Teaching, Scholarship, and Literary History

This semester I find myself, even more than usual, thinking about literary history. In addition to a new seminar for English majors, “Disney’s Victorians,” I am teaching the first half of our department’s two-part British literature survey. So while I’m partly in my Victorian wheelhouse, I’m also far afield in British literature from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance.

The prospect is an exciting one. I’m teaching material I know very well, and material that’s somewhat new to me, both for the first time. In the Victorians course we’re talking a lot about reception history: one of the course goals is to explore the ways Victorian texts get re-packaged, making us more familiar with Disney’s adaptation of “The Little Mermaid” (to take one example) than with Andersen’s original story. And in the survey course we talk about why “Major English Writings” is a requirement for the major: on the first day I showed them departmental course numbers that,  like those in departments across the country, are organized by period (ENG 311 is Renaissance, ENG 315 is 19th-Century, etc.) Students aren’t terribly surprised by the historical organization, but nor have they considered it much. And they especially haven’t thought about how such a thing came to be.

My thinking abut these two classes converged as I read Ted Underwood’s Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford, 2013), which I’ve had on my shelf for a couple months. The book is primarily interested in the history of the single-period survey course — “Victorian Literature,” for example, rather than “Major English Writings.” The existence and persistence of such courses, Underwood argues, reveals some implicit assumptions, and perhaps some limitations, in how talk about the literature of the past.

Marie de France 2What most appeals to me about Underwood’s book, and the reason I found it personally timely, is the way he bridges teaching and scholarship. It was the Victorians who came up with this idea of historically-organized university courses in English literature, and seeing the historical justifications for literary-historical thinking helped me think through some relationships between texts on both my syllabi.

Claiming for literary studies an earlier starting date than do critics like Gerald Graff (whose Professing Literature (1987) is perhaps the best-known history of the field), Underwood argues that university professors adopted Walter Scott’s historical imagination, and came to see literary periods as discrete rather than continuous. Literary texts  “render discontinuity imaginable and meaningful … not by reducing eras to some common standard, but by dramatizing the vertiginous gulfs between eras, and then claiming vertigo itself as a source of meaning” (4). In the 1840s, English professors picked up on this discontinuity, shifting away from long-range survey courses about transitional periods and toward single-period surveys. That proved to be a powerful modality, one that continues into the twenty-first century.

Underwood’s first two chapters locate historicist modes of thinking in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts, but it’s the third chapter, where he traces the curricular influence of these modes, that I found most intriguing. Underwood’s archival research unearths syllabi, course catalogs, and exam questions from incipient English literature courses at King’s College, London. The earliest survey courses, in the 1830s, covered all of English literary history in one term.  The pedagogical assumption was that “students needed to understand the history of English literature from its origin in order to write well” (83). They needed, for example, to differentiate Anglo-Saxon words from Latinate ones, in order to choose the most appropriate. This endeavor, with more than a tinge of national pride, differentiated literature courses from eighteenth-century belle lettres courses, which had been organized my rhetorical goal rather than historical period.

Long-range historical courses, Underwood argues, imply an emphasis on “causal connections between broad stages of development rather than the distinct character of narrowly defined periods” (84-5). This isn’t to say that the Romantics and early Victorians didn’t consider the “distinct character” of different ages — on the contrary, the notion of a “spirit of the age” was almost a defining feature of the period. What they lacked was a curricular justification, a pedagogical reason for separating one literary period from another. This reason came from F. D. Maurice, who taught the first period survey courses at King’s College in the 1840s. Frederick Denison Maurice. Portrait c1865Focusing on a single period (he began with a course solely on Chaucer’s “Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, and later taught “Elizabethan literature,” “literature from the reign of George III,” etc.) Maurice eschewed the developmental narrative his predecessors had established. Underwood contrasts exam questions: rather than asking about the “principal features that marked the conversion from Saxon to English,” as his predecessor had, Maurice asked his students to connect Elizabethan politics to the period’s literature (97-8). The reasoning is complicated (Underwood connects Maurice’s politics and theories of education to his theological arguments) but the result is palpable. In the 1840s, literature courses underscored national character not by linking different continuous periods with each other but by connecting the contemporary undergraduate to the particular spirit of a distant age — a connection that emphasized discontinuity as well as unity.

