Posts Tagged ‘Academic Writing’

Dwayne Betts’ A Question of Freedom chronicles his development as a writer during his years behind bars for a carjacking he committed at sixteen. Betts’ memoir pulls readers into the cells of the prisons that housed him, places where, in Betts’ words, “I have lived things I will not recover from” (176), but also where he observes that he “found creativity” (63). The knowledge that Betts discovered his voice behind bars prompts a troublesome question: Would he have found it elsewhere? Whether he would have become a writer outside of prison remains unclear. There is however, certainty in this: As a man who became a writer in prison, his writing and incarceration are inextricably linked. Betts’ testament to that, his memoir, tells not only the story of his prison sentence but also the story of the words of others coming to shape his own story and leading him to find his voice as a poet. For all that he shows his readers of prison, Betts’ memoir is ultimately more about the transformative power of art.

In the chapter “Joseph’s Hand,” Betts meditates on the unconventional drawing style of another inmate, a young man whose pen scratches lead Betts to see art in a new way:

I went to prison and found creativity I’d never thought to search for on the streets. I had been there for a few months and ran into Joseph, drawing in a way that broke down all of my ideas of what a picture should look like and what it should do. (63)

Joseph’s drawing was a revelation to Betts, what he describes as a “symbol for the idea that art can translate, subconsciously and consciously, your world into your images” (64).

Later, Betts finds his own path as an artist after someone slips a copy of Dudley Randall’s anthology The Black Poets under his cell door. As he reads Randall’s book in solitary confinement, he discovers that his desperation and isolation enable him to see the words on the page as he has never seen them before. In his own words, “[s]olitary confinement gave me a gift I could have gotten nowhere else: the opportunity to start looking for the sense behind the words” (165). For Betts, The Black Poets serves both as a groundbreaking influence and a motif in A Question of Freedom. The first sentence of the memoir alludes to Etheridge Knight’s For Freckled-Faced Gerald”—a poem Betts first encounters in Randall’s anthology—paraphrasing its lines, “sixteen years hadn’t even done / a good job on his voice” (6-7). And lines from Knight’s poem also serve as the epigraph for the second part of the memoir.

Near the end of A Question of Freedom, Betts reflects on The Black Poets as he recalls receiving a response to a letter that he had written to the poet Tony Hoagland:

When I’d gotten my first book of poems, The Black Poets by Dudley Randall, I was a seventeen-year-old kid in a solitary confinement cell wondering if he was going to survive prison. By the time Mr. Hoagland wrote me, I was a few years away from release and still standing. (217)

Readers unfamiliar with The Black Poets cannot see initially how importantly that volume of poetry figures in the pages of Betts’ memoir, but slowly its significance becomes clear, just as the scratches of Joseph’s pen slowly—and seemingly miraculously—become a hand. The lines of Betts’ memoir serve as testament not only to his survival but also to the troubling truth that prison, for all of its harrowing experiences, gave Betts a writing life, endowing him with gift for “[w]eaving prison’s hurt into poetry” (165).

Would Betts have become a writer without the creativity that he discovered in prison and the way of reading that he found in solitary confinement?  Betts’ memoir yields no clear answer to that question, nor does it offer a definitive answer to why he made the mistake—the moment of aberrant behavior—that led to more than eight years behind bars. Prison, as Betts observes, “blossoms contradictions” (181). The gift he found there, one of  “carving a voice” (123) remains one of those contradictions, one that will likely remain in the minds of readers long after they have followed Betts out of the pages of his memoir to a place where many inmates will never return.

Works Cited

Betts, R. Dwayne. A Question of Freedom. Avery, 2009.

Knight, Etheridge. “For Freckled-Faced Gerald.” The Black Poets. Ed. Dudley Randall. Bantam, 1971. p. 205.

 

David Lindsay-Abaire’s farce Wonder of the World chronicles Cass Harris’ search for meaning as she embarks on a new life in Niagara after discovering that her husband of seven years, Kip, has harbored a secret sexual perversion. Once she reaches her destination, she finds that life away from Kip is no honeymoon either but a series of encounters with an assortment of eccentrics grappling with their own losses.

