Held in the Julius Glickman Conference Center on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin from June 10–13, 2014, "Teaching the American Literary Tradition" was our first summer institute for teachers of English and language arts.
Participating faculty and teachers addressed topics in American literature and literary history over the past two centuries including the literature of slavery and abolition, the literature of the Civil War era, the Harlem Renaissance, American writing during the World Wars, the rhetoric of civil rights, American drama, Texas and Latino literature in the twentieth century, and using American art in teaching language arts. Faculty placed particular emphasis on major subjects and skills stipulated by the state's curriculum standards for English III.
Humanities Texas held the program in partnership with the College of Liberal Arts and the Harry Ransom Center of The University of Texas at Austin. The institute was made possible with support from The Brown Foundation, Inc. and the State of Texas, with ongoing support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Below are excerpts from faculty presentations delivered at "Teaching the American Literary Tradition."
When we understand the American literary tradition as something that is shaped in large part by an extended interpretive community of editors, teachers, and readers, you can think of yourselves and your students as part of that interpretive community. For some of you, that could well represent a pretty radical reorientation of teacher and students to the American literary tradition. If you think of that tradition as something that is fixed, eternal, and bestowed upon us by God, your relation to the text that you read and teach could become overly reverential. As Emerson argued in his 1837 "American Scholar" address, that is not necessarily a good thing. To paraphrase Emerson: when your reading is characterized only by reverence for the canonical figure or text, you stop thinking. You simply worship, and your goal as a reader narrows to merely reproducing institutionally-sanctioned responses (i.e., the supposedly correct way of reading Emerson, Melville, Dickinson, or whomever). In his "American Scholar" address, Emerson says that once you start reading this way, you in effect find yourself orbiting around the work, and, to quote Emerson, "the book becomes noxious. The guide is a tyrant." As a result, Emerson says, "instead of Man Thinking, we have the bookworm."
Now, I wouldn't want to encourage an extreme version of Emersonian solipsism, in which all literary works become appropriated by the self, but I like his call to engage and not worship texts. For me, the essential thing about not worshipping is that we can think about books as written by actual people at particular historical moments for actual readers. And consequently, we can think about the books or essays or poems or short stories in the American literary tradition as trying to do something in their own time. In "The American Scholar" essay, which has been canonical almost from the time that Emerson first delivered the address to Harvard's Phi Beta Kappa Society in 1837, and then published it for a wider readership, Emerson was specifically trying to revitalize an institution—Harvard College—that he thought had become overly insistent on passive forms of learning, and he was trying to revitalize an American literary culture that he thought had become similarly passive and trying merely to imitate European literary models. Let's do to Emerson what he asked his auditors and readers to do with great writers: engage him, ask questions about his ideas, resist falling into the sleepy trap of simply worshipping him as a great and canonical writer. And to bring this talk back to one of the main reasons we're all here, I'd suggest that we can do this by taking seriously the Texas state curricular standards, which ask teachers to focus on such things as rhetorical analysis.
The curricular standards emphasize the importance of attending to writing across genres and especially to nonfictional prose, and thus it's worth noting that over the past few decades the canon has expanded to include a lot of such writing. To focus on just the 1820–1865 selections in the Norton [Anthology of American Literature]: we have Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, Lincoln, Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Margaret Fuller, Caroline Kirkland, and others, and these authors are addressing such issues as slavery, race, nationhood, the frontier, social reform, democracy, nonconformity, and women's rights. I can assure you that they were thinking rhetorically about how to make an impact on readers, and the way that they try to do that is very much worth studying and talking about. In my presentation tomorrow, I'm going to focus on Douglass and Emerson as figures who influence writers of their own time and beyond. But they were also writers who shared in a vision of the importance of democracy to American life and letters and sought to convey their thoughts to ordinary readers. Their writings help us to see that at least one persistent strand in the American literary tradition is a commitment to the promises of democracy. I can't think of a topic that is more worthy of being addressed in your classrooms.
