Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Collage head shot by Richard McGee

Perhaps it was my questioning faith in the salvation of technology that led me to disconnect from Facebook when Easter converged with April Fool’s Day. Deactivating my account wasn’t a response to the recent revelations about data breeches but rather another step in my ongoing efforts to limit my screen time.

Along with reducing the number of personal hours that I’ve spent on my phone and laptop, I devoted the school year to a revised curriculum that aimed to strike a balance between on-screen and off-screen endeavors. My students maintained blogs but also composed snail mail once per month. They drafted each essay by hand in class and revised each handwritten draft in class on their laptops.

Trying to convince students of the value of beginning their work on paper was difficult but not nearly as challenging as separating them from their phones. Once those digital devices were tucked away in backpacks, some of their owners powered off as well, like androids themselves, disconnected from their vital components. How could anything as primitive as pens, journals, and physical textbooks (no e-books permitted) animate students in the digital age? Despite the hard sell of low-tech class days, I persevered, bearing in mind these research findings:

  • Jean M. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, has observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.
  • In “The Science of Handwriting,” Keim Brandon explores how his belief in the benefits of writing longhand finds scientific support in recent studies. Keim recounts a five-year research project conducted by Virginia Beringer, an educational psychologist at the University of Washington, that demonstrated second-, third-, and fourth-graders’ ability to write more rapidly and express more ideas when they composed by hand. Along with Beringer’s study, Keim outlines brain-imaging research conducted by Karin James, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, revealing that learning cursive activates multiple areas of the brain that remain dormant when we type.
  • Natalie Phillips, an English professor at Michigan State, and her neuroscience-collaborators at Stanford conducted brain scan research revealing evidence that close critical reading of literary novels activates regions of the brain unaffected by casual reading (Phillips ctd. in Vedantam, par. 13).

Simply put, putting pen to paper, studying literary texts that place demands on us as readers, and turning away from the screen contributes to our intellectual development, and studying literature and reading away from the screen benefits our emotional well-being, too.

In early May, near the semester’s close—and one month into my two-month break from social media—I began reading my students final reflective essays, which included these observations:

[T]his journey was a real wake-up call for me. It made me realize how much I do not pay attention in class and how much I depend on my devices. This class has taught me there are times to use your devices and times not to. I also found some good apps to keep me on task while using my laptop. One app called Self-Control lets you block certain websites for a set amount time so you can get your work done.

English 131 has helped me understand more why we are supposed to read books and even given me a passion to want to pick up a book on my own . . . English 131 helped me better understand the books that we read, whenever we would go over certain parts of the book together as a class. Discussing what was going on in the chapters we were supposed to read didn’t just help me understand the book, but it made me more interested in it since I knew what was going on

Now as I write, and the semester draws to an end, I have seen my writing improve because I am more aware of what I am actually writing, or at least it feels like I care more about it because I have realized that my iPhone, PlayStation, laptop, and TV are not as important as I made them out to be at the beginning of the semester. Taking time away from the screen has been an enlightening experience where I have learned a lot about myself and about learning. I have learned that the relationships you build, the connections you make are what really will make me successful . . .

As for me, now at the end of my second month away from social media, I feel reinvigorated. I’ve read more, I’ve written more, I’ve generated more ideas, and I feel more creative and less anxious. Though I’ll reactivate my Facebook account, I know that I’ll use that platform less—and in general spend fewer hours of the day experiencing the world mediated by screens. I haven’t lost my faith in digital technology, but I see it now more as a trinity with pen and paper, those other ways that words are made flesh.


Keim, Brandon. “The Science of Handwriting.” Scientific American Mind vol. 24, no. 4, Aug. 2013, pp. 54-59. Academic Search Complete. Accessed 11 Nov. 2013.

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/, Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.

Vedantam, Shankar. “A Lively Mind: Your Brain on Jane Austen.” NPR: Morning Edition, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/10/09/162401053/a-lively-mind-your-brain-on-jane-austen, 9 Oct. 2012, Accessed 31 May 2018.

In Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, the narrator recalls how she and her childhood friend Tracey watched snippets of Top Hat over and over to study Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ dance routine for “Cheek to Cheek.” Recounting Tracey’s knack for forward-winding the video tape to the exact moment she sought, the narrator observes that “she [Tracey] began to read the dance, as I never could, she saw everything” (56). As I read those words, I realized that Tracey’s attention to detail and her ability to see “the lesson within the performance” (56), was the same practice of close study that I require of myself and my students.

Just as Tracey learned the steps of Astaire and Rogers’ dance by watching Top Hat, my students and I drew lessons from Swing Time this semester: learning how a writer can use a nonlinear narrative to underscore the role of music and emphasize the narrator’s “weird state of timelessness” (149), and how leaving a narrator unnamed reinforces her shadow identity.

Along with Swing Time, my students and I studied Robert Beatty’s Serafina and the Black Cloak, as part of my commitment to teaching texts that dovetail with campus cultural events and requiring myself to read different books each semester, as my students are required to do. Yet while the lessons that my students and I could learn from Swing Time were clear to me, I was uncertain initially of what we would glean from Beatty’s novel and how I would approach it in the classroom.

One of the challenges of teaching Serafina and the Black Cloak was that it would directly follow Swing Time, a sprawling literary novel that places considerable demands on readers, due in no small part to its nonlinear structure. After the experience of studying that novel, how would we approach one written primarily for middle schoolers? I pondered that question as I planned the course and decided that we would explore it in the context of YA fiction, examine Serafina as an archetypal heroine, and consider the various genres that it draws upon, including fairy tale, fantasy, gothic mystery, and historical fiction.

Though I anticipated discussions of the familiar themes and devices that Beatty employs, —in particular the tropes addressed in our supplemental readings on YA fiction and fairy tales—I did not foresee that the pairing alone of his novel and Smith’s would prove highly instructive, serving as a primer for narrative variety. Our back-to-back reading of Swing Time and Serafina and the Black Cloak threw into sharp relief the differences between character- and plot-driven novels.

In addition to illustrating variations in the novel as a form, studying Swing Time and Serafina and the Black Cloak back to back offered me and my students the opportunity to consider what our responses to those disparate novels revealed about our own inclinations as readers. For me, the act of reading Swing Time and other literary novels is an act of immersion. I do not feel as if I am reading a novel the way I do when I read a work of genre fiction, such as Serafina and the Black Cloak, so conscious am I of its formula. But for many other readers, familiar devices do not detract from a narrative and may in fact be part of its appeal. Reflecting now on the disparate novels that my students and I studied this semester, I recall Serafina’s own thoughts about reading as she and Braeden explored the Vanderbilt’s library: “She marveled at how this one room contained the thoughts and voices of thousands of writers, people who had lived in different countries and different times, people who had told stories of the heart and the mind . . .” (187-88).

Stories of the heart and the mind: that’s another way of thinking of our work over the course of the semester, both the texts that we have studied and the ones that we have written—all of which have offered lessons through their words.

Works Cited

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Annotated Bibliography

Beatty, Robert. Serafina and the Black Cloak. 2015. Disney Hyperion, 2016.

Blending elements of fairy tales, gothic mystery, fantasy, and historical fiction, Robert Beatty’s young-adult novel Serafina and the Black Cloak chronicles the title character’s quest to solve the mystery of the Man in the Black Cloak and his link to the children who are one by one disappearing from the Biltmore Estate.

Bettelheim, Bruno. Introduction: “The Struggle for Meaning.” The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Random, 1976. pp. 13-19.

In his introduction to The Uses of Enchantment, which examines fairy tales through the lens of Freudian psychoanalysis, Bruno Bettelheim explores the importance of fairy tales in children’s’ moral development, focusing on how the form and structure of the unambiguous narratives of fairy tales provide images with which young children can structure the daydreams that help them make sense of their lives.

Collins, Billy. “Snow Day.” The Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46707/snow-day, Accessed, 17 Jan. 2018.

The speaker in Billy Collins’ poem “Snow Day” meditates on the “revolution of snow” (1) as he listens to the radio announcements of school closings, steeping himself in the pleasure of the sounds of the whimsical names of the preschools and the sights of the little girls playing outside in the “grandiose silence of snow” (37).

