Posts Tagged ‘Academic Writing’

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).

Girl at the Mirror. The Saturday Evening Post. 6 Mar. 1954 / nrm.org

In Norman Rockwell’s painting Girl at the Mirror, the face that viewers see is the girl’s reflection—not her face itself, but the one she sees in the glass. What does she see in herself, and what do the paintings’ observers see, as we witness this private moment? Does her lace-trimmed petticoat evoke in her, or in us, thoughts of the wedding gown that she may wear one day? For Rockwell’s detractors—and for those who consider him a guilty pleasure—Girl at the Mirror and his other covers for The Saturday Evening Post present a sentimentalized depiction of American life, the same picket-fenced cliché that many who find fault with Our Town perceive as the prevailing image of the play. As theatre scholar Donald Margulies writes in his foreword to Our Town, many people who dislike it have “dismissed [it] as a corny relic of Americana and relegated Thornton Wilder to the kitsch bin along with Norman Rockwell and Frank Capra” (xi). Yet a close look at Our Town and Girl at the Mirror reveals portraits of American life that are far from idyllic.

As she gazes pensively in the mirror, the girl in Rockwell’s painting might be asking herself the same question that Emily Webb asks her mother: “[A]m I pretty?” (31). Though Mrs. Webb tries to reassure her daughter, Emily seeks an answer that her mother’s words fail to provide.

Both Emily and the Girl at the Mirror occupy that awkward space between childhood and adulthood—a notion that Rockwell emphasizes with the composition of his painting, placing the girl between her childhood toy, the doll that she has cast aside, and her new grown-up object of interest, movie star Jane Russell, who gazes up at her from the page of a magazine. Will I ever be beautiful and desirable, the way you are? the girl might be asking of Russell. Or, as Emily asks her mother: “Am I pretty enough . . . to get anybody . . . to get people interested in me? (32). Though Mrs. Webb answers Emily, she does not provide the answer that her daughter seeks. Telling Emily, instead, that she has “a nice pretty young face” (31) and that she’s “pretty enough for all purposes” (32), she avoids the subject of adult desire that underlies Emily’s questions.

Though the audience feels the frustration in Emily’s voice as she says, “Oh, Mama, you’re no help at all” (32), only later in the play do we feel the full weight of those words when Mrs. Webb confesses in the wedding scene that she has never talked to Emily about sex: “It’s cruel, I know, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything” (76). Mrs. Webb’s monologue turns the scene of her daughter’s wedding into a reminder of the vulnerability and pain that come as a consequence of a lack of sexual knowledge. That same darkness at the edge of a seemingly quaint picture appears in Girl at the Mirror. Consider the doll, just beyond the mirror and the viewer’s focus, innocently cast aside perhaps, but backed up to the edge of the mirror’s frame. To the adult eye, the doll’s posture is clearly one of sexual submissiveness.

Both Wilder’s and Rockwell’s visions are more complex than what their critics give them credit for—or more accurately deny them—rendering the trouble that lurks below the surfaces of our daily encounters. And while the sexual innocence of Emily Webb and Rockwell’s Girl at the Mirror may seem distant to us, the silence that endangers their innocence pervades our lives. Now as revelations of celebrities’ and politicians’ transgressions saturate our news streams, the silences of Wilder’s characters seem eerily prescient. Can anyone now hear Mrs. Webb say, “I couldn’t bring myself to say anything” (76), without thinking of our own culture of silence—and of  Roy Moore and Louis C.K. and Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein—and of all the predators in our own towns, places supposedly so far removed Grover’s Corners?

Meanwhile, back in Our Town, Mrs. Gibbs says of Simon Stimson’s alcoholism that “the only thing the rest of us can do is just not to notice it” (40). And Constable Warren says, “‘Twant much” (104), of a Polish immigrant nearly freezing to death, another way of saying that some lives do not matter as much as others, a prejudice that we know all too well as no mere relic of the past.  Those moments in Our Town not only belie the notion of Grover’s Corners as a saccharine portrait of America but also demonstrate that the play critiques the very parochialism that its detractors denounce as its stock-in-trade.

In his reassessment of Rockwell’s paintings, Richard Halpern observes that “[a] false belief in our own sophistication or knowingness is just another form of innocence” (par. 17). The same innocence may prevent us from seeing Our Town with real clarity, the way that Emily only truly sees her twelfth birthday when she revisits it after death. As she says to the Stage Manager, “I can’t look at everything hard enough” (105). Perhaps in our own innocence, neither can we.

Works Cited

Halpern, Richard. “Manufacturing Innocence,” excerpt from Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, U. of Chicago P., http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/N/bo3750655.html, Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

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

Rockwell, Norman. Girl at the Mirror. The Saturday Evening Post, 6 Mar. 1954. Norman Rockwell Museum, 2016, http://www.nrm.org/MT/text/GirlMirror.html, Accessed 16 Nov. 2017.

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

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.

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 narrative, but the sarcasm that offers 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.