was to encompass five areas: leadership, civic engagement, global awareness, health and wellness, and career choices. After many lengthy debates on texts ranging from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed to Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones to mythology (“The subject is WOMAN,” its advocate proclaimed), the winner was announced: Our students’ reading experience would be This I Believe.
This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women is a compilation of radio essays from both Edward R. Murrow’s 1950s program and NPR’s revival beginning in 2005 -- the authors/readers are a mix of “famous” and “ordinary.” My school isn’t alone in this choice: This I Believe may soon, if it hasn’t already done so, overtake Mitch Album’s Tuesdays With Morrie. Another positive point for this choice is that careless young students may inadvertently purchase not Jay Allison and Don Gediman’s book but instead Carlos Fuentes’ memoir, This I Believe: An A to Z of a Life.
I don’t have anything against the book. I enjoy reading short prose pieces and listening to them on the radio. (But then I also read around 100 full-length books each year, as well.) And it’s difficult to argue with a sample premise like “I believe in empathy” -- the line is from Azar Nafisi’s “Mysterious Connections That Link Us All Together” -- which is certainly important; besides, it would be churlish -- and downright unempathetic -- not to agree.
But why not put Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, with all of its connections -- instead of this radio spot -- into our students’ hands? It’s possible to argue that such a compilation exposes students -- quickly -- to a whole chorus of voices. And that is true. There’s a cacophony of voices here, on a wide range of subjects -- from the pizza dude to God; from the virtues of morning prayer to the virtues of barbecue. And any one of these entries can be consumed and digested in far less time than the 15 minutes of fame that Warhol prophesied for everyone. Skimming the table of contents is like surfing the web.
Now, not only do I enjoy reading short prose pieces in between longer works, but I also enjoy writing them and have even written and read one for the local public radio station, for a spot called “Change Is in the Air.” The biggest challenge in writing that particular essay -- a valentine for my students -- was cutting my material down to 350 words. The subject of brevity came up very early in the list of reasons that the co-chair of the committee had for choosing This I Believe: as she reminded us, our students don’t like to read.
The response here should be twofold: (1) Ah, but college is just the place to disabuse them of that notion, and (2) I have years of observational evidence to support the idea that you can help students learn to like reading. The other two reasons were the book’s emphasis on leadership, the definition of which we have struggled mightily with ever since it appeared in the mission statement (oh, for the relatively uncomplicated days of critical thinking -- and for the even earlier days preceding the mania for mission statements), and the idea that it would lend itself to a writing assignment that asks students to write their own “This I Believe” pieces.
But what I believe is that there are far better writing exercises. Indeed, if you teach freshman writing classes, or any upper-level writing classes, you are already aware that most of your students will do their best to wrench any topic around to the subject of just what it is they believe. No, a much better exercise would be to attempt to understand what someone else believes.
And a much better reading choice would be a novel or a full-length work of nonfiction. Why not make a sustained reading experience the first lesson of college? There is something engaging, enthralling, and perhaps even transforming about the experience of being swept away by the arc of a sustained narrative.
If we are going to use the freshman text to teach anything, perhaps it should be this: let’s help students realize for themselves what Mel Rusnov says at the end of her entry in This I Believe, “The Artistry in Hidden Talents”: “I believe we are transformed and connected by the power and beauty of our creativity.”
There’s another reason to choose a full-length work. With cuts in classes -- cuts in humanities courses that served not just English majors but all majors -- students have fewer and fewer opportunities for exposure to literature. If the first-year experience is going to be not only the first, but perhaps one of the last, sustained reading experiences our college students have, then let’s not allow the dialogue to end here, with bytes and mantras.
In the meantime, I have, I believe, found the perfect text for the entering students of fall 2012: Tina Fey’s Bossypants. It’s by a woman -- one who has succeeded in an area that has been far tougher for women than men to break into. It’s 273 pages, but it does include a good number of photographs, which should satisfy the advocates for brevity. It’s very funny -- and reminds us that we can make serious points without being solemn; it’s a nice model of autobiographical writing that isn’t solipsistic; and it even has some (very) wise advice about being a leader, which begins, of course, with hard work.
Carolyn Foster Segal
Carolyn Foster Segal is a professor of English at Cedar Crest College.
