Saturday, August 29, 2015

Quaker Cafe

Summer seems to be a good time for reading B novels. I mentioned Off Course as an example of "Loser Lit" in the previous post (English Lit Newly Lit). Quaker Cafe by Brenda Bevan Remmes is a less painful read, at least in terms of content. Off Course is stylistically superior, but Quaker Cafe is definitely more fun to read.

For one thing, there are lots of hilariously entertaining scenes involving family and social dynamics in a small Southern town, which was founded by Quakers, but is now dominated by mainstream Christian denominations, both black and white.  The white population is largely conservative; the few liberals in town stick together and represent both Quakers and Methodists.  The differences make for good humor, but the core of the story is very serious, involving family secrets, racial injustice, and a community with deep divisions.

Liz Hoole is from St. Paul, MN, but married a Quaker and has lived for decades in her husband's North Carolina hometown.  Husband Chase runs the family pharmacy, and Liz works for the Red Cross, where she discovers some medical information about a friend, which she must keep confidential.

Without revealing too much, let's just say Liz gets tangled up in her friend, Maggie’s, medical situation, which has implications, not only for Maggie, but also for Liz’s family and the whole community. As history that has been covered up for years gradually unravels, Liz struggles to help Maggie, support her own family, and maintain her professional confidentiality.

The truth opens up old wounds of racial injustice, threatens the fabric of relationships, and calls for confession and penance.  At this point we see a process of restorative justice work its way through families, churches, and community, a process based in Quaker and African American church traditions, as well as shared human experience.

What makes it a B novel? Well, there is nothing really noteworthy about the style, the plot, or the characters, not that there's anything terribly bad about them either. The dialogue sounded a bit artificial to me in places, though occasionally, having grown up in the South, I thought I heard a Southern style and cadence that sounded very authentic. A structural masterstroke is telling the story from the point of view of a quasi-outsider. Though Liz has lived in the South for many years, she's not a native and is more removed from the town's history than the other characters. As such, she invites the non-Southerner into the narrative and provides a more distanced, balanced perspective. So, a good novel, not a great one, but a good one.

Even a B novel, though, can verge on greatness. Read at face value, it doesn't rise to that level, but if one takes a slight imaginative leap and reads it allegorically, it takes on measurably more significance. 

What if we read it as, not merely the redemptive narrative of one individual and one community, but as a kind of call for restorative justice in the whole South? Of course, the racial injustice in the history of the South is no secret, but we have only to reflect on the recent defense of the Confederate flag as a symbol of "heritage" and "regional pride" to consider the depth of Southern denial about its own history.  Could the individual story of injustice and redemption in Quaker Cafe represent a call for regional assumption of historical responsibility, confession, and atonement?  Does the model of restorative justice represented in the novel offer the vision for a path by which the stark divisions of the American South might be healed?

Perhaps that is a stretch, but surely no more so than acknowledging the human universality of the redemptive story and the shared human yearning for healing and wholeness.

We should also acknowledge that at the end of Quaker Cafe, not all are redeemed; the dead are still dead, and they died without learning the truth.  Not all justice can be restored, but the novel holds out hope for the human capacity of accepting responsibility, making amends, and achieving some measure of peace.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

English Lit Newly Lit

Academic irreverence is nothing new. When I was a college student, we had a study guide called English Lit Relit. As the traditional curriculum evolved and the canon expanded to become more inclusive, courses were developed in Women's Lit, Black or African American Lit, Native American Lit, Latino/Latina or Hispanic or Chicano Lit, even Working Class Lit. I personally used a sabbatical to develop an LGBT Lit course, which I taught several times before retiring.

One of my colleagues, who was not too keen on all the new "Lits," had been in a wheelchair since he was twelve years old as a result of childhood polio. He once sarcastically offered to develop a “Crip Lit” course to include disabilities in the curriculum.

Such are the stresses and strains when social change meets academia.

As a teacher of early American literature, I found it useful to classify texts by such genres as personal narrative, success story, sentimental romance, gothic tale, mock romance, coming-of-age story, frontier adventure, moral journey, cautionary tale, etc. While it sounds formulaic, it provided a way for students to see how writers can achieve tremendous variety while satisfying certain cultural expectations in their readers, not to mention enrich their texts by tacitly referencing a whole range of other texts.

