Tag Archives: literature

Gothic Care and Keeping: Sir Walter Scott’s Stewardship

Samuel Baker, Associate Professor in the Department of English, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on October 11th. Dr. Baker presented the Fellows with a project-in-progress on Sir Walter Scott and “stewardship,” which encapsulates Baker’s conception of Scott’s ongoing influence (and active fostering, during his time) of cultural history. In the manuscripts he distributed to the seminar, Baker argues that Scott, and to an extent, poets like Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, and Ann Radcliffe, each participate in an ethos of “spectral” or gothic care, charging contemporaries and future generations to become “stewards” to British national culture.

This “ethos of stewardship,” Baker notes, pulls together various threads of their contemporary moment to produce our current culture. Scott, an antiquarian, lawyer, folklorist, and Tory, based his literary landscapes off of his studies, seeing himself first and foremost as an editor of antiquarian literature. His literary persona was in turn deeply bound, as Baker argued, to an ethics of care that entreats readers to engage with Britain’s past, and also Britain’s future.

In the seminar, Baker characterized his reading of Scott as “reparative,” citing work by Steven J. Jackson (in the edited volume, Media Technologies) and Eve K. Sedgwick (in her book Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity) on new attention to appreciation. Baker connected Scott’s antiquarian aspirations with the simultaneously “gothic” and “georgic” poetry of Burns and Wordsworth, who likewise mediate an ethos of care for their readers. Baker solicited the Fellows’ thoughts around this connection and thus continued the seminar’s ongoing conversation on audience-specific writing. While Baker admitted he enjoys presenting his research to a broader audience, he usually leans towards more academic and thus more specialized forms of writing. Baker and the Fellows discussed the virtues of “portrait” vs. “landscape” writing, and the Fellows expressed a particular interest in the broader “landscape” question of how Scott has influenced today’s notions of stewardship–whether national, religious, economic, or ecological. They agreed that this topic could speak to a wide range of audiences.

 

The Way She Was: Writing Eve Merriam’s Life Story

The Faculty Fellows seminar on September 26th was led by Julia Mickenberg, Professor in the Department of American Studies. Building from her previous work on leftist and radical politics in children’s books, Dr. Mickenberg presented a collection of materials that represents her work-in-progress: a book on American writer Eve Merriam. Merriam published a wide range of work from the late 1950s into the late ‘70s, including plays, poems, essays, children’s books, and more, with surprising speed.

Indeed, the breadth of interests, topics, and expressive forms found in Merriam’s work is part of what makes her so fascinating to Mickenberg. Across her career Merriam participated in a number of different literary and political circles, tying together a number of Mickenberg’s own interests, for instance in radical cultures, feminism, children’s literature, and the children’s liberation movement. (These interests are explored in Mickenberg’s books, Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (2005) and American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream (2017).) According to Mickenberg, Merriam is likely best remembered as a children’s poet, but her influence was felt through a variety of contexts, and a variety of genres. Her legacy was further complicated by the 1973 Barbra Streisand film, The Way We Were. Merriam partially inspired screenwriter Arthur Laurents’ take on the Streisand character, Kate Morosky, providing Mickenberg an unexpected inroad to writing about Merriam herself.

Participants in the seminar were amazed at the amount of ground Merriam covered over the course of her life, creating unexpected communities through her work and presaging the feminist work of Betty Friedan in her political essays from the late ‘50s. Many suggested that readers might similarly want to engage with the fascinating diversity of Merriam’s work, and advised Mickenberg to consider collecting some of Merriam’s writing into a separate edited volume. As Mickenberg noted, Merriam’s “The Diary of a White Liberal Racist” seems remarkably relevant to discussions today about some of the subtler forms that persistent racism takes, including institutional racism, implicit biases, and the benefits that even liberal or progressive white people often enjoy at the benefit of people of color.

Mickenberg’s own project is still taking shape and she is exploring different approaches to telling a life story, including the question of to what extent she wants to focus on narrating and analyzing Merriam’s own life and work and to what extent she wants to use Merriam as a lens for discussing some of the broader historical and cultural developments in which she participated. An enticing facet of Merriam’s story is how many major figures in diverse fields across a long stretch of time she had dealings with, ranging from W.E.B. DuBois to Norman Lear!

Seminar participants, including several who had written biographies or, in the case of Paul Stekler, made biographical films, brainstormed with Mickenberg about approaches she might take to organizing her materials and deciding upon a through-line for the story she wants to tell. Participants suggested focusing individual chapters on different genres Merriam had written in or on particularly resonant creative experiences she’d had. One participant suggested that  a chapter might be devoted to the  community created around The Club, her Obie award-winning play, which debuted in 1976. Mickenberg has interviewed the play’s producer Mary Silverman, and through the interview, she discovered how tightly knit the cast became during the play’s premiere at the Lenox Theater in the Berkshires. The actors bonded over a mutual connection with Merriam’s script, a satirical take on men’s clubs featuring an entirely female cast. Mickenberg closed the seminar by showing a series of clips from Merriam’s work in television, including a TV spot for the bicentennial anniversary of the American Revolution, and All That Glitters, a 1970s TV sitcom, directed by Norman Lear, parodying men and women’s roles by entirely reversing them. Seminar participants also discussed how writers include themselves in their scholarly work as narrators and as characters. Though including oneself in a biography or paper can be prove risky, participants agreed that Mickenberg’s reference to her research process added something valuable to her paper.