In his autobiography, Henry Adams recounts the impact of visiting one part of the Great Exhibition held in Paris in 1900. A friend took Adams to the hall where the new motors were displayed. They were interesting enough, and the prospect of automobiles going 200 kilometers (about 124 miles) per hour certainly worrying to contemplate. But what really absorbed Adams’s attention was the sight of a dynamo.
For his mechanically minded friend, “the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight….” The impact on Adams, by contrast, was something like a religious experience.
Writing about himself in the third person, the historian says: “[T]o Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring….” At the cusp of the 20th century, Adams was becoming aware of new energies being summoned -- radioactivity, electromagnetism, who knows what. “He lost his arithmetic,” Adams writes, “in trying to figure out the equation between the discoveries and the economies of force.”
What part does literature play in our own efforts to reckon with “economies of force” now? In her editor’s column for the new issue of the Modern Language Association’s flagship journalPMLA, Patricia Yeager poses the question as a program for a new sort of cultural analysis. (Or a renewed sort, I suppose, if you grant that Adams was way ahead of things.)
“Instead of divvying up literary works into hundred-year intervals (or elastic variants like the long eighteenth or twentieth century),” asks Yeager, “or categories harnessing the history of ideas (Romanticism, Enlightenment), what happens if we sort texts according to the energy sources that made them possible?”
Here, the expression “energy sources” is not a metaphor for social or psychological factors, but quite literal. Following the opening reflections by Yeager, who is a professor of English and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, PMLA runs half a dozen short articles by contributors looking into the fueling of textual machines -- the role of wood and tallow in Shakespeare, for example, or that of coal in any Milton, Zola, and Orwell.
The symposium appears just as gas prices are going down – a development no poet laureate is likely to celebrate, and not just because they are bound to go back up again. The use of fuel seldom comes up, as such, as the central concern of the literary imagination. (A notable exception being Upton Sinclair, whose novels include King Coal and Oil!) References to energy are more often woven into narrative and imagery of a text, rather than foregrounded. Only through close reading do they come into focus as carrying assumptions or implications that may resonate with the more overt concerns of a literary work.
A good example is Caliban’s first line in The Tempest. When summoned by his master Prospero, he responds, with irritation: “There’s wood enough within.” (In other words, "Don't tell me to go fetch wood. I already did and you have plenty.") In a short piece called “Wooden Slavery,” Vin Nardizzi unpacks the implications of this line if we read it as part of the final period of “the age of wood” – an expression from environmental, not literary, history. The age of wood, Nardazzi says “names a swath of time that stretches from prehistory to the second half of the eighteenth century,” after which “coal generally replaced charcoal (an energy source plucked from the ashes of cone-shaped piles of lumber that had been charred) in industrial iron making and fuelwood in homes.”
While critics in the 20th century became very interested in the dynamics between Prospero and Caliban -- reading them as archetypes of the colonizer and the native -- it was also a “power” relationship in another sense. One uses a fuel source necessary for the functioning of everyday life. The other accumulates it. (Caliban’s role as wood-gatherer is also stressed in later scenes.) Furthermore, the seemingly casual references to wood take on greater significance given the energy crisis of Shakespeare’s day. “Prices for this staple good were accelerating when The Tempest was first performed,” writes Nardizzi, “and polemics describing an unremedied shortage predicted ecopolitical collapse. In a pamphlet contemporaneous with the play, Arthur Standish articulates the potential fallout: ‘no wood no Kingdome.’ ”
Apart from its role as fuel, of course, wood was necessary for building, say, theaters and ships. (But not, as you might expect, for papermaking, which mostly involved recycling old rags. It would be another two centuries before wood was used.) This naturally raises the question of how Shakespeare’s audience would have responded to the image of an island in the New World where the resource was plentiful. (A fuel for colonial desire, so to speak.) In an endnote, Nardizzi, an assistant professor of English at the University of British Columbia, mentions that he is at work on a manuscript called “Evergreen Fantasies: Shakespeare’s Theatre in the Age of Wood.”
Historicizing explicit references to fuel in a text is one way to thinking about literature and energy. Another is to consider how abundance is taken for granted. In her column, Yeager notes that she became interested in the topic while reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, that classic American novel of picaresque cross-country adventure in the age of big cars and low gas mileage.