Recently, I've come across a couple of new, irreverent genres in popular culture. The memoir Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert inspired an essay on “Priv Lit,” the kind of self-indulgent literature produced by those who can afford to finance travels, adventures, experiences, or pilgrimages that provide fodder for their writing. (See  I can imagine the academic argument for expanding the curriculum to include Priv Lit. Just as mediocre office-holders were once defended because "even the mediocre deserve representation," so it might be argued that even the shallow and immature deserve inclusion, especially if they can afford to finance their exploits.

The redemptive narrative is the quintessential American story. We prefer the happy ending, no matter how unrealistic or unrepresentative, to a tragedy, no matter how probable or typical. We'd rather read the rare American Dream story than the more common narrative of failure, disappointment, or resignation.

One example is the recovery narrative, in which the protagonist suffers from illness, or victimization, or destructive behavior, but eventually recovers, escapes, or reforms, and achieves a healthy, productive life. 

Usually there is a degree of balance between the suffering and the recovery. Most recently I read a novel of this type, in which the bulk of the narrative is devoted to a long, drawn-out account of obsessive, destructive behavior. Off Course by Michelle Huneven lives up to its title by narrating in tiresome detail the mistakes, missteps, and misjudgment of a character who most definitely should know better. The recovery occurs in the final chapters with little explanation or motivation.

Why did I bother to finish it? Well, I was curious to see how it would turn out, but I ended up shaking my head in disappointment. Curious, I went online to see if anyone liked it. Surprisingly (to me), there were a lot of positive reader reviews. Among them I found a new literary term, "Loser Lit." And a lot of readers obviously either identified with or sympathized with the main character, whereas I had been rolling my eyes and shaking my head at her from the first chapter.

Of the various definitions for “loser” in the urban dictionary, the one that seems to fit best here is “Someone who generally sucks at life."  I guess this is the genre for the inept and misguided, who may or may not recover. No doubt, even they deserve to be represented and included in the curriculum. 

Such are the stresses and strains when popular culture meets academia.

Lest anyone think I’m mocking the expansion of the literary canon, let me assure you that I have always been a supporter and practitioner of curriculum transformation, including the study of “popular,” as opposed to “classical,” literature. 

Whether it be “Crip Lit,” “Priv Lit,” or “Loser Lit,” they all give English Lit Relit a whole new meaning.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Whether you’ve read this recently published “sequel” to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, you’ve no doubt already read about the “ugly.”  Yes, Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, who defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in the 1930s, is exposed as a segregationist and a racist in the 1950s.  Some have deplored and mourned this toppling of the white Southern hero; others have defended Go Set a Watchman’s representation of white supremacy in the Civil Rights era South as much more realistic than its well known, popular predecessor.

In either case, the novel, actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, offers a historical explanation for the difference in character.  It seems that in the segregated South of the 1930s it was perfectly possible for a white man to be on reasonably good terms with his black servants (young Scout was raised by a black maid, as well as her single father, after her mother’s early death) and other African Americans, since in those days “Negroes” knew their place and mostly stayed in it.

With the rise of the NAACP and the Civil Rights movement, however, white paternalists such as Atticus Finch were threatened enough to assert their racial “superiority” and resist all efforts to achieve integration and equal rights of the races.

This ugliness, however realistic, is countered by the outrage of 26-year-old Jean Louise (Scout), when she discovers a racist pamphlet in her father’s desk and witnesses his attendance at a Citizens’ Council meeting, which is hosting a virulently racist speaker.  Jean Louise’s horror when she discovers her father’s racism, her willingness to confront him, as well as her boyfriend (who also attended the meeting), and her support for Civil Rights could be considered the “good” that somehow redeems the novel’s ugliness.  At least that is one way to read it.

There is another example of ugliness, however, at the end of the novel that goes unredeemed, and another way to read the novel as a whole that may disappoint those wishing to somehow salvage Harper Lee’s reputation.  More of that later.

What about the “good”?  For all the talk about race, no reviewers I’ve read have mentioned the feminist plot of Jean Louise rebelling, not only against the small-minded racism of her hometown and her family, but also against the traditional small town expectations for how women should dress, speak, and act.

Go Set a Watchman takes the form of a coming of age narrative in which the protagonist is a woman, who, after graduating from college, has left the South and moved to New York City.  She returns for a family visit some time after the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education, which ruled segregation unconstitutional.  She wears slacks instead of dresses, talks back to her aunt, and resists attempts by her father’s law clerk to get her to marry him and settle down into a small town, Southern, domestic role.

