Signature Poe Sunday, Apr 5 2009 

If I were in the habit of handing out essay questions before the exam (which, alas, I am not), a good one for this part of the course might be, “Why is ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ a text that crystallizes all of Poe’s themes, techniques, and fictive preoccupations?”  I ask because every time I teach the story, it strikes me how it is absolutely trademark Poe:  the gothicism and all its trappings, the carefully calibrated design of the story to achieve symmetry, unity, and “effect”; the mind/body dichotomy; the vision of woman as ethereal beauty, the importance of setting, and even the potential allegorical dimensions of the story as a morality tale about the fall of the southern aristocracy are present.

This last topic we didn’t cover in the class, but there are several decades’s worth of scholarship on it, if you are curious.

Can you look at this text and interpret in


“The Lost Phoebe” Friday, Feb 27 2009 

When Dreiser first appeared on the American literary scene in 1900 with his novel, Sister Carrie, he was regarded much like Whitman was in 1855 — as a kind of uncouth literary barbarian who used coarse language and who wrote about people you wouldn’t want to meet.

That is, both writers were propagandists, in a way, for a robust American literature that embraced the common man. Both were also unashamed to write about sexual matters, about unfit marriages, about broken families, and the like — slice-of-life issues that were thought seamy and unsuitable for literature.

This story features a typical Dreiser protagonist — someone who is confused and inarticulate but has a good heart and a naive faith in the impossible.

What did you think of this story? Comments welcome

The language of death Wednesday, Feb 11 2009 

Euphemisms — polite expressions for not-so-polite things– have always fascinated me. An element of The Things They Carried  that isn’t discussed so much is how the characters find ways of softening the harshness of their experience through euphemistic language.

I like this passage on page 20:  “They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness.  Greased they’d say. Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. . . . When someone died, it wasn’t quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their lines mostly memorized.”


Hawthorne and the Human Heart Saturday, Feb 7 2009 

“Never say you know the last thing about any human heart.” William Boyd, one of my favorite contemporary British novelists, took the last three words of this quote by Henry James for the title of one of his recent works.

I always think of that line when I read the story of the Rev. Mr. Hooper. Hawthorne had an almost prurient interest in the hidden recesses of the human heart, because he knew, as Hooper does, that no one can ever truly “know” another person. You can only know the public face — or facade– that a person shows the world.

Dickinson’s View of Life Wednesday, Feb 4 2009 

A terrible title, I know, but appropriate when considering a poem like “My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun.”

Like so many prose writers, Dickinson here considers the idea of the unlived life (a great theme in Henry James’s work). Imagine your world as entirely dependent on someone or something else. Imagine such a lack of self-governance and self-control that you could do nothing on your own. We take pride in charting our own destinies. Consider that when you read this poem.

“Shiloh” Sunday, Feb 1 2009 

Mason tends to write, like Carver, of working-class people, ordinary Americans with relatively mundane, commonplace problems. Here the problem is a marriage in which two people have changed their minds about each other and about what they want to do with their lives. It’s hardly an uncommon occurrence. What is masterful about the story is the way Mason gives a voice to types of people like LeRoy and Norma Jean who have trouble expressing themselves. Again, they talk like and interact much like Carver’s narrator and his wife.

Frost’s “Design” Thursday, Jan 29 2009 

A couple of years ago all the talk in the scientific community was about “intelligent design,” and I suppose this issue is still au courant. It goes to the concept, as well, of a scientific basis for the belief in a Creator. This poem raises the issue succinctly. But if Frost believes that there is a design and a Designer, then what has been the result?

Frost’s poetry Wednesday, Jan 28 2009 

Frosts’s poems, most all of them — but especially “Birches” and “Mending Wall” — are fundamentally about human relationships.

In both these poems the relationships are broken ones, and Frost images the breaks in a clever way: stones that won’t stay in place in manmade walls and flexible soft wood branches that bend and sway but don’t always snap in two. It’s interesting that Frost is a “nature poet,” or is thought to be, but nature exists in the poems only to be a way of visualizing human communities.

Fathers and sons figure into both poems, as well. In “Birches,” the conflict between the grownup son and his father in the past; and in “Mending Wall,” the notion advanced by the speaker that his neighbor is the way he is because of “his father’s saying.”

Cather’s “Paul’s Case” Thursday, Jan 22 2009 

My elder son is ten years old and on the cusp of adolescence. (I came to parenthood a bit late chronologically.) I dread it, because I know that that’s where the misunderstandings often begin.

Willa Cather’s character Paul is slightly further along in age, but that’s all the more sad, since it would seem no one got to him early enough to try and ward off the loss of his connections to his family and his community. Or at least try to understand them. We all have things about our upbringings that we probably don’t like, but we have learned to adapt and accommodate and move on. 

Paul does not seem to have been given this opportunity. Cather seems sympathetic towards him and his plight. Are you? Do you think it’s Paul’s fault that he’s ended up in this state, or is he somehow or other a victim of a world that doesn’t try to understand him. Think about the other characters in the story and how they respond to Paul.

Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” Tuesday, Jan 20 2009 

In this story at least, Hawthorne wins the award for most transparent allegorist.  

I think the point is not to construct an elaborate schema which must be decoded by the reader (as, for example, Poe does in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which was published around the same time as “Young Goodman Brown), but simply to provide a framework for understanding the central theme of the story, which is how faith can be corroded so easily and even a “good man” can struggle with doubt. 

In other words, it’s the meat that’s important, not the bones. Hawthorne doesn’t seem to want to bother with the bones in this tale. (Not so in others.)

Another main idea seems to be that the journey, not the arrival matters. Brown’s journey is the same one we all take on our trek through life. It doesn’t matter why we go or where we go; the point is simply to make the journey.

What do you think?