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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Richard Rodriguez and Autobiography


Notes on Richard Rodriguez and Autobiography

 

Rodriguez, Richard. Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.  New York: Viking, 2013.

 

 

As a writerly act of defiance and discovery, Rodriguez published Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez in 1982.  In the contexts of stereotyped machismo and socially imagined American desire, the book was a triumph of ethnic spirit.  It exploited the seductiveness of American literary history.  The main title was a slantwise echo of Richard Wright’s American Hunger; his subtitle, an appropriation of The Education of Henry Adams. It reiterated the indeterminate properties of autobiography as a genre as well as the articulation of ethnicity. One could read the book as a post-modern signifying on Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, if one deemed both autobiographies to be success stories. An uncommon reader might contrast Hunger of Memory with Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings (1984) to ponder gender, ethnic and class differences in American writing.  One imagines Rodriguez took a tip from Wright in meditating on alienation, especially in distancing himself from the assumptions of Mexican American Catholic decorum and from parents who were “always mindful of the line separating public from private life.”  Rodriguez wanted a consumed cake to remain intact.

 

There was daring in his belief that he could “scorn those who attempt to create an experience of intimacy in public” while he willed himself “to think there is a place for the deeply personal in public life.” Such ambivalence comes with a price tag. It puts its thumb on the psychological sundering associated with fictions of double or triple consciousness. Like a brutal collection agency, it demands a reckoning from the autobiographer ----“Pay up or else….”

 

Thirty-one years after his noteworthy success with Hunger, Rodriguez pays up with accumulated interest in Darling. He commits unclad intimacy in public. His scorn boomerangs, knocking him into a pool with Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Not having read Brown and Days of Obligation, the books he wrote after his secular autobiography, I only guess that Rodriguez experienced a crisis of Catholicism. Darling suggests that he found himself standing on sand, attempting to learn desert religion and getting no response from Allah, Yahweh, and God. The Semitic trinity mocks him by abandoning him. Such justice is the reward for those who are not acquainted with Egyptian monotheism or the “Great Hymn to the One God Aten.”

 

 Unfortunately, Rodriguez’s concept of the spiritual is too manipulative and commercial, too camp and crass, and too theatrical to inspire conversion and enlightenment. In that sense, Darling is a brilliant exposition of how, with the singular exception of James Baldwin, Americans understand little about spirit and soul.

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

April 23, 2014

Monday, April 21, 2014

Why Teach?


Inaugural Symposium: Why the Liberal Arts?                                                       Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Randolph College

April 25, 2014

 

 

 

WHY TEACH?  WHY ADVISE? : HISTORY AND THINKING

 

I deeply appreciate the honor of being invited by President Bradley Bateman and the Randolph College family to share a few ideas about the liberal arts, teaching and advising. The ideas are inflected by companion ideas regarding creativity and service, the subject matter of a slightly different discourse. Thus, I focus on what I have been invited to address.

 

In the antiquity of Greek imagination, liberal arts (artes liberals) were essential for citizenship. A citizen was obligated to master rhetoric, the art of persuasion and public speaking; to have skill in forensic science or the art of defense in court and in making juridical decisions; to render service military and otherwise. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium) were valued. These were amplified in medieval Europe to include the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy/astrology). In later iterations, logic was subordinated to accommodate history and moral philosophy (ethics), and studia humanitatis ascended, becoming the foundation for what in contemporary thought is a liberal arts education.

In 2014, as if we are existentially obligated to replay the debates “between the upholders of antiquity and those of modernity in the seventeenth century” (Jones vii) regarding the rise of the scientific movement, we concern ourselves with STEM versus the humanities.  We hear the humorous noise of Jonathan Swift’s “A Full and True Account of the Battel Fought Last Friday, between the Antient and the Modern Books in St. James’s Library,” echoes of C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, and the dirges in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Animal Farm.  Shall citizens who ought to be agents of history in a republic where critical thinking is valued become drones of a State where the supreme values are those of capital and relentless information technologies?  The possibility of such accomplished future shock makes the interrelated questions ---Why Teach? Why Advise? ---crucial for how we choose now to deal with destiny and retain some control of our lives.