The remaining chapters seek to explain why these courses persist into the twenty-first century, surviving, among other challenges, the “theory wars” of the 1980s. Chapter four unearths a forgotten challenge to periodization (comparative literature emerges in the early decades of the twentieth century, but these new courses weren’t necessarily international in scope; the comparisons they made were as often between periods) while chapter five connects a genre — narratives of “parallel lives” — to critical historicism as it took shape in the 1990s.

The final chapter turns from explaining the persistence of period surveys to a possible resulting limitation: “a habit of narrating history as a sequence of contrasted cultural movements,” Underwood argues, “has caused literary studies to develop in a one-sided way, and produced blind spots that limit the development of the discipline” (159). Those familiar with Underwoods’s recent work (much of it shared on his blog) will perhaps not be shocked by his proffered solution: digital and quantitative arguments can reveal thoseFile:Lower semi.png blind spots. And resistance to such methods, he argues, may have as much to do with our firm hold on discrete periods as with our general suspicion of scientism and computer-assisted reading. Quantitative arguments “tend to produce generalizations of a fluid kind that resist translation into the familiar entities of literary-historical argument” (170). We’ve built our curricula on discrete periods; the idea that they might actually be fluid is an argument we might not welcome as much as we like to think we would. To appreciate the kinds of arguments quantitative methods will allow us to make, “we will need to overcome skepticism not just about quantitative evidence, but about historical discontinuity as such” (170).

As a scholar I find this last point compelling: I have a long-standing commitment to digital humanities, and now that my (non-digital) book is out with reviewers, I’m looking for a new project and playing with some digital tools. But the chapters on (dis)continuity and disciplinary history are more immediately relevant. The way I’ve set up the Victorians course, we’re emphasizing how a text’s reception alters the way we think about it. And though I plan on making the case for meaningful differences between (e.g.) Medieval and Renaissance literature, that syllabus is set up to emphasize continuity: we’re beginning with epics and legends, and turning to the lyric at the end of the course (progressing historically within those sections). Having read Why Literary Periods Mattered, I’ll be thinking more about how these two courses relate, and how they might help students build on or prepare for other courses in their major.

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Frozen, The Little Mermaid, and Moral Complication

I don’t write a lot about pop culture on this blog, but I’m following up my last post on Catching Fire with some thoughts on another recently-released film: Disney’s Frozen. (If you haven’t seen it, Kevin Fallon’s review at The Daily Beast gives a clear summary, with spoilers). The film is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” and I’m especially interested in its relationship to Disney’s earlier Andersen adaptation, The Little Mermaid, and Waller Hastings’s 1993 article, “Moral Simplification in The Little Mermaid” (available from Project Muse). I’m teaching Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” this spring in “Disney’s Victorians,” a junior-level seminar for English majors. We’ll be reading a number of Victorian texts (including Oliver Twist, the Alice books, Treasure Island, and Sherlock Holmes) that Disney adapted. We’ll also be reading a bit about Walt Disney himself, and a lot of criticism, with an eye towards how historical eras like the Victorian period get reinvented by modern adaptations, and how those adaptations rewrite and replace the originals.

We’ll read Hastings’s article, which I’ve taught before, toward the end of the semester (the last couple weeks bring us up to the “Disney Renaissance.”) Though two decades old, the article still teaches well: it makes a fairly straightforward point, comparing Andersen’s tale to Disney’s and linking the comparison to broader political concerns. Here’s the gist of the argument:

In the Disney adaptation, the elements of the fairy tale remain recognizable, but superimposed are typical elements of Disneyfication and a happy ending that contravenes the moral intention of the original tale … Disney’s animated films do not so much deny the reality of evil as present a Manichean world of moral absolutes in eternal warfare, from which—in the Disney version—good always emerges triumphant. This is especially true of The Little Mermaid … the Disney version accentuates the most sentimental and romantic aspects of the story at the expense of its moral and psychological complexity.