Makant, Jordan. “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright.” Impossible Angles. Main Street Rag, 2017. pp. 18.

One of the poems in his debut collection, Impossible Angles, Jordan Makant’s “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright” responds to Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s 1963 folk song “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” featured on his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The speaker in Makant’s poem observes that “Dylan was lying” but that his lie was “the measure of true love”(18).

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/education/edlife/muscling-in-on-the-term-paper-tradition.html, 20 Jan. 2012, Accessed 17 Jan. 2018.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Matt Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Shifting back and forth from the distant past of the narrator’s childhood in north London to her recent days—in New York and West Africa—the novel swings in time as the narrator recounts two intertwining stories: one of her childhood friendship with a classmate who possess a gift for dance (that she herself lacks); the other of her decade-long stint as a personal assistant for an international pop star. In the prologue, as the narrator watches a clip of Astaire dancing with his shadows in Swing Time, she realizes that she has spent her life in silhouette, first as a shadow to her friend Tracey, and later to her celebrity employer, the Madonna-esque Aimee. In the narrator’s words: “I had always tried to attach myself to other people . . . I had never had any light of my own” (4). To underscore the narrator’s shadow identity, Smith never names her; throughout the novel she remains the unnamed “I.”

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/, Sept. 2017, Accessed 24 Jan. 2018.

Jean M. Twenge’s article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” focuses on her research into the behaviors and emotional states of young people born between 1995 and 2012—a generation she calls “iGen”—who differ markedly from their predecessors who came of age before the advent of smartphones and Instagram accounts. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.

 

The title of Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time evokes not only the Fred Astaire film of the same name, but also the structure of the narrative, itself. Shifting back and forth from the distant past of the narrator’s childhood in north London to her recent days, in New York and West Africa, the novel swings in space and time as she recounts two intertwining stories: one of her childhood friendship with a classmate who possesses a gift for dance (that she herself lacks); the other of her decade-long stint as a personal assistant for an international pop star. Long before readers know how the friendship and the job end, they learn that both ended badly. In the prologue, as the narrator watches a clip of Astaire dancing with his shadows in Swing Time, she realizes that she has spent her life in silhouette, first as a shadow to her friend Tracey, and later to her celebrity employer, the Madonna-esque Aimee. In the narrator’s words: “I had always tried to attach myself to other people . . . I had never had any light of my own” (4). To underscore the narrator’s shadow identity, Smith never names her; throughout the novel she remains the unnamed “I.”

Along with the dual storylines of the narrator’s shadow identity, she chronicles changes in how we communicate, rendering the novel not just the story of the “I,” but also a meta-narrative: a story of the construction of stories, themselves. Swinging in time from her pre-digital childhood to the dawn of the now-ubiquitous smartphone, the narrator recounts the fundamental shifts in our interactions. When her mother remarks that she, the narrator, is addicted to her phone, the narrator says, “‘This is how people work now,’” to which her mother replies, “‘You mean: like slaves?’” (154). The mother’s notion of technology’s power to own us echoes Smith’s observations of social media in her essay “Generation Why?

In Swing Time—published six years after “Generation Why?”—email messages, texts, and social media posts shape the events that precipitate the novel’s conclusion. After the narrator loses her job as Aimee’s personal assistant, she receives a .pdf file of the non-disclosure contract that she had signed ten years earlier. Seeing in hindsight that she had given Aimee ownership of that decade of her life, the narrator states: “I wanted to burn her house down. But everything you need to burn somebody’s house down these days is already in your hand. It was all in my hand—I didn’t even have to get out of bed” (434).

Though exposing Aimee’s wrongdoing online might be perceived—and eventually is—as an act of moral conscience, the narrator is motivated not by integrity but rather by a desire to inflict harm. Similarly, ten years earlier, the handwritten letter that ended her friendship with Tracey could be construed as one that Tracey sent out of a sense of duty, as Tracey herself claimed. But in fact her aim was to hurt the narrator. The juxtaposition of Tracey’s letter and the narrator’s email illustrate the potentially far-reaching effects of acting on impulse in the digital age. Reflecting on Tracey’s handwritten letter, the narrator “think[s] of it as the last truly personal written letter I ever received, for even though Tracey had no computer, not yet, the revolution was happening all around us” (349).

