Department of English Newsletter: March 2015

in this issue

“What Are You Reading?”/Interview with Gerry Canavan (’02)/Faculty Notes/”Respect the Book”/Alumni News/Schedule of Events

“What Are You Reading?”

Martha Woodmansee: The Great Escape

I’ve decided to tell you about my recreational, my purely escapist reading in 2014. It was precipitated by the virtual demise of the Plain Dealer. Deprived of the Sunday PD’s “TV-guide,” I wasn’t able to identify evening TV programs I might want to watch (on the five channels enabled by my very basic cable plan), so I had to abandon this escapist venue and return to books.

I’d recently purchased an iPad and discovered that all manner of books could be ordered and received on it within 5 minutes of purchase. What an impetus to “impulse reading”—so quick and so (relatively) cheap.

My adventure in escapist reading began with Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, all seven volumes of which I consumed in the $2.99 translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Sydney Schiff. This led me to two Proust biographies (recommended by my DMLL colleague Marie Lathers): the substantial one by William Carter and the short overview by Edmund White (which led me to White’s memoir, Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris).

In the interest of time and space, I’ll skip over the next ten to twelve histories I subsequently consumed of French, especially Parisian, culture since early modern times—a special passion of mine that I’ve been pursuing for many years—in order to call attention to David McCullough’s 2011 Greater Journey, an engrossing history of the first generation of American men and women who crossed the Atlantic to study and work in Paris between 1830 and 1900.

I credit this terrific American social historian with reviving my interest in American history. I think I’ve now read every one of his books, and his Harry Truman and John Adams biographies inspired me to dip into our “founding fathers” generally and into a good number of our subsequent presidents: H.W. Brands’s Benjamin Franklin; Ron Chernow’s George Washington and his Alexander Hamilton; Jon Maceacham’s Thomas Jefferson; Fred Kaplan’s John Quincy Adams; Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism; Brands’s FDR: Traitor to His Class; Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin and his Eleanor: The Years Alone—and so it goes.

So, as things turned out, with the exception of Proust’s novel, almost all of my recreational reading in 2014 was nonfiction—history, and especially biography. Why? Better, why would I recommend that you consider doing same in your down time? All of the nonfiction I consumed, the biographies especially, read like novels—they’re (more and less) masterful deployments of the panoply of narrative devices we associate with the great 19th-century realist tradition, so they’re not demanding. They reward “passive” consumption. Of course, one knows the conclusion in advance—biographies tend to begin with birth and end in death—but they mobilize much the same suspense as the great realist novels along the way. So they’re deliciously absorbing. And what one effortlessly absorbs is some of the larger history of the eras in which one is working or anticipates working. This is no small advantage for those specializing in the analysis of individual literary works. It helps remediate (embarrassing) educational deficiencies and offset the pressures toward silo thinking that accompany the disciplinary specialization required of us.

Judged in terms of the pleasure I got out of this excursion into history and biography I rank 2014 right up there with those lazy elementary-school summers before I knew about disciplinarity, underlining, and taking notes. It couldn’t have happened without my iPad, which resisted this entrenched scholarly compulsion. I cherish—and commend—it for this especially even as I commend promiscuous recreational “reading around” outside our discipline.

Erika Olbricht: Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Colonial World.

Londa L. Schiebinger’s book theorizes the role of forgotten medical knowledge via “agnotology—the study of culturally-induced ignorances.” This inquiry allows Schiebinger to ask questions of how and why we do not know rather than more traditional epistemological questions. In particular, she writes about herbal abortifacients, noting that while plants were moved from country to country (the “colonial bioprospecting” part of the book’s subtitle), knowledge of their controversial medical uses did not travel with them. A long-18th-century historian, Schiebinger writes with clear and engaging prose about feminism and science, challenging the standard narratives about women’s participation in science and how science is gendered.

Eric Earnhardt: Experience and Experimental Writing 

Paul Grimstad’s Experience and Experimental Writing treats works by Emerson, Poe, Melville, and Henry James as compositional experiments, responses to and constitutive of the ongoing “loop of perception, action, [and] consequences” that William James and John Dewey defined as “experience” against the “correspondence model” of squaring subjective inner images with objective outer things. Grimstad employs historical, biographical, and philosophical/aesthetic criticism to account for experiences of writers that bred experiments that created linguistic conditions for particular literary experiences: “the wording of the world into something shareable and meaningful.” The slipperiness of experience, the abrupt abstraction of concluding terms from each chapter, and the imprecise (sometimes anachronistic) relation of pragmatism to the chosen authors (especially Melville), suggests that this first book could have better refined its own bravely experimental method. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy for its discussion of Poe’s “The Raven” and for its effort to extend the worthwhile project of Richard Poirier and others of developing rigorous, pragmatic approaches to literary texts.