For Cass, the loss is one of innocence. No longer innocent of the knowledge of her husband’s bizarre fetish, she ww-script-notesstruggles to come to terms with it. Though Cass chooses to start a new life, she continues to see the world through the lens of the ninth-grade teaching job that she leaves behind (along with Kip), equating her mistake of marriage to a mathematical miscalculation. As she explains to Kip: “Look, I agreed to marry you based on what I knew to be true. Kip equals X. X will make me happy. Everything added up. Seven years later I find out that you’re not X at all, you’re Z. And if you’re Z, then I did the math wrong” (1.1). Ever the math teacher, Cass perceives the world as a series of signs with determinate meaning, a tendency that seems to compound the difficulty of her quest. On the bus to Niagara, where Cass adopts fellow traveler Lois Coleman as her sidekick, Cass continues to think in terms of numbers, measuring her old life as “463 road signs behind me” (1.2). Though she eventually loses track of the signs, she remains focused on her numbered to-do list, which includes becoming a contestant on The Newlywed Game, a show that turns couples’ compatibility into a numbers game.

Unlike Cass, her husband, Kip, does not seek meaning in numbers. When Karla and Glen (partners in marriage as well as private investigation), confide to Lois that Kip has hired them to track down Cass, Glen notes that Kip “[s]tarted to put two and two together” (1.7). For Kip, “started” is the operative term. He is not a numbers man. The proof that he offers of their undying love—including the ring they found, “the sign,” as Kip a calls it (2.1) —is insubstantial evidence in the eyes of Cass. Their sign systems aren’t the same; they speak different languages. For Kip, numbers games are “crass and divisive” (1.2).

When couples counselor Janie, clad in a clown suit, leads Cass and her cohort of misfits through a Newlywed-style ww-draft-1therapy session, Cass says that “[i]t’s not just a game! Things have meaning. Or at least they should” (2.3). Her emphasis on “should” indicates that she has embraced the concept that meaning may be indeterminate. But neither she nor the other characters can leave numbers behind, not altogether. After Captain Mike, Kip’s rival for Cass’ affection, accidentally shoots himself, rather than reflecting on his death, the characters attempt to quantify fears as they quibble over which is number one: being alone, public speaking, or needles (2.3).

Only Karla seems to yield to the idea that answers may elude us. As she observes to Lois: “I don’t even think about my marriage anymore. Why this, why that? I have no idea how it works, and that’s fine by me. It’s like Stonehenge, an unknowable mystery that the world has come to accept” (2.4).

ww-draft-2The final scene on the river leaves the audience, along with Cass and Lois, in a holding pattern. What happens remains unclear. The ambiguity comes at a risk; it may try the patience of audience members who find the play’s farcical humor too ridiculous or contrived, or as New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley wrote “forced rather than organic.” For others, though, the grotesqueness of Cass’ Niagara Land may serve as an apt metaphor for our own absurd political terrain with its crass and divisive stream of fake news and alternative facts. Perhaps asking “[w]hen does the clarity come?” (2.4) and persisting in our quest for it will sustain us, like Cass and Lois, as we find ourselves over a barrel.

Works Cited

Brantley, Ben. “Setting Forth, the Wind in Her Sails.” Review of Wonder of the World, by David Lindsay- Abaire, The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2001, http://www.nytimes.com, Accessed 18 Jan.  2017.

Lindsay-Abaire, David. Wonder of the World. Dramatists Play Service, 2003.

othello-and-draftSusan Snyder’s “Othello: A Modern Perspective,” considers the various approaches Shakespeare scholars have offered to the question, what’s the source of the tragedy? Is it Iago, the inhuman embodiment of evil? Is it Iago, the human villain? Is it Othello, himself? Or is it the social forces of Venice? Though all of these approaches are valid—and as Snyder observes, “[n]either separately nor in conjunction can they offer anything like ‘the whole truth’” (288)—Iago’s actions as an all-too-human have-not, someone who feels left behind, is the answer that resonates in the minds of many of us now.

