Ethan Frome, Ethan Frome

Greetings readers! Dead White Guys returns with our reading of the novel Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. We’ll cover a chapter a week for the next ten weeks, beginning today with the novel’s prologue, which introduces the unnamed narrator and titular character. Wharton is a master of bleak landscapes and tortured protagonists–which may be partly responsible for her inclusion in the canon–so you can expect to find plenty of both.

The Introduction

Ethan Frome is a novel by hearsay, delivered in bits and pieces to a character–and by extension to the reader–completely external to the events, much in the way of Wuthering Heights.

In this case, the novel’s narrator travels to the town Starkfield, Massachusetts on behalf of the company he works for–but a local strike significantly hinders his progress. He’s waiting in line at the post office when he sees Frome for the first time approaching in his cart. He’s immediately arrested by the man’s appearance, noting:

Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man.

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Like this, but with more chemistry.

He inquires about Frome and learns from the stagecoach driver that he had had an accident some twenty-four years earlier, which left him lame and old beyond his years. The narrator likewise remarks that although Frome comes into town regularly to get his mail, there’s rarely anything for him except for the local paper.

Starkfield is not the sort of place one lingers if there’s a choice, and Frome, the narrator learns, has been kept there by obligations to family needing care.

That might be the end of the matter, except our narrator is bored and somewhat curious about Frome, so he asks his landlady, Mrs. Hale, for more information. Usually happy enough to pass judgment on her neighbors, she doesn’t give him much in the way of gossip, piquing his interest further. Wharton doesn’t draw this out particularly much–rather she moves the story along by way of nature.

Our narrator loses his usual way to the train station and Frome volunteers to substitute for a small fee. This doesn’t immediately lead to a warm friendship between the two, because Frome is taciturn above all else, but they do bond very briefly over a book the narrator accidentally leaves in his cart. It sparks some sort of regret in Frome, but still, communication is sparse.

It’s only after a particularly bad snow storm that the narrator gets any sort of insight into Frome’s life. Unable to press on farther to town, they take shelter in Frome’s home.

It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story.

Winter in Starkfield, apparently.

Winter in Starkfield, apparently.

Wharton’s Approach

Now, to a certain extent, Wharton is simply using a common literary device for her era. Many such stories are delivered secondhand, from H.G. Wells’ Time Machine to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What’s intriguing about Wharton’s use of the method is what it reveals about character. Frome is isolated and uncommunicative. It is unlikely we would hear his story from him, the way we do Pip’s in Great Expectations or Huck’s in Huckleberry Finn.

Frome’s story is buried deep and can only be excavated in pieces by an outsider–the people in Starkfield know as much as they need or want to know. Consequently, our narrator needs to be both completely ignorant of Frome’s history and intensely curious about it, both traits he possesses, on account of his boredom and station. He’s taken with Frome’s appearance and intrigued by his interest in the book. This is a man with a story, a man whose life may have been very different but for circumstance.

This acknowledges, of course, that this story is incomplete and our narrator perhaps untrustworthy. Not to the degree Nick Carraway is in The Great Gatsby, but certainly not objective and not entirely informed. There is already a fancy and romanticism about his interest in Frome, although perhaps that is also true about Wharton’s relationship to the character. Then again, as a character, the narrator serves no other purpose and has no other agenda than to tell the story. He is, in some sense, a blank canvas onto which we as readers might imprint ourselves.

What did you make of the introduction to Ethan Frome?

Everybody’s Zora: “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”

At long last, we return to reading great literature! Dead White Guys will kick off its summer reading with “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” by the inimitable Zora Neale Hurston, which happens to be one of my favorite essays in the whole of the written world.

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This woman. So completely amazing.

“How It Feels to Be Colored Me” is one of the great discussions of identity in American literature. It is both an exploration and an assertion of self by Hurston, who details the experience of coming into the status of being “colored.” She recalls:

Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town. The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando

It wasn’t that Hurston grew up without any knowledge of white people. To the contrary, they drove through town regularly. But in that context, they were the outsiders, the other. For her, they were both audience and entertainment. It was only by entering mainstream white society that Hurston became, as she says, colored. Before that, she was only Zora.

