I just concluded the third and final week of teaching Melville’s Moby-Dick to my early American literature seminar, the first time I’ve taught the novel in my career. Teaching a book like Moby-Dick is dangerous, because it both threatens to whelm a syllabus with its scope and bulk (following these three weeks, I can easily imagine a semester- or year-long course on the novel), and it demands of students a kind of sustained attention that feels particularly difficult to muster in the age of distraction. I wrote about this earlier, I’m not immune to these forces either, and I’m disinclined toward kids-these-days, technophobic arguments. But when I asked my students in an aside at the beginning of one of our discussions whether there were any analogues in their own intellectual lives to the kind of encyclopedic intellectual work of the novel, they could only read it as a figure for other literary or literary critical enterprises like the seminar itself. And of course the novel is exemplarily metafictional. But I find myself wishing my students had experiences akin to Ishmael’s, to dive deeper than they are accustomed, in the English classroom of course, but outside of it as well. Such forms of concentrated attention feel as though they’re becoming vanishingly rare in my own intellectual life, even in leave semesters with only one class where you’re devoting three weeks to a single novel. Perhaps this isn’t achievable for most, as even some of what one would expect are the most invested readers in Melville admit to frustration, incapacity, and futility when countenancing the white whale.
I don’t know if everyone in the class made it through the book. I doubt it. I am convinced, however, that a solid majority emerged intact on the other side. One or two may even carry the novel with them after the semester has ended, what is probably the best measure of whether I should teach it again in the context of a similar survey (I will). There will be a take-home exam at semester’s end to reward those who have read. I briefly considered reading quizzes along the way to test whether or not my hunches were correct, and I get how these can be valuable pedagogical tools, but education at the college level has always felt to me like it should be an elective process. And the lesson—one of the lessons—the novel teaches about the thoroughness, investment, and whimsy of impassioned intellection seems anathema to the very idea of a pop quiz.
Unless someone developed a truly Melvillean pop quiz. So without further ado… scholars, feel free to adapt this to your own ends.
Moby-Dick pop quiz™:
1) In what respects does a late consumptive usher to a grammar school resemble a sub-sub-librarian? How do they differ?
2) Who aint a slave? Tell me that.
3) Delight is it to him—a far, far upward, and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self?
4) True or False: You cannot hide the soul.
5) And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?
Extra credit: What like a bullet can undeceive?
For a brief moment I thought about handing this out on the last day of class discussion, but I chickened out, fearing that the joke might seem cruel (or, simply illegible). Maybe next time.
PS—Why then do you try to “enlarge” your mind? Subtilize it.
It’s been a turbulent past few months, with a tenure decision, and completed manuscript, and the beginning of a new two-year gig as Visiting Associate Professor of English at Princeton. So I’m haunting the old haunts, writing in the same corner of the Scribner Reading Room where I wrote large chunks of the original dissertation, and holding office hours again in the gray cinder block demesne of McCosh Hall (affectionately termed “the garden level”).
History repeats itself. I’m teaching early American literature again for the first time in five years, and the texts seem as vital now (at least to me) as they did when I read many of them in for the first time in Jay Fliegelman’s undergraduate course at Stanford, the one that made me want to become an English major in the first place. I’m in the last editing stages of my book—False Starts: The Rhetoric of Failure and the Making of American Modernism, forthcoming from Northwestern University Press—a long-gestating revision of my dissertation, where I argue that literary modernism, in part, is constituted by the repeated impossibility of authentic newness. (Side note: Michael North, who is indispensable for my argument, seems to be taking this transhistorical question on directly in his just-released Novelty: A History of the New, which I hope to review in College Literature.) And I’m once again in that exciting, vertiginous place of dreaming up a new book, this time on the intersections of comics and literary and artistic modernism. Things seem both to swell with possibility and threaten to drown you in the vastness of what you don’t know, a feeling that’s especially keen this time around as I find myself trying to teach myself to be an art historian. (A second side note: a piece I did for the Los Angeles Review of Books on cartoonist Ivan Brunetti was recently published, check it out before it is subsumed into the digital past, which is to say anything more than a week old.) I’m gathering books with abandon and looking for recommendations everywhere I can get them. Research for this next project began in earnest this week, and I’ll try to post exciting finds here on the blog, but blog neglect, alas, is another historical pattern I may be doomed to repeat.
Sadly, we’ve also lost another amazing woman in the Ball family, my grandmother Gene passed away earlier this month. It’s been an outsized couple of years of loss for the women in my family. They all will be missed.