After the narrator reads Tracey’s letter, she burns it. But ten years later she cannot burn the incriminating images of their childhood dance after Tracey’s video goes viral. Her video does burn in a sense, whenever it’s pulled from the internet, but it rises again and again like a phoenix from its ashes. For Tracey, posting their provocative, albeit innocent, mimicry of Aimee’s own video is an act of editing the narrator’s life, the way that Tracey had edited the ballerina stories they penned as children:

‘No: that part here.’ ‘It’d go better if she died on page two.’ Moving and rearranging things to create the greatest impact. Now she had achieved the same effect with my life, placing the beginning of the story at an earlier point so that all that came after read as the twisted consequence of a lifelong obsession. It was more convincing than my version. (438)

As an antidote to Tracey’s viral video, the narrator writes her memoir (the novel), a sweeping narrative rife with the complexities and nuances absent from the abbreviated stories of our news feeds. Reading Swing Time in the wake of the revelations of Facebook’s most recent data breach—and its political consequences—calls attention to the novel’s prescience. Narratives that rival the truth have the menacing power to convince.

Work Cited

Smith, Zadie. Swing Time. 2016. Penguin, 2017.

Designing a course that dovetails with campus cultural events not only means crafting new assignments every semester but also reading some books that I might not choose to read—much less teach—on my own. While those challenges could dissuade me from starting anew each semester, repeatedly reinventing English 131 has proven to have lasting benefits. Books whose authors we can see face to face when they visit campus and plays that come to life on the university stage give the course an immediacy it would not have otherwise. And though I cannot fully place myself in the role of my students, I can at least come closer to that by giving myself the task of studying different texts, as they do, every semester. As a writer, I avoid the cliché comfort zone, but as a teacher, I embrace the concept. I try not to get too comfortable. I allow myself to stumble, as Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City, would say.

“Stumbling” is one of the words that Larson used to describe his writing process when he visited our campus in October, and in recent days—as I have struggled to organize my own thoughts on paper—I have been reminded of the essential role of stumbling in my own work and of the value of hearing such a masterful writer as Larson say that he stumbles, too.

Along with stumbling, “serendipity,” another word that Larson used to describe his writing process, has played a crucial part in my own work, both as a teacher and a writer, this semester. Through pure serendipity, back in August, just as I was compiling the readings for the course, I came across “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” in the September issue of The Atlantic. That article by Jean M. Twenge served as a valuable starting point for the course, providing both a model of research writing for a general audience and an example of the findings that inform the practice of process-based writing that I require of my students and of myself, writing that requires turning away from the screen and putting pen to paper, as well as writing for an online audience.

In addition to Twenge’s article, serendipity brought Jordan Makant’s poetry into the classroom this semester. The September publication of his debut collection, Impossible Angles, offered an unexpected opportunity for students to read published poetry by a Lenoir-Rhyne student, one who told the audience at his book launch that he didn’t even like poetry before he enrolled in a poetry workshop at LR. Makant’s account of his discovery—that poetry could become a vital form of expression for him—demonstrated how we may find inspiration where we least expect it. And studying his poem “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright,” a response to Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” sparked the idea for a journal exercise that my students and I wrote after reading the poem: What song in your playlist stays on your brain? What truth or lie does it tell? Begin there.

Another piece of writing that unexpectedly found its way into the classroom this semester was borne of sorrow. In early October, just hours after my husband, Guy, and I said goodbye to our fifteen-year-old cat, Percy, my husband composed a memoir of our years with Percy, from Guy’s first glimpse of him as a stray kitten to our decision that his failing health meant that it was time to put him down. Though I did not know how my husband managed to write that blog post so soon after Percy’s death, I knew as soon as I read it that I would return to it with my students, to offer it both as a model of narrative nonfiction and as an example of the therapeutic value of writing.

