Friday, February 28, 2014

Reza Aslan Interview

Ok, guys, this is the video that both Nathan and Brenna mentioned last class. It raises the issues we were discussing last time--identity, authority, and who has the "right" to speak of what in an academic context--in a very dramatic way. I don't know what I find most amusing/disturbing here (though I'm partial to Aslan's insistence on the length of his endnotes.).

Thursday, February 27, 2014

You Get a Label! And You Get a Label!

What's up guys,
                        I know I really didn't say much in the conversation we had on Tuesday, but nonetheless I think they were important to address since a lot of us have very strong feelings about these certain issues. I want to start off by meditating one the "labels" point that we all got pretty hung up on. I understand that many of us want to say that we don't care about labeling people, beliefs, sexualities, whatever. I think we need to understand that from the start of large societies in the world people have been labeling people. Today, we label our clothes, TV shows, etc.  What I think is a negative aspect about this whole "labeling" dilemma we brought up is the fact that we use labels in negative lights most of the time. I think Sedgwick is saying the same thing when she brings up the strictness of canon, and even the creation of the "closet" in our society today. 
                     On page 71 Sedgwick writes: "The closet" and "coming out," now verging on all-purpose phrases for the potent crossing and recrossing of almost any politically charged lines of representation, have been the gravest and most magnetic of those figures." 
                     I think what Sedgwick is trying to get us to understand is the fact that our society, politically, socially, and morally, are attracted to using these labels of "coming out," "closet," and even "gay." This has plagued an opportunity to make our society more open, and meaningful as a whole. If we adopt a gay canon, it wouldn't exclude all the other great works of literature, or put the gay canon high up on a shelf where no other texts can be paired with it. It will increase an open-mindedness toward situations and conflicts that have been swept under the rug by human beings because we have a hard time facing the truth that we are not the same cookie cutter molds of beings like Son Mi in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Sedgwick wants the literature we read to become less rigid as a "Canon." In fact, if we adopt these canons we can only diversify and make the canon that has been in place for years look itself in the mirror and question if it needs to change or not. 
                 Maybe I just went on a little tangent so I'm going to attempt to wrap this shit up nicely. We are delved in a society where there will always be labels. Good and bad. What makes them bad is the fact that our society puts a negative connotation, and the masses follow that connotation. Just like the masses follow the classic canon. I think we need to open our minds to the fact that with or without labels, we can actually do some good by delving into these labels, finding out where or why they came about, taking a good long look at ourselves and try to figure out a way to change the labels to an open-minded, and accepting identification of human beings. Sure, it's idealistic as hell but the conversation we all had on Tuesday is just a small step for changing something in this highly judgmental and prejudiced world. 

And the Hatemail Begins...

First up, in light of our discussion last time, I'll leave you with two links to two things I've already written on the topic.

One, the aforementioned Grizzly article that just got released today (Thursday). So far I've only received one positive email. Kind of a let down considering I was expecting Sports-Overvalued-At-Ursinus level retribution off the bat. I suppose we'll see:

Second link, the blog post that the Grizzly article I wrote was based on, that's a bit different but very similar obviously. At the very least, the title is less inflammatory:

Since I've already pitched my piece in class and now twice with those links, let me just take this space to respond to counterargument.

Here's how the most common one goes, which was levied frequently in class the other day:
"You just don't understand/grasp it. There are so many things about being an X that you can't know about since you're a Y. You may be able to intellectually comprehend (understand what I'm describing) this specific issue, and you may be able to emotionally empathize/sympathize with it, but you're still missing something important, namely the first hand experience of having gone through the experience."

Granted! There are things that I haven't experienced that I can't experience, and until you tell me about them as the X to my Y I won't know about them. I'm simply ignorant. You've conceded that I can understand them once you tell me about them, however. And you've conceded that I can empathize. So here's my question in response:

"I see you think that even though I can empathize and intellectually comprehend the present issue, you think I'm still missing something. Clearly I am. But, what practical implications does that gap really have? Does it severely impair my ability to discuss the issue with you? In what ways? It seems to me the ball is in your court. Unless you can tell me what my lacking the experience you've had does to my ability to talk with you, I'm not convinced that it does anything, especially if I've already been made aware of it."

I'd also respond with this pressure: If there's an irreparable gap between individuals based on personal experience that prevents them from discussing certain issues, how can we ever hope to fix that problem? Even within the same groups, say within the body of black female homosexuals of low socioeconomic status, I'd imagine that there are tremendous gaps of personal experience. Certainly you don't think that those gaps also prevent people from discussing relevant issues to them as a group?

Here's the second objection: "I'm not trying to say that you can't discuss the issue with X group! Certainly you can. But you have to realize that that something you lack is important."

Again, granted. But what practical implications does this have? I get that there are things I don't know about until I'm told because I haven't experienced them, and I get that I can't experience them. But where does this leave us? I don't think it changes anything, unless more argument can be provided to the counter.

Third objection: "You have to understand, as you are a straight upperclass white guy, you have a level of privilege that lots of others don't have. You can get your voice heard where others can't in larger society. That's a problem, because when you try to talk about issues relevant to a small demographic that has been oppressed in some way, you have the potential to intentionally/unintentionally silence them."