My mother, Patricia Bullock, passed away at the age of 65, after having lived with brain cancer for close to six years. She did so with courage, grace, and dignity, a testament to the love and care of her husband Tom. She was the kindest, most self-effacing person I’ve ever met. The type of cancer she had usually afflicts people in their 20s and 30s—the surgery ward at Shands Hospital where she was treated was filled with graduate students, young parents, newlyweds—and she was characteristically more concerned about them than she was with her own health. “If I had been sick when you were 4 or 5 years old,” she told me, “it would have been a tragedy. This is just sad, that’s all.”
This unwavering kindness was mortifying when I was a kid. Mom would introduce herself to strangers, hold conversations with people you simply weren’t supposed to chat with. Toll booth collectors. Crossing guards. Not pleasantries, mind you, long and in-depth conversations. Invariably, we would be the last ones to leave the parent-teacher conferences and school functions of my childhood, because Mom would be there chatting with my teachers. Or the coach. Or the headmaster. The sullen teenager in me wanted to melt into the ground. She would regale me with tales of just how kind people were to her in New York City and, of all places, New Jersey, as if the constitutional rudeness of the state was imperceptible, or simply embarrassed by her resolute kindness. On one trip, we never made it out of the lobby of the Philadelphia Museum of Art because she had struck up a conversation with an on-duty museum guard in front of the first canvas she stopped to admire. They exchanged letters with one another for years.
Once I was mature enough to see it, this is what I learned to love most about my mother: her ability to see the humanity in anyone and to bring out the best in everyone. It was her instinct as a physical therapist, first in the halls of the VA tending to the Vietnam veterans, then in her own practice, and then working primarily with the elderly, trying every day to straighten what was bent and broken. As my grandmother, Helen Bickerstaff, aged and became more frail, she took on the added responsibilities of a daughter and a caretaker. This was hard and demanding work, both physically and mentally, and she undertook it with unfailing cheer, warmth, and heart. Gainesville is filled with the people she helped to heal; it was her calling, and even after her diagnosis and her first craniotomy, she still talked about going back to work part-time because it was therapy for her as well as for her patients.
But I don’t want to leave you with the impression that Mom was a pushover. She ran a strict home. Soda and sugared cereals were never an option. When I was old enough to drive, in order to earn the privilege I had to sign a contract that ran to several pages. I was once grounded for a week for telling her I was going to play tennis at the Westside courts when I went to the Woodside courts instead. She told me that if I ever wanted to ride a motorcycle, she would first give me a personal tour of the accident victims at the VA ward to dissuade me. It worked. Right before I left for college, in a seeming lapse of her authority, she allowed me to visit an out-of-town friend who was then in college. I forgot to call home to tell her that I had safely arrived, one of the conditions of my newfound freedom. Several hours after arriving, I was surprised to hear a knock on my friend’s dormroom door. It was a private investigator my mother had hired to locate me—I swear he had on a blazer and a fedora, this can’t be my own fantastical reconstruction of the scene. He was her last recourse to finding me in an era before cellphones. The only thing he said to me, delivered with impeccable timing before turning on his heels, was: “Call your mother.”
Having been a parent now for nine months, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to be a single mother, to move back home, and to remake a life for herself and for me. My memories of her are of course from this time, and I never once sensed that this was ever a burden to her, though at times it must have been. One of the things I will miss most is the ability to understand her more fully now, to know what these years meant to her. And as happy as my memories are of this time, it was her past eight years with Tom that were her happiest. Traveling, dancing, and being completely in love. These were the things the cancer couldn’t touch. We are all grateful for the time we’ve had and the memories we’ve kept between us.
She will be remembered by the husband she adored, the friends she made, the patients she made whole, the dance partners she embraced, the family she leaves behind, the strangers she showered with kindness, and the son she loved.
After a week that featured the stomach flu and a leaking hot water heater, welcome news of two publications arrives. The first is a tribute to Spain Rodriguez, underground cartoonist, unapologetic leftist agitator, fly in the ointment, gleeful thumb in the eye of politeness, speaker of truth to power. Add Artforum to the list of publications in which I feel underqualified to have my work appear. Writing remembrances is tough work—without being dishonest, I wanted to write the way Spain might have wanted to be remembered—and I hope this piece approaches that goal.