For Hastings, the most marked change between Andersen’s version and Disney’s is the mermaid’s relationship to the “villain.” Andersen’s sea hag plays a small role: the mermaid seeks her out, and is warned about the dangers of her transformation. In Disney’s adaptation, Ursula actively plots against Ariel. Evil is thus encapsulated in a single, easily-identifiable villain, obviating any moral reflection on the viewer’s part.

Which brings me to Frozen. Andersen’s tale is changed so as to be almost unrecognizable, though he still gets a nod in the credits and the film retains the original title in some overseas markets (where presumably Andersen resonates more than he does in America). Jim Hill explains the long relationship between the Disney company and Andersen’s “Snow Queen.” As early as the 1940s Disney animators recognized the story’s cinematic potential, but they struggled to come up with a full-length film (a Disneyland ride and a stage production were both considered). The problem is that the story is kind of flat — there’s no final showdown, no major villain, no characters the viewer can connect with. The solution (Hill reports a conversation among Jim Lasseter and the Frozen production team, confirmed by an interview with Del Vecho) was to make the two protagonists sisters, playing up the Snow Queen’s childhood relationship and humanizing her rather than making her a villain.

In other words, their solution was to eschew the moral simplification Hastings complains of and reject a Manichean worldview, instead emphasizing that relationships are complicated. The “villain” turns out to be Hans, the at-first-sight love interest (is there another Disney film in which the heroine falls romantically for someone who turns out to be the villain? I can’t think of one). And the “true love kiss” trope we associate with Disney films like The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Beauty and the Beast, gets turned on its head.

Frozen is still very much a Disney movie, and Scott Mendelson is on to something when he calls the film a “triumphant of reaffirmation Disney’s cultural legacy.” But Disney also seems to be rejecting a certain part of its cultural legacy. Mendelson’s reading of the film contrasts starkly with Hastings’s reading of The Little Mermaid:

There is a refreshing lack of overt villainy to the film as well, as Elsa is never truly painted as evil, rather someone choosing to hide from the world after she accidentally uses her frightening powers and does harm in a fit of not-unjustifiable anger … Frozen’s arc, of a girl told to hide away what makes her special even by those who would claim to love her with the resulting collateral damage, is rife with subtext. It operates as a parable for homosexuality as well as a commentary on how women are constantly condemned and punished for not conforming to ever-changing and contradictory standards of femininity.

Mendelson finds a complexity in Frozen, and precisely the same kind of complexity that Hastings argued was missing from The Little Mermaid.

Back in 2004 Christopher Healy lamented Disney’s Princess branding in Salon. Criticism of Disney princess culture is now so familiar that Catherine Gee’s review of Frozen in the Telegraph puts the film in the context of earlier Disney fairy tales, and ends with mention of the Bechdel test — which Frozen passes. Mendelson’s claim that Frozen is “genuinely feminist in the best way” might be a slight exaggeration; Disney hasn’t abandoned the stereotyped feminine visuals that caused them such strife over the summer. But the fact that the sentence could even be uttered shows the company’s shifting portrayals of gender, continuing progress made with Tangled and Brave. And the abandonment of an overly simplistic moral worldview seems to me a step in the right direction.

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Advertising and Misreading: Subway, The Hunger Games, and Never Let Me Go

Catching Fire opened last weekend, earning just shy of $160 million to become the most successful November release ever. I’ve read the Hunger Games books (they’re fine) and I saw the movie: it was good, maybe better than the book; Philip Seymour Hoffman was a good choice, and people are excited about the story’s portrayals of gender roles. But what intrigued me most were the tie-in advertisements leading up to the film’s release. Especially Subway’s tag-line “where Victor’s eat” and their contest where you can “win your own victory tour.”

Now, Subway ads often feature athletes, so on its face the campaign makes perfect sense. But if you’ve read the books, or seen the movies, or have even a passing knowledge of what the story is about, it’s an awful campaign.

