The American Novel Since 1945: Lecture 1 Transcript
January 14, 2008
Professor Amy Hungerford: This is "American Novel Since 1945." Welcome. I am Amy Hungerford. Today I am going to do a couple of things. In the first half of class, I'm going to tell you a little bit about the class and introduce some of the questions that we will think about over the term if you stay in this course. In the second half of class, I will introduce to you and start telling the first story of the term, and that's about Richard Wright's Black Boy, which is our first reading of the term. In between those two parts, I will ask that anyone who is shopping the class and would like to leave at that time do so then. I would be grateful if you would wait until that point if at all you possibly can. It just makes the whole thing work a little easier and it prevents that drop in the pit of my stomach when I see half of the class leave. So I will indicate when that moment is. Come on. Make yourself comfortable on the floor if you can.
My goal in this course is to allow you or to invite you to read some of the most compelling novels written in the last little over a half century. This includes a whole range of thematic concerns. So when I look down at my list of novels--which I have not brought with me (I trust you can find it on the web; I didn't want to kill trees by making enough of these for all of you)--when I look down at my list of books and I think about what these books are about, I see war. I see war, all the way from the Trojan War, to the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, all the way up to the Vietnam War. I see love, in all kinds of guises: be they criminal as in Lolita, pedophiliac love; be they sort of ideational romantic, John Barth; be they campus love, that's The Human Stain, Philip Roth; all kinds and forms of sex and love, and then there is politics interweaving with all those things. There are questions of identity and race. There is a nervous breakdown that actually happens right here in New Haven in one of these novels. That's in Franny and Zooey. I see women who give up on housekeeping altogether and let their house go to ruin and become vagrants. I see suicide. I see slavery.
All these things you can read about in these novels, but reading these novels is not just about reading about those things. It's also going to be the process of watching an artistic form unfold over a very exciting period of time. In the second half of the twentieth century and up now into the twenty-first century, writers were thinking very hard about what to do stylistically with all the innovations that come in that powerful period known as modernism. So one of the things we're going to think about together in the course is what happens to all those innovations. Are they abandoned? Are they embellished? Are they stretched? Are they rejected? What happens to those resources that the great modernist writers endowed language with so powerfully earlier in the century? So there are formal questions that we will take up time and again. There are questions that intersect between the form and the content in every single novel that we read.
Now perhaps those of you who like to read fiction, and especially who like to read fiction from this period, will look down at that syllabus and you'll say, "Well, where is [your favorite writer]?" "Where is Don DeLillo?" "Where is John Updike?" My answer for the question--"Why these writers?"-- my answer for the question is the course. It's an answer that unfolds over these fourteen weeks of the term. Thirteen? Thirteen. The short answer is that I think these writers best represent all the different threads, all the different forces in the American Novel Since 1945. There are lots of other writers we could include, including those two that I named, that would equally illustrate some of the threads that I've got on the syllabus now, but these are the ones for various practical and more substantive reasons that I have chosen. Now you do have an opportunity--this class does--that my class has never had before, and that is to nominate your own novel for the last one that we read, one of your choice. Now I have done this in a sophomore seminar, and I did it in a graduate seminar. I invited my students to present some choices to the class, and then the class voted on them. It was incredibly successful. In the undergraduate course--it was a small seminar--I had groups of students proposing two novels actually for the end of the syllabus, and the exercise gets you to think very hard about what you think this period is all about. It's not just about what's fun to read, although it is that too. It's about thinking what would make the right ending to this intellectual trajectory, this intellectual narrative that we're going to move through this term: what would make the right ending. So it has a sort of intellectual purpose to it.
