Sunday, March 29, 2009

Conversations with Distinguished Alumna Young Jean Lee, Wed April 1, 5 PM

Young Jean Lee, Photo by Gene Pittman courtesy Walker Art Center

On April 1, the English Department will be having its second event in its new series, “Conversations with Distinguished Alumni/ae.” Professors Catherine Gallagher and Scott Saul will be talking with playwright Young Jean Lee, who received her BA, with highest honors, in 1996. Young Jean went on to spend six more years as a PhD student in the Department where she focused on Renaissance literature under the mentorship of Professor Stephen Booth, whose own acerbic wit and willingness to shock his own audiences into thought finds their echos in Young Jean’s work. After what she calls a “quarter-life crisis” in 2002, she decided to abandon academia to try her hand at writing, rather than studying, plays. She moved to New York, started her own theater company and, since then, has shocked, challenged and entertained audiences with plays that treat touchy contemporary issues like race and religion with unremitting self-awareness and unexpected humor.

Indeed, Young Jean even describes the philosophy behind her writing process with her tongue somewhat—or somewhere—in her cheek: “When starting a play, I ask myself, ‘What’s the last play in the world I would ever want to write?’ Then I force myself to write it.” Not only does this allow her to silence her inner critic so she can get something down on paper, but it has also led her to tackle issues that she might otherwise shy away from. This was particularly the case in her 2007 play Church, which consists of an evangelical Christian service (complete with sermon, praise dancing and a gospel choir) that sincerely attempts to convert people to Christianity. Having grown up resisting the religion her extremely evangelical Korean family pressed on her, Young Jean confessed that the play was “a nightmare and a challenge for me.” Church received rave reviews from audiences, however: Time Out New York went so far as to say that they “would happily worship in the house of Young Jean Lee.”

Young Jean tackled another delicate subject – Asian-American racial identity politics – with characteristic humor in Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven: A Show About White People in Love. The play follows a character named “Korean-American” as she navigates a cliché-ridden “Korean” world until a white couple appear to take over the stage with the drama of their dysfunctional relationship. The play is rife with caustic moments – for instance, when one of the white characters announces, “You know what’s awesome? Being white” – but as the audience laughs and squirms in its seats, Young Jean Lee makes them confront the realities of racial bigotry head-on. Similarly, her searing treatment of racial identity politics in her latest play, The Shipment, tweaks, pulls and twists contemporary cultural stereotypes of black America, such as the black comedian, the thug rapper, and the African American class. The form of the play – perhaps her most eclectic yet – includes a song-and-dance number, a stand-up comedy routine, a surrealist sketch and a short naturalistic play.

Controversial? Certainly and deliberately so. But The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, and other papers or journals have joined in their acclaim for what one review called “the jittery, jagged, body of work that resists pat definition.”

With her inexhaustible audacity, her fearless humor and her exceeding self-awareness, Young Jean promises to shock and delight both Professors Gallagher and Saul as well as those of us in her audience. Come to the Maude Fife Room at 5 PM on April 1. We’re confident that you won’t be disappointed, and we know you will not be bored!
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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Literary Notes

The first volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett has been published, and it was no small accomplishment. As Nicholas Lezard at the Guardian notes, "the breadth of allusion, and the allusive and elusive wordplay you might have expected between intimate and highly educated correspondents ("'nastorquemada nyles' has not been identified with certainty," say the editors, and I can't say I blame them)" made transforming the corpus of correspondence into something readable a daunting task. Apparently he even had terrible handwriting, which he called his "foul fist." But since the writer's famous privacy didn't stop him from writing a staggering number of letters, the idea of "the authentic early Beckettian tang, straight from the source, unmediated by artifice," is a wonderfully attractive prospect. Kevin Jackson at the Sunday Times observes that his "immature voice," is still, "highly entertaining...[that] these letters are crammed with unexpected treasures, including displays of his dazzling erudition as an amateur art historian and his charmingly impractical ideas for the alternative careers he might pursue." And while Anthony Lane, in the New Yorker, notes that "Beckett was no Byron," and that "nobody could maintain that the letters brim with a zest that exceeds the range of the printed works," Lane still can't turn away: "The correspondent's phrasing has a natural, gusty soar to it, but the novel takes it higher." Yet "if you want to trace the tributaries of that book's mournful wit to their source," he writes, "the letters are invaluable..."

Until around mid-20th century, Jennifer Schuessler notes that Jane Austen was regarded as an author for men and boys. Benjamin Disraeli read Pride and Prejudice 17 times, and Matthew Arnold and John Henry Newman read Mansfield Park every year. The historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay read Austen obsessively and, as a colonial administrator in India, wrote letters home comparing various colleagues to characters in Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Kipling's 1923 story "The Janeites" was about a platoon of British soldiers who use Austen talk to distract themselves from the horror of the trenches.

As Matthew Pearl (writing in Slate), discovered while doing research for his historical novel about Charles Dickens, when the world famous author toured the United States, he found himself the victim of a phenomenon he had difficulty making sense of: the celebrity stalker. "How queer it is," Dickens lamented "that I should be perpetually having things happen to me with regard to people that nobody else in the world can be made to believe." Pearl claims that "authors like Byron, who promoted his personality along with his poems, tempted readers into feeling themselves engaged in a personal relationship with the author beyond the pages of a book," but that it was "in crafting the biggest brand name in literature by writing for all classes, and making himself publicly visible through his unprecedented reading tours, [that] Dickens set the stage for a whole new perception of intimacy with his readers. He also set the stage for the modern disjunction that comes from the realization that the celebrity who seems to be part of our lives is in fact another stranger."

Thomas Mallon writes, in The Atlantic, that while the thirty year correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell "have already been published, separately and in part...the letters' new joint arrangement, a volume called Words in Air, allows readers at last to experience the full responsiveness of one poet to the other, as it occurred, letter by letter."

Peter Ackroyd has just finished a prose translation (his publishers call it a "retelling") of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, which Bryan Appleyard notes seems appropriate: Chesterton declared that Chaucer was English before there was an England, and Ackroyd has just finished the first volume of a six-volume history of England, which he anticipates will take him another 12 years. In an interview printed in the London Times, Ackroyd told Appleyard that ranslating Chaucer into modern English verse was out of the question. "for a start, it would be ----ing difficult to do poetry. And this is not an age of poetry. It would be difficult to reconstruct the vivacity and the melody of Chaucerian verse in terms of 21st-century English...Modern prose is a much more vigorous and resourceful instrument." And as Appleyard notes, "translating Chaucer [into prose] is an aspect of Ackroyd's wider belief that literature is not set in stone; rather, it partakes of the fluidity of language: 'Retelling is a way of trying to convey the fact that redaction, translation, reinterpretation, reordering is just as important as any fresh act of so-called individual creation. It is an antiromantic idea in every possible respect, because it is nothing to do with self-expression...My main model was Chaucer himself, who didn't give a s--- what the actual words were. He was true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the stories he used, and I try to do the same."