In case you’re not familiar with the Hunger Games trilogy here’s the basic idea, without spoiling too much. A dystopian totalitarian society (“the Capital”) enslaves a bunch of colonies (“the districts”) that had rebelled 75 years ago, forcing them to send two children, a boy and a girl, each year to compete in the eponymous games, where they all slaughter each other until only one person is living. That lucky survivor is rewarded with wealth and celebrity status, but also (we find out in the second two books) prostituted by the Capital. These survivors are known as “victors.” The term has a specific, and not positive, connotation. Victors are the people who managed to kill everyone else, and now stand as symbols of their own society’s enslavement. At least they get Subway sandwiches.

In the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World, the books are something of political satire (Suzanne Collins reports getting the idea while channel-surfing between reality TV and coverage of the Iraq war). The Capital is a cesspool of excess, with ridiculous fashion trends and body mutilation. The districts are starving, and a rebellion brews over the course of the trilogy. It’s during the protagonists’ “victory tour” through the enslaved districts that we witness the first bubblings of rebellion. Here’s a clip from the tour (the antebellum plantation imagery is even more overt in the film itself):

According to Subway, you can now win this tour, and so much more. That’s not a contest I’m particularly keen on entering.

I’m not the first person to notice the irony behind Subway’s ad campaign. The top results of a Google search for “subway where victors eat” are not Subway advertisements but Tweets, Facebook posts, and blog posts (like this one and this one) about how awful the ad campaign is. It’s also been covered in The Guardian, which also talks about Covergirl’s similar campaign.

I’ve been thinking about it, though, in relation to teaching. I have a vague recollection of an essay about using advertisements to teach historicized close reading (now that I look it up, it’s Richard Ohmann’s “Teaching Historically,” in Pedagogy is Politics), and in my literature and science course this semester we read another dystopian novel, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (there’s a film version, too, but it’s really bad). Ishiguro’s novel is very different from The Hunger Games, but misreading is thematically relevant. (So are advertisements — one of the novel’s key episodes is sparked by a torn-out magazine ad depicting an office).

The book takes its title from a song the narrator-protagonist (Kathy) listens to, the chorus of which repeats “oh baby, baby, never let me go.” NeverletmegoposterKathy, who can’t have children (for reasons I won’t explain so as not to spoil this wonderful and disturbing book), imagines “a woman who’d been told she couldn’t have babies, who’d really, really wanted them all her life. Then there’s a sort of miracle and she has a baby, and she holds this baby very close to her and walks around singing: ‘Baby, never let me go.’”

Kathy knows that’s not what the lyrics are about: “Even at the time, I realised this couldn’t be right, that this interpretation didn’t fit with the rest of the lyrics. But that wasn’t an issue with me. The song was about what I said.” Kathy is interrupted by a woman, the mysterious “Madame,” who sees her and then starts crying. Later in the novel we get Madame’s side of this encounter:

When I watched you dancing that day, I saw something else … I saw a little girl, her eyes tightly closed, holding to her breast the old kind world, one that she knew in her heart could not remain, and she was holding it and pleading, never to let her go. That is what I saw. It wasn’t really you, what you were doing, I know that. But I saw you and it broke my heart.

So Kathy (knowingly) misinterprets the song, and Madame (knowingly) misinterprets Kathy listening to the song. You don’t need an English professor to tell you that you should sit up and take notice when you see a novel’s title appear in such a manner. This is a book that asks who earns our sympathy and why, and whether art can reveal our humanity. Interpretation is a big deal. One of the things this novel tells us is that just because multiple reactions are possible doesn’t mean anything goes and all interpretations are equally valid. Some misreadings are better than others.

Which brings me back to the Hunger Games. Donald Sutherland — who plays the villain — hoped that the Hunger Games would “stir up a revolution.” Now maybe this its own kind of marketing hype, but fiction has the power to move people, and I’d like to think a story’s political force can do some good. The Hunger Games’ success, in the words of the Guardian article about Sutherland, is partly because “the allegory can be read multiple ways.” But Subway’s reading is not one of those ways. It’s just bad, falling back on a word that completely misses the point of the context in which it appears.

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