Our recent campaign season has spotlighted citizens who, like Iago, believe that they have been passed over, and we have witnessed repeatedly the discrepancy between appearance and reality that Iago masterfully exploits. In the first scene of the play, when Iago recounts Othello’s appointment of Cassio as his lieutenant, he observes that Cassio lacks his experience in the field, noting that “Mere prattle without practice / Is all his soldiership” (1.1.27-28) and “Preferment goes by letter and affection / And not by old gradation” (1.1.38-39).  For Iago, it’s another way of saying the system is rigged.

To set things right for himself, “honest” Iago manipulates not only the gullible Roderigo but everyone else, “show[ing] out a flag and sign of love / Which is indeed but sign” (1.1.173-74). As he betrays Roderigo, Cassio, and Othello, even as he publicly conveys the utmost devotion, he also offers the appearance of Desdemona’s handkerchief—first in the hands of Cassio and later in Bianca’s—as the “ocular proof” (3.3.412) of Desdemona’s infidelity.

That ocular proof stokes the jealous rage that leads Othello to murder Desdemona, an irrational act of violence that points to the Moor’s own tragic flaw and indirectly to prevailing social forces. We see Desdemona and Emilia fall victim not only to the husbands who murder them but also to their prescribed roles in Venetian society. Still, if not for Iago, Desdemona and Emilia would live, as would Othello and Roderigo. As Lodovico says to Iago, “This is thy work” (5.2.427).

Iago’s “work,” as Lodovico puts it, is an evil that continues to haunt us, not because it’s inhuman but because it’s all too real. We know the hatred engendered by the have-nots and the ease with which mere appearance can seem to be ocular proof—a problem that’s compounded for us in the digital age, both in politics and in our personal lives. Othello leaves us wondering who our own Iagos may be, not just the trolls wreaking havoc on Twitter for all to see, but also the BFFs—“I am your own forever” (3.4.546)—stroking our egos even as their private messages poison us.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Othello. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library Edition, Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Snyder, Susan. “Othello: A Modern Perspective.” Folger Shakespeare Library: Othello by William Shakespeare, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, Simon and Schuster, 2009. pp. 287-98.

 

Off-Broadway promotional poster / wikipedia.org

Off-Broadway promotional poster / wikipedia.org

Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation chronicles her pilgrimage to the sites commemorating the lives and deaths of our first three assassinated presidents–places including the Lincoln Memorial, where she notes that reading his Second Inaugural speech “is to see how Lincoln’s mind worked” (27). Similarly, reading Vowell’s own words shows readers how her mind works. Crafting a narrative that combines memoir, travelogue, revisionist history, and cultural critique, Vowell’s 2005 book recounts her journey in her characteristic roundabout fashion, one that risks frustrating readers who crave a more straightforward narrative. Among the devices that give unity to Vowell’s meandering story are the musicals and songs that she turns to repeatedly, to frame her narrative, to comment on the presidents and their assassins, and to make sense of her morbid obsession.

Vowell’s preface opens in the Berkshires, where she has traveled to visit the home of Chester French, the artist who designed the sculptural centerpiece for the Lincoln Memorial. But the preface doesn’t start with French or with Chesterwood, the site of his house and studio. Instead, Vowell recounts watching a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins, beginning her book with these words: “One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on a stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes. There they were—John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guiteau, Leon Czolgosz—in tune and in flesh” (1).