The opening lines of “America” by James Monroe Whitfield should give you a sense for how varied and diverse and contingent American literary nationalism was during the mid-nineteenth century.
America, it is to thee
Thou boasted land of liberty,—
It is to thee I raise my song,
Thou land of blood, and crime, and wrong.
It is to thee, my native land,
From whence has issued many a band
To tear the black man from his soil,
And force him here to delve and toil.
This patriotic poem was written in 1853 by an African American abolitionist and activist. It is, to my mind, absolutely about nationalism and a sense of belonging to a community. At the same time, the speaker harshly critiques the community that the poem sets out to celebrate—one definition of patriotism.
I tell the students in my American literature survey course, “This is going to be a patriotic course. That is, this is going to be a patriotic course that is critical of the nation in as loving and thoroughgoing a way as possible.” By including authors like Whitfield in that course, the story I tell about American literary nationalism becomes much less simplistic, and much more contingent. That story, in turn, also becomes more historically accurate.
Students respond well both to this poem and to the story it tells because they have multiple points of entry into the idea of “America.” By reading, listening, thinking, and arguing, they get beyond a merely reverential relationship to American literature and begin to appreciate its complexities, ambiguities, and democratic promises.
Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" talks about key questions that arise in the context of slavery and abolition, and remain with us in all kinds of ways today. When is it okay to break the law? Is there a higher law than the statutory law? Does personal conscience ever trump the law of the land? Should it? Are there situations in which individuals, white or black, or of any ethnicity, are so implicated in, or find so intolerable, an injustice that it is appropriate for them to break the law? We're in the middle of the nineteenth century, and black slavery is not the only form—although it's the most extreme form—of deprivation of the sense of individual agency that people are feeling. Whites are feeling it, too. They're feeling it in some places in relationship to the emergence of industrialization. Abolitionists like Thoreau are feeling it in relationship to the fact that they're seeing their country committing these brutal injustices, and they are a part of it—at least that's what Thoreau says. His neighbors say, "Look, I'm against slavery, I would never go down South and enslave everyone. I would never fight in the Mexican War," which was perceived, in the North especially, as promoted by slaveholders for the expansion of slavery in new territories, which it in fact did. But Thoreau says, "No, you are implicated."
What I love about these passages [from "Civil Disobedience"] is the use of metaphor. "Sitting on another man's shoulders." What does Thoreau mean by "sitting on another man's shoulders"? There he is in Massachusetts. What does he mean when he says, "paying taxes is a bloody thing?" Is it more bloody than not paying them? More bloody even than revolution? He's using these figures of speech to say, "You think you are autonomous. I may think I'm autonomous, but I'm on the back of a slave. And when I pay my taxes, that goes to support slavery. I'm complicit in that system."
If you teach Civil War literature, there are a couple of themes that I think you might find useful in the classroom. Especially useful for your students is the theme of idealism as it confronts realism. This is a story of every war that I'm familiar with, which is to say that people go into wars willing to fight for ideals and beliefs that they have, only to have the reality of war test those ideals. A wonderful poem by Melville, "The March to Virginia," describes young men who are heading off to war as though to a berrying party. He's talking about people going to pick huckleberries or blackberries, thinking, "oh, this is as fun as a picnic. We're just going to go pick berries. We'll be home next weekend, and the war will be over." What does it sounds like though, berrying party? Sounds like the cemetery. And in fact, one of the young men that Melville then zooms in on in his poem is—and this is his term—"enlightened" by the explosion of an artillery shell. So he's enlightened by a bomb blowing up over his head. One of the things that you'll see over and over again in literature written by those early American nationalist writers is their ideals confronting the horrors and the realities of the war.
I love teaching immigrant literature from the turn of the twentieth century. These works help illuminate for students some very complicated experiences involving immigration at the time, and also help them understand the history of debates we continue to have in this country surrounding immigration, including questions about assimilation, about bilingualism, even about what metaphor should best describe our nation: a melting pot, which presumes that home cultures all get melted together to form something new but may lose their great distinctiveness, or a quilt in which the squares hold onto their distinctiveness. Students learn that these questions concerning what we would today call multiculturalism arise frequently not only in turn-of-the century immigration literature, but also in broader cultural and political debates about immigration in which this literature participated.