 Michelle Lyons-McFarland: Captain Alatriste

Published in translation in 2005 in the US and UK, Captain Alatriste is a historical swashbuckling novel by Arturo Perez-Reverte in the tradition of Alexandre Dumas, pere. While the work is a quick, entertaining read, Perez-Reverte does not treat his subject lightly. The novel continually shows how life is measured as a commercial transaction, both Alatriste’s own and the lives he is paid to end. Perez-Reverte lays questions of the value of life, honor, and service to the state in front of us, but as with any great writer, he refuses to give us easy answers to the problems Alatriste and the reader observe, even as he concludes the plot in a whirlwind of flashing steel.

Brian McLaughlin: No Longer Human

I read No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai (more accurately translated as Disqualified From Being Human). The Japanese novel begins and ends with a narrator’s comments surrounding excerpts of a journal he has found and some photographs that were with it, but the bulk of the novel consists of the diary entries of some unknown man, who we come to find out firmly self-identifies as an outcast but does not actually assert any sense of a true identity. Throughout the depressing course of the narration, the mysterious writer of the diary spends his time drinking, doing drugs, sleeping with women, and contemplating suicide. As self-loathing and dramatic as it sounds, nothing dramatic actually happens to him, and the diary abruptly ends. The person responsible for finding the diary (the “author”) reports at the end that he has heard that the owner of the diary is still alive somewhere in Japan; so all we have is a small cross-section of his time, but which we assume can probably stand in for the rest of his anticlimactic life. The novel is not just “sad” or “arbitrary” or “good/bad,” I think the novel itself is “Depressed.”

Sydney Pierce: “The Gernsback Continuum”

I chose this short story by William Gibson because it explored a lot of concepts within science fiction, specifically related to time and dystopia. The protagonist is a photographer commissioned to take pictures of art and architecture produced by people in the past, who speculated about what the future might have been. He becomes increasingly distressed by the ideas of “futures that never were,” imagined by individuals in the past through kitschy American architecture. These alternate futures that “never were” manifest themselves through art, playing into the idea of alternate realities and the disconcerting thought that we may potentially be living in a dystopia, as our present is nothing like what was envisioned in the ‘30s. It is interesting to think about what may have been, but never was, and if anyone’s ideas of the future can ever be correct.

Interview with Gerry Canavan (’02)

CWRU: How did this collection of essays examining the connection/
interrelationship of ecology and science fiction and your co-editorship with Kim Stanley Robinson come about?

Canavan: I was lucky enough to meet Stan when he came to an event on the intersection between science, science fiction, and religion while I was a graduate student at Duke. One of my dissertation advisors was the host of the event, and the other had been Stan’s own dissertation advisor way back when, so I was able to introduce myself and spend a bit of time getting to know him. I’m a big fan of his novels, especially the Mars trilogy, so that was a real pleasure. Around that same time, my friend Mark Bould and the British science fiction writer China Miéville put out their edited collection, Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction. I was working a lot in the ecological humanities then, as I still do, and it occurred to me that you could easily do a similar collection about science fiction and the environment and call it Green Planets. So I pitched the idea to Stan as a project we could co-edit together, and to Wesleyan University Press as a kind of unofficial sequel to Red Planets, and they both went for it. Since then someone’s come out with Black and Brown Planets, about science fiction and race, and the same person is doing a Yellow Planets as well (if the publisher will let him call it that) on science fiction and Orientalism. And there’s still a lot of colors left! I’d really like someone to do Pink Planets on feminist SF at some point.

Continue reading interview here.

Faculty NOTES

Michael Clune‘s book Writing Against Time inspired this musical composition by Christopher Trapani.

Congratulations to Susan Dominguez and William Siebenschuh, nominees for the 2015 Carl F. Wittke Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching.

The Dittrick Medical Center hosted a book launch for T. Kenny Fountain’s Rhetoric in the Flesh: Trained Vision, Technical Expertise, and the Gross Anatomy Lab.

Sarah Gridley‘s book Loom was reviewed by Martha Ronk alongside Anne Carson’s new book on Constant Critic.

