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August 31, 2004 [feather]
On rereading

My post on rereading Steinbeck's East of Eden has prompted Sheila O'Malley, who has already read the novel twice, to consider reading it again (that's high praise coming from Sheila, who is, as anyone who reads her blog knows, a passionate rereader). Needless to say, all this talk of rereading, and all this actual rereading, has made me think about the meaning of rereading. I don't often reread myself--though I did so obsessively as a child, wearing out more than one Dell paperback of Charlotte's Web and thumbing Harriet the Spy and Me and Fat Glenda and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler so often that their stories and characters are still vividly with me, upwards of thirty years later. I can barely recall what I read last week, but I still know Harriet and her notebook and her egg creams and her tomato sandwiches intimately, and every time I cook with ground beef I think of Lila Perl's alphabet burgers.

I don't usually reread because there is so much out there in the world that I am eager to read for the first time. I've been gluttonous about books since I was very small, and I've never lost that kid-in-a-candy-shop feeling I used to get as a child, sitting in front of shelves full of books, almost overwhelmed by the readerly goodness that was bound between their covers. A family friend once gave me a book binge as a birthday present, and recalls a nine-year-old me sitting on the floor in front of the young adults section in B. Dalton's, declaring that I was "paralyzed by indecision."

But not rereading is my private habit in my personal reading life. As an English teacher, rereading is professionally necessary, part of the job, and often a very enjoyable part, too. Academic overspecialization being what it is, most of the books in which I am massively well reread are nineteenth-century English novels: I know my Jane Austen, my Brontes, my Dickens, my Collins, my Gaskell, my Eliot, my Thackeray, my Trollope, my Hardy, and my Conrad inside out, and I know them from teaching them repeatedly to class after class of college students who are more (or less) interested in rounding out their literary knowledge, or, more pragmatically, in knocking off a distribution requirement while easing course schedules heavy in science and math. There are some works I have read and taught too many times. They have become old, stale, too familiar, ironically, to be teachable any more, since to teach a work of literature well, you must strike a difficult balance between knowing that work intimately, and not knowing it so well that it has ceased to surprise you. When a work gets so stale that you cannot respond to it any longer, it's time to not teach it for the indefinite future. Jane Eyre is one of these for me, as are Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Bram Stoker's Dracula. They've been out of rotation for a few years, freshening up for future teacherly use.

But teacherly rereading is hothouse rereading: it's forced rereading for a particular purpose, not voluntary rereading for the sheer interest and delight of rediscovering or renewing one's connection with a particular author or work. I had a teacher in graduate school who liked to say that we should all reread George Eliot's Middlemarch once every five years. His point was that there is so much in that novel that it effectively grows and changes as we do: It's a different book every five years, because we are different people from one half decade to the next. He was right.

I don't know how many times I have read Middlemarch at this point--though I remember vividly reading it for the first time as a junior in college, absurdly and obsessively underlining just about every line in it, so great was my desire to absorb it completely, not to lose even the smallest detail or turn of phrase. But as many times as I have read Middlemarch, my teacher's adage has proved unerringly true. It's a different novel every time I read it; it deepens and widens each time; each time there are different philosophical threads that I cling to, different characters whose struggles (and there is no George Eliot character who does not struggle) speak particularly to me. When I was younger, it was the Dorothea-Ladislaw love plot, of course. Later, it was the horror of Lydgate's utter miscalculation about who he was marrying when he wed Rosamond. Last year, when I read Middlemarch for a course I was teaching, it was the blackmail plot surrounding the prominent and upstanding retailer and churchgoer, Mr. Bulstrode. Eliot's portrayal of the ostracism Bulstrode undergoes when his past comes to light had never really hit me before. I think I was not old enough to get it before; certainly I had not been through comparable ostracism of my own before. But being a little older, and having a little experience of my own with the kind of shunning that is endemic in certain academic circles, I connected with the Bulstrode plot in a way that made Middlemarch new again for me, and made Eliot seem wiser and more prescient than ever.

Rereading East of Eden is making me want to return to other old favorites of mine. It's also making me want to make more of a point of rereading those favorites periodically, to see whether--and how--they age with me, and to pull out of them more of what they have to give than I was able to pull out the first, inevitably cursory time around.

I'm curious to hear readers' thoughts on rereading, as well as on what books they themselves purposely, even habitually, reread. Comments are open.

UPDATE: Delightfully, Our Girl in Chicago has more. I'm totally tickled that someone besides me has bittersweet B. Dalton's-at-the-mall memories. So much to read, so little stock.

Erin O'Connor, 8:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (21)




August 29, 2004 [feather]
Steinbeck the libertarian

I am re-reading, with immense satisfaction, John Steinbeck's 1952 bestseller, East of Eden. I first read it as a college freshman, not for coursework, but as a stolen guilty pleasure inbetween classes and softball practices, which in those comparatively unregulated NCAA days took place during the mornings as well as the afternoons, even during the offseason. I bought a used but clean copy of East of Eden along with a battered, crumbling copy of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, at Moe's Books, Berkeley's exceptional answer to impoverished reading gluttons such as my then eighteen-year-old self. Eighteen years later, I remembered virtually nothing about the novel except that I had adored it. So, casting about for something that could stand up to being read after Capote's mesmerizing Grass Harp, I picked up East of Eden again. Now seemed like a good time to try to remember what all the fuss was about the first time around.

The fuss was right. East of Eden is a phenomenal novel--part genealogy (the Hamilton family is Steinbeck's mother Olive's family), part allegory (the Trask family are Steinbeck's "symbol people," shaped around the story of Cain and Abel). Steinbeck called the novel an autobiography of the Salinas Valley, where his Irish famine immigrant grandfather farmed and blacksmithed and where he himself grew up. "In a sense it will be two books," he wrote; "the story of my country and the story of me." He wrote the novel in large part for his sons, part family history, part mythography, part turning family history into myth. And he was prouder of it than of anything else he had ever written--including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Grapes of Wrath. He called East of Eden The big one as far as I'm concerned," noting that "Always before I held something back for later. Nothing is held back here. From the moment he began work on the novel, he knew it would be his great moment of synthesis: "It is what I have been practicing to write all of my life," he wrote in 1948. Three years later, after he had completed East of Eden, he still felt that the book was, in a sense, his moment of literary arrival: "This is 'the book'...Always I had this book waiting to be written."

