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Harold Bloom’s American Sublime

In Academia, America, American Literature, Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Books, Creativity, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Philosophy, Poetry, Rhetoric, Scholarship, The Novel, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on August 12, 2015 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This review originally appeared here in the American Conservative.

What can be said about Harold Bloom that hasn’t been said already? The Yale professor is a controversial visionary, a polarizing seer who has been recycling and reformulating parallel theories of creativity and influence, with slightly different foci and inflections, for his entire career, never seeming tiresome or repetitive. He demonstrates what is manifestly true about the best literary critics: they are as much artists as the subjects they undertake.

Bloom’s criticism is characterized by sonorous, cadenced, almost haunting prose, by an exacting judgment and expansive imagination, and by a painful, sagacious sensitivity to the complexities of human behavior and psychology. He is a discerning Romantic in an age of banality and distraction, in a culture of proud illiteracy and historical unawareness. Bloom reminds us that to be faithful to tradition is to rework it, to keep it alive, and that tradition and innovation are yoked pairs, necessarily dependent on one another.

Bloom has been cultivating the image and reputation of a prophet or mystic for decades. His stalwart defense of the Western canon is well known but widely misunderstood. His descriptive account is that the canon is fluid, not fixed—open, not closed. It might be stable, but it’s not unchangeable. The literary canon is the product of evolution, a collection of the fittest works that have been selectively retained, surviving the onslaught of relentless competition.

Bloom’s prescriptive position is that, because human agency is a controllable factor in this agnostic filtering process, serious readers can and should ensure that masterpieces, those stirring products of original, even genius minds, are retained, and that the latest works are held to the highest aesthetic standards, which are themselves established and proven by revisionary struggle. The merit of a work is not found in the identity of its author—his or her race, gender, or sexuality—but in the text proper, in the forms and qualities of the work itself.

Bloom’s latest book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, examines ambitious and representative American authors, its chapters organized by curious pairings: Whitman with Melville (the “Giant Forms” of American literature), Emerson with Dickinson (the Sage of Concord is Dickinson’s “closest imaginative father”), Hawthorne with Henry James (a relation “of direct influence”), Twain with Frost (“our only great masters with popular audiences”), Stevens with Eliot (“an intricate interlocking” developed through antithetical competition), and Faulkner with Crane (“each forces the American language to its limits”). This mostly male cast, a dozen progenitors of the American sublime, is not meant to constitute a national canon. For that, Bloom avers in his introduction, he envisions alternative selections, including more women: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Marianne Moore, and Flannery O’Connor. Bloom’s chosen 12 represent, instead, “our incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism.” These writers have in common a “receptivity to daemonic influx.” “What lies beyond the human for nearly all of these writers,” Bloom explains, “is the daemon.”

What is this daemon, you ask. As always, Bloom is short on definition, embracing the constructive obscurity—the aesthetic vagueness—that Richard Poirier celebrated in Emerson and William James and Robert Frost, Bloom’s predecessors. Bloom implies that calling the “daemon” an idea is too limiting; the word defies ready explanation or summation.

The daemon, as I read it, is an amorphous and spiritual source of quasi-divine inspiration and influence, the spark of transitional creative powers; it’s akin to shamanism, and endeavors to transcend, move beyond, and surpass. Its opposite is stasis, repose. “Daemons divide up divine power and are in perpetual movement from their supernal heights to us,” Bloom remarks in one of his more superlative moments. “They bring down messages,” he intones, “each day’s news of the metamorphic meanings of the division between our mundane shell and the upper world.”

What, you might ask in follow up, is the American sublime that it should stand in marked contrast to the European tradition, rupturing the great chain of influence, revealing troublesome textual discontinuities and making gaps of influence that even two poets can pass abreast? “Simplistically,” Bloom submits, “the sublime in literature has been associated with peak experiences that render a secular version of a theophany: a sense of something interfused that transforms a natural moment, landscape, action, or countenance.” This isn’t quite Edmund Burke’s definition, but it does evoke the numinous, what Bloom calls, following Burke, “an excursion into the psychological origins of aesthetic magnificence.”