The second is a translation of my essay “Chris Ware’s Failures” from The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking. I was approached by the gracious Santiago García to be a part of a volume titled Supercómic. Mutaciones de la novela gráfica contemporánea from Errata Naturae Press. My Spanish was confined to a few well-meaning elementary-school lessons, but it seems as if alongside Eddie Campbell (!) and Emmanuel Guibert (!), that I’m the only one being translated. I’m not quite sure what I did to deserve the honor, but “Los fracasos de Chris Ware” does have a certain ring to it. The book will be released in April, if there are any Spanish speaking readers of the blog…
… and, in news of our incredibly small, globalized world, there’s at least one: Alberto García Marcos. After I posted my lament that I’d failed to record my interview with Chris Ware at last year’s SPX, Alberto kindly emailed me that he was the translator of the only recording I was able to find: a Spanish translation on his blog. Not only did he generously allow me to share the recording he made 2012-09-16 – Bethesda – Chris Ware (I can’t listen to my recorded voice, it’s too mortifying), but he let me know that he is also appearing in the same volume as this translation (his interview with Guibert concludes Supercómic). I’m not sure which is more surprising: the coincidental nature of all this, or the unstinting generosity of comics scholars.
Okay, back to the failure book. Any guy who can make Chris Ware make this face has got to be able to talk with some authority about the authority of failure.
The internet lies. Well, at least my blog does, because it’s looked like I’ve been on sabbatical since time immemorial, napping under a tree (see the post below, and recent foolishness from Forbes et al., and the predictable backlash), when I’ve actually been working my butt off this past fall. With the failure book fully drafted, on my editor’s desk, and awaiting readers’ reports (one in, one on the way…) I turned my attention back to comics somewhat this semester. They’ve become a more prominent part of my pedagogy over the years, making appearances on all of my syllabi for the first time this semester, and in the spring I’ll teach my 101-level “Graphic Narratives” course for the third time. 2012 was also an amazing year for comics, highlighted by the publication of both Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama and Chris Ware’s decade-in-the-making Building Stories.
I’d hoped to publish a review of the Bechdel volume, but my plans fell through. I feel guilty enough that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt generously sent me a review copy months before its release to write a mini version of what I’d hoped to say: basically it’s brilliant and you should run out and buy a copy right now. Are You My Mother? is both a companion piece to her breakthrough Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and a thornier, more inward turning, more complicated book than its predecessor (and for those familiar with Fun Home, that’s really saying something). That HMH would print an initial run of Are You My Mother? in the six digits speaks to what I believe is a rapidly expanding market for comics with the depth, texture, and rich challenges of literary fiction (Building Stories sits atop the bestselling graphic fiction list; Bechdel has been on it for 30 weeks!).
If Fun Home was a dual portrait of her father’s being in the closet and her own coming out, Are You My Mother? is simultaneously an account of her mother’s ambivalence toward abandoning an artistic career for the work of raising a family and Bechdel’s own psychological portrait as relayed through various relationships with therapists and her own readings in psychoanalysis. What such a clunky summary fails to capture, however, is the visual-verbal richness of the completed project and the ways in which this narrative nonetheless manages to propel itself on the sheer energy of Bechdel’s intellect and keen self-observation. My argument about Fun Home, following Richard Meyer’s, was that Bechdel was participating in a tradition of queer visual artists for whom the cultural condemnation of homosexuality, in Meyer’s words, “compels indirection and ‘ingenious disguise’ on the part of the writer. Censorship produces as well as prohibits writing; it consigns the writer not to silence but to the strategic use of suggestion and metaphor, of submerged meanings and encoded messages […] a dialectical concept of censorship [that] functions not simply to erase but also to enable representation; it generates limits but also reactions to those limits; it imposes silence even as it provokes responses to that silence.” (Outlaw Representation, 15). So for Fun Home, I argue, the ways in which Bechdel both reveals and disguises the facts of her father’s case, the ways in which her moments of graphic confession are also simultaneously moments of literary allusion, the ways in which her romantic narratives are interrupted by others, all extend this dialectic of “ingenious disguise” in ways we might not suspect taking hold in the early 21st century. I previewed this argument here, and it is forthcoming in a volume titled Drawing From Life: Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art.
In interviews, Bechdel has been blowing my thesis out of the water, speaking with increased impatience about memoirists who play fast and loose with the facts. I think her own work is the best retort to this “facts are facts” take on the ethical imperatives of the memoirist—I’m inclined to see the contract between memoirist and reader as much more fluid than she’s recently averred. I’m a long way from being able to claim anything thoroughgoing about Are You My Mother?, however, other than to say that the interposition of the family narrative in the later memoir into her own romantic histories continues the patterns of interruption in Fun Home. In one amazing page, Bechdel places her mother’s timeline and her therapists’ timelines above her lovers, not an accidental hierarchy in my reading: I could imagine a fascinating essay starting at this moment.
