Monday, November 21, 2016

Thinking About Theory (One Last Time)

Thinking About Theory (One Last Time)

Remember, Theory isn’t some abstract thing that only academics use or something that exists (and rots) in a jar. A theory is, as Culler defines it, “a contesting of premises and postulates, what you thought you knew…You reflect on your reading in new ways. You have different questions to ask and a better sense of the implications of the questions you put to the works you read” (16). That means it’s simply a way of articulating ideas and perspectives that might otherwise go unnoticed in a literary work. In general, a theory should be an idea that goes against ‘common sense’ notions and helps us see what is not obvious or expected (though, to be fair, what is not obvious to you might be obvious to someone else, which is why I try to avoid talking about “depth” in literature). That said, a theory should be something that gives you a light bulb moment so you say, “oh, I never thought about it like that before!”

Some theories we’ve discussed that work well with Shakespeare and the Harlem Renaissance writers:
  • Chapters 4,5,7, & 8 in Culler: these are chapters about how poetry and language works and creates a persona, how literature creates identity for readers and writers. Crucial for thinking about any of these poets and why we continue to read them. Each chapter contains several “theories” in it, so you only need to use part of a given chapter as your lens.
  • Greenblatt, “The Circulation of Social Energy”: this talks about how the historical and cultural moment creates and shapes literature. No work is solely the work of its authors—the historical moment is an active co-author. That’s why we can talk about a “Harlem Renaissance” as a school of thought: they were responding to their culture and society in a unified (if individually diverse) manner.
  • Essays in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader: writers such as Richard Wright, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Hughes worked hard to create theories and perspectives for their people to follow. Hughes’ own poetry is shaped by his theoretical ideas, as we see here. However, these ideas can also shed light on how Shakespeare wrote and thought: he, too, defined himself against a majority group and felt that his writing should reflect a theoretical ideal of “race” (though his race was more a class—though actors/writers were almost seen as an inferior race in that time).
  • Marx/Communist Manifesto: the idea of class constructions being the most important way to read history and society profoundly shapes how we read literature. You could argue that both Shakespeare and writers like McKay or Hughes are really writing about class inequality. Marx provides us a historical lens with which to make sense of the struggle of writers writing against power and privilege.
  • Fetterly/Feminism: her notion of American literature being “male” by default, and forcing readers to identify with a male identity is important to reading older literature in general. You could examine how the identity shaped by Shakespeare and Cullen (for example) is inherently male and robs women of their own expression (the “Dark Lady” sonnets seem to equate femininity with falsehood). Or, you could argue that Shakespeare writes from a position of subjectivity and inferiority, allowing him to better identify with a female ethos. The same could be argue of all the Harlem Renaissance writers—and not just the women.

Critical Paper #2/Paper Abstract

Critical Paper #2/Paper Abstract

An Abstract is a short paper (1-2 pages) that briefly outlines an approach to a given paper or topic. It should give a theoretical framework for discussing a writer or theme, and should briefly explain what works you intend to discuss. It doesn’t have to have an ironclad thesis, but should clearly state your intention, interest, and assumptions. It’s okay to say “I hope to find X in the works of Y,” or “I want to explore the connection between X and Y,” but avoid phrases like “I want to use Culler’s theories to find different ideas between several of the authors in class.” For example, the abstract below is for an article I published earlier this year in Oklahoma Humanities:

I would like to propose an article on the "It's a Mystery" theme for the Winter/January 2016 edition of Oklahoma Humanities.  The article would be entitled (tentatively) “M.R. James’ Warning to the Curious.”  James is a largely-forgotten (but still widely admired) early 20th century writer of ghost stories who envisioned the terrors of the hidden world where we least expected to find them—in the raw material of daily existence. In a short essay written toward the end of his life entitled "The Malice of Inanimate Objects," he writes,

“there [are] days, dreadful days, on which we have had to acknowledge with gloomy resignation that our world has turned against us.  I do not mean the human world of our relations and friends…[but] the wrong of things that do not speak or work or hold congresses and conferences.  It includes such beings as the collar stud, the inkstand, the fire, the razor, and…the extra step on the staircase which leads you either to expect or to not expect it.” 

For James, true horror resided in modern life itself, which we assume is well-ordered, reasoned, and devoid of messy superstition.  Yet we are constantly stepping over cracks and avoiding ladders, since the old world manifests itself through the most mundane means to remind us that magic still exists; that is, the power of the human imagination to populate our world with angels and demons.  In James’ stories, he creates terrors where we least expect to find them, and reminds us that human nature is never conquered.  To quote Goya, “the sleep of reason produces monsters,” and the 20th century produced some spectacular ghouls—all while reason dozed in a dream of progress.   

On the last week of class, bring a 1-2 page abstract to read to the class (you don’t need to bring copies for everyone). I want everyone to hear your theoretical approach to the texts and what you hope to explore. This way, we can give you feedback and you might even inspire your fellow classmates. Please feel free to e-mail me a draft of your abstract early if you want feedback or if you feel like you’ve hit a dead end. NOTE: I will not let you turn in the final paper until you present an abstract in class. This is to help you and make sure you’re on the right track (it’s not punishment). So please let me—and the class—help. Don’t skip class and just turn in a paper on the due date.

Critical Paper #2: Theoretical Perspectives

Critical Paper #2: Theoretical Perspectives

“Are they being called upon to “preach”? To be “salesmen”? To “prostitute” their writing? Must they “sully” themselves? Must they write “propaganda”? No; it is a question of awareness, of consciousness; it is above all, a question of perspective.” (Wright, Blueprint for Negro Writing)

In Chapter 7 of Culler’s text, “Performative Language,” he reminds us that “no one would have ever thought of being in love if they hadn’t read about it in books, and the notion of romantic love (and of its centrality to the lives of individuals) is arguably a massive literary creation…literature is not frivolous pseudo-statements, but takes it places among the acts of language that transform the world, bringing into being the things that they name” (96). As Wright’s quote suggests above, to write is to be aware that what you write changes people’s perspectives as they read it. To be unaware of your audience as a poet in a specific historical context is to not be a writer at all—or as he later says, to be “a lost victim in a world he cannot understand or control” (201). Writing is about control, or at least about shaping the chaotic stuff of life into something that appears to have order, coherence, and meaning.

RESPONSE: So, for your Second Critical Paper, I want you to explore how both Shakespeare and at least one other Harlem Renaissance poet create a “perspective” and an identity in their work. How is each one consciously creating a sense of self that might not have existed previous to the poems’ existence? What related theories, ideas, values, sexualities, biases, and beliefs are they encoding into their works? Likewise, what theories or critical ideas can “uncover” each poet’s theoretical perspective on being a poet in a very specific historical moment? You might also consider how other writers would start thinking about writing—and writing themselves—based on the perspectives of these poems. In other words, how do these poems create ideas and the perspectives that we now take for granted?

THEORY: For this paper, you must use a specific theory to guide your discussion and help you examine and link these disparate poets. Your theory could be a single chapter from Culler (Chs.5, 7, and 8), since each chapter binds together related theories and theorists. Or, you can choose an actual theorist—Greenblatt, Marx, Foucault, Butler, etc. I will give you a few handouts over the next few weeks from many of these writers. You are also welcome to find your own theorist/book based on ideas in Culler or something we’ve discussed in class (note that on page 139, Culler includes a “Further Reading” for each chapter, which highlights specific theorists).

ABSTRACT: On the last week of classes, I want you to present a short abstract to the class—3-5 minutes or so—which explains your general approach to the assignment. What theory are you using and why, what poems, and what do you think it will help you reveal about the perspective/identity of each poet? You will also turn this into me so I can look it over and give you feedback. We will discuss writing the abstract in class in a week or two.

REQUIREMENTS: Page limit is up to you, but use common sense. J Must use a few poems from each poet, and not merely one from Shakespeare and one from Hughes, for example. Close reading is paramount, both in the poems and the theory. Introduce the theory before you use it and make sure your audience understands it. Then use it as a lens for your reading. DUE ON OUR FINAL EXAM DAY, WEDNESDAY DEC.7th by 5pm

Saturday, November 19, 2016

For Monday: Last Readings--Johnson and Toomer

"You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ." (Johnson)

For Monday's class, read the following poems, our last readings for the semester:

* Johnson, "The White Witch," "The Color Sergeant," "O Black and Unknown Bards," "Go Down Death," "The Creation"
* Toomer, "Song of the Son," "Georgia Dusk," "The Blue Meridian"

Both Toomer and Johnson wanted to go beyond conventional European poetry and find something that reflected another language of race or identity. Johnson tried to tap into the deep well of folklore, writing poetry that shared in the language of the spirituals; Toomer, on the other hand, sought a mythic identity that ultimately transcended racial identity. As you read these powerful poems, consider the following ideas...

* As a non-believer, Johnson did not share the simple, naive faith of the spirituals--and yet he was deeply moved by them. Why do you think he evokes their sound and imagery throughout these poems? Why write of what you don't believe? 

* How does "O Black and Unknown Bards" echo Cullen's poem, "Yet Do I Marvel"? What question is each one asking, and what answers does Johnson provide? Related to this, why might this be a profoundly Marxist poem that echoes many of the sentiments of Hughes' late poems?

* How might "The White Witch" be a commentary on Harlem itself? Why might it foredoom the fate and optimism of the Renaissance?

* Toomer makes the opposite pilgrimage as many of the Renaissance poets: from Washington D.C., he returns to the South to find 'civilization' there. According to "Song of the Son," what does he find there? Can black poets of the Renaissance find an identity in the South many of them--or their parents--fled from?

* How might "Georgia Dusk" also be a version of "O Black and Unknown Bards"? Again, what inspires his own poetry in this very simple, yet timeless, atmosphere?

* How is "The Blue Meridian" an indictment of the city and of modern civilization itself? Why does he claim that modern man/woman, "cannot mix with the stuff upon our boards/As water with flour to make bread"? 

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

For Friday: Poems by Claude McKay (pp.289-298)

For Friday, read the following poems by Claude McKay:

* If We Must Die
* Baptism
* The White House
* The Negro's Friend
* On a Primitive Canoe
* The Tropics in New York
* When Dawn Comes to the City 
* The Desolate City 
* The Harlem Dancer

[The two post-Harlem poems, Saint Isaac's Church, and Barcelona, are optional] 

Claude McKay is an interesting character, since he emigrated from Jamaica, where he made his name as a dialect poet (writing in Jamaican English). Here is a few lines from one of his dialect poems (not included in this anthology, since most were written pre-Harlem or else because they were judged as insufficiently universal):


De mo' me wuk, de mo' time hard,
    I don't know what fe do;
I ben' me knee an' pray to Gahd,
     Yet t'ings same as befo.'

De taxes knocking' at me door,
     I hear de bailiff's v'ice;
Me wife is sick, can't get no cure,
     But gnawing' me like mice...

Since he was a true outsider, McKay remained very critical of both America and the Harlem Renaissance, though he was an important figure in the movement. However, his Marxism soon led him to reject the country for Communist Spain and Moscow, where he hoped to find a true Socialist utopia. An added factor which made his identity more complex was his homosexuality, which didn't sit well with the status quo either in America or Harlem. All of these identities--gay, Marxist, Jamaican--have to be considered when reading his poetry and considering his "perspectives" in writing. Other ideas to consider...

* How does he define 'America' in these poems? Is America synonymous with 'white?' Or does he see both black and white America as roughly the same? 

* How do these poems express a Marxist sympathy or sensibility throughout? Why might he agree that "the working man has no country"? 

* How does McKay contrast Jamaica with America? What does his homeland mean to him--and offer him--that the 'new world' cannot? 

* How does McKay personify the city, a place that must have been wildly alien and exciting to him? What kind of place is it? Also, does he find it a liberating, healthy force the way many in the Renaissance found it? Or is it, like the Romantic poets, opposed to Nature and the spirit of true mankind? 

* How does he view the element of performance which is tied up in the popularity of Harlem in his poems (esp. The Harlem Dancer)? Does he feel like this compromise is necessary and beneficial in the long run? 

Friday, November 11, 2016

For Monday: The Women of the Renaissance

Photo of Mamie Estelle Fearing Scurlock, by Addison Scurlock, c.1910
For Monday's class, read all the female poets included in our anthology of the Harlem Renaissance:

* Bennett, "Song" and "Hatred" (pp.221-223)
* Cowdery, "The Young Voice Cries" (pp.238-240)
* Fauset, "La Vie C'est La Vie" and "Dead Fires" (pp.254-255)
* Johnson (Georgia), "Let Me Not Lose My Dream," "Old Black Men," "Black Woman," "The Heart of a Woman," "I Want to Die While You Love Me" (pp.273-275)
* Johnson (Helene), "My Race," "A Southern Road," "Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem," "Poem" (pp.276-278)
* Spencer, "Lady, Lady" (p.299) 

As always, consider some of the following ideas:

* How do many of these poems employ uniquely feminine metaphors/imagery that are absent from the works of Cullen and Hughes? Are there other hallmarks that make these poems distinct from their male peers?

* In general, do these poems sound more like the "Talented Tenth" (more academic, polished) or more like the colloquial language of the street? Why might this be? 

* Many of these poems are 'love poems,' which strike a very universal note. Is there any trace of propaganda or 'perspective' in these poems? Should there be? Can a love poem simply be a love poem, even in Harlem?

* Do some, or all, of these poems strike a feminist note? Do these poets seem to identify more with being women, or black, or simply poets? Where is there true allegiance from the poems themselves? 

* How does Helene Johnson's "Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem" compare thematically with some of Shakespeare's Sonnets to the young man or the Dark Lady? 

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

For Friday: Hughes' Poetry, Part Two (and a little Marxism to boot)

For Friday's class, we'll introduce Marxism and how it relates to both Hughes' later poetry and the Harlem Renaissance in general. I gave you a handout which is the first part of Marx and Engels' The Communist Manifesto, a small document that made quite a stir in the late 1840s. However, it really gathered steam at the turn of the last century, as people felt a big revolution was in the air. This was certainly the case in Harlem, where many African-Americans felt that unless the political structure changed, white America would have no vested interest in changing the racial caste system. 

We'll discuss the major tenets of Marxism (as its come to be called--sorry Engels), including definitions of the "bourgeoisie" and the "proletariat." As Marx and Engels write, "not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons--the modern working class--the proletarians" (71). This was welcome news to many poor, struggling, working class folk, especially those in Harlem. It also connects to the poem I, Too with its metaphors of the kitchen and future "beauty." 

So make sure you've read all the Hughes poems, especially the explicitly Marxist poems like "Red Silk Stockings," "Ruby Brown," "Goodbye, Christ," and "Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria." See you then...