This Week In My Classes: Social Justice and Warriors

Although it is often difficult to concentrate on reading fiction right now, amidst the clamor of current events, it is also the case that current events have their usual uncanny way of making some of the novels I’m reading seem more important than ever.

Take Bleak House, for instance, which we have just wrapped up in 19th-Century Fiction. As I mentioned in my post about teaching Hard Times last March (remember last March, when the possibility that Mr Bounderby would actually win the U.S. presidency seemed absurd?), there are plenty of reasons to look skeptically at Dickens’s approach to the problems of the day. Jo is every bit as safely pathetic a focus for our reforming zeal as Stephen Blackpool, for instance, and as much an argument for preserving ignorance and poverty (so as not to spoil instinctive virtue) as Joe Gargery in Great ExpectationsBleak House may focus eloquently on dysfunctional systems, but it returns us repeatedly to well-meaning individuals as our best hope for change, keeping its political radicals securely on the margins (in the form of, for example, Mrs. Rouncewell’s son, the insufficiently respectful ironmaster) while idealizing benevolent paternalism (in the form of, among others, Mr. Jarndyce — who is never held accountable by anyone for his enabling of the odious Mr. Skimpole). It mercilessly satirizes women who care about causes more than about their children — and that’s not all.

Yes, yes, I am well aware: for all these reasons and more, Dickens is not the ideal standard-bearer for today’s resistance. (And that’s just with respect to his fiction, without even getting into his moral failings as an actual man and how they ought to figure in our reading of his novels.) But (as I also said about Hard Times), I think there are things about both the arguments and the affect of a novel like Bleak House that could (maybe even should) trump those objections — especially now. I’m not saying these are just petty quibbles, but there are times when picking fights with people who in their own way are fighting on your side can seem counterproductive. As a friendly cynic standing next to me at the recent Women’s March rally said during one of the speeches, “That’s the thing about coalitions: you probably won’t all agree on everything.”

Bleak House, for instance, is eloquent about the ethical obligations of both a shared society and our common humanity. One particularly brilliant thing about the novel is the way it formally enacts the interconnectedness of even the most seeming disparate elements of its complex and widely dispersed universe. “What connexion can there be,” asks the third-person narrator, at once coy and portentous,

between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town, the Mercury in powder, and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom, who had that distant ray of light upon him when he swept the churchyard-step? What connexion can there have been between many people in the innumerable histories of this world who from opposite sides of great gulfs have, nevertheless, been very curiously brought together!

The answer Bleak House makes over and over is not just that everyone is connected but that it is both morally and practically destructive to act is if they aren’t — to pursue only narrow self-interest, or single-minded partisanship. Dickens may wring every possible tear out of Jo’s story, but his cry that such children are “dying thus around us every day” is meant to compel his readers out of their comfortable chairs and into constructive action. Esther may be a cloying embodiment of every Victorian cliché about woman’s nature, but Lady Dedlock’s story is a devastating indictment of some of those very ideals, some of which (such as the sexual double standard) are not ones we can complacently claim to have left behind. Bleak House is a novel obsessed with getting us to care about how other people — people unlike ourselves — live, and how they die, and what we might have to do with them. It champions the vulnerable, the persecuted, and the unloved; it makes us feel, over and over, that the best thing anyone can possibly do is — quietly, unassumingly, tenderly — offer whatever help they can, whenever they see the need.

Bleak House is and does more than this, of course. It is a dramatic detective novel, a shameless melodrama, a somewhat peculiar and repressed romance, a vast compendium of images and objects and whimsy and tragedy and sheer, delirious delight in language. It contains multitudes! What moved me particularly about it this time, though, is something not quite reducible to its many component parts, to its characters and events … something like its spirit, or its heart. Heartsick as many recent events have made me, I’ve never felt less inclined towards a hermeneutics of suspicion, whatever its justifications. Maybe Dickens hadn’t worked out the best way to make the world a better, fairer, more compassionate place, but reading Bleak House you can sure tell that’s what he wanted to do, and wanted us to do. Right now, I’ll take it.

