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Friday, December 05, 2003


Here's a conflict that we talked about Thursday night; which side do you think DeLillo and/or Morrison would take? Or: does Mao II have anything to say about authorship related to the issues raised in this debate?
NEW YORK, Nov. 20 — Weakened by pneumonia, still limping from a 1999 road accident, Stephen King received a long, standing ovation as he approached the stage to accept an honorary National Book Award.

But not everyone cheered his acceptance speech Wednesday night, including Shirley Hazzard, whose novel The Great Fire, a sophisticated romantic novel set just after World War II, took the coveted fiction prize.

The 56-year-old King, whose many best sellers include Carrie and The Shining, acknowledged that some thought him unworthy of a prize previously won by Philip Roth and Arthur Miller among others. He called for publishing people to spend more time reading writers like himself.

Hazzard, who writes in longhand on yellow legal pads and took more than a decade to complete her winning novel, rejected the notion.

“I don’t think giving us a reading list of those who are most read at this moment is much of a satisfaction,” said Hazzard.
To read the rest of this story, click here. For some analysis of the Hazzard vs. King affair, click here for an article that includes a response from one of the more famous literature professors (a man who's also been aptly labeled a "library comorant"), Harold Bloom: "Yale professor and critic Harold Bloom had this to say about the committee members who singled out King for recognition: 'That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any esthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.'"

Thursday, December 04, 2003


So I went to a bookstore, wondering which novels it carried by Don DeLillo. I went to the "literature" section and much to my surprise, none of his novels were there! So I asked a clerk why not, and she directed me to the "European American Literature" section. And there his work was, segregated together with works by lots of other white folks. Then I went to another bookstore, and encountered the same thing--all the white writers' works were over in the "White Literature and Culture" section. So now I know which bookstore section to go to when I'm looking for work by my favorite white writers.

Sound strange? Well, I guess it is strange. It also never happened. But, much the same thing probably would happen if I went looking for a novel by the great African American writer, Toni Morrison. Or another one, James Baldwin.

In fact, it did happen to the writer of this recent article:
Searching for James Baldwin: Great Black Authors Segregated from "Literature" Shelves onto "African American" Shelves

by Byron Williams

Last week, in an attempt to get a jump on my holiday shopping, I found myself in one of those large, impersonal, mega book/music/café establishments looking in the literary section for a hardcover version of James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain. Besides the fact that I allowed convenience to overrule my commitment to support small, privately owned bookstores as opposed to the prefabricated industrial size, what I discovered left me in disbelief.

Strolling through the literary section, I could not find any work by Baldwin. How could this be? How could any reputable bookstore stock their shelves without the works of James Baldwin? Ernest Hemingway was there, T.S. Eliot was there, William Faulkner was there, and Mark Twain was there, but no James Baldwin.

Hoping that they had merely sold out, I was compelled to ask someone why was there no James Baldwin available. Ironically, James Baldwin was available, but his work, along with other African American authors, was found in the much-condensed section earmarked specifically for black writers; a menagerie ranging from literary fiction on one end to anthropological research on the other. The collection was bound only by the authors' hue.
(To read the rest of this short article, click here. )

Why the contrast? Why are African American writers segregated, while European American writers are not?

Wednesday, December 03, 2003


Any thoughts or questions about this novel? Can anyone tell us anything about Andy Warhol, whose work inspired at least the novel's title? Or about reclusive American novelists, who may have inspired the character of Bill Gray?

After reading Bill and Brita's musings on photos of authors, you might want to check our own gallery.

Monday, November 17, 2003


I hope that the conversation on Beloved will continue here, but in the meantime, if you're interested in further speculation regarding the death of JFK, set your VCR--both of these programs will air during our class on Thursday night (as the TV voices say, check local listings for correct times):

1) On November 20 (9PM, PBS), FRONTLINE marks the 40th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination with an encore broadcast of "Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?"--an investigative biography of the man at the center of the political crime of the 20th century. The three-hour documentary special traces Oswald's life from his boyhood to that fateful day in Dallas on November 22, 1963, posing a number of questions: Was Oswald the emotionally disturbed "lone gunman?" Was he one of two gunmen that day in Dallas? Or was he an unwitting scapegoat for the real assassins?

2) Forty years after he was fatally shot, more than 80 percent of Americans still believe there was a conspiracy to kill the president and that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, did not act alone. After a thorough investigation, including more than 70 interviews, ABCNEWS has produced a two-hour special that separates facts from conspiracy theories and gets to the truth. The special will air on Thursday, Nov. 20 at 9 p.m. ET, two days before the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.

Interesting language . . . "fateful day"? "gets to the truth"?!