For a taste, here's an excerpt from the Wife of Bath's prologue:
"I don't care what anyone says. Experience of the world is the best thing. It may not be the main authority but, in relationships, it is a good teacher. I know all about unhappiness in marriage. Goodness me. Oh yes. I was 12 years old when I first got a husband. I've had five altogether, thanks be to God. Five of them trooping up to the church door. That is a lot of men. By and large they were gentlemen, or so I was led to believe..."

Helon Habila, a prizewinning Nigerian novelist, notes in Next that the Commonwealth Writers Prize shortlist for the Africa region was absolutely dominated by South African writers, nabbing eleven of the twelve nominees for best book and best first book. Though Uwem Akpan, the lone non-south African writer would nab the prize for his short story collection Say You're One of Them, Habila is concerned by the broader trend this represents in African writing: "Are South African writers better than other African writers? Not necessarily so. Is their publishing industry better? Yes."

In the wake of the tragic suicide of Nicholas Hughes, Syvia Plath's son, a New York Times panel of Joyce Carol Oates, Peter D. Kramer, Erica Jong, Andrew Solomon and Elaine Showalter consider "why, of all the stories of creative, brilliant people who have suffered from fatal depressions, does Plath's tragic legacy resonate so widely."

Finally, Prague's "Franz Kafka International" is named the world's most alienating airport.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Invincible" Graduate Student Publishes Novel

In what follows, graduate student Austin Grossman tells how he came to write and publish his novel Soon I Will Be Invincible during his time in the Ph. D. program. He talks about the process of creating the novel, learning how to move back and forth between creative and academic writing and the unexpected twists and turns that are integral to a life of letters.

The novel is a literary treatment of the the interior life of people enmeshed in a culture of superheroes and supervillains. As Austin puts it, "I can only describe it as silly and serious at the same time."


I started in the English Ph. D. program in the fall of 2001. I knew Berkeley didn't have an MFA program, and I came expecting to work as an academic, full stop.

The novel began as two or three short stories I wrote in Tom Farber's graduate fiction workshop in my first semester. The first one gave me the voice and character and situation all at once – a frustrated graduate student, reborn as a mad genius bent on conquering the world (I refuse to blush at the transparency here!). More stories appeared, piled up and linked themselves in my imagination - characters, history, events. There was a tipping point late in my second year when I admitted to myself that the stories were chapters and that I was in fact writing a novel. Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude coming out in 2003, which hardened my conviction that there was something here worth adding to the literary fiction world.

After coursework I stopped doing teaching and started writing full-time as I was preparing for orals. This was the crucible period - I worked and reworked passages over and over, structured and re-structured and re-re-structured the project, to what seemed like the point of insanity. I was conscious of working without the support and training an MFA program provides, and I might not have finished without a somewhat romantic vision of my situation - working alone, the odds against me, with almost no hope of recognition. I promised myself I'd finish it, and then all those who doubted me would be sorry, very sorry indeed!

I wrote on, and late in the process I showed it to an agent at Janklow and Nesbit (who also represent our own Vikram Chandra), who gave me some encouragement. A year or two(!) and countless rounds of editing later, I was taken on as a client by agent Luke Janklow, who saw the process through. The manuscript sold to Pantheon Books after an auction, and was immediately optioned as a film. I went on a nationwide tour, gave readings, sat on panels at Comic Con and read at literary evenings. The paperback came out this year from Vintage books. The book was nominated for a Sargent award. I'm working on the film adaptation, and writing a new novel.

It has all meant a change of life for me. I will always want to be involved in a literary intellectual culture, but it probably won't be inside the academy. I never expected things to turn out like this, even as I was working to make it happen, and I'm profoundly grateful for it.

It's hard to say what the relationship is between the academic and the creative work. There is the simple discipline of reading literary writing and criticism, having beautiful, varied, exacting writing to look at, day by day.

There is the constant imperative in critical writing to work out how to say fully and exactly what you mean, and you borrow this as a fiction writer. As a novelist you can set yourself any challenge in language you like, and find the truth and authority in it no matter how silly. In fact, I guess I wanted to put this to the test, by picking the silliest subjects possible - the challenge of saying vividly, plainly what it feels like to need to conquer the planet, or explaining who would win in a fight between a cyborg and a faerie. And why, exactly, and why it matters so awfully much to the cyborg and faerie involved.

And it does matter. Belonging to an English department makes you part of a community of people who continually make you aware of the value and stakes of literary writing, the feeling that what’s on the page matters. That it’s worth – more than worth – the passion and effort one invests in it. This is probably the most crucial thing of all, so it’s worth saying that although I didn’t write Soon I Will Be Invincible as part of the degree program, it would never have been written without it.

As a postscript, I’d like to extend an invitation to any fiction writers in the program who have more questions about the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing prose fiction – I’m more than happy to talk further about the process.
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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Professor Robert Hass's "Green Fire, the Still Point, and an Oak Grove: Some Reflections on the Humanities and the Environment."

On Thursday, March 12, 2009, Professor Robert Hass gave the first of this year's Faculty Research Lectures, the full text of which follows here.


Thank you. It is an honor and a bit daunting to be here today. Since I don’t actually do research so much as read around to try to put my thoughts in order, I thought I would subject you to that process this afternoon. My subject is thinking about thinking about nature and my thesis is that we don’t do it very well. By “we” I mean citizens and poets and scholars in the humanities and perhaps the university community as a community. When I was asked to give this talk, I threw some words at what the endeavor might look like and later, wading into it, I had a better idea. So, if I could retitle this lecture, and I can, I thought to call it “The Egret Fishing Through its Smeared Reflection.”

The line comes from the beginning of my wife Brenda Hillman’s long poem Death Tractates. In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker, stunned by the sudden death of a beloved friend, seems to be rehearsing to herself a bit numbly the myths we have learned about what happens to us after death—and before birth. The opening goes like this:

That the soul got to choose. Nothing else
Got to but the soul
Got to choose.
That it was very clever, stepping
From Lightworld to lightworld
As an egret fishes through its smeared reflections—

That last line seems a metaphor not only for the blurring effect of human desires and projections, but for consciousness itself. “Every creature,” the entomologist E.O. Wilson has remarked, “lives in its own sensory world.” And this must especially be true of human consciousness, though I have often wondered if it is not something that all mammals know about each other instinctively. Still it must especially be true of human consciousness which emerged in this world rather late to radically alter it, and to invent ingenious ways in which to study it, and to piece together the story of how it got here to be the world thinking about the world that, in the past century, has come into its care entirely.


So I thought a place to start, because it is near at hand, would be the sit-in in the now-vanished oak grove on Gayley Road. I think everyone will recall the general outlines of the controversy. The university administration proposed to remodel, upgrade, and retrofit for earthquake safety the football stadium in the mouth of Strawberry Canyon and to build a student athlete’s training facility up against the stadium on Gayley Road where a beautiful old grove of mostly coast live oaks was situated. Coast live oaks are indigenous trees and the common, in fact, the representative tree of the Coast Range.