Original production logo /wikipedia.org

Original production logo / wikipedia.org

Chapter One opens in a similar fashion, with Vowell in another theater watching another musical. This time it’s 1776 at Ford’s Theatre, where Vowell observes with her trademark wit that going to watch a play “is like going to Hooters for the food” (21). Her primary reason for being there is to see the site where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln. Though she had planned to leave at intermission, Vowell stays for the second act, which dramatizes Adams and Jefferson “yielding to the southerners’ edit” of the Declaration of Independence (23). Vowell’s account of watching 1776 at Ford’s Theatre becomes a link between the founding fathers’ concession and Lincoln’s assassination. In Vowell’s words, “I can look from the stage to Lincoln’s box and back again, and I can see exactly where this compromise in 1776 is pointing: into the back of Lincoln’s head in 1865” (23).

Heroin / genius.com

“Heroin” 45 / genius.com

With Chapter Two, Vowell faces the challenge of depicting a subject far less important and interesting than Lincoln. Writing of our second assassinated president, James Garfield, Vowell admits that “it’s hard to have strong feelings about him” (135). To breathe life into her description of Garfield, Vowell turns to music, likening his diary entry about rearranging his library to “the druggy glow you can hear in Lou Reed’s voice on ‘Heroin’” (135). And she turns again to song when she recounts doctors probing Garfield’s wound with their unsterile fingers, prompting the infection that led to his death. Observing that Garfield might have survived otherwise, Vowell writes: “[A]s Laurie Anderson once put it, “It’s not the bullet that kills you, it’s the hole” (160).

Though Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, enlivens Chapter Two, the same can’t be said of William McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz in Chapter Three. Writing of the problem of depicting the sad sack Czolgosz, Vowell turns again to Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, the musical that opens the book:

Even Stephen Sondheim cannot tart up Leon Czolgosz. Czolgosz is such a sad pathetic character, and by pathetic I mean drowning in pathos, that he is the one psycho killer in the musical Assassins who never gets a laugh. He is as drab and morose as Charles Guiteau is snappy. (214)

In the final chapter, Vowell joins in on the singing briefly, when she takes part in an a capella rendition of “How Great Thou Art.” Singing that hymn at an Easter Sunday service at the Lincoln Memorial reminds Vowell of Elvis’s recording of it, one of her mother’s favorites, which leads Vowell to realize where her preoccupation with presidential killings began: “I can probably trace this whole morbid assassination death trip back to my parents’ record collection. Specifically, Buddy Starcher’s spoken-word LP History Repeats Itself” (252).

“History Repeats Itself” 45 / 45cat.com

The title track of Starcher’s album, which recounts the similarities between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, still sparks something inside her, Vowell observes, because “these creepy historical flukes offer momentary relief from the oppression of chaos and that is not nothing. They give order to the universe. They give meaning” (254). Likewise, Starcher’s song and the others Vowell weaves into her narrative give Assassination Vacation a sense of order and meaning.

If Vowell were writing her book on assassinations now, she might offer a digression on the recent debates, perhaps observing that the first question Elaine Quijano posed of vice presidential candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine referenced Lloyd Bentsen’s opening statement in his 1988 debate with Republican vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle: “[T]hat has happened too often in the past. And if that tragedy should occur, we have to step in there without any margin for error, without time for preparation, to take over the responsibility for the biggest job in the world.”

The unnamed tragedy is assassination, of course, reminding viewers of the same uncomfortable truth about history repeating itself, the truth that haunts Vowell’s ears as she ends the book, years before we would find ourselves in our current political landscape—one as unimaginable as rap songs about the first secretary of the treasury.

Surely if Vowell were writing Assassination Vacation now, references to Hamilton would abound. When Hamilton’s writer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, hosted Saturday Night Live earlier this month, he said of his Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning musical that “it’s such a nice escape from all the craziness in our world right now. It’s about two famous New York politicians locked in a dirty, ugly, political, mud-slinging campaign. It’s escapism.” Those words could have been written by Vowell, herself. Escapism, indeed. Not the storyline, sadly, but the sarcasm that gives us some comic relief.

Works Cited

Miranda, Lin-Manuel. Opening Monologue. Saturday Night Live. 8 Oct. 2016. NBC, http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/linmanuel-miranda-monologue/3112623. Accessed 10 Oct. 2016.