Rewriting the Story of Similes in Epic Poetry

The Fall 2019 Faculty Fellows Seminar began on August 29th with a session led by Dr. Deborah Beck, Associate Professor in the Department of Classics. Dr. Beck shared her unpublished interdisciplinary project on epic simile, entitled The Stories of Similes in Greek and Roman Epic. The book aims to engage with epic simile as a linguistic comparison between two narratives given equal weight–the mythological story (or plot) and the simile. Dr. Beck’s book will also emphasize the importance of simile in five ancient epics, including Homer’s Iliad and Apollonius’s Argonautica.

Similes proliferate throughout common speech, containing complex thoughts and concepts in everything from day-to-day conversation to novels and stories. Rather than ornamental, similes fulfill a specific narrative function for epic poems, creating complex webs of relationships between similes across the work. Extended similes–or similes that span more than the simple standard of “x is like y”– in epic poetry in particular cover repeat topics, for instance using a span of several similes to vividly portray a shepherd and his flock. Beck noted that she herself was engaged in a kind of simile or at least complex comparison in her own project, comparing the story outlined in these similes to the mythological story as mutually constitutive. Essential to Beck’s own complex interweaving is the project’s digital component, a database that catalogued the 486 extended similes that appear in these epic poems. This database will stand as its own scholarly resource after the book’s publication.

Both in her assigned blog post, “On Reading (And Writing) for Pleasure” and in the seminar, Beck advocated for an approach to narrative that would “create conversations about specialized ideas in which both the learned and the not-as-learned can participate with enjoyment.” She aimed to begin her seminar with similar considerations, questioning seminar participants’ own use of narrative and storytelling, and questioning the ways in which they found their own discipline intersecting with Beck’s readings for the week. Before the seminar began to unpack the details of Beck’s work, Beck provided participants the opportunity to reflect on the assigned readings with a short freewriting icebreaker, asking the seminar to consider the connections to their own discipline and anything  they found surprising about what they had read. This beginning exercise opened several lines of conversation between participants, including the benefits and/or drawbacks of viewing The Iliad as solely an oral text versus a written text, and the kinds of listening/reading engagement that epic poetry encourages by including extended similes. Some participants declared that the similes made the poems much more porous than they otherwise would have been, providing multiple ways of engaging with the work, while others noted that rather than consistent active engagement, the similes allowed a looser reading or listening style, allowing readers to focus on the similes they most preferred.

Some seminar participants responded to  Beck’s emphasis on distinguishing  narrative from story. Beck affirmed that her formulation of narrative had more to do with the story that arises from both the similes and the mythological story (plot). In other words, “story” refers to the events being narrated, while “narrative” also includes the way those events are presented to the audience, including the use of abundant interrelated similes in the case of The Iliad.  Pursuant to this, participants noted that what struck them about the selections of The Illiad they had been tasked to read was the humanist message that arose from the interplay of simile and story. Similes have a visual, and indeed almost performative quality that forces the reader to consider themselves in relation to the text, interpolating their own viewpoint and experience. Additionally, many noted that the project’s digital database lent itself to a  non-linear approach to narrative.

The conversation turned to the kinds of narratives participants frequently draw on in their own disciplines and in their own writing. Beck and seminar participants pondered the ways in which storytelling, simile, metaphor, and language as a whole structures their own work, including how accessible to non-specialists their work is or isn’t. Beck herself noted in college, she only fell in love with The Iliad after she read Book 24 in Greek and found herself deeply affected by the power of Priam’s plea to Achilles for his son’s body. Similarly, seminar participants noted, the power of storytelling lies in its ability to promote empathy for more than one side of a conflict. Storytelling can create unexpected inroads for readers across disciplines–a feature session leaders may yet explore over the course of the fall seminar.

The Technology of Living and Dying

Dr. John Roberts discusses aging and decline in John Updike’s writing in our Faculty Fellows Seminar on Health, Well-Being, Healing
By Saralyn McKinnon-Crowley

Last week’s Faculty Fellows Seminar in “Health, Well-Being, Healing” focused on questions of dying and, specifically, how new life-prolonging technologies compel one to rethink what it means to die. Dr. John Robertson of the School of Law presented his current research on Left Ventricular Assistance Devices (LVADs) and the later poetry and prose of John Updike. Dr. Robertson is especially interested in Updike’s short story “The Full Glass”—written shortly before Updike’s own death in 2009—about aging and decline. Updike’s protagonist reflects on a small detail of his daily life, filling his bedtime glass of water, to think about the end of life without directly confronting the experience of dying. Dr. Robertson’s work-in-progress on this material is entitled “Writers at the End—John Updike’s ‘The Full Glass,’” which he hopes to publish in the journal Literature and Medicine. Although “The Full Glass” does not address machines or surgical implants (such as LVADs), Updike’s writing reflects on the quality of life from the perspective of an elderly man.

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