Mary Grimm was interviewed at Luna Station Quarterly, a speculative fiction magazine featuring stories by emerging women authors.

Megan Jewell took part in the third installment of the Flora Stone Mather Research and Relaxation Speaker Series. She discussed the gender politics of the bibliography in Susan Howe’s poem “Melville’s Marginalia.”

Kristine Kelly co-curates “Reading Interfaces: Inquiries at the Intersection of Literature and Technology,” an exhibition and colloquium exploring contemporary works of electronic literature and poetic production across media. Kelvin Smith Library.

Dave Lucas‘s poem “Aran” appears in Orion Magazine.

William Marling has just signed a contract with Oxford University Press for his sixth book—Gatekeepers: The Emergence of World Literature and the 1960s (forthcoming January 2016).

John Orlock has won a Final Draft Award for Feature Films in the category of Period/Historical/War for The End-of-Summer Guest.

Brad Ricca took part in “Superman Meets Psychoanalysis,”an evening of discussion with Brad Ricca, Scott Dowling, Anna Janicki, and Ivan Schwarz sponsored by the Cleveland Psychiatric Center.

Will Rogers has received a Baker-Nord Center Digital Humanities Award to support work on his next book project.

Jim Sheeler’s multimedia storytelling/immersion journalism class was included in “9 reasons for Optimism for the Future of Journalism Education” published by PBS Mediashift. The class spent the bulk of the semester at the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center.

Always on My Own by James E. Long and William R. Siebenschuh has now been published by Red Giant Books.

Robert Spadoni presented ““Atmosphere, Narrative, and the Beginnings of Horror Films” at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, Montreal, Canada in March.

Gary Stonum gave a paper entitled “Keeping the Sublime at Bay” at the Walt Whitman & Emily Dickinson Colloque at the University Paris-Est Creteil.

Thrity Umrigar made two presentations at the Southern Voices Book Festival 2015 in Hoover Alabama.


Respect the Book: the Novel Club of Cleveland

by Joyce Kessler (’90 )

For seventeen years, I have been a member of the Novel Club of Cleveland. Every year, I engage in intense debates about the season’s books with its members, many of whom joined decades before me and who still actively participate in the affairs of the Club. Readers of this newsletter might well wonder what I am seeking in this book club. As a literature professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, don’t I have enough reading to do? Sometimes, as I scramble to finish reading a novel or writing a critical paper in time for the evening’s discussion, I ask myself those questions. There are lots of book clubs out there, recently formed or of long standing, and their members have various reasons for belonging to them—keeping up with the latest best sellers, being a part of a community of readers, etc. My particular reasons for membership in this club, though not entirely clear to me, are nonetheless based on a consistent value that I share with the Novel Club members: a respect for the book is their first principle, one that I have found repeated throughout my experience with them.

Simply put, the Novel Club is Old School.

At any given meeting over these years, I have been aware of a “burnished” quality about Novel Club gatherings. No matter which of the 36 members are in attendance, I sense an enduring aura of distinguished fellowship in the room, a feeling that Elizabeth Reeve Cutter and William L. Torrance, its founding members, are present in spirit. The Classical Novel Reading Union, as the Novel Club was first named, was established in 1896; it is now in its 119th season. Original members were drawn from the local Cleveland society, as are current members. I received my first invitation to attend a Club meeting from Joan Nordstrom, a close friend of my husband’s grandmother. After the year’s required vetting of my critical commentary by the members, I was invited to join the Club (thanks, here, to my dissertation committee). It may be that these communal ties and literary trials contribute to the closeness of the group, or it might be that if you squint, you can just make out the Old School Tie around the Collective Neck. In fairness, though, the Club cannot be characterized as a monoculture: the membership contains modest diversities of age, occupation, gender, and identity (if not class) that strike plenty of sparks in an evening’s meeting.  These very structured affairs are hosted in a rotation by members who open their living rooms or social club meeting rooms (a particular joy for me, since it means that I can tour some of the most beautiful old properties in Cleveland), for the book discussion, which is—there’s no other way to say it—the real deal.

