Wallace Stevens in Wonsevu

Wonsevu Christian Church. Wonsevu, Chase County, Kansas. Taken by me, March 2019.

The church you see here is, not counting the large barn and cattle pen facing it, one-third of the buildings in the village of Wonsevu [“ONE-seh-voo”], Kansas. There is also a small community hall and a frame one-room school house, built in 1885 and long since closed. The house nearest to these buildings (which happens to be blocked from view by the church in this picture) is between a quarter- and a half-mile away.

You are reading about this because I and some students of mine and two colleagues made Wonsevu our first stop on a driving tour of Chase County, Kansas, this past weekend. For a couple of years now in my first-semester composition classes, I have had the opportunity to teach William Least Heat-Moon’s book PrairyErth, a book whose subject is Chase County, a sparsely-populated farming and ranching county in the Flint Hills about an hour northeast of Wichita. As part of the class, I schedule two optional field trips into the county: the driving tour, in which we visit some of the places Heat-Moon mentions in his book; and a trip to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to have the experience of walking land that still looks pretty much like it did when the Kaw and other tribes lived there. Before this past weekend, these trips, admittedly, had not been ringing successes: students wouldn’t show, or the weather wasn’t ideal. This time, though, two students attended (out of six; a third would have come except that a day or so before he’d gotten a new job), and two of my colleagues joined us as well. Last but certainly not least: the predicted drizzly day never materialized–indeed, after an overcast start, the sun broke through and the day was sunnier and pleasantly cool. But it was at our stop at Wonsevu that, in a small way, the hopes I’d had for teaching Heat-Moon’s book and making the trips out to the county became larger than the logical kind of sense they made for me.

While we walked around the three buildings situated around the T-intersection that constitutes Wonsevu’s center, I pulled out my cellphone to see if I had any messages from my wife.  There was no signal out there.  I looked around me, and I realized what I was hearing–the wind, some birds–and what I was not hearing–no road noise (the nearest paved road of any kind is about 10 miles away), no trains (the railroads, though frequently traveled in the county, are even farther away), no aircraft overhead.  I felt, for a fleeting moment, the full weight of the landscape on me; I offered no resistance to it.  I felt the meaning of the concluding lines of Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man”: I was beholding “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (l. 15).  And that’s when I knew with absolute certainty–something the rest of the day only confirmed–that I am right to want to create opportunities for our students to have moments of this full immersion in a space right next door to them that they are almost completely ignorant of, and earn academic credit to boot.

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Show Boat, Huckleberry Finn, and Intertextuality

huck finn hamlet's soliloquy

The Duke strikes a pose during his rehearsal of (a version of) Hamlet’s soliloquy, in Chapter XXI of Huckleberry Finn.  (Illustration from first edition, via First Edition Huck Finn Illustrations. 

This is not the promised Part II of the previous post but, instead, an elaborating on the following passage from that post:

Meanwhile, beneath (quite literally) all of this, enabling the narrator’s and characters’ lack of interest in these matters, is the brute fact of the Mississippi River and its tributaries and, more to the point, the Cotton Blossom‘s ability to travel upstream as well as downstream.  In Show Boat‘s jacket art, the other unseen-yet-constant presence, in addition to the riverboat itself, is the river.  As in Huckleberry Finn, this novel is obsessed with the various features of its setting; also as with Twain’s novel, though, the river becomes, in Lauren Berlant’s words from a slightly different context, “an apparatus of forgetting” (414).  Or, more accurately, in both those novels at least some of their respective characters fervently hope, even if subconsciously, that it become such an apparatus.

In no place do the characters in Ferber’s novel mention Twain’s novel; indeed, it would be very surprising if they were to do so, seeing as most of Show Boat‘s action takes place before or right around Huckleberry Finn‘s American publication date of 1885.  Moreover, as of my writing this post I do not know if Ferber had Twain’s novel in mind as she composed hers.   Even so, the correspondences between these novels are striking.

