Category Archives: History

On Lost Voices

A few days ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Carlin Romano that discussed H.J. Jackson’s book Those Who Write for Immortality. Jackson’s book talks about literary fame and how it occurs, and Romano’s article introduces some interesting, and troubling, ideas. For example, what if, as Jackson suggests, we remember Wordsworth and Coleridge not because they are eminently good poets, but because their poetry is easier to anthologize and illustrate than the works of Robert Southey or Leigh Hunt? Many good writers fall by the wayside, Romano seems to argue, simply because they are not convenient to read.

This makes me question my own work as a teacher in years past. One of the things I’m proud of is my attempt to help my students understand Romantic poetry and feel comfortable with it. Of course, I emphasized Wordsworth and Coleridge, because they are so accessible and so easy to identify with, considering their love of simplicity and Nature with a capital “N.” What’s not to like about that, after all? But recently, while reading the letters of Charles Lamb, a literary figure who was once loved for his essays and is now only known for his pseudonym (any crossword addict knows that “Lamb’s alias” is “ELIA”), I discovered a rebuttal of all the nature-worship perpetrated by Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Charles Lamb

Charles Lamb

Of course, any student of Romantic literature will remember lines like “Henceforth I shall know / That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure; / No plot so narrow, be but Nature there, /…and keep the heart / Awake to Love and beauty!” (“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” by S.T. Coleridge). This is also the poem in which Coleridge addresses Lamb himself (much to Lamb’s chagrin) not once but three times as “My gentle-hearted Charles,” telling him at one point, “thou has pined  / And hungered after Nature, many a year, / In the great City pent, winning thy way / With sad and patient soul…” (28-31). Lovely as those lines are, there was at least one reader who was unimpressed by them. Lamb himself wrote to Coleridge on August 6, 1800, “For God’s sake (I never was more serious) don’t make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print, or do it in better verses.” Apparently, Coleridge heeded Lamb’s plea, and never again addressed him in a poem.

Five months later, Lamb writes to William Wordsworth an interesting, chatty letter in which he brings up his view of nature, which runs counter to all Romantic ideology, ending in a paean to city life worthy of Dickens or Thackeray some fifty years later: “Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, waggons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes–London itself a pantomime and a masquerade–all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fulness of joy at so much life. All these emotions must be strange to you; so are your rural emotions to me.” Lamb’s letter continues to contrast his view of the poetic with Wordsworth’s, ending, “So fading upon me, from disuse, have been the beauties of Nature, as they have been confinedly called; so ever fresh, and green, and warm are all the inventions of men, and assemblies of men in this great city.”

Old Covent Garden Market, by Georg Johann Scharf, 1825 (source: Wikipedia)

Old Covent Garden Market, by Georg Johann Scharf, 1825 (source: Wikipedia)

This passage is more than striking; it’s a gobsmacking refutation of the Nature-worship that I have, for many years, erroneously taught was part and parcel of the literary landscape of early 19th century Britain. So here’s a public apology to all my students, with this little piece of cautionary advice: H.J. Jackson may well be right. Rather than teach the old stand-bys, we ought to be engaging in our own recovery projects to introduce more readers to the jewels that we’ve let slip through our fingers.

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Postscript to Previous Post

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Tolkien, the story goes, wrote the first words of The Hobbit in the pages of a student examination blue book. He had been grading examinations as a form of part-time work, and, exhausted by the monotony of the task, he celebrated his discovery of a blank page in the book, untouched by the student’s ink, by writing the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

I am far luckier than Tolkien. I received the following essay from a student (who gave me permission to post it here) as a final exam. It is a lovely way to end my final semester at the community college where I teach. Thank you, Cari Griffin, for summing up my attitude towards the study of literature in such a humorous and appropriate way. Indeed, I am a very lucky teacher. After all, a doctor is only as good as his or her companions.



27 April 2015

“Doctor” Shumway:

For nearly two years, I have been your companion as we have traveled through space and time. Your Tardis is not a blue Police box; it is your classroom, and you are “The Doctor”; a madwoman with a YouTube account. Though there was never a fez involved, exploring foreign lands, examining history, and best of all, discussing literature has allowed for, myself, at least, great understanding of the space-time continuum as it pertains to the literary world.