This was the tree that became an object of contention. The City of Berkeley had an ordinance which forbad cutting down live oak trees, though it was not clear whether the law applied to the university. The administration had considered and rejected alternative locations for their facility. The argument for convenience and the argument for the recruitment of student athletes and of coaches and the need to preserve space for intramural sports seemed to be their primary concerns and they had filed a detailed and scrupulous environmental impact report on their intentions and the history of the site including the trees.

There was from the outset a good deal of opposition to the plan, some of it having to do with the idea of revisiting the locating of a stadium on the Hayward fault. But many people in the community also opposed cutting down the oak grove. The city of Berkeley tested the university’s right to take out the trees in court and lost. A group of citizen activists, including three older, if not elderly women, among them a youthful 71-year old Shirley Dean, environmental activist and former mayor of the city, Betty Olds, an 86 year-old member of the Berkeley City Council, and 90 year-old Sylvia McLaughlin, the legendary environmentalist who in the early 1960s founded Save the Bay, the organization that saved San Francisco Bay from a development plan that would have wiped out its wetlands and reduced its size by half. They perched on the sturdy limb of an old oak and had their photograph taken looking very cheerful. And a more longterm opposition developed—a community group, which included a few Cal students and recent graduates, pitched camp in the trees while the university litigated various issues surrounding the project. Once the university had won and the last protestors were removed from the trees, a long and somewhat delicate process in a community that remembered both the Free Speech Movement and the Peoples’ Park riots, the trees were summarily dispatched, and construction at the site has begun.

For ten months the protestors, some of them inspired, I know, by the example of Julia Butterfly Hill, the young activist who in 1998-99 sat for 738 days in the canopy of a very old first growth redwood forest which the Pacific Lumber Company owned and was intending to log, sat in the trees and tried to marshal support for their cause. “Native California oak woodlands,” their website read, ‘are a crucial component of our natural environment, supporting higher levels of biodiversity than any other terrestrial ecosystem in California. Over 300 vertebrates and thousands of other plant and insect species depend on California oak woodlands for their survival.” As argument, that seemed promising. The authors on the website were trying to find an ecological basis for their stand. But the newspapers and the demonstrators’ posters and the sportscasters who cover Cal football could not resist the symbolism of an archetypal battle. “Ancient Oak Grove at UC Berkeley Wins Court Injunction,” a headline read in one environmental newsletter, considerably aging the trees in question and giving the trees themselves a victory over the university.

I could provide many instances of this vision of the conflict as a war between the peace, innocence, antiquity, and natural harmony of the grove and the chainsaws and fence of a university hellbent on financing its athletic programs by delivering ranked teams to the corporate giants that deliver audiences to advertisers at the expense of all the species supported by an oak woodland ecosystem. On the other side were letters to the Chronicle about ‘sports-hating Berkeleyans” and, I heard one Saturday afternoon, a sportscaster remark with a sigh that it was a tragedy that the mindless hippie kids of Berkeley had no feeling for the traditions of Cal sports that were unfolding so magnificently (I think Cal was ahead at that stage of the football game) on the field on that crisp autumn day.

Aware of my own public silence on the issue, as the young people sat in the trees and fences went up around the oak grove and campus police arrived with the unlucky job of policing the fences (which it seemed to me they did with admirable tact), I was aware of the silence of most of my colleagues. The university public affairs office produced reasoned and informative press releases on many of the issues, and made plausible but somewhat peremptory responses to the issues that were touchy. Question: Couldn’t the university have chosen another site? Answer: The university took many factors into consideration in arriving at its decision about the location of the facility. Steven Finacom, from the Office of Physical and Environmental Planning, wrote a press release which lay out clearly some of the history of the site as described in the Environmental Impact Report.

The EIR, prepared by Turnbull and Page, a San Francisco architecture, historic preservation and urban design firm, is quite interesting. First of all, it describes each tree in the grove, specifying the species, age, and health of each tree, and identifying those that were, in the language of preservationists, ‘specimen trees,’ vigorous examples of their kind. There were 139 trees in the grove and 91 were to be removed. Of the 70 mature specimen trees in the grove, 42 were to be removed, 27 were to stay, and one youngish redwood was to be transplanted. Based on a study of old photographs and of trunk diameters, the team determined that four of the oaks on the hillside were more than eighty years old and so predated the construction of the stadium. Two of them, including the oldest and largest—the tree the demonstrators called “the grandmother oak”—were in the construction zone and were slated to be taken down. The two others would remain.

The rest of the report is a history of the site, beginning with the early history of Berkeley, which it dates from the formal grant of a parcel of land by the King of Spain to Luis Maria Peralta in 1820. It then proceeds quickly to Misters Hillegass, Shattuck, and Blake who, after the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and after the California Legislature ( a brand-new entity) had passed a law in 1852 stating that a squatter could gain possession “of any land not reasonably known to be claimed under any existing title,” and after the legal precedent had been established in the brand new courts (and in federal courts as well) that all grants of land by the King of Spain were of dubious legality, so squatted, and claimed thereby most of what would be Berkeley. Then comes an account of the arrival of the College of California and the hiring of Frederick Law Olmstead in 1864 to lay out the college and the town. Then the University of California, and then by 1873 the completion of a U.S. Coastal topographical survey of the Strawberry Creek region and the donation—according to the Oakland Daily News—by a Mr. Nolan “and other liberal nursureymen” of trees and plants for the new campus.

To make a long story short, as people in my family were inclined to say and were genetically incapable of doing, the campus was laid out on Strawberry Creek. Its eastern limit was probably about where Gayley Road is now and the palce where the roadbed is was probably the university’s first botanical garden, just below the site of the grove. Piedmont Avenue was developed, according to Olmstead’s plan, as an elegant residential neighborhood. On the property where Memorial Stadium now stands, two brothers named Palmer built a pair of handsome mansions. The place where the grove stood was the spacious front garden and probably contained in the 1890’s, or they planted, the four coast live oaks that predate the stadium. At least one of those, the grandmother oak, was probably older than the Palmer mansions. You can still see remnants of the Palmer garden. The very old olive trees are an instance, and so is the beautiful old pepper tree that stood, until fairly recently, next to International House. It was a remnant reminder of the Anglo squatters’ Victorian gardener’s effort to naturalize themselves to a Mediterranean climate by planting trees brought to Mexico from Spain and from Mexico to California in the case of the olives and from Peru and Mexico to Spain and then back to Mexico and then to California in the case of that noble and graceful old pepper.

The next incident of interest in this history is the paving or macadamizing of Piedmont Avenue. By the turn of the century the automobile had arrived in Berkeley, as well as elegant carriages and delivery wagons for elegant houses, and they required paved roads. Piedmont Avenue was a handsome sort of Gilded Age neighborhood in 1900 which the early residents had lined with English walnut trees, but came the paving and the idea of widening the road and giving it a gracious median strip, the trees had to go. There were, of course, protests, though the city assured residents that it intended to add new plantings. The EIR quotes the November 12, 1900 edition of the Berkeley Gazette: “Added to the handsome attractions of beautiful new trees and gardens of flowers on this avenue is the parking to be provided in the center of the avenue. Old residents of Berkeley will part reluctantly with the old walnut trees that have for so many years given that portion of the city an eastern and rural aspect, but are compensated in the plans for a handsome boulevard in the future.”

