And what do I do to deserve your readership now? After five weeks of desert and starvation?
The blog is an elusive medium; I struggle to keep a firm hold on her. Rather than continuing to update you on my times and life, I give you now a bit of an essay on your times and life. Just something I’ve been thinking back on from the previous decade.
Ugly, Syphilitic Shankers: How to Be American Enough for US Lit Syllabi
(A New Narrative Essay)
Smoking a cigarette outside the classroom, my friend sings the song that goes, “There’s a hole in my bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza. There’s a hole in my bucket, Dear Liza, a hole.” I have it stuck in my head when the Perspectives in US Literature class erupts: When does American literature begin? 1492? 1776? Does work by authors who belong to marginalized social and/or cultural groups belong to the American genre, i.e., Is queer literature also American literature? Is feminist literature also American literature? Is African-American literature also literature? Is Native-American literature also American? Does literature have to be written by an American citizen to be American? Does literature have to be written on American soil to be American? What about all those expatriates: Pound, Eliot, Barnes? They left America for a reason. Can their work be considered American if it was generated out of a distinctly non-American lifestyle? Would they want to be a part of “American Literature”?
Suddenly, it isn’t about Djuna Barnes. It is about whether or not the students are gay or straight. It is about the fight for individual identity. It is about ownership of one’s own culture. I wonder if culture is a possession and look to the internet for evidence. It appears that, yes, one owns one’s own culture. Amazon.com associates sixteen tags with Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood: alcoholism, Barnes, classics, Djuna, Djuna Barnes, Eliot, Europe, high drama, homosexuality, lesbian, lesbian gothic, lesbianism, mental abuse, Nightwood, obsolescence and sentimentality, transnational modernism. These are the words by which Amazon.com believes its customers would search if they were looking for the book. (Correction: One owns one’s own culture through literary classifications so long is one belongs to a group that has been outcast by mainstream society. Apparently, there is no ownership of mainstream culture on Amazon.com, my primary resource for anthropological evidence.) I don’t even want to touch on “obsolescence and sentimentality”, but there is very little that is American about the phrases, “Europe” and “transnational modernism”. So is it American literature? Alcoholism, homosexuality, lesbianism, and mental abuse get shelved in their own sections at Barnes and Noble, I am quite sure; homosexuality is very un-American.
I click on “transnational modernism,” what someone in class thought was more important to the novel (we decided it would be okay to call the text a novel, which is a whole different can of worms) than lesbianism. Someone else thought there was nothing more important to the text’s classification than lesbianism. If it wasn’t a lesbian book, then the mainstream was stealing gay culture, stomping on gay people’s right to exist. I think maybe gay culture is shortchanging homosexuals by trying so hard to make itself distinct from mainstream culture. Separate is not equal, thanks so much, Jim Crow. Maybe gay culture would be pleased if Norton published the Norton Anthology of Homosexual Literature; it could have a lot of short stories about club drugs, designer shoes, hookups in the bathrooms of Manhattan nightclubs, and AIDS. No, that sounded wrong. This is not a hateful essay; it is a frustrated essay. I will add this for good measure: Maybe American culture would be pleased if the Shorter Eighth Edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature contained nothing but personal essays on corn, baseball, Ford trucks, and the Kennedy family. Now Americans and gays are equally tongue-lashed. Luckily for all those gay Americans out there, they don’t have their own literary classification… yet. If they did, they would be doubly insulted by my angry ravings.
Amazon returns thirty-six product results for “transnational modernism”. They are primarily novels by Virginia Woolf and a smattering of Harlem Renaissance writers, although this is said both truthfully and for effect. There was also some Ernest Hemingway and Cane by Jean Toomer. American literature between the beginning of World War One and the end of World War Two either screams, “My maiden name was American but I got married as quickly as possible so I could have it legally changed to European,” or, “I wish it were legal for me to marry one of those white, full citizens so I could have my last name changed from Black to American.” I trust Amazon’s marketing scheme enough to believe that these really are the books that qualify as the core of transnational modernism.