There can be no question that our travels, having begun in September of 2013, frequently took us to England. I think we can both agree, it is our favorite stop. Whether it has been a visit with the Anglo-Saxons, an exploration of medieval England, several visits with our favorite playwright, William Shakespeare, or an extensive amount of time spent in 19th century Great Britain, each visit afforded us an opportunity to see British history and its inhabitants in a new way. We lacked only our tea while we observed an Abbey, paid a visit to Thornfield Hall, or grasped the devastation of World War I.

We were not always in England. We’ve been to France with a philosopher, to Spain within American, and Germany to witness the beginning of the Romantic Movement. We saw 17th century Turkey through the eyes of an English woman, visited Japan at the turn of the 20th century, and briefly stopped in Imperial Russia. The authors we have covered acted as conductors, providing the means for us to travel. Their voices allowed us to see into their worlds, to spend time in their society, to have a momentary glimpse of a fixed point in time. We have seen revolutions, oppression, and inequality in many of the places we have visited, but always, the voices of those authors who have guided us cried out for equality, rallied for peace, and asked us to question, alongside them, our purpose within our community, our country, and our society, just as they did the same in theirs. Together, on our journey, we have celebrated the individual, applauded the growth of the female author, recognized brilliance, and felt the influence of those long ago voices within our modern society.

It was not just the authors that we met. We examined the world around them. We studied the era in which they lived: we viewed their art, heard their music, and, ultimately, questioned the validity of their place within the literary canon. Perhaps we did not always embrace them as friends, but we did not leave as foes. No. Our relationship with these authors, however brief, brought us a little closer to our fellow man, allowed us see into his or her own world through their eyes, and, to realize they are very much like us, though they lived in a far different world than the one we inhabit now.

As our journey nears its end, you ask, “why?” I interpret this as, “why take the journey? “My answer is quite simply this: we must. For anything less than a madman in a blue box landing in our backyard, we have no other way to reach across time and space, to look at a moment in man’s history, and have an opportunity to see that moment through a different set of eyes. Yes, Doctor Shumway, literature is our Tardis through space and time. We have an obligation to not only understand our place within our own culture, in history, but our fellow man’s place and his culture as well. After all, “We’re all stories, in the end” (The Eleventh Doctor).

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My Life with Ernest (Part I)

About three years ago, after watching Julie and Julia and hearing a friend’s account of The Year of Living Biblically, I decided I was up for what I now call a self-induced pointless project, or SIPP for short. You know what I mean: a SIPP is a personal goal of some sort that isn’t based on getting healthy (like losing weight or training for a marathon), being creative (like writing a screenplay), or acquiring a skill (like learning to play piano). It took me a few weeks to figure out what I would take on as my SIPP, and then it came to me in a rush of insight: I would read all of Ernest Hemingway’s works in a year.

Well, of course, it didn’t pan out that way. Other things got in my way. In about the second month of my SIPP, I got completely sidetracked by running for state legislature (otherwise known as a PEPO–a pointless expression of political optimism), and that took up the better part of a year. (How that happened and what I learned during my campaign will become fodder for another post some day, I’m sure.) But now I find that this old SIPP has come back to me, this time in the form of a WIPP (Work-Induced Pointless Project): next fall, I’ll be teaching a class on Ernest Hemingway, and I need to prepare myself for the task. It’s going to be quite a challenge, since I am a Victorian scholar by training, but it’s got to be easier than campaigning for public office, so I’m totally up for it.

So, from time to time, I’ll be posting random musings about Hemingway here at the Tabard Inn.