I’d have to read a shelf full of books before I felt comfortable even bringing Are You My Mother? to a seminar room—I chickened out for “Experimental Fictions” this past fall; it certainly applies—much less writing about it, but it’s a challenge I look forward to working myself up for in the coming years. In the meantime, buy a copy.
The biggest release of 2012 to my mind was Chris Ware’s latest masterpiece, Building Stories—a graphic novel that takes the form of fourteen unique comics, ranging from three-fold inserts, to hardbound books, to a full newspaper broadsheet. One of my big regrets with the timing of the publication of The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking was not being able to account for this completed work in our volume. We made up for this, in part, by putting together a series of critical “updates” published as a series for The Comics Journal. I’m tremendously proud of these—12 of our original 15 contributors submitted an essay—and I’m not certain that anything like this has been done, either in comics criticism or more conventional academic writing. You can read the entire run of essays here and here, and my contribution is here (mild spoiler alert, for those who haven’t read Building Stories). With the profusion of smart aggregate sites for the writing of academics and public intellectuals, like the Los Angeles Review of Books (for which I’ll be doing a long-form piece on the career of Ivan Brunetti in the coming months), I’m hopeful that opportunities to do this kind of writing that reaches a wider readership will only increase in the coming years.
I also took the plunge, a few weeks after Phil Nel did the same, of teaching Building Stories in the context of my “Experimental Fictions” class. The course ran from Edgar Allan Poe to present, beginning with Ware’s 2005 ACME Novelty Report and a class trip to the Small Press Expo where I had the distinct pleasure, courtesy of the boundless energies of Bill Kartalopoulos, of interviewing Ware in person. (Due to AV blunders, many of my own doing, I didn’t get audio or video of this, although the whole thing was translated into Spanish, which I can’t read. In unrelated news, my chapter from TCCW is also being translated into Spanish as part of an anthology. I also won’t be able to read that. The closest I found to a recap of what happened is here.). Ware has the ability to speak in whole paragraphs in ways that my brain can’t fully process in the moment, but the audience didn’t revolt, so I think the event was largely a success.
After tracking through some landmark works of experimental fiction, many of which were influences on Building Stories itself, the Experimental Fictions class returned to our big boxes o’ Chris Ware at semester’s end, devoting two weeks to our discussions. Since I eschew lectures at Dickinson, and given the sheer scope of the work being discussed, the very idea of coverage went right out the window. Our classes were most successful when we focused narrowly—the first day we limited discussion to the collection’s “Golden Book,” which was first published in the New York Times Magazine in 2006, and on the final day of discussion, we talked about his “supplement” to the box, an awe-inspiring cut-out model of the apartment building that features centrally in the narrative. When we tried to range across topics, we seemed to struggle more explicitly, all the while hitting on many of the incipient themes that were developed at greater length in the TCJ pieces written by our contributors. Even after having read the entire text several times in preparation for the interview and these subsequent classes, I’m left straining for a way to sum up the aesthetic and artistic achievements of the whole. I’d put it up there with the most ambitious encyclopedic texts I’ve read: Melville’s Moby-Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Whitehead’s John Henry Days. Were I to reteach it, it would probably be in this context (how about those five books for a syllabus, with Building Stories’ explicit focus on women’s lives something of a rebuke to this very male-centered trajectory?), or perhaps in a Faulkner-Nabokov-Ware syllabus, where I could give over five full weeks to three texts by each author. All that said, teaching this was still one of my highlights of these first years at Dickinson, with the class sitting in a circle on the floor so we could rummage through our scattered texts unimpeded. I get paid to do this stuff.
In a final bit of comics news—apropos of my impulse to want to delve deeper into both of these titles, to shore up all of the things I know I don’t know in order to read these comics responsibly—I’ve taken on the position of series editor for the launch of a new series on the model of The Comics of Chris Ware. The series title is “Critical Approaches to Comics Artists” and it will be published by the University Press of Mississippi, helping to foster edited collections of essays on major figures in graphic narrative. I’m particularly wedded to the idea of multidisciplinary, academically rigorous yet approachably written works, bringing together the criticism of established and emerging scholars (especially as this generation of comics critics and theorists simmering away in grad school will no doubt completely re-envision how we read comics in the coming years). So look for The Comics of Art Spiegelman or The Comics of Charles Schulz or The Comics of Alison Bechdel coming to your favorite independently owned, neighborhood bookstore in the years to come. Right now, we’re planning on releasing ten titles in the next five years…
I should get back to work.