Granted! But, we have to recognize that this is a potential, not a guarantee. My desire to weigh in on feminist issues doesn't mean that women have less of a say in the discussion than I do, or that I'm trying to take away their voice. To the contrary! I hope that everyone, regardless of who they are, can work to ensure everyone else has an equal voice in every discussion, regardless of topic.

My thesis is, essentially, the argumentor ought to be wholly irrelevant to the evaluation of the argument. That is, I'm working to combat what I see as systematic ad hominem. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Blurred lines

Yesterday we discussed issues of literary canon, minority literary canons, and labeling in general.  I remember someone making a point that men (for example) should definitely be encouraged to write feminist literature; however, they should not be included in an anthology of Women’s Literature.  I would be inclined to agree with this.  I think supporting the cause of feminism is wonderful but is not the same as living as a woman and therefore experiencing the world as a woman.  Nevertheless, this again begs the question of: what should be included in specific canons?  If I wrote about the experience of a Latina living in Tennessee, would it be included in the Latin American canon, even though I’m Caucasian?  I also wonder: if someone of Latin American descent writes a novel about a dog on an adventure (which seemingly has nothing to do with race), is this inevitably included in the Latin American canon because of the author’s ethnicity?  Should canon only consider the experience of the work itself as detached and separate from the author’s identity?  Or should the author’s identity or what we would label as the author’s identity be considered?  Are there any English writers who moved to America and wrote about the American experience and are included in our canon?  Yes, Robin Thicke, I hate these blurred lines, and the questions regarding canon are endless.  Seriously, though – if I wrote a gory horror story, I really don’t think that should be included in a women’s lit canon just because I’m a woman.  That story would have absolutely zilch to do with the topic of women’s lit.

I think this kind of discussion of canon is necessary.  Just because something is widely accepted as being in the canon does not mean that I have to like the work or admire the work’s excellence.  I also think that creating these separate canons showcases different kinds of literature that deserves to be recognized.  What’s at stake is the exclusion of brilliant authors and their work because they have been ignored by the so-called “canon.”

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Holy effin Moly! A new trend??????

I know this is slightly off topic. But I still feel there is extended relevance. On that!!!!!/entry/breaking-az-senate-passes-right-to-discriminate-bill,53054045025312186cd34bcd

Monday, February 17, 2014

holy ish.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

This Deserved A Hashtag at the End

 First I wanted to say that my brain had a longwinded fart… until today when I realized I completely forgot about the blog for Wednesday. Guess I filed away blogging in my brain’s Sunday storage space. Sorry about that—I'm making a blog now (since we didn’t technically have to for this week) in attempt to make up for my little oopsy. 

            I really wanted to blog about the little Arac paragraph that I brought up during class. I'm not quite sure what I understand of it and I had trouble verbalizing the mixed feelings it gave me during class. I'm afraid this close reading has broken a brain circuit, so my writing/understanding might be a tad circular—bear with me.

(Page 31 second paragraph)

            “The fact that nigger is widely used in the text of Huckleberry Finn has had the effect of encouraging authors, scholars, teachers, and other persons of goodwill to feel that they are doing the right thing when they name Jim in the language of a racism that is less important to locate in the psyche of individuals—as Myrdal did in An American Dilemma—than in the structures of our nation, what since the days of Black Power has been called “institutionalized racism. “ Over forty years ago, Lionel Trilling praised Huckleberry Finn for being a “subversive book,” and Hechinger echoed him in his Times article, but it seems to me that Huckleberry Finn is currently being read and publicly used in support of complacency. “
            I was able to break down the first long convoluted sentence. I have come to the conclusion that the “authors, scholars, teachers, and other persons of goodwill,”(basically everyone) are the ones who now believe that racism is not an individual act. They believe that the blame has been lifted and relocated to a structural/institutional issue. However, Arac argues different. Unlike Trilling and Hechinger who both believe Huckleberry Finn is “’subversive’” or “undermining the principals of”( the word nigger. In other words: Trilling, Hechinger, the authors, teachers, scholars, and Myrdral believe that Huck saying nigger does not make him racist. However, society has instituted the word and therefore they are to blame…not Huck. Instead, Arac determines that Huckleberry Fin is, “in support of complacency,” or, “a feeling of satisfaction, esp extreme self-satisfaction”( So, Arac basically believes that it is the individual who is to blame in the name of racism.
            This means that since Arac disagrees with how Trilling and Hechinger, and how other authors, scholars, and teachers interpreted the book—which is paralleled to Myrdal’s criticism—Arac then is arguing against institutionalized racism. The framework of the first sentence of the paragraph then becomes just that much more curious. He cites Myrdal as the founder of structural racism in his book An American Dilemma and then follows up with a citation of “Black Power” labeling Myrdal’s theory as “institutionalized racism.” (omg) I have to ask then: is Arac, the emotional low blower, throwing a jab at the black power movement? Is he saying that Black Power is trying to blame the institution in order to take hold of it some how? Because Arac argues that the institution here is not at fault, but the individual. Why then  does Arac cite two different people for something he disagrees with? One: Myrdal, whom is from Sweden ( and then secondly the Black Power movement, who he says in reference to Myrdal’s theory, “what since the days of Black Power has been called “institutionalized racism”. It is understood that throughout Arac’s book, his in-text citations are emotionally charged. Only one of many examples is how he described one scholar he disagreed with, “so the authoritative scholar’s pedagogical guidance required students to perpetuate this wounding error”(27). Not to mention Arac decided to omit the second part of Myrdal’s book title, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Why did Arac include both references and then neglect to do it in completeness? It seems to me that Arac has an agenda—and in the face of passive aggression, trying to accuse Myrdal, the Black Power movement, and maybe the individual of “goodwill”(31) for having their own agenda.
            I found it particularly interesting that in order to make this point he began by saying, “The fact that nigger is widely used in the text of Huckleberry Finn has had the effect of…” Here, Arac places blame ON the book for making people, “feel like they are doing the right thing…” in reference to their relief of personally driven racism. He is arguing that the book makes it seem as if the word nigger has become embedded in society and that using it is not racist because it has been instituted in, and, thus, a normal part of society. He disagrees, as I said earlier, and blames the individual for attempting to find release from his or her own racist tendencies. But this is not a book that the common individual decides to pick up and then comes to such conclusions all alone, is it? Arac even says in his preface, “This book [his book] details and analyzes the emergence of hypercanonization [of Huck. Finn.] in the academy,”(vii) and “early-teenage children are being made to study and admire a text in which the character, hero, and narrator, Huck, uses the term nigger hundreds of times,”(viii). He makes the point that this book is being institutionalized. Forced upon young America—teaching them to only idolize the main character and ignore the possibilities of racism within his dialogue. One preface and 31 pages later, Arac completely combats his own argument, saying it is the book that penetrates the minds of its readers and plants the idea that racism lies on an alternate level than individually. Even though 31 pages and a preface ago he states, “I do not argue that Huckleberry finn is racist or un-American,”(vii).