October 5, 1988 Debate Transcripts: “The Bentsen-Quayle Vice Presidential Debate.” Commission on Presidential Debates, http://www.debates.org/index.php?page=october-5-1988-debate-transcripts. Accessed 10 Oct. 2016.

Vowell, Sarah. Assassination Vacation. Simon and Schuster, 2005.

“The Preacher and the Apostle,” one of the early chapters in Marlon James’s novel John Crow’s Devil,  offers the first glimpse of the Jamaican village of Gibbeah and the man who comes to own it. Aloyisius Garvey, who renames the village Garveyville, dictates that every house be red, like his. Though people forget “with time and grime” (26) and call it black, the plantation-style house remains red and its dark curtains remain closed, “reveal[ing] no secrets” (26). Although the description of Gibbeah lacks the graphic detail of the novel’s often nightmarish scenes, it stands as one of the most haunting moments in the book for its foreshadowing of the horrors hidden in plain sight.

"High Plains Drifter" / horrorcultfilms.co.ok

“High Plains Drifter” / horrorcultfilms.co.ok

For readers versed in revisionist westerns, Gibbeah may evoke images of the red town of Lago in High Plains Drifter, where the buildings, like those of Gibbeah, are painted by decree. And like the town of Lago, the village of Gibbeah comes under the rule of a figure seeking vengeance. In the  film it’s the avenging angel who paints the town red. In James’s novel he returns–whether fallen angel or Antichrist–to a village stained red a generation earlier.

Late in the novel, after readers learn the true identity of the “stranger” who comes to town, it’s evident how the malignant neglect and abuse of Garvey’s rule gives rise to the totalitarian regime of his “nephew,” Apostle Lucas York: The villagers and their spiritual leader, Pastor Hector Bligh, fail to see, both through ignorance and turning a blind eye. As York says to Bligh after he takes the Pastor prisoner: “The only reason that man [Garvey] hired you is because you were as blind then as you are now” (212).

Even the Widow Greenfield, “the only one who eye no blind” (193), as Lucinda says, turns a blind eye to Garvey in defense:

He [Garvey] owned every red building including the church. Surely he could drive the Apostle out of the village and put Gibbeah back where it used to be. She thought for a minute about what that meant. Hypocrisy was as much a shield for her as anybody else. Pretense was protection. (183)

But the widow doesn’t know the extent of Garvey’s savage cruelty until she sees it documented in the sepia photographs that she discovers among the casualties: “In all her years of suspecting Mr. Garvey of sodomy and seeing his several nephews, she had never married the two. Her mind traveled to places she had not thought thinkable” (208).

Finally seeing the unthinkable as the widow sees it heightens the haunting quality of the first description of the village. Revealing the secrets once hidden in plain sight, Marlon James’s unflinching look at Gibbeah sends readers’ minds to places we’d rather not go, but it’s a crucial journey, one that leads not only to the boys and girls of Gibbeah—caught as they try to scramble over the fence—but also to the children of Aleppo, victims of an all-too-real conflict, one we must hope will end, as Gibbeah’s does, with survivors poised to tell the tale.

Work Cited

James, Marlon. John Crow’s Devil. Akashic. 2005.

 

Bags of bone candy and bibliographies for the cast and crew

Bags of bone candy and bibliographies for the cast and crew

Back in February, when I first curled up with the script of Incorruptiblethe farce I’d just been cast in and recently performed in—I was struck by the author’s note: “This sort of thing really happened” (6). The “sort of thing” that playwright Michael Hollinger was referring to was the theft and sale of relics in the Middle Ages, not just the actual bones of saints, martyrs, and biblical figures but also random bones passed off as sacred.

It didn’t surprise me that such theft and fraud took place, but I’d never given much thought to medieval relics—or to the churches of the Middles Ages, for that matter. The thought of medieval monks stealing relics intrigued me though, and the more I turned the idea over in my mind, the more it made sense. If sacred bones were valuable centuries before the science of DNA extraction, then who could say that any given relics—from the Latin reliquiae, literally things left behind—weren’t the veritable bones of Saint Paul or Mary Magdalene?