Well, the summer’s over, and with it the end of sabbatical and the horizon for all of the things one hopes to accomplish with the wonderful (and, even at the world’s elite institutions, increasingly rare) gift of time and intellectual space. Here’s the round-up:
The failure book—“False Starts: The Rhetoric of Failure and the Making of American Modernism”—is on my editor’s desk at Northwestern University Press and in front of outside readers as I type (holds breath, waits nervously). I’ve been rifling back through the manuscript to buff the chrome of it to a high polish, with the able assistance of Dana research fellow Colin Tripp, in the hopes that it can start the journey to press soon (we were featured, matching shirts and all, here). As much work as The Comics of Chris Ware was, I had the invaluable interlocutor of a co-editor; this was lonelier, more gnawing work toward the end, but I made the May 15 deadline I set for myself. Hopefully my claims about failure will be argumentative, not performative. The readers’ reports will tell…
I co-authored a piece on graduate pedagogy with my former mentor (and current life-and-career model) William Gleason and a colleague at Purdue, Nancy Peterson, for publication in a special issue of Pedagogy on the topic of “Graduate Students.” At its core, the essay is a call for real-world solutions to the drought conditions in the job market that don’t cut off the production of Ph.D. graduates at the same time. We suggest a rigorous professionalization process that simultaneously trains grads for academic careers while remaining aware of how those skills might be transferable to contiguous careers both within and outside the academy (administration, non-profits, education, digital humanities). How great would it be to have more English PhDs in our government offices, our NGOs, our foundations, and our secondary schools? Far and away the best parts of this process were the long discussions I had both with Bill and Nancy, as well as a number of current and recently graduated PhD students about the state of the profession. It made me hopeful for the profession, even amidst the blood bath taking place in the corridors of MLA hotels every year. Pending review, the special issue is scheduled for a 2013 release, more details forthcoming…
I went on a conference paper binge to start priming the pump for the next book, which will be about comics at the intersections of literary and artistic modernism. I presented on George Herriman for an MSA seminar on seriality, R. F. Outcault for a seminar on graphic narrative and disaster at ACLA (shepherded by my partner-in-crime with TCCW, Martha Kuhlman), and the “novels in woodcuts” of Lynd Ward. I organized this last panel, on the subject of modernism and postmodernism through the lens of graphic narrative, with friends and colleagues whose work I admire: Bill Solomon, Lee Konstantinou, and Benj Widiss. All conferences should be as simultaneously convivial and intellectually charged.
I also started work as Reviews Editor at the journal College Literature, where I’m hoping to do some interesting things with the form. In addition to more conventional reviews and review essays, I’ve commissioned a review of a new book series and of a conference in the hopes of making the form more pertinent to the needs of teacher-scholars. While some of my editing hand is visible in what’s just been released, it will start to feel like my baby come 2013. If you have a book to review, or are itching to write a review yourself, holler at me.
In the good news department: The Comics of Chris Ware also received a rave review in The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (subscription required). The punchline: “It is extremely gratifying to come across a consistently high standard of discourse in a single volume, and equally gratifying to report that for an American comics studies publication there is a refreshing lack of inhibition in engaging with cultural theory. Alongside Benjamin and Deleuze and Guattari, there are serious engagements with Umberto Eco, Paul Virilio, Gerard Genette, and Phillipe Lejeune. This bodes well for the future of anglophone comics studies. As well as setting a high bar for future collections, this anthology stands as a welcome riposte to the stultifying influence of Comics Journal-style anti-intellectualism.” Especially appreciated was the review’s acknowledgment of the value of a multidisciplinary, theoretically rigorous approach to our subject.
And, in the big news department: Mira Hanae Nakamura Ball roared into the world on July 19th, coming in at almost 9 pounds. Raise the roof.
