The Good Lord Bird: A Review

16171272“The Good Lord Bird” is a book I ought to like. I liked McBride’s first autobiography, “The Color of Water,” an appreciative remembrance/meditation on being a black man with a white mother. I liked McBride personally when he visited Messiah College. He is a fantastic musician, whose passion for music I share. Like most America’s I’m intrigued by the fanatical John Brown. The novel’s theme is race in America, the fatal subject of many of the greatest American novels from Moby Dick to Huckleberry Finn to Absalom Absalom to the Invisible Man to Beloved. It’s James McBride’s fourth book, about the time in a career when one starts to see signature work produced. It was chosen for the National Book Award. Everything things about it says BIG. Good writer, big book, big subject.

But the book left me cold.

Well, really somewhat more than lukewarm, which feels like cold when you are eagerly expecting greatness. I liked many passages. It was better than watching netflix…most of the time. But I expect more than that from a National Book Award Winner, and couldn’t help but wonder what the judges were thinking, though it also crossed my mind that American fiction must have been in a bad way in 2013 if this was the best we could produce. Apparently this thought crossed McBride’s mind as well since, according to the Times story on the 2013 NBA ceremonies, McBride was stunned to have won and didn’t even prepare a speech.

The book has often been compared to Huckleberry Finn. indeed, the novel’s cover insists on it, evoking the ubiquitous straw hat that seems to accompany every edition of the novel and rendition of Huck’s story since that American classic was written. Henry, the novel’s protagonist, is a cross-dressing early adolescent struggling to find his own way and own identity in a world full of people who impose their vision of what he is or ought to be at will. There is no river–a good bit of the novel takes place in the plains of Kansas and Iowa, in its own more desiccated way as stark brutal and unforgiving a wild thing as the Huck’s Mississippi. In a different sense, John Brown himself is Henry’s river, a wild thing, a force of nature with a logic and will of his own that bends things to himself, like a Kansas tornado or a Mississippi flood, and does the bending in part through his own fanatical certainty in the will of God.

But the differences between Huckleberry Finn and The Good Lord Bird also point to the latter’s narrative problems. In Huckleberry Finn, the river is a character of its own, but it is never the character that we care about. From the opening sentence we know we care about Huck Finn and coming to know him. The river is finally an occasion for the main narrative character, and not the other way around. If the river drives Huck through coincidence, or if Huck follows it where it carries him, finally the reader follows Huck, only sticking with the river because of that human story. In The Good Lord Bird I could never muster a lot of concern from Henry, who followed John Brown for no good reason, didn’t seem to want to be there, and didn’t seem to learn all that much by his travels. In the Times story cited above, McBride says he enjoyed writing the novel because “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around.” The novel has that feel. That Henry is just falling in to the world and following John Brown around for no reason we can adequately figure out. In this sense, the novel feels all the way through a bit like Huck Finn feels in its disappointing conclusion, when Huck Finn, who has captured our imagination and matured before our interior eyes, turns freedom and maturity into a banal melodrama at the hands of his would-be mentor, Tom Sawyer.

In the acknowledgements section at the end of the book, McBride thanks the many who kept the memory of John Brown alive. I’m not sure this book will do that very well. When, for the space of several dozen pages in the middle of the novel, John Brown disappears from the scene and Henry is left to his own devices, we realize we just don’t care that much about him. And if Henry is not himself a compelling character, if Henry is not more than an empty sleeve of a boy becoming a man, then we can’t really find John Brown all that compelling either. Adolescents drifting through life are compelled by many things, some of them profound, many or most of them not. John Brown is a terrifying and complex figure in American History, one that Americans still feel uncertainly as both a brutal terrorist and a freedom fighter, and feel this contradiction all the more so in that Brown was indeed on the right moral side of the arc of history when it comes to the story of race in America, unlike so many other of our white founding fathers and mothers. But because Henry does not himself seem to struggle in any meaningful way with the desperate question of whether in pursuing freedom we are winging into flight or stumbling over a precipice, we ultimately don’t feel in this John Brown the terror that can be the birth pangs of freedom. Instead, McBride’s John Brown seems to shift uncomfortably between being a joke and being meaningfully sincere.