But I will tell you, the students I had in that seminar did amazing things to push their choice of novel. One group nominated Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex. There was a huge art installation that I walked into on that day of class. It covered the ceiling and the walls and the floors. They had done original photography for it. It was really spectacular. There was a theatrical skit for Dave Eggers' How We Are Hungry. There was campaign literature, pamphlets and so on. So people were very creative with it, and it was really lots of fun. And for me it's fun because I may not know the novel that you end up picking, and so it is a kind of challenge for me to take a novel that you've chosen and come to grips with it myself. It may be one that I know. Now let me just say in a technical way: if you decide to volunteer to nominate a novel, you'll get no extra credit. It'll do nothing for your grade. But you will get glory, whatever glory there is to be had at the front of this room. Maybe that's miniscule, but maybe it's going to be fun for you, especially if you have a sort of theatrical bent, or if you like getting up in front of people, or if you're just really, really passionate about a novel that you want everyone to read. So that's something that we will do, and I will tell you more about at mid semester. So that's the piece of the syllabus that I can't tell you about. I don't know what that dream we're going to dream together is when we read that novel. I don't know what that'll be.
I want to just go over the requirements of the course that really are required, not the optional piece, just so that you understand what my purpose is pedagogically. This course is very much open to English majors and to non English majors. It's essentially a reading course. That's what I want you to take away from this: the knowledge of these novels. I want you to read them. I want you to think about them. I want you to talk about them. But I don't expect you to become an English major in order to do that if you're not already one. However, if you do happen to be an English or a literature major or someone who's just very serious about reading at that level, you will find plenty to chew on here. Not all of the novels aspire to or have as their purpose that kind of difficulty that sometimes English majors really want. They want to have to work incredibly hard at the formal level. Some of the novels have that, but not all of them. The challenge for you is to figure out: well, what do we do with those novels? What is the aim of a novel that isn't all about formal innovation? What are those novels doing? Is it just inappropriate to call them literature? Should we think about them in a different way? How should we integrate that kind of novel with novels that have more formal ambitions?
So the paper length-- there are two papers required, and there is a final exam--the paper length is designed to be quite large. It's two five-to-eight-page papers. Now a five-page paper is very different from an eight-page paper if you're actually thinking about the words you choose and how you write it. If you just sort of the night before scribble, scribble, scribble until you're done, maybe there's not that much difference between a five- and an eight-page paper except editing. But substantively, if you're using every sentence in that paper, you can write a lot more in an eight-page paper, if you've used every sentence to say something substantive to move an argument along, than you can in the five-page. That's for those people who really want to push themselves and want to advance a really significant piece of thinking about a novel. Now I will also say that a five-page paper written well can trump an eight-page paper written poorly any day of the week. So you don't have to write long papers, but what I'm saying is: the room is there for you to stretch out if you want to do that.
The final exam: you should do well if you read, and if you come to lecture, and if you attend section. The process of doing those three things will have allowed you to already have thought quite a bit about these novels. You should remember them. I think they are quite memorable. They are quite distinct from each other, and you should be able to manage with that final exam without undue difficulty. I will say that the reading load is heavy. I have made some adjustments every year. I'm trying to deal with the fact that there are so many novels I love written between, say, 1985 and the present that are over 400 pages apiece. So what do you do with those on a syllabus? Well, I guess it's the problem that people who teach the eighteenth-century novel always have, or the Victorian novel: the Victorian novel like the triple-decker, the three-volume novel. At least I don't have those. But what I've done is to excerpt some of the texts earlier in the term--and actually there's a slightly heavier reading before break than there used to be-- so that it's a little bit lighter after break, when we're doing those long novels.
Okay. Last thing: This course, as you may have noticed from our friends behind us, is being filmed as part of the Yale Open Courses Initiative. It is an initiative funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. This is one of eight courses being offered this year that are being videotaped. They will be made available free to the public via the internet, so this is a way of allowing the world to benefit from what we all do at Yale. That said, what we try to do--what I will try to do, and what I hope you will try to do--is to forget about them. It's sometimes hard for me, but I trust that you will be able to do that. So forget about that. The point is not to cater to that camera, but to do what we do, and to show the world what it is that we do. Now I like to ask questions in lecture. I really am just not a fan of the sort of zone-out model of lecture audition. So I will ask you questions. The only annoying thing I will have to do is to repeat your answers. So I hope you will not object to that, because you don't have microphones on you, and it's very cumbersome to get them back to you, so we're not going to mike you so that your answers can be heard. All right. Any questions so far about what I've said? Okay.