Though all of the textual analyses that I have written this semester along with my students have been instructive for me as a teacher and a writer, the one that lingers in my mind now is my commentary on Our Town: “Through a Glass Darkly: Girl at the Mirror and Grover’s Corners.” While I know it remains on my mind in part because it’s my most recent analysis, I have also continued to reflect on the crucial role of seeing, really seeing, both for the subjects of my essay and for me as a writer. Emily’s observation that she “can’t look at everything hard enough” (105) reminds me of our need to look harder—often harder than we want to—to find the clarity and the answers that we seek in our writing and our lives.

In his introduction to Our Town, theatre professor Donald Margulies writes of the joy we feel as teachers when we introduce students to work that we admire:

Since you can never relive the experience of seeing or hearing or reading a work of art for the first time, you can do the next best thing: You can teach it. And, through the discoveries your students make, you can recapture, vicariously, some of the exhilaration that accompanied your own discovery of that work long ago. (xiii)

If teaching work that you admire rates second only to reading it for the first time, perhaps teaching a work that you last read decades ago (as was the case for me with Our Town) offers another second best. It enables us to see it anew—really see it—with our students, which is another reason for us as teachers to turn to works that we have not read before and discover them as our students do. I will not grow to admire all of the texts that I have studied for the first time with my students, and neither will they. But once again this semester I am reminded of how I have grown to admire the process of stumbling through them, posing questions of them, stumbling more through drafts of writing about them, and making unexpected discoveries, those moments of serendipity, that come when we trust the process.

Works Cited

Larson, Erik. Interview with Jeffrey Delbert. LR Visiting Writers Series. 27 Oct. 2017, Belk Centrum, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

Margulies, Donald. Foreword. Our Town by Thornton Wilder. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003, xi-xx.

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003.

Annotated Bibliography

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.

Erik Larson’s nonfiction narrative, a mix of true crime and popular history, intermingles two nineteenth-century Chicago stories: the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (the White City of the title) and the life and crimes of serial killer Herman Webster Mudgett, a.k.a. H.H. Holmes, whose World’s Fair Hotel served as the site of his gruesome murders.

Lucas, Guy. “Loss of Unwelcome Burden Devastates Me.” A Newsroom with a View: Thoughts on the Changing Media Landscape, https://guylucas.com/2017/10/05/percy/, 5 Oct. 2017. Accessed 6 Oct. 2017.

In “Loss of Unwelcome Burden Devastates Me,” journalist Guy Lucas recounts the life and death of his pet cat Percy, focusing on two scenes: one in which he teaches the paper-trained kitten to use the litter box, and a second in which and he retrieves Percy from a neighbor’s yard after the cat is lost and too afraid to answer to his calls.

Makant, Jordan. “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright.” Impossible Angles. Main Street Rag, 2017. 18.

One of the poems in his debut collection, Impossible Angles, Jordan Makant’s “Thought Twice; It’s Not Alright” responds to Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan’s 1963 folk song “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” featured on his album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The speaker in Makant’s poem observes that “Dylan was lying” but that his lie was “the measure of true love” (18).

Richtel, Matt. “Blogs vs. Term Papers.” The New York Times, http://www.newyorktimes.org, 20 Jan. 2012, Accessed 29 Sept. 2017.

In “Blogs vs. Term Papers,” Matt Richtel reports on the debate in higher education on how best to teach writing in the digital age. While some professors have followed the lead of Duke University’s Cathy Davidson, replacing the traditional term paper with shorter, more frequent blog assignments, their detractors—including Douglas B. Reeves, columnist for The American School Board Journal and William H. Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review—argue that blog writing lacks the academic rigor that fosters critical thinking. For Andrea Lunsford, professor of writing at Stanford University, pitting blogs against term papers creates a false opposition. Rather than replacing term papers with blog posts, Lunsford requires students to produce multi-modal assignments: term papers that evolve into blogs, websites, and video presentations.

Schreck, Heidi. Creature. Samuel French, 2011.

Drawing on autobiography The Life of Margery Kempe—considered by many to be the first autobiography written in English–playwright Heidi Schreck’s comedy chronicles the spiritual journey of fifteenth-century Christian mystic Margery Kempe, as she struggles with her religious calling after she believes she experiences a vision of Jesus in purple robes.

Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/, Sept. 2017, Accessed 28 Aug. 2017.

Jean M. Twenge’s article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” focuses on her research into the behaviors and emotional states of young people born between 1995 and 2012—a generation she calls “iGen”—who differ markedly from their predecessors who came of age before the advent of smartphones and Instagram accounts. Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who has studied generational differences for twenty-five years, observed a significant shift in teenagers’ behaviors and emotional states beginning around 2012, the year when the proportion of Americans owning smartphones first exceeded fifty percent. Twenge’s findings present a portrait of adolescents who are psychologically more vulnerable than those of previous generations, and the evidence that links depression to smartphone use leads Twenge to recommend that parents limit their teenagers’ screen time.

Whitehead, Colson. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.

In Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, an alternative history of antebellum America, he creates an actual Underground Railroad, turning the metaphor into a series of subterranean tracks that lead his protagonist, Cora, a fugitive slave, from the cotton plantation she escapes in Georgia, onto South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana, and an unnamed route northward, where she continues to travel at the novel’s close.

Wilder, Thornton. Our Town. 1938. Harper Perennial, 2003.

Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play chronicles the daily life in the fictional town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, from 1901-1913, focusing on two of the town’s prominent families, the Gibbses and the Webbs, whose son (George Gibbs) and daughter (Emily Webb) fall in love and marry, and whose wedding serves as the centerpiece for Act II. With its Stage Manager-character who functions as an omniscient narrator, the play—as theatre scholar Donald Margulies observes—conveys “[t]he simultaneity of life and death, past, present, and future” (xvii).

Erik Larson / twitter.com

“Stumbling” and “serendipity” are two of the words that Erik Larson used as he recounted the moments that have unexpectedly led him to the subjects of his books. When he spoke at Lenoir- Rhyne on the morning of Friday, October 27, he told his interviewer, Jeffrey Delbert, Assistant Professor of Communications at LR, that he didn’t intend for his book on serial killer H.H. Holmes to be a dual narrative of Holmes and the 1893 World’s Fair. But his background reading on 1890s Chicago led him to a book–a boring monograph, as he called it–on the Colombian Exposition (the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair). Though the book bored him, one of its footnotes caught his eye: one that listed Juicy Fruit gum among the products first introduced at the fair. If not for that footnote, Larson said, he didn’t know if the book (The Devil in the White City) would have happened.

When an audience member asked about his penchant for crafting nonfiction narratives with the drama of novels, Larson remarked that he believed that such narratives can do more justice to real-life stories than a “bland historical approach.” Those words of his reminded me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which figures in the analysis of  The Devil in the White City that I wrote along with my students (as they wrote their own analyses) last spring–and that I offer again here:

The White City’s Blueprint: The Architecture of Larson’s Narrative Nonfiction

In Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of The Devil in the White City, she claims that Erik Larson avoids the risk of “turning [the book] into a random compendium.” For all of his density of detail, Larson does manage to avoid that risk, creating instead a gripping dual narrative—one that succeeds, as Maslin asserts that it does—but not by using what Maslin cites as tactics that might ordinarily seem “alarming.” Rather the techniques that Larson employs are among the very building blocks of contemporary narrative.

Chief among Larson’s most successful narrative strategies is his cross cutting, both between the dual storylines of the book (those of the Devil and the White City of the title) and between characters. One of his most compelling uses of cross cutting occurs in the chapter “Claustrophobia,” where Larson deftly shifts from the point of view of serial of killer H. H. Holmes, the devil of the title, to that of one of his victims, Anna “Nannie” Williams. In the first paragraphs of the chapter, Holmes and Anna are together in his office, where he asks her “if she would mind going into the adjacent room, the walk-in vault, to retrieve for him a document he had left inside” (294). Anna complies, and thereafter the point of view shifts between Anna inside the vault, believing “the door had closed by accident” (294), and Holmes standing outside the door, listening for the panic to come “as it always did” (295).

Readers witnessing the events leading up to Anna’s death do not stop to ask: How can Larson know what happened? Though they know in the back of their minds that only Holmes and Anna themselves could know what transpired, Larson’s dramatic cross cutting draws them so close to both the victim and her killer that they experience those moments as Holmes and Anna do.