The other novel I’ve been working on for class is Valdez Is Coming. It is a pretty different reading experience in almost every way, but it too turns on questions about what’s right and what’s fair, and about when and where to draw the line in the face of an injustice. “Why do you bother?” Valdez is asked about his quest to get restitution for a widow whose fate nobody else cares about because she’s Apache and her dead husband (though shot by Valdez himself) was the victim of their unrepentant racism. “If I tell you what I think,” he replies, “it doesn’t sound right. It’s something I know.” By that time we know too why standing up to the men who mocked him, shot at him, then crucified him when he asked for justice is something he has to do. It’s about not letting them win, yes, but that outcome matters because of who they are, and who he is — and, if we’re on his side, who we want to be, and how we want the world to be. “You get one time, mister, to prove who you are” he tells his antagonist during their final showdown. Valdez (true to his genre) proves who he is through action, including a lot of violence. (I wouldn’t like this novel as much as I do if this violence were treated differently — simply as action, for instance, or drama — but Leonard imbues it with moral and even existential meaning.) A lot of us are thinking, now, about what actions we can take, in our world and in our own quieter way, to prove who we are.

This Week In My Classes: Ups and Downs

The past couple of weeks have felt pretty hectic to me, mostly because any time you teach a new course, or just new material, you have to build up all its materials from scratch. This term it’s Pulp Fiction that needs, well, everything! Not only do I not have any lecture notes to draw on for most of the readings (but boy, am I looking forward to our weeks on The Maltese Falcon, which I have taught before!) but I have no pre-existing handouts, worksheets, tutorial plans, or essay topics, and also not many strong instincts about what kinds of exercises or discussion questions or essay topics will get good results. You can only find that out by making some stuff up and seeing how it goes, which means inevitably there are some hits and some misses. I never usually finalize a lot of course materials in advance, because I want them to develop organically — to be responsive to discussion, and to my ongoing discoveries about what’s interesting or useful, but at this point I have a lot of files I can draw on for ideas for my standard teaching assignments. All I have for Pulp Fiction is my preparatory research and my best guesses!

That said, I think it’s going reasonably well, especially now that the initial anxiety of the start of term has faded and I’m trusting myself and the class more to generate ideas and work with them together. I lectured a bit too much at first, but our last couple of sessions have been about as lively as I usually expect from a class at that level and of that size (it’s settling down to about 80 students). So far we’ve read four short stories, three of them westerns, and today we start work on Valdez Is Coming, which will also be the focus of their first longer assignment. One pedagogical challenge for me is that the characteristic style of the western does not lend itself very well to the kind of close reading strategies that I usually focus on in introductory courses. I’m not saying it’s impossible — just that it has been harder to find passages that seem likely to reward that kind of attention, mostly because the prose is very terse and often very literal, and the stories are quite action- and character-driven. Usually by this point in the term I would have spent quite a bit of time on figurative language, and so far all we’ve really seen examples of is a bit of potential symbolism and some strong imagery, especially of the landscapes. I suppose this is more revealing about what I’m typically reading (or urging them to read) for than anything else: I am having to retrain myself to think about action and dialogue more, and about things like sentence length and rhythm and pacing.

In 19th-Century Fiction we are nearly through Bleak House. They seem to be hanging in there! In this class too I have felt myself falling into too much lecturing, but I have been consciously working on balancing that out with some much more open-ended sessions. I feel as if lecturing in a more orderly way can be an important part of our work on a novel as long and complex as Bleak House, where a risk for newcomers to the novel is getting overwhelmed by minutiae: I try in my lecture segments to give them big grids or maps on which they can later place specific characters or incidents as they arise, or rise to prominence. I also try to plant interpretive seeds in the form of questions to be followed up on as they read further. That way, when we do approach topics through discussion, they will already have been thinking about some of them on their own — which usually seems to work!

Today’s installment of Bleak House was Chapters 46-54, which include the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn and then Inspector Bucket’s investigation, culminating in the dramatic “reveal” scene in which we find out that [redacted] is the murderer. In the same sequences, Bucket tells Sir Leicester the story we already know about Lady Dedlock’s past. One of the big surprises of the novel is that these revelations bring out the best in Sir Leicester, who until that moment has seemed little more than a buffoon, a walking anachronism. His one redeeming feature has been his devotion to his Lady, and now we see that this, at any rate, is neither foolish nor superficial, but comes from everything that is best in him. As he looks out the window of his ancestral home, bewildered and hurt at the vision of “thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him,” because of his wife’s disgrace, it is she to whom “he addresses his tearing of his white hair, and his extended arms”:

It is she in association with whom, saving that she has been for years a main fibre of the root of his dignity and pride, he has never had a selfish thought. It is she whom he has loved, admired, honoured, and set up for the world to respect. It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love, susceptible as nothing else is of being struck with the agony he feels. He sees her, almost to the exclusion of himself, and cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well.