Permit me to quote famous words:

“In this rapidly changing world, there is no better preparation than learning and to work with other people to solve problems.  It is also true that the world of work becomes more international and more complex every day.  A liberal education prepares you very well to see the world from multiple perspectives.  In this sense, liberal education is the ultimate ‘career preparation’.”

“I see Randolph as a leader in the national debate about the importance of liberal education in the 21st century.”

[Randolph-Macon Woman’s College Alumnae and Randolph College Alumni Bulletin 4.2 (2013): 22, 24]

In short, President Bateman was saying the liberal arts can reduce chaos to order.

My brief remarks are explanatory footnotes for Bateman’s ideas. In the bloodless warfare entanglement requires, teaching and advising are practices watered with morality, concepts of justice, and imagination; they are actions that bespeak citizenship and membership in global societies. For over forty years, the art and joy of teaching and the ethical onus of advising have my life. The imperatives of David Walker’s 1829 Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World and the grains of wisdom I have obtained from Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince, DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions have influenced my sometimes tense, often rich, and always rewarding   engagements with students and colleagues. My discipline is English, the study of language and literature with special interest in literary theory and criticism and African American literature. From David Walker I learned how the so-called wretched of the earth were obligated to destroy the material and psychological restraints on their freedom imposed by those who violated their minds and bodies. Plato taught me the difference between a statesman and a politician and the diverse outcomes of morality in social space. From Machiavelli I learned the value of being skeptical.  DuBois instructed me how best to use the strength and resilience of my soul so as not to be crushed by the uncertainties of secular power and the unfolding of histories. From Kuhn I learned the importance of empirical evidence, patience, and exactness in changing from one paradigm of cognition to another. I delighted in teaching and transmitting what I absorbed; life drove me to see my work as a vocation not a job. My vocation would have been incomplete had I not helped my students to identify their options for action and to retreat so they would freely assume responsibility of their choices.

Teachers of my generation who taught at Randolph were most likely as invested as I was in a pedagogy which maximized the importance of making connections between our chosen disciplines and those we chose not to pursue. I was transgressive and subversive with a purpose, determined that my students would at once master specific content and be conversant with what was emphasized in other areas of study and acquisition of knowledge. Walls between disciplines in the humanities, pure and applied sciences, and the human or social sciences are maintained for discursive convenience.  Those who live fully, who embrace a liberal arts education, boldly walk through them to go where they have never been.  I share President Bateman’s belief that a liberal education prepares us for multiple careers and meaningful lives.

WORK CITED:  Jones, Richard Foster. Ancients and Moderns: A Study of the Rise of the Scientific Movement in Seventeenth Century England. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

 

 

 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Theorems, Theories, and Limits


Theorems, Theories, and Limits

From time to time, a French thinker writes a work that has everyday use for Americans.  Voltaire’s Candide, Rousseau’s The Social Contract, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and Camus’ The Stranger come to mind. Add to that list Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Distracting rhetoric from Democrats and Republicans about the widening gap between poverty and wealth in our country makes listening to what Paul Krugman calls a “sweeping meditation on inequality” a rather sobering exercise.

Piketty goes beyond the American boundaries of Robert B. Reich’s The Work of Nations, which alludes to Adam Smith’s class The Wealth of Nations. He provokes liberal signifying on Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. None of this is surprising.  What does take us aback is the equation of Piketty with a “rock star,” in certain sectors of mass media, as if his serious inquiry about inequality is as disposable as transnational noise.  It is not.

Piketty deserves to be critiqued seriously for what he exposes about economics as a “contingent” science and about the limits of explanation. Lacking the finite certitude of pure mathematics, economics is culture-bound, determined by human choices and the amoral activities of Nature, activities oblivious to the needs and desires of people, lesser animals, and other life forms. Oddly, the efforts to trivialize the real value of Piketty’s work only highlight why his theorems and reasoning are not “universal.”

Based on statistical analysis of megadata from France, the United States, and Britain, Capital neither address nor provides a model for addressing “universal” issues in the global tragicomedy of capital. It is a Western tool that smashes complacent thought about inequality in the United States; the tool simply breaks when it strikes the economic walls of Asia and Africa. Alternative tools are needed.