            This passage alone made me take a new perspective on everything that Arac says. I don’t know if I like him too much. In fact, I don’t. He gives me bad vibes and at times like this, seems ill-willed and sneaky…….. #justsayin

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sport caster video clip


Hey guys, sorry this is late!

By now pretty much everyone has expanded on what I thought was the most impacting of Arac's essay.

The terms hypercanonization and idalotry really peaked my interest. In high school way before I appreciated literature as much as I do now I still kept questioning what was it that classifies GREAT literature? How did the classics become the classics? What makes them standout?

Those terms mentioned by Arac really resonated with me because I can see it everyday. I don't know if this is a good example, but Harry Potter, man. Yes I do love those books but I can't imagine what it must be like for someone who never having read the book and having that made public to a room of people... all the dirty looks and jaw dropped faces! Insulting or criticizing Harry Potter is nearly considered something so DRASTIC as a crime! I can't help but ask myself, to what extent has people's passion for the series affected my own perception of the story?

Totally unrelated to Huck Finn, so here we go: Again, not knowing any of the content of Twain's novel, I did not know what I was in for, only that this book has been very beloved and discussed yay number of times. So the first day of class (which I was totally unprepared for, didn't even have the book yet) I was shocked witht he discussion of racism and the problems addressed in the story. So when I started reading it after class I already had the impression of the controversies throughout Huck Finn's adventure. But I enjoyed the last 12 chapters as I did because it was in those sections I felt immersed in Huck's old intimate world but still see the issues that go with it. Basically everything I'd said in my presentation.

A Creative Choice

In chapter two of Arac’s argument, the critic made a statement that really stood out to me.  I actually paused in my reading so I could take in exactly what he was trying to get at.  He wrote, “I prefer to understand Huckleberry Finn as built from highly selective artistic choices rather than simple reflections of the reality of antebellum America” (Arac 39).  The way that Twain is representing a version of Missouri that is entangled in slavery at the time, is not necessarily historically accurate.  Arac mentions that everything is a bit more simplified in the world of Huck Finn. 

For me, personally, this is a reassuring assessment.  In the previous chapter, and continuing into the second as well, Arac describes the way some readers have latched on to Twain’s work, creating ideological beliefs from it.  But the sooner we accept the fact that it is fiction work, the sooner people will hopefully stop trying to turn his work into a political statement.  Twain was not trying to be Harriet Beecher Stowe when he wrote his novel.  Since the beginning of the semester, I have held fast to the idea that Mark Twain depicts a world in a realistic manner, not offering concrete answers to life’s difficult questions via the narrator.  In my opinion, Arac’s explanations for the slight inaccuracies or inconsistencies of the real world to the novel highlight the case for Twain offering his readers an example of human relations, race relations, what have you, during a moment in time.    