 I left Eatonville, the town of the oleanders, a Zora. When I disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville, she was no more. It seemed that I had suffered a sea change. I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl.

In the way of the Harlem Renaissance writers, as you’ll remember from Langston Hughes,  Hurston doesn’t lament her condition–rather, she celebrates her selfhood. “I am not tragically colored,” she assures us. “Slavery is sixty years in the past.” She is not unaware of her ancestors’ legacies, but that only makes her own pursuit of adventure more necessary. “No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost.”

She rejoices in the beauties of this new world–in music, particularly, which is where she brings the essay.

This orchestra grows rambunctious, rears on its hind legs and attacks the tonal veil with primitive fury, rending it, clawing it until it breaks through to the jungle beyond. I follow those heathen–follow them exultingly. I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww! I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way. My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue.

Even in this instant, she finds her white companion unmoved by the music in the same way she is. He comments casually upon it; she feels the incredible distance between them. It’s another illustration of the way that race is established in contrast, in opposition. Hurston reflects that “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Ultimately, she concludes, that we are all just collections of things–our skins merely packaging. “Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless.”

Discussion

Hurston was a force all her own and the strength of her personality pours out from her writing. There is no one she could be, we understand, but Zora, cosmic Zora. And although she shrugs off the injustices done to her (“How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”) there is something immensely powerful and subversive about her assertion of this self. She refuses to be reduced, to be limited. She denies the tragic narrative, not because there is no tragedy to be found, but because she sees it as a waste. The universe is incredible–she is incredible. And at the end of the day, from her perspective there is much more of the mysterious and cosmic than there is the mundane and tragic.

The other essential aspect of the essay, of course, is the ways in which identities manifest externally or internally. Hurston is “colored” by virtue of social construction, not anything inherent to herself. Conversely, her response to the music in the club seems inherent to something beyond social construction. It stirs her on a more fundamental level. (That her companion is not so moved may be the result of social conditioning or something more unconscious; we can’t know.) Because what is Zora is something much more profound and joyous and uninhibited. She is not these things in spite of her race, but they are manifestly more part of her than any identity imposed on her by social convention.

It’s a striking line to walk because it is a celebration of self, a exploration of our notions about race, and an almost metaphysical examination of identity.

What do you make of Hurston’s claim that “A bit of colored glass more or less would not matter?” Where do you think she ultimately settles on the question of race?

Next week time, we will start reading Edith Wharton’s short novel Ethan FromeThe goal is to read and discuss two chapters per week, so we’ll kick it off with the section “Ethan Frome” and Chapter I.

What the canon is and how we can defeat it

Hello everyone! Yes, Dead White Guys is finally back. Thank you for your patience. Let’s get back in it.

Before we return to reading seminal (uck) texts in the Western tradition, however, I wanted to pause briefly and consider the object of our continued study: the philosophical and literary canon.

It’s no surprise that even the word canon feels evocative of a certain dogma–after all, the original idea of “canon” applies to the inclusion and arrangement of religious texts, particularly in the Christian Bible. And while there were indeed church leaders who decided what did and not belong in their scripture, today the creators of the canon of the so-called “Great Books” are a much more amorphous, loosely associated group of individuals.

Who decides the literary canon? Well, the editors of The Norton Anthology. And the Library of America series. But also your Survey of English literature professor, whether you went to Your Town State or Yale.

Because, for all that the canon can feel stagnant and inflexible, it’s actually an evolving organism, which changes as academia changes. Mind you, academia changes veryvery slowly because these institutions are not particularly fond of change. However, as the makeup of academia changes, so must the canon.

Why? Not because there are secret bimonthly meetings which decide such things. It’s tempting, I know to picture the Great Books Shadow Council sitting around and chortling over which 20th century works they will deign to include for future generations.

What we think of when we picture the canon.

Who we think chooses the canon.

But in reality, the canon is determined almost entirely by what academics choose to teach and research. That’s it.