And even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of those intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach.

These are also the chapters in which Dickens gives us one of his most tender and pathetic deathbeds (“The cart is shaken all to pieces, and the rugged road is very near its end”), and I am always touched to tears by it, but Sir Leicester’s yearning heart touches me as much, perhaps because it feels like such a generous moment, not just on Sir Leicester’s part, but on Dickens’s, to allow something so beautiful to come from such a ridiculous source. As much as the stalwart assistance of Mrs. Bagnet in negotiating on Mr. George’s behalf, or the staunch friendship of Liz and Jenny, who have only each other for comfort, Sir Leicester’s compassion reflects the hope that permeates Bleak House — that against the mud and the fog and the bleakness of it all, we can set the equally pervasive possibility of kindness and love.

“There Was More To It”: Elmore Leonard, Valdez Is Coming

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He would say to Tanner, ‘You see how it is? The woman doesn’t have a man, so she needs money. You have money, but you don’t have a woman. All right, you pay for the man and you get your woman.’

It seemed simple because in the beginning it was simple, with the Lipan woman sitting at her husband’s grave. But now there was more to it. The putting him against the wall and tying him to the cross had made it something else.

Elmore Leonard’s Valdez Is Coming is the second Western I’ve read and the first real Western, since I gather True Grit is properly considered more of an anti-Western, a self-conscious (if appreciative) tongue-in-cheek revision of Western tropes rather than a sincere instance of them.

Although I already feel as if these two might be enough Westerns for me, I thoroughly enjoyed Valdez Is Coming, partly because it is so sincere, not to mention suspenseful. It is also stylish: the prose is terse, repetitive, and epigrammatic in ways that reminded me of hard-boiled detective fiction — which makes sense, of course, as the two genres are closely related. When setting up Hammett or Chandler in my Mystery & Detective Fiction class, I always talk about frontier justice and the appeal of the vigilante, and also about the idea of the hard-boiled hero as (quoting Robert B. Parker) “the last gentleman”: he belongs, Parker says,

to the chivalric tradition — a tradition he shares in this country with the Westerner. He is not of the people; he is alone.  His adventures are solitary statements.  his commitment is to a private moral code without which no other code makes sense to him.  He regularly reaffirms the code on behalf of people who don’t have one.  He is the last gentleman, and to remain that he must often fight.  Sometimes he must kill.

It’s a central paradox of the hard-boiled private eye that his violence elevates rather than condemns him: for us to accept that, we have to be convinced of his “private moral code,” to believe that he kills for the right reasons. This means that though the stories are filled with action, they really turn on principle — and that is exactly true of Valdez Is Coming. By the end of the novel Valdez has killed over a dozen men, but even though by then things are more complicated than they seemed at first, there’s no doubt that he’s in the right, that we are rooting for him as he picks them off one by one in defense of himself but also of the code he can’t quite articulate but follows without equivocation.

What exactly is that code? It begins with an instinct for justice: Valdez kills a man for the wrong reasons, not without meaning to but certainly without wanting to, and figures that he and the others responsible owe the man’s pregnant widow reparations. The dead man is black, however, and his woman is Apache, so nobody else believes they owe her anything. When Valdez confronts Tanner, whose wrong identification led to the shooting, with his proposals, Tanner’s men test his nerve by using the wall around him for target practice:

Valdez felt his hat move and felt powder dust from the adobe brick in his eyes and in his nose and felt chips of adobe sting his face and hands and felt a bullet plow into the wall between his knees and a voice say, “A little higher you get him good.”