The grove itself came into existence as a byproduct of the need for a football stadium which the surge in the popularity of college sports in the 1910’s had brought into existence. Fundraising for the stadium began in 1921. The decision to build the stadium on the earthquake fault in Strawberry Canyon was made in January of 1922. Access through the canyon to the ridge above had been part of Frederick Olmstead’s initial vision. “In the nineteenth century,” the author of the EIR writes, “the hills above the young campus were vegetated in grasslands.” But Olmstead, to whom the dry Mediterranean landscape of the West, did not look like much, had noticed the rich diversity of native species in the moist microclimate of Strawberry Canyon and had seen the canyon and the ridge above it as important attractions of the site. The university built paths, benches, and a carriage road to Grizzly Peak, and the canyon was alive—this is the author of the EIR—“with bracken, wild currant, oaks, and bay trees, and wildlife like quail and rabbits.” It was here next to the remarkable Phoebe Hearst’s Greek Theater that the stadium was built. It was designed, of course, by John Galen Howard, and in March 1923 a San Francisco landscaping firm was chosen to landscape the site. As part of the fundraising effort the stadium was going to honor students and faculty killed in the First World War. So the Stadium became Memorial Stadium, and the grove that the landscape architects planted, drawing on a San Mateo nursery that “produced between two and three thousand plants a year” and imported ornamentals “by carloads from different parts of the world,” became the Memorial Oak Grove.

My point, I suppose, is that the actual story, buried in the EIR, is more interesting and useful than the archetypal drama that played in the press and in the minds of many of the participants. And that’s not the end of it. The firm the university hired was called MacRorie and McLaren. MacRorie handled the business end and McLaren the design.

McLaren was Donald McLaren, the only son of John McLaren, the Scottish-born immigrant who laid out Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, became its first superintendent, and in a series of books for gardeners and horticulturists has been said to be the inventor of California gardening. McLaren senior was a close friend and compatriot of two other Scotsmen who played important roles in this phase of California history, the environmentalist and writer John Muir and the painter William Keith. These three Scotsmen in their turn became friends of the architects Bernard Maybeck and John Galen Howard and among them the five men might be said to have created the sensibility that put together the Arts and Crafts movement in California and the conservation movement and, in doing so, to have made the culture of brown shingle and Beaux Arts Berkeley—the culture that sent a 90-year old woman up a hundred and fifty year old oak tree.

(Let me pause to suggest that one outcome of hearing this talk might be to set aside an afternoon to take a look at one of the landmarks of that movement, a little Arts and Crafts Swedenborgian church at 2107 Lyon Street in San Francisco, designed by Page Brown and Bernard Maybeck from a sketch Maybeck made of a little village church he had seen in Italy and for which he commissioned four murals of the California seasons by William Keith.)

William Keith is not so famous a name as he was from 1900 to 1920, though I think he is generally regarded as the foremost northern California landscape painter of his generation and he was a crucial member of the Hillside Club, the environmentally conscious planning group that included Maybeck and Howard and laid down the guidelines for the domestic architecture, contoured roads, paths, and gardens of the Berkeley hills. The Oakland Museum has a good collection of his paintings, and the Hearst Gallery, at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga where I went to school, has a better one.

I mention this because his most famous painting, called Berkeley Oaks, is a portrait of an oak grove. It was a painting John Muir liked so well that Keith gave it to him and in the last years of his life, it hung above Muir’s desk in his study at the ranch in Martinez. It occurred to me wondered what had become of it—this is the research in this research lecture—and I found that, after Muir’s death, the Muir family had donated it to the Pacific School of Religion where it is still housed this afternoon, hanging on a wall in the receptionist’ office.

Here is a photo of the Keith painting. Very Scottish-looking oaks, to my eye.
And here is the photograph of the vanished oak grove on the SavetheOaks website. You can see that the photographer was able to suffuse the grove in the same golden light that Keith saw.

I wish we knew more about Donald McLaren. There is some evidence that he visited the Muir home as a boy and he certainly knew Keith, so it is very likely that he saw the painting. The EIR on the oak grove reports that he wanted to be a baseball player, but became a landscape architect at his father’s insistence, that he graduated from Berkeley, that his young wife, whose maiden name was Leonard, descended from one of the businessmen-squatter families, died in childbirth when Donald was 27 years old, that their daughter Mattie lived in the lodge at Golden Gate Park with her grandparents. Donald McLaren wrote about landscaping and the principles of California gardening for professional journals, was retained by John Galen Howard to landscape Sather Gate, so we probably owe the coast live oaks and incense cedars and redwoods along the south fork of Strawberry Creek to him. He worked with his father on the landscape design of the Panama-Pacific Exposition, and was hired, after doing the Memorial Grove, to design a landscape setting for the new football stadium at Stanford University, to which he gave a much more European and classical treatment, though the flood plain between San Francisco Bay and the Palo Alto foothills where it is located would have been much more likely to have been once an oak grove than the grassy hillside where Memorial Stadium was built.

There is almost always a point in any narrative when the story exceeds the theme. It is the point, I have noticed, when student evaluations in my lecture classes sometimes complain about their insructor’s tendency to digression. While he was working as the architect for the Transcontinental Highways Exposition in Reno to celebrate the completion of the Truckee-Reno Highway (a moment from which we could mark the end of the story of the Donner Party and the full-hearted opening of California to the automobile), he disappeared. I assume that ‘disappeared” means that his wife and associates didn’t know where he was. His body was found a week later. He had checked into a hotel on Mission Street in San Francisco and died by asphyxiation from a gas burner that had been left on. He left no note, so it was unclear whether his death was a suicide or an accident, but the circumstance of his disappearance suggest that it was a suicide.

Here is the digression inside the digression. The poet of San Francisco in those years was a man named George Sterling. He was the first West Coast poet to achieve a national reputation and he is remembered, when he is remembered, because he described San Francisco in one of his poems as “the cool grey city of love.” Here is a bit of the poem:

Tho I die on a distant strand,
And they give me a grave in that land,
Yet carry me back to my own city!
Carry me back to her grace and pity!
For I think I could not rest
Afar from her mighty breast.
She is fairer than others are
Whom they sing the beauty of.
Her heart is a song and a star--
My cool, grey city of love.

The winds of the Future wait
At the iron walls of her Gate,
And the western ocean breaks in thunder,
And the western stars go slowly under,
And her gaze is ever West
In the dream of her young unrest.
Her sea is a voice that calls,
And her star a voice above,
And her wind a voice on her walls--
My cool, grey city of love.