In the world of the novel itself Andy Hawks begins his career as a riverman in the 1850s, about ten years after the time in which Twain’s novel is set.  We can fairly say, then, that these novels’ respective worlds’ starting points, at least, are contemporaneous with each other.  However, I want briefly to point out that, as alluded to in the quoted passage above, these novels have more in common with each other than the same chronological starting point, or even their shared setting of the Mississippi River. Continue reading

The Narrator of Edna Ferber’s Show Boat: A Speculative Reading (Part I)

Show Boat dust jacket

A facsimile of the dust jacket for the first edition of Show Boat.   Via.

The dust jacket for the first edition of Show Boat (1926) is fascinating to contemplate.  Laid flat as it is here, you can see how the procession of people moves from left to right, up the Cotton Blossom‘s gangplank to the very edge of the book’s front-right edge, their movement seeming to invite the reader to open the cover and process into the novel.  The paddle-wheel itself, though, is out of the frame; the gangplank rests not on the deck of the boat but on the text of the jacket blurb that describes the novel.  The Cotton Blossom itself is not exactly invisible (the novel’s title tells us it is there), but neither is it yet seen.

This procession toward an unseen boat that nevertheless serves as the titular character of the novel fits, I think, the reader of the book that this dust jacket enveloped.  As a novel, Show Boat itself seems on its surface to be rather conventional, its style often quite gaudy and given to flights of sentimentality.  It is, as it were, a bit show boat-like in quality.  But when we look closer at certain crucial moments in the story it tells, the novel’s narrator, ostensibly a rather ordinary third-person omniscient narrator, suddenly reveals herself** to be ignorant of important matters.  At best, she seems uninterested in knowing the truth of those matters, but it may also be the case that she would simply not rather know the truth.  Or, she does know the truth but will not say them out loud.

While it is difficult to say precisely what is the narrator’s relationship to that knowledge, there is no doubt that those matters, as it happens, are part of Show Boat‘s persistent subtext of secretiveness regarding race.  We encounter this secretiveness despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that much of the music and plays at the heart of the Cotton Blossom‘s troupe’s repertoire originates in minstrelsy, a genre whose trappings are dependent on the exaggerated-verging-on-offensive mannerisms of African-American speech and gesture.  Moreover, it is a secret regarding race that serves as the catalyst for the novel’s (and the musical’s) most famous moment, the revelation that Julie Dozier and Steve Baker, two members of the boat’s acting troupe, are a miscegenated couple.  But even as Andy Hawks, the Cotton Blossom‘s captain, sends the couple away from his boat, the subtext of racial secretiveness accompanies the rest of the novel’s plot, Magnolia’s transformation into a noted singer of songs associated (correctly or not) with 19th-century African-American folk music who performs them in an “authentic” style, shaping the novel’s subsequent action but otherwise never examined directly.

This post and one following it will explore that subtext, beginning, here, with an attempt to firm up the novel’s hazy chronology.  Because Show Boat is, as much as anything else, a celebration of nostalgia, we can safely assume that Ferber intentionally wants to impart a dreamy feel to the novel’s events.  However, nostalgia also happens to facilitate the maintaining of secrets about race, and not just in this novel, either. Whether this facilitation is also Ferber’s intention is difficult to say, but the effect is undeniable.  It seems equally undeniable to me that once we have a firmer chronology for the novel, it begins to reveal its possible secrets–or, better put, we can see that the novel has secrets that no one in it seems especially interested in but which are of the utmost importance.

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The rise of Amazon and the loss(?) of place

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.

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Living within Nature’s means: Some further thoughts on the Anthropocene novel

moby_dick_by_mumblingidiot-d36w1qz

One of the more striking images for Moby-Dick that I’ve come across; it seems to be as much about the novel’s ideas about the interaction between humans and Nature as about its central action. Source

As I worked toward a conclusion in my previous post, it occurred to me that some things yet remain to be said about the implications of using Naturalism’s presuppositions about the world and our place in it as a foundation on which to build the Anthropocene novel.  To point the reader toward Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and say “Here is something like a template for what those presuppositions would look like” is to say, in effect, that such novels would be dark indeed.