So, when your philosophy professor wants to introduce you to the foundations of Western thought, you read Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Hume, Hobbes, Locke, etc. Partly because that’s what she learned and how those classes are often taught (you see, then, how the canon self-perpetuates) but also because she’s choosing to teach those particular texts.

The canon is, therefore, your syllabus. It’s booklists for comprehensive exams. It’s also what professional academics are interested in studying. The more people who study a text, the more prominent it becomes in the canon. And the more classes in which appears.

Now, academia–and therefore the canon–does go through fads. Some books that were popular among academics in the 1970s no longer are today. There are also disparities by school. UC Santa Barbara might have an English department that likes to include a lot of women writers and writers of color. Meanwhile Iowa State might be the place to go for Medieval Lit, the domain of dead white guys. The canon has a localized presence, it’s true, but it also has a cumulative presence. So every other year when you see that list of “100 books everyone should have read,” that’s the canon in a very basic form, as represented by the mainstream.

The Great Books are intended to be those that persist through fads and are present across curriculums. The RepublicMoby Dick. Hamlet. And, yes, even The Bible. But it’s important to remember that while those books have objective merits, they’re present because someone is choosing to include them. Many someones.

lead-academics

Who actually chooses the canon.

 

So how do we defeat the canon? Maybe you don’t–maybe it persists and it should persist. Maybe it is important we all read the same books.

On the other hand, as a student and a thinker, you actually have significant power over your relationship to the canon. You can interact with it and learn from it. You can choose to inform yourself about texts that seem to stay outside the canon, no matter their significance to different groups of people. You can ask questions–lots of questions until you really annoy the faculty at your school. You can continue to challenge the idea of a canon.

And maybe, if you continue on in academia, you can decide to study something different and make your own–however slight–impression. You can teach and talk about texts you find powerful, whether you read them in your survey course or not.

Even if you’re not in academia, you can do that. Anyone can.

So, really, how do we defeat the canon?

We keep reading.

Hiatus

Hamlet-with-skull-of-Yorick

Hello everyone! Apologies for the lapse in content. In the interest of returning to our regularly scheduled programming, Dead White Guys will be on hiatus until Tuesday, May 5. Thanks for reading!

Langston Hughes: Themes and Dreams

Hello readers! I hope you enjoyed the Langston Hughes poems we read for this week month. Sorry for the delay in discussion–February rather got away from me. But it’s never the wrong time to discuss Langston Hughes! I look forward to your thoughts both on the poems’ form and execution, their place in the canon, and what they mean in a broader cultural context.

Theme for English B

The premise of this poem is straightforward: the speaker has been directed to write a page for class. The end result challenges the very assumptions of the assignment–“I wonder if it’s that simple?”–while also fulfilling the requirement–“I am twenty-two, born in Winston-Salem”–and manages to end on a question of connectivity and common humanity. He addresses his instructor in the final stanza:

Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me / Nor do I often want to be a part of you. But we are, that’s true!

There’s a deftness to the execution here which I’ve always admired. The poem expands with the speaker’s origins and current placement in New York–it contracts again in the final stanza. Hughes turns his reflections partly into a love letter to Harlem as a way of exploring his own identity in this new place.

I feel and see and hear, Harlem I hear you: / hear you, hear me–we two– you, me, talk on this page

And there’s an undeniably wry tone in that final address to the instructor, who is “somewhat more free,” yet also somehow part of the speaker, in the way all people are part of one another. After all: “That’s American.

Madam and Her Madam

Structurally, this poem looks even simpler than “Theme for English B” with its short line lengths and six regular four-line stanzas. Here, Hughes takes on the persona of Alberta, employed by the title “Madam” who has children and a dog and a twelve-room house to look after. The poem’s regularity effectively evokes the wearying, constant nature of the work, and its uniformity often feels confining.