Sterling did not die on a distant strand. He was a friend of Jack London and in Jack London’s novel Martin Eden, which is the only fictional portrait we have of Berkeley in the decade of the 1900’s, there is a character named Russ Brissenden based on George Sterling. Brissenden is the fin de siecle figure in a naturalist novel and he commits suicide because he is too sensitive to live in this coarse and violent world. The novel was published in 1909. Sterling was honored as the premier poet of California at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 in a ceremony that took place—I imagine—on a gazebo-like stage amid a surrounding landscape of native Californian plantings designed by Donald McLaren. George Sterling killed himself by taking cyanide in the room where he was living at the Bohemian Club on Taylor Street (624 Taylor for anyone inclined to pass the place with a ritual and commemorative nod) in November 1926, a year and a half after the death of Donald McLaren. The California historian Kevin Starr said of Sterling’s death that with it “the golden age of San Francisco’s bohemia had come to its miserable end.” Actually the golden age of San Francisco’s bohemia was yet to come. But the two deaths do seem to signal the end of the arts and crafts era in northern California, of which the oak grove was both a product and an emblem, and so, driving past the demonstrators on Gayley Road, the passionate young activists who were defending the existence of a work of art that was in all probability based on another work of art and that they thought of as a remnant of primordial forest, I thought about those two men.

And we are not quite through with the story of the live oaks. The campus in the 1900’s was full of them, enough so that the university’s young assistant professor of botany chose to write a brief monograph on the subject. Willis Jepson was born in 1867 on a ranch near Vacaville in the Sacramento Valley. He graduated from Berkeley in 1889, did advanced study at Cornell and Harvard, returned to Berkeley where he received his Ph.D. in 1899. He wrote 11 books, including A Flora of California (1909), The Trees of California (also 1909), and A Manual of the Flowering Plants of California (1925), still much beloved and, I am informed, a groundbreaking work that, by connecting plant distribution to geological history, connecting flora distribution to life zones, and providing a separate and extensive treatment of endemic species, and introducing a sophisticated classification of the plant kingdom taking into account the new research in genetics, set a standard by which local and regional botanical manuals were measured for the next fifty years. It made him—I’ve heard said—the university’s first internationally important scientist.

What else? In 1892, at a meeting with John Muir and Warren Olney in a San Francisco law office, he became, over a handshake, one of the founders of the Sierra Club; the university’s Jepson Herbarium is named for him, and so is the bible of California botany, The Jepson Manual of the Higher Plants of California, edited by James Hickman, but the work of 200 botanists building on the foundation of Jepson’s Flora; he walked and botanized every county, wetland, coastal strand, and most of the mountain peaks and mountain valleys in the state; he delivered the Faculty Research lecture in 1934; and, more to my purpose, as a new faculty member he was probably Donald McLaren’s botany instructor and, in 1903, he composed the little monograph entitled “The Live Oaks of the University of California Campus.”

He begins this essay by remarking that the Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia, “is the only native oak found on the lower slopes of the Oakland hills,” and he proceeds to catalogue the trees on the campus. There are 686 of them, 290 on the lower campus, which he describes as the area “below the College Avenue bridge,” 296 on the upper campus, plus those acquired by the purchase of the Palmer tract, the territory of the stadium and, a hundred and five years later, the contested grove, which he says, proprietarily, “gave us about a hundred trees large and small which form part of the dense scrub on the south side of Strawberry Canyon opposite the dairy farm.” (The existence of that dairy farm is not in the EIR and my research has not reached it. But milk cows give us yet another glimpses of the uses to which that grassy upland had been put.) Some of “the finest and largest trees” on the lower campus are, Jepson observes, were far past maturity and dying from dry rot, which is caused by a spore that enters through wounds in the bark and eventually reaches the heartwood. The middle-aged trees, also afflicted, could be saved by diligent care before the rot had penetrated too far into the tree’s core. Young trees, he notices, naturally propagated by the resident jays and squirrels, will eventually replace them all. And then he was this to say: “If, therefore, the stand of oaks on the lower campus is to be maintained forever, it is necessary that there be systematic planting so that the young trees may gradually succeed those we now have. By such a course the ‘Berkeley Oaks’ immortalized on the canvasses of Keith, may also be preserved ‘in the flesh’ forever.” In the remainder of the essay he recommends the planting of other native trees in the campus—which was done—consider the beautiful Valley Oak outside the entrance to Mulford Hall--, he complains about the depredations of “the genus ‘Berkeley Small Boy’ individuals of which arrive on the campus armed with carving knives, and he concludes his small treatise this way: “The greatest natural charm of the grounds is due to the presence of Live Oak trees. The graceful outlines of their low round heads repeat the lines of the hills which back the University estate. What the Elms are to New Haven, the Live Oaks are to Berkeley.”

There are a number of interesting and poignant things about the essay. I am about at the end of my time so let me just mention two of them. The first is Jepson’s desire to give the raw young university a sense of hallowed tradition, of timelessness, through the evocation of Keith’s paintings and of the elder, Eastern institution in New Haven. There is other evidence from this period of the effort to use the oaks to give the university a sense of tradition. Here is a photograph of the cover of the literary magazine—pointed out to me by David Duer—in which Frank Norris made his literary 1901. And it is there, for that matter, in Olmstead’s siting of the university in 1864—some idea of giving the land to the still imaginary institution and the institution to the land. We didn’t know the story of the oak grove for a number of reasons. One of them is that it is the story of the origins of a provincial university. Another is that we are not late stone age people making our living off the land. Universities have a very odd relation to tradition, especially very good universities, which are driven first of all by innovation, by excellence, wherever it comes from, and by originality and by innovation. And in that way a university is very like a market economy.

If we lived in a different world, if the university administration was run by a hereditary monarchy, and the chancellor were Benjamin Ide Wheeler’s great-grand-daughter, nobody would have touched those oak trees. But we are not that institution. We are inclined to hire administrators and faculty who did not go to school here, and hire them for talent and talent alone, and from all over the country and the world, so we have not especially bred a public or institutional memory that needed in the first place to know the names of the plants or to find in them any resonant symbolism or to take any particular interest in the intellectual history of the institution. Probably the only person who knew the whole story at the time of the demonstrations was 90 year old Sylvia McLaughlin, who climbed the tree on behalf of a whole culture, an era that gave us the arts and crafts sensibility of the city and its conservation movements, the Sierra Club, The Redwoods League, and Save the Bay, and that laid the foundations for the study of the natural history of California that the new instructors arriving here from the east did not know and that their students who were born and raised here probably didn’t know very well either since most of their parents were likely to have been recent immigrant themselves so there was no one to teach it to them. The question of the grove might have been an occasion to have that conversation and it’s a pity that we didn’t have it.

The second interesting thing about the essay is the story of the infestation of dry rot. It tells us that many of the older oaks on the campus wouldn’t be here, were it not for the pruning of diseased limbs and sealing of wounds in the bark a century ago, and since the spores are wind-borne and the breezes from the bay are distinctly westerly, it probably means that many of the old trees in the grove wouldn’t have been there to be sat in and then cut down, had not the botanist and the arborists of the university seen to their health. The story of dry rot is a way of remembering that the grove was, and the university campus is, a garden. If we are going to think about nature, the distinction between a garden and a wild place would be fundamental. And so would what we mean by “wild.”