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The 129 Year Old Elephant

Arac's argument that debates and discussions regarding Huck Finn should be more multidimensional and comprehensively informed is both engaging and lucid; however, it is easy to overlook how necessary such a seemingly simple argument is today, even though it concerns a book that has been around for 129 years. One would think that a text that incorporates the "N-word" (yes, I'm copping out of typing/saying such a loaded word) 219 times would be unraveled very carefully, as Arac suggests, but its canonization has impeded our ability to carefully dissect the text. Evidence of this is seen in the influx of hostile mail that Harper Magazine received when it published Jane Smiley's "Say It Ain't So, Huck," in 1996, more than any other essay had ever received in Harper's history (Berube 693)! The impulse to shield Huck Finn from criticism due to the notion ingrained into us that it is a cornerstone of American literature is counterproductive for it allows us to ignore the nuances that the text truly contains. As Arac puts it, Huck Finn became "an icon of civil rights consciousness," even though this idolatry led individuals to read Huck Finn with blinders, causing them to loose sight of other muddied moral and social conflicts imbedded in the text. Arac's argument really struck me when he asked the question, "How great must artists be before we trust them so much that their words are treated not only as unchangeable but also as obligatory?" (Arac 31). It seems that by placing Twain and Huck Finn on a pedestal and lashing out at critics, we only do ourselves a disservice. If we encourage an attitude of complacency around a word, topic and history, it will pollute the future with this infectious complacency. While important, worthwhile discussions can stem from reading Huck Finn, ignoring major conflicts that the text brings to the table is irresponsible, especially at a grade school level. To ignore these conflicts is like ignoring an elephant in the room, one who stomps on notions of social justice, equality and civility while no one comments or explains the deeper issues and complicated historical context.

Like many other people...

I think (probably like many of the rest of us in class) his argument idolatry and hypercanonization stuck with me the most.  While I'm not sure I loved his presentation of his argument (occasional poorly written sentences like the one we discussed in class, lots of name dropping, a bit of overkill on the historical background - in my opinion), I do, however, agree with his argument.  I definitely think we have a tendency to make assumptions based on other, "smarter" people's opinions.

For example, there is a book (I won't name it so as not to offend anybody who actually likes it...) that I have been forced to read twice - once in high school and once in college.  And neither of those times did I find the book any more worth reading.  I attempted to read it in high school and disliked it so much that it became the first book I ever SparkNoted.  It is horribly written, not just in terms of diction but also of basic grammar and sentence structure.  And not only are the potentially important themes overblown and poorly addressed, but the actual plot of the story is ridiculous.  Yet, because this book is just one of those books, I've had to read it twice.

So, I agree with Arac when he argues that we each need to strip books like Huck Finn of all the widespread externally imposed meaning and see it for its own merit - or maybe lack of merit, if that is what we see.

The style discussion.

I’m a little bit hung up on the discussion of style.  A quote from my notes: “POLEMIC— root: battle, disputatious, raging, aggressive--- Do we want our criticism to be like this?” 

My brain sometimes goes fuzzy in class when we have discussions because I feel like I have to make a judgment call on the reading.  Either I liked it or I didn’t.  I know that sounds ridiculous but maybe that’s just years of people asking that simple question.  I know my opinion is supposed to change while I’m learning, but after last class I just felt confused. 

Someone will say something like, “Arac is being sarcastic and talks down to everyone” and then someone else will point out him being intelligent in this other way and by the end I feel like my opinion about him gets wishy washy. I think my brain likes black and white.  And there’s so much grey area.

We talked in class about criticism being polemic or “weak”.  Then someone in class made a comment about how we want a classroom to be a nuanced discussion, with people agreeing with some parts of the discussion and disagreeing with other parts.  This sounds like how I might want criticism to be and maybe I’ll learn to adopt this way of criticizing criticism.  

American Idols

The “idolatry” aspect of Arac’s argument really hit home with me.  I think that there are quite a few things like that in America today, things like deism, democracy, and the Constitution, things that people get immediately get shot down for even implying that they disagree with.  What I wonder, though, is whether or not this is a phenomena somewhat isolated to America.  It seems to me that our society breeds idolatry with its fierce patriotism and sensationalized media.  Arac seems frustrated with the inability to challenge Huck Finn’s idolatry easily, and it seems to me that nothing could get so concretely ingrained in a society without some underlying sociological issues.  Muy interesante.

Huck Finn vs. Tupac vs. Biggie

                      After paging through the Arac book again, I think what has stuck with me the most is this term of “idolatry” that he pairs with Huck Finn. I definitely agree that over time we have raised this book up on a pedestal a bit higher than what it should be. However, I’m not saying that the novel isn’t important or isn’t worth debate and analysis. I tried to think of other things that we idolized over time in American society, and one thought always came back to me as I was writing this post. Just as American society has idolized Huck Finn as the “quintessential” novel that describes our Americanness, can be comparable to the debate between which rapper is better: Tupac Shakur, or the Notorious B.I.G. This debate is one that has given both deceased artists a legacy and debate that has gone on for over eight years. Many hip-hop enthusiasts get into arguments about whose topics, verse structure, and overall song writing was better. It may not seem like I’m going anywhere with this, but I think it’s interesting to point out the type of things that we idolize in our American society. Writing rap music about money, women, and power that a great majority of people adore and love can be compared to the seemingly “racist” nature that Huck Finn is said to have come from. However, I don’t think American society and American literature would be the same without Huck Finn, just as I think rap music as we see it today would of ever gave opportunities to multiple artists without the few albums created by Tupac and Biggie. I agree with Arac when he says that we cannot let this idolatry shadow what the book stands for, and how our history has shaped the criticism over time because we’ve always known it to be a “great” book. 