The Daemon Knows is part memoir, a recounting of a lifetime spent with books. There are accounts of Robert Penn Warren, Leslie Fiedler, and Cleanth Brooks. Bloom’s former students and mentors also make brief appearances: Kenneth Burke, for instance, and Camille Paglia. And Bloom doesn’t just analyze, say, Moby Dick—he narrates about his first encounter with that book back in the summer of 1940. He later asserts, “I began reading Hart Crane in the library on my tenth birthday.” That he remembers these experiences at all speaks volumes to Melville’s and Crane’s bewitching facility and to Bloom’s remarkable receptivity.

Bloom has not shied away from his signature and grandiose ahistorical pronouncements, perhaps because they’re right. Melville, for instance, is “the most Shakespearean of our authors,” an “American High Romantic, a Shelleyan divided between head and heart, who held against Emerson the sage’s supposed deficiency in the region of the heart.” Or, “Emersonian idealism was rejected by Whitman in favor of Lucretian materialism, itself not compatible with Indian speculations.” Or, “Stevens received from Whitman the Emersonian conviction that poetry imparts wisdom as well as pleasure.” These generalizations would seem to service hagiography, but even if they’re overstatement, are they wrong?

My professors in graduate school, many of them anyway, chastised Bloom and dubbed him variously a reactionary, a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, or a simpleton; they discouraged his presence in my essays and papers, laughing him out of classroom conversation and dismissing his theories out-of-hand. Or else, stubbornly refusing to assess his theories on their own terms, they judged the theories in the light of their results: the theories were bad because certain authors, the allegedly privileged ones, came out on top, as they always have. This left little room for newcomers, for egalitarian fads and fashions, and discredited (or at least undermined) the supposedly noble project of literary affirmative action.

They will be forgotten, these dismissive pedants of the academy, having contributed nothing of lasting value to the economy of letters, while Bloom will live on, continuing to shock and upset his readers, forcing them to second-guess their judgments and tastes, their criteria for aesthetic value, challenging their received assumptions and thumping them over the head with inconvenient facts and radical common sense. The school of resentment and amateurish cultural studies, appropriate targets of Bloom’s learned animus, will die an inglorious death, as dogmatic political hermeneutics cannot withstand the test of time.

Bloom, on the other hand, like his subjects, taps his inner daemon, invokes it and rides it where it travels, struggles against the anxiety of influence and displays all of the rhetorical power and play of the strong poets he worships. Dr. Samuel Johnson and Northrop Frye reverberate throughout his capacious tome, and for that matter his entire oeuvre. Bloom’s psychic brooding becomes our own, if we read him pensively, and we are better off for it.

Those who view literary study as a profession requiring specialized and technical training, who chase tenure and peer approval, publishing in academic journals and gaining no wider audience than groveling colleagues, do not possess the originality, the foresight, or the brute imagination necessary to achieve enduring appeal. Reading, done right, is a profoundly personal activity, an exercise in solitary contemplation and possible revelation; writing, done right, is transference: the redirection of complex states of consciousness and knowing from one person to another. A few sentences of Bloom’s contemplative questioning, such as the following, are worth the weight of whole academic articles: “At eighty-four I wonder why poems in particular obsessed me from childhood onward. Because I had an overemotional sensibility, I tended to need more affection from my parents and sisters than even they could sustain. From the age of ten on, I sought from Moyshe-Leyb Halpern and Hart Crane, from Shakespeare and Shelley, the strong affect I seemed to need from answering voices.” Here Bloom invites Freudian investigation of himself, summoning the psychoanalytic models he uses on others.

Bloom is now 85. He claims to have another book left in him, making this one his penultimate. His awesome and dedicated engagement with the best that has been thought and known in the world appears to have left him unafraid of the finish, of what comes next, as though literary intimacy and understanding have prepared him, equipped him, for the ultimate. It seems fitting, then, to quote him on this score and to end with a musing on the end: “We are at least bequeathed to an earthly shore and seek memorial inscriptions, fragments heaped against our ruins: an interval and then we are gone. High literature endeavors to augment that span: My twelve authors center, for me, that proliferation of consciousness by which we go on living and finding our own sense of being.”

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Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism

In Arts & Letters, Books, Economics, Essays, Humane Economy, Humanities, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News Release, Philosophy, Politics, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on December 17, 2014 at 8:45 am

Literature and Liberty

A Christmas gift available here at Rowman & Littlefield’s website, here at Amazon, here at ebay, and here at Barnes & Noble.   