In his endnotes, Larson addresses his reasons for depicting Anna’s murder as he did. Based on police speculation that Holmes killed both Anna and her sister, Minnie, in his vault, an earlier chronicler of Holmes’ exploits—Harold Schechter, author of Depraved (1994)—proposed that Holmes walked into the vault with Anna: “Grasping Nannie by the hand, he led her toward the vault” (Schechter qtd. in Larson 416). Rather than depicting the events as Schechter did, Larson presents Holmes sending Anna into the vault on a false errand because that scenario, in Larson’s words, “would have suited more closely his temperament” (416).

Whether Holmes sent Anna into his vault on a false errand, Larson’s compelling rendering of it exemplifies how the author employs the dramatic effects of fiction—not tactics that are “alarming” as Maslin claims, but ones that writers have commonly applied to narrative nonfiction for more than fifty years, since the publication of Truman Capote’s groundbreaking  account of the Clutter family murders in In Cold Blood. And like In Cold Blood, The Devil in the White City presents a true crime story with the narrative arc of a novel. But Larson’s book is more ambitious and broader in scope than Capote’s. Ultimately, The Devil in the White City is a hybrid of true crime and popular history—the gruesome murders of a serial killer juxtaposed with the construction of the magical white city that inspired Walt Disney and L. Frank Baum. For readers fascinated by the minds of criminals and visionary architects, it’s a page turner. And for writers drawn to the challenge of giving facts the appeal of fiction, it offers a blueprint.

Works Cited

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. Vintage, 2004.

Maslin, Janet. “Add a Serial Murderer to 1893 Chicago’s Opulent Overkill.” Review of The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson, The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2003, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

An epigraph stands out as a curious element in a play. For readers of the script, that quotation,which precedes the opening of the play and presents its prevailing theme, offers a signpost to guide them on their journey. However, for those who first encounter the play on the stage, the choices of the director and the actors must convey that idea, which the audience, unlike readers of the script, does not see in written form.

For the epigraph of her comedy Creature (2009), playwright Heidi Schreck turns to the words of thirteenth-century poet and mystic Hadeviijch of Brabant: “He who has seen her comings and goings knows that Love is the highest name of Hell.” The notion of just how devilish divine love can be runs rampant, or like hell fire, through the recent production of Creature at Lenoir-Rhyne University. Among the funniest depictions of the hellishness of divine love are the ones in which the central character, Margery (Liz Bokhoven), based on the real-life, fifteenth-century Christian mystic Margery Kempe, struggles with her religious calling after she believes she experiences a vision of Jesus in purple robes.

In Margery’s eyes, Christ’s choice of purple is not liturgical, but personal. As she says to him, “[o]h, you are wearing purple, my favorite color” (16). Though the lollardly, married, brewery-owning Margery seems an unlikely—if not downright heretical—candidate for Sainthood, and though her story yields many unanswered questions, the audience willingly follows her on her pilgrimage, drawn into the play by Schreck’s humorous depictions of the yearnings and conflicts of Margery and everyone in her orbit.

To quell accusations of heresy and avoid public burning at the stake, Margery seeks validation of her vision from the anchoress Juliana of Norwich (Milissia Koncelik), whose book Revelations of Divine Love echoes the play’s epigraph. In Juliana’s words, “[t]rue Sin is the terrible distance between ourselves and God. There is no harder Hell than this” (73). Yet for all of the burden and pain of her wisdom, Juliana—played with wry humor by Koncelik—does not brood. She can say hello to a thought and then let it go—and chatter on about her late cat, Mathilda, and her love of babies, even as she grants Margery her certificate of approval, telling her, “[i]t’s a respectable vision” (70). Whether the audience believes in Margery’s vision, Juliana apparently does.