BTW, would anyone who's seen Oliver Stone's take on it all mind telling us how that film differed from Libra?

(Thanks to Jen Fuhler for getting this info to us.)

Friday, November 14, 2003


When Don DeLillo read from the main stage at Hay-on-Wye in May there was a Sunday afternoon audience of around 2,000 and a genuine sense of anticipation. It felt like it felt in the 60s, going to see Bob Dylan. He began reading from his latest novel, Cosmopolis . . .
That's from "After the Flood," a lengthy, unsigned article in tomorrow's edition of The Guardian, a leading British newspaper. The article's writer attempts to assess the depth and breadth of late-twentieth-century American fiction, largely by saying (among some other points) that recent great American writers have mostly fallen into the habit of writing big, overstuffed, encyclopedic doorstops. Of interest to us: (1) how much space the writer spends on DeLillo, implying that he's thee great American writer now; and (2) how little space he gives to Morrison--that is, none. Not a word.

It becomes clear after awhile that the writer doesn't especially like some of DeLillo's writing (including what he read on stage that day), but it's entirely unclear what this writer thinks of this country's most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Except, it seems, that she's just not in the same league as DeLillo.

Any reactions to this disparity, or to the article itself? I do recommend reading it--the writer offers a useful overview of some trends in (some) American writing.

Oh, and there is another article in the same day's Guardian on American literature. It's a review of a new novel, Love, and it begins this way: "Writing about the African-American experience brought Toni Morrison world-wide recognition and a Nobel prize for literature - the first black woman to win it."

Perhaps no case that came under my notice, while engaged in aiding fugitive slaves, attracted more attention and aroused deeper interest and sympathy than the case of Margaret Garner, the slave mother who killed her child rather than see it taken back to slavery. This happened in the latter part of January, 1856. The Ohio River was frozen over at the time, and the opportunity thus offered for escaping to a free State was embraced by a number of slaves living in Kentucky, several miles back from the river. . . .

The slave men were armed and fought bravely. The window was first battered down with a stick of wood, and one of the deputy marshals attempted to enter, but a pistol shot from within made a flesh wound on his arm and caused him to abandon the attempt. The pursuers then battered down the door with some timber and rushed in. The husband of Margaret fired several shots, and wounded one of the officers, but was soon overpowered and dragged out of the house. At this moment, Margaret Garner, seeing that their hopes of freedom were in vain, seized a butcher knife that lay on the table, and with one stroke cut the throat of her little daughter, whom she probably loved the best. She then attempted to take the life of the other children and to kill herself, but she was overpowered and hampered before she could complete her desperate work.

Source: Levi Coffin, Reminiscences (Cincinnati, 1876) (to read more, click here or here)

Wednesday, November 12, 2003


Any questions or comments during your reading of this novel?

Tuesday, November 11, 2003


Remember the synthetic drug in White Noise that supposedly suppresses the fear of death? It seems that DeLillo may have been prophetic about this possibility as well:
NEW ORLEANS - Scientists say a pill may help people overcome their worst phobias. In a small study released Monday, a drug already on the market for tuberculosis helped people who were terrified of heights get over that fear with only two therapy sessions instead of the usual seven or eight.

The study, led by Michael Davis, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine, was described at a session about unlearning fears at the Society for Neuroscience meeting.

Davis based his work on research that had found the transmission of a certain protein to a brain receptor [is] critical to overcoming fear. He found that the TB drug, D-cycloserine, aids the transmission of the crucial protein. . .

read more

Thursday, November 06, 2003


We noticed that many of the minor (and very minor)characters in Libra are black (or "negro," as people in the book's historical setting put it). Consider Morrison's description in Playing in the Dark of "Africanist" characters depicted by white American authors--a set of common usages to which such authors have repeatedly put black characters.

Does DeLillo use his black characters in any of the objectionable ways spelled out by Morrison?

You are also, of course, welcome to discuss any other aspects of the book, perhaps springing from (or filling in the gaps of) our Thursday night conversation.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003


This Saturday, November 8: a smoke-free benefit concert for Peepshow, the new Art/Lit magazine created by grad student (and your classmate) Brianne Bolin. A host of local talent will be performing all day and night, including Marty and Bob from the Rural Kings, Ryan Groff, Scott Lutz, Levi Wollen-Danner, Jenny Keefe, and many more.

That's Saturday, November 8, 4 p.m. till . . . .

$5 admission (you also get a raffle ticket)

6200 N Co Rd 1550E 5

Sounds complicated, but it's just south on University, Past 4rth, past the Subdivision, 1st real house on the right


Saturday, November 01, 2003


Having made it part of the way through Libra, what are your impressions so far?