Tuesday, February 11, 2014


After reading Arac, one thing is absolutely evident: Arac does not agree that Huck Finn should be put on a pedestal.  Looking specifically at the first chapter, Arac relies heavily upon sarcasm (which we talked about in class) a little too much in order to get his point across.  Ironically he seems to condemn those people who religiously defend Huck Finn with seemingly personal, degrading comments.  For instance, Arac seems to mock Trilling’s teaching experience by claiming that Trilling has experience teaching a “great books” (which Arac puts in condescending quotes) course AKA the Columbia College Humanities course (19).  Arac further claims that Trilling equates Twain’s passages on the river to the choral odes of Greek tragedy and Twain’s ending had the aptness of a Turkish masque found in Moliere (he does this without ever actually quoting directly from Trilling).  Arac sums up this point by saying: “So Trilling asserted” (19).  But isn’t that what Arac is doing?  I could say, “so Arac asserted.”  Unless I look up all of these articles that Arac references and read them myself, I have no idea what Trilling actually said.  Arac is too busy putting everything into his own highly sarcastic voice, making it really hard to read through a critical lens.  Why doesn’t Arac quote directly from Trilling instead of merely mocking him?  Arac condemns the idolaters of Huck Finn for resorting to ridiculous claims about how wonderful the book is, but in my opinion, he hasn’t done much but sneeringly ridicule those who support the book (at least in chapter one).  To be fair, he does make some interesting claims, including the fact that critics continue to call Jim by a name that was never in the book to begin with.  However, I would have liked Arac to take some of the points with which he disagrees and answer specifically each one with his own critical analysis/evidence.

On reading this chapter again just now, I also found that his overuse of empty rhetorical questions (which we also talked about in class) is not strengthening his argument but merely crippling it.  There are many instances where Arac poses a rhetorical question and leaves it hanging without delving into its implications or answering it himself.  This first chapter almost reads like academic venting rather than literary criticism.        

A Simultaneous Strength/Weakness of Arac's Argument

I find myself both compelled and frustrated by a piece of Arac's framework regarding the criticism surrounding Huck Finn. Let me first frame the argument and what I find compelling about it, as it's the obvious and intended angle he seeks, and then I'll work to show why I think it's also problematic.

In multiple places, but palpably on 32 and 33, Arac identifies the plausibility that critics may give undo credit to Huck simply because of its/his status as canon. At the start of the first paragraph on 32, Arac works to forward this argument by quoting Pilot:
"Once a work has been admitted tot he highest canon of literary reputability," critics then must "find reasons... for admiring every bit of it"
This concern of Arac's seems legitimate, and gives us reason to be suspicious (note, not dismissive) of positive criticism regarding the novel's progressiveness.

Certainly granted this plausibility, we ought to be cautious not to fall into the trap of seeing positives where none exist, simply because of the work's status within American canon.

I also worry, however, that Arac perhaps unintentionally sets up a trap for himself here. In much of this first chapter while Arac is forwarding his own argument, it seems he occasionally gives way to the temptation to use this aforementioned worry as a way to unfairly entirely dismiss or belittle arguments praising Huck Finn, in essentially an ad hominem move. Example (excuse my inability to hold back from formalizing the argument.

1. Some praise for HF may stem from HF being canon.
2. Argument X/Author Y praises HF
3. Argument X/Author Y only praises HF because HF is canon.

The structure here is pretty clearly invalid. While #1 is a serious concern, it doesn't follow that because #1 and #2 are true, #3 is necessarily true.

Meanwhile, Arac falls into using language like (further down on 32):

"This inadequacy of vocabulary, which idolaters take as a truth about Huck's America, Poirier instead treated as a limiting artistic feature of the fictional world Twain has constructed"

While it's again entirely plausible that some arguments (1) praise HF, (2) take Huck's inadequacy of vocabulary as the result of the society he's embedded in, and (3) think this because of their need to uphold HF as a piece of canon (his use of the word idolaters), it doesn't follow that ALL arguments that do (1) and (2) necessarily do so because of (3). He doesn't state (3) as the cause of their thinking this, but his use of his word "idolaters" here seems to point towards that conclusion, which worries me.

Arac seems to, in many other places as well, give room for the possibility of accidentally (deliberately?) straw-manning his intellectual opponents by dismissing their arguments as being motivated by idolatry.

I think it's important to recognize, that while his concern is compelling, even if an argument is motivated by idolatry, this does not necessarily mean the argument itself is invalid. To say so is to attack the person giving the argument, rather than the argument itself, quintessential ad hominem.

His concern only goes so far as to alert us that we ought to look at the text for what it is, and work to avoid any biases we might have towards it. The worry is not a sufficient counterargument in and of itself. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

There's a fine line

I feel there is a pretty fine line between efficiently close-reading a text and beating down a text into a giant pool of nothing. Close-readings are always valuable, especially to slower readers like myself, because when a group of individuals have any type of discussion, there are always going to be different perspectives on any given point. It's helpful to gain insight to these other perspectives because one person's take on a certain scenario in the novel can change a solid portion of your own understanding of the novel. For the most part, I walk away from close readings feeling more solidified with the novel than I did while reading it on my own. However, there comes a point, which I think Rayna could have been alluding to, when close readings become an overly open forum to discuss minor details at major length. In Huck Finn, it is perfectly reasonable to discuss the use of the word "nigger" and why the word appears exactly where it appears. But there are plenty of other word choices that were most likely meaningless to Twain when he was writing the novel. It seems that sometimes when we are told to close-read a section, we search for every minute detail in the passage to have some sort of significance. When that is the case, I think close readings become a blunder because we force circles to fit into squares. Personally, close reading Huck Finn has helped me move away from just viewing the text as a war on racism, and more as an uncivilized journey of an outcast child maturing into his own character without the walls of civilization holding him in. So I think close reading is very helpful until it gets to go overboard.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