Tipped off by the inestimable Gene Kannenberg, who keeps a record of this sort of thing here, I started my morning off with this truly abysmal piece in the New York Times, currently splashed across the homepage of their website. ComicCon, not that I’ve ever been, is of course something far different that what it started out being, and now seems to be largely a vehicle for major studios and corporate entities to schlock their latest wares and drum up enthusiasm among superfans. Only marginally does much of the programming seem to be about comics in the first place (which might lead to a very generous reading of the article’s category confusion around fantasy, science fiction, and comics throughout). No objections here, really: people seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, major studios despite themselves can produce intensely interesting work (though, like in any medium, truly exceptional work is rare, but I wouldn’t say comics are any different in this way than cinema or pop music or architecture), and I like a good trailer just like the next guy. Although I probably wouldn’t be front row at the Twilight Saga panel, just seeing the Twitter feeds of Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly and Pantheon is enough to make me swoon.
So, the article. Where to begin? There’s the high-grade anti-intellectualism throughout: thinking about something is anathema to enjoying it, experts are inherently suspect, intellection is akin to gloom. In another forum, sure, but this is particularly distasteful from a culture editor at the Times—someone who is paid daily to write thoughtfully about popular culture. It countenances potentially compelling lines of inquiry and then willfully dismisses them: culture and commerce sure are intertwined; dang these comics are being considered by studio executives, lawyers, educators, and academics all under the same roof; geez, people keep talking about the rights of creators, wonder what that’s all about. And it just gets things wrong, both in the nightly-news-interviewing-the-man-on-the-street exaggerations (I’ll concentrate on the woman with the “rubber hand on the top of her beanie”/“Students, distracted by video, are no longer responding to comics as an educational tool” Wha?) and in its willful insistence on not knowing things. My supernerd credentials are thin, but, dude, even I know it’s not “Klingonese.”
So I guess this means that comics criticism has finally made it, given that this is the exact same piece that has run every year in the city paper where the MLA convention (the largest annual gathering of language and literature professors) is held. The same dismissive tone—professors care about “indigenous cultures” and dead languages, what gives?—the same clamoring for targets to ridicule, the same refusal to understand what’s being said. Charles Hatfield, newly minted Eisner Award winner, surely on the short list of the most thoughtful people to write about the medium, is name checked at the article’s end, so Michael Cieply had his chances. It’s particularly galling from the Times, which was one of the first mainstream media champions of the contemporary generation of graphic novelists/comics artists. A paper that featured groundbreaking and thought-provoking work like Chris Ware’s Building Stories and Seth’s George Sprott in its pages. That now includes a graphic novels bestseller list and regularly reviews some of the most compelling work being produced. Per usual, The Onion—actually a great place in its own right to read about comics, and to read comics-related satire—gets it right: “Comics Not Just for Kids Anymore.”
To quote Gene: “LE SIGH.”
Late Breaking: As if to make my point, the A.V. Club publishes this a few days later.
A very brief update on sabbatical goings on, as summer approaches and the horizon of the new school year inches closer (time dilates in strange ways when you’re away from the regular clock of the campus… were I teaching presently, I’d feel as though summer was light years away). My time has been divided between finishing one book and starting another, and I’m thrilled to say that Northwestern University Press has offered an advance contract on my monograph ten years in the making: “False Starts: The Rhetoric of Failure and the Making of American Modernism.” There are still plenty of hurdles to clear, the nearest ones being a May 15th deadline for the completed manuscript and a successful review over the summer, but I couldn’t be happier that NUP is considering my work for their list.
The title of the book is purloined from a late F. Scott Fitzgerald essay called “One Hundred False Starts,” where he rifles through his notebook and meditates on all of the failed ideas he had for new stories and novels. These failures by essay’s end come not only to define Fitzgerald’s understanding of the process of writing itself, but they often constitute some of his greatest literary achievements (his modernist masterpiece Tender is the Night cites “One Hundred False Starts” in several key, unacknowledged ways). This rhetoric of successful failure is one I trace back as far as the 1850s and still see exerting a crucial influence even in contemporary literature (Exhibit A: Chris Ware). I haven’t talked about this project much here—I find it easier to blog about those things I’m not currently wrestling with in the moment—but once the manuscript is in, I’ll dig through my notebooks, à la Fitzgerald, and talk about the scraps of ideas that didn’t make the final cut for my own book.
I’m also turning my attention to a new project on comics and modernism, and have participated in panels at the Modernist Studies Association, American Comparative Literature Association, and (in May) the American Literature Association to talk about George Herriman, Richard F. Outcault, and Lynd Ward respectively. I’m in the fun, early stages of this project, blocking out chapter ideas and taking a deep breath before diving head first into the archive of late-19th- and early-20th-century newspaper comics. For now these papers have served as a welcome respite from the final throes of manuscript editing before my deadline in less than six weeks.