Now I want to talk about the handout. Those of you who don't have it: there are a couple more up front here. There should be the rest of a stack over here. Oh, no. These are my notes. Are we out? Yeah, there are a couple more, and if you don't have one you can share. What I have here for us to look at together today are two little texts. I'm going to read parts of them to you, and together I think they give you the sort of snapshot I want you to have of where literature stands, where reading stands, at the middle of the twentieth century. The first one is an advertisement for the Random House edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, and this appeared in The Saturday Review of Literature in 1934. So I'm going to read just parts, and I'm going to skip around a little bit and stop and start:
How to enjoy James Joyce's great novel, Ulysses. For those who are already engrossed in the reading of Ulysses, as well as for those who hesitate to begin it because they fear that it is obscure, the publishers offer this simple clue as to what the critical fuss is all about. Ulysses is no harder to understand than any other great classic. It is essentially a story and can be enjoyed as such. Do not let the critics confuse you. Ulysses is not difficult to read, and it richly rewards each reader in wisdom and pleasure. So thrilling an adventure into the soul and mind and heart of man has never before been charted. This is your opportunity to begin the exploration of one of the greatest novels of our time.
What I want you to notice first of all is the kind of reader that's being invoked here for that modernist classic Ulysses. It is not the fussing critic. Now if you read down, if you sort of skim down, you'll see that kind of language applied to critics. They seem fretful. They seem interested in obscure knowledge. That's how this advertisement represents critics, even though it also invokes critics to describe what's powerful about the novel. So there's a sort of two-faced representation of the critic. But the important one, I think, is that dismissal of the critic. The point of this advertisement is to make you feel like you don't have to know what the critic knows in order to read this novel. What you need is something like strength or bravery. Listen to that language: "For those who are already engrossed in the reading of Ulysses, as well as for those who hesitate to begin it." The people already engrossed are the strong ones, and "you can be that!," this advertisement wants to say. You can be the strong reader. That hesitation--"those who hesitate to begin it"--it's a kind of feminized, mincing approach to the novel. It's sort of like those fussy critics.
So this advertisement tells you that the great classic of modernism is something you stride into like a man, but you don't have to be a particularly extraordinary man to do so. "This monumental novel about 20 hours in the life of an average man can be read and appreciated like any other great novel once its framework and form are visualized, just as we can enjoy Hamlet without solving all the problems which agitate the critics and scholars." There's that agitation that I was talking about. "The average man": this advertisement wants you to see Ulysses as a story about a man you can identify with. So you don't have to be a critic; you have to be strong; but you know what? You can be the average man, because this is a story about the average man.
"With a plot furnished by Homer, against a setting by Dante, and with characters motivated by Shakespeare, Ulysses is really not as difficult to comprehend as critics like to pretend." This is like saying "dress by Prada, shoes by Ferragamo." It's as if there are brands--Dante, Shakespeare, Homer--that are identifiable. They're familiar,and-- what's more--they carry with it that sense of cultural capital. So what do I mean by cultural capital? It's that knowledge that makes you one of the elite of your world. It's also that knowledge that an educated, sort of belletristic reader of The Saturday Review of Literature would be very, very familiar with. So in a sense it tells you this work of art is of a piece with what you already know; it's familiar in those ways, and you shouldn't be afraid of it. At the same time it's part and parcel of that elite body of knowledge, so again there is this kind of two-facedness to the advertisement. It's both Everyman, and it's the elite, who will best read this book.
Now I want to contrast that with what we see from Nabokov in this essay, Good Readers and Good Writers. This is from 1950. Now the part of the essay just prior to this explains that he gave this little quiz that you see to some college students when he was giving a lecture. So this is what he asked them to do:
Select four answers to the question 'What should a reader be to be a good reader?' "The reader should belong to a book club." "The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine." "The reader should concentrate on the social, economic angle." "The reader should prefer a story with action and dialog to one with none." "The reader should have seen the book in a movie." "The reader should be a budding author." "The reader should have imagination." "The reader should have memory." "The reader should have a dictionary." "The reader should have some artistic sense."