The economic theories of Karl Marx and his disciples continue to be anthologized in books of literary theory and criticism and taught in humanities classrooms to the exclusion of other, competing economic paradigms. Marxism is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive — in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an era when we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely the products of culture or class. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices affect lives, circumstances, and communities. Even literary scholars who reject pure Marxism are still motivated by it, because nearly all economic literary theory derives from Marxism or advocates for vast economic interventionism as a solution to social problems.

Such interventionism, however, has a track-record of mass murder, war, taxation, colonization, pollution, imprisonment, espionage, and enslavement — things most scholars of imaginative literature deplore. Yet most scholars of imaginative literature remain interventionists. Literature and Liberty offers these scholars an alternative economic paradigm, one that over the course of human history has eliminated more generic bads than any other system. It argues that free market or libertarian literary theory is more humane than any variety of Marxism or interventionism. Just as Marxist historiography can be identified in the use of structuralism and materialist literary theory, so should free-market libertarianism be identifiable in all sorts of literary theory. Literature and Liberty disrupts the near monopolistic control of economic ideas in literary studies and offers a new mode of thinking for those who believe that arts and literature should play a role in discussions about law, politics, government, and economics. Drawing from authors as wide-ranging as Emerson, Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry Hazlitt, and Mark Twain, Literature and Liberty is a significant contribution to libertarianism and literary studies.

Here’s what others are saying about Literature and Liberty:

By subtitling his book “Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism,” Allen Mendenhall situates his work within an exciting methodological approach that is still off the radar screens of most academicians.  Not since the appearance of Edward Said’s Orientalism has a new literary approach invited us to read texts from a vantage point that jolts us into recognition of deep-seated ideological undercurrents that had previously remained unnoticed, or were simply passed over in silence. … It is a pleasure to now add Mendenhall’s deftly argued and passionately engaged volume to my list of recommended readings in libertarian scholarship.— Jo Ann Cavallo, Professor of Italian and Director of Undergraduate Studies, Columbia University

The much celebrated interdisciplinarity of contemporary criticism often amounts to nothing more than the absence of grounding in any traditional intellectual discipline, literary or otherwise. By contrast, Allen Mendenhall’s book is genuinely interdisciplinary. With solid credentials in law, economics, and literature, he moves seamlessly and productively among the fields. Covering a wide range of topics—from medieval history to postcolonial studies—Mendenhall opens up fresh perspectives on long-debated critical issues and raises new questions of his own.Paul A. Cantor, Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English, University of Virginia

Freedom is all around us, but we sometimes need expert guides to help us see it. This is exactly what the brilliant Allen Mendenhall has done with his outstanding collection of essays on the way great literary fiction interacts with the themes of human liberty. In taking this approach, he is turning certain academic conventions on their heads, finding individualism and property rights where others look for social forces and collectivist imperatives. He helps us to have a rich and deeper appreciation of the libertarian tradition and its expanse beyond economics and politics.Jeffrey Tucker, CEO of Liberty.me, Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education, executive editor of Laissez-Faire Books, and Research Fellow at the Acton Institute

In Literature and Liberty, Allen Mendenhall aims to expand the marketplace of ideas in literary studies to include the entire spectrum of free-market theories. His goal is to break Marxism’s monopolistic hold over economic ideas in the study of imaginative literature. In his diverse chapters, he convincingly offers multiple transdisciplinary approaches to libertarian theory that literature scholars could adopt and build upon. Celebrating individualism and freedom in place of collectivism and determinism, Mendenhall focuses on commonalities and areas of agreement with respect to free-market theories. This approach increases the probability that the ideas in this ground-breaking volume will be widely embraced by thinkers from various schools of pro-capitalist thought, including, but not limited to Classical Liberalism, the Austrian School, the Judeo-Christian perspective, the Public Choice School, the Chicago School, the Human Flourishing School, and Objectivism.Edward W. Younkins, Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration and Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Capitalism and Morality, Wheeling Jesuit University

Allen Mendenhall is both an attorney and an advanced student of literature. He also has an excellent knowledge of modern economics. … [A]s Mendenhall notes, non-Marxist treatments of economics and literature have been slow to develop. His new book, Literature and Liberty, goes far toward supplying this lack. It shows how much work can be done, and good work too, when law and literature are studied from the perspectives offered by a real competence in economic ideas. … Every part of the book shows the fully interdisciplinary character of Mendenhall’s understanding of his subjects and his large knowledge of the historical periods he treats. Only the rare reader will be unable to learn from Mendenhall. … The kind of interdisciplinary work that Mendenhall advocates is an exciting enterprise, and one hopes that he will have much more to do with it.— Stephen Cox, Professor of Literature, University of California, San Diego, and Editor in Chief, Liberty

Are Lawyers Illiterate?