Take Nigeria as a target for analysis of inequality in the context of rampant neo-colonialism. Understanding of Nigerian inequality (and perhaps that of other countries impacted by Islamic fervor) requires such an instrument as Adetoro Rasheed Adenrele’s “Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria as a symptom of poverty and political alienation,” Journal of Humanities and Social Science 3.5 (2012): 21-26.

Adenrele’s article lacks the Western elegance and rigor of Piketty’s book, but it has the indigenous eloquence and specificity necessary for dealing with inequality in such contemporary African societies as Mali, Egypt, Senegal, and Libya.  What it models can possibly be expanded and adapted by Asian economists to deal with the Asian giants China and India.  Adenrele’s use of fundamentalist theory, poverty theory, and corruption theory is not sufficiently cold, but it inches toward solid explanation of capital and human collapse. However divergent the work of Adenrele and Piketty might be, the primal lesson to be learned from both thinkers is the inevitable recognition of the limits of critical reasoning, the restriction of cognitive capacity explored in David Faust’s The Limits of Scientific Reasoning. Both thinkers raise crucial, non-universal questions about inequality and apocalyptic journeys in history.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

April 20, 2014

Friday, April 18, 2014

Ramcat Reads #2


Ramcat Reads #2

 

 

Ake, David. Jazz Matters: Sound, Place, and Time Since Bebop. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. Ake makes a useful contribution to cultural studies  by showing “how the actions, interactions, and interests of a wide range of participants ---musicians, naturally, but also journalists, scholars, listeners, teachers, record company executives, politicians, recording engineers, and others ---result in an ongoing process of reclaiming and reshaping the practices and values of the art form call jazz”(2). Ake’s discussion of the history of post-World War II jazz within a larger history of humanity provides evidence that efforts to divorce art from its social functions are wrongheaded.

 

Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. New York: New York University Press, 2011.  Bernstein makes a noteworthy contribution to the “invisible history” of American racial ideologies by using literary and visual analyses to document the extreme efforts to exclude African American and other non-white children from the orbit of “childhood innocence” during the long journey from slavery to the triumph of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century.  The book is a model of how archival research can be used to expose dimensions of racial formation that are too often overshadowed by preoccupation with the hegemony of the vocal in considerations of social discord in the United States.  Another seminal text for examining racial formations is Kimberly Wallace-Sanders’s Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008). Both books pose crucial questions about deep structures in the evolving of social imaginations in America.

 

Duffy, Susan.  The Political Plays of Langston Hughes.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.  Duffy’s contextualized analyses of Scottsboro Limited, Harvest, Angelo Herndon Jones, and De Organizer cast a fresh light on Hughes’s socially responsible creativity.

 

Ferris, William. The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013.  This companion volume to his folkloric study Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009), The Storied South is an engaging compilation of his photographs of Southern writers, painters, scholars, photographers, and musicians along with transcripts of their speeches or brief conversations with Ferris.  As we look forward to celebrating the 2015 Margaret Walker Centennial, it is useful to have in this book a conversation “drawn from a presentation Walker gave at Yale University in 1978 and an interview [ Ferris ] did at her home in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1982”(94). A slightly different version of the conversation was published as “Margaret Walker Alexander: ‘My Idol Was Langston Hughes’: The Poet, the Renaissance, and Their Enduring Influence.” Southern Cultures (Summer 2010): 53-71.

 

Harper, Hill. Letters to an Incarcerated Brother. New York: Gotham Books, 2013. The powerful theme of brotherly obligation that is central in A Lesson Before Dying (1993) by Ernest J. Gaines moves from mimetic representation to the actual use of literacy in Harper’s riveting, unapologically masculine chronicle of letters between a young inmate and himself.  The book poses very tough questions about intervening in the life of an incarcerated stranger and confirms that intervention, however well-intentioned, is not the equivalent of “saving” anyone from the implacable viciousness of the American criminal justice system.

 

 

Hersch, Charles.  Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.  Hersch’s good scholarship would have been even better if   Freddi Williams Evans’s masterpiece Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2011) had been available when he was doing his research.