Even though Alberta is telling us her story, the lines are neat and regimented and she can’t say exactly what she wants until the end. Of course, the joke is ultimately on Madam, because Alberta certainly doesn’t need her as much as she needs Alberta–and of course, even though Madam isn’t intentionally cruel (“not mean“), there’s no reason for Alberta to enjoy her work or care for her employer.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

In my estimation, this is one of Langston Hughes’ most beautiful poems. It relies on voice rather less than some of his more famous works, but the imagery is gorgeous and the tone manages to be weary and aching and reverent all at once. Hughes creates a visceral connection with history through the medium of the river–from the the Euphrates, Congo, and Nile to the east to the Mississippi in the West. (I love the Mississippi’s “muddy / bosom turn all golden in the sunset.”) And that last line –“My soul has grown deep like the rivers“–evokes a lasting, human connection to these scenes.

Dream Variations

Hughes wrote quite a bit about dreams–it’d be easy money to bet you read “Harlem” (often referred to “A Dream Deferred”) in high school. This particular dream poem makes a striking use of repetition and, appropriately, variation. If it had more than two stanzas it would likely gain a fugue-like quality. As it is, the variation feels like a change in energy or perhaps purpose. In the first stanza we read “To whirl and to dance” which in the second becomes the more frantic and exultant “Dance! Whirl! Whirl!” The “white day” becomes a “quick day.”

In the aftermath of this heightened energy, the end of the poem becomes more drifting, suggested primarily via the use of ellipses: “Rest at pale evening… / A tall slim tree…” feel more like looser impressions than their stanza 1 counterparts “Then rest at cool eveningBeneath a tall tree.” In this way, the first stanza feels more controlled and more staid–the second, more energetic but also more chaotic.

We end not with a repetition of the first stanza’s “That is my dream!” but a variation of the penultimate line: “Dark like me–” becomes the more decisive “Black like me.” Thus the dream’s desire is either implied–or achieved.

Discussion

As I’ve noted, Hughes is notable not only for his subject matter but his use of voice and narrative. Although it’s easy to conflate him with the speaker in poems like “Theme for English B” and “Dream Variations,” he also clearly takes on different personas in order to present different narratives, as in “Madam and Her Madam.” (We can debate about “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”–I’d argue the speaker both is and is not Hughes.) His poetry is obviously largely driven by particular experiences and observations. Like much successful poetry, it balances the personal and the particular with the political and the universal. But at their most fundamental level, these poems are about voices and giving voice to a range of human experiences unexpressed in poetry of Hughes’ white contemporaries.

Of course, we recognize Hughes as an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance. He was one individual of a large group of artists, writers, and musicians engaged in a tremendous output of creativity. However, he is arguably one of the most successful and consistently studied of the Harlem Renaissance writers. There are biographical, political, and historical reasons for this, of course, but we may also consider the poems themselves as the reason for Hughes’ relative prominence in their form or accessibility.

But perhaps most importantly, I would underscore the point that the poems have an artistry which is not at all undermined by Hughes’ political ideals or cultural intentions. Rather, these aspects are part of their success. Which raises the point, I believe, that a work may at once be of a historical moment without alienating future readers of different backgrounds and cultures.

What do you think of Langston Hughes’ use of voice? The stories he tells?

An announcement, friends! Dead White Guys will now be on a Tuesday and Thursday schedule. This will not necessarily mean more or faster reading, but hopefully shorter blog posts and more opportunities to reflect on our texts.

Next week, I want to talk a bit about the canon, how I think about it, and the challenges it poses. Then, on Thursday, we’ll read Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” I’m going to use Zora and a few other black women writers to transition into Women’s History Month.

Thanks for reading!

Twain: Cannibalism and Fenimore Cooper

Greetings, readers! I hope you enjoyed the change of pace this week. As we discuss Twain, I hope we can address the function of satire in great literature and explore the idea that for a work to be meaningful it need not be deadly serious. This week’s post is a one-post discussion, so I’ll summarize “Cannibalism in the Cars” and “The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper,” then address their thematic elements.

Cannibalism in the Cars

In this short piece, Twain relates the (hopefully fictional?) events of a train trip during which he meets an older gentleman who tells him a wild tale about a train full of men which gets trapped in the snow.