While close reading is crucial in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of any text, it is particularly essential in shaping one’s understanding of Huck Finn. The fact that oppositional interpretations of Huck Finn are still debated today reflects how the ambiguity of the text fuels the creation of a vast array of analyses. While we will never be able to pinpoint one “right” meaning , peeling back the layers of the story allows us to understand the text from an enlightened vantage point. Instead of simply being a story of a boy on a raft, the dialogue, internal reflections, descriptions, word choice, punctuation, structure and characterizations provide more depth, making it not simply the “adventures” of “Tom Sawyer’s companion,” but a profound piece of American literature. When engaging in a text through close reading, the intensified critical thinking allows the reader to see connections and symbolism that are not apparent on the surface. As we have seen in class, one of the most potent questions to explore when conducting a close reading of a passage is “why?” For instance, when we read the scene where Huck attempts to trick Jim following their separation in the fog, and Jim is hurt by his deception, we asked why the chapter did not end where it felt like a natural break could have been implemented. Why did Twain go on to write about Huck’s remorsefulness and regret? Why was the word “his” italicized when Huck said he could almost kiss Jim’s foot? While it was a small section of the story that might be overshadowed by scenes with intensified action, dissecting the minute details of it reveal a lot about the meaning of the text. To avoid an existential crisis I will not attempt to answer whether the meaning of a text depends on the authors intended meaning or shaped by what the reader personally takes from the text in the 300 word limit, but I will conclude by saying that while there might not ever be an ascertainable “right” meaning, that does not mean there are never any “wrong” interpretations of a texts meaning.

Space for free thinking

During class last week, one topic that became unavoidable was in regards to Huck’s morality.  No one was really able to come up with a definitive status of his moral compass.  My personal opinion on this dilemma goes back to the way that Mark Twain writes.  He sets up his narrative in a style that creates dialogue and action without much explanation to follow.  He drops his characters into a world that is in the midst of political and social upheaval.  In such a setting, it would be easy to think that Twain’s own biases and opinions would seep into the text.  However, he is able to somehow suppress his own voice, allowing Huck to chronicle moments in his life rather than extrapolating on them.

By leaving some questions unanswered, Twain makes room for his audience to fill in the gaps for themselves, in my opinion anyway.  He is not intruding on their beliefs, but setting up events to let the reader infer further for themselves.  This is where close-reading becomes vital to the process of getting through Huck Finn.  By reading in depth, the reader can take the time to make the connections for that Twain does not offer upfront.  Of course, this idea, that everyone’s opposing opinions can somehow be equally meaningful, may rub some people the wrong way.  But the point is that Twain has forged a space in the novel where people are able to think for themselves, having a chance to grow and develop in thought as the characters do the same.   

Some incoherent thoughts

I think before I can attempt to answer the question of why we should read Huck Finn/what's the purpose of close reading a text I should share what initiated my passion for reading literature.
Ever since I was a child I've always had a huge imagination. My head was always in the clouds and I'd happily fantasize of day dreams over and over in my head. Though thoughts can be scattered as soon as they float in my ever racing mind and each re-visit to a fantasy would ultimately never be the same. I loved reading because I wanted to experience more than the reality I was simply growing in (as overdone cliche and stupid that sounds) because I was bored with it or knew my limitations. Every time I'd pick up a book (one that would interest me that is) I'd dive into the pages of the story and picture it all clearly in my head. I always cherished the ability to live vicariously through the lives of others, whether they be fictional or not. 

In others, reading was not only a source to pass the time, it was a place I could go, an experience I could... well... experience without actually experiencing. (And here I praise the duality of body and mind. WOO!)

Going off that, sorta, the first time I opened Huck Finn weeks ago it was so difficult for me to make sense of the world depicted by this wildchild who could barely write a paragraph without me doing a double-take of his poor grammar.Of course, I say poor grammar coming from a literate (at least I hope I am) 21st century 'Merican who's had the privileged of what we deem to be "proper" education of the use of the english language. It took me a good getting used to the voice of Huckleberry because it was a voice from a character I was not familiar with and used words in different ways I was used to. I think what really allows Huck to embody is own character is the language he uses. I've always admired and respected writers who write in the dialect of their characters. As soon as I got comfortable and could hear the voice of Huck clearly in my head the world depicted in Twain's novel became all the moire real and authentic for me because of it's presentation through his unique voice and towards the end of the novel I was entrapped in it that I didn't take into account the larger picture that everyone else gets out of Twain's work. 

There are multiple layers to reading and how we interpret Huck Finn. On one hand, we can concentrate on his character and his personal account on his adventures. On other we can look at all the issues that are embedded in the text whether they have been put there intentionally or not. It really is crazy when you think about the humor in this story and how it paradoxes the harsh severity of people. 

It makes me uncomfortable when we discuss the writer's intention because it's something that we will never know (unless as Jarrett suggested, they write it all out) and also because as I writer myself, I believe that the process of writing/creating takes such a powerful form itself that it becomes a being of its own. Given that, things that are deep or interpersonal or whatever about the writer are revealed on the page without their intentions.  