In other exciting news:
–My review of Richard Gooden’s William Faulkner: An Economy of Complex Words finally made it into print in the pages of Modern Fiction Studies. You can read it, with an institutional subscription, here.
–MFS also published a review of The Comics of Chris Ware by leading scholar in the field of graphic narrative, Hillary Chute. It’s a tough-minded, but also a very positive take on the value of the book as a whole, and you can read it here.
–Another book project, this one edited by Jane Tolmie under the very clever and contemporary title of Drawing from Life: Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art, is forthcoming in 2013 with one of my essays from the University Press of Mississippi. I talked about this essay in an earlier post, and have an advance copy of Alison Bechdel’s latest graphic memoir, Are You My Mother?, on my nightstand and ready to destroy everything I thought I knew about Fun Home before my revision deadline. Also: Jane has convinced the talented Sarah Leavitt, author of Tangles, to do the cover. I can’t wait to see what this looks like.
There are a few other items in the pipeline, and hopefully I’ll have another exciting news item or two before the summer is out, but those are the major dispatches from Sabbaticaland. Now, to disappear into the archive again and emerge, six weeks later, complete manuscript in hand…
I just had the opportunity to speak at the 2012 MLA in Seattle on the topic of “Visual Studies in the English Classroom,” a panel sponsored by the Society for Textual Scholarship. Like many things MLA this year, the focus was distinctly digital, and I presented the collaboration Elizabeth Lee and I have been working on for a co-taught, cross-disciplinary Mosaic set of courses on “Transatlantic American Modernisms.” In particular, I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to ways in which students visualize what they learn, both as a conceptual tool and a memory aid, especially for memories with a longer horizon than a single semester. To accomplish this, Elizabeth and I want to map the students’ research, and take them to the two cities that will be the focus of our classes together: New York and Paris. You can see a PDF and view a PowerPoint presentation of what was said, and a working (if crude and unfinished) example of what this mapping project would look like is here. When it happens, I think it will be an engaging new way to approach texts and ideas that I’ve been teaching my whole career.
I delivered this paper alongside some amazing colleagues who are engaged in similar work. Ryan Cordell gave a fascinating paper on mapping the republications (and paratexts) of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Celestial Railroad,” offering the beginnings of a quantitative account of the groundbreaking research from scholars like Meredith McGill. Using census data, he also gave an account of the geographical reach of different religious denominations in the mid-19th-century (spoiler alert: Methodists and Baptists are all over the map, Unitarians not so much… standing on its head the outsized role of Unitarian thought in the 19th-century canon). Most compellingly, Ryan was able to demonstrate that the “The Celestial Railroad” itself moved along extant railroad lines, that for all of the story’s ambivalence about technological change, technology was also the current that distributed the text around the country. What this might mean for our reading of the story itself is still in the works, and this challenge for the digital humanities to move from context to text is something I’ll be excited to see the digital humanities as a field wrestle with in the coming years (it’s as viable a critique of our plans as well, and while I make the claims for serendipity and unexpected proximity, how such an argument would look fully fleshed out isn’t something I’ll have access to until after the class is taught… it’s my hope that this class will produce exciting new research possibilities as well). You can read, and see, Ryan’s research here.
The other two papers were in part about curricular innovations, one at a major research university and the other at a liberal arts college smaller than Dickinson. Stephanie Murray talked about the BXA Program at Carnegie Mellon, where B stands for Bachelor’s, A for Arts, and the X for the variable between them. Students in this program are encouraged to think across disciplines and divisions with respect to the arts, and the program serves as a laboratory, or framework, for self-designed majors that don’t then exist on their own islands within the university (a major drawback I’ve seen for students pursuing self-designed majors at Dickinson, compelling as this work has been).
Perrin Kerns and Jay Ponteri spoke about digital storytelling and the Text:Image concentration in the English Department at Marlyhurst University in Portland. Perrin performed her own argument, producing a video as her paper and talking about the ways in which their focus on visual and digital literacies has led to a joint venture with the Art and Interior Design department at Marlyhurst (English has a Text:Image concentration, Art an Image:Text one). Jay talked about the ways in which student creative work is crossing these boundaries as well. The whole department was in the room; it sounds like an heady place to teach, collaborate, and learn.