 

Hord, Fred Lee. Reconstructing Memory: Black Literary Criticism.  Chicago: Third World Press, 1991.As a Lenten exercise, it is valuable to abstain from the excesses of post-whatever criticism and to minimize cultural amnesia by reading Hord’s grounded and penetrating essays that attempt to de-colonize the mind.  Houston A. Baker, Jr. hits the target dead center in his foreword for Hord’s essays when he asserts: “Hord’s pedagogical model could not have arrived at a more auspicious moment.  In an era of transnational, multi-media colonization of the Other’s mind, we desperately require voices such as Hord’s.  His book comes to us now as a timely and necessary gift in a dangerous hour of forgetting (ii).”

 

 

 

Kiuchi, Toru and Yoshinobu Hakutani. Richard Wright: A Documented Chronology, 1908-1960. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. By providing an elaborate record of Richard Wright’s daily activities, this reference book supplements the information one can gather from several Wright biographies and from The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008).  It is a fine resource for teachers and students who desire to be more than superficial in their examinations of Wright’s poetry, fiction and nonfiction. On the other hand, it provides a stimulating challenge for Wright scholars, Biographical studies and a large body of critical commentary have secured Richard Wright's status as a major twentieth-century American writer, but the documented chronology painstakingly compiled by Kiuchi and Hakutani challenges us to admit that much remains to be discovered about the growth and development of Wright's mind, about how his friendships and engagement of political concerns, and about the special relevance of his imagination as a catalyst for dealing with the unfolding of global histories.. For scholars who are dedicated to ongoing assessments of Wright, the book bids us to undertake refined investigations of his life and his published and unpublished works, seeking to match the sustained work that Eugene E. Miller did in Voice of a Native Son: The Poetics of Richard Wright (1990). In short, fresh inquiry about Wright's day to day life promises to reveal a richer portrait of the man and his works. Kiuchi and Hakutani succeed in exposing the methodological difficulties of discovering the narrative arc constituted by a chronological arrangement of facts. As is the case with all writers, the facts of daily life as temporal items demand to be located in spatial contexts and literary, aesthetic, and ideological contexts. The book is an essential resource for generating questions that may reward us with a more holistic vision of why Wright's legacy is priceless.

 

 

McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. New York: Riverhead Books, 2013.  Swimming with expertly tuned humor and supersubltle racial critiques, McBride’s novel is an invitation to read serious historical narratives about John Brown and radical abolitionist efforts. After savoring the wittiness of The Good Lord Bird, it is redeeming to discover that Frederick Douglass believed “John Brown was therefore the logical result of slaveholding persecutions” and verified in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892) what McBride transformed into the fictional eyewitnessing of Henry Shackleford. Levity is one pathway into remembering the gravity of what must not be forgot.

 

Meredith, James with William Doyle.  A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America.  New York: Atria Books, 2012.  With William Doyle serving as the help, Meredith has written an example of apocalyptic literature that rivals the strident jeremiahs of Old Testament prophets. One is reminded of the ancient proverb that those the gods would bless they first make mad. To better understand part of the life history that informs A Mission from God, read Aram Goudsouzian’s Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and The Meredith March Against Fear (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

 

 

Norris, Keenan.  Brother and the Dancer. Berkeley, CA: Heyday, 2013.  This first novel by a very talented scholar and writer introduces us to a fresh mindscape wherein two young African Americans who do not share the same class origins struggle to affirm the validity of their dreams.  It is reassuring as we think about a future for black fiction that Norris seamlessly connects some of the gritty features of street literature with an informed understanding of hip hop psychology and the aesthetic dimensions which have distinguished African American narratives of being-in-this-world. Like Olympia Vernon, Jeffrey Renard Allen, Dedra Johnson,  Attica Locke, James Cherry, and T. Geronimo Johnson, Norris provides proof that Kenneth Warren’s speculations about the death of African American fiction are prevarications of the first water.

 

Plumpp, Sterling D. Home/Bass. Chicago: Third World Press, 2013. Plumpp’s most recent collection of poems confirms that he is the best living blues poet in the United States, a master poet who continues to teach us why it is essential that we weld ethos (African American lore from the crying barrel) and craft in efforts to hear and understand what the sign/sounds of the world are trying to say to us..

 

Taulbert, Clifton L. The Invitation. Montgomery, AL; New South Books, 2014.  Best known for his first book Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored (1989), Taulbert continues his serial autobiography in The Invitation.  His story is dramatically atypical of the narratives we might expect  African American males from Mississippi to tell.  By challenging our expectations, Taulbert forces us to think about why some writers elect to spin tales regarding what ought to be while others decide to build spirit houses of what, to echo Etheridge Knight, “damn sure is.”