(I am having major difficulty expressing myself now so I'm really sorry if none of this makes sense to anyway)

What's the point of it all?

Ever since I started taking higher level English classes where I was asked to close-read texts I have pondered this question.  I have a tendency to think "what's the point?"  Maybe those red drapes the author happened to mention twice were just red drapes, so when that kid across the room from me makes some big theory about how they symbolize passion or violence or whatever, I think "bullsh*t.  What's the big deal?  They're just drapes..."  But if I found out that the author meant those drapes to mean something, I probably would accept it.  So I guess I do have a tendency to consider the author's intentions as sort of "correct."  If I don't know the author's intentions or at least the context in which he or she wrote the story, I feel like I cannot fully understand it or make a proper judgement or argument about it.

However, while I believe that knowledge of intention and context can lead to a fuller understanding of a story, I suppose that when I think about it more deeply I do also believe that we can bring our own meaning and understanding to a story.  If you can glean meaning from a story or connect with a story on a personal level apart from the original intentions of the author, I think that your interpretation can be at least valid, even if it's not technically "correct."  So while I might be skeptical about the importance of red drapes, I understand and can accept the validity of other interpretations of a story.

(I hope this makes sense.  I had a really hard time trying to express my thoughts here...)

Literature is Everyone's.

So honestly, I'm not even really sure why this question seems like such a pertinent one, or why authorial intent has become such a worry for people at this stage in the game. I think I got those worries Freshman year starting out the English major, but at this point I think I've either internalized enough of the rhetoric, or (hopefully) come to understand something about literature that pushes me away from any worries about over-close-reading.

So here's my pitch, as it applies to both Huck Finn and any other piece of literature we might worry about textual ownership for or close reading.

1. What's the purpose of analyzing a text at all, close reading or not?

I'd imagine that we aren't going to say that it's to find out what the author wanted to say. If we wanted to find out an author's thoughts, we could ask, and if an author wanted to express thoughts on an issue clearly, (s)he'd write a paper on the topic, not a work of fiction. At the very least, the author's intent doesn't seem to be what we're getting at when we read a text.

Perhaps then, we ought to think that there's something more, something deeper. What is it? I'd propose that analyzing a text can do (at least) two things for us.

2a. Understanding a context, functioning as a social mirror. Works of fiction are products of their socio-political climate. They reflect things the author is exposed to, sometimes things they're not even aware of. They can reflect social oppression or social progress. They can show us what an author experienced, or what an author thinks (s)he experiences in his/her life.

By reading Huck Finn, for example, we get a picture of a time and place as interpreted by Twain. Even if Twain's read on the time/place is factually inaccurate, either by his deliberate manipulation or by subconscious social influence, we still get an understanding of how people like Twain understand their social climate, or the social climate of the time they're writing about.

2b. Hearing critique, deliberate or accidental. Authors sometimes write about what they see. Sometimes they don't like what they see, or aspects of it. Sometimes they do. Nonetheless they provide us with arguments via their observations and biases that we can choose to agree or disagree with. We can flesh out whether their observations are accurate or not, and we can decide whether their arguments are coherent and well thought out.

3. So, I think we should conclude that literature belongs to the interpreter.

It belongs to whomever is interested in viewing and considering it. It belongs to whomever is interested in pitching an argument about it's meaning in the context of the society the work exists in.

Huck Finn is a window into 1884, 1835-1845, and into today. It gives us a read on our history, on race relations, on how we ought to think of them, how we might work to change or improve them, among other things.

appreciation and growth through close reading.

My first thought is simple: we should close read Huck Finn to understand it better.  There are always layers to a book and to a character, as there are with people.  The closer you look and more time you spend getting to know them, the deeper you can understand and appreciate them.  

It reminds me of how I really disliked one of many best friends when I first met her.  Upon first interacting with her I identified her as a crazy type-A personality.  We totally clashed. The more time I spent with her and the more time I thought about her actions and why she did them, I could tell all of the crazy shit she’d say and do was coming straight from her heart and her desire to help out and make other’s happy or comfortable.  I love her now, but not when I first met her.  It was only through increased interactions with her did I see her awesomeness. 

I find I have similar experiences with characters in books or books in general.  I usually don’t like them that much when I first read them.  Through discussion and the more time I spend thinking about them, I find I can get a better understanding of the characters or book in general.  That “better understanding” usually goes hand in hand with appreciation of the work and eventually liking it too.

If we like, appreciate, or understand a novel for reasons unintended by the author, I tend to agree with John Green—“you still win”.  If you can be a more productive member of society benefiting yourself and others from what you learned by close reading a novel, that’s great.  That could look like applying the discipline of persistence and analyzing texts closely to a job you get or learning to love a friend, among other scenarios. 

Thinking about Huck Finn...