My interest in the facts behind the farce along with my commitment to the practice of completing assignments with my students led me here. For their final paper of the semester, I asked my students to annotate sources, a minimum of three, on a subject of interest to them, and to introduce their bibliography with a short essay that addresses their interest in the subject. In other words: What drives your research? In my case, it’s “dem bones,” the relics of the Middle Ages (and the plastic versions that I’ve been circling on stage).

As I researched medieval relics, I was reminded over and over of lines from the play. I had always associated the medieval churches of Europe with cathedrals and palaces, but I learned from my research that in fact the “centers of religion and cultural life [in the Middle Ages] were not cathedrals or palaces but rather rural monasteries” (Geary 45). As I read those words, I recalled Brother Martin’s dismissal of the “second rate” convent in Bernay “run by a bunch of backwoods nuns” (16) and the words of my character, Agatha, Abbess of Bernay, echoing Martin with her dismissal of her brother’s monastery: “What’s in Priseaux, I said, but a second-rate monastery run by a bunch of backwoods monks?” (67).

Whether second-rate or backwoods, the monks of the rural monasteries at the heart of medieval life depended on the revenue generated by relics. And they “viewed theft as an appropriate means of relic acquisition” (Geary 108), rationalizing and justifying theft and fraud as Charles, the abbot, and Martin do when Felix reminds them that they didn’t renounce the world to become as corrupt as the merchant class, that they “are men of the noblest ideals” (36):

MARTIN. And if we fail in that mission, will it matter how noble we were? (To Charles). There’s a shoemaker’s family that won’t get supper tonight because of our high ideals. I turned away fourteen others today; is this the ideal of Christian charity?

CHARLES. Martin’s right. We’re on the precipice, Felix. The abyss opens at our feet. If, somehow, by . . . soiling our hands just a bit, we can make it to the other side, mightn’t that justify our compromise? (36-37)

The bone candy before I bagged it

The bone candy before I bagged it

The bibliography that follows includes three sources: Incorruptible, the play that prompted my research, Furta Sacra, a book-length study of relic theft in the central Middle Ages, and Holy Bones, Holy Dust, the first comprehensive history of relics in medieval Europe, which includes a chapter devoted to incorruptibles, the relics that give Hollinger’s play its name. An incorruptible, as Charles says, is “[a] saint so holy its body refuses to decay” (52).

If I were a historian, or an anthropologist, or a theologian, this work of mine might lead to an in-depth study of medieval relics. Since I’m none of those things, it’s unlikely that I’ll return to “dem bones” as a subject of writing or research. Still, it’s been a valuable journey, one that informed every trip back to Priseaux, as I stood onstage as Abbess Agatha, believing that I’d bought the bones of Saint Foy “out from under” my sibling rival (68).

Annotated Bibliography

Freeman, Charles. Holy Bones, Holy Dust: How Relics Shaped the History of Medieval Europe. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 6 April 2016.

A history of relic veneration in medieval Europe, Holy Bones, Holy Dust chronicles the roles of saints’ cults and miraculous interventions from the fall of the Roman Empire to Reformation. Freeman traces the growth in the popularity of relics as they proliferated in various forms. The most sought after were intact bodies and body parts (severed head and limbs), and detritus (fingernails, blood, and hair). Some were placed in ornate reliquaries and processed through towns, drawing pilgrims seeking miracles and remission of sins.

Geary, Patrick J. Furta Sacra: Thefts of Relics in the Central Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton UP. Rev. ed. 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 4 April 2016.

To acquire the relics of saints, medieval monks ransacked tombs, greedy merchants raided churches, and relic-mongers dredged the Roman catacombs. Patrick Geary’s study of the medieval tradition of sacra furta (or holy theft) narratives, explores how hagiographers’ accounts of the thefts served to rationalize and justify them in a time, when as Geary observes, “the prosperity of a religious community was a fragile luxury” and “the acquisition of relics was a real necessity” (57).