As the days before rescue drag on, the starving passengers turn to their only alternative: cannibalism. The subsequent scene is outright hilarious: naturally, they elect leadership and form a committee to determine who shall be eaten first. Twain takes several shots at parliamentary procedure throughout their debate with gems like: “‘Mr. President The report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana far from it.”

The proceedings, as they are, continue at length until two men are selected. Our narrator’s companion waxes poetic about the meal: “I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction.”

Amazing. The committee chooses the next man and the next for several meals until the train is freed from the snow and the surviving passengers travel home, as if nothing remarkable had happened. Our narrator is, naturally, horrified, until the conductor explains: the older gentleman (a former member of Congress) almost starved to death in a snow drift.

“He is all right now, only he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject he never stops till he has eat up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd by this time, only he had to get out here. He has got their names as pat as A B C.”

The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper

This brilliant critical essay discusses the (apparently many) sins of the Deerslayer novels. Twain begins the essay by quoting three respected minds in the field of  literary theory–including novelist Wilkie Collins–all of whom praise Cooper’s novels. Twain objects: “It would have been much more decorous to keep silent and let persons talk who have read Cooper.”

In some ways, the essay is as much an elucidation of good storytelling as it is a hysterical lampooning of the adventures of Natty Bumppo. Twain facetiously proclaims, “Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.” But he also sets forth his standards for good writing, including:

“12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.”

Twain then proceeds to break down several scenes in which Cooper violates not only literary art but apparently the laws of nature. He notes that although much of writing is merely dependent upon good observation, “Cooper seldom saw anything correctly. He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly.”

The essay is ruthless, biting, and incredibly funny.It concludes: “I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that “Deerslayer” is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that “Deerslayer” is just simply a literary delirium tremens.”

Discussion

Both of these works are quite funny in two distinct ways. “Cannibalism in the Cars” mocks notions of civilization with its juxtaposition of procedure with one of the gravest social offenses–eating each other–while “The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper” lays down the necessary qualities of a good story while challenging the critical consensus of a popular novel. Neither are less worthwhile for their humor. In fact, that humor is a necessary quality for their execution.

A gruesomely realistic “Cannibalism in the Cars” would certainly be horrifying, but our horror would most likely alienate us from the point Twain is trying to make about the barbarism lurking in even our most decorous citizens. After all, we recognize nothing of our social instincts in the Donner party or similar incidents, but rather focus on how we differ from those put into such dire straights.

Meanwhile, a serious critical discussion of Deerslayer would position the work as worthy of serious criticism, which Twain is deliberately seeking to avoid. The best way to highlight the novel’s ridiculous scenarios, it seems, is to employ a similar technique of hyperbole. The result is extraordinarily funny, but it in no way leaves me doubting the absurdity of Cooper’s choices. Essentially, I think it would be impossible now for me to read Deerslayer without laughing, which is the ultimate way to undermine a serious story.

I think these readings raise the necessary question: how do we relate to ideas differently through humor? Clearly, just because something is funny doesn’t mean it can’t make a compelling point. It is in fact an evocative and memorable way of presenting ideas. And yet, humor occurs so rarely in our academic discourse and so-called canon of great texts.

What are your thoughts on “Cannibalism in the Cars” and “The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper?” What role do you think humor plays in the communication of ideas?

Next week, we will read poems by Langston Hughes. I’ll focus on “Theme for English B,” “Madam and Her Madam,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and “Dream Variations.” As always, thanks for reading!

Othello: Further Reading

Hello everyone! Today we have lists of further viewing/reading: five Othello adaptations and fifteen additional primary texts to provide relevant counterpoints, complements, and perspectives. Unfortunately, I could not find any legal open access versions of the adaptations, but they are available through Amazon Instant and Hulu. As always, your recommendations are absolutely welcome and encouraged. Please leave them in the comments!

Adaptations

Additional Texts

Next week, we’ll read “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” and “Cannibalism in Cars” by Mark Twain.

Thanks, as always, for reading along!