A worthy subject for a netflix melodrama, but I was hoping for more.

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What is a liberal art: Elizabeth Stone on the vocation vs. vocational in higher education

This summer I’m working sporadically on what I hope will turn in to a paper on Critical Vocationalism for the NEMLA session that I hope will be draw some substantial proposals for next year’s conference in Harrisburg. Trying to get my brain around exactly what Gerald Graff and Paul Jay might mean by Critical Vocationalism since they leave the term underdefined in their own advocacy for the idea as a new defense for the humanities and the liberal art. To that end I read Elizabeth Stone’s essay on the conflict between vocation and vocationalism published a few years back in the Chronicle. I’m struck by the fact of how we seem to be stuck in a holding pattern, with nothing really advancing or changing in our discourse about the liberal arts in general and the humanities specifically, with the possible exception that we must now lament that the rate of debt our students are carrying has more than doubled in a decade.

Stone’s essay does point out some dimensions of the problem that I do think are important to keep trying to talk about. For instance, she points out that we are not just having an enrollment crisis in the liberal arts, we are having a crisis of definition. What are the liberal arts and why are they that instead of something else. For Stone:

<blockquote>So, platonically speaking, I don’t really know what a liberal art is (although I know it’s not auto mechanics), because there seems to be no single characteristic — old, new, theoretical, vocational, quantitative, qualitative, a matter of content, a matter of perspective — common to all liberal arts.

In practice, then, a liberal art is a little like obscenity. We faculty members know it when we see it, even if we can’t quite define it. But there isn’t anything approaching consensus. Because I’m a parent — of one son with a new B.A. and another who’s now a freshman at a liberal-arts college — I’ve seen more than my share of college catalogs over the past half-dozen years. All of them assert the value of the liberal arts, but at some colleges that includes computer science, industrial design, physical education, and even engineering.

If you are a pragmatist, as I tend to be in my weaker moments, this could strike you as merely a self-serving argumentative move. Since “liberal arts” tends to be defined differently in different periods of history and even in different institutional contexts, they must not really be anything at all. In my own College the Humanities–traditional and sometimes sole remaining bastion of the liberal arts–are defined to include not only Philosophy, History, and English (uncontroversial), but also Religion (unconventional but still uncontroversial), Biblical studies and Film production ( a number of raised eyebrows) and programs like Public Relations, Christian Ministries, and Chinese Business and Spanish Business (pandemonium). The Platonist suggests that if there is no essence that unites these disparate fields then there is no there there, no thing that we can call the liberal arts as opposed to any other thing.

I’m not really interested in answering this question, though I will say I am more interested in Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances than in Plato’s forms. What Stone makes clear is that in the absence of any defining essence, the liberal arts largely define themselves by what they are against or what they are not–a version of Aquinas’s theological via negativa for defining God only by saying what God is not, just as most of us build our identities by aversion to our evil others. That evil other for the liberal arts is usually vocationalism. Over and against our money grubbing brethren interested in mere vocationalism we posit the higher order values of vocation, of calling, of transcendent value, or at least of critical thinking.

The problem with this according to Stone is that we don’t have to probe very deeply beneath the skin of what we call the liberal arts to discover an always already fallen vocationalism in who we are and what we do.

<blockquote>Since it’s people like me who are often seen fretting that the liberal arts are being waylaid by the thugs of Mammon, I think it’s time that people like me acknowledged our own dirty little secret. I’ll go first and admit that I, for one, have an unseemly number of vocational courses in my undergraduate past, and the reason is that those courses were directly related to a job I had my eye on: I was a teenage English major, in training to be an English professor.

Stone’s suggestion here strikes me as having two different meanings. First many of our liberal arts disciplines have had vocational ends in some sense, even if that sense was never fully articulated and endlessly deferred. Aquinas’s notion that the liberal arts are things studied for their own sake nevertheless raises the question of why something studied for its own sake should be a required course of study in a society or a seminary. We must admit that the study of most disciplines of the liberal arts have been and were specifically conceived of as appropriate training for young men in order to prepare them for positions of leadership. To be sure, the “higher order” issues of character and spiritual formation have always been around, but young men were explicitly required to pursue studies in these fields in order to prepare for something, specifically to occupy adult roles of leadership as the elites of particular Western Societies. Moreover, some liberal arts as we now conceive of them were not even designed for Elites. My own discipline of English was understood and came in to the academy in England first and foremost as an appropriate course of study in what would have been the equivalent of British community colleges, educational schools for the working classes and for women, even while English was looked down upon by the more cultured classes. So we turn our face away from vocationalism almost like those afraid to recognize their kinship with the adulterated masses.