Hollinger, Michael. Incorruptible. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2002. Print.

Set in thirteenth-century France, Hollinger’s farce centers on the financially-struggling monastery of Priseaux, whose patron saint hasn’t performed a miracle in a dozen years. After one of the young monks, Felix, returns from his travels to report that their own St. Foy has been sold to a rival convent in Bernay, the monks confront the one-eyed travelling minstrel who fits the description of the relic-monger. The minstrel, Jack, tells the monks that he did indeed sell bones to the convent, but they were not St. Foy—as he had told the abbess they were—but rather they were simply the bones of a pig farmer. Jack’s confession and subsequent observations about the potential value of fraudulent relics lead the monks of Priseaux to hatch their own money-making scheme.

Duck-Rabbit

Duck-Rabbit / wikimedia.org

Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein assert that the most effective writing about literature takes the form of a conversation, whether it’s a dialogue with a published literary critic, a classmate, a hypothetical reader, or the literary text, itself. Graff and Birkenstein observe that what distinguishes literary analysis from other types of academic writing–which are also forms of conversation–are the subject’s lack of an explicit thesis (poems and stories show rather than tell) and the central role of conflict (problems move stories forward).

A close reading of Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge” offers a case in point for Graff and Birkenstein’s guide for literary analysis, which itself–intentionally or not–may raise questions in readers’ minds about what happens to Julian’s mother.

The title story of O’Connor’s posthumous collection Everything that Rises Must Converge chronicles the conflict between Julian, a recent college graduate who embraces the changes brought on by the Civil Rights movement and his mother, who clings to the racial hierarchy of the old South and refuses to travel alone on desegregated buses.

One evening as Julian accompanies his mother en route to her reducing class at the Y, he takes a seat beside a black man–an act that Julian perceives as a lesson for his mother–and witnesses her annoyance increase when she realizes that the large black woman who has boarded the bus with her young son, Carver, is wearing the same purple and green hat that she wears, as Julian sees it, “like a banner of her imaginary dignity” (277).

Later, as the two mothers and sons exit the bus, Julian’s mother rummages in her purse for a coin to give to Carver, an act that Julian anticipates will fuel the ire of Carver’s mother, believing that she will see the gesture as yet-more-condescension-by-the-bigoted-white-woman. When Julian’s mother offers the little boy a penny, Carver’s mother’s frustration and anger escalate, prompting her to swing her purse at Julian’s mother and knock her to the sidewalk. Julian helps his mother to her feet, but she remains mobile only briefly. Delusional, she asks Julian to tell her grandfather and her childhood nurse–both long dead–to come get her, and she  collapses on the sidewalk.

Reading O’Connor’s story closely reveals that Julian, though on the right side of history, doesn’t place himself there through compassion but instead through “an evil urge to break [his mother’s] spirit” (277).

After reading Graff and Birkenstein in conjunction with O’Connor, what lingers in this reader’s mind aren’t the interpretive possibilities that the story invites but rather the one that Graff and Birkenstein seemingly ignore or dismiss. When they write that the “mother’s death [. . .] could be seen as evidence that we are supposed to disapprove of her” (195), they acknowledge the open-endedness of her character but not of the story’s conclusion, itself. The underlying assumption that Julian’s mother is dead precludes the ambiguity that Graff and Birkenstein illustrate with the duck-rabbit drawing. Is Julian’s mother (a) dead (duck), or has she suffered (and survived) a massive debilitating stroke?

O’Connor writes that one of Julian’s mother’s eyes came “unmoored” and the other “closed” (291), but she doesn’t state that she died. The fact that Graff and Birkenstein refer to her death serves as a reminder–apparently an unwitting one–that we as readers need to keep our own eyes open.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. “‘On Closer Examination’: Entering Conversations about Literature.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 184-201. Print.

O’Connor, Flannery. “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” “They Say/I Say”: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. Ed. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 2014. 272-91. Print.