Finally, what I like about these works is that a historically contextualized but also very careful attempt at attentive close reading helps students go beyond some of the platitudes about earlier periods of immigration that they may have received from various sources. Platitudes have a lot of truth to them, but things are usually more complicated. One-sided stories about unrelenting oppression, enforced poverty, being herded into overcrowded tenements. Or, the flip side of that coin, inspiring stories about fortitude, courage, a work ethic, succeeding at the American dream. All of those platitudes have a lot of truth to them. But as always—and this is one of the great things that literature in general does when we talk about it in relation to history—literature always shows us that things were more complicated than that. Literature especially helps us understand internal conflicts—characters pulled in different directions by the glitzy commercial culture they encountered in America, by desires to succeed according to American definitions of success, but also by loyalty to past traditions, to family members, and oftentimes the guilt associated with that. Immigration literature also gives us access to some very complicated family dynamics, such as when one member of a couple becomes more assimilated to the mainstream culture than another, or when a child in school has to take, in effect, the adult role by helping a parent navigate the language and requirements of American institutions.
We can use Langston Hughes's 1921 poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" to think about Hughes as a representative Harlem Renaissance figure. It's a poem that celebrates racial identity. It puts the race's best foot forward, so we can identify it with Du Bois and those figures who wanted to present African Americans in the best light possible. It's a poem that reflects Hughes's international perspective and international exposure. It identifies not simply with rivers in the United States—the Mississippi—but also with the Nile River and the Congo River in Africa. It also connects to Hughes's famous essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," where he writes, "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame." That's what we see going on in this poem. The figure speaking expresses, in a more serious and reverential tone, what Zora Neale Hurston does in her essay, "How It Feels to Be Colored Me." I am part of these global civilizations. I am profound. I am deep. I am fundamentally human. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Let’s take a look at Pound's famous poem, “In a Station of the Metro.” At one time this poem was thirty lines long, but influenced by the haiku form, Pound kept trimming and trimming, and what resulted were two lines. I wanted to show you this particular version of the poem because this is the version that was originally published in Poetry magazine, one of the “little magazines” of the time. Poetry was founded by Harriet Monroe in 1912 in Chicago. The “little magazines” were literary-oriented magazines produced in Paris, other parts of Europe, and the U.S. in which a lot of the Modernist writers were printed and published, partly because these magazines were not only willing to accept experimental work but willingly sought out such work. I wanted you to see the original publication of Pound’s poem because if you read the poem in one of the anthologies or online sites where it's been reprinted, you often won’t find the original form of the poem, especially its spacing. The spaces have to do with poem’s meaning, with the way Pound wants you to read and interpret his work:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough .
So it's almost like an SAT question, with the colon leading you to ask: What do these faces in the crowd look like? They look like petals on a wet, black bough. But also the word apparition is very important because it offers the double meaning of suddenly appearing, but also a kind of ghostly haunting. [Pound’s poem] is what he called imagistic. He wants to convey the “thing” directly. He wants to give you a presentation of the direct thing without any flowery language, so you end up with a vivid image in your mind at the end. . . .