In Arts & Letters, Books, Essays, History, Humanities, Imagination, Law, Literature, Philosophy, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy on September 3, 2014 at 8:45 am

Allen 2

This piece originally appeared here in The Imaginative Conservative.

Webster’s defines “intelligent” as “endowed with intelligence or intellect; possessed of, or exhibiting, a high or fitting degree of intelligence or understanding.” This modern understanding of “intelligence” as an innate disposition or propensity differs from earlier understandings of the word as meaning “versed” or “skilled.” Milton, for instance, in Paradise Lost, calls the eagle and the stork “intelligent of seasons,” by which he meant that these birds, because of their experience, were cognizant of the seasons.

The older meaning of “intelligent” has less to do with native endowment than it does with gradual understanding. The older meaning, in other words, is that intelligence is acquired by effort and exposure rather than fixed by biological inheritance or natural capacity: one may become intelligent and is not just born that way; intelligence is a cultivated faculty, not an intrinsic feature.

Because of the altered signification of “intelligent,” we use today different words to describe the older meaning: erudite, knowledgeable, informed, traveled, educated. These words seem to us more palatable than their once-favored predecessors: civilized, polished, cultured, genteel, refined. I myself prefer words like “lettered” or “versed” that imply a knowledge of important books and the humanities generally.

The most apt term in this regard is also the most butchered in the current lexicon: “literate.” Contrary to what appears to be the prevailing assumption, “literate” does not simply refer to an ability to read. According to Webster’s, “literate” means “instructed in letters, educated; pertaining to, or learned in, literature.”

Not just to read, but to read well and widely—that is how you become “literate.” Accepting this traditional meaning, I question how many lawyers are or can become literate.

In the 1980s, Ithiel de Sola Pool, a professor of communications and media, determined that the average American adult reads approximately 240 words per minute. At that rate, it would take a person around 2,268.36 minutes (or 37 hours, 48 minutes, and 21.6 seconds) to read War and Peace, which comes in at 544,406 words. If that sounds encouraging—ever wanted to read War and Peace in a day-and-a-half?—consider these offsetting variables: reading at one sitting slows over time; attention span and memory recall are limited; the mind can be exercised only so much before it requires rest; people cannot constantly read for 2,268.36 minutes without going to the restroom or eating or daydreaming, among other things; a healthy lifestyle entails seven to nine hours of sleep per day; large portions of the day are spent carrying out quotidian operations, including showering, cooking, brushing teeth, commuting to and from work, getting dressed and undressed, answering phone calls, reading emails, cleaning, filling out paperwork, paying bills, and so on. Pool, moreover, was not using a text like War and Peace to gather his data, and his subjects were not writing in the margins of their books, taking notes on their laptops, or pausing to engage others in critical conversations about some narrative.

The National Association for Legal Career Professionals has estimated that lawyers at large firms bill on average 1,859 hours per year and work 2,208 hours per year. These numbers are more troubling in view of the fact that large law firms require their attorneys to attend functions with clients and potential clients, time that is neither billable nor considered “working hours.”

If there are around 8,760 hours in a year, and if a healthy person spends about 2,920 of those sleeping, there remain only around 5,840 hours per year for everything else. If “everything else” consisted of nothing—nothing at all—except reading War and Peace, then a lawyer at a large law firm could read that book about 154 times a year. But of course this is not possible, because no person can function as a machine functions. Once the offsetting variables are accounted for—and I have listed only a few that immediately spring to mind, and these for people with no families—it becomes apparent that it is nearly impossible for a lawyer to read more than about four lengthy or difficult books each month, and only the most diligent and disciplined can accomplish that.

Numbers can lead us astray, so let us consider some anecdotal evidence—my own testimony—which suggests that most lawyers are illiterate, or perhaps that lawyers have to try really hard to become literate or to avoid losing their literacy.