Back when I first started, I began my quest by reading Jeffrey Meyer’s biography of the writer: Hemingway: A Life. I like reading biographies, but I find them unbearably sad, with their insistence on the heartache of living from day to day, month after month, year after year, until death ends all. (I am perhaps the only viewer who cried while watching De-Lovely, a largely forgettable bio-pic of Cole Porter. Don’t even get me started on La Vie en Rose.) I’ll gladly read a biography of any literary figure–Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Brontes–or even of a historical figure, like Elizabeth I. But for me, the Ur-Biography will always be Edgar Johnson’s two-volume biography of Dickens, which a friend from graduate school gave me as a gift many years ago. I’m probably dating myself when I write this, but my view is that no one does it better than Johnson, who mixes biographical facts with literary criticism in a thoughtful blend that makes it all look easy.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey Meyer is no Edgar Johnson; Hemingway: A Life turned out to be somewhat informative, but mostly confusing. Dates bled into each other as I worked my way through the chapters. Important events, such as the death of Hemingway’s grandchild, were glossed over, mentioned only once in passing and never picked up again. Through Meyer’s thorough but difficult-to-read biography, however, I was able to develop a basic sense of the body of Hemingway’s work and the shape of his life; predictably, it is monumentally depressing. Hemingway apparently peaked at a young age and then simply repeated the same old ideas again and again, hoping to hit pay dirt once more. (On the other hand, I did find it consoling to think that there are good things about never really peaking at all.) To make matters worse, Meyer seems downright antagonistic to his subject much of the time, which both surprised and confused me: why write a biography of a man, spending hours and hours on researching his life, if one isn’t simply ape-shit bananas over him? I could not answer this question, not even after finishing Meyer’s book, all 300-plus pages of it.

And where am I now in my quest? I’m steadily plowing through Hemingway’s short stories. And there are some beauties: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “The Capital of the World.” Those are memorable stories, ones that stick in your head for days after you’ve read them. I was less impressed by “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which seems too much like self-pitying autobiography. And to be honest, I’m bored by many of the Nick Adams stories, despite the fact that I know they have a huge following. My attitude no doubt owes something to my Brooklyn background. I imagine having a conversation with the young, Nick Adams-era Hemingway, entirely one-sided, in which I tell him, “So, Hem, you went fishing. You caught a trout. Maybe you didn’t. You were mean to some girl. Or she was mean to you. So what? Big deal! Life happens—no need to write a story documenting every detail of your life for some poor schlep of a reader. How would you feel if I made you read a story about my trip to the podiatrist? Or if I made you read about my search for some nice, fresh gefilte fish?” Yet I have to point out that during this excursion into Hemingway country, I’ve discovered a story I never knew, one which has become one of my favorites: “A Canary for One.” This story is an interesting exercise in which a first-person narrator suddenly appears halfway through the story, intruding himself and adding a snappy little ending worthy of Saki (H.H. Munro). Somehow–and I’m not sure how–Hemingway makes that one work well. I find myself wishing Hemingway had written more of these tricky little stories, and fewer of the bullfighting, war-time, or fishing stories.

Stay tuned for more posts on Hemingway and his work as I struggle, as usual, to stay one step ahead of my students.


Image from the blog Vintage Culture:

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On the Limits of Education and the Meaning of Work


From the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange (1931) from

A couple of weeks ago, I told my freshman composition class that they needed to think hard about whether they should be in college. This flies in the face of what community college professors are supposed to say. We’re programmed, in one way or another, to tell students that getting a college degree is important to their success, that it can help them to a good, stable job, and that it will improve their lives–all of which are excellent things. There’s only one problem.

I no longer believe it will.

I won’t go into the fact that my students, like most community college students, live on the edge. It takes little to derail them: an illness, a sick parent or child, pregnancy, a missed payment on their house or car, a pink slip. Granted, these are not the kind of people who are movers and shakers, who are watching TED talks on how to make their work meaningful as well as rewarding (a sample of which you can find here). Yet these very students are among the most ambitious I’ve ever encountered in my 25 + years in higher education, and all they want is the lowest degree possible after high school: an associate’s degree, which may not be worth the paper it’s written on.

I won’t even go into the argument alluded to above: that the value of associate degrees is not guaranteed (although articles like this one in the October 3, 2013, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education make that sobering point). My point was quite different, and it’s one I wish more people would consider.

It stems from the fact that most of us–99% of us, in fact–have to work to feed, clothe, and sustain ourselves. Of course, humans have always had to work for sustenance, and for much of our history, this work wasn’t too engaging. How interesting is it, for example, to gather berries or tend livestock? It may be satisfying, to a certain degree, but it isn’t mentally stimulating–at least, not in the same way that studying philosophy, or working on a multi-national marketing project, can be. Some time in the last fifty years or so, it seems that Americans have added several requirements to any job that we consider for a career: it must be lucrative, it must be meaningful (whatever that means), and it must be intellectually engaging. Any truly desirable job must exercise our minds and feed our souls as well as fill our pockets.