Also, it seems to me that Stone is suggesting that we ought to recognize that we have increasingly organized our liberal arts curricula around professional (and so vocational) ideals. We have tended for the past few decades to imagine undergraduate education at its best as preparing students for potential graduate study, and have valued most those students who looked just like us, could talk just like us, and wanted to prepare to be just like us. We have accepted a vocational model of education common to the research universities and the professional schools and baptized it in the name of the liberal arts. This fact is why so much of the discussion of a crisis in the humanities is preoccupied with a crisis of graduate students not getting jobs. That is actually a symptom of a much larger crisis that we cannot fully imagine a larger social purpose that doesn’t rely on our self-replication.

What, I wonder, would an education in the liberal arts look like that took it as its explicit task to better prepare students for participation as informed citizens AND as informed workers outside the world of academe. In other words, an education that took as its explicit purpose to produce workers who were not like and do not aspire to be like us. This might be a baseline for critical vocationalism

Are Writers Afraid of the Dark–Part II: Salman Rushdie’s contradictory views of censorship

A brief follow up on my post from earlier today responding to Tim Parks’s notion over at the New York Review of Books that literature is actually characterized by fear and withdrawal from life rather than engagement with us.  Later in the day I read Salman Rushdie’s post at the New Yorker on Censorship, a redaction of his Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture delivered a few days ago.  Rushdie brings out the idea that, indeed, writers can be afraid, but it is a fear born from the fact of their writing rather than their writing being a compensation for it.  Censorship is a direct attack on the notion of the right to think and write and Rushdie brings out the idea that this can be paralyzing to the writers act.

The creative act requires not only freedom but also this assumption of freedom. If the creative artist worries if he will still be free tomorrow, then he will not be free today. If he is afraid of the consequences of his choice of subject or of his manner of treatment of it, then his choices will not be determined by his talent, but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free.

via Salman Rushdie’s PEN World Voices Lecture on Censorship : The New Yorker.

Rushdie goes on to chronicle the martyrs of writing, who have had a great deal to be afraid of because of their writing (a point made in responses to Parks’s blog as well).

You will even find people who will give you the argument that censorship is good for artists because it challenges their imagination. This is like arguing that if you cut a man’s arms off you can praise him for learning to write with a pen held between his teeth. Censorship is not good for art, and it is even worse for artists themselves. The work of Ai Weiwei survives; the artist himself has an increasingly difficult life. The poet Ovid was banished to the Black Sea by a displeased Augustus Caesar, and spent the rest of his life in a little hellhole called Tomis, but the poetry of Ovid has outlived the Roman Empire. The poet Mandelstam died in one of Stalin’s labor camps, but the poetry of Mandelstam has outlived the Soviet Union. The poet Lorca was murdered in Spain, by Generalissimo Franco’s goons, but the poetry of Lorca has outlived the fascistic Falange. So perhaps we can argue that art is stronger than the censor, and perhaps it often is. Artists, however, are vulnerable.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/05/on-censorship-salman-rushdie.html#ixzz1vMorpS00

This is powerful stuff, though I’ll admit I started feeling like there was an uncomfortable contradiction in Rushdie’s presentation.  Although Rushdie’s ostensible thesis is that “censorship is not good for art,” he goes on after this turn to celebrate the dangerousness of writing.  According to Rushdie, all great art challenges the status quo and unsettles convention:

Great art, or, let’s just say, more modestly, original art is never created in the safe middle ground, but always at the edge. Originality is dangerous. It challenges, questions, overturns assumptions, unsettles moral codes, disrespects sacred cows or other such entities. It can be shocking, or ugly, or, to use the catch-all term so beloved of the tabloid press, controversial. And if we believe in liberty, if we want the air we breathe to remain plentiful and breathable, this is the art whose right to exist we must not only defend, but celebrate. Art is not entertainment. At its very best, it’s a revolution.