I am a lawyer, one who considers himself literate but increasingly in danger of becoming illiterate the longer I remain in my chosen profession. My hope is that literacy stays with you, that if you “frontload,” as it were, you can build a wide enough base to allow for slack in later years.

In 2013, I made an effort to overcome the time restrictions of my job to read through several canonical texts of Western Civilization. For the most part I undertook a book a week, although, because of scheduling constraints, I read what I took to be the most important or most famous sections of the lengthier books and volumes such as Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, a work that would require years of study to fully appreciate. I found myself, on many Thursday evenings, reading so rapidly to finish the text at hand that I could not enjoy myself or absorb the nuances and complexities established by the author.

Reading only one book a week when you are intelligent enough to read more is shameful and disgraceful, the sacrifice of a gift. During graduate school, I could read five or six books a week and can recall more than one week when I read a book a day. But each day I spend working as a lawyer, I am less able to digest the books I consume and to consume the books necessary for intellectual nourishment.

Economists use the term “opportunity cost” to refer to a choice to forego options or to pursue the benefits of one course of action rather than another. The cost of becoming a lawyer is giving up literacy or making its attainment more difficult; the gain, in theory, is a higher salary and financial stability. Whether the gain neutralizes the loss depends on one’s preferences. I myself would not trade for a million dollars the opportunity to read Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Aristotle or Santayana.

To achieve the admiration enjoyed by lawyers, other professionals must do their jobs several times better. Happily, this is not a high bar. That is why people prefer the company of doctors. It is not that lawyers are incompetent or unskilled; it is that they do not put their faculties to good use. All people think, but it is only by degree and by the object of their thought that the literate are distinguished from the illiterate. To put their minds to humane use would improve lawyers’ reputations considerably and call into question that axiom popularized by one of Dickens’s characters: “If there were no bad people, there would be no good lawyers.”

The way I see it, you can spend all your life billing clients and pushing paper under great stress, by investing your talents and resources in prospects that yield no intellectual returns, or you can spend your life establishing high standards of reason, understanding, and creativity by studying the most important and influential works that humans have produced through the ages. You can spend all your time transacting business, prosecuting and defending lawsuits, and preparing briefs and memoranda, or you can cultivate discernment and understanding. The options are not mutually exclusive: I have overstated to draw a sharp contrast, but the point remains.

Do not misunderstand me: working hard and earning profits are not only good and healthy activities but personally fulfilling. Yet they must be supplemented with humane contemplation and the private study of important ideas. Industry and innovation are requisite to a high quality of life, a robust economy, and human flourishing—and they make possible the time and leisure that enable some people to create great art and literature. Not everyone can be literate, and that is a good thing.

It is just that many lawyers never learn to live well and wisely, to place their seemingly urgent matters into perspective, or to appreciate, as Aristotle did, the virtues of moderation. This failure is directly related to lawyers’ neglect of history and philosophy and to their suppression of the moral imagination that works of good literature can awaken. This failure, as well, puts lawyers at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to spiritual, moral, and intellectual pursuits. As Mark Twain quipped, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

Lawyers are illiterate, most of them anyway. Trust them to handle your real estate closings or to manage your negligence claims, to finalize your divorce or to dash off angry letters to your competitors, but do not trust them to instruct you on plain living and high thinking. There are exceptions—Gerald Russello and Daniel Kornstein are two—but generally lawyers are not to be consulted on matters of importance to the soul. For those, we have good books, and with luck, the people who write and read them.

Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism

In Arts & Letters, Austrian Economics, Books, Economics, Emerson, Fiction, History, Humane Economy, Humanities, Imagination, Justice, Law-and-Literature, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, News and Current Events, News Release, Novels, Philosophy, Politics, Property, Rhetoric, Shakespeare, The Novel, Transnational Law, Western Civilization, Western Philosophy, Writing on November 15, 2013 at 8:46 am

Allen 2

My forthcoming book, Literature and Liberty: Essays in Libertarian Literary Criticism, is now available for pre-order here at Amazon.com or here at Rowman & Littlefield’s website.  From the cover:

The economic theories of Karl Marx and his disciples continue to be anthologized in books of literary theory and criticism and taught in humanities classrooms to the exclusion of other, competing economic paradigms. Marxism is collectivist, predictable, monolithic, impersonal, linear, reductive — in short, wholly inadequate as an instrument for good in an era when we know better than to reduce the variety of human experience to simplistic formulae. A person’s creative and intellectual energies are never completely the products of culture or class. People are rational agents who choose between different courses of action based on their reason, knowledge, and experience. A person’s choices affect lives, circumstances, and communities. Even literary scholars who reject pure Marxism are still motivated by it, because nearly all economic literary theory derives from Marxism or advocates for vast economic interventionism as a solution to social problems.

Such interventionism, however, has a track-record of mass murder, war, taxation, colonization, pollution, imprisonment, espionage, and enslavement — things most scholars of imaginative literature deplore. Yet most scholars of imaginative literature remain interventionists. Literature and Liberty offers these scholars an alternative economic paradigm, one that over the course of human history has eliminated more generic bads than any other system. It argues that free market or libertarian literary theory is more humane than any variety of Marxism or interventionism. Just as Marxist historiography can be identified in the use of structuralism and materialist literary theory, so should free-market libertarianism be identifiable in all sorts of literary theory. Literature and Liberty disrupts the near monopolistic control of economic ideas in literary studies and offers a new mode of thinking for those who believe that arts and literature should play a role in discussions about law, politics, government, and economics. Drawing from authors as wide-ranging as Emerson, Shakespeare, E.M. Forster, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Henry Hazlitt, and Mark Twain, Literature and Liberty is a significant contribution to libertarianism and literary studies.

Law in Melville and Hawthorne

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, Historicism, History, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Writing on July 11, 2012 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

Law was a common trope in the writing of nineteenth century American authors.  The jurist Roscoe Pound referred to nineteenth century America as a “frontier society” that was struggling to define what law was.  Justice John Marshall was carving out the jurisdiction of the nation’s high court, even as Andrew Jackson challenged Marshall’s authority to do so.  (Jackson supposedly said, in regard to Worcester v. Georgia, that Marshall had made his decision, “now let him enforce it.”)  American jurisprudents were seeking to reconcile the contradictions between liberty and equality on the one hand—the ideals of the revolutionary generation—with the peculiar institution of slavery on the other.  The ethos of republicanism and the ideal of open discourse clashed with the legislative attempts among the Southern states to resurrect Roman code to validate slave laws, even as the judiciary, on all levels and in all states, attempted to incorporate British common law into a new setting with unique problems.  In short, law was in flux during the nineteenth century in America, and writers like Melville and Hawthorne picked up on this problem and gave it unique and sometimes troubling articulation in their literature.

The “facts” in Benito Cereno are strikingly similar to the facts in one of America’s most memorable cases: U.S. v. The Amistad, in which John Quincy Adams, among others, served as an attorney.  In both “cases,” slaves took over a slave ship, killed some of their white captives, and demanded that the remaining white shipmen return the boat to Africa.  Rather than doing that, however, the white shipmen steered a path toward America, where the unsuspecting crew of another ship, sensing something wrong, came to assist.  These fact patterns raise sensitive and disturbing questions about the law.  What is justice?  How should it be determined?  Which party is right, and what does it mean to be right or to have rights?  For that matter, what is the law to begin with?

In Benito Cereno, Cereno is the captain of the ship bearing slaves, and it is from Delano’s perspective that we learn, gradually, that a slave revolt has occurred and that Cereno is being held captive by Africans.  Delano is the captain of a different ship who has come aboard Cereno’s ship to assist Cereno’s apparently distressed crew.  The leader of the slave revolt, Babo, himself a slave, is always by Cereno’s side, thereby giving Delano the impression that Cereno has a loyal servant.  What Delano eventually discovers is that the slaves have spared the lives of only Cereno and a few other whites in order that these whites return the ship to Africa.