And because of this expectation–that our jobs will exercise and use our minds–we have given up the responsibility to do so ourselves. What this means is that when we take a job that is not intellectually challenging, as some of us must, we tend to give up on seeking out ways to enrich our minds through work. We succumb to the lure of popular culture, with its insipid siren call to watch pointless television shows; we anesthetize ourselves with a partying culture that emphasizes drinking, drug use, and sex as a means of escape from an existence of drudgery. Once thoroughly anesthetized, we are seduced into accepting the status quo without questioning if it is, after all, the best way to live.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. What I told my students is that they need to find out what’s important to them and make that their Work–with a capital “W.” This Work, I said, is what will get them through all the crummy jobs–and there will be many of those–they’ll be forced to take. For example, maybe their Work is writing short stories, or playing jazz guitar, or spinning wool and knitting sweaters: the actual Work they do doesn’t matter. Rather, it’s the devotion they bring to it, their dedication to it, that will enrich them and allow them to deal with having to take work that doesn’t allow them to find life meaningful. Be a barista if you have to, I told them; but make sure you have Work to make your work worth doing.

Those of us who live in capitalist countries, whose work is appropriated by others for profit, have the greatest need to find our own Work, so that we make our lives count for something other than a ledger sheet of profit and loss. If we must labor to live, and if only a few of us can find work that exercises all–or even a majority–of our faculties, then it is up to each one of us to find the Work that makes us human. This is what I was urging my students to do when I told them to think about whether they should be in college: do not let college prevent you from finding your Work and dedicating yourself to it. Don’t expect to find a job that will line up perfectly with your Work (although some people are lucky enough to do that). Instead, I said, get a job to help support that Work and make your life possible; your Work will make it meaningful.

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Squinting through a Scholar’s Eyes

When you give over a large part of your life to studying a certain period, or genre, or art form, it does strange things to you. I’m not talking about personality issues; the ways in which academic life warp and damage would-be scholars’ lives is probably being discussed, this very moment, on a forum in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Rather, I’m referring to the odd ways in which the things you study begin to creep into your normal, everyday life, turning you into a person you’re sometimes embarrassed to be seen with.

A couple of recent cases. Today, a very able and dedicated student gave a fine oral report on Richard III of England in my Shakespeare class. She referred to the Princes in the Tower, and as she did so, this picture popped up in her PowerPoint presentation:


The Princes in the Tower, John Everett Millais, 1878, from

I have no complaint about its appearance: it’s a great picture of the two little princes, and it belonged in the presentation. No–my problem was with the psychological obstacle to listening that the picture created for me–because as soon as I saw it, I recognized it as a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, famous for his very lucrative paintings, as well as for stealing the virgin-bride (of seven years!) of John Ruskin.

The truth is, I’m an idiot-savant when it comes to art. I know one period of art, and pretty much one genre, fairly well: because I am a student of Victorian literature, Pre-Raphaelite art is really fascinating for me. What astounds me is that it apparently is fascinating for a number of other people. I profess to have little or no artistic taste; I assume that the Pre-Raphaelites were heavy on good intentions and rather light on judgment and execution of their ideals (although I could easily be wrong about this). But when I see these images pop up again and again, I begin to think that these Victorian artists, like their literary counterparts, may have had a good thing going.

Take, for example, the December 2013 cover of Vogue magazine, which caught eye in the supermarket checkout line:


When I saw this, I stopped, grabbed my husband’s smart phone out of his hands, and quickly searched for an image as he stared at me, open-mouthed, holding a carton of eggs in his hands. “There!” I said, triumphantly, showing him what I’d found. I was rewarded with a moment of satisfaction when he seemed mildly impressed at the Frederic Leighton picture I’d found:

Flaming June, Frederic Leighton, 1895 From

Flaming June, Frederic Leighton, 1895


There can be no doubt that the Vogue cover artist and photographer had this image of Flaming June (1895) in mind when they designed the cover. But how many of their readers recognized the connection? Presumably very few. Yet I take no small satisfaction in knowing that Victorian art still thrives in our world. It was enough, in fact, to make me buy the only copy of Vogue magazine I’ve ever bought, and it serves as a reminder that my eyes have been permanently changed by a lifetime of literary study.