Thirty years since reading it, my recollection is that Kerouac’s characters were preoccupied with getting high and getting laid, rather than with getting a fill-up. Fuel, at least, was easy to come by. This is one of many things about the book that make it look less like a challenge to the postwar American cultural mainstream than its hepped-up underside. “Certainly Kerouac’s characters are gasoholics,” writes Yeager. “Oil dependency created their world; each city, suburb, truck stop, and bite of pie depends on Standard Oil, Shell, Mobilgas, or Phillips 66.”
But the novel also contains images of plentiful resources turning into pollution, as when Kerouac’s narrator evokes “the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent; somewhere far across [which], gloomy, crazy New York was throwing up its cloud of dust and brown steam.” Encountering an abandoned filling station while on an empty tank is no source of wild kicks. “Is there an energy unconscious at work in this text?” the critic asks. “Are the gas station’s empty pumps a premonitory metaphor for resource anxiety….[o]r is an empty gas station just am empty gas station -- the halted traveler’s bad luck, the writer’s reality effect?”
At the end of her column, Yeager calls for essays and proposals for “a book on literature, energy, and the ways in which thinking about energy sources might transform our notions of literary periods.” She is editing with Imre Szeman, a professor of English and film studies at the University of Alberta. The symposium in PMLA is intended as something of a catalyst.
The whole enterprise intrigued me -- for one, as a reader of Henry Adams, as well as his brother Brooks Adams, who developed his own distinctive analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations as a matter of the concentration and diffusion of energy. It also seems in keeping with the spirit of the American thinker Kenneth Burke (a pioneer of ecocriticism) who defined literature as one form of “equipment for living.” I prefer to think of literary texts as motors plugged into a power grid, rather than as “monuments of unaging intellect.”
Unable to reach Yeager after reading the symposium, I did have a discussion by e-mail with Szeman. They don’t have a publisher for the book lined up, but he doesn’t seem unduly worried about finding one.
The main thing I wondered was how serious they were about using energy sources as a basis for cultural periodization. It might work as an initial, more or less heuristic approach to rethinking how we look at the embeddedness of the literary imagination in society. One book on Shakespeare and the Age of Wood might be interesting, but two would probably represent an unfortunate trend.
For some reason, I kept imagining future sessions at the MLA convention full of people like you sometimes run into at the Library of Congress snack bar -- the ones clutching notebooks full of evidence that the Cold War was about the control of potassium deposits. Critical pluralism is a fine thing, but you do worry sometimes.
“I think we're more interested in the thematization of energy in literature and culture than in periodization,” wrote Szeman in reply. “When we use centuries, periods defined by monarchies, national divisions, etc., we make a claim on what we imagine organizes and shapes cultural expression. Our question: if, in the last instance, the kinds of forms of energy to which human communities have access shape cultural expression, and if our literary analysis was therefore organized around energy, how would this change how (and why) we analyze literary expression?”
Reading the spontaneous human combustion of Mr. Krook in Bleak House as part of the Age of Tallow -- as Laurie Shannon does in her PMLA essay -- would be an example of what Szeman calls “a thought-experiment on an alternate way of organizing literary analysis in order to challenge existing presumptions about periods and to point to what might be missing in the (still) accepted temporal and spatial taxonomies.”
The whole enterprise is also a byproduct of a kind of reversal. Henry Adams strained to imagine the incredible expansion of the “economies of force” about to overtake the world. He could hardly foresee the growth of appetite for that energy -- let alone, as we must, the prospect of exhausting it.
I am writing this article, and you are reading it, on streams of electricity. Most of us think about electricity only when the circuit goes dead. The rest of the time, it is an invisible necessity -- increasingly presupposed by literary culture itself, at least in what is sometimes called the world’s “overdeveloped” economies. And in a way, this may be the next step for the critical project of analyzing literature’s “energy unconscious”: thinking about what happens to reading when the written word itself depends on raw power.
Several years ago I started asking students in my composition classes to compose entries for Wikipedia. Most of my students were familiar with Wikipedia as the most popular link at the top of a Web page after a Google search. But my purpose in bringing Wikipedia in to the classroom was not to use Wikipedia as a reference source; instead, I sought to bring a more authentic, immediate audience for student writing.