He keeps his cool, staring them down and eventually, when Tanner’s “segundo” calls enough, riding away. But when he comes back a second time with the same request, Tanner’s men beat him, tie him to a cross, and send him crawling home — or, more likely, to die in the dust and the sun. Now it’s not just about justice for the woman: it’s also about his own honor and the need to turn this humiliation and defeat into victory. I won’t spoil the fun by giving away any more details. It’s enough to quote the pitch-perfect cover blurb: “They were still laughing when Valdez came back. And then they began to die . . . ”

valdez2Valdez himself is an interesting character: though he feels no ambivalence about his specific conflict with Tanner, he is less certain about his own role in life more generally, and the relationship he develops with Tanner’s fiancée Gay (whom he kidnaps as leverage) adds more nuances. It’s to be expected, though, that the protagonist will have some depth, so what I appreciated more is the way key secondary characters also have their own motives and their distinct roles to play in the denouement, including Gay herself but also Tanner’s “segundo.” One of the best bits in the novel is wholly inessential to its plot but adds a great deal to the atmosphere and to our sense of the kind of world its characters live in. Valdez shoots one of Tanner’s men and sends him back with a message. He delivers it and then lies dying, and we spend nearly two pages with him as he reflects on Valdez, and on his own life and immanent death:

He should have thought more about the way the man stood at the wall and watched them shoot at him. He should have remembered the way the man got up with the cross on his back and was kicked down and got up again and walked away. Look — someone should have said to him, or he should have told himself — the man wears three guns and hangs a Remington from his saddle. What kind of man is that? And then he thought, You should know when you’re going to die. It should be something in your life you plan. It shouldn’t happen but it’s happening. He tried to raise his left arm but could not. He had no feeling in his left side, from his chest into his legs. His side was hanging open and draining his life as he looked at the sky. He said to himself, What is the sky to me? He said to himself, What are you doing here alone?

Life may be cheap in this world, death may be fast and sure, but the existential pathos here counteracts the indifference, courage, or grim determination with which the characters otherwise seem to confront their harsh circumstances.

I’m surprised, really, how much fun I found Valdez Is Coming. Still, I can’t imagine reading a lot of books like this — not in a row, certainly. I also have some hesitations about teaching it: it is full of racial slurs, for one thing, and while I think it’s pretty clear not just that they are historically and contextually appropriate but also that the novel as a whole rejects the attitudes they express, that does create some pedagogical challenges. There’s also a lot about its contexts that I don’t know, and of course this is not the kind of novel that’s available in a helpfully annotated edition! That can be rectified with research, though, and for better and for worse it does seem more “pulpy” than True Grit.

“I am not paying for talk”: Charles Portis, True Grit

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I said, “I have left off crying, and giggling as well. Now make up your mind. I don’t care anything for all this talk. You told me what your price for the job was and I have come up with it. Here is the money. I aim to get Tom Chaney and if you are not game I will find somebody who is game. All I have heard out of you so far is talk. I know you can drink whiskey and I have seen you kill a gray rat. All the rest has been talk. They told me you had grit and that is why I came to you. I am not paying for talk. I can get all the talk I need and more at the Monarch boarding house.”

When I tell you that the closest thing to a Western I’d read before True Grit was No Country for Old Men, you’ll understand how unprepared I was for Portis’s strange, surprising, action-packed yet character-driven novel. I don’t know the tropes it relies on, or revises; I don’t know the history it incorporates, or appropriates; I don’t know the landscape its story moves across; I don’t know what other literary characters, if any, keep company with Mattie Ross or Rooster Cogburn or Lucky Ned Pepper. I have thought a little about Westerns in the context of American crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction, which is often linked to a “frontier mentality” and the appeal of vigilante justice, and which is often written in a terse, demotic style appropriate for tough guys and cowboys with no words to waste. But True Grit is the first novel I’ve read that definitely qualifies as a classic of the genre.

I was interested in reading True Grit because I’m thinking about what to assign for Pulp Fiction next year. The calendar description for this course says that it “provides an entry point to the discussion of literature through ‘pulp’ genres such as romance, mystery/crime, the Western, sci-fi/fantasy, horror, sports literature, and comic books.” I can’t remember when we approved this description, but it strikes me now as an odd and somewhat elitist conflation of “pulp fiction” with genre fiction. While they certainly overlap, they aren’t necessarily the same, are they? Dictionary.com defines “pulp fiction” as “fiction dealing with lurid or sensational subjects, often printed on rough, low-quality paper manufactured from wood pulp,” which I think better reflects the connotations of the term, along with its historical origins. (Louis Menand’s New Yorker article on “The Birth of Pulp Fiction” gives a nice overview of that history in the context of reviewing Paula Rabinowitz’s American Pulp, which I’ve just taken out from the library.)