 

Vincent, Charles. Black Legislators in Louisiana During Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1976; Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011.  It is good to have Vincent’s book back in print, because we do need to know the roles black women and men played in designing the post-bellum South.

 

Ward, Jesmyn. Men We Reaped: A Memoir.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.  This book is brutally honest treatment of how systemic racism breeds a refusal to resist nihilism among young males and females in one section of the State of Mississippi.  Placed against the overblown optimism of Clifton Taulbert’s The Invitation (2014) and the James Meredith’s dreadful jeremiad in A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America (2012), Ward’s memoir suggests that life histories in the State of Mississippi swing between the poles of dream-infused fairytale and abject tragedy.  Given that Ward’s title is culled from a statement by Harriet Tubman that ends “and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped,” readers might become more attentive to how contemporary life is rooted in a history that repeatedly negates the value of the audacity of hope. Ward’s memoir brings a crucial difference to the writing of Mississippi life history and the writing about the deaths of young Black males, because it seems her sensibility is more at home in the superhighway of rap than on the dusty roads of the blues.  In Men We Reap one does not find the defiance of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, the womanist testimonials of Anne Moody’s classic Coming of Age in Mississippi and Endesha Ida Mae Holland’s From the Mississippi Delta, the sweetness and light of Clifton Taulbert’s Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, or the photograph-inspired quest for resolution in Natasha Trethewey’s Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Ward does incorporate some recognizable blues strategies in her writing, but they are a far cry from the negotiations with reality to be heard in the voice of Koko Taylor or in the blues poems of Sterling D. Plumpp. Ward is brave enough to endow her writing with the amorality of Nature itself, to give us a book that is exceptionally relevant for young adults in our contemporary State of Mississippi.

 

 

Wilderson, Frank B., III.  Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile & Apartheid. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2008.  Ngugi wa Thiong’o was on target in identifying Incognegro as “a gripping story of racial politics and a biography of his [Wilderson’s ] soul.” The book is a touchstone for deracinated autobiography.

 

Young, Kevin.  Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Young’s seventh collection of poetry is a noteworthy experiment with American abolitionist history and African American memory.  It reminds one of the opening words of Mississippi: The View from Tougaloo (1979) by Clarice Campbell and Oscar A. Rogers, Jr.: “In good biblical style one might say the Amistad begat the American Missionary Association, and the American Missionary Association begat Tougaloo College, and her five sister institutions: LeMoyne, Talladega, Straight, and Tillotson colleges and Fisk University.” It reminds one also that Hale Woodruff painted “The Amistad Murals” for Talladega’s Savery Library in 1939 and that the Amistad Research Center moved from Fisk University to Dillard University to Tulane University. Ardency places an accomplished revolt into the current need for resistance and positions us to ask what is accomplished in the revisionist historiography of  Marcus Rediker’s The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom (New York:  Viking, 2012). The literary aspects of Ardency intersect with the structure of Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama and the collage features of Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage.”  What works best in this collection are such individual persona poems as “Lawd’s Prayer,” an irony-drenched rewriting of Christian hypocrisy. Perhaps the key for unlocking Young’s poetics is The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness (Minneapolis: Greywolf, 2012), his reinvention of himself and other poets who interest him.

 

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.











Saturday, April 12, 2014

Henry Dumas


Henry Dumas: Visible Man/Invisible Art

 

Leak, Jeffrey B. Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.

 

He was brilliant.  He was troubled.  He was dead at the age of 34.  Like many males of his class and generation, he was a death-bound-subject, a player in the game regulated by the racial contract of the United States of America. “While he certainly should be understood in the context of the cultural and political movements of the 1960s –Black Arts, Black Power, and Civil Rights---,” according to the in-house promotional statement from the University of Georgia Press,” his writing, and ultimately his life, were filled with ambiguities and contradictions” (University of Georgia Press Spring/Summer 2014 catalogue, 6).  The 1960s, a transformative decade in our history, was also pregnant with other movements not begat by black Americans, and that fact is unavoidable in constructing a biography of Henry Dumas (1934-1968).