There are many other ways in which authors “made it new.” There’s Imagism, the directness of presentation in clear, sharp language but also the move toward interiorization, finding ways to represent the inside of a person as well as the external world. One of those ways is the technique of stream of consciousness, the attempt to render a person’s thought process on the page. William Faulkner is famous for his stream-of-consciousness narratives, but Katherine Anne Porter's short story “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” is also a wonderful example of a story that uses stream of consciousness to slowly unfold the secrets and inner life of its main character. Richard Bruce Nugent’s story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade” is also a very interesting stream-of-consciousness work in which a character drifts, almost like smoke, in and out of scenes, pleasures, and states of consciousness. Another writing approach that involved an attempt to “make it new” was Hemingway's “iceberg theory,” his theory of omission, where what is known is omitted so that only one-eighth of the story shows. Hemingway’s work is an excellent example of the way in which twentieth-century authors were involved in an effort to “show, don't tell” when writing their narratives. This is something you might emphasize to your students, that Modernist writers were trying to show us what happened in such a way that we would feel the experience ourselves rather than telling us how or what to feel. . . . We often think about what happens in the story as being the same as the plot. Many nineteenth-century writers would basically explain to the reader, “This is the plot. Here’s what’s happening. This is a story that moves chronologically, and you can follow and understand it.” But twentieth-century writers do not hold your hand like that. They say, “You jump into the plot, maybe even in the middle of the story, and try to figure it out.” There’s a lot more attention put on the reader becoming involved in the process of interpretation on both the level of plot and meaning. You have to make the meaning of the story. You have to make the meaning of the poem.
Students love James Baldwin's essay, "My Dungeon Shook." It's really heartfelt, and this particular piece is really an answer to the question, why do people fight and protest? You protest because you hope it will make life better for the people that come after you. The essay is written as a letter to his nephew and namesake James on the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Baldwin writes, "if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. " I love this last line. He writes, "The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off." The essay is about that idea of hope, that idea of making America better, that idea that one has the right and the responsibility to be part of the nation, and that protest is the assurance that you will be integrated into the nation-state.
Many classic works of American literature first appeared in magazines. If you examine those magazines with students, you can begin to ask questions about those works' original historical context. For example, one of the earliest appearances of Poe's poem "The Raven"—and the first to which he signed his name—was in the February 8, 1845, issue of the New York Mirror. On the opposite page is an essay promoting immigration to the Texas Gulf Coast town of Trespalacios. It's a piece of propaganda, luring readers with promises of fortune. It begins, "This seaport will be the most important, not only of Texas, but of all the Gulf of Mexico." This still strikes me as a remarkably teachable coincidence, especially for those of us teaching English in Texas. The two texts aren't related, of course, except that they appear side by side in the same newspaper. But seeing them there helps your students place Poe's literary career in American history. It might also encourage them to begin asking other questions about what was happening in Texas and America when Poe was writing.
Another example is the February 1885 issue of the Century, which featured not only one of the earliest installments of Huckleberry Finn, but also the beginning of Henry James's The Bostonians and a section of The Rise of Silas Lapham, William Dean Howells's masterpiece. It's remarkable when you think about it, that this single issue of the Century featured important works by three of the most prominent writers of the period. There's also an essay by Ulysses S. Grant on the Battle of Shiloh. Other articles include a travel essay on Canada as a winter resort, an essay on Dutch portraiture, the brief memoir of a Confederate officer, and an editorial on political and election reform following the 1894 presidential election. Just the table of contents of this issue of the Century becomes a teaching tool that helps you and your students imagine the world in which these works were written and first read.
For most of its history in the Western world, theater has been a commercial enterprise. Theater exists to make people money. Plays exist to make people money. This actually, I believe, separates theater from other literary forms. Emily Dickinson did not make money from her poetry. You can name any number of great American authors who did not write to make money. However, you will be hard pressed to find a great American playwright who was not in some way trying to make money for somebody. Theater is commercial. And what does that mean? It means you have to get people to pay to come see your show. Which means you have to make them interested in it. This is great for teaching high school, where you don't necessarily have an audience that is automatically interested in what you're trying to teach. Theater is designed to get you interested. It's salacious. It's scandalous in some ways. But it's designed to capture attention.
[But in the early twentieth century,] this all came to a grinding halt. What happened? The movies! By the late 1910s into the early 1920s, theater is no longer a viable economic art form. Movie distribution had become much cheaper. Wherever you used to have a legitimate theater, it became a movie theater. This was a technological disruption, the first new media wave of the early twentieth century. And for our purposes, this is when theater gets interesting. There is no longer the same kind of money in it, yet it's still there. There are still people who are interested in doing theater. There are still theaters in many places, particularly in New York City, Boston, the west coast, Philadelphia. What you get is what's known as the Little Theater Movement. These people start taking over the theater, and they start doing really interesting things in these playhouses.