rabinowitzDefining my terms, which in turn will define my boundaries, is clearly one of the first thing I have to do. It’s inevitably going to be a somewhat arbitrary exercise, and the stakes aren’t that high given that the course is one of our first-year writing requirement classes and, as the calendar description implies, its main purpose is just to begin students’ training in literary studies. It doesn’t have to be an in-depth, theoretically complex, or even particularly thorough exploration of pulp fiction, whatever that is. It differs from the first-year class I usually teach (Introduction to Prose and Fiction) only in having what we hope is a sexier hook — it promises readings that at least sound more fun than what you might get in a standard literature class. Students in recent incarnations of the course, then, might have been surprised to find themselves reading Pride & PrejudiceJane Eyre, or Much Ado About Nothing, all of which I have seen in recent Pulp Fiction syllabi!

These versions of the course seem to have emphasized things like the way our current classics were the popular entertainment of their day, or differences and continuities between “high” and “low” forms of genre fiction. These are smart things to do, and they allow for a really broad historical range in the readings, but I’m leaning more towards a course that embraces the “lurid or sensational,” or that focuses on unapologetic examples of the different genres rather than on their most deliberately literary (or “literary”) versions. This is more or less the approach I’ve taken to the Mystery & Detective Fiction class: though I’ve occasionally included something like Paul Auster’s City of Glass, I have mostly tried to avoid the kind of crime fiction that overtly aims to “transcend the genre.” (How Ian Rankin hates that phrase! Cue up to 7:20 to get to that particular point.) So, no Austen in my Pulp Fiction class, and no Cormac McCarthy either!

I have plenty of ideas about romance and mystery novels that might work well for this course, but the other genres on the list in the official description are not at all my bailiwick. Luckily I don’t have to cover them all, and in a one-term writing requirement course I can only assign a few full-length novels anyway (three, maybe four, depending on their length) along with some short stories, so the question is: what else? And that brings me back (at last – sorry!) to True Grit. I put out a Twitter call for suggestions about classic Westerns to sample, and the ones that came up the most often were Elmore Leonard’s Valdez is Coming (and his story “3:10 to Yuma”), Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage, Louis L’Amour’s Hondo, and True Grit. A helpful colleague dropped True Grit off at my office shortly after — and after puttering along with Emma for a while first, I burned through it in just a couple of hours last night.

True_Grit_(Charles_Portis_novel)-first-editionI’m not actually 100% sure True Grit is “pulpy”: does it transcend its genre? I think maybe it is to the general run of Westerns what Hammett or Chandler might be to crime fiction: still definitely of its kind, but the best, or most intense, version of it. Its story is simple and its pacing is relentless, but it’s the narrator that makes it particularly interesting. Mattie bristles with paradoxical qualities: she’s prim, abstemious, and insistently righteous, even as she’s razor-sharp and ruthless. She won’t touch a drop of whisky (“I would not put a thief in my mouth to steal my brains”) but she doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger when she finally comes face to face with her father’s killer (“I pointed the revolver at his belly and shot him down”). She doesn’t much like the sight of hangings, but when she has to, she pulls the arm off a corpse and uses the long bone to save herself from falling into a pit of rattlesnakes (“I was grateful to the poor man for being tall”). Is she hilarious or heroic? Both and more, I think, and it’s her combination of naiveté and grit that wins over her jaded allies, who don’t want her along but then won’t leave her to die. And we hear all about it in the voice of aged Mattie, who still has no patience for people who waste time on pointless talk:

I never had the time to get married but it is nobody’s business if I am married or not married. I care nothing for what they say. I would marry an ugly baboon if I wanted to and make him cashier. I never had the time to fool with it. A woman with brains and a frank tongue and one sleeve pinned up and an invalid mother to care for is at some disadvantage, although I will say I could have had two or three old untidy men around here who had their eyes fastened on my bank. No, thank you!

True Grit recounts Mattie’s quest for justice, but she seeks it in a world where right and wrong overlap, where justice and the law often don’t coincide, and where, as Mattie often remarks, if you want a thing done, you’d best do it yourself, no matter the cost.

I liked True Grit a lot, especially but not just Mattie. I’d have a lot to learn before I could teach it, but I think I’d enjoy the process. Where my relationship with Westerns is concerned, this is significant — not to mention rapid — progress. It took me much longer to get the hang of reading romance novels! I think I’m going to hunt down Valdez is Coming next. It certainly sounds lurid and sensational: “They were still laughing when Valdez came back. And then they began to die.”