In the humanities these days the starting point for much thinking about nature occurs in the writing of the German critic Theodor Adorno. A very short version of Adorno’s view is that “Nature” was a concept developed in the Enlightenment and early Romantic era by the middle class to sweep away the corrupt, artificial, and unnatural social arrangements of the landed aristocracy and their monarchies, that it was useful in its time as an evocation of frankness and simplicity in manners, freedom and diversity in social arrangements, unstoppable force in social movements, whatever notion of nature was usefully oppositional at a given point in the process of wrenching power from the old order, and that in the later 19th and 20th century nature had returned to its previous role as an irrefutable standard by which to justify various forms of racial, gender, and sexual discrimination. In the humanities, therefore, the first thing one says about nature is that it is an idea, socially constructed in the service of someone’s ideology, and about wildness and wilderness one says that they are constructions of American westward expansion connected to the ideology of the free market and a masculine conquest of a feminine earth.

This fundamental skepticism is bracing, but it also has its limits. It is not of much use to the scores of living species about to perish from the earth to know that nature is socially constructed. A wildlife biologist’s definition of “wildness” is helpful here. I am thinking of an essay by Donald Waller, who observes that a biologist or restoration ecologist means by “wild” an organism living in an ecosystem among most of the processes in which it evolved. This definition gives us a practical measure by which to gauge what is at stake in projects of sustainability, preservation, and restoration. You could see that the young people in the trees felt that they were defending something wild and free against all the repressive forces in their society that might be symbolized by a university bureaucracy and by what millions of dollars in advertising money have done to American sports. But the grove was not wild. It was a garden. There might have been very good reasons for preserving it, but they were not the reasons in those young people’s hearts or on their posters. And not having that conversation was a missed opportunity.

One of the gifts we have to give our students is a sense of complexity, because desire tends to simplify what it sees. We are usually, left to ourselves, egrets fishing through our smeared reflections. Another thing we can give them is the gift of seeing what’s there. We can give them some of the skills of distinction, discrimination and description that have been given to us and also concepts of enormous power. Seeing what’s there usually requires patient observation and the acquisition of particular skills and disciplines—not that those things guarantee our seeing clearly or freshly. Often in both the arts and sciences, we see what’s there is a flash, but it has taken us hours or years of patient labor to get there.

The ancestor of the live oaks on the hill arrived here ten million years ago. The coast live oak, Quercus agrifolia, migrating in and out as the weather changed, has been here for two million years. It is less adaptable than we human beings are, but it understands this weather better. It is exquisitely adapted with its cupped, waxy, dark green leaves and its patient vascular system—one writer about oaks remarked that the lobed deciduous oaks of the East Coast are sprinters and the evergreen oaks of the West are marathoners—to this place with its summer droughts and winter rains and its fogs and drying spring winds. The first people who came here adapted to it better, or at least differently than, we do. They harvested its acorns and made them their staple food. Ethnobotanists who have studied the matter estimate that the coast live oaks provided every individual person in this part of California about 500 pounds of food a year, and they did it for 12,000 years. In their way of thinking the trees liked being used. Everything liked being used, if you used it respectfully. We use the trees for beauty. Because we are eaters of the seeds of grasses, we are, as Michael Pollan has observed, the culture through which grasslands came to dominate forests on the planet, and though we are great and talented removers of trees, we like having them around, for various practical uses, but also, I suppose, because they remind us of our origins and because they live longer than we do, which can be reassuring, and because we love their shapes and the way they reach toward light and the way they smell and their shades and the sound of wind in their leaves. And because we are inveterately social beings and build housing so that we can crowd around and hear and see each other, we like them in order to escape our social being for quiet and for reflection. And that s why we make art out of them—make gardens, like the Memorial Grove. And this is another conversation that we did not have.

My friend Steven Edwards, paleobotanist and director of the Tilden Park Botanical Garden, a man who knows as much as anyone alive about the flora of California, remarked to me that, while the demonstrators were trying to save the oak trees on a campus full of oak trees, the city of Los Angeles was pumping excessive groundwater in violation of a fifty-year-old agreement and drying out alkali meadows and shrinking the range of native grasses in the Owens Valley, a habitat that contains some of the state’s rarest endemic wildflowers (including a very beautiful star tulip). And developers in the Livermore Valley were bulldozing a score of endemic plants to put up a mall. What the young people in the grove gave us was their passion to save the earth from human depredation—which must, as poets are always telling us, get some of its urgency from that fact that we can’t save ourselves from the predations of time—and they gave us this urgency, a gift that can be both useful and very irritating because, unlike most of us, they aren’t already too busy doing what they are doing.

So this was the story of an oak grove. I want to end, very briefly, with a parable about cranes to bring us into the 21st century. Cranes are as a family of animals between eight and twelve million years old and most of them are threatened or endangered. In Asia there are eight species and seven of them are in trouble. There is, as you know a demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. It’s about 155 miles long and 3 miles wide. It is the last tripwire of the Cold War and the most militarized piece of real estate on earth. And because no human being has entered it for the last 50 years, it has become an immense, accidental game preserve. Two species of Asian cranes—cranes, as you know, are symbols of longevity and good luck in Asian cultures—have been making a dramatic comeback because they do their winter foraging in the demilitarized zone. Ten million years, they have been on the planet, performing their ritual mating dances, guarding and hatching their eggs, and if there is ever peace between the Koreas and the threat of nuclear war lifted, the DMZ will probably be developed and those two species, Grus vipio and Grus japonensis, the white-naped and red-crowned cranes, will be that much nearer to being gone from the kinds on earth.

This is the world our students are inheriting. They are going to need a sense of urgency and patience and a sense of complexity and everything they can learn about the processes of the natural world, if we are going to protect what our science tells us is at the core of life, the richness and diversity of the gene pool. The task may be beyond us. Wildlife biologists these days often have meetings with titles like “Which Species Can We Save” or “Which Species Are We Willing To Save.” But we have to act as if we can accomplish it. We have to act as if the soul gets to choose.
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Professor Eric Falci and the Science of the Lyric

This past fall sophomore English major Sarah Watson enrolled in Professor Eric Falci's ENGL 180L: Lyric Verse. Reading the semester's course descriptions, she had been intrigued by the course's claim that much of the semester would be spent "sorting out what the title of this course means." When it went on to mention an exceedingly diverse list of poets -- from Sappho to Dickinson, Marvell to Ashbery -- along with a no less various catalogue of critical concepts -- chaos theory, cognitive science, ecology -- she wasn't exactly sure what she was in for, but she knew it would be fascinating. The wide-ranging concerns of the course actually coincided with Sarah's own academic orientations because, in addition to majoring in English, she is pre-med and tackles her science requirements with interest (if not always with total enthusiasm).

Sarah's hunch about the course turned out to be accurate. As Professor Falci's syllabus and lectures lived up to the course description and ranged widely across poets and critical texts, Sarah found new delights in and new insights into literature that she had never expected. One of her favorite parts of the course was re-reading Dickinson, since, she said, she hadn't enjoyed her poetry very much when she had read it in high school for the first time. When Professor Falci assigned Virginia Jackson's book Dickinson's Misery along with the poetry, Sarah saw how one could read history back into the lyric form, which had seemed, at first glance, to be outside of time. Sarah's interest in the argument that Jackson makes about the Dickinson's fascicles -- small, hand-tied volumes in which Dickinson bound her poetry -- led her to write an essay on a Dickinson website which contextualizes the poetry with their manuscript versions.