A little more than two years ago, this publication gave the story of the then typical higher education reaction to the use of Wikipedia in student writing, entitled “A Stand Against Wikipedia.” The story was centered on Middlebury's history department, but it could have spoken for academe's attitude in general. The message from faculty was clear: “Students, you cite Wikipedia at your peril.” While the article was nuanced enough to report that there was no outright ban of Wikipedia, but rather more a word of caution to students who didn't seem to understand the difference between a reviewed source and an open source -- or even an encyclopedia and primary source -- it elicited capricious screeds from readers like “Jim”:
BRAVO!!! I stand up and applaud at the professors who discourage Wikipedia being used. They are [sic] NOT, repeat, NOT, a valid source! They [sic] are loaded with so much wrong information, you would stand a better chance asking a complete stranger on the street about the same topic [. . .] As my students will tell you, if you site [sic] Wikipedia on ANY assignment, you WILL receive an F! Plus, I will take a point away for each source listed. Not only do you fail that assignment - you do get a chance to make up, but at a lower grade, but your overall grade will drop one point for each source you took from Wikipedia! We need to stand together, and teach these kids not to believe what just ANYONE tells them, including Wikipedia articles!
My purpose here is not to debate with Jim whether or not Wikipedia is an accurate resource. For those who are interested in that topic, I would refer you to the Naturestudy which found that while Wikipedia was less accurate that Encyclopædia Britannica online in its science entries, the aggregate difference in accuracy was not so large as to rule out the use of Wikipedia as a valid source for most readers (and there is no debate that Wikipedia is a vastly more comprehensive source and better able to update itself). No matter how counter-intuitive it might seem that an open source which anyone can edit would provide, on the whole, useful information, it is simply the case. And accepting the fact that a completely open source could render useful information is the price of admission for the ideas which will follow in this article. Useful information for a heart surgeon about to operate on you? Certainly not. Useful information for a general introduction to a topic? Certainly so.
Jim's reaction is fruitful to us as teachers in higher education because it provides a clearer picture of what the college classroom looks like for a contemporary student, who must use the wide range of information tools available to us all in a networked society. A few simple notions of information literacy could handle this teaching moment - such as explaining the role and nature of an encyclopedic source in a student research paper - but Jim's reaction is akin to decrying the advent of the telephone. Clearly, students shouldn't use telephones, since inaccurate information could be passed on them. We'll just ban the use of telephones in gathering information for our courses, penalize our students for using them, and later wonder why they seem under-prepared to succeed in a world dependent on the use of telephones. One can scarcely imagine the cognitive dissonance Internet native students still suffer in higher education, but comments like Jim's help us understand just how bad the problem might be.
While Jim's statement is indicative of how we have previously conceptualized the use of Wikipedia in the classroom, a little more than a year later another article appeared herein as a better indicator of where we might be headed. Mark A. Wilson penned “Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia,” an article which understood Wikipedia as an online intellectual exchange. Acknowledging Wikipedia's challenges with verifying the accuracy and relevance of contributions, Wilson encouraged scholars to join Wikipedia's online intellectual community to broaden and sharpen its discourse.
I write today, however, to ask you to consider making Wikipedia a project not only for the teachers of higher education, but for your students as well. In 2004, I started asking students in my composition classes to write for Wikipedia and developed an assignment I still use today. Working in teams or alone, students choose a film page for editing. Before they begin writing to Wikipedia, however, we use a series of low-stakes writing assignments to learn about the “discourse community.” We learn about the five pillars of Wikipedia, we read the Wikipedia film style guide, and we consider how we will react if our contributions are removed or criticized.
With an understanding of what kinds of knowledge “count” in Wikipedia, and what might improve a particular film page, we then compose contributions to individual pages. As a class we then observe how Wikipedians react to our contributions and get advice from each other to develop effective rhetorical strategies before we respond to our audience online. Lastly, students are asked to compose an essay where they reflect on the experience of writing for this large audience, and how the experience fails or succeeds in helping them to develop their writing skills. Their grade is determined mainly by their participation in these offline writing assignments, and not the text contributed to Wikipedia itself. (For those who are interested, the theory and practice of these writing assignments are more fully outlined in my new book, Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia.)
Teaching writing with Wikipedia has several advantages which serve to complement the traditional college essay. When teaching writing with Wikipedia, the audience is real and, often, writes back immediately.
One of the foremost problems in teaching writing in the college classroom is helping students gain a more profound concept of audience. Trained for years to write answers to short questions in text books, while writing fewer and fewer essays in high school, students often come to college first-year composition without much appreciation for the fact that real humans read their writing. Wikipedia changes this writing environment, and students are often shocked when Wikipedians respond to their contributions with a critical eye. Sometimes those responses are polite, and sometimes, not, but they are mostly accurate and engaging.