In Amistad as in Benito Cereno, the African slaves had been removed from their homeland, without their consent, and taken to a foreign land among alien peoples for the sole purpose of perpetual enslavement.  On the other hand, the white shipmen had, it could be argued, complied with the law of the sea in conducting these actions, and they were murdered by mutinying slaves.  The problem here is that neither side seems to represent an unquestionably moral or obviously right position.  Slavery is evil, but so is murder.  Melville, perhaps realizing the literary possibilities created by this tension, subjects this challenging set of circumstances to rigorous interrogation by way of a captivating narrative. Read the rest of this entry »

How I Taught Sustainability

In Arts & Letters, Communication, Emerson, Fiction, Humanities, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Pedagogy, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication, Teaching, Writing on January 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

Allen Mendenhall

Last spring I learned that I had been assigned to teach a freshman writing course on sustainability.  I don’t know much about sustainability, at least not in the currently popular sense of that term, and for many other reasons I was not thrilled about having to teach this course.  So I decided to put a spin on the subject.  What follows is an abridged version of my syllabus.  I owe more than a little gratitude to John Hasnas for the sections called “The Classroom Experience,” “Present and Prepared Policy,” and “Ground Rules for Discussion.”  He created these policies, and, with a few exceptions, the language from these policies is taken from a syllabus he provided during a workshop at a July 2011 Institute for Humane Studies conference on teaching and pedagogy.

Sustainability and American Communities

What is sustainability?  You have registered for this course about sustainability, so presumably you have some notion of what sustainability means.  The Oxford English Dictionary treats “sustainability” as a derivative of “sustainable,” which is defined as

  1. Capable of being borne or endured; supportable, bearable.
  2. Capable of being upheld or defended; maintainable.
  3. Capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level.

Recently, though, sustainability has become associated with ecology and the environment.  The OED dates this development as beginning in 1980 and trending during the 1990s.  The OED also defines “sustainability” in the ecological context as follows: “Of, relating to, or designating forms of human economic activity and culture that do not lead to environmental degradation, esp. avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources.”  With this definition in mind, we will examine landmark American authors and texts and discuss their relationship to sustainability.  You will read William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Whitman, Mark Twain, and others.  Our readings will address nature, community, place, stewardship, husbandry, and other concepts related to sustainability.  By the end of the course, you will have refined your understanding of sustainability through the study of literary texts. 

Course Objectives

I have designed this course to help you improve your reading, writing, and thinking skills.  In this course, you will learn to write prose for general, academic, and professional audiences.  ENGL 1120 is a writing course, not a lecture course.  Plan to work on your writing every night.  You will have writing assignments every week. Read the rest of this entry »

BOOK REVIEW | Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1: The Complete and Authoritative Edition

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Essays, Fiction, History, Humanities, Liberalism, Libertarianism, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Nineteenth-Century America, Novels, Politics, Rhetoric, Western Civilization, Writing on November 1, 2011 at 9:26 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following post originally appeared here at Prometheus Unbound: A Libertarian Review of Fiction and Literature.

Good things come to those who wait, the old adage goes, and the world has waited a century for Mark Twain’s autobiography, which, in Twain’s words, is a “complete and purposed jumble.”

This 760 page jumble is a good thing. And well worth the wait.

Twain, or Samuel L. Clemens, compiled this autobiography over the course of 35 years. The manuscript began in fits and starts. Twain, while establishing his legacy as a beloved humorist and man of letters, dashed off brief episodes here and there, assigning chapter numbers to some and simply shelving others. In 1906, he began making efforts to turn these cobbled-together passages into a coherent narrative. He met daily with a stenographer to dictate various reflections and then to compile them into a single, albeit muddled, document. The result was a 5,000 page, unedited stack of papers that, per Twain’s strict handwritten instructions, could not be published until 100 years after his death.

To say that we’ve waited a century to view this manuscript is only partially accurate because pieces of the manuscript appeared in 1924, 1940, and 1959. But this edition, handsomely bound by the University of California Press, and edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and others of the Mark Twain Project, is the first full, printed compilation of the autobiographical dictations and extracts. The editors, noting that “the goal of the present edition [is] to publish the complete text as nearly as possible in the way Mark Twain intended it to be published before his death,” explain that “no text of the Autobiography so far published is even remotely complete, much less completely authorial.” The contents of this much-awaited beast of a book, then, are virtually priceless; no doubt many of Twain’s previously unread or unconsidered passages will become part of the American literary canon.

Stark photographs of the manuscript drafts and of Twain and his subjects — including family members and residences — accompany this fragmentary work. The lively and at times comical prose is in keeping with the rambling style of this rambling man whom readers have come to know and appreciate for generations.  Read the rest of this entry »

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