To those of you reading this, Happy New Year, first and foremost.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a moment to write anything of real substance here. The big (academic) deal, which I will write about in another post, is how teaching PrairyErth went this past fall. However, this post is about that book, sort of–or, rather, mostly about the moment in time that that book was researched and written. It is also about a book PrairyErth quotes from in several places, John Brinckerhoff Jackson’s classic work of landscape studies, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (1984). All during the fall semester, the fact that PrairyErth is 27 years old kept rearing its head, in a good way: While much in Chase County has not really changed much from William Least Heat-Moon’s time to ours, our various engagements with that space and the issues raised in PrairyErth have changed as much because of the Internet as because of the simple passage of time. When I began reading Jackson’s book last week, though, I had assumed its arguments, because of their historical and theoretical nature, would not require much if any modification, even more than 30 years later. Jackson, in his defining of landscape as “a composition of man-made spaces on the land” (7, author’s italics) and distinguishing between political and inhabited landscapes (the latter being very similar to what people mean by “place”), is considerably more sanguine about the fate of rural life in this country than Heat-Moon or Wendell Berry is: so long as people maintain some sort of connection to physical space, Jackson argues, our various landscapes will evolve as on-the-whole positive responses to evolving human social needs. Heat-Moon senses in the Chase countians he meets that most of them know better than a bunch of outsiders what’s best for their county; Berry’s argument that farm mechanization in the name of efficiency has killed the vitality of rural life and is itself not sustainable in the long term is the very embodiment of a de facto detachment from the land.
For whatever it may be worth, I don’t share Jackson’s optimism about the fate of rural life, either; but I’d assumed that I was responding in that way because of my reading of the aforementioned Heat-Moon and Berry. But then recently I read something that reminded me, again, that the Web has reshaped our understanding of how humans are linked to topography: it has so reshaped it that it feels as though culturally we’re all but unmoored from topography, all but completing (Western) culture’s separation from Nature that began a little over a century ago with the advent of Modernism.
The memorial at Tlatelolco in Mexico City, at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, commemorating the final defeat of the Aztecs by Cortes in 1521. The last three lines of text read: “It was neither triumph nor defeat; it was the painful birth of the mestizo people that is today’s Mexico.”
Last week was my college’s Finals Week, so now the summer has arrived. This academically-oriented to-do list for this summer that follows is, as the list progresses down the page, admittedly more aspirational in nature than anything else, seeing as well off even the margins of this particular list lie new-baby-oriented and puttering-around-the-house to-do lists. But list-make we must.
Despite the radio silence here at the blog since my last post (apologies for the mixed (technologies) metaphor there), I have been doing some final editing and emendation of already-written chapters, soliciting colleagues to have a look at said chapters, and (as this post’s title indicates) getting some reading done. Now that the semester is done and I am done with doctors’ appointments and have returned from a visit with my daughters and my mother, I am about ready to settle into working on the next chapter, which uses as its starting point Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s account of his eight-year (1528-1536) journey across Texas and northern Mexico and will lead to a discussion of texts that, in various ways, use, modify, and otherwise play with language so as to better convey the experience of living in this hemisphere. Before I get to that, though, I have some minor additions to make to the earlier chapters, for which I have two books to blame (and be grateful).
Eudora Welty, Home by Dark/Yalobusha County. 1936. Via. This is also the cover image for the 1990 Vintage edition of Go Down, Moses.
What follows is some thinking-out-loud that will be part of the chapter on Go Down, Moses and Tent of Miracles–specifically, an attempt to tie together land and cultural expression in the two novels. (Progress report: It’s coming along, but it has felt at times like I am a vulture circling high in the sky over an animal to make sure it is dead before I will alight on it. I’m pretty sure it’s dead now.)
It’s below the fold to spare those who won’t be interested; here, though, is the tl;dr version: 1) At the time he wrote it, Go Down, Moses was Faulkner’s most intimate exploration of not just black-white relations but of black lives and black interiority. Still, though, it is a novel that is ultimately more concerned with white attempts to come to terms with the post-bellum South. Thus, those glimpses of black lives we have are (mis)read by whites, but some of them resist any attempt to read them. This brings me to: 2) You can learn a heck of a lot about how to read Faulkner from Minrose Gwin.
The cover of a Brazilian(?) edition of Amado’s novel, via (though this particular copy of the book is no longer for sale at that site).
I have begun my reread of Brazilian writer Jorge Amado’s novel Tent of Miracles, which I have paired with Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses in chapter 2 of the book project. I’ll start off this post by making a couple of points regarding Ike McCaslin’s relationship to the land, and then I’ll make some comparisons between that and Tent of Miracles‘ treatment of Bahia, along with some initial remarks comparing Ike to Tent of Miracles‘ protagonist, Pedro Archanjo. A good starting point for where I will be headed, though, is to compare the cover art for the Amado novel (which appears to be a scene from the 1977 film version) with that of the first edition of Go Down, Moses, which I posted here. Though admittedly a bit of a cherry-pick on my part, that cover, with its depiction of a vast landscape empty of people, contrasted with the cover of Amado’s novel–the frame crowded with people, dressed and equipped with a fusion of Western and African-diaspora clothes and instruments–serves quite nicely as a starting point for this post.