Meetings begin with ten minutes of Club business, after which a biographical paper and a critical paper about the evening’s novel are presented. The members hold high expectations about rhetoric and style in these papers; equally high expectations about critical reading and coherent commentary apply to the discussions they are intended to provoke. Everyone has read the book, as a matter of respect for its having been chosen for the season, and most members express free and passionate views about it. I love being part of the urgent clamor of our discussions because it liberates me from the role of the dispassionate Dr. Kessler who leads the discussions in my literature classes at CIA. I don’t know which is more enjoyable – talking about novels that I never thought I’d get around to reading, like Hadji Murad, or discovering a whole new reason for loving Howard’s End. I am less comfortable talking about a book that Club members know is part of my area of expertise (the Club is my refuge from teaching), but I do revel in writing a critical paper on Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop or a biographical paper on Gabriel Garcia Marquez because these exercises permit latitudes in my critical approaches that I may otherwise never get a chance to explore. Most fun of all are the papers I get to write on books about which I know practically nothing (I hate to admit it, The Red and the Black). Even if, in the end, I don’t like the book, I respect the task, and that honor flows to the book.

The Novel Club’s venerable governance structure, reflecting the overall high seriousness of the Club, has not changed substantially throughout its existence. The Rules of Membership list prominently the responsibility of serving on the various Club committees. As a past Chair of the Program Committee, I led the season-long assembly of a slate of eighteen possible books for the next season, from among which nine were chosen by the membership at large. And as a Chair of the Council of Administration and Membership, I was responsible for courting members as possible Club officers for the following service term. At the time I filled these roles, my duties seemed no less important or involved than did my duties as Chair of the Liberal Arts Department at CIA.

Respect for the book endures in the Novel Club of Cleveland. Frequently, emeritus members are on hand to share bold critical perspectives. And although one need only be seventy years old and a member in good standing for fifteen years to achieve emeritus status, a significant number of the current members have cruised past that exit, showing up each month to argue hotly their readings of the novels. Though I’m not seventy (yet), I can see the exit up ahead, but I’m still having a good time. I’m planning to cruise for awhile.

Dr. Joyce Kessler is Associate Professor of Literature at the Cleveland Institute of Art.  She earned her PhD in American Literature from Case Western Reserve University. She served as Chair of Liberal Arts between 2009 and 2014, and as Interim Dean of Faculty from 2005 to 2007. Dr. Kessler teaches courses in women’s literature, comparative literature, narrative studies, literature and social history, basic composition, hybrid writing, and advanced expository writing. She has written on the topics of women’s studies and stylistics, but her scholarship is focused primarily on the fiction of Willa Cather. 

Alumni NewS

Jamie McDaniel (’10) has an article appearing in The Latchkey: Journal of New Woman Studies: “A Voyage into the Interior: Self-Possession and Reclaiming Somatic and Textual Property in Margaret Drabble’s The Millstone.

Elliott and Thompson have published Alum (’10) Brandy Schillace‘s Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Can Tell Us About Life and Living.

In February, Chalet Seidel (’10) took part in the department’s colloquium series with “The Ink Stained Wretch in the Academy: Reconsidering Service and/as Scholarship.”

Alum (’03) Carrie Shanafelt‘s article “On Teaching Early Gothic Fiction and Non-Empiricist Aesthetics” was published in the CEA Forum.

April Schedule Schedule of Events

Friday, April 3rd.
An Ecopoetics Event with Brian Teare (Temple University). Clark 206. 3:00 p.m.

Tuesday, April 7th
Fiction Reading with Evan Fallenberg. Clark 206. 5:00 p.m.

Friday, April 10th.
“Form, Subject, and Genre: Toward a History of Copyright for Newspaper and Magazine Writings,” a lecture by Will Slauter. (Sadar Lecture.) Moot Court (A 59) CWRU Law School. 3:00 p.m. Refreshments following.

Monday, April 13th.
“From Black Misery to Happy to be Nappy: Transformative Race & Body Politics in African American Picture Books,” a lecture by Cara Byrne. Clark 206. Refreshments 3:30. Lecture 4:00.

Tuesday, April 14th.
“The Drum Kit: A Hodgepodge of Cultural Signification,” a lecture by Mandy Smith. Clark 206. Refreshments 4:00. Lecture 4:30.

Thursday, April 16th.
“Waiting on Others: Performing Gender in Medical Waiting Rooms,” a lecture by Maggie Waltz. Clark 206. Refreshments 4:00. Lecture 4:30.

Friday, April 17th.
Adrian-Salomon Lecture. Speakers: Catherine Forsa and Kristin Kondrlik, current holders of the fellowship. Clark 206. Refreshments 4:00. Lecture 4:30.

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