Posted in Reading, Teaching, Writing

ENG 111: Writing and Renewal

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986. p. 83.

In the first days of January, as I prepared to teach Maus again, protestors stormed the Capitol and called for the hanging of the Vice President. As the semester progressed, the sound of the protestors’ chants and the image of a neo-Nazi T-shirt in the crowd lingered in my mind, leading me back repeatedly to Art Spiegelman’s depiction of the hanged merchants in Modrzejowska Street. Turning again and again to the same page of Maus solidified my decision to devote my analysis—the one I would write as a model for my students—to the panels that depicted the hangings, but I did not know how I would write about them. The prospect daunted me not only because of the painful nature of the images but also because I had written a sample analysis of Maus only a few months earlier as a model for my fall semester students. Perhaps I’ve already written all I can write about Maus, I told myself. But returning to the pages of Spiegelman’s memoir revealed that I did, after all, have more to write. Studying Spiegelman’s depiction of the hangings in Modrzejowska Street and finding the words to express my interpretation of those panels deepened my understanding of both Maus and the writing process.

The central image of the four hanged merchants, the one that evoked images of January 6, remained the panel that drew me back to the page. But as I continued to study it, I found myself drawn less to that panel in isolation than to its relationship to the ones that framed it. My observation that the bordering panels both linked the hanged men to their mourners and disconnected them from their persecutors, the Nazis, led me to my thesis: “His [Spiegelman’s] rendering of the panels of the living in conjunction with the fragmented panels of the hanged merchants simultaneously conveys connection and separation: both the grieving survivors’ ties to the dead and the hanged men’s objectification at the hands of the Nazis.”

That statement served not only as my thesis but also as an example to my students of how to develop an idea with a common form of appositive, a noun phrase that offers additional information. As we examined my analysis in class, I pointed to the abstract concept of “connection and separation” and showed how the appositive, the noun phrase that followed the colon, shows readers the specific “connection and separation,” namely “both the grieving survivors’ ties to the dead and the hanged men’s objectification at the hands of the Nazis.”

That learning opportunity grew from an essay that I had doubted would ever find its way to the page. The fact that it did take form illustrates the surprising rewards that the writing process yields.

This school year, perhaps more than any other, has demonstrated the value of writing as a mechanism for making sense of the world. Studying a Holocaust narrative is never easy. But writing to make meaning of Maus now—as we continue to don our own masks—honors the path that Spiegelman himself followed in his struggle to make meaning of his father’s life, a story that we sense, in the words of journalist Adam Gopnik, “is too horrible to be presented unmasked” (qtd. in Wilner 109).

Though I doubted that I could write a second analysis of Maus, facing the challenge expanded my understanding of Spiegelman’s achievement and strengthened my writing and teaching, providing me with another model essay for my students. As we continue to reckon with racial injustice and cultural and political division in our own country, Vladek Spiegelman’s story serves as a sobering reminder that the atrocities his son depicts in Maus are not relics of another place and time—or, as I wrote in the conclusion of my analysis, that “[t]he strange fruit of our past, both distant and recent, should seem far stranger.” As I began to put these words on paper, Derek Chauvin was convicted for the murder of George Floyd; but as I progressed from draft to revision, Andrew Brown, Jr., was shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in Elizabeth City. As we continue to pick up the pieces of our broken world, I return to the page with the hope that putting pen to paper will also help my students—not only develop their writing but also make sense of it all—as we move toward renewal.

Works Cited

Lucas, Jane. “ENG 111: The Strange Fruit of Sosnowiec.” Jane Lucas, 2 Apr. 2021, https://janelucas.com/2021/04/02/the-strange-fruit-of-sosnowiec/.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I. Pantheon, 1986.

Wilner, Arlene Fish. “‘Happy, Happy Ever After’: Story and History in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” Considering Maus: Approaches to Art Spiegelman’s “Survivor’s Tale” of the Holocaust, edited by Deborah R. Geis, U of Alabama P, 2003, pp. 105-21.