Now that it's the end of the semester, here is my final portfolio for my class, American Literature 1800-1915. The first one explained this next bit, so skip to the next paragraph if you've read it. This class looks at a variety of American literature (obviously from the selected time period), and also looks at techniques for writing about literature. For this reason, the entries that will be referenced here are a blend of responses to text-book chapters, and responses to various works of literature from the time period. This portfolio is designed simply to showcase the work I've done since the last one.
When I signed onto my blog to write this, looking at the counter saying how long it's been since my last post made me feel a bit like I'd imagine a Catholic feels when telling their priest it's been thirty years since their last confession. Though the end of the semester was definitely hectic for me, I really wish I would have gotten at least SOME blogging done earlier. Because I failed in that, I'm not going to include sections illustrating timeliness or the comments I've gotten, since I accomplished niether. I will however, try to include a bit more depth than I typically do.
To begin with, I'd like to present a few blogs that I feel are reasonably well written, in terms of addressing the literature, and providing insight about the material. I was particularily pleased with my blog about disease as a literary devise, as discussed in Foster. Disease is one I especially feel bad about not blogging earlier as I recall that I thought up everything I talked about when I read the chapter several weeks ago at the laundry mat (they need to get wireless). Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Aaron MacGruder combines my discussion of Washington and Du Bois works, but also discusses a character from Aaron MacGruder's cartoon "Boondocks," who is named after Du Bois. Oral Tradition contains part of a discussion from another class, and relates to modern "internet tradition" and the John Henry legend. If you didn't read it previously, I recommend it. Symbolism? discusses The Wizard of Oz, and some of the symbolism/allegory I picked up. Irony Trumps EVERYTHING discusses Foster's chapter on Irony, as well as Chuck Palahnuik's novel Choke (again), and finally A Farewell to Foster discusses the envoi from Foster, as well as the idea of literary scholarship.
While my blogs weren't up in time for others to comment, I still commented on theirs. These are some blogs that I participated in discussions on. Oz by Jered Johnston discusses the idea of the power-balance between good and evil in the Wizard of Oz. I commented on Katie Lantz' blog "That wuz him" discussing Huck's reaction to Pap's death. I actually went of topic here, as the way in which something was phased made me think of the similarity between Huck's going through th story not knowing he is free from Pap, and Jim's going through the evasion, not knowing he is likewise free. In Heather Mourick's blog Recess is Important I discussed the ending of Foster's How To Read Like a Professor.
To sum everything up, here is a list, in order of every blog required for the class since my last portfolio, Crossin' Walden on a Raft, while Reading with a Raven :
Evasion on the last part of Clemens' The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
"Trash of the Veriest sort" or the Great American Novel? on Mallioux's "Bad-Boy Boom"
Disease on Foster chapter 24
More Agreement on Scott's "There's More Honor: Reinterpreting Tom and the Evasion in Huckleberry Finn"
Agreed on Smith's "Huck, Jim and American Racial Discourse"
Irony Trumps EVERYTHING on Foster's chapter 26
Oral Tradition on the John Henry legend
Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Aaron MacGruder on Washington and Du Bois
A Farewell to Foster on the Envoi from Foster
Symbolism? on Baum's The Wizard of Oz
Okay, in the Wizard of Oz, we talked a bit about economical references. Silver slippers up the yellow brick (gold) road, etc. The symbolism I came up with is this:
The first two are sort of obvious and easy:
The tin woodsmen is Industry, while the scarecrow is agriculture. Besides their role's etc. There is the stereotypical suggestion that industry, and cases industrialists themselves are "heart-less," as well another stereotype that farmers are unintelligent.
Dorthoy, is the future, or the people, or the children or something like that.
Toto is a doggy.
The cowardly lion is a bit more problematic, but I could see him as symbolic of certain politicians, who could in some cases be charged with lacking the courage to fight on behalf of their convictions.
Oz, is thus the president. I think this is another easy and obvious connection to draw. For all his amazing reputation, and illusionary grandure, he's just a man, and a man who can't do all that much; or at very least all the amazing things that people expect of him. Despite this, he can offer encouragement (or deception) to make you realize what you already had.
He could also be more symbolic of the government as a whole, given the idea that all he can give you is stuff that you already had (taxes?). But if that's the case, then the lion might be activists or something, the sort of people who speak out against problems, but lack the courage to run for office, and make a change? I dunno.
It feels as if there is some connection here, but the equations aren't as overt and cleanly linked as, say Animal Farm for example. In that you can actually equate specific characters to real historical figures and segments of the population. I think I found SOMETHING though.
So, I went a bit past the envoi, and read the reading list too. I was suprised that I've read a higher percentage of the literary works than the movies. (Foster actually calls that list "Movies to Read"). While this is very much not a "big dusty book of literary meanings" it certainly leaves on with all the tools necessary to write one. Though it would take at least a thousand life-times, and could only ever actually be accomplished if all current and future writers are willing to go on a several century strike. Then again, it would be a pointless work as if it was given absolute authority it would make studying literature boring (having to go to big dusty CRC's all the time to look up info is part of the reason I'm not a Chem major anymore), if it lacked the sort of universal authority tha, for example a CRC has, it would really just be a big collection of literary articles, which would be unremarkable, as thats essentially what the MLA database is.
My point here is that as essays are literary laboratories, written, peer-reviewed and published ones are lab reports. As our knowledge of carbon's properties are based on the collective experiments of many generations, so is our knowledge of Huckleberry Finn. The only difference is that there is no end point. While the properties of carbon were eventually established, with the subjective study of lit, there is no point when everyone reads an essay and says, "oh, this guy's research adds up....it definitely proves X."
Alright, first off, I really, really, really, wish I would have done this before taking the final. My re-examination of these two important historical figures has made two things apparent: 1. I had a reasonably good grasp on their overall beliefs and philosophies and 2. I had their names reversed.
I'm going to blame this, at least in part on Aaron MacGruder's cartoon, "Boondocks." The cartoon is pretty allegorical in general (the series centers on the "Freeman" family), and one character is a black district attorney married to a white woman, living in a wealthy white suburb, is named Tom Du Bois. The fact that he's named "Tom," obviously alludes to Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the name Du Bois is a likely reference to W.E.B Du Bois. For this reason, I automatically attributed what I consider more subservient attitudes, which Booker T Washington had, to him.
However, I apparently wasn't thinking of certain aspects of either's beliefs, or Aaron MacGruder's brilliance when I reached this assumption. If no one ever pushed beyond Washington's plan of having blacks study to be craftsmen (which at the time was step forward), there certainly wouldn't be any black lawyers. Du Bois ideas called for HIGHER education (though just for some), so that blacks could go on to join the upper-class, and thus change society and public policy from the inside.
Keeping these points in mind, I get a much better look at MacGruder's character. The name Tom is ironic, because the suggection that by existing in what one might call "the white world," Tom may be considered an "Uncle Tom." (In the series he is occasionally ridiculed for his percieved compliance with white culture, and general "whiteness"). However, as a district attorney, and part of the upper-class, he is a part of the power structure, and in a position to help change society. This is very much in-line with his namesake's philosophy, which I feel Aaron MacGruder endorses in many ways.
One of the recurring themes in "Boondocks," is an attack on the pop-cultural perception that intellectualism and education are in some way a betrayal of black culture (He overtly suggests more than once that BET's primary mission is to destroy black people). Then again, at this stage I don't really think the idea that intellect and education aren't cool is anymore prevelant in black pop-culture than in white pop-culture. Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, and Britney Spears certainly won't be winning any Nobel prizes anytime soon.
Alright, this may be a bit cheap to do, but this discussion of oral tradition, John Henry and the internet is borrowed from a previous blog. However, it is probably more appropriate here. Also, it's late and cut-and-paste is an irresistably handy function.
The John Henry song/legend is unique in that it really seems to me to be the last well known, oral legend/song. There are songs that have maintained for years, and are even more widely known, though they either lack a story, tell a fictional story, or simply tell one that most are unaware of. "Happy Birthday" is (according to some book), the most widely sung song in the world, but it's not really oral tradition, as it lacks a story. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is nationally known, but based on the number of people who are unaware of the war of 1812, it is likely that few really know what it's about. Nursery rhymes (which are slowly being replaced by the theme songs from cartoons) either have no basis in reality (What mouse? What clock? Is Hickory-Dickory a field of medicine? if so when does one consult a Hickory-Dickory Doc?), or aren't connected to whatever basis they once had. (Most children don't associate "Ring Around the Rosie" with the bubonic plague). In terms of legend and song, there seems to be nothing widespread that is passed around orally. While there are stories that everyone knows, and songs that everyone knows, it tends to be because we all saw them, read them, or heard them when their author created them.
Whereas people could once talk about John Henry as a figure that everyone was aware of, we now have only Homer Simpson, Spock, Gilligan, Luke Skywalker, Superman, Huckleberry Finn (and Hound as well), Optimus Prime and the list goes on. We can regocnize these characters, in a similar way (as they tend to be universal, dependant one one's year of birth). What seperates these characters, is that they're all fictional, and have a specific "official source," while I CAN make up new stories about them, one can point to the original source, and say, No, Homer is NOT a Jedi, Luke Skywalker isn't a fat alcoholic, and Optimus Prime turns into a truck rather than a gorilla (except in that short-lived Beast Wars series which was stupid). One can always add to the stories, but the already published is incontrovertable. There WERE plenty of Star Wars novels written after the Trilogy, but regardless of the author's talents, the original trilogy remained the standard. (The only real exception to this is that Sci-Fi tends to allow time travel, in which case history can be altered, creating alternate universes, where, for example, Vulcan is destroyed, and Kirk's dad is killed on the day of his birth...and there are two Spocks)
The other source of stories we have is non-fiction. Because these stories are true (in theory), and we have a staggeringly large mass media network, we tend to get the facts, (though the telling may slightly vary). If John Henry's competition took place today, we all could have simply turned to page F10 (D8 on a slow day, A1 in Talcott and Hinton), and read the one paragraph Associated Press article on it, and probably go watch the youtube video of it. Thus, to anyone altering the story, one could simply say "Dude, go watch the video again...I'll send you the link."
This mention of youtube brings us to my theory of the new oral tradition. Because so many of our stories have the obvious problem of having an "original," we've sort of lost oral history as a medium. However, we've lately been coming up with all sorts of new media, which in a way can replace it. Ever since my very first e-mail account (Homicidal_maniac@lycos.com, don't ask) I'd frequently get obnoxious forwards, containing stories that were likely fictional or vaguely true, yet embelished to ridiculous porportions, typically illustrating the sort of peril I'd be in if I failed to forward it to 10 friends. This sort of began a new tradition, as the fonts/word choice, etc. tended to suggest that people had altered or added to these stories. Now, this is easily expanded. With blogs and video blogs, stories tend to spread, yet retain the advantage of being alterable.
For Example, you've probably scene the "Dramatic Chimpmunk" video (posted 2 years ago) I just checked adn they've got a James Bond version, a Darth Vader Version, and several others ,many of which appear on a 2.5 minute "Best of Dramatic Chipmunk" video. This is a whole lot of variation for a 5 second clip. (17 million views on just one version of the original is a whole lot a views too)
While videos can be altered to depict a new story, simply changing the caption can significantly alter the story (much in the same way one can take the idea "John Henry dies after beating a machine in a competition" has formed thousands of different stories). Plus, blogs lacking fact checkers can quickly desseminate urban myths, etc. which can then be picked up by other forums, and blogs, and altered. While one could technically trace any given story back through the time-stamps on blogs and forum posts, it would be as staggering a task as seeking out the "real" John Henry story.
Then again the only real problem with this comparison is that the massive quality of mass media makes it so that there are millions of stories, most of which fade before there get to be many variations. Also, because the online population is staggeringly vast, what stories you get is highly dependant on your online (and real life) network of friends/aquaintances.
Anyway, it looks like, these days anyway, oral tradition is essentially supplanted by the internet.....(the comparison to John Henry Days ought to be so obvious that it needn't be mentioned) This makes the John Henry story special as it seems to be the final entry on the blog of true, pure oral tradition....ANYONE can tell a good story when they got a video clip of it on their phone. Just as the last people who witnessed John Henry died off years ago, eventually, the last people who witnessed the telling/singing of it (rather than reading it, studying it as a historical/cultural chunk of Americana/or worse watching the disney version) will soon die off as well.
In Kevin Michael Scott's essay "There's More Honor: Reinterpreting Tom and the Evasion in Huckleberry Finn" he argues, like I do in my paper, that Tom is not acting out of racism, in the evasion sequence, but rather out of a need to exist in what Scott calls his "boy-play world." While I failed to coin any nifty terms to describe it, I made basically the same argument, though I am a touch jealous of Scott's elaboration on the relationship to Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, there are some OBVIOUS connections that I really should have caught (and probably would have had I ever read that.) Overall though, Scott makes most of the same points that I make, arriving at the overall conclusion that Tom equally abuses everyone for the sake of his fantasies.
Ok, as a frequent writer of essays, I always appreciate a good argument, especially when they are 100% right (by right, I mean that they agree with me), like David L. Smith in 'Huck, Jim and American Racial Discourse." He, like me, contends that Clemens' work is anti-racist. the argument he uses includes many elements of arguments I make, but with the acception that he considers Tom Sawyer a little more intentionally cruel, while I tend to see him more as oblivious and delusional.
What I REALLY liked about the argument however, is that he sums up with not-all-that-descreetly calling his opposition idiots, which I can only occasionally resist doing. He accomplishes them by likening them to the character "Pap" from Huckleberry Finn.
I especially like that Foster stuck this chapter toward the end of the book. It seems fitting to be able to say, oh and by the way, everything you just learned means the opposite sometimes. I though the discussion of Alex from A Clockwork Orange as an ironic Christ-figure was especially entertaining. Overall though, I like how much this chapter ties into everything else, and to be honest, I was already noticing that a lot of the themes, references, etc. discussed in the early chapters of the book helped me to notice connections that were ironic.
Earlier I blogged about Choke by Chuck Palahnuik, in Sex Addicts can be Christ Figures, too. In light of the example of Alex as a ironic Christ-figure, I'd like to revisit the character Victor Mancini, another ironic Christ figure from Choke. As a notoriously promiscuous sexaholic, he in a one sense of the word "loves" everyone. He intentionally chokes in restaurants, so that people can save him. Though this initially is a reversal on the idea of Christ saving others, later in the novel it is discovered that he's been "saving" these people in a way, by boosting their confidence through making them heros. He also doesn't have a father, though later it is revealled that his mother was artificially inseminated (modern immaculate conception) using Christ's DNA obtained from some relic (this bit all ends up being made up by a mad-woman, and ties into another part of the story).
In the section on disease, and its symbolic literary uses, I got to thinking about the limits to using disease in modern work. This of course doesn't apply to historical fiction where you can have people who don't live in 3rd world countries get TB and polio, as well as science fiction where you can just make up whatever new disease you want to fit the story.
However, for literature occuring in our modern world there are only a handful of diseases that characters can suffer from without the reader wondering "why doesn't this guy take some penicillin?" (Which actually just gave me the idea of using a character who is severely alergic to anti-biotics)...anyway, because so much of the mystery behind diseases is gone (mystery is one of the things that Foster points out, in making diseases meaningful in lit.) there is a lot less to be done. Cancer doesn't hold the same suggestion of delicacy and a "weak constitution" that TB had for the Victorians. While readers might give cancer the same "wasting disease" connotation that TB had, virtually all modern readers understand that being frail isn't what results in getting cancer. We are all aware of professional atheletes and other otherwise extremely fit and healthy people who got cancer. Smallpox has a completely new connotation is it is now more of a biological weapon than a disease. AIDS, is really the only remaining life threatening VD, but it lacks the visual "marks of sin" type symptons, as well as the eventual insanity that syphilis offered Victorian writers.
While in saving SO many lives modern medicine has taken a whole lot of diseases away from writers, there are a whole lot of rare genetic disorders that more people are aware of that can be used. CIPA or Congenital Insensivity to Pain with Anhidrosis, for example, is extremely rare, but those with it don't feel pain, it seems like there are all sorts of thematic uses for a condition like that. Also, given the public awareness that there are MANY rare disorders with very few cases, writers can probably get away with making up one perfectly suited to their needs.
Overall, it feels a bit morbid to sound upset about so many diseases being cured, and simultaneously excited about genetic disorders, but I'm talking about this from a purely literary stand-point.
I tend to wonder about the mental capacities of those who pushed for the banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, at the time of its release. The only plausible explanations I've come accross are that many behind the ban either didn't actually make it to the end of the book, or more probably suffered from severe irony deficits.
The evasion sequence shows the potential problems with kids imitating the stuff they read (or had their more literate friend tell them) about in supposedly respectable novels. Classic, "respectable" literature tends to set far worse examples than anything in Clemens' work. Honestly, the biggest crime Huck commits in the story is grand theft human, which by the time the novel was published, was no longer illegal (and in theory blacks were SUPPOSED to be considered free). Granted, he does get into some minor mischief. Still, a kid emulating Huck Finn is far better off (and likely more alive) than someone emulating Romeo and Juliet. Suicide tends to be a bit harder to bounce back from than getting in trouble for stealing chickens. Lying isn't nearly as bad of a habit to pick up as killing everyone who gets in the way of your rise to power (MacBeth) or trying to defy the oracle at Delphi and indavertently murdering your father, having two kids with your mother, and eventually gouging your eyes out as a result (Oedipus Rex).
That said, it's interesting to take a look at more recent literature for young adults in comparison (I took a course on this). The Outsiders by Stephanie Hinton, involves a gang and includes a murder, Twilight involves dating vampires (which is decidedly unsafe), Carrie lays waste to an entire town in Stephen King's novel, Jack Gantos smuggles a boat-load of pot into the US in his autobiography Hole in My Life and a mob of boys kill two others in Lord of the Flies by William Golding. All of these stories demonstrate far more dangerous behavior than anything that occurs in Huck Finn.
The list gets even more impressive when I look back on the sort of stuff I read when I was younger. Raskolnikov kills an old lady (Crime and Punishment), Raul Duke takes all sorts of drugs (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Tyler Durden wages a guerilla war on civilization (Fight Club), Jason Bourne kills a whole lot of people (Bourne series), so does Boba Fett (there was a series about him I read, but I forgot the title), Renton does piles of heroin and steals stuff, Begsby gets into tons of fights, Sick-boy constantly rips people off, as well as doing lots of heroin (Trainspotting), Dirk Straun smuggles opium (Tai-Pan).....and the list goes on. While I've screwed up significantly, (though I'm doing better these days), It hasn't been that bad, and I really can't blame any of it on literature.