Toomer’s Cane got to be tagged as American literature, African American literature, and transnational modernist. I find that confusing. How can it be American and transnational at the same time? How can it have a national identity based on its nation and a cultural identity based on its nation that have nothing to do with one another? Also, when did being black start negating an author’s American-ness? I don’t see a tag for white literature. My Amazon search for “white literature” turns up a series of books on black literary theory and a book called Stuff White People Like: A Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions. Better yet, when will being black stop negating an author’s American-ness? Black and American are unrelated ideas, at least after the fourteenth amendment in 1868 and certainly after the fifteenth amendment in 1870.
I think that at the beginning of the twentieth century, those things that once shaped what it meant to be an American took back seat in the literary community. No more of this everybody moving west toward a greater destiny stuff; war is disillusioning— black Americans moving north, away from the ghosts of slavery; educated Americans moving east, back to the freedom and bohemianism of European art-culture; Hemingway Americans moving south, searching for a looser woman, more fish, and another bottle of rum. By World War One, the West is dead to American literature. But what is American literature without the West?
This question makes me wonder if the last essay I wrote for this class, “From Sea to Shining Sea,” was a crock. This is disconcerting because I was not consciously bullshitting that essay, so I think about what makes early American literature and modern American literature different from literature of the World Wars. I look for a way to separate works of this era from the overall American-ness of American literature without referencing the separate shelf Borders might have for the period.
Along with the World Wars, we are brought the question of what it means to be a part of the American literary cannon because? The American ideal is in jeopardy, not only at home but everywhere. The government asks young battle-ready men, “Which is more important to you: your life or your lifestyle?” Suddenly, shiny, patriotic boys are being blown to shit in German trenches. If they make it home, they most likely have serious cases of shell-shock from their hellish combat-trauma and ugly, syphilitic shankers on their penises from the French prostitutes with whom they cheated on their wives. This disturbs everyone who esteems the American ideal, i.e. Rosie the Riveter. Famous writers, resentful of the Rosies of the world, abandon ship and move to the left bank in Paris to have torrid homosexual affairs or spend some time in Spain to watch bull fights through the comforting haze of red wine (see Djuna Barnes and Ernest Hemingway respectively). After this, there was the cold-war, which put Americans back on track with their ideals, so it really is just this 1914-1945 anomaly I have to be concerned about when considering my last essay. Perhaps this thought is a little malformed as it makes all of 1914-1945 seem like one moment, but it gives me enough to work with, which is to say:
At the end of the day, Ezra Pound is a horrible candidate for consideration in American literature. He was a fascist! He didn’t do any of his important work in America! He didn’t even like America! Even the Norton Anthology of American Literature says, “Convinced that his country had no place for him— and that a country with no place for him had no place for art— he went to Europe in 1908” (Norton 1946). Ezra Pound left America almost directly after he earned his M.A. The only substantial amount of time he spent in the US in his adulthood were the twelve years following World War Two in which he was institutionalized because the judicial branch found him to be so insanely un-American that he wasn’t even fit to stand trial for treason. As soon as petitioners freed him, he moved back to Italy. Yet, all that considered, there is Mr. Pound, grinning from US lit syllabi everywhere. I have it figured out now. There isn’t any such thing as American literature. Or if there is, it is limited to the 690 probably arbitrarily selected products that pop onto my screen when I click the tag “American literature” on Amazon.com. And even if there isn’t American literature, that’s fine. I can be an American without having an American literature shelf at my local bookseller. Why is literature considered American? Because American literary scholars call it that. Why do American literary scholars call it that? So they can have some American literature to study. That’s just fine. I give up. I think I’d rather sing the song that’s still stuck in my head than argue in circles. It’s all an infinite loop motif anyway.
“There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza,/There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, a hole./Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,/Then fix it, dear Henry, dear Henry, then Fix it./With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, dear Liza?/With what shall I fix it, dear Liza, with what?/With some straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, dear Henry,/With some straw, dear Henry, dear Henry, some straw.The straw is too long, dear Liza, dear Liza,/The straw is too long, dear Liza, too long,/Blah, blah, blah in circles.”
I always thought of this song as very American, but I couldn’t remember all the lyrics, so I looked them up on Wikipedia. It turns out, this American song started out as a German song. I really give up now.
Eat local honey for spring allergy voodoo.