In “Confessions of a Burned-Out Biographer” (The Seductions of Biography. Ed. Mary Rhiel  and David Suchoff. New York: Routledge, 1996), Phyllis Rose reminds us that “the school of literary biography, whether or not the subject is a literary figure, tends to see all facts as artifacts and to see context and argument as co-partners of fact” (131).  The public, Rose claims, prefers “objective biography” to the artistry of literary biography.  Jeffrey B. Leak seems to have embraced the alleged preferences of the public sphere in writing Visible Man: The Life of Henry Dumas.

Leak’s signifying on the title of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece in his own title is a signal, a red flag: subject the biography of Henry Dumas to very critical “close reading.”  Doing so yields a discovery.  When a literary figure is encased in “object biography,” the subject becomes overwhelmingly visible, but the sterling values of the subject’s contributions to the republic of American letters become muted or downright invisible.

My response to Leak’s Visible Man is ambivalent.  I am sensitive to Leak’s frustration that many crucial documents of fact are beyond recovery at present or were destroyed.  I respect his fidelity to academic rigor and constraints of objectivity.  I am critical of an effort he did not make in writing the biography. Unlike Margaret Walker who dared to take risks in her biography of Richard Wright, Leak hesitates to explore the genuinely literary expression of Dumas’s daemonic genius.  The creative torment which manifested itself in his “giving the Black Experience a core and a basic set of symbols/myths that connect it to the original labyrinth of African thought,” as Eugene B. Redmond, Dumas’s literary executive, argued in introductory remarks for Rope of Wind and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1979) is the location of Dumas’s primal value for contemporary readers.  If one substitutes “black experiences” for “the Black Experience,” the value rises.  So too does the necessity of enfolding substantive literary analysis with quantitative contextual analysis of life history.  Leak does use references to literary works to buttress and illustrate key points about the life journey. He does not bring into full view the aesthetic features of Dumas’s poetry and prose that could validate our claiming (or seeing why) Dumas was one of America’s most extraordinarily gifted writers and thinkers, a fit companion for such troubled geniuses as John Coltrane, Bob Kaufman, Amiri Baraka, and Cecil Taylor.

How can one bid a new generation of readers to rediscover Henry Dumas without weaving literary analysis of his works, of his uncanny innovations and imagination, with the chronological threads of his life?  Especially if one likens Dumas to Countee Cullen and frames his life and art in the ambience of mystery. Despite the praise in blurbs from Keith Gilyard and Yusef Komunyakaa, Visible Man is troubling in this regard. Leak’s treatment of Dumas’s marriage and extra-marital adventures ----artifacts begging for integration with the facts of art ----is problematic. What leaks from the book is a subjective correlative with the portrayal of Cross Damon and Eva Blount in The Outsider. This draws attention to one of the qualified witnesses for Dumas, namely the equally gifted poet Jay Wright. Wright’s 1969 introduction for Poetry for My People (retitled Play Ebony, Play Ivory for the Random House edition) is evidence of his unique insights about Dumas’s poetics.  Wright exercised ethical prudence in not giving Leak an extensive interview about Dumas.  His silence in 2014 must be accounted an act of integrity and love, one that is rare in a time that has zero tolerance for privacy.

To be sure, we must respect Leak’s scholarship in reaching into an ark of bones and bringing forth a skeleton upon which one can paste fragments of skin. It would be ungenerous to minimize Leak’s achievement.  Nevertheless, literary history demands a supplemental study of Dumas’s art. Leak concludes that “in a sense, the mainstream literary world is finally catching up with this most visible man” (166). The statement is premature.  Imprisoned by its habits of benign neglect, the so-called American mainstream will only botch the job of catching up. On the contrary, it is a critical consciousness of world literature that must reclaim Henry Dumas and pay appropriate tribute.