Well, many of them, yes.  But perhaps not all, or at least all the time.  But because Nature, in these novels, will Matter, such novels’ respective zeitgeists will be situated in such a way that human concerns and hopes and fears cannot but be depicted as direct responses to Nature–whether in accord with or defiance of Nature, no matter, but never independent of it, never with Nature as a passive backdrop or submissive setting, but always with it having an unmistakable bearing on the resolution of the narrative, usually “winning” or at least bending people to its will (whatever those might look like given Nature’s fearsome indifference), and yet itself remaining inscrutable.  In other words: if we’re looking at American literature for examples of what we might call proto-Anthropocene novels, Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, canny as they occasionally are, through Natty Bumppo, about what we would now call sustainability, would not be models for Anthropocene novels; they are ultimately about human choices in dialogue with other human choices, but not in dialogue with Nature–at least, that latter dialogue seems not to rise to the level of narrative.  On the other hand, I’d nominate Melville’s Moby-Dick as a fine candidate for an Anthropocene novel (no “proto-” about it, come to think of it): the central activity of the novel, whaling, is an activity which God, speaking out of the whirlwind to Job, taunts Job (and the reader/listener) as something humans are supposed to be incapable of doing (recall that one of the novel’s Extracts is from Job); Ahab sees Nature, as embodied by the whale, as a malevolence he must try to overcome so as to understand his place in the cosmos; in contrast to Ahab, Ishmael’s post-Pequod musings on whale-ness end in the whale’s nature (and Nature itself) remaining inscrutable, as unreadable as those scars on some whales’ outer skin that resembles writing; Nature “wins.”  (And as I write this, I begin to realize there is much, much more to say about Moby-Dick within this context than I can here.)

Anyway.  Below the fold are some fairly knee-jerk, broad-stroke speculations regarding what Anthropocene novels might look like, along with some uninformed musing, combined with heavy reliance on John Berger and a shout-out to Dan Barber, about what an Anthropocene aesthetics arising from Nature might look like.

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Summer reading and writing

plaza de las tres culturas2

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.

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“Some old compass in the blood”: a rationale for Flint Hills Studies

CottonwoodFalls

The Chase County courthouse, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, the oldest state building in continuous use in Kansas.

This is the version that the curriculum committee and/or the Board of Trustees won’t see, but it will be the truer version:

It has been so long ago now, I no longer remember whether it was my first or second commencement as a member of Butler Community College (then still known as Butler County Community College–something I will return to later).  It was long ago enough, though, that I still felt myself to be a recent arrival here.  Nor was it the moment when I had an epiphany about the value of offering a course or courses on various aspects of this distinct region of the nation; that would come much, much later.  Still, it has stuck with me all this time, and in thinking about it now, it clearly is, indirectly, one of the reasons I think such a program of study would be valuable to offer to our students.

Whoever the commencement speaker was, he began by noting something I’d known since at least junior high school: that we were only a couple of hours to the southwest of the geographic center of the 48 contiguous states.  I instantly began writing the rest of his address in my head–the version I wanted him to give, at least: I’d been at Butler long enough to know that many of my students thought of themselves as living in the middle of nowhere, and so I became hopeful that, by using his geographical nugget as a kind of metaphor, he’d turn their nihilism on its head: “You’re not in the middle of nowhere–you’re at the center of everything!”

Of course, that address, whatever its eventual theme was, wasn’t the one I’d hoped for.  As I think back on that day, however, I am more and more persuaded, for various reasons, that our students need to hear something like the address I had imagined, and for this reason: We equip our students pretty well for the task of making their chosen way in world; however, though it’s true most of our graduates stick around here, I’m not sure that what we do actually gives them a reason (apart from family or work) to stay.  (Much) more existentially, many of my students also lack a sense of place, by which I mean “a sense of at least being from somewhere, if not a sense of connectedness to where they happen to be living now.”  I think that coursework whose subject is the Flint Hills would give them a context and intellectual tools that would help them find what William Least Heat-Moon in PrairyErth describes as “some old compass in the blood”–and if not for the Flint Hills, then for whatever place in which they happen to find themselves.

I think that such courses would also provide my college with a version of that compass.

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