What makes this interesting is that they still need to make money, but they don't need to make as much of it. This is no longer the major art form that it once was, but you still need to get people in the theater. You still have walls. You're not doing this for free. . . . So, they are still charging you to get in, but they are also trying to do something to you—to shock you, or to make you think about something different, or just to show you something you wouldn't have seen before. You get this incredible mix of commercially viable but artistically interesting work beginning around the 1920s, which is when American theater really starts to come into its own.
Eudora Welty once wrote, "It is by knowing where you stand that you grow able to judge where you are. Place absorbs our earliest notice and attention, it bestows on us our original awareness; and our critical powers spring up from the study of it. One place comprehended can make us understand other places better." We work toward this at the Wittliff Collections. You know if you can understand your own place, then that helps you relate to other places. Here's a more "in your face" version of that idea from the writer Dagoberto Gilb: "In schools today, people don't know anything about their own culture. Their own heritage is dismissed as unimportant. That's not good for teachers, because frankly, students are bored reading about mutton and teacups. What's that got to do with their lives? Do they see mutton? No. They see gorditas." In our university, that's where we've seen the lights come on for so many students. When for the very first time they encounter literature that they can relate to at a visceral level, where the characters talk like they do and hang out at places that they're familiar with, then those barriers set up between what's in the text and what's taking place around them just fall by the wayside.
Immigration from Spanish-speaking countries, including those from the Caribbean, constitutes one of the most common themes found in literature by Hispanic writers since the nineteenth century. Another common tie lies in the preponderance of Spanish as the written language of choice—a trend that continued well into the late 1970s. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there was production by Hispanic writers in all the major genres: poetry, short fiction, novels, and plays.
Despite ample evidence to the contrary, cultural memory of this broad and complicated literary heritage was all but forgotten by the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Until fairly recently, there was no institutional memory to speak of, not in education, not in publishing, and only modestly in archives. Because of class, language, and racism, Hispanic writers often produced in segregated environments. It was not until Chicana/o writers in the Southwest and West and Nuyorican writers (Puerto Ricans in New York City) started to write poetry and fiction to mirror the activism in the streets that a renewed consciousness about the role of literature emerged, and because there were little or no histories of Latinas/os in the U.S., much less about their literary presence, these activist writers believed that they were creating a wholly new canon of literature, and to a major degree they were right.
By the 1980s, these activist writings inspired writers of Cuban and Dominican descent, and from other communities as well, including feminist and/or GLBT. Since the Movement era, Hispanic writers have expanded into other themes and subgenres. Today, Hispanic writers publish mystery and detective novels, science fiction and speculative fiction, romance (chica-lit) and young adult, as well historical novels. Although most writers publish in English, their publishers sometimes translate their works into Spanish, hoping to carve out a market here in the U.S. and abroad. In short, Latina/o literature spans at least three distinctive time periods: 1) the Civil Rights Movement-inspired era; 2) the pre-Movement period, including the colonial period; 3) the post-Movement era since the early 1990s.
Approaching contemporary fiction through the lens of technology allows us to bring together a wide range of artistic projects—literary works by authors such as [Richard] Powers, [Karen Tei] Yamashita, [Gary] Shteyngart, as well as films, like Wall-E, Avatar, the new movie Her. We can also place these works in a much longer line of literature on science and technology. We might think of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, who is the grandmother of a lot of this thinking. In both high school and college classes, this approach can be very evocative. We can tap into responses to technologies that alter our lives in ways that the everyday-ness of them covers up. It locates in material changes the question of how humanness is mutating, and forces us to ask which social values we want to maintain and which ones are forming that we haven't seen before. Finally, I think a focus on technology in contemporary fiction allows us to be faithful to our discipline of English or literary studies, while also entering into conversation with other disciplines, certainly science and technology but also ethics. It's this word-world connection that to my mind truly energizes the literature classroom and can keep art alive for both us and our students.