This puts the writing teacher in the role of assisting students in making meaning for an audience with their text - something surprisingly elusive. Teaching writing for Wikipedia audiences points up the fact that the standard arrangement in the writing classroom, where the teacher stands in as a surrogate for a fictional, idealized, audience, is painfully inauthentic and yields predictable results. I can tell students that they should not write for me personally, but as long as I alone evaluate their writing, I cannot remove my subjectivity entirely from the assessment process - and they know this. Which explains why, when my writers find out I am a Red Sox fan, essays on the merits of Georgia's HOPE scholarship might include casual references to Big Papi or Josh Beckett.
Of course, not all of the assignments in my class are based in electronic networks. Many students need the one-on-one framework of the writing teacher alone reading his or her work before the challenge of a larger audience, and there will always be a role in the writing classroom for writing topics which are more abstract than the audience of Wikipedia would want to read. Thus assignments during the semester are ordered so as to increase the number of readers in the audience for the students' work, starting with the only the writing teacher and ending with the world.
Wikipedia writing assignments also offer us the chance to consider student writers' responsibilities in topic selection. Most traditional writing assignments are narrowly prescribed, and would make little sense to readers beyond the classroom who didn't have access to assigned readings and or academic questions. Wikipedia writing assignments require greater autonomy. Students are asked to translate their knowledge for a general audience. Making this connection involves “laziness” (to appropriate a term from hacking culture), or the ability to identify our individual passions within the framework of the project's needs. For example, students who write for Wikipedia film pages as described above are free to write on most any film, but they have to also evaluate the needs of the Wikipedia page with very specific measures before writing. Wikipedia writing assignments are therefore more honest; rather than handing writers a set of constraints for composition, such as compare and contrast the role of melancholy in “The Raven” to “A Cask of Amontillado,” writers have to think through what an audience might want to know about a given topic.
Composition assignments in Wikipedia frame writing as a collaborative practice hosted within a network. This arrangement seems much more predictive of the environment our students will find themselves writing in after they leave the composition classroom, both in later college courses (as they collaborate across networks with fellow students in coursework) or in the workplace (as they collaborate with co-workers to prepare reports, proposals, or Web pages).
What's more, writers in electronic networks learn to write in an environment where their creativity is the scarcest resource. In describing the controlling dynamic of collaborative writing on the Internet, or Commons-Based Peer Production, theorist Yochai Benkler notes that in an industrialized society where the cost of printing is extremely low (most anyone can gain access to a word processor in a public library) and the cost of publication is similarly low (again, the cost of a library card), that for topics where all information is publicly accessible, the sole remaining scarce resource is human creativity. This simple but profound truth of the information age economy means a big stage for student writers. They intuitively understand that rather than only consume knowledge, they are helping to create it by writing for Wikipedia. Which is exactly the role their college educations are preparing them to fill.
But it's not only college writing which works on Wikipedia. After hearing about my class, a colleague in Biology recently created a class assignment where his students created a page in Wikipedia to define Dictyostelium discoideum. And we're not alone. Though some Wikipedians debate whether it is appropriate to use Wikipedia as an assignment space, there is a rapidly growing community of college instructors who are doing just that.
And what has been surprising in students' attitudes toward Wikipedia? Though my evidence is anecdotal, in the years of teaching with Wikipedia I have found almost no difference in the range of opinions about Wikipedia held by student writers and those held by their - mostly - older teachers. I find that roughly the same proportion of people have concerns about reliability, open access, and information literacy among students and faculty, just as I find roughly the same number of enthusiastic adopters among teachers and students. But when I query reluctant students about how and where they formed their negative opinions about Wikipedia, they usually point to a classroom environment where they were penalized for using it as a source. They almost never have had an experience which encouraged them to move from simply using Wikipedia to writing for it. As we move from seeing Wikipedia as only a resource to an online intellectual community, students are more than ready to accompany us.
At the National Book Critics Circle awards event last Thursday, I had the pleasure of presenting this year’s Balakian citation for excellence in book reviewing to Ron Charles, the weekly fiction critic for The Washington Post -- and once, in a previous incarnation, an assistant professor of English at Principia College. He has been a finalist for the award several times, displaying great patience with NBCC as we’ve climbed the learning curve. His acceptance speech was, by acclaim, the highlight of the evening.
But to judge by the blog chatter, the high point of Ron’s public impact actually came earlier this month, when his essay on the extracurricular reading habits of college students appeared. Citing recent best sellers reported from campus bookstores, he noted that you found nothing even vaguely akin to The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the poetry of Sylvia Plath or Allen Ginsberg. Instead, there were novels about wizardry and adolescent vampire romance.
“The only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns, the choice of a million splendid book clubs. Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they're choosing books like 13-year-old girls -- or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment. ... In the conservative 1950s, when Hemingway's plane went down in Uganda, students wore black armbands till news came that the bad-boy novelist had survived. Could any author of fiction that has not inspired a set of Happy Meal toys elicit such collegiate mourning today?”
As much as I like its author, some aspects of this complaint strike me as problematic. In general, of course, Ron Charles is pointing to a real phenomenon, a tendency towards juvenilization that seems all-pervasive at times. His observations call to mind Andrew Calcutt’s Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood (Castells), an insightful book from the late 1990s that still seems quite on-target.
To suppose that things were really that much better in decades past, though, may be the historical equivalent of an optical illusion. I don't know whether anyone was tracking campus bookstore sales in the 1950s or '60s. If so, the record would probably show Peyton Place and Happiness is a Warm Puppy doing pretty well – and Diana diPrima's poetry, or Herbert Marcuse's social criticism, not so much. When I arrived on campus as a freshman in 1981, my first roommate was quite devoted to Jonathan Livingston Seagull while the rest of my dorm was trying to imitate Hunter S. Thompson (in lifestyle, not prose style). The number of young people reading anything serious at any given time tends to be pretty small.
Via e-mail, I ran some of these thoughts by Ron -- who answered with good humor that he’d “just [been] giving a twist to the Old Man rant about Young People Nowadays,” after all.
“The presence of a few numbers and stats gave my essay the gloss of a piece of sociology that it doesn't really deserve,” he says. “I couldn't find much data about what college kids were reading in the '50s and '60s, and even the data available today are far more suspect than we usually acknowledge. For one thing, Follett and Barnes & Noble control a huge portion of the college bookstore market, so what's promoted on college campuses is far more homogenized and commercialized than in earlier decades. Also, many of the reporting college bookstores serve their communities at large, so there's no way to tell what's really being bought by college students and what's being bought by the professors' own young children or just people who happen to live near the university.”
Much of the discussion generated by his article has ignored such questions and gone directly to the argument that Ron Charles is a conservative dinosaur who must have been a teenager circa World War Two.
Either that, or he lives on a commune in Vermont where he went into hiding during the Nixon years and wrote his essay out of disappointment that he can’t recruit kids to the Weather Underground. (Possibly both.) Actually he is in his 40s, lives in a suburb, and has the demeanor of someone who sat out the Culture Wars as a conscientious objector.
“I was surprised and disappointed,” he told me, “by the number of respondents who felt I wanted college students to start reading the works of Abbie Hoffman and other '60s and '70s writers. Or that I was complaining that they weren't reading more Serious Literature. That wasn't really my point: I was actually disappointed that they weren't reading more age-appropriate material: not stuff for middle schoolers and not stuff for adults, but all the kinds of crazy, wild, naïve, in-your-face, big-think literature that young people should be reading during that magical moment between high school and the first soul-crushing job.”
Usually, he says, adults complain that “college students are too wild and irresponsible; I wanted to claim that their reading habits imply that they aren't nearly wild or irresponsible enough: mostly books borrowed from the Young Adult shelf and their parents' book clubs. Where's the real college lit?”
A fair question -- but one that I suspect cannot be answered with marketing survey data. As the late John Leonard put it, the work of a writer is “experienced by the reader as a competing solitude. It’s not communal. It’s intimacy to intimacy, one on one, down there with the demons.” (Or seagulls, as the case may be.)
Last year, as a Christmas present, I gave a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 to an old friend. But his daughter got to the book first, reading its nine hundred pages in a weekend marathon and promptly drawing connections to the work of Ernst Jünger. She is fourteen.
I am not prepared to make any generalizations about the Younger Generation on the basis of this small data set. But there are moments when gloom doesn’t seem completely appropriate.