It's not surprising, then, that Steinbeck occasionally departs from the plot to indulge in philosophical reflection. Clearly he saw it as his epic duty--not to mention the duty of the type of epic East of Eden would be--to do just this. I was particularly taken by the mini-essay with which he opens Chapter 13, and thought I would reproduce it here. It runs thus:


Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then - the glory - so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man's importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world. It is the mother of all creativeness, and it sets each man separate from all other men.

I don't know how it will be in the years to come. There are monstrous changes taking place in the world, forces shaping a future whose face we do not know. Some of these forces seem evil to us, perhaps not in themselves but because their tendency is to eliminate other things we hold good. It is true that two men can lift a bigger stone than one man. A group can build automobiles quicker and better than one man, and bread from a huge factory is cheaper and more uniform. When our food and clothing and housing all are born in the complication of mass production, mass method is bound to get into our thinking and to eliminate all other thinking. In our time mass or collective production has entered our economics, our politics, and even our religion, so that some nations have substituted the idea collective for the idea God. This in my time is the danger. There is great tension in the world, tension toward a breaking point, and men are unhappy and confused.

At such a time it seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?

Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.

And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on the preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken.

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for that is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.


The novel is not like this lecture--but it is, if this makes any sense, of this lecture. It's a huge potboiler, but hugely intelligent as well. It's historical and it's sensational. It's plot driven, but it's also an early example of meta-fiction. It's a rewriting of Genesis and yet it's entirely original, a heavily allusive work that manages to make its elaborate referencing system refer ultimately inward, to itself. It's not just a novel about individualism, but a novel whose form is itself highly, idiosyncratically, unapologetically individualist. East of Eden confused the critics to no end, and so angered them. They panned it accordingly. But the public adored it, and in this instance the public knew what it was doing.

Erin O'Connor, 11:35 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)




August 26, 2004 [feather]
More Capote

You may think you know Truman Capote if you know In Cold Blood. But you would be wrong. The surgical precision with which Capote tells the story of the Clutter murder--with no words wasted, with all words combining to create an echoey effect of layered bleakness, of the emptiness not only of the flat Kansas landscape where the murders occurred, but also of the lives of the men who committed them--is only one of Capote's modes. When he writes about childhood, he is elegiac, poetic, given to lingering metaphor-laden descriptions and patient evocations of moments that matter simply because they are moments. Whatever his mode, he is consummately controlled, and the thing that keeps the prose of In Cold Blood from becoming gratuitously grisly is the same thing that keeps the prose of works like The Grass Harp from caving in to sentimentality: Capote's instinctive understanding of when less is more, of when the most expressive thing he can do as an artist is exercise restraint.

Here's a passage from The Grass Harp, taken from a scene in which several lonely outcasts spend the night together in an old treehouse on the edge of town:


The caught-up uneasiness that I associated with Riley swamped his face. "I'm not in trouble: I'm nothing--or would you call that my trouble? I lie awake thinking what do I know how to do? hunt, drive a car, fool around; and I get scared when I think maybe that's all it will ever come to. Another thing, I've got no feelings--except for my sisters, which is different. Take for instance, I've been going with this girl from Rock City nearly a year, the longest time I've stayed with one girl. I guess it was a week ago she flared up and said where's your heart? said if I didn't love her she'd as soon die. So I stopped the car on the railroad track; well, I said, let's just sit here, the Crescent's due in about twenty minutes. We didn't take our eyes off each other, and I thought, isn't it mean that I'm looking at you and I dont feel anything except..."

"Except vanity?" said the Judge.

Riley did not deny it. "And if my sisters were old enough to take care of themselves, I'd have been willing to wait for the Crescent to come down on us."

It made my stomach hurt to hear him talk like that; I longed to tell him he was all I wanted to be.

"You said before about the one person in the world. Why couldn't I think of her like that? It's what I want, I'm no good by myself. Maybe, if I could care for somebody that way, I'd make plans and carry them out: buy that stretch of land past Parson's Place and build houses on it--I could do it if I got quiet."

Wind surprised, pealed the leaves, parted night clouds; showers of starlight were let loose: our candle, as though intimidated by the incandescence of the opening, star-stabbed sky, toppled, and we could see, unwrapped above us, a late wayaway wintery moon: it was like a slice of snow, near and far creatures called to it, hunched moon-eyed frogs, a claw-voiced wildcat. Catherine hauled out the rose scrapquilt, insisting Dolly wrap it around herself; then she tucked her arms around me and scratched my head until I let it relax on her bosom--You cold? she said, and I wiggled closer: she was good and warm as the old kitchen.

"Son, I'd say you were going at it the wrong end first," said the Judge, turning up his coat-collar. "How could you care about one girl? Have you ever cared about one leaf?"

Riley, listening to the wildcat with an itchy hunter's look, snatched at the leaves blowing about us like midnight butterflies; alive, fluttering as though to escape and fly, one stayed trapped between his fingers. The Judge, too: he caught a leaf; and it was worth more in his hand than in Riley's. Pressing it mildly against his cheek, he distantly said, "We are speaking of love. A leaf, a handful of seed--begin with these, learn a little what it is to love. First, a leaf, a fall of rain, then someone to receive what a leaf has taught you, what a fall of rain has ripened. No easy process, understand; it could take a lifetime, it has mine, and still I've never mastered it--I only know how true it is: that love is a chain of love, as nature is a chain of life."


In just about anyone else's hands, this passage would be a maudlin, saccharine mess. But Capote makes it work. He writes of love and stars and moonbeams and butterflies without a hint of cliche. In this he is rather like e.e. cummings, who loved to work the stars and hearts and roses circuit, and who even made a list of poetic cliches--"sun moon stars rain"--into a chorus in "anyone lived in a pretty how town." Only better: Capote is not precious, while cummings often is. I think the reason why is that he is not trying--straining--to create the effect of innocence or wide-eyedness in the way cummings often did. What makes this passage work is that it is so knowing--not in a cynical sense, but in a calm, unjudging sense. The narrator is only 16, he knows he does not know much of life, but he does know what he sees, and he reports that with utter unselfconsciousness. The writing here works because it comes across not as the contrivance of a middle-aged man mooning fictively about the woes of adolescence, but as the honest simplicity of a teenage boy who is awakening to life, and who knows it. There is a sense of wonder in this passage, but also a sense of matter-of-factness: of course the world is wonderful, full of heartache and yearning and icicle moons and floating wings, it is what it is. That's what makes it work: the meticulous authorial restraint that expresses itself as a teenaged narrator's easy and unrestrained recording of what simply unequivocally is.

