Critiquing Criticism – Week 2 -Part 1 (?)

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On Monday, our 19th century American Lit course met to discuss two critical articles that focused on the book American Renaissance by F. O. Matthiessen and tied those articles to the core text for the week, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (original 1855 edition). Because most of you are likely uninterested in the specific details and critical strategies of the academic articles, the book they discuss, or the classic text involved with all three, I’ll save you from as much extemporaneous material as I can. Thanks for reading though. I’ll place all the texts at the bottom if you’re genuinely looking to brush up on your literary criticism. In short, Matthiessen spent well over a decade putting together this critical text that centered on the five authors (Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman) whom he deemed had single-handedly created a unique, unprecedented American voice in the mid-nineteenth century.

Students in my past have often asked (in their own way) how the excerpts that they’ve been assigned to read in textbooks or anthologies were selected and have continued to appear, generations after their publications. In their words, it’s something like “Why can’t we read authors who are alive and stuff?” Many times, I’ve chatted with parents who want to 1) tell me what they read in high school, 2) ask if their son or daughter will be assigned the same books as they themselves were assigned a generation earlier, 3) regenerate a love (or lack of) for a canonical text (e.g. “Are you gonna make them read The Scarlet Letter? I HATED that book!”), or 4) all of these.

Here’s where it gets a little interesting: Matthiessen was clearly an intellectual man whose passion for not only identifying and categorizing these works, but also for demystifying them and creating the groundwork for the first truly American canon of literature. He was also a vocal advocate for academic freedom at a prestigious university. Because he challenged so many traditions and norms, he earned a widespread following of cheerers and jeerers. [Jeerers, evidently, is not a known word to my computer; however, this is just a blog, so I’m moving forward.] When his book was finally released (he’d had to “check himself in” at one point because the project had become so overwhelming and he was also afraid his lover was on the brink of death [more on that in a sec]), he was met with a less than resounding response from his colleagues in literary circles.

So, Matthiessen was a homosexual man. It feels so strange to write that [because, so what?…right?], but it ends up being pertinent to this brief essay. For decades now, American Renaissance–by far his most notable publication–has become the subject of a vast amount of interpretations. I have not read it, but that’s secondary. Anyway, his own reservations about how much of these authors’ personal lives and lifestyles should play into his criticisms was apparently always at the forefront of his mind. What’s even crazier–crazier is a word but it’s not very academic…meh–is that some of Matthiessen’s critics thought he offers a less authentic book because he essentially omitted the authors’ sexuality, even though he himself was writing a genesis of what’s become “gay criticism.”

This leads to the question that found its way in the center of our class discussion this week: When writing a critical article over a piece of literature (or really any art), does the critic have an obligation to insert anything beyond the art, or should the artist (and his/her life, history, sexuality, politics, etc.) be discussed as well? Matthiessen’s book also prompted some to suggest that the critic’s own life, history, sexuality, politics, etc. should be in play as well.

I suppose a less intense way to discuss this debate is to think about why you like the art you like. Why, for instance, does a Picasso piece appeal or disgust you? Why are you drawn to Game of Thrones? Why do you still have your favorite songs from when you were fourteen in a saved playlist? If you told me the answer to any of these, would you be comfortable with me bringing in your past relationships, your issues with your parent(s), your sexuality, or your voting history as my interpretation of why you still love Asking Alexandra?

I don’t have answers. But I find this discussion intriguing. The era of criticism most of us have been conditioned to follow/use has been what’s known as New Criticism–interpreting/judging the art for itself and dismissing all other aspects. However, is it possible to truly analyze art without consciously or subconsciously harboring in our own lives and perspectives?

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Fall 2019 – Week 1

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I began two courses this week at Ball State. One is a literature course concerning 19th century American literature, and the other is a methods course on literary research. Both classes include students in master’s programs and Ph. D. programs. So far, I feel very comfortable with the reading and writing assignments on each syllabus. Among the major titles I’ll be reading (and in some cases re-reading) are the following:

  • Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass
  • Henry David Thoreau – Walden
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Nature”
  • Louisa May Alcott – Work
  • Frederick Douglass – My Bondage and My Freedom
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne – The Blithedale Romance
  • Herman Melville – Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life
  • Harriet E. Wilson – Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black
  • Viet Than Nguyen – The Sympathizer
  • Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

This past week was also “Non-instruction week” at Ivy Tech. Full-time faculty must be on campus all five days and serve a minimum of 40 hours. Those hours are logged in paper form and submitted to the program chairs and deans. Each day this week, I attended a meeting of some kind. Some of those meetings were beneficial while some bordered on meeting a requirement.

I begin my twenty-first year as an educator on Monday with my first set of students for the fall semester. I will be teaching one class each day for the first eight weeks of this term, but I will not be in the classroom on Mondays during the second eight weeks. I’m teaching a co-requisite class this semester that is in line with the trajectory that Ivy Tech is headed: Eight-week courses.

While this particular post is not directly about eight-week courses, I will likely blog about my general observations of them between now and December. Unlike a lot of my colleagues, I feel I am a little more willing to embrace this structure. I opted to volunteer to teach one to at least see how it compares to the 16-week model I’ve been teaching for eight years (as an adjunct and FT professor) and be able to share informed takeaways from my experiences. It may work better than imagined, and it may be disastrous. For me, I prefer to at least try it with an open mind (hopefully in the spring 2020 semester as well) before shaping my official stance.