Reading in Genre: War & Worship, Wine & Women
Why read when there is so much else to do? What is there in a novel, a poem, an essay to hold our imagination captive? to make us smarter, wiser, more artful and more courageous? to bring us closer to each other, to the world at large, to the wonder and the terror and the majesty? How are we to know "it" when we see it; get there when we're not; speak of it when we are? And how are we to take the next step--to the point where bearing witness becomes a form of making present? embodying, a form of propagating? critical analysis, a form of collective self-interrogation?
These questions are the biggies--the overarching, meta-issues of deeply engaged, bloody demanding, fiercely intelligent, achingly beautiful reading.
Nice to contemplate, for sure. But, speaking practically, how to begin?
I will gather for us some of the best stuff I know, American Romantic texts especially, treating those matters of nearly universal interest: "war and worship, wine and women" (and, if I might add, "work"): the kind of texts worth reading again and again. We will take character to heart, query idea and plot, describe the sound and sight and feel of the language. We'll ask each text to tutor us on how it wishes, in particular, to be read. And we'll work methodically on our game: 1) reading aloud, to catch the tone and the drama of the words on the page, even in expository prose, experiencing form as content; 2) cross-interrogating between part and whole, whole and part (a given phrase vs. its sentence or paragraph, a given passage vs. the text, the text-at-hand vs. the texts-so-far); and 3) cultivating self-reflexivity, in which what is going on in a text is seen to be at stake in how, separately and together, we discuss it. The ultimate goal is to be able to inhabit a text in its own terms, so intimately that it lives in us; to analyze it so cogently that it, in effect, analyzes us.
An introduction, in sum, to the pleasurizing intensities of sustained reading during the age of cyber-immediacy and virtual contact: the visceral texture it offers, the analytic trenchancy (including capacity for contradiction) it demands, the repartee it solicits, the essaying that honors it, and the kinship of word and thought it ultimately inspirits.
TEXTS TO BE DRAWN FROM: Poetry by Dickinson, Stevens, Hughes; short stories by Hawthorne, McKay, Cather; novellas by James, Melville, and Hansen; essays by Emerson, Herr, Rodriguez; maybe even a vocal recording or video clip, or two.
PREREQUISITES: an appetite for risk, a willingness to dig in, and that extra something.
INVITATION/WARNING: I know that English 184 fills a requirement, which produces an allergic reaction to all and sundry, even the majors! More damaging still, it is a clear that--thanks to high-school pedagogy, not to mention the current cultural climate--the pendulum has swung back to certain whispered assumptions about "English": above all, that it is a touchy-feely enterprise of dreamy subjectivity for those without the brains or the gumption to do the real stuff. But let me say, at the risk of sounding defensive: Dream on. As President Brodhead reminds us, almost every single American winner of the Nobel Prize in the Sciences of the last 25 years began intellectual life with an undergraduate Liberal Arts degree heavy on English. Now is the time to start wondering, what am I missing?