Do you have any questions or comments, either about the book or our discussion on Thursday?

Friday, October 31, 2003


Last night we laid out some useful concepts, and the terms for them, that clearly merit further explanation. I recommend buying and using (and maybe even reading cover to cover) a guide to such concepts. My favorite so far is Jeremy Hawthorn's A Concise Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory (3rd Edition, 1998). Michael Payne is the editor of another useful volume, A Dictionary of Cultural and Critical Theory, and Thomas McLaughlin and Frank Lentricchia's Critical Terms for Literary Study provides fuller explanation of particularly key concepts.

Regarding "interpellation," here's some of Hawthorn's explanation:

According to the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, all ideology "hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject" [a quote from 1971]. Althusser is making use of a technical term ["hail"] used to describe what happens when the order of the day in a governmental chamber is interrupted so as to allow a Minister to be questioned. The implication is that, like the Minister, individuals are interrupted and called to account--but in this case, by different ideologies. As ideology calls them--so the argument goes--so they recognize who they are. In other words: individuals come to "live" a given set of ideological assumptions and beliefs, and to identify these with their own selves, by means of a process whereby they are persuaded that that which is presented to them actually represents their own inner identity or self. . . .
Do you see any interest in such a process on display in Libra?

Regarding "postmodern historiographic metafiction," a label we said applies well to Libra, we can start with the third term in that (incredibly awkward) label. Hawthorn describes metafiction this way:
Metafiction is, literally, fiction about fiction. [The term] is generally used to indicate fiction including any self-referential element [and] with reference to relatively recent postmodernist writing, but it can have wider applications to far older works in which elements of self-observation and self-commentary can be found. The "play within a play" in Hamlet, for example, inevitably introduces a metaficitional element into the work.
The term "postmodern historiographic metafiction" was first formulated by Linda Hutcheon in her 1989 book, The Politics of Postmodernism. Regarding the treatment of history in such novels, Hutcheon writes,
We only have access to the past today through its traces--its documents, the testimony of witnesses, and other archival materials. In other words, we only have representations of the past from which to construct our narratives or explanations. In a very real sense, postmodernism reveals a desire to understand present culture as the product of previous representations. The representation of history becomes the history of representation. . . . The postmodern situation is that a "truth is being told with 'facts' to back it up, but a teller constructs that truth and chooses those facts" (Foley 1986).
In what particular ways does Libra fit this category of fiction?

Oh, and what's a "heuristic," you ask? Well, don't look here; you could start with a dictionary.

UPDATE: A trusted friend also recommends this volume: The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, by Ross C. Murfin & Supryia M. Ray (2nd Edition, 2003).

Any other suggestions?

Wednesday, October 29, 2003


Obviously, one of Libra's many thematic concerns is history. L. H. Oswald, as DeLillo depicts him, continually seeks a place for himself in history (and thus, perhaps, a place outside of his own self--whatever THAT is). As we read the novel, we continually confront our own constructions of history, or perhaps of received history. And then, of lost history.

The novel raises questions about our collective past: How much do we remember about the historical context of this novel? How much have we forgotten? How much did we ever really know, considering what was kept from us, considering how so much of the "story" in "history" is just that, a story, a patched-together narrative of questionable believability?

The further away we get from Kennedy, Oswald, and Ruby's era, the less likely it is that DeLillo's readers can fill in the clues he offers to his novel's historical context; the familiar names, places, and events become ever less familiar, slipping away into the collective memory hole. And if we try to bring them back, how sure can we be that what we bring back is "true"?

Despite how hard DeLillo works to illustrate the ultimate unknowability of historical "fact," there are many historical elements in the novel's setting that remain, in their basic outlines, mostly undisputed. Knowing about these elements will further your understanding of the novel. These include, to list just a few:

The story of Gary Powers, whose flight in a U-2 spy plane over the USSR was halted, somehow, bringing him to the ground, and delaying peace efforts between the US and the USSR.

The Bay of Pigs incident, a failed American attempt to overthrow Castro's Communist Cuba (an event too convoluted to quickly summarize here; this site seems to have a fairly condensed, fairly agreed-upon version of events).

The Zapruder film, the few seconds of amateur footage that we've probably all seen of Kennedy being shot, his sudden widow reacting, Camelot invaded by chaos. (Does anyone know where to view this film online?)

David Ferrie was a real person, with all sorts of clandestine connections, and apparently just as scary as DeLillo makes him out to be.