Along with casting doubts about the nature of Margery’s vision, Creature raises many questions that remain unanswered, including the one that Margery starts to answer repeatedly throughout the play, when she begins the confession that she never finishes. What sin she committed as a ten-year-old remains a mystery. Complicating the uncertainties of Margery’s story is a question of accuracy: Scholar Lynn Staley asserts that the Margery in the pages of Schreck’s source material, the autobiography The Life of Margery Kempe, is herself a fictional persona, one constructed by Kempe to offer commentary on fifteenth-century English life.[i] To readers and audience members who ponder these unknowns at length, Juliana might say—as she does to Margery—“[y]ou’re so serious” (71). Like religious devotion itself, following Margery on her spiritual journey requires a leap of faith—one that can feel like Hell, as Creature shows. But Schreck’s play also reminds us of the vital role of humor in our lives. Rather than offering Hadeviijch of Brabant’s words alone as the play’s epigraph, Schreck might have paired them with this reflection of Anne Lamott’s: “Laughter is carbonated holiness” (66).


[i] For a discussion of Lynn Stale’s argument, see Margery Kempe’s Dissenting Fictions. Penn State UP, 1994.

Works Cited

Creature. By Heidi Shrek. Dir. Liz Bokhoven. Perf. Liz Bokhoven, Chase Fowler, Benjamin Thomas-Reid, Callie Cope, Milissia Koncelik, Corey Smith. LR Playmakers, Lenoir-Rhyne U., Hickory, NC. 21 Sept. 2017.

Lamotte Ann. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. Riverhead, 2005.

Shrek, Heidi. Creature. Samuel French, 2011.

 

The “South Carolina” chapter of The Underground Railroad finds the protagonist, Cora, recruited to work as a living model at the Museum of Natural Wonders. In a series of three rooms that trace the American slave experience from Africa to the plantation, Cora poses in costume, silently critiquing the scenes she inhabits, pointing out their inaccuracies. For author Colson Whitehead, Cora’s stint at the museum offers a frame story within the novel’s sprawling alternate history, one that prompts readers to reflect on Whitehead’s juxtaposition of fact and fiction.

In the room “Life on a Slave Ship,” where Cora dons a sailor outfit, she observes that “[t]here had been no kidnapped boys swabbing the decks and earning pats on the head from white kidnappers. The enterprising African boy whose fine leather boots she wore would have been chained belowdecks, swabbing his body in his own filth” (116). And in the room “Typical Day on a Plantation,” she notes that “slave work was sometimes spinning thread, yes; most times it was not. No slave had ever keeled over dead at a spinning wheel or been butchered for a tangle” (116).

Readers witness Cora’s reflections knowing them to be the observations of a fictional character but realizing as well that that the tableaux vivant of the Museum of Natural Wonders are as fictional as the novel, itself. Cora is not a historical figure, but her plight parallels the harrowing experiences of real-life fugitive slaves, a truth that Whitehead underscores by prefacing his state-titled chapters with runaway slave advertisements  (from the digital collections at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). The chapters named for characters are free of those ads, symbolically liberating them from the Fugitive Slave Laws that impede their journey on Whitehead’s literal Underground Railroad.

Some readers may question Whitehead’s choice to create an actual Underground Railroad, turning the metaphor into a series of subterranean tracks, noting the apparent irony of such deviations even as the novel’s central character meditates on historical inaccuracies. But Whitehead is a novelist, not a historian. His aim is not to produce a history but to breathe life into characters who speak truths from their fictional worlds—not our current terrain of alternative facts but a reimagined past where Cora astutely critiques what Whitehead called a  “sanitized history” in his recent appearance at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

Sanitized versions of the past deny truths laid bare by Whitehead’s novel and other alternate histories. Notably, last year marked not only the publication of The Underground Railroad but also Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines. The fictional worlds of both novels evoke the legacies of slavery that remain, though the truths of those legacies—police brutality and anti-immigration policy, among them—may be obscured by rhetoric and mythos. As Cora in her role as a living, breathing mannequin observes: “Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach” (116).  At the novel’s close, readers unsettled by the difficult truths within the fiction, can at least find solace in the last image of Cora, still headed north and still out of reach.

Works Cited

Whitehead, Colson. “An Evening with Colson Whitehead.” 14 Sept. 2017, P.E. Monroe Auditorium, Lenoir Rhyne U., Hickory, NC.

—. The Underground Railroad. Doubleday, 2016.