In these two papers I was struck mostly by how other institutions have come up with structural and curricular responses—no doubt with their own complexities and complications—to the difficulties and rewards of transdisciplinary and co-taught projects. Precepting at Princeton back in the day, and wheedling my way onto American Studies team teaching assignments as the only viable way for me to get experience designing syllabi there, has meant that I’ve taught collaboratively since the start of my career (heck, even the teaching I did in Japan was with two teachers always in the room). Having had the chance to team teach with the incomparable Sharon O’Brien last spring, and planning this Mosaic with Elizabeth over the past year, has only ratified my conviction that my students and I both learn more not only when the structure of the class is dialogic, but when the instruction is as well. In conventional classes, this means bringing in guest speakers, placing classes together in the same room, and getting students out of the classroom and into the exhibition space/performance hall/public lecture as often as possible. I’m still hatching plans for co-taught classes in early American literature, image and text studies, Faulkner, and a raft of other possibilities, but have found that I have to essentially reinvent the wheel each time I do this. I’m inspired—not this year, or before the tenure process is completed, to be sure—to think about what a structural response to transdisciplinary, co-taught work might look like at Dickinson beyond simply cross-listing courses. How do you privilege, and incentivize, curricular innovation in structural ways without placing undue strain on the conventional disciplines (whose structures I admire, and whose boundaries can act as viable generative devices for students’ learning… something often lost in the millennial fervor around the digital humanities and interdisciplinarity)? Is this possible in a time of limited resources, and what do we trade in order to let such models flourish? Who’s with me?
Corollary: Stanley Fish and Kathleen Fitzpatrick on the changes wrought to the profession by the digital humanities. Responses here (all of Pannapacker’s missives from the conference are must reads) and here and elsewhere, coming to the interwebs near you.
In between long meditations on the literary history of failure in America I’ve managed to squeeze in some thinking about graphic narratives during the first months of the sabbatical. I was asked to write a biographical essay on Chris Ware for The Literary Encyclopedia, a relatively recent online venture that seems incredibly promising as a resource for students. My essay went up today, and you can link to it here: http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=12910 (an institutional subscription might be necessary).
All of this after a remarkable evening at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where I had the chance to see Ware, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, and comics historian John Carlin discuss their approaches to the craft of comics. Dickinson had invited Spiegelman to visit campus as our Morgan Lecturer last year, but it was my first time hearing either Ware or Panter in person. The occasion was the exhibition of German-American comics and fine artist Lyonel Feininger, author of the important early comics “Wee Willie Winkie’s World” and “Kin-Der-Kids” and a seminal figure of the Bauhaus school. I’d first encountered Feininger’s work in Carlin’s wonderful Masters of American Comics volume, and was immediately struck by his work as an important link between the history of comics and the history of modernism. Feininger was exhibited at the 1913 Armory show that served as one of the fulcrums of American modernism, and it has dawned on me that the history of these links–between comics and artistic modernism as well as comics and American literary modernism–has yet to be written. Perhaps this is a project for the not-too-distant future.
I’d hoped to ask a question in this vein in person, but the room was packed with folks, many of whom were aspiring comics artists themselves (and the questions quickly drifted in their direction). As a whole, the conversation seemed awkwardly poised between a discussion of CW’s AS’s and GP’s accounts of their own craft and a discussion of Feininger (a reasonably full audio of the event is here). Given that I’ve read so many of Ware’s more general interviews as part of my research for the book, I’d really hoped for a sense of his thoughts of Feininger’s work, but it wasn’t to be. I was struck by how much ambivance, even animosity there was toward art school (Spiegelman never attended, Ware came close to getting his degree at the Art Institute of Chicago but balked at giving a final oral presentation); do creative writers share the same ambivalence about the MFA? Perhaps my favorite moment from the conversation was when Carlin cued up an animation that Ware had done with John Kuramoto from
the “Building Stories” novel-in-progress what I take now to be a stand-alone project (but with almost direct parallels to the couple on the second floor of “Building Stories”) for what seems to have originally been an abortive project with Wired Magazine (you can watch their earlier collaborations here and here). It was exciting to see new material from “Building Stories,” the first incarnation of what became “Touch Sensitive” and while it doesn’t look like this animation will be coming to an iPad anytime soon it’s now available exclusively on iPad via McSweeney’s app (the perils of prognostication). It was fun and exciting to watch Ware playing with the boundaries of his comics in a new medium. Extra bonuses: I managed to awkwardly introduce myself before the talk and the Whitney had a nice, healthy stack of The Comics of Chris Ware at the gift store register. I couldn’t resist snapping a quick photo:
also, additional extra bonus, a reproduction of the stylin’ Americana wallpaper in the original Whitney exhibitions of the 30s: