A Masterful History Lesson as Reported by Henry James Foster Wallace

125970515-u6oulgzq-singaporenov09208

 

Whenever anyone who discovers I’m a teacher starts in on the familiar refrain about how underpaid we are, I assure my well-meaning new acquaintance that some of us are not underpaid. For example, take my high school Spanish teacher, Senora Equis, that dour, unimaginative functionary. Her only lesson plan was punching play on a tape recorder and having us repeat parrot-like what we thought we heard. The voices on the recording were not quite human, too cheerful, the words overly annunciated, as if directed at a hard-of-hearing octogenarian in a nursing home located in Disney World.

I remember remarking to mis amiga Sharon Mallard that a trained chimp could replace Senora Equis and very little would be lost. Dress Cheetah in a poncho, have him knuckle his way into the room, hop on the metal desk, click play, and plop down as we intoned in unison, “Que lastima, lo siento” or “Tengo catarro” or “Las putas estan muy bonita” and you wouldn’t be losing a thing.

cheetah

On the other hand, if you paid teachers according to how hard they worked, the difficulty of the task, and on the quality and worth of their product, my former colleague Natalie Herford should be making more money than Jadeveon Clowney.

Since I’d given up being Department Chair a couple of years ago, I decided it was high time to discard some of my unnecessary electronic files when I ran across a narrative of an observation I had made of one of Natalie’s history classes. She had been new to the school, and the word was out that she was spectacular. I asked her if she’d mind if I hopped on the train of colleagues who had sat in on one of her classes, and she, said, “Of course. I’d love to have you.”

Part of my duties as Department Chair was observing my colleagues. Rather than using the official form for observations, I wrote narratives of what I observed, trying the best I could to render the action from the objective point-of-view, as if I were video recorder. Let the teacher and principal decide for themselves what is effective and what is not.

Natalie was in the history department, in fact, its chair, so I was not required to document my observation. However, I told her I would compose one of my narratives and share it with her and Sarah, our principal, if she liked. This time, however, for my own amusement, I created a persona I called Henry James Foster Wallace to report what happened during the class.

 

Henry James Foster Wallace’s Observations of Mrs. Natalie Herford’s AP World History Class on 6 February 2009

 

When your Semi-Omniscient Narrator (henceforth SON) arrived at Room 204 a couple of minutes before class time, it surprised him to see the students sitting upright and engaged in a group conversation with Mrs. Herford who stood before them in the center of the room.   Glancing up at the so-called atomic clock, SON was relieved to see that, no, he wasn’t (at least officially) interrupting class.

Acknowledging his presence, Mrs. Herford in her somewhat patrician precisely annunciated, but indeterminate accent welcomed him to sit anywhere.   She added, “Feel free to participate as much as you like.” Demurring, SON bombastically announced that like the novelist Flaubert he would be invisible but omnipresent, hovering like a god. Mrs. Herford offered an indulgent smile at his pomposity and addressed him henceforth as “O Invisible God.” This incident, however silly, was the first instance of a pattern SON would later discern: Mrs. Herford adroitly picks up idiosyncratic comments in the class and later echoes them to create humorous motifs that provide a sort of dramatic structure to the proceedings. Her mental agility, her profound mastery of the subject matter, combined with a brilliant, almost ballerina-like ability to embody abstractions in physical movement, make Mrs. Herford an incredibly dynamic and effective teacher. [1]

Room 204 is a bright, orderly space with yellow dominating the color scheme. A black and white photograph of the three Camelot-era Kennedy brothers counterbalances on the opposite wall a reproduction of a WW2 poster of Churchill jabbing an index finger Uncle-Sam style. On the back wall hang two large maps of the Western and Eastern hemispheres. Most interesting, however, is a series of typed sayings on 8 1/2 x 11 white paper that create a sort of intellectual wainscoting running across three walls of the room. Alas, being only a semi-omniscient narrator, SON was able to make out the content of only one of these literary ornaments, a colloquial pugilistic quote from Marx about getting kicked and kicking back. The room’s arrangement, its tidiness, suggests that this is a serious place, a place of business.

Which it is. About 30 seconds before class was to start, Chad Livingston[2], looking a bit frazzled, hurried into class, and Mrs. Herford said, “And here is Chad arriving just in time not to be counted tardy,” which SON took to be a subtle corrective, a suggestion to Mr. Livingston that he should arrive earlier so that the show can get on the road promptly the instant the second hand of the atomic clock reaches its zenith denoting 8:10 A.M. Eastern Standard Time. As it happened, Mr. Livingston probably had been rummaging in his locker searching for some lost document, a précis or AP application perhaps[3], because Mrs. Herford asked if he had said document, and Mr. Livingston asked for another.   Amusedly disgruntled, Mrs. Herford chided, “This does not bode well, does it, Chad,” and he reversed field, grinning and saying that he was hadn’t lost whatever it was he couldn’t produce, a performance that your SON found unconvincing.

As Mr. Livingston took his seat, instruction commenced. Arranged in a rectangular “semicircle,” two-desks deep, the students maintained excellent posture through the next forty minutes, an impressive feat for high-achieving, over-involved scholars, athletes, and amateur thespians, especially so early on a frigid Friday morning. In fact, throughout the entire class, the students maintained an impressive level of attentiveness, and eight of the nine scholars contributed at some point to Mrs. Herford’s Socratic questioning. The one student who didn’t contribute, the ever-taciturn Pamela Blanton[4], sat directly in front of SON preventing his being able to gauge her level of attentiveness. However, Miss Blanton not only sits on the front row, but also sits closest to the stool upon which Mrs. Herford sometimes perches[5], so it seems extremely unlikely that the bashful Miss Blanton wasn’t mentally engaged in the academic content of the lesson. Throughout the class, on at least three occasions, Mrs. Herford referred to the students as “ladies and gentlemen,” appellations that corresponded aptly to their behavior.

Mrs. Herford began by providing a rough road map of what lay ahead, a revisitation of Russia in light of the previous night’s reading. Mrs. Herford began by asking the students what had been going on the last time they visited Russia. A chorus of contradictory responses rang out, with Hendrik Kohlman harkening back to the Mongols and Angela Nielson remembering something about the Ivan tsars. Mr. Kohlman, who is 15-going-on-65, speaks with such an oddly anachronistic formality that you wouldn’t be surprised to look over and see that he’s sporting knickers and an Eton collar. He immediately recognized his error, and complained, “It’s Friday morning.”

Then, with extraordinary dexterity, Mrs. Herford in a Socratic cross-examination elicited from the students a remarkable distillation of half-a-millennium of Russian history, taking us from Mongols and princes to tsars and serfdom. In forcing the students themselves to provide the correct answers, Mrs. Herford engages in an animated artform that combines ballet and charades. When she asks a question, her face is quizzical, as if she has momentarily forgotten the answer, and when a student comes up with the correct response, her face lights up. Students want to generate that smile, so they take intellectual risks in perhaps being wrong. If they are incorrect, Mrs. Herford asks qualifying questions. To coax the answers from them, she gracefully uses her hands, pushing her palms out towards the students to suggest exile, say, or interlacing her fingers to suggest the combining of forces. Because she’s perpetually in motion and the class is so small, students don’t have the luxury to wander off into the lurid klieg-lit rooms of their imaginations.

Once Mrs. Herford had navigated her students through the ages, from the steppes of the Mongols to the marshes of St. Petersburg, she began the central focus of the day, a demonstration of a succession of Russian rulers who in subsequent administrations oscillated from reformation to reaction, a rather disheartening pingponging between liberalization and repression. To capture visually this historical movement, Mrs. Herford drew a crossgraph on her white board with “reform” and “reaction” as the twin headings. As she was hurriedly constructing her graph, Mr. Kohlman announced that “this is a little off topic” but that he reckoned, somewhat egocentrically perhaps, that there might be a fortune to be made in manufacturing loose leaf paper with vertical rather than horizontal lines, paper that would be well-suited to accommodate the graph Mrs. Herford was creating. Showing a surprising ignorance of product creation and promotion, Stephen Paddington pooh-poohed this idea by saying that you would need special binders if you manufactured vertically lined paper. Some other unidentified voice reasonably suggested that you could in fact turn your binders sideways and accomplish Mr. Kohlman’s objective. Rather than launching into a side trip to enlighten Mr. Paddington about the nefarious practices of the Lords of Capitalism and how creating products that won’t accommodate older products’ plug-ins is one of their dastardly techniques[6], Mrs. Herford, perhaps thinking of the centuries and various cultures stretching before her in the three-and-a-half months before the AP exam, quickly shut down the conjecture by assuring Mr. Gadsden that indeed if there were a market for vertically lined paper, surely some enterprising entrepreneur would have created it by now. Later in the class Mr. Kohlman– who otherwise proved a valuable contributor to providing correct answers to Mrs. Herford’s questions – tried to interject another distraction, which Mrs. Herford ignored, as she talked through his interruption. She did, later on, say that she thought it was a good idea for students to copy the graph in the notebooks, “whether on paper vertically lined, or otherwise,’’ a deft allusion to Mr. Kohlman’s original observation.

As the ping pong ball bounced from tsar to tsar, from Nicholas I to Alexander II to Alexander III, Mrs. Herford scrawled information in the Reaction column or the Reform column, switching alternatively, depending on whether the adjacent rulers were purging dissenters or liberalizing education. Whether consciously or not, she was creating a visual Hegelian historical dialectic that was particularly apropos given that Marx stood waiting just outside the present scope of the day’s lesson. In addition, as Mrs. Herford discussed the concept of Russianization, she successfully encouraged students to synthesize other similar movements in different cultures they had studied such as Sinofication in China and the persecution of Huguenots under Louis XIV. As a side note, Mrs. Hereford’s arrangement of cross-referencing various cultures during similar times (the alternating method) rather than starting with medieval China and taking it to the 2Oth century and then going to India and doing likewise (the block method) mirrors these students’ most recent essay assignment in English, a comparison-and-contrast composition in which their instructors encourage them to use the alternating method rather than the block method.

With energy that never flagged, Mrs. Herford guided her charges to the very end, stating at 9:43 that she had two minutes, “and you know that I am going to use them.” She mentioned a précis that was due Monday and some pivotal, important question that she had hoped to ask today but that would have to wait until Tuesday. Her “marketing” of this question successfully spurred the interest of SON who would have liked to be there to discover what the mysterious question entailed and how the students might respond to it. Unfortunately, however, time was up, because another set of students was filing in for their turn to learn under this extraordinary teacher.

Natalie possesses the same quality that my very best teacher Dr. Jack Ashley possessed, the ability to make students want to please him, so they do their best, revising those essays, trying to make them even better so that the teacher will be proud of them.

And talking about a role model!

Mrs. Natalie Herdford

Mrs. Natalie Herdford


[1] Mrs. Herford’s command of Russian history is phenomenal. Without so much as a note, she effortlessly rattled dates, names, movements, etc.

[2] I have changed the students’ names.

[3] cf. the modifier of “omniscient” in the author’s acronymic nom de plume.

[4] For the sake of full disclosure, it should be noted that Miss Blanton is a far-distant cousin of the author’s.

[5] Actually, all told, Mrs. Herford spent ~ 8 seconds on that stool.

[6] As your SON would be tempted to do.

Jonathan Franzen, Literary Piñata

Looking at the Thing

I guess I was one of the last English majors to be trained to look at literature through the supposedly un-tinted lens of what used to be called New Criticism.

Back then, we were taught not to factor biography into our assessment of artistic products. According to this way of judging art, the fact that Cormac McCarthy’s ex-wife pulled a “gun out of her vagina and threatened her boyfriend with it when a sex act/argument about the existence of aliens [. . .] took a turn for the weird” does not shed any light on McCarthy as an artist.

New Criticism demanded we look at and judge a poem, play, story, or novel according to its architectonics and organic synthesis. In other words, it was the imposition of the scientific method upon the creative product, a detached analysis of how parts fit into a whole to highlight some sort of significant statement about what it means to be human.   Call me hidebound, but I prefer New Criticism, which now goes by the moniker of “formalism,” to reader-response criticism, semiotics, new historicism, etc.

6a00d8341c630a53ef0134862b33e8970cSo I’m not much interested in Jonathan Franzen’s biography, his Midwestern roots, his literary heroes, his divorce, his love of birds and disdain for predatory house cats. I’m not interested in judging him as a human being; I am, though, interested in his art, his novels’ architectonics, character development, and entertainment value – not necessarily in that order. Even if Franzen himself in an essay on Edith Wharton claims that “a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character,” I’m not interested in writers’ characters or personalities; I’m interested in their books.

Why Creative Artists Frequently Hold Critics in Disdain

I’ve started to write I don’t know how many novels but only finished two, both of which were comic and featured adolescent protagonists, so I didn’t have to wrestle with the complexities of adulthood nor fear the consequences of failing at trying to create a serious work of art. Nevertheless, even in the construction of those piddly narratives, I suffered a bit in that I ended up spending hour after hour locked in the sordid little garret of my own unconscious, not a very pleasant or healthy place.

Writing a novel is hard. Faulkner, who cranked out As I Lay Dying in 6 weeks, said writing a novel is like “trying to nail together a henhouse in a hurricane.” Of course, the English form has its roots in the 18th Century and especially flourished in the 19th when middle class people needed something to do during those long, gaslit but wirelesses nights. Back then, many considered novels unhealthy, the way my father thought my reading comic books was unhealthy, the way some parents think playing video games is unhealthy. Another oft-employed metaphor in this context is junk food. Think of Paradise Lost as a banquet and Monk Lewis’s The Monk as a big bag of licorice jellybeans.

According to Marc McGurl’s The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James, before James no one thought of a novel as a work of art, and, of course, James Joyce’s Ulysses demonstrated not only that a novel could be a work of art, but it could also be high art. So I say J. Joyce and H. James have made the serious novelist’s work more difficult because now this genre that has its origins in entertainment and costs a lot to produce and market needs to be ideally both high art and entertaining, and when’s the last time you’ve seen someone on the subway reading a paperback edition of Absalom, Absalom?

When critics do their jobs and judge books and find them lacking, so-called creative writers sometimes mock the critics as functionaries (muse-less hacks), or worse, vampires (parasites living off of someone else’s creativity).

Not surprisingly, Yeats has expressed these sentiments as well as anybody:

The Scholars

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,

Old, learned, respectable bald heads

Edit and annotate the lines

That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair

To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

 

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;

All wear the carpet with their shoes;

All think what other people think;

All know the man their neighbour knows.

Lord, what would they say

Did their Catullus walk that way?

Christian Lorentzen’s Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Latest Novel

Despite my being a mere dabbler in writing fiction and poetry, I have to admit I felt a little like Yeats when reading Christian Lorentzen’s review of Purity in New York magazine.

Don’t get me wrong. Lorentzen’s review is in many ways brilliant and unequivocally very entertaining. The cat is a superb stylist and, as we say on Folly Beach, knows his shit. In fact, I laughed out loud in the bar where I was reading the review when I read this sentence:

Franzen proves adept at telling an old-fashioned murder story, even if he pounds the notes of guilt and shame a little too hard with his Victorian hammer.

However, despite his protests otherwise, you can’t help get the impression that Lorentzen really dislikes Franzen the man. I’ve added the italics:

Prisoner of a too-early, too-idealistic marriage premised on mutual artistic success, a taste of which he got and she didn’t. En route to a divorce colored by his wife’s failure to sell a book, confusing the end of love with rage against environmental devastation, trying in vain to sell out with a dud of a screenplay that sublimated his marital crack-up. Depressed and penniless divorcé, coping with writer’s block and his own competitive instincts in the face of his friend’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, by trying to figure out what it means to be a reader. Resurgent literary champion, reaping the rewards of a decade’s struggle but always prone to media gaffes. Advocate and lover of birds, even if it sometimes seemed the ornithologist-novelist was copping a move from the lepidopterist Nabokov. Time cover boy with a net worth reported to be in the eight figures, but always generous to younger writers as well as select literary forebears. Failed television writer (when HBO preemptively canceled a series adapted from The Corrections) and pained bystander to his brilliant friend’s suicide, an awful thing to endure, however muddled Franzen’s public response (“suicide as career move”?) has sounded. Scourge of online culture, an endearingly Sisyphean self-appointment. I confess I find Franzen the man sympathetic at every turn. I only wish that next time he returns with a novel that isn’t a bad date.

Only 6 of the 21 paragraphs of the review deal with Purity, and given the above, it’s not surprising that Lorentzen finds the novel lacking. Its “execution is shoddier” than that of The Corrections and Freedom, its “[b]its of sociology break the spell of a convincing present.”

Franzen in 1977

Franzen in 1977

For whatever reason, lots of people seem to have it out for Franzen, people like Matt Yglesias, whose writing I dig.  They tend to develop a real animus for Franzen. Do they find him smug, too contemporary, too ambitious? Was Franzen that kid in school whom everyone picked on?

All I know is that I find his novels entertaining, and I care about his characters. From The Corrections I know what having Alzheimer’s feels like, and I also know that creating realistic characters and placing them in three-dimensional spaces is really, really difficult, like, um, “nailing up a henhouse in a hurricane,” so I’m inclined to give novelists more slack.

I know, I know, creative and analytical intelligences are very different (I suspect that Mrs. Harold Bloom isn’t packing heat, even in her purse), and critics must do their jobs, but every once in a while, before they start gathering their stones, they ought to at least sit down and try to write a sonnet.