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Star Trek ,The Prime Directive, and Literary Studies


For the past few months, I’ve been undertaking my own private, systematic study of Star Trek–not the movies, or the Next Generation, or any of other spin-offs, but the original series. It began as a way to lure me into mundane chores, like ironing, during which I would watch the first few episodes; then it morphed into a means of occupying my mind while pedaling an exercise bike. I’m happy to report that in the last couple of months I’ve lost about ten pounds, more or less, as I pedaled my way through various adventures with Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, Lieutenants Uhura and Sulu, Lieutenant Commander Scott, and the irascible Dr. McCoy.

I’ve learned a couple of things during this rather pointless but driven exercise. First, and most surprising, even those of us who were alive in the ’60s, we who remember the first-run reruns of the series, have seen far fewer episodes than we think we have. Oh, sure, we all remember “The Trouble with Tribbles,” but do we remember the episode in which Spock has to answer a call of nature (i.e., a mating ritual–which is to say he goes into a terrifying version of Vulcan rutting season) and nearly kills Kirk? Do we remember the first episode in which the famous Vulcan mind meld was ever used (“The Devil in the Dark,” Episode 26 of the first season)?

And what about the Prime Directive–a concept so compelling that it informs each iteration of Star Trek?

You can look up the Prime Directive in Wikipedia, and you’ll get a nice informative take on it there. In fact, if that’s what you want, you should probably stop reading this now and hop on over to it. While you might get a more systematic understanding of the concept there, you would miss my attempt to connect The Prime Directive with literature and writing, so I’m hoping you’ll stick it out for the rest of this post.

What I’ve found is that in the first season of the series, the Prime Directive is relatively unimportant, just a tidbit tossed in during random episodes. It’s first mentioned quite casually by Mr. Spock, as a regulation requiring non-interference in alien cultures, but only, he says, for living, creative cultures. It’s apparently perfectly acceptable to interfere with cultures that are neither living (what would that look like? isn’t the very definition of “culture” something that is dynamic and subject to change and thus living?) nor creative. The question is, of course, who determines whether a culture is living and creative? A few minutes later in this episode (“Return of the Archons,” Episode 21), Captain Kirk redefines the Prime Directive in Utilitarian terms: it is “the good of the body,” he says, going on to philosophize, “without freedom of choice there is no creativity, and without creativity, the body dies.” This is amended once more, only a few minutes later, when Kirk tells the evil robot Landru, “The evil must be destroyed: that is the Prime Directive. And you are the evil! Fulfill the Prime Directive!”

What we have here, then, is a mess of competing, non-aligning definitions, all iterated within a few minutes during one episode. (I’ll leave the connection between the Prime Directive as presented here and Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to real science fiction scholars.) It’s remarkable that the concept of the Prime Directive is so unstable that within a single episode–indeed, within a ten-minute span of a single episode–it changes three times. Only late in the second season will it attain the kind of stability and prominence that gives rise to our lasting notion of the Prime Directive. In Episode 27, “Errand of Mercy” — an embarrassingly implausible episode that deserves critical attention only because of how it redefines the Prime Directive–we see Captain Kirk’s reaction to his dawning realization that the Starship Captain of the Exeter, Ron Tracy, has violated the regulation. He declares in a solemn voice that Captain Tracy has “been interfering with the evolution of life on this planet. It seems impossible: a star captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.” Kirk’s sense of awed distress drips with drama and significance.

This episode, which is quite bad in and of itself and is based on a rather stupid allusion to the Cold War, becomes important in that it is responsible for the first serious definition of the Prime Directive.

Okay–fine. So what does it have to do with literature?

First, it shows us how concepts change and develop over time. It demonstrates that history–even the paltry history of a television series made 50 years ago–is not static, but is itself unstable, changing, and growing if we look at it closely enough. It also shows us that anything is a text that can be analyzed: a television show, a concept introduced by that show, even our attitudes towards that show. It illustrates that there is value in analyzing even (perhaps especially) those things we think least “artistic,” because, functional and practical in nature, they inform the way we think about a lot of different things. And finally, in terms of literary studies, it shows us that there is great value in studying an entire body of work, such as an entire television series, or all of Hemingway’s novels, or the films of Alfred Hitchcock, because when we do engage in this long (and often tedious) work, we are rewarded with greater insight into the ways in which ideas, themes, and the work of art itself develops.

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