Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One Reader's Definition of Montana Literature

Montana stories migrated from oral traditions into print shortly after the good old Rugged Individualists found their way into the Montana Territory. Immigrants had to be sturdy if they wanted to stay around here. The weak ones died or moved on to a more forgiving environment. From pioneer journals to 21st-century novels, Montana literature is permeated with themes pulled from this challenging and splendid landscape.

Montana literature is rural. Even in stories where people live in towns (Perma Red and A River Runs Through It) most of the action happens outside. The literature and poetry of Montana is populated with people who are forced to deal with their problems without a lot of props. They have to use what's here: blizzards; animals, birds, and plants; lakes, rivers, and creeks; wildfires; and vast landscapes and skies.

Nature is a dominant character in Native American stories by James Welch, M. L. Smoker, Joe McGeshick, Debra Magpie Earling, and others. Judy Blunt and Elise Lavender* may view the landscape from opposite ends of the social spectrum, but their relationships to it define them. Rivers flow in and out of the lives of Louise White Elk and Paul Maclean, saturating their stories with unique meaning and symbolism. Severe Western weather challenges characters in Maile Meloy's short stories.

Although new immigrants, following the same old dreams of freedom and independence, continue to arrive, and the writers among them inject Montana literature and poetry with urban themes, nature still dominates: Melissa Kwasny ponders geese while thinking of Novalis; Casey Charles explores gay issues as he watches aspens shuffle in Pony; Karen Volkman brings the sea to Montana with a sonnet…

Ultimately, Montana literature mirrors the landscapes that give it life. It is sturdy, beautiful, thrilling, and heartbreaking in ways that take a master wordsmith to describe.

* Elise Lavender is a character in Deirdre McNamer's short story, "Virgin Everything." ( The New Montana Story: An Anthology, compiled and edited by Rick Newby)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Graduation Remarks from UM Professor and English Department Chair Casey Charles

"Go then into this mythical real world and in the inimitable way of the English major, be valuable."

The Quality of English

For many professors, like me, graduation is both a happy and sad event, one we look on with both an “auspicious and dropping eye” as Claudius puts it, “in equal scale, weighing delight and dole,” largely because we are parting with such sweet sorrow from students we have taught and learned from over the years, students we have grown attached to, students who now must venture into the so-called “real world”—out into a place that has come to be defined in opposition to the academy—that institution which over the years has assumed an adjectival capacity as an experience “not expected to produce a practical result.” It strikes me as worthwhile to think for a minute about why the unreal city of academia and more particularly the supposedly impractical English major continues to command the attention of students in spite of the warnings of burger-flipping futures from parents and counselors, in spite of the university’s attempt to transform itself into a training ground for software companies and weapons laboratories, in spite of the prevailing media messages that happiness is measured by the definition of our screens, by the quantity of our pixels and megabytes, by the venture of our capital, our argosies on the high seas, and the ducats we have amassed. Why then does the English major at UM continue to grow—why do nearly 600 students continue to study the reasons why a pound of flesh is worth more than thrice three thousand ducats in The Merchant of Venice rather than learn econometric models or the principles of accounting?

What is the value of this English major any way, I know many of you are asking, having borrowed those ducats to put your kids through school or received them from student loan sources that are now drying up? What price Shakespeare, Joyce, the composition of a sestina, a lesson plan to present at middle school where starting salaries for teachers are less than that of bank tellers? Is it easier to read “The Clerk’s Tale” and “Bartleby the Scrivener” than memorize anatomy, perhaps? Easier to write essays and villanelles than identify strata or apply the law of physics? Hardly. We cannot call these graduates slackers; English is not the ready and easy way in spite of what received opinion may suggest. No one walks away from Medieval Studies or Theories of Pedagogy with an easy A.