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/05/on-censorship-salman-rushdie.html#ixzz1vMpu97Bt

It remains unclear to me how Rushdie can have it both ways.  If Art is going to be revolutionary, it cannot possibly be safe and it cannot possibly but expect the efforts to censor.  If there is no resistance to art, then there is no need for revolution, everything will be the safe middle ground, and there will be no possibility of great art.

I am not sure of which way Rushdie wants it, and I wonder what my readers think.  Does great art exist apart from resistance and opposition?  If it does not, does it make sense to long for a world in which such opposition does not exist?  Does Rushdie want to be edgy and pushing boundaries, but to do so safely?  Is this a contradictory and impossible desire?

You can also listen to Rushdie’s lecture below:

Are writers afraid of the dark?

In a new blog at NYRB, Tim Parks questions the notion that literature is about the stuff of life and instead might be a kind of withdrawal from the complexity and fearfulness of life itself:

So much, then, for a fairly common theme in literature. It’s understandable that those sitting comfortably at a dull desk to imagine life at its most intense might be conflicted over questions of courage and fear. It’s also more than likely that this divided state of mind is shared by a certain kind of reader, who, while taking a little time out from life’s turmoil, nevertheless likes to feel that he or she is reading courageous books.

The result is a rhetoric that tends to flatter literature, with everybody over eager to insist on its liveliness and import. “The novel is the one bright book of life,” D H Lawrence tells us. “Books are not life,” he immediately goes on to regret. “They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble.” Lawrence, it’s worth remembering, grew up in the shadow of violent parental struggles and would always pride himself on his readiness for a fight, regretting in one letter that he was too ill “to slap Frieda [his wife] in the eye, in the proper marital fashion,” but “reduced to vituperation.” Frieda, it has to be said, gave as good as she got. In any event words just weren’t as satisfying as blows, though Lawrence did everything he could to make his writing feel like a fight: “whoever reads me will be in the thick of the scrimmage,” he insisted.

In How Fiction Works James Wood tells us that the purpose of fiction is “to put life on the page” and insists that “readers go to fiction for life.” Again there appears to be an anxiety that the business of literature might be more to do with withdrawal; in any event one can’t help thinking that someone in search of life would more likely be flirting, traveling or partying. How often on a Saturday evening would the call to life lift my head from my books and have me hurrying out into the street.

(via Instapaper)

I was reminded in reading this of a graduate seminar with Franco Moretti wherein he said, almost as an aside, that we have an illusion that literature is complex and difficult, but that in fact, literature simplifies the complexity and randomness of life as it is.  In some sense literature is a coping mechanism.  I don’t remember a great deal more than that about the seminar–other than the fact that Moretti wasn’t too impressed with my paper on T.S. Eliot–but I do remember that aside.  It struck me as at once utterly convincing and yet disturbing, unsettling the notion that we in literature were dealing with the deepest and most complicated things in life.

On the other hand, I’m reminded of the old saw, literature may not be life, but, then, what is?  Parks seems to strike a little bit of a graduate studenty tone here in presenting the obvious as an earthshaking discovery, without really advancing our understanding of what literature might actually be and do.  Parks seems to take delight in skewering without revealing or advancing understanding.  There’s a tendency to set up straw men to light afire, and then strike the smug and knowing revelatory critical pose, when what one has revealed is more an invention of one’s own rhetoric than something that might be worth thinking about.

This desire to convince oneself that writing is at least as alive as life itself, was recently reflected by a New York Times report on brain-scan research that claims that as we read about action in novels the relative areas of the brain—those that respond to sound, smell, texture, movement, etc.—are activated by the words. “The brain, it seems,” enthuses the journalist, “does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”

What nonsense! As if reading about sex or violence in any way prepared us for the experience of its intensity. (In this regard I recall my adolescent daughter’s recent terror on seeing our border collie go into violent death throes after having eaten some poison in the countryside. As the dog foamed at the mouth and twitched, Lucy was shivering, weeping, appalled. But day after day she reads gothic tales and watches horror movies with a half smile on her lips.)