And of course, "the novel James Joyce would have written if he'd moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred," the Warren Report, amassed by a seven-man commission, who concluded that Oswald did indeed kill Kennedy. I don't know if the version linked here is complete (it doesn't seem to contain photos, for instance), but it does contain details of the sort that bog down DeLillo's secret history writer, Nicholas Branch. (A section on Jack Ruby dutifully reports, "Ruby was extremely fond of dogs. Numerous persons stated that he was constantly accompanied by several of the dogs he owned. Testimony at Ruby's trial in March 1964 indicated that he referred to his dogs as his 'children.' He also became extremely incensed when he witnessed the maltreatment of any of his dogs.")

Can anyone briefly fill us in on other facts, or on other actual persons who appear in the novel?

Friday, October 24, 2003


Any questions, comments, notes of appreciation (or of deprecation) regarding the first half of this novel?
TM and DD in the NYer

If you have access to The New Yorker magazine, recent issues contain an article by DeLillo on cinema ("That Day in Rome: Movies and Memory," October 20th issue) and a feature on Toni Morrison ("Ghosts in the House: How Toni Morrison Fostered a Generation of Black Writers," October 27th issue). One or the other is available in bookstores and such now, and the Booth Library has copies as well (as does, I would guess, the Charleston public library).

The New Yorker has long been a central stage for contemporary American literature (and for, um, intelligent cartoons), and also for meticulously crafted writing on many other issues, especially film. Whether the magazine contains "the best" American writing has long been a matter for debate, but as an English major, you certainly should be familiar with this magazine and its contents. If you're not, finding these two articles would be a good way to find out what it's like.
We certainly didn't finish in class with Song of Solomon--much about the book went unaddressed, so here is a place to continue, eh?

What did we leave out? (questions or comments in the comment section would be good)

Could the book be said to be about "whiteness," as well as about "blackness"?

Why the title, Song of Solomon?

Is her portrait of the "Dead" family a critique of middle-class African Americans? or of dangers faced by them, or perhaps, tendencies embodied by them?

Is the book's conception of an African American past overly romanticized?

Can we guess her intended audience? Is that even a fair question?

1977 . . . does the book address any issues that were specific to the times in which it was published?

Is Magical Realism a fair label for this novel? Similarly, is there more to be said about any particular "incredible" elements or events of the novel?

The Days--what might Morrison have been saying with this group of killers?

Pilate dies . . . why?

Any more interpretations of Milkman's closing flight?

At the end of our discussion of Song of Solomon, we got into the issue, again, of authorship, or more specifically, comparative realities of racialized authorship. I mentioned the preface to a book by Gloria Anzaldua, Borderland/La Fronterra: The New Mestiza (1987). As she addresses the use of multiple, untranslated languages and dialects in her book, Anzaldua raises an issue faced by Morrison, but not, it seems, by DeLillo (I said in class that the metaphor she sets up is a bridge, but I guess that's not quite right):

The switching of "codes" in this book from English to Castillian Spanish to the North Mexican dialect to Tex-Mex to a sprinkling of Nahuatl to a mixture of all of these, reflects my language, a new language—the language of the Borderlands. There, at the juncture of cultures, languages cross-pollinate and are revitalized; they die and are born. Presently this infant language, this bastard language, Chicano Spanish, is not approved by any society. But we Chicanos no longer feel that we need to beg entrance, that we need always to make the first overture—to translate to Anglos, Mexicans and Latinos, apology blurting out of our mouths with every step. Today we ask to be met halfway. This book is our invitation to you—from the new mestizas.

What is the issue here? Does Morrison face it, or something like it, and if so how? Is it true that DeLillo doesn't have to struggle with this issue?

Friday, October 17, 2003


As with many novels, Morrison creates much of the meaning in Song of Solomon by weaving through it a network of suggestive motifs. In the "comment" section here, please list any repeated motifs you see in the novel, and, perhaps, some speculation on what they might mean.

A significant one that we did not discuss last night: flight. One on level, Morrison is clearly referencing a long history in African-based cultures of a yearning to "fly away." Some students at Kenyon College explain this well on their class website:

During the Atlantic Slave Trade and the horrific nightmare of the Middle Passage, some West Africans reacted to enslavement and transplantation by committing suicide, euphemistically known as "flying back to Africa." Accounts and folk tales of the flying Africans circulated widely throughout the South, generally in response to the brutality of white overseers toward their African slaves. In African American cemeteries throughout the South, burial decorations such as toy airplanes placed on graves help the spirit get to Heaven, or Africa, fast. However, the metaphor of "flying away" manifests itself in ways other than suicide and death. Also called "stealing away," it is the desire to escape to a better place.

I should add that during the days of slavery, there were tales of slaves freeing themselves by literally flying back to Africa. Of course, this novel contains other specific references to African and African American history and culture that a reader outside of those traditions would miss. Can anyone fill us in on any of them?

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