Erin O'Connor, 10:54 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)




August 25, 2004 [feather]
Suing for religious liberty at UNC

Last year, Alpha Iota Omega, a Christian student fraternity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was denied formal university funding and recognition when its members insisted that they had the right to require all members to be Christians. UNC contended that this was discriminatory; AIO contended that this was freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment. This summer, FIRE took up AIO's case, urging UNC Chancellor James Moeser to acknowledge the university's mistake and to honor AIO's bid for formal recognition. Moeser denied that a mistake had been made, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment trumps the First Amendment in cases such as this one. FIRE issued a public rebuttal, which UNC proceeded to ignore.

Often in cases like this one, that's the end of it: The school that is violating students' rights rides out a little bad publicity and then returns to business as usual, without acknowledging wrongdoing or altering its handling of the case in question. There are all too many cases of this sort in FIRE's own case archive. But this case is not going to disappear so easily: Today, AIO filed a federal lawsuit against UNC.

Erin O'Connor, 11:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)




A is for Effort

At Benedict College, a historically black institution in South Carolina, faculty are required to follow a "Success Equals Effort" grading policy that prevents students who try hard--or, more precisely, who can convince their teachers that they try hard--from failing courses whose content they have not mastered. Mastery of content only accounts for 40 percent of freshman grades; "effort"--which cannot be measured, or even remotely accurately estimated in the absence of surveillance cameras documenting how many hours each student studies--accounts for 60 percent. The proportion shifts to 50-50 in students' sophomore year, and the effort grade is dropped entirely for juniors and seniors. The idea is to boost the confidence of freshmen, many of whom arrive at the noncompetitive college without the skills they need to do college-level work, and thereby to keep students who might otherwise drop out enrolled. In practice, the policy ensures that students doing solidly failing work will still pass courses. Essentially, "Success Equals Effort" is social promotion for college students.

Not all Benedict College faculty are convinced that a transparently nanny-esque grading policy more centered on retention than honesty is a good thing. Two untenured science professors were recently fired for insubordination after calculating spring grades solely on academic performance. The AAUP is investigating the matter--but Benedict College's president is on the record as saying he does not care. Perhaps he should, though: According to this editorial in South Carolina's newspaper, The State, Benedict College is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which requires its members to award credits based on "learning outcomes," not effort.

Thanks to Sharon Gaskin for the link.

Erin O'Connor, 9:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (23)




August 23, 2004 [feather]
Canada in cold blood

I'm just back from attending a wedding in Calgary, so I'll most likely be playing catch-up in both my virtual and actual lives over the next few days. Regular posting will resume as soon as possible--but in the meantime, don't miss Sheila O'Malley's fabulous post on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. There are many Capotes, as Sheila notes, but the one who invented, at great cost to his emotional and physical health, the true crime genre is in a league of his own.

I belatedly discovered Capote this summer, after a deeply disappointing experience with Jackson Tippett McCrae's Bark of the Dogwood: A Tour of Southern Homes and Gardens, which I picked up because of the great reviews it got and which I could not put down, not because it was such a good book, but because it was such a profoundly terrible book--so gracelessly over the top, so desperately trying so hard to be some unidentifiable something that all it managed to be was extremely strained, so totally unsubtle in plot and characterization that it became subtle by virtue of the sheer confusion the book's blatant badness provoked in me. I had to keep reading the novel so that I could see just how bad it was. As it got worse and worse, like an ungrammatical, overcontrived train wreck involving the mangled discarded thoughts of John Kennedy Toole, Flannery O'Connor, and Carson McCullers, I began reading about McCrae in the hope of finding out what he was up to with this strangely misbegotten novel.

Googling around, I found an interview that explained a lot--and that made me respect what McCrae was trying to do, even if I could not manage to respect what he had actually done. What I learned was that McCrae was paying very conscious homage to Truman Capote in The Bark of the Dogwood, even going so far as to name his narrator after Capote, whose middle name was Streckfus. That information made me finish McCrae's book, and it made me embark on what has turned out to be a much more satisfying reading jag centered on Capote: If you want to see what McCrae was going for, just read Capote's first novel, an unearthly Southern gothic coming-of-age story about a boy's relationship with a transvestite. Entitled Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), Capote's early work produces with apparent effortlessness the oddly otherworldly, eccentrically erotic atmosphere that McCrae labors so hard, and so fruitlessly, to imitate.

Other Voices, Other Rooms is nothing like In Cold Blood--if you did not know they were written by the same man, you would never guess. Even so, the one lays the groundwork for the other, and even as Capote revisits the eery Southern gothic coming-of-age story repeatedly during his career, it's as if he uses those visitations to pose for himself the problems that he accidentally but satisfyingly resolved in ICB. In his gothic fiction, Capote was concerned to capture the surreal quality of lived reality; in In Cold Blood, he found his ideal subject, an actual event so surreal that it was difficult to believe and nearly impossible to comprehend. That subject in turn allowed him to realize his dream of inventing a new kind of novel: "This book was an important event for me," he wrote. "While writing it, I realized I just might have found a solution to what had always been my greatest creative quandary. I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry."

In Cold Blood is such a powerful story, and such a remarkable psychodrama, that it can be hard to remember that it was also, for Capote, an aesthetic experiment of the highest artistic order. That, to me, is at least as eery, fascinating, and thought-provoking as the narrative of In Cold Blood itself.

Erin O'Connor, 10:56 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)




August 19, 2004 [feather]
Voting in Venezuela

I don't usually post on non-academic political matters, but this morning I am making an exception. This Wall Street Journal piece on the recent "election" in Venezuela is a must read. I'll post the opening few paragraphs to give to a taste of what follows:


CARACAS, Venezuela -- On Monday afternoon, dozens of people assembled in the Altamira Plaza, a public square in a residential neighborhood here that has come to symbolize nonviolent dissent in Venezuela. The crowd was there to question the accuracy of the results that announced a triumph for President Hugo Chavez in Sunday's recall referendum.

Within one hour of the gathering, just over 100 of Lt. Col. Chavez's supporters, many of them brandishing his trademark army parachutist beret, began moving down the main avenue towards the crowd in the square. Encouraged by their leader's victory, this bully-boy group had been marching through opposition neighborhoods all day. They were led by men on motorcycles with two-way radios. From afar they began to taunt the crowd in the square, chanting, "We own this country now," and ordering the people in the opposition crowd to return to their homes. All of this was transmitted live by the local news station. The Chavez group threw bottles and rocks at the crowd. Moments later a young woman in the square screamed for the crowd to get down as three of the men with walkie-talkies, wearing red T-shirts with the insignia of the government-funded "Bolivarian Circle," revealed their firearms. They began shooting indiscriminately into the multitude.

A 61-year-old grandmother was shot in the back as she ran for cover. The bullet ripped through her aorta, kidney and stomach. She later bled to death in the emergency room. An opposition congressman was shot in the shoulder and remains in critical care. Eight others suffered severe gunshot wounds. Hilda Mendoza Denham, a British subject visiting Caracas for her mother's 80th birthday, was shot at close range with hollow-point bullets from a high-caliber pistol. She now lies sedated in a hospital bed after a long and complicated operation. She is my mother.

I spoke with her minutes before the doctors cut open her wounds. She looked at me, frightened and traumatized, and sobbed: "I was sure they were going to kill me, they just kept shooting at me."

In a jarringly similar attack that took place three years ago, the killers were caught on tape and identified as government officials and employees. They were briefly detained -- only to be released and later praised by Col. Chavez in his weekly radio show. Their identities are no secret and they walk the streets as free men, despite having shot unarmed civilian demonstrators in cold blood.

I was not in the square on Monday. I was preparing a complaint for the National Electoral Council regarding the fact that I had been mysteriously erased from the voter rolls and was prevented from casting a vote on Sunday. In indescribable agony I watched the television as my mother and my elderly grandparents -- who were both trampled and bruised in the panic -- became casualties in Venezuela's ongoing political crisis.


The author of the piece will be well known to people who care about the state of civil liberties in academe: He is Thor Halvorssen, former CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Thor was until last winter the caffeine, the will, the voice, and much of the creative genius behind FIRE. He's now branching out and moving on--always fighting for freedom (those who know Thor know that will never change), but doing so on a larger, far more dangerous, and far more urgent stage than a college campus.

Good luck, Thor. Your work in higher education is sorely missed--but it is clearly also sorely needed elsewhere.

Erin O'Connor, 8:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (17)




August 18, 2004 [feather]
FIRE turns up the heat on UNC

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser has responded to FIRE's letter advising him that his school violated the constitutional rights of a Christian men's fraternity when it "de-recognized" the group for requiring that its members be Christian. And FIRE has fired back. The media and a North Carolina congressman are taking notice of this increasingly public showdown between UNC's interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment and FIRE's interpretation of the First Amendment. It should be an interesting fight--not only because Moeser has reversed his position from the one he took when FIRE approached him about an analogous issue two years ago, but also because in doing so he is backing an administrator who has more than once abused his position to engage in vigilante politics at conservative and religious students' expense (Jonathan Curtis has not only repeatedly threatened to derecognize campus Christian groups, but has also facilitated the theft by liberal students of conservative student publications--scroll down here for more).

Erin O'Connor, 7:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)




August 16, 2004 [feather]
Reading Andersonville, contd.

Here lies part three of my series on Andersonville, genealogy, reading, and remembering.

Historically-minded readers may balk at the notion of turning to fiction to try to gain access to historical truth. They may particularly balk at the notion that this might be a good thing to do when the facts are too few to produce a viable, verifiable account. I myself balk at those notions, despite, or perhaps because of, my genuine love for historical fiction. But abstract methodological balking didn't stop me from approaching Andersonville with the frank intention of using the novel to try to grasp what being an Andersonville prisoner might "really" have been like for David Sells. I knew that, from a "scholarly" perspective, I was doing bad history, not to mention illegitimate literary analysis. But I didn't particularly care, and I went ahead and went looking for David Sells in Kantor's novel anyhow. It was a good thing I did.

No matter how much documented information you have, you can't ever fully or definitely recreate--accurately, affectively--the feel of the past. But you can try, and this is what MacKinlay Kantor did with his novel. A lifelong Civil War buff who grew up surrounded by the stories of that conflict's aging veterans, Kantor read toward Andersonville for forty years, and wrote it for twenty-five. Andersonville wasn't Kantor's only work and it was not his first work, but it was his great synthesis, the result of a lifetime spent not only studying the Civil War and the Andersonville camp, but making the tremendous effort to imagine them.

Studying and imagining are two different things, though they do overlap at points, and Kantor's novel illustrates this beautifully. Kantor could conceivably have attempted a Shelby Foote-like historical opus. His research had prepared him to undertake such a project. But he did not. His decision to do his historical synthesis from within the framework of fiction was not an accident but a choice--one well worth careful consideration (worth noting, too, but beyond the scope of this post: Foote's writing about the Civil War began as fiction; the massive multi-volume history for which he is best known grew out of his creative writing, and was begun at almost precisely the moment that Kantor published Andersonville).

As a genre, historical fiction operates under the assumption that history, and especially history's intangibles (the moral how of things, the affective tone of things, the subjective feel of things), can be, and perhaps had better be, handled through openly creative, if responsibly researched, narrative. This idea informed Walter Scott when he wrote Waverley, an early nineteenth-century tale about the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion that is generally credited with being the first historical novel. Enormously popular and influential throughout the nineteenth century, Scott had much to do with shaping the emerging genre of historical fiction both in Britain and abroad--if Dickens and George Eliot were each inspired, in their different ways, to write historical novels after the tradition of Scott, so were Balzac, Hugo, and Tolstoy.

The sort of influence Scott had on authors and readers was necessarily much deeper than a discussion of mere literary influence can indicate, though. Certainly he shaped aesthetic expectations about fiction; Scott's decision to meld historical thinking with storytelling was one of the most important moments in the notoriously troubled novel's acquisition of respectability as a literary genre. But in creating a public taste for historical narrative, Scott was also making it possible for people to live their lives as if they were themselves characters in historical novels. Mark Twain, for example, once wrote that the Civil War owed much to Southerners' collective effort to shape their society after Scott's fiction:


It was Sir Walter that made every gentleman in the South a Major or a Colonel, or a General or a Judge, before the war; and it was he, also, that made those gentlemen value their bogus decorations. For it was he that created rank and caste down there, and also reverence for rank and caste, and pride and pleasure in them. Enough is laid on slavery, without fathering upon it these creations and contributions of Sir Walter. Sir Walter had so large a hand in making Southern character, as it existed before the war, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.

Twain's comment is as instructive as it is fanciful: I'd go so far as to say that its instructiveness lies in its readiness to acknowledge how absolutely crucial fanciful, even flighty, notions can be to the shaping of worlds. The most serious and lasting things can arise from the most nonsensical notions; the term "peculiar institution," coined to describe the slave-holding South, speaks aptly to the region's intimate familiarity with this phenomenon.

Scott wanted people to remember a complicated and decisive moment in Scottish history that was, half a century later, quickly fading from collective memory even as it continued to define its descendants. Likewise Eliot (Middlemarch contemplates the period of England's First Reform Bill, forty years before), Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities uses the French Revolution as a means of reflecting on whether revolution would come to Victorian England), Tolstoy (War and Peace places the Russian aristocracy against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars), and MacKinlay Kantor, who very much belongs in this distinguished company. All believed that the way to get at something like an understanding of the pivotal moments of the past was to recognize that those moments both create and are created by those who lived them. As Tolstoy puts it in War and Peace,


In historical events great men - so-called - are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity.

The tensions between the largeness of the Civil War and the smallness of the largely forgotten lives that were given to it, between the horror of Andersonville and the mundane--Hannah Arendt would say "banal"--bureaucratic reasons for that horror, between the symbolic historic importance given to the camp and the sheer historical anonymity of the majority of the men who lived and died there: These form the framework for Andersonville, which is as deeply concerned with how important events can obliterate personality as it is with how these events tend to be remembered in terms of the individualistic short hand of "great men." As such, Andersonville was a remarkable work for me to happen across when my own particular mission was to try to find, somehow, someway, some trace of a man who had been obliterated, body and soul, by the place Kantor took for his subject.

to be continued

Erin O'Connor, 7:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)




August 13, 2004 [feather]
Two strikes and you're ...

Two years ago, administrators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill demonstrated their ignorance of the First Amendment when they ordered the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to strike wording from its constitution stipulating that the group's leaders be Christian. Such wording, the administrators argued, was discriminatory; when the IVF refused to cooperate, administrators threatened to withdraw the IVCF's school funding and to "de-recognize" the group. In a letter to IVCF, Jonathan E. Curtis, UNC's assistant director for student activities and organizations, told IVCF to modify the wording of your charter or I will have no choice but to revoke your University recognition.

FIRE successfully defended the group, explaining to UNC administrators how freedom of association works, and pointing out that the only discrimination in the case was their own discrimination against the IVCF. After the embarrassment of FIRE-instituted media exposure, UNC backed down and restored the group's rights. While the University continues to seek to ensure that our facilities and resources are not used in any way that fosters illegal discrimination, we also wish to uphold the principles of freedom of expression," Chancellor James Moeser said in a statement. "Thus I have asked our staff to allow IVCF to continue to operate as an official recognized student organization.

That should have been a clear, unforgettable lesson. But apparently it was not. The very same administrator who made trouble for the IVCF in 2002, Jonathan E. Curtis, is now making the exact same trouble for another campus Christian organization, the Alpha Omega Iota Christian fraternity. AOI has a clause in its constitution similar to the one in IVCF's that required group leaders to be Christians. And last fall, Curtis pulled the same prank with AOI that he had pulled less than a year before with IVCF, informing AOI leaders that unless they reworded their constitution, they would lose their funding as well as their status as a recognized student group.

Curtis' threat initially led AOI members to decide against submitting the required annual application for recognition (AOI had been a recognized student group since 1999, and had not encountered problems until Curtis got involved in 2003). But now AOI is fighting back. FIRE wrote a letter to Moeser remonstrating with him last month. Having received no response, they are going public with the story of UNC's continued arrogant unwillingness to accord religious students their associational rights.

I think FIRE will win this one, just like it won the last one, and just like it has won a number of analogous cases at colleges and universities across the country. My question is, how many times does Jonathan Curtis get to flout the law, abuse students, and embarrass his employers before he is relieved of his job? In 2002, when he violated the IVCF's rights, he could plead ignorance--but he can't do that this time.

Erin O'Connor, 7:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (9)




August 11, 2004 [feather]
FIRE-ing Catholic University

In June, I wrote about Catholic University's questionable decision to deny students the right to form a campus chapter of the NAACP. I noted the similarity of this case to a situation that arose at the University of Miami in 2003, when students seeking to form a group called "Advocates for Conservative Thought" were denied recognition, ostensibly because the group would be "redundant" with existing conservative student groups. FIRE defended the would-be ACTs, convincing UM president Donna Shalala that the school was employing spurious reasoning that amounted to an ideological double standard when it denied recognition to the group. In June, I wrote that I would like to see FIRE take on the Catholic University case--and now they have. Read all about it on FIRE's website.

Erin O'Connor, 4:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)




August 10, 2004 [feather]
Reading Andersonville, contd.

This is the promised continuation of last week's post on MacKinlay Kantor's Andersonville.

There are several people in my family tree who have taken particularly strong hold of my imagination. There are the famine immigrants, whose origins in Ireland I will probably never know because their son--my great grandfather--kept no records and told no stories and apparently sought assiduously to shed the past as he assimilated himself as far as a devoted, mass-every-morning Catholic could assimilate in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America. There are the numerous wanna-be gold miners in Colorado and California--one of whom hit the mother lode, only to lose his wealth as quickly as he gained it through bad investments and big spending (to celebrate his strike, he commissioned a train to take him and his friends on an all-expense-paid, luxury joyride from Denver to California). There is the great-great aunt who made a splash during the twenties and thirties as a writer of westerns--published, in order to avoid the nuisance of censorious judgment, under a variant of her cattle-ranching husband's name. There is the Dutch ancestor who was awarded a large farm in western Pennsylvania for distinguished service in the Revolutionary War. There is the Scottish ancestor who moved his family across the river separating Kentucky from Ohio and slave territory from free, in order to liberate his slaves. And there is David Sells, who, as I mentioned in my earlier post, fought for the Union during the Civil War until he was captured at Chickamauga, and then slowly starved to death during his tenure at three successive Confederate prison camps.