Professor Falci noted that he took a lot of chances in putting his course together. Not only did he include a number of difficult and experimental poets on his syllabus, but he also challenged his students with works as opaque as Martin Heidegger's "Poetically Man Dwells," Giorgio Agamben's "The End of the Poem," and "The Rejection of Closure" by the department's own Lyn Hejinian. Falci was delighted, however, by the chutzpah and motivation of his students as they wrestled with these difficult texts. For her part, Sarah said that she greatly liked the Agamben but wasn't sure if she really understood the Heidegger. Reading essays like these together with works like Harryette Mullen's Sleeping with the Dictionary showed her how much
fun it could be to watch people try and figure out how to make meaning out of theoretical or poetic opacity.

Sarah also said she enjoyed reading Marianne Moore's poem "The Fish" along with the linguist Roman Jakobson's famous essay "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances," which uses research into aphasia to present a theory of language on the basis of to two fundamental functions of metaphor and metonymy. To her surprise, her roommate was reading the same essay for an Anthropology course. The coincidence sparked some interesting conversations as the two compared their professors’ different uses of Jakobson's theory. This cross-over with science -- along with her own interest in medicine and chemistry -- led Sarah to write her final paper on the prevalence of chemical metaphors in some of the poetry and theory she had read over the semester. She was particularly intrigued by T.S. Eliot's metaphor of the catalyst in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and the imagery of "precipitates" that cultural theorist Theodor Adorno has used in his work. What is the bridge, she wondered, between science and literature that our current organization of knowledge obscures?

For that matter, as this blog has been wondering over the past few weeks, what is the bridge between literature and the "real world" that we sometimes forget to notice? After Professor Falci's course, it seems as if Sarah is in prime position to give that question some very interesting, and perhaps unexpected, answers.

But we are also interested in your thoughts on the issue; feel free to leave a response!
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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A bard by another portrait...

Everyone is excited that we have a new picture of the Bard. And isn't he a looker! As reported in the NYT:

"His face is open and alive, with a rosy, rather sweet expression, perhaps suggestive of modesty...There is nothing superior or haughty in the subject, which one might well expect to find in a face set off by such rich clothing. It is the face of a good listener, as well as of someone who exercised a natural restraint."

While the LA Times cheered that we are now blessed with a "hot young Shakespeare," the Irish Times and Irish independent are quick to point out that the portrait hung for years winking at an Irish house in an Irish family.

Verlyn Klinkenborg is on the other hand, is more meditative: "The most that can really be said is that the Cobbe portrait...was probably painted in Shakespeare's lifetime and that it bears a likeness to other reputed Shakespeare portraits...But given the stylized conventions of Elizabethan portraiture, a police dragnet in London circa 1610 might have turned up many dozens of men with a resemblance to this image. What we have, as always with Shakespeare, is a trail that leads us back to the past and dissolves into uncertainty..." And Andrew Dickson and Charlotte Higgins are more skeptical; Dickson notes that "this isn't the first 'new' image of Shakespeare we've seen," and despite the approval of Professor Stanley Wells (chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust) Tarnya Cooper, the 16th-century curator at London's National Portrait Gallery is "very sceptical," and notes that while she does "respect Wells's scholarship enormously...portraiture is a very different area, and this doesn't add up."

In any case, the hits keep coming as architects discover the remains of Shakespeare's first theatre (before the Globe) out in "the suburbs of sin" surrounding central London. The Tower Theatre company, which owns the site, plans to build "a 21st Century equivalent of the original playhouse, a 'no frills, hard-working place of entertainment' that would bring London theatre 'back to its roots.'" And because it was the right time, apparently, the archaeologists even found a piece of 16th-century pottery with what looks like Shakespeare's face on the site. "There is no proof that the face on the fragment of Beauvais pottery is the Bard's," Maev Kennedy reports, "but insiders are excited."
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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Teaching at San Quentin, Installment 3

This week we present a third-installment of graduate student Annie McClanahan's account of teaching at San Quentin correctional facility with the Prison University Project. Annie has contributed two previous posts on this topic, in which she addresses, first, the nature of the program in general and a short account of the class she most recently taught and, second, the nature of the prison itself as well as that of the students she teaches. In what follows, Annie speaks more pointedly on frequently asked questions about issues of safety and academic achievement specific to prison teaching.

Are you scared?/Is it safe?
The short answer is that no, I’m not, and yes, it is. In one way, it’s often very easy to forget that you are in a prison at all; it’s easy to slip up and say “Why don’t you email me your thesis statement?” forgetting that unlike at Berkeley, the students at San Quentin don’t typically have access even to word processors, let alone the internet. Almost every week a student will say to me as I’m leaving “Drive safe,” and nearly every time I have to bite back the quick-to-the lips commonplace “You too.”
In other ways, of course, it’s hard to forget you’re in an institution, and the guards at San Quentin constantly remind us, explicitly and implicitly, not to forget this important detail: one unique issue I’ve encountered there is the intense, difficult complexity of race and gender in the prison context; on this issue, it can occasionally feel like my students and I are speaking entirely different languages, and it is a continued challenge to walk the razor-thin line between understanding that we have on these questions fundamentally-different experiences and assumptions, and refusing to allow racist, sexist, or homophobic speech of any kind.

How does teaching at San Quentin compare to teaching outside of the prison, at Berkeley, for example?

I will say that my prison teaching has been particularly pedagogically challenging when it comes to the issue of classroom authority—not because the students there require more disciplining than students anywhere else, but because these are students who are in many cases older than I am, and who have a kind of “real world” experience that I obviously don’t. Being in the prison makes me even less inclined to rely on the kind of abstract authority behind “Why? Because I said so,” but once in a while I have to recognized that that’s the most appropriate answer. And the students there are, unfortunately, right to insistently ensure that they are being held to the same standard as students in any other college classroom—as Jody Lewen, the director of the Prison University Project and a former Ph.D. student in the Rhetoric Department puts it in her recent (and highly recommended) article in a special issue of PMLA dedicated to prison education, “many instructors [are] unsure of their students’ intellectual capabilities. Some of this may [be] related to the teachers’ lack of experience teaching adults with poor basic skills, but…it also [has] to do with largely unconscious stereotypes about the intellectual potential of people in prison…Trapped in these stereotypes, teachers fear frustrating or even humiliating students…The ‘look on the bright side’ attitude also seem[s] to reflect…the simple desire to feel positive about the program—to feel effective rather than inadequate” (Jody Lewen, “Academics Belong in Prison: On Creating a University at San Quentin,” PMLA May 2008, p. 693-4).