And Nabokov says:
The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social, economic and historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is the one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary and some artistic sense, which sense I propose to develop in myself and others whenever I have the chance. There are at least two varieties of imagination in the reader's case, so let us see which of the two is the right one to use in reading a book. First there is the comparatively lowly kind which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature. A situation in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or to someone we know or knew, or again the reader treasures a book mainly because it evokes a country, a landscape, a mode of living which he nostalgically recalls as part of his own past, or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.
What a crime! How many of you are guilty of this kind of reading, ever? Okay. Nabokov, be gone. But he wants to get at something here, and I think it's helpful to put it next to that advertisement for Ulysses. He wants you to think about reading on his terms. His terms are very much informed by a modernist sensibility of what literature is all about--and I'm going to say more about what that is when I lecture on Lolita--but it's very much in contrast with that Ulysses ad. "Don't identify. It's not about you. It's about something else." Well, what is it about?
So what is the authentic instrument to be used by the reader? It is impersonal imagination and artistic delight. What should be established I think is an artistic, harmonious balance between the reader's mind and the author's mind. We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in this aloofness, while at the same time we keenly enjoy--enjoy with tears and shivers--the interweave of a given masterpiece.To be quite objective in these matters is of course impossible. Everything that is worthwhile is to some extent subjective. For instance, you sitting there may be merely my dream, and I may be your nightmare. (Some of you might think that after Lolita.) But what I mean is that the reader must know when and where to contribute his imagination, and this he does by trying to get clear the specific world the author places at his disposal.
If there is a balance of power between the writer and the reader in this little vignette, the power really I think finally resides with the writer. It is the writer whose world the reader is here asked to get clear. You are asked to use your imagination to enter a world made by the writer, a world of imagination, and so it's the writer who directs you in that way. You are not asked to imagine a place you knew, something from your history, something from your knowledge of yourself. It is not about finding the average man--which you are--also in the novel, there staring back at you. It's about finding some other dream world. Maybe it's a nightmare world.
So, for Nabokov, he wants to imagine a kind of literary encounter that's very much separate from those other things he talks about: other media; the movies; having seen the book in the movie; from the life that we all lead when we work and when we go to school; the social, economic angle. He wants to read it as apart from the emotions, although he wants to enlist those emotions in a very specific way. Remember those "tears and shivers." Those have to be the tears and shivers of impersonality. That word, "impersonality"--made famous by T.S. Eliot who advocated impersonality as the ultimate stance of the artist--that is the stance from which all great art should proceed. So Nabokov imbues that state of impersonality with certain kinds of emotion and then asks the reader to be as impersonal as that modernist artist also must be.
So what I think we get from these two little readings today is a sense of where literature finds itself at a kind of crossroads. What kind of reader are writers in this period looking for, and what do they want from that reader? To what context do they address themselves? Is it a social context? Is it a literary one? Is it a psychological one? Is it a philosophical one? Is it a political one? What should the novel strive to do? What can novels do in the world? What is the role of the imagination? How does that factor into what the reader lives in daily reality? What is the status of identification? Is that the primary model of readership? Is that what makes people want to read? Is that what should make people want to read? These are some of the questions that these two readings raise, and they are questions that we will return to over and over throughout the term.
Now, I'm going to stop there. I've gone on longer than I expected. I'm going to let shoppers leave, and then, in a very short time, I'm going to pick up again and talk about Richard Wright. So anyone who wants to leave now please do so. And please sign in, by the way, guys, before you leave. The sheets are coming around. You can sign in right there. Oh, there are sign-in sheets there. Thanks. Those are my notes. Yeah. Don't take those. Right here. Oh, the syllabus? Oh. Oh. Let's see. Do I have any more? No, it's not. Hey, KC. KC, can I borrow your handout? Can he have it? I'll give you another one. Okay. I'm going to start even though it's still in flux here 'cause I don't want to lose my time. Ooh, that's bad. Whoa. I'm stepping over you. I'm so sorry. Thank you. All right. That was dramatic, wasn't it? Okay. All right.