We have a uniformed photograph of David Sells, and a letter he wrote home before he was captured. In the photo he is baby-faced, beardless and wide-eyed. He appears to be small; his shoulders still have the narrowness of a boy's, and his chest is anything but broad. He looks too kind to be a soldier, and too young to have anything to do with the killing fields where the conflict between north and south was so bloodily settled (Chickamauga alone claimed almost 35,000 Union and Confederate casualties). In other words, David Sells looks just like countless other old boys and young men of his generation must have looked just before they marched off to war--before they knew what they were in for, before the fantasy of military glory and fighting for principle faded into a grisly and endlessly demeaning struggle just to stay alive. His letter home speaks, with touching misspellings and creepy prescience, of how well he and his company are treated. He particularly praises the food.

The story of David Sells had been passed down from my great-great grandmother--his sister--to my great-grandmother (her daughter), and then on down through my grandmother to my mother to me. Somewhere along the line the story got warped, as family stories so often do, and David was remembered as a brother my great-grandmother knew rather than as an uncle she only ever knew of. According to the story, this brother of hers had survived Andersonville, and had gone on to become a beloved and integral elder in his extended family.

It was not until my mother and I started chasing records this summer that we got the story straight. What our family had not remembered properly, the government had at least recorded accurately. Online databases gave us his regiment, his proper name (because we had the generation wrong, we had the surname wrong, too), his enlistment date, his date of capture, his progression through several camps, and his cause and date of death at Florence Stockade. They also informed us that no one knows where he was buried, that his was an unmarked, lost grave.

How do you find someone who has been twice lost--once by his country, and a second time by his own family? What do you really know about him from a letter and a photo and a small, sadly generic collection of facts? What can you know? It's the grand conundrum of historiography writ small, as genealogy.

The story of David Sells turned out to be the story of how David Sells was forgotten--ironically in the act of being remembered. This made me think a lot about how closely connected stories are to memories--how the one is needed for the other, but can entirely distort and displace the other, too. Finding out how fictionalized our family history of David Sells had accidentally become also created in me a desire for stories that would help me imagine what it was like for David to inhabit the facts that defined his final months of life.

And so I came to Andersonville. I knew about this novel the way I knew about a number of books--I had stared at its spine countless times as a child perusing her parents' bookshelves, looking for something to read. White paperback spine with gold raised type; yellowed pages and minuscule print. I had tried to read it more than once, and had been defeated each time: first, as a girl, by the complexity of the prose; later, as an adult thinking the book might make good bedtime reading, by the sheer historical density of the thing, its utter embeddedness in the world of Sumter County, Georgia during the mid-1860s; still later, as an older adult with chronic eyestrain, by the punishingly tiny print on the book's yellowed pages. Somehow Andersonville came with me when I moved out of my parents' house, and it migrated unread from apartment to apartment and state to state as I progressed from college through graduate school to work. Winnowing my ever-unwieldy library several years ago, I finally pitched Andersonville, not as a dud of a book, but as one whose typeface mandated that i would never read it.

I remembered Andersonville this summer, and ordered a copy with larger print in the hope that the book would help me in my search for David Sells. More on how that went, soon.

to be continued

Erin O'Connor, 8:47 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)




August 9, 2004 [feather]
Whither women's colleges?

The comments to this post on racial and ethnic segregation in higher education have converged on the interesting topic of single-sex colleges.

Didier asks, "what do the readers here think about the women's colleges remaining so? Is such separation socially warranted in the US? How should women's colleges justify allowing a woman to enroll as a woman and then remain enrolled following gender re-identification? Should "sex" or "gender" be the criterion that permits one to enroll in a woman's college?" In a subsequent comment, Didier expands the query: "should the criterion for admission be sex or gender? How is this different from national origin? It is important to recognize that neither or these attributes are considered one of the student's merits, since birthplace and gender are games of chance."

Other commenters have noted the all-important distinction between what private and public colleges and universities can legally do to restrict enrollment, as well as the way in which the very concept of the women's college as a scene of feminine empowerment may be understood as utterly self-negating (as Rene writes, in a tone of what I take to be sarcasm, "Women are more insecure and need a safer environment, free from male threat, competition, and interest. Just as it's okay to have all black colleges and schools, it's also okay to have all women colleges and schools. Likewise, there are colleges in the US that accept only Japanese nationals. It would definitely be wong to have all white or all male colleges, however. That would be discriminatory").

Peter Wood took up this question in his excellent Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, and again in The Chronicle of Higher Education in the spring of 2003. The article is restricted to subscribers only, but I have summarized and excerpted it here. Wood makes some excellent points about how, while it is quite possible to justify the existence of single-sex colleges, the current rationale for them--which hinges increasingly on a peculiarly limited and self-serving concept of diversity--is illogical to the point of hypocrisy. Wood is worth reading, if you've got access to the book or a subscription to CHE. And even if you don't, the questions raised by Didier are well worth discussing. Readers are welcome, as ever, to join in.

Erin O'Connor, 7:29 AM | Permalink | Comments (40)




August 6, 2004 [feather]
While U Wait

I'll be posting that promised follow-up to my Tuesday Andersonville post soon. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the additional Andersonville posting at Random Pensees. There's lots of good primary material linked, there, including excerpts from a journal kept by an Andersonville prisoner.

Erin O'Connor, 10:58 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)




August 4, 2004 [feather]
Segregating in the name of diversity

When Florida International sought to impose demographic restrictions on course enrollment--limiting access to a certain Spanish course to "Hispanic bilinguals educated in the U.S....whose mother tongue is Spanish," "U.S. Hispanic bilinguals," and "U.S. Hispanic Bilinguals Only"--FIRE informed the school that it was in patent violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection clause, not to mention numerous federal and state regulations. All it took, back in the fall of 2001, was a letter from FIRE to get Florida International to back down. The school apologized, reworded its course descriptions so as to make them non-discriminatory, and carried on. It was just another day at the office for FIRE, a slam dunk kind of case that swiftly and cleanly set an obvious wrong right.

Students at the University of Colorado at Boulder have lately been subjected to a similarly noxious set of enrollment restrictions. A Friday section of the popular course "School and Society"--which is required for all education majors, and which also satisfies the university's "culture and gender diversity" course requirement--was restricted to non-white students and first-generation white college students.

Administrators at Boulder created the exclusive section in response to complaints from minority students that in mixed-race versions of the course they were being singled out as representatives of their race. "Very often, their class would turn to them whenever an issue of race was discussed," said the dean of the School of Education. "They'd be asked if they agreed with a certain perspective or to defend a certain position. They'd be put on the spot in ways that made it feel like a hostile environment."

Teachers who pigeonhole minority students in this way--or who allow other students to do that--are definitely engaging in destructive pedagogy, and should expect complaints. But the proper response is not segregation.

This point, too, is being made by minority students at Boulder.Three CU students got themselves a lawyer and threatened to sue if the school did not change its policy immediately. Their argument was that the racial division effected by the school's misguided attempt to accommodate minority students who feel targeted in mixed-race courses is itself discriminatory. Antonia Gaona, a senior of Hispanic descent, explained: "I'm frustrated with programs like this because they force students to identify themselves on the basis of race .... It's like the university feels it needs to coddle minority students and have us work with students who only look like us, and that's not how the real world works."

The threat of a lawsuit, combined with unpleasant publicity, has worked. UC Boulder announced yesterday that it would no longer impose demographic restrictions on course enrollment.

Erin O'Connor, 8:17 AM | Permalink | Comments (10)




August 3, 2004 [feather]
Reading Andersonville

As a followup to yesterday's post about reasons why we read, I thought I would talk a little bit about why I read the last book that I read.

Over the weekend, I finally finished, after weeks of the slow, careful reading this novel requires, MacKinlay Kantor's massive, magisterial, and all but forgotten Andersonville. Andersonville won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956, but you won't see it on many (if any) course syllabi, and I doubt it will enjoy the sort of brief but intense literary revival that Oprah has recently afforded Kantor's contemporaries, John Steinbeck and Carson McCullers. Andersonville is not only very long (upwards of 800 pages), but very dense (you skim, you lose). It's also so deeply, intensely historical that you can't read it--or can't read it with much profit--without a significant amount of self-directed historical supplementation. Most basically, you need to know what Andersonville was and why it matters to know what it was. This in turn means you need to have more than the glancing knowledge of the Civil War that most of us blithely consider to be adequate. This in turn means that you need to have already in place some sort of historical handle on that part of the past, some reason for caring about the gorier details of an increasingly remote moment of American military history. In our contemporary social studies mindset, we tend to think of the Civil War in terms of broad social shifts and isolated dramatic events: the freeing of the slaves, the assassination of Lincoln, the devastation of the slow-moving, agricultural lifestyle of the South by the emerging industrial war machine of the North. We don't study battles much in school because military history is far out of fashion. And we don't talk much, if at all, about the POW camps as a result. The military side of the Civil War is, for many non-war buff Americans, a virtual blank.

I include myself among those many non-war buff Americans--or I would have, before this summer. This summer, though, a family history project I have been doing on and off for the past year or so has led me in some surprising directions. I have found myself reading about the California gold rush--because I have a great-great grandfather who came with his family to San Francisco from England to prospect. I have found myself reading about the Colorado gold rush that took place several decades after California's--because I have another great-great English grandfather who uprooted his family from a comfortable life on the Devon coast to try mining in Denver. I've read about the building of the transcontinental railroad, and I've studied the histories of both the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific lines--because I've got a great grandfather who got himself out from under the impoverishing onus of Irish immigrant life, and also out to California from New York, by becoming a machinist specializing in steam locomotives. I've studied the history of Iowa, with particular emphasis on the enclave of Irish immigrants that settled in the western part of the state shortly after the state was formed, because I have another set of ancestors who found their way to a farm there after fleeing famine-ridden Ireland. I've also become interested in the Civil War, and in particular in Civil War prison camps--because I have a great-great-great uncle, brother to my maternal great-great grandmother, who died in a Confederate prison late in 1864.

David Sells--descendant of the Dutch immigrant Ludwick Von Zell--grew up on a farm in southern Ohio, in the same town where, coincidentally, Ulysses S. Grant, future commander of the Union army, grew up. He was a distant relative of the colossally incompetent George Armstrong Custer--precise relation still to be discovered--who also grew up in the area. He enlisted in August 1862 at the decidedly not ripe age of 18, and served as a chaplain in the 89th Ohio Infantry, Company C, until he and the rest of his company were captured in September 1863 at Chickamauga. Chickamauga is known today to have been an egregiously mismanaged battle from the Union's standpoint. David Sells was one of the many to suffer the eventually fatal consequences of that mismanagement.

The first stop for the 89th Ohio was Belle Isle, an island prison at Richmond situated in the middle of the James River. Belle Isle was overcrowded, rations were scarce, sickness was rampant, and uprisings were pretty regular events. Belle Isle was also a very public prison--located at the heart of one of the busiest cities in Virginia, it was awfully hard to hide what went on there, and impossible to conceal the deplorable conditions under which prisoners contrived to live (click on the link above to see how fully documented Belle Isle was in the Richmond press). The overcrowding, the expense, and the visibility of Belle Isle motivated the Confederates to build another prison further south, away from the public eye, that could handle Belle Isle's overflow. That prison would become known as Andersonville.

In the winter of 1864, a primitive stockade was built in the little hamlet of Anderson, Sumter County, Georgia. The site was chosen for its remoteness and for the little spring that fed the area. It was imagined that the spring would supply fresh water to the prisoners confined at Camp Sumter (the prison's official name), but in fact it was largely trampled into nonexistence during the building of the stockade itself. When prisoners began arriving at the camp in Februrary 1864, what they encountered was a 29-acre holding pen, without shelter of any kind, without trees for shade, and without a source of clean water. Instead, there was a brackish muck that ran through the center of the camp. The remains of what was once a little stream flowing with clear, pure springwater, it became the camp's dysenteric toilet practically overnight. Prisoners at Andersonville were compelled to drink the tainted water that served as a privy to thousands of sickly men and as breeding ground to millions of mosquitos and flies. David Sells was one of these prisoners. He and the rest of his company were transferred from Belle Isle to Andersonville during the early months of 1864.

Andersonville was designed to hold about 10,000 men. But by the time it was itself closed down later that summer, it held 30,000. Many were nearly naked (the Confederates did not supply clothing), all were nearly starved (what little food was rationed to the prisoners was often rotten or, in the case of corn bread, so thick with jagged pieces of unground cob that the men could not eat it for fear of the damage it would do to their already bleeding intestines). Those who had shelter of any kind slept under "shebangs," makeshift tents comprised of clothing and blankets draped over short wooden poles. The stench of the place could be smelled for miles. The death rate, from starvation, scurvy, gangrene (which could arise from even the smallest scratch), dysentery, and so on, was astronomical--nearly one third of the men confined there died there. The death rate was also, tragically, avoidable--what the Confederate officers lacked in the way of resources and basic compassion the local Georgians did not. They attempted on more than one occasion to bring food and clothing to the prisoners in the stockade, often robbing their own closets and tables to do so. But they were turned away at the gate.

In late summer, as Atlanta fell to the Union and General Sherman prepared for his famous march to the sea, the Confederates determined that Andersonville, which lay more or less in Sherman's path, had to be vacated. Two new prisons were built to handle those Andersonville prisoners healthy enough to walk (a goodly number could not walk, and were left behind on the notion that even if Sherman freed them, they would not be physically able to fight for their cause). Those new prisons were at Savannah and Florence, South Carolina. David Sells, who could still walk in the late summer of 1864, was removed to the newly built Florence Stockade. Conditions there were much as they were at Andersonville. Sickness and death ran rampant--so much so that by the end of November, more than 10 per cent of the prisoners had died and the prison officers, loathe to shoulder the moral burden of that statistic, were removing the sickest to hospitals. David Sells missed that moment by a hair's breadth. On November 23, he died in Florence stockade. He was 21. The cause of death was recorded, with haunting minimalism, as "starvation."

So what does all this have to do with Kantor's novel? I'll explain tomorrow.

Erin O'Connor, 9:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (19)




August 2, 2004 [feather]
Why read?

Mark Edmundson, author of the pedagogically reverent coming-of-age memoir Teacher, is publishing a new, fortuitously-timed book entitled Why Read?. He summarized his main point yesterday in The New York Times:


To me, the best way to think about reading is as life's grand second chance. All of us grow up once: we pass through a process of socialization. We learn about right and wrong and good and bad from our parents, then from our teachers or religious guides. Gradually, we are instilled with the common sense that conservative writers like Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson thought of as a great collective work. To them, common sense is infused with all that has been learned over time through trial and error, human frustration, sorrow and joy. In fact, a well-socialized being is something like a work of art.

Yet for many people, the process of socialization doesn't quite work. The values they acquire from all the well-meaning authorities don't fit them. And it is these people who often become obsessed readers. They don't read for information, and they don't read for beautiful escape. No, they read to remake themselves. They read to be socialized again, not into the ways of their city or village this time but into another world with different values. Such people want to revise, or even to displace, the influence their parents have had on them. They want to adopt values they perceive to be higher or perhaps just better suited to their natures.

When Walt Whitman picked up the work of his older contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he was a carpenter, framing two- and three-room houses in Brooklyn. He had been a journalist; he had written some mediocre fiction -- he looked to be someone who would never amount to much. After reading the great essays, Whitman purportedly said: ''I was simmering, simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.''

Whitman had been reared to be modest and self-effacing. But Emerson offered him a new image of authority. He was, for a while, Whitman's second father. Obviously it takes more than reading a book to create a Walt Whitman. But the act of reading Emerson was still at the center of what is probably the most marvelous transformation in the history of literature.


Whitman's conversion experience is as typical as it is dramatic: Hordes of people who undergo transformative reading experiences emerge from them wanting to write in such a way that they do unto others what someone else's writing has just done to them. What's "marvelous" about Whitman's transformation is that his experience of a genuinely commonplace impulse--the feeling of inspiration that washes over one when one reads something really good--did not produce in the aspiring writer commonplace, derivative results.

Edmundson's choice of Whitman as an example doubles back on itself in a manner perhaps unintended: Surely the transformative effects of reading are not only useful insofar as they turn people into aspiring writers. There is something insular in that, something that undercuts the premise that reading is a self-socializing act.

I am reminded of a passage from Cynthia Ozick's Puttermesser Papers, in which the eponymous heroine dreams about a heaven that consists of an eternity spent reading an unending stack of books while consuming an inexhaustible supply of chocolate. It's an image of consumption without consequence (Puttermesser's teeth will never rot, she will never grow fat), cost (in paradise, the books are free, chocolate is free, and there is all the time in the world), or return (Puttermesser never aims to talk about what she reads, or to share her books with others, or to write something herself, or even to stop consuming long enough to digest what she has read). Ozick's portrait of a reader's paradise is a picture of indiscriminate gobbling, and as such it is both profoundly anti-social and massively regressive: book as breast. It's a funny image--but in its sheer extremity it reveals a lot about how readers, and reading, are often regarded in a society that is as wrapped up in the display of work and work-related social performances as ours is.

Edmundson appears to be interested in doing the timely and necessary work of refashioning the idea of reading for a public that is losing whatever sense it might once have had that reading is, in itself, a positive good (see the comments to my post on the NEA's recent study on the decline of literary reading in America for examples). And he seems to be interested in doing this work by recasting reading as a seriously social, not to mention socially responsible, behavior--one that can help readers think about what it means to be a social being, and that can even help them rework their own social selves.

There is a lot of George Eliot underwriting that idea. But that's another post. For now, I'll just open the discussion up to readers: How social is reading? Is it an isolating, anti-social activity, or is it, in its quiet way, a profoundly communal act? Is there a value merely in the act of reading, independent of content? If so, how would you describe that value? Why read? Why do you personally read--or, why do you personally not read?

Erin O'Connor, 8:27 AM | Permalink | Comments (19)