Jody goes on to point out that questions of grade inflation are nearly as likely to emerge in “normal” classrooms—certainly I’ve struggled with this at Berkeley too—but she is right in observing that the main challenge of San Quentin is not that it is frightening or intimidating to teach the students there, but that it is sometimes hard to know when to take their context and life experience into account, and when to hold them to a more universally-acknowledged standard of academic achievement. Lest this seem too intractable a problem, however, I want to note that this has become easier for me as I’ve gotten more accustomed both to teaching in the program and to teaching generally; confronting these questions has, I think, made me a much better teacher in whatever kind of classroom I’m in. And because I recently graded a fantastic bunch of revised critical essays from my students this semester, I can also say that it has not been hard with this particular class to know what standard to apply, since they are almost without exception performing at an impressively high level.
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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Literature on the Web: “a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit…”

In a TLS review, Jonathan Bate suggests that Milton has been a mirror which each era's biographers have used to reflect their professional self-image. "For Masson," he writes "it was sufficient to be clubbable around the Athenaeum. For William Empson in the following century, the professor of literature could be the naughty schoolboy throwing paper darts from the back row of the classroom (the Christian-baiting of Milton's God)." In reviewing Gordon Campbell and Thomas N. Corns' new biography, then, Bate notes that we see, in turn, "a Milton who would have been at home in the corridors of New Labour power or in the managerialized modern university. He is a nimble committee man, like some wily pro-vice-chancellor who proudly wears his radical credentials yet is prepared to write position papers to order and to modify his stance in response to subtle changes in the ideological direction of his leader." Bate doesn't much care for this approach, it seems, judging "an authoritative Life of Milton in which the pamphlet "Animadversions upon the Remonstrants Defence against Smectymnuus" is given three times as much space as Lycidas" to be only "symptomatic of an age in which professors in English departments have been 'making literature history.'" I have to admit, though, I don't mind seeing the pendulum swing this way a bit. It's not like anyone is going to stop reading "Lycidas" (or that long epic he wrote), and there are just too many gems buried in Milton's non-fiction prose to bemoan the fact that a little light is getting cast on the stuff he spent most of his life actually writing.

John Banville may think that civilization invented the sentence, but the death of writing does not - Adam Kirsch tells us - necessarily mean the end of writing: "Human beings wrote long before there were newspapers or books or even paper, and they will continue to do so when these have been replaced by pixels and bytes." In his Slate review of several new biographies of Samuel Johnson, Kirsch suggests that the age of the professional writer may be coming to an end, an ironic three centuries after "the greatest professional writer in English literature" declared that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Kirsch has a very low opinion of "a future when writing is something done casually, in brief blog bursts in one's spare time" and wonders whether "the kind of professional confidence and expertise that Johnson cultivated over a lifetime of paid work will appear as regrettably obsolete as books and newspapers themselves."

In that vein, it probably says something that Motoko Rich's NYT article doesn't focus on the literary merits of Jonathan Littell's 983-page novel The Kindly Ones - which are presumably great enough to justify "Publisher's Big Gamble on Divisive French Novel" - but rather on how amazing it is that an American publisher would take a risk on publishing a novel not only translated from French but also saddled with the handicap of having won France's most prestigious literary prize. Quel surprise!

In the same issue as it published fragments of the late David Foster Wallace's unfinished novels (and D.T.Max's tremendously sad account of Wallace's "Unifinished"), the New Yorker also had a review of Blake Bailey's new biography of John Cheever, and I couldn't help paying more attention to the by-line (the late John Updike) than to the substance of the review. I did, however, enjoy Bailey's estimation that he was one of possibly ten persons to have read through the the "forty-three hundred pages, mostly typed single-space," of Cheever's private journals, what he calls "a monument of tragicomic solipsism." But as the good people who are blogging Henry David Thoreau's journals (here and here), a sort of "this day in Thoreau's journal," there's nothing wrong with a bit of good old fashioned solipsism every now and again. Read full post....

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Out of the Classroom, Into the Community

In last week's post, we focused on the ways in which two current graduate students are

Artwork currently on display at the Alphonse Berber Gallery.

leveraging the new media of the blogosphere to disseminate critical thinking on history and literature in broad new ways. This week, we bring you examples of a different, perhaps more "concrete" kind of outreach by describing the efforts of the Department's students to get out into the community with their thoughts on art and literature by opening a new art gallery and participating in poetry conversations on the radio.

Indeed, undergraduates Cameron Jackson and Jessica Cox have dived headlong into the community in their roles as co-directors of the newly opened Alphonse Berber Gallery on Bancroft Avenue across from the University. Housed in a beautiful 7200 sq. ft. Julia Morgan-designed building, the gallery had its grand opening on February 27 and presents the work of dynamic, aggressively innovative emerging to mid-career contemporary artists. It describes its inaugural show, "New Nature," which runs until April 11, in the following terms:

"'New Nature' will focus on how fourteen West Coast artists engage with and interrogate their relationship to the natural world in ways that are personal, provocative, and at times seemingly hostile toward traditional notions of ecological awareness. The work of Reuben Margolin, Justin Margitich, and MachineHistories (Jason Pilarski & Steven Joyner) translates their experience of

Artwork currently on display at the Alphonse Berber Gallery.

the wild, elemental, and biological into a mechanistic idiom. Viewers find themselves contemplating the natural by way of the very ontological mode that supposedly alienated them from it in the first place. In part, "New Nature" seeks to challenge the mindset that regards technology and environment as inherently opposed, exploring how they serve as means for engaging with and understanding one another. Imagining the possibilities for reconciliation, the artists presented in "New Nature" compel us to find new modes of participation in our continually evolving environment."

In a somewhat different way, the department's graduate students have also ventured out of the classroom and into the larger community. Second-year PhD student and practicing poet Gillian Osborne describes how Professor Cecil Giscombe (whose award-winning book we recently profiled here) took the helm of the graduate poetry workshop which the department offers each fall. Though the workshop had its usual diverse enrollment from a smattering of departments — from English to Public Health, with a variety of other Humanities sprinkled in between, Gillian notes that, with Professor Giscombe, something was different. His sights were set, she reports, on steering the class not only toward an expansion of their poetic practices, but also toward a broadening of where those practices might occur. Over the semester, they were to embark on an experiment of poetry in public.

This public was reached via the air, courtesy of a local radio station in Point Reyes, KWMR

Professor Giscombe and his workshop in Point Reyes.

whose DJ Brian Kervin had invited the class to participate in the “Swervin’ Kirven Show.” The class thought about what poetry on the radio could mean, how it might sound. Making three trips to KWMR, each time with a different assortment of students from the class, the workshop conducted live and wandering conversations that forged their way into the thickets of debates over “poetry of place,” questions of form and translation, and investigations of different poetic registers. They read their own work as well as that of other poets, ranging from the deeply canonized to the insistently disruptive; there were contests—limericks and clichés—and callers. Gillian writes, "We couldn’t entirely anticipate what would happen, and, since allowing oneself to be surprised is an essential element to Cecil’s pedagogy and poetic approach, this was entirely the point."

The English Department is proud to have such vibrant and pioneering students as part of its community.
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