Now, we've talked about the imagination. Now I want you to use it. Imagine that you are a writer. That's all you've ever wanted to be. You're at a very happy time in your life. You just wrote a really successful novel. Everyone loved it. It was unlike anything that had been written before. It was very well received. You decided, "for my next project I am going to write about my life." You've had a hard life, by the way. You've had a hard life. That hard life, you think, is really what made you into the writer you are. It's what allowed you to speak so powerfully to people in your first novel, and you've always wanted to write an autobiography. So that's what you do; that's what you take up as your next project. So you write the story of your life. It's nearly 400 pages long. It gets a really nice reception at a very good publisher. It's in page proofs. Everything's going great. You're thrilled. And then someone says to you, "You know…."
Imagine this is Oprah. Oprah gets page proofs of your novel. She's thinking about putting it on her book club, and--if any of you know anything about contemporary literature--getting on Oprah's Book Club makes your sales for the next 20 years. It's huge. There is no more powerful marketing force in contemporary fiction than Oprah's Book Club. It even does wonders for Tolstoy when Tolstoy gets on Oprah's Book Club (not by a séance). So you get on Oprah's Book Club. Oprah asks for the proofs for your novel. She takes them. She says, "This is great, but you know what? I think--that last hundred pages--you should get rid of it." And you think about it, and you say yes, and it comes out in that form. And there you are, and, for the next 40 years, no one ever sees the novel that you wrote, or the autobiography that you wrote originally. It's still only two thirds of what you ever wrote it to be.
Well, this is what happened to Richard Wright. This is pretty much exactly what happened to Richard Wright in 1944. So he had published Native Son in 1940 to great acclaim, a very successful novel. In 1944, he completed Black Boy, then called American Hunger, and he had placed it with Harper and Brothers Publishing Company in New York, and they were very happy with it. It had a first part called "Southern Night" and a second part called "The Horror and the Glory." "Southern Night" was about his experience growing up in Mississippi. So he was born in 1908 in Mississippi, and in 1927--I think it's '27; let me get my date right--in 1927 he moved to Chicago, moved north. And in the 1940s he moved to Paris, and he died there in 1960. So his was a progression out of a very poor, Southern childhood, from a black family led by a single mother, to the circles in which Gertrude Stein moved in Paris. So this is a long trajectory.
Well, Black Boy, or American Hunger, as it was then called, covered the part in Mississippi, and then the beginnings of his life in Chicago. Now the part about his life in Chicago was the part that was finally cut from the novel--I'm going to keep doing this, call it the novel versus the autobiography, and I'll explain why I make that mistake a little later--it was cut from the autobiography. Now he had this in page proofs with Harper and Brothers, and Harper and Brothers sent the page proofs out to various writers for blurbs and also sent it to the Book of the Month Club Editorial Board. The Book of the Month Club was a mail-order book club that started in 1926, and it became an incredibly powerful engine for selling books, just as Oprah's Book Club is today. In 1926, it had about 4700 members. Just three years later it had 110,000 members: 110,000 subscribers in 1929. By the '40s and '50s, it was incredibly powerful. So what we have is this marketing juggernaut getting interested in Wright's autobiography. So they take it up, and the board decides that they only like the "Southern Night" part. They don't want any of the part of the story of his life in Chicago, and that's what he finally agrees to.
So in the summer of 1944 he embarks on this correspondence with a woman named Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was one of the editorial board of the Book of the Month Club, and they go back and forth trying to figure out how he will revise the ending to "Southern Night" so that it sounds like the end of a book rather than the end of a section of a longer book. Now for Wednesday I am going to ask you to go online to the Beinecke Digital Archive and read those letters. We hold them here. They are not published anywhere, so this is kind of fun. This is one of the special things about being at Yale. We have those letters. You can go and touch them. You can read them online, and I want you to read those in addition to reading the sections that I have indicated. You can see what happens when Wright starts coming up against these demands on his manuscript, and I will project them during class too so that we can talk about them. Wright's manuscript was therefore very much under pressure as a literary object--and it really was a literary object.
I think we can make the mistake, thinking about autobiography, that it's somehow not literary. But in fact it's very literary, and part of what makes it literary is the fact that you have to choose what scenes go into that narrative. You can't just write every single thing that happened in your life. You have to choose. Well, critics took it fairly straightforwardly as the account of a life and in that sense, taking it that way, some of them were a little disappointed with what they held in their hands. For one thing, it seemed exaggerated to some people. So the first scene, as we will discover in Black Boy, is when Richard, young Richard--I think he was 6--burns down the family house playing with matches underneath the curtains, and his mother finds him where he has hidden under the burning house and flogs him until he is unconscious, and he's sick for a good, long time after that. Okay. Critics were like "I don't think so. That doesn't seem right." A mother flog[ging] her son until he's unconscious didn't seem too credible. As time went on there were other kinds of complaints, these about accuracy. So, for instance, his mother in the book is represented as being uneducated. Well, in fact she was a schoolteacher. Now there is a difference between scholars on how long she was a schoolteacher. Some say she was a sort of long-term successful schoolteacher. Others said, "Well, she only taught school for a couple of months." So this was not--didn't seem to be--accurate.
Then there was another scene in the autobiography, where Richard, who is the valedictorian of his high school class, writes his valedictory speech, gives it as required to the principal beforehand, the principal demands certain kinds of changes, and Richard refuses. Well, apparently Richard in real life did not refuse to make those changes. And imagine, in a book that then undergoes this publishing history that I have described, this is kind of a symbolic scene. This is a scene of whether you as a writer compromise yourself in the face of authority that resists what you want to say. So in the book it's a very important scene. It's the moment when Richard really finds his voice and it gives him the strength eventually to leave the South. But in real life apparently he did cave.
Then there came to be questions about whether the scenes, the stories in the book, actually did happen to him. So there is this story about his Uncle Hoskins who takes his horse and cart with Richard in the back and drives it into the middle of the Mississippi River as a kind of practical joke on Richard. Well, apparently this is not something that happened to Richard Wright. This is something that happened to Ralph Ellison. Where these stories come from began to be a problem. So what is autobiography? What is this genre that Wright is working with? It raised these kinds of questions on the one hand. But then there was another kind of question, and that was coming from the other side. This is what William Faulkner wrote to Wright upon reading Black Boy. He said:
The good, lasting stuff comes out of one's individual imagination, and sensitivity to, and comprehension of, the sufferings of Everyman--Any Man--not out of the memory of one's own grief. I hope you will keep on saying it, but I hope you will say it as an artist, as in Native Son.
So Faulkner's objection is on the other side. It's not fictional enough. To write about your life and to pretend that you're communicating the memory of what happened to you--your grief, your private grief--doesn't contain that universalizing move that fiction, by its very essence, contains. And you see that (you can remember back to that conception of literature we see in the advertisement for Ulysses) it's about everyman, that greatness in literature comes from its ability to speak to some archetypal Everyman, Any Man, and Faulkner capitalizes those words in his letter as if they really are types.
Well, Wright himself described that difficulty of writing his autobiography, and these are the terms he used:
I found that to tell the truth is the hardest thing on earth, harder than fighting in a war, harder than taking part in a revolution. If you try it, you will find that at times sweat will break upon you. You will find that, even if you succeed in discounting the attitudes of others to you and your life, you must wrestle with yourself most of all, fight with yourself, for there will surge up in you a strong desire to alter facts, to dress up your feelings. You'll find that there are many things you don't want to admit about yourself and others. As your record shapes itself an awed wonder haunts you, and yet there is no more exciting an adventure than trying to be honest in this way. The clean, strong feeling that sweeps you when you've done it makes you know that.
And even though in that little passage he suggests that it's a struggle to be truthful, a struggle to be accurate, a struggle not to dress up your feelings with some sort of embellishment, he at other times says that, well, some of the stories did come from other people, some of the stories he included did come from other people's experiences, not from his own life, and that this is allowed and allowable because what he aimed to do was produce a generic life of a black boy living in the South. And from the titles we know he considered for this book, none of them make that claim "The Life of Richard Wright." None of them say that. It's always Black Boy, American Hunger. These are not person- specific. These implicitly make a claim to the generality--at the national scale, or in the racial sense--the representativeness of this life. And, indeed, what more powerful testimony to the power of narration is there, the power of a story, to say that you heard a story and it became as if part of your experience, that you heard Ralph Ellison tell that story, and somehow you began to live it yourself?