No, my sense is that the success of our department and English Studies in general resides elsewhere, in a persistent force within our social consciousness that understands how, as Jean Howard has stated, literature is an agent in shaping a society’s sense of itself—how the fiction and nonfictions we create and study do not simply comment on some posited authentic world of W2s and mortgage payments, but instead actually help to produce our notions of what the real world is and what is important in it. While I admit a B.A. in English is not necessarily the easiest entrée into the board rooms and sky boxes of America, I want to argue this afternoon, for the value of that non-transferability. If your parents are anything like my Dad, who grew up over a grocery store in the Haight Ashbery during the Depression, they are probably wanting to know what the hell you’re going to do with a degree in English. How you are going to support yourself by writing short stories, what can you possibly say about Much Ado About Nothing that hasn’t already been said a thousand times—for Pete’s sake? I can hear him now, quizzing me while I leaned into the push broom, sweeping the yard for the fourth time in a month during another one of our Saturday “joy through work” sessions.

I would like to take just a minute this afternoon to reverse this perennial question parents ask of non-utilitarian English majors like you and me. Just for a second let’s not ask what good an English Major is in the real world, but ponder, instead, just for fun, what good a real world is without English majors? Indulge me for a moment to think what it would be like if we did cave into the prevailing rhetoric and reduce the English major to a degree in technical writing with subspecialties in advertising copy and business letters. Imagine, if you can, a world without literature, without creative writing, without Mrs. Hinton, your eighth-grade English teacher, asking you to think about man’s inhumanity to man and the treatment of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird in between her lessons about the mechanics of semicolons.

Think of this world, just for a second,—one devoid of Robert Frost beside John Kennedy on a cold January day in 1963, a world without Nikki Giovanni after Virginia Tech, a world without Upton Sinclair writing about oil men or Cormac McCarthy borrowing from Yeats to title his novel No Country for Old Men. What if we had no Beowulf, what if the Miller had not told his tale or Hamlet not seen his father in his mind’s eye. What if a bookish student from Christchurch had not decided to justify the ways of god to man, if Gulliver had not traveled or Mr. Darcy not been in possession of a good fortune and in search of a an unconventional and book-living wife like Elizabeth Barrett? Imagine a world, if you can, devoid of white whales, quoting ravens, red wheelbarrows glistening in the rain. Think of what a dooryard would be like without lilacs blooming, without a little women named Harriet penning another episode of a book that would start the Great War of Emancipation. I wonder what our world would be like if a poet had not compared thee to a summer’s day or counted the ways of love, if Prufrock had not been etherized on a table, if Amanda Wingfield had not waited for a gentleman caller, if Annie Proulx had not put Jack and Ennis on Brokeback Mountain. What would life be like in Montana if a poet from Seattle had not walked into the only bar in Dixon, if the sky had not been gray on that day in Philipsburg. What if a house wife on the High Line had never broken clean or more importantly not decided to write down her memories with the help of her creative writing professors?

Maybe a world without literature, its study and creation, a world without Leslie Fiedler and Edward Said and Jacques Derrida, would not have a very distinctive character, would not in the end be a very interesting or valuable place at all. Maybe we need to rethink what we mean by the quality of value in our world. It strikes me that these students before us today have learned not just to perpetuate the arts and entertainment channel, but to think deeply and critically about the role of culture and its representation in our world. Some will create, some will critique—all will be able to write, think, and question where and who we are in the twenty-first century. We have enough statistics to prove that in spite of my father’s questions the English major teaches the broad reading and writing skills that employers are clamoring for in an increasingly over-specialized world; we have enough data to show that most of you here today will land on your feet economically and will make a good living. Whether you end up in fly shops or on book flaps, whether you find yourself in a classroom helping students discover exactly what Pip’s great expectations really were, whether you develop closing arguments or open green businesses—most you will do well, but not because you had your heart set on the gold casket, I think, but rather because you have learned to understand the way books and films and language provide us with a deeper understanding of what really enriches us as a community. Go then into this mythical real world and in the inimitable way of the English major, be valuable.

Casey Charles, Chair
Department of English
University of Montana
Missoula, MT 59812
Graduation Remarks — 5/10/08