 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

April 12, 2014

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Humanistic Pretense


The Humanistic Pretense of Not Knowing

 

Despite its eloquence (or perhaps because of it), Marc Bousquet’s essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education will fail to persuade people who discover bliss in orgasms of “moral panic” that they are in denial of time and actuality.  Most of them have never heard of or read The English Coalition Conference: Democracy through Language (Urbana: NCTE, 1989) edited by Richard Lloyd-Jones and Andrea A. Lunsford. Unless they happen to be English faculty members at the University of Memphis, they have never heard and pondered over Professor Reginald Martin’s strong, surgical argument about why the study of language and writing (comp-rhet) is more compelling and pragmatic than the elitist playing that marks traditional literary studies. While Martin’s almost three decade long argument focuses on student needs, teaching as labor, and capitalist imperatives of job markets, the recommendations that emerged from the 1987 conference promoted the ideals of education (kindergarten to doctoral programs), the importance of training American citizens to become critical thinkers, and the shared authority of those who profess the language arts.  In the years since the English Coalition Conference, I have wondered when the Dream of the conference would explode like a raisin into the Nightmare of global realities.  Now I know.

 

-------------------

April 7, 2014

 

The Moral Panic in Literary Studies

By Marc Bousquet

 

Over the past two decades, most academic disciplines have maintained the numbers of their tenure-track faculty members or added minimally, while hiring a lot more non-tenure-track faculty members, causing the percentage of tenurable professors to fall. But English literary studies is one of the few disciplines to lose actual tenure-track positions, not just as a percentage but in real numbers.


According to the most recent comprehensive report on staffing by the Modern Language Association and the Association of Departments of English, published in 2008, English lost 3,000 tenure-track positions from 1993 to 2004, roughly 10 percent of the total. Even that understates the case, since more than a third of the new tenurable hires have not been in traditional literary fields but in composition, rhetoric, theory, cultural studies, new media, and digital humanities. Combined with evidence of lowered public interest in reading traditional literature and plummeting enrollment in traditional English majors, many faculty members in traditional literary studies have engaged in a backlash discourse against the new or renascent fields, a "moral panic" in defense of traditional literary studies.


By far the most intense anxiety involves composition and rhetoric, which account for most of the new tenure-track hires. When the term "moral panic" emerged as a keyword of British cultural studies, in the 1960s, it was initially applied to individual outbreaks of irrational mass anxiety, such as those induced by youth culture, drug use, crime, immigration, sexual behavior, and so on. By the end of the last century, however, the sociologist Kenneth Thompson had argued that manipulative talk of crises was the defining feature of the era, which he dubbed "the age of moral panics."


Normally, panic discourse involves real or perceived threats to a group identified with some aspect of the dominant social order (such as literature faculty members facing the declining cultural capital of their work). Reacting with a disproportionate degree of hostility and resentment, the group generates scapegoats and fake solutions intended to maintain its power and influence in the status quo (such as literature faculty members’ embracing "alternate careers" for their doctoral students). As Jock Young and the late Stuart Hall put it, claims of crisis usually aim to whip up support for policing the perceived cause—often in expensive and draconian fashion, as in the "war on drugs."

 


Last year, at my institution, Emory University, the traditionally trained lit students typically received zero or one invitation to an MLA interview. Most didn’t even come close to winning campus interviews—much less tenure-track jobs—even coming from a top-25 program with support packages that rival those at Yale, Duke, and Stanford.


Some of the Emory students who eventually get tenure-track jobs do so after years of on-the-job retraining in comp-rhet, pedagogy, and new media, commonly in the Brittain Fellowship postdoctoral program, down the road at Georgia Tech. But since 2005, only two in five of those who graduated from Emory with Ph.D.’s in English have landed tenure-track jobs. The research university employing the most English Ph.D.’s from Emory is Emory itself—in staff positions.


One senior member of our English faculty took a look at this situation and published a response in the moral-panic genre, representing feelings widely held by his colleagues. By his account, literary studies is being "devalued and dismissed" as a result of English departments’ being "reconceived as being primarily

 

in the business of teaching expository writing." Furthermore, he wrote, there’s an insidious rush "to make literary studies an outpost of ‘digital scholarship.’ "


Don’t ask me what that last part means, but it’s clear that the villains of the piece have spent their careers in rhetoric, composition, comparative media studies, and digital publication. The amazing thing about the panic at Emory? Most colleges like it have three to five graduate faculty members in those areas; Emory went a decade without even one, and it grudgingly broke that tradition only on the eve of accreditation and program review.