I’m tempted to say “What nonsense!”  Parks’s willingness to use his daughter to dismiss a scientific finding strikes me a bit like the homeschool student I once had who cited her father as an authority who disproved evolution.  Well.  The reference to the twitching dog invokes emotion that in fact runs away–in a failure of critical nerve perhaps?–from the difficult question of how exactly the brain processes and models fictional information, how that information relates to similar real world situations in which people find themselves, and how people might use and interrelate both fictional and “real world” information.

Parks seems to have no consciousness whatsoever of the role of storytelling in modeling possibility, one of its most complex ethical and psychological effects.  It’s a very long-standing and accepted understanding that one reason we tell any stories at all is to provide models for living.  Because a model is a model, we need not assume it lacks courage or is somehow a cheat on the real stuff of life.  Horror stories and fairy tales help children learn to deal with fear, impart warning and knowledge and cultural prohibitions to children, and attempt to teach them in advance how to respond to threat, to fear, to violence, etcetera.  Because those lessons are always inadequate to the moment itself hardly speaks against the need to have such mental models and maps.  It would be better to ask what we would do without them.  The writer who provides such models need not be skewered for that since to write well and convincingly, to provide a model that serves that kind of ethical or psychic purpose, the writer him or herself must get close to those feelings of terror and disintegration themselves.  It’s why there’s always been a tradition of writers like Hemingway or Sebastian Junger who go to war in order to get into that place within themselves where the emotions of the real can be touched.  It’s also why there’s always been a tradition of writers self-medicating with alcohol.

Thus, I kind of found Parks’s implied assumption that writers are cowering just a bit from the real stuff of life to be a cheap shot, something that in the cultural stories we tell each other is usually associated with cowardice and weakness, in a writer or a fighter.  The novelists and poets Parks takes on deserve better.

Writers whom we should only take as seriously as they took themselves

Yesterday in my comments on Carmen McCain’s post, I quoted Susan Sontag in all seriousness.  I might have thought better of doing so if I had bothered first to take in this image:

Susan Sontag Thinking Deep Thoughts

This from a collection of photos at Flavorwire of writers in various stage of un-work.  Mostly these folks do not look inebriated, but with Hunter S. Thompson, Papa Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut in the mix, I would remain none to sure. It is comforting to know that writers are people too, just like you and me.  Though I will say that unlike Hunter S. Thompson, I have never driven down the Vegas strip with a naked blow up doll sitting in my lap.  No doubt it is this kind of self-repression that is keeping me from being the writer I was meant to be.

Side Note:  A personal favorite is of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo working in the bathtub.  Which leads to a writerly twist on the drunken parlor game question:  Most unusual place you’ve ever done it?  Your writing, I mean?

Do all Canadian Professors wear funny robes and require a moderator? The Book Is Not Dead [jenterysayers.com]

Jentery Sayers at the University of Victoria posted a really interesting video set from a debate the humanities faculty put on about the book or the death thereof.  Couldn’t help being interested since it’s what’s absorbed me generally for the past several years, and since we here at Messiah had out own symposium on the book this past February.

I embedded one video below with part of Jentery’s speech–unfortunately split between two videos, and Jentery’s head is cut off some of the time, a talking body instead of a talking head.  The whole set is on Jentery’s website and apparently somewhere on the University of Victoria and of course on YouTube.  Worth my time this evening, though perhaps it says something about me that I am spending my time on a Friday night watching Canadian professors dressed in robes and addressing one another as “Madame Prime Minister” and “Leader of the Opposition”. Better than Monty Python.

The event is described as follows:

 As independent bookstores close their doors, newspapers declare bankruptcy and young people are more familiar with negotiating digitized data, it seems that the era of the printed word may be on it’s way out. Indeed, the emergency of digital humanities research seems to imply that, even in the most book-centric fields, the written word may be obsolete. Join us for a good-humoured look at whether the book is dead or if rumours of its demise are premature.

via The Book Is Not Dead [jenterysayers.com].

Takeaway line from Jentery:  “New Media Remediates Old Media”.  I’m still unpacking that, but I like Jentery’s general sense of the commerce between the traditional Gutenberg book and New Media.  It does seem to me that in a lot of ways this interaction between media forms is really what’s happening right now.  Every book published has a web site, a Facebook page, and the authors interact with readers via twitter and personal blogs.  A lot of what goes on in new media is repackaging and mashups of old media.  I do think though that its also the case that old media repackages new media as well.  Movies end up as books, and blogs become books that become movies.

It seems to me that our divisions between English and Film/communication/digital media might make less and less sense.  Would it make more sense to imagine books as such as “media” and simply have media studies, rather than imagining these things separately.

Other memorable line was someone quoting McLuhan.  “Old technologies become new art forms.”  Or words to that effect. I think this is right, and in the long haul I keep thinking this may be the destiny of the traditional book, though i could be proven wrong. I think book binders could be a growth industry, as well as publishers that specialize in high end book products.  I’ve mulled over the question of the book becoming an art object several times before, so I won’t bother to do it again here.

Side note:  Jentery Sayers was extremely generous with his time, attention, and intelligence in engaging with a number of faculty and students at Messiah College last week.  A lot of good ideas and great energy even if the computer hook up was less than desirable. Much appreciated.  The clip of Jentery’s speech is below:

 

Digital Archive as Advertisement: The Hemingway Papers

The pace at which digital material is being made available to the public and to students and scholars in the humanities is accelerating, whether one thinks of the digitization of books, the new MOOC’s from MIT and Harvard and others that will extend learning the humanities and other fields, or the digitization of papers and manuscripts that were previously in highly restricted manuscripts or rare book sections of single libraries like the James Joyce Papers just released in Ireland.

Another addition to this list is the release of a new digitized collection of Hemingway’s writings for the Toronto Star.  The Star has put together the columns written by Hemingway for the paper in the early 20s, along with some stories about the  writer.  I’m basically extremely happy that archives like this and others are taking their place in the public eye.  I had a great course on Hemingway while pursuing an MFA at the University of Montana with Gerry Brenner, and the legacy of Hemingway was felt everywhere.  Still is as far as I’m concerned.

At the same time, I admit that the Star site left me just a little queasy and raised a number of questions about what the relationship is between a commercial enterprise like the Star and digital work and scholarly work more generally.  First cue to me was the statement of purpose in the subtitle to the homepage:

The legendary writer’s reporting from the Toronto Star archives, featuring historical annotations by William McGeary, a former editor who researched Hemingway’s columns extensively for the newspaper, along with new insight and analysis from the Star’s team of Hemingway experts.

I hadn’t really realized that the Toronto Star was a center of Hemingway scholarship, but maybe I’ve missed something over the past 20 years.  Other similar statements emphasize the Star’s role in Hemingway’s life as much as anything about Hemingway himself:  emphases on the Star’s contributions to the great writer’s style (something that, if I remember, Hemingway himself connected more to his time in Kansas City), emphases on the way the Star nurtured the writer and on the jovial times Hemingway had with Star editorial and news staff.  Sounds a little more like a family album than a really serious scholarly take on what Hemingway was about in this period.  Indeed, there is even a straightforward and direct advertisement on the page as it sends you to the Toronto Star store where you can purchase newsprint editions of Hemingway’s columns.

I don’t really want to looks a gift horse in the mouth.  There’s a lot of good stuff here, and just having the articles and columns available may be enough and I can ignore the rest.  Nevertheless, the web is a framing device that makes material available within a particular context, and here that context clearly has a distinct commercial angle.  It strikes me that this is a version of public literary history that has all the problems of public history in general that my colleague John Fea talks about over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Here of course it is not even really the public doing the literary history but a commercial enterprise that has a financial stake in making itself look good in light of Hemingways legacy.

The Star promises the site will grow, which is a good thing.  I hope it will grow in a way that will allow for more genuine scholarly engagement on Hemingways legacy as well as more potential interactivity.  The site is static with no opportunity for engagement at all, so everything is controlled by the Star and its team of Hemingway experts.  We take it or we leave it.

For the moment I am taking it, but I worry about the ways commercial enterprises can potentially shape our understanding of literary and cultural history for their own ends.  I wonder what others think about the role of commercial enterprises in establishing the context through which we think about literature and culture?