               Answering this particular question of why it is important to read Huck Finn is a relatively difficult one. The first time I read Huck Finn I didn’t necessarily take anything from it. However, coming back and re-reading it again has begun to change my perspective. The reason why I think Huck Finn is important is because I see him as one the most human characters ever created. I think the fact he is confused, doesn’t necessarily know the right actions to take, and is lost in the world trying to form meaning for himself makes him much more real. Huck’s quote “You can’t pray a lie,” (200) stuck out to me the most as I was reading the last half. And after he decides to help Jim instead of giving him up is the turning point within Huck’s character. Every human goes through a time in their lives in which they have to make difficult choices that test who they really are. I think Twain created the character of Huck Finn for a human base that was instructed of all the societal norms, and under those he creates adventures for Huck to take a journey that changes the way he thinks and feels. However, I think this concept only works if we try to bring our own interpretation and feelings to the book as well, because I don’t disagree that Huck is a relatively simple character at times. I think that the reader must be a companion to Huck, and must truly feel Huck’s confusion in a chaotic and violent world. Huck doesn’t make leaps and bounds when you consider his “transformation” within the novel, but our journey of reading his gives the reader a much more personal connection to Huck, even if he doesn’t make any drastic changes himself.


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Making Meaning

Close reading literature is an incredibly rewarding experience.  It allows us to not only learn more about the work itself but also about ourselves.  I believe that writers always write with a purpose, and close reading helps us to discover the pieces of the work that when put together, lead us to the bigger picture.  However, we as readers give the work meaning, and sometimes our interpretation conflicts with the author’s purpose – ultimately we each create our own individual picture of the work in question.  Whenever I read, I always feel that I am vicariously experiencing the events in the novel.  Reading is a personal experience.  For instance, say that ironically we have all been to Maryland at one point in our lives and have stayed at the same hotel and have gone to the same beach, etc.  Did we all have the same exact experience?  Of course not.

Looking at Huck Finn in particular, there are numerous articles and essays which close read Huck Finn with a modern perspective.  We gain so much from doing so.  Literature is not trapped in the time period in which the novel was written or set, and our own opinions on literature should not be defined by those of the author.  By interpreting Huck Finn, we bring it closer to ourselves in the present day.  I think it also brings us closer to each other.  Again, it’s like asking someone “Wow, I’ve been to London – how did you like it?  Did you see the Tower of London?  What did you think?  I LOVED it.”  That’s exactly what we do with close reading.  We have our own experience with the text, and then often share this experience with others.  I’ll have to admit – I always find author biographies extremely useful when reading literature as so many writers dip into their own lives for inspiration.  But again, that’s how I like to experience literature.  I don’t think you can force someone to have a certain experience/close reading of a novel.  The purpose of close reading is to create your own purpose.   

Some stream of conscious on the English major issue- Blog 2

It’s fun? This is a super hard question to have an “answer” to. I have had the same dark thoughts that Rayna shared with us and have often wondered the importance of intent and my own interpretation. I think that if the author’s intention for the author’s novel is completely lost in the reader’s interpretation, then the work has lost a lot of its value. Of course the reader’s interpretation might seem like it has value to themselves, but I do wonder what “value” that interpretation has if it is completely irrelevant and even against what the author intended. For example, Professor Goldsmith mentioned one of the critical essays being about a homosexual/homoerotic theme in Huck Finn, and the possibly sexual relationship between Huck and Jim. What value would this essay have if Mark Twain were to come back alive and tear that argument down and deny every bit of it? I posted a link at the end of my blog to an article about the problems of using google to “self-diagnose” illnesses on google. Even thought this seems irrelevant, I find that this English conflict we are having might be reflective of this issue. The article states, “the study reminds people that if they try to get medical help from the internet, they are limited by their own biases as well as the haphazard nature of the web”. Just like we might be biased and haphazard when it comes to interpretation of illnesses, we might all be “misdiagnosing” or misinterpreting works of literature because of biases.
            Well….now this just led me to think of why our interpretations might just actually matter. Maybe it doesn’t have any actual value when it comes to the text and its meaning; however, our joined interpretations could indicate what our society is absorbed with at any time. Taking back into consideration the critical essay on the homoerotic themes in the novel, its conclusions could be meaningful…. even though zombie Twain denies every bit of it. I'm not quite sure when the essay was written, but I'm going to hope that my assumption of within the past 20 years is correct. If we look at our society, there has been a lot of growth and conversation about the gay community. All of our modern interpretations matter, not because it might expose a huge secret that Twain twined into his novel—but because our interpretations document our mindsets, beliefs, and understandings as a community of that time through the median of a specific text. I wonder, if we turned our attention towards all of the critical essays written about Huck Finn from the time it was written until now, would we be able to see what biased the society of each decade? What were they infatuated with? What did they care about? What politics or social movements influenced their interpretation? Because at the end of the day, what Twain wrote and why he wrote it is fixed. And him being dead makes it a little difficult to edit, add, or alter anything about Huck Finn…especially in his zombie form… because zombies struggle making coherent sentences. However, the way a novel is read and understood does constantly keep changing. Not because each generation gets smarter or superior in their literary detective skills, but because they have different focuses.
            Thinking about it this way, literature is so complicated and can be representational of multiple timelines. The novels written might expose and document the author’s mentality in accordance to their own social surroundings. While the critical responses to it the years following, document a timeline of the social responses that might correlate or juxtapose the author’s position due to what social values the author of the essay might be invested in. So to try and conclude to something and answer, “what might we gain from interpreting the novel,” we gain an understanding of what the novel might have intended and then learn from it, build upon it, and re-envision our social understandings within the context of that novel.