As is typical in a coming of age story, Jean Louise encounters “evil” in the form of the racist pamphlet and speaker that her father and boyfriend seem to be supporting.  As in such stories Jean Louise’s shock and outrage at the evil in the world can lead her to cynicism and despair or into some kind of healthy maturation, in which she comes to terms with and makes her peace with the world as it is without sacrificing her own values and principles.

Although Jean Louise, having strung her boyfriend along, finally and firmly rejects his offer of marriage, she does make peace with her father.  It is not clear whether she will return to New York or stay in Maycomb and make her peace with the small town provincialism that she despises.

Her Uncle Jack encourages her to stay, not to “join em,” probably not to “beat em,” but possibly to improve them with her more enlightened point of view.  Paraphrasing “Melbourne” (presumably Queen Victoria’s prime minister), Uncle Jack says, “the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong.”

Uncle Jack emerges as the wise, if somewhat addled, sage, advising Jean Louise, “…it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days.”  Perhaps it is the same kind of maturity that enables us all to put up with the racist uncle who always seems to show up for Thanksgiving.

In any case, it is no doubt healthier for Jean Louise to come to some semblance of peaceful terms with her family and community, even if she doesn’t stay there, than to become isolated and estranged from them.

Scattered through this coming of age narrative are three flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood, episodes that reinforce the youthful innocence from which she must “fall,” as in all coming of age stories.  These flashbacks, taken by themselves, are hilariously entertaining, though not necessarily well integrated with the narrative as a whole.  Reading them, one can understand why her editor suggested she rewrite the manuscript from Scout’s point of view as a young child.

So much for the “good.”

The “bad” is simply the rough draft quality of the text, structurally, as suggested above, as well as in content and language.  For one thing, 26 seems a bit old to be discovering that her father is not the paragon of virtue she had thought him as a child.  Most of us experience this disillusionment with, not only our parents, but also our family and community, during our late teens or early twenties.  It doesn’t seem very credible that Jean Louise doesn’t discover her father’s racism, even if it was more paternalistic than aggressive, at an earlier age.

When she does confront her boyfriend and father, she is far more virulent than one might expect.  Having just heard the Sunday preacher speak from the text of Isaiah 21: 6 (“For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth”), Jean Louise melodramatically declares that she needed someone to “set a watchman” to warn her of the bigotry lying in hiding beneath the moralistic façade of her father, family, and community.  Having grown up in the South, surely she can’t be that shocked to find Southern racism and even the KKK lapping at her own door.

The structure of the narrative is also flawed.  The plot doesn’t really begin to thicken until half way through, when Jean Louise discovers that pamphlet, and, as suggested above the flashbacks are not well integrated.  Much of the second half is taken up with long inner and outer monologues and diatribes, as Jean Louise confronts herself and others.  Uncle Jack, a Faulkneresque eccentric, tops all with his meandering, barely coherent, orations.

It is Uncle Jack that calls Jean Louise “Childe Roland,” quoting parts of Robert Browning’s poem, lifting Jean Louise’s coming of age to the mythic level of a hero’s quest narrative.

But it is also Uncle Jack who, shockingly, slaps Jean Louise near the end, drawing blood and then plying her with whisky to ease the pain.  The ugly racism in the book is countered by Jean Louise’s outrage, but this ugly act of violence is presented uncritically.  It is presented as literally slapping some sense into an irate Jean Louise, and, more shockingly, she accepts it.  The only thing lacking is her actually saying, “Thanks, I needed that.”

After this act of violence Jean Louise suddenly calms down, accepts her uncle’s advice to make peace, apologizes to her father, and seems to resign herself to the moral imperfection of her family, community, and the world in general.

This resolution is consistent with the coming of age story, but another, uglier, way to read the ending is as Harper Lee’s apologist treatment of Southern racism.  Atticus attended a KKK meeting, not to participate, but to see who was under those hoods.  He attended the Citizen’s Council meeting and listened to the racist speaker in order to maintain working relationships with his fellow citizens.  He had the pamphlet in his desk in order to study the rhetoric and reasoning of the segregationists.  He holds racist opinions, but is still a kind and forgiving father.  Hank, as an up-and-coming lawyer who started out as “trash,” cannot risk his upward social mobility by bucking the powers that be.

Is this realism or is it apologism?  You decide.

In any case, Go Set a Watchman is not of the same caliber as To Kill a Mockingbird.  While there’s some “good,” there’s more “bad,” and a lot more “ugly” than in the well-known classic.