That a large percentage of tenure­-track hires in English is consistently allocated to composition and rhetoric reflects the rational, reasonable, and growing interest in fields specializing in the conditions of textual production at a moment when textual production is undergoing the greatest shift since Gutenberg. More people are doing more kinds of composition than ever before, and they want to learn to do it better.
Scholars of composition and rhetoric generally teach graduate and upper-division courses packed with students who are passionate about the digital publication and media composition now inevitable in every walk of academic, professional, creative, and community-engaged communication. Comp-rhet scholarship and teaching have revived English studies, not diminished it. Programs featuring advanced writing and digital-publication curricula have soaring enrollments, often rescuing undergraduate and graduate English programs from extinction. Over the border in South Carolina, Clemson University has an active, interdisciplinary, but English-studies-based graduate program in rhetoric, communication, and information design. Its job-placement record: 100 percent.


In the past year or two, in meetings with English graduate faculty members and students at would-be top programs similar to ours, I’ve had innumerable conversations with otherwise rational but anxious people who consider those involved in the renaissance of comp-rhet or digital publication as dullards not good enough to read poetry, as lowbrow opportunists, or—worse—as saintly philanthropists who "should be appreciated for their love of teaching first-year writing."


Sometimes the discourse seems paranoid. Not long ago, a department administrator explained to me why he had declined to cooperate in a search that would have recruited some of the best young scholars in composition: "We just don’t want to hire any of those people who hate literature, who want to come here and tear everything down." Telling him that I’ve never met an actual comp-rhet scholar who hated literature—that most enjoy literature and sometimes teach it—wouldn’t shake his determination.
The odd thing is that one hears little informed discussion from the Modern Language Association or most of its elected leadership about the role of comp-rhet research faculty members in the revival of English majors, minors, and graduate programs.


The moral panic doesn’t exist in the hundreds of programs that have kept up with the changing conditions of textual production.

 


It has its home in programs that have had enough institutional power to keep themselves insulated from epochal change, the handful of graduate programs that have retained enough prestige and maintained their old-boy network sufficiently to keep placing most of their students. It also survives in places that, like Emory, had that kind of placement muscle a couple of decades ago.


If universities like mine are still offering doctorates in English 10 years from now, the programs won’t resemble the lit-only degrees at Yale or Columbia. They’ll emulate those at lower-ranked institutions that have more success in placing their students, like Clemson or the University of Pittsburgh, where English has tracks in media and comp-rhet, together with top research faculty members selected only for expertise in their fields, not loyalty to a pedagogy from the 1950s.

 

Marc Bousquet is an associate professor of English at Emory University

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Bousquet’s blending of empirical and narrative forms of evidence persuades me to value Martin’s prescience more highly than I did before the coming of the 21st century and to thank Bousquet for his wake-up call. Truth be told, there are hidden contradictions in the position I embrace.  I am a retired teacher of English/American literature and composition, although I do still teach literature at least two months each year in China. During my 42 years of teaching at HBCUs, I never had the luxury of ignoring the centrality of comp-rhet in my work.  Now, I have the luxury of enjoying literary studies with my Chinese students, of being liberated from American nightmares by Chinese dreams. The contradictions are located in my championing literary and cultural studies abroad and my nurturing increasing disdain for elitist colleagues in the United States who engage in “moral panic” as they complain that teaching the “underprepared” to write competently is beneath their dignity. There is little that I can discern in their alleged panic that is genuinely moral. On the contrary, the panic is virtually immoral. It is really a selfish gesture of homo rhetoricus rather than the anguished gesture homo seriosus would make.

 The so-called panic is an enterprise of ego, of fear of unemployment, of scorn for students who reject the myths of “civilization.” It is pathetic that few Ph.D. programs tell students bluntly that they are “The Help” in the global arena.  I displace sympathy for those who are discovering they are “The Help” with laughter.   If that makes me a bad cold-blooded person, I frankly do not give a damn. Now run and deconstruct that!

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Writing Break Meditations


Mr. Ramcat’s Writing Break Meditations

April 7, 2014

 

1)      The soft passivity of a shark makes Jerusalem so Japanese.

 

2)      Purge the car/pet on your dashboard with hyssop.

 

 

3)      When the priest said a White Mass in Sanskrit and Swahili, T. Jefferson had a fit of recognition; his soul fell beneath the dignity of insanity.

 

4)      Rum and politicians have much in common; they render absurdity lucid and lucidity absurd.