English major Victoria Giansante has published a new essay at The Huffington Post. The essay, “Why You Should Never Pretend that You’re Okay,” was originally published on the website Unwritten back in November but has been picked up by the news and culture website, which posted the piece today. Congratulations to Victoria for having such an impact and reaching thousands of new readers!
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Mark Graybill, Professor of English
So, Donald Trump is now officially president. Rarely do I address politics directly in class, but here, I’ll just say it: I think “Trumpism”—“a brew of nationalist, populist, anti-establishment, anti-‘expert,’ anti-globalist, protectionist, ‘us versus them,’ and most of all, anti-immigrant sentiment”—is dangerous in historic proportions. And I’m especially worried that it’s going to be devastating for the status of art, history, language, and literature in American culture. Indeed, the budget he plans to propose reportedly eliminates both the NEA and the NEH.
How did we get here? The Humanities, especially literature, can help answer that question (which might explain in part why Trump wants to starve them). I suspect that classics such as 1984, Brave New World, and The Handmaid’s Tale are going to enjoy new lives in the coming days. But the less obviously political fiction of Flannery O’Connor, published in the 1950s and ‘60s, also sheds considerable light on our current situation. (I’m not alone in thinking so: David Griffith published a compelling piece on “The Displaced Person” and the Syrian refugee debate over a year ago.) Specifically, O’Connor’s stories expose the seductiveness and destructiveness of nostalgia and authoritarianism—two pillars of Trumpism.
“Make America Great Again.” Sounds, well, great, doesn’t it? But, here’s the thing: nostalgia is fundamentally illusory and amnesiac. It distorts things, leaves things out, leads us away from reality. O’Connor is frequently lauded for her skepticism toward progress, especially the notion that technology and science (natural, social, and otherwise) can solve all of humanity’s problems. But she is equally suspicious of the tendency to place faith in a misremembered, ill defined past. When her characters do so, things go wrong.
When shifty Tom Shiftlet, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” spies a car he wants in a widow’s barn, he uses nostalgia to appeal to her unspoken but clear conviction that the present has wronged her: “Nothing is like it used to be, lady . . . The world is almost rotten.” “That’s right,“ she responds—and before she knows it, he has taken the car and humiliated both her and her disabled daughter in the process. In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” nostalgia is lethal. The Grandmother (unnamed to underscore her universality) dooms her family and herself by insisting they take a detour from their vacation and visit a plantation she went to as a child. Her memory is false, though: the plantation, if it ever truly existed, sits in another state. Her mistake delivers them all to their eventual murderer, the Misfit, a criminal she’s been fretting about since the story’s opening line.
A subtle but important aspect of the Grandmother’s nostalgia is racism. In her mind, the plantation isn’t a symbol of slavery, but of the romantic Old South. She lectures her grandchildren about how people treated each other respectfully in the past, and then gleefully calls an African American boy standing on the roadside a “cute little pickaninny!” The Grandmother’s acceptance of racial stereotypes (as seen in this example from the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University) puts her in company with the new president and some of his supporters: one survey suggests that “those who hold . . . dehumanizing views of black people are disproportionately likely to support Donald Trump.” (Here’s another with similar findings.)
But political scientists have identified something larger than racism at work in the American electorate right now: authoritarianism. “Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world,” writes Amanda Taub. “Challenges to that order—diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order—are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.”
O’Connor captures this mentality vividly in “The Displaced Person.” After World War II, a global conflagration sparked by authoritarianism, Mrs. McIntyre initially welcomes a family of Polish refugees to her farm because they outwork her current employees. But when Mr. Guizac approaches one of her black farmhands about marrying his white cousin, confined for three years in a refugee camp back in Europe, Mrs. McIntyre explodes: “You would bring this poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger! What kind of monster are you?” The outsider has challenged the social order, and she cannot abide it. Incapable of dealing with the situation, she passively lets another employee, the white, racist, big-talking Mr. Shortley, handle it violently, but with the kind of plausible deniability the authoritarian strongman treasures. Disaster ensues: the Pole dies, the farm closes, and its owner lies bedridden, decimated physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Will the two-headed monster of nostalgia and authoritarianism also incapacitate the American body politic? The fact that I can entertain such a question without immediately dismissing it as melodrama is downright depressing. But then I recall Toni Morrison’s words, cited by pop star Katy Perry post-election: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” If it is time for “artists [to] go to work,” to “do language,” it is time for readers to do the same. As every English major knows, wisdom about the present is often found in the art of the past.
Please enjoy our new holiday single, “Los Pantalones de Navidad,” inspired by the heartwarming traditional tale of the Christmas pants. Check it out at iTunes—only 99¢! Also available for download at Amazon—same low price!
Every year, students from our English and Creative Writing program attend the national conference for the Forum for Undergraduate Student Editors (FUSE). Regular readers may recall that last year Widener had the privilege of hosting the annual gathering.
This year, Kelsey Styles, Emma Irving, and Jennifer Rohrbach headed out to Bowling Green with Professor Michael Cocchiarale to share their work on our campus publications—Widener Ink, The Blue Route, Chester Magazine, and The Blue & Gold—and participate in discussions focused on the conference theme of literary citizenship.
We’re happy to link out to The Blue Route and share their reflections on this meaningful event. Here’s a preview from Jennifer Rohrbach:
It was inspiring to realize that there is a community of writers and editors out there in the world who are as enthusiastic about literature as I am, and who are dedicated to instilling that enthusiasm within others to further cultivate literary citizenship.
Want to read more? Head over to The Blue Route.
We are pleased to announce a new book from Widener English faculty member and local author, Melissa Mowday. West Chester, in Arcadia Publishing‘s Images of Modern America series, is a photographic tour of this historic town; Mowday co-authored the book with her father, Bruce Mowday.
Melissa will be signing books at the Devon Barnes & Noble on December 18th at noon—stop by and congratulate her!
The subject of this year’s Senior Seminar, directed by Professor Janine Utell, is James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses. In accordance with our tradition, Professor Utell, on September 29, presented the annual Fall Faculty Lecture on “James Joyce and Divorce Law,” which is related to her essay “Criminal Conversation: Marriage, Adultery, and the Law in Joyce’s Work,” forthcoming in an edited collection on James Joyce and the law later this year from University of Florida Press. Professor Utell’s lecture addressed late 19th- and early 20th-century adultery laws in relation to not only Joyce’s Ulysses but also his posthumously published Giacomo Joyce and his story “A Painful Case,” from Dubliners.
On October 14, the seniors had the opportunity to visit the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, where they viewed pages from Joyce’s manuscript of Ulysses, issues of the serial publication and a first edition. Librarian Elizabeth Fuller discussed with the students the composition and publication history of Ulysses and provided some anecdotes about the Rosenbach brothers who founded the institution. Professor Utell has a longstanding relationship with the Rosenbach, having coordinated the annual Bloomsday event from 2005 to 2007.
On Wednesday, Nov. 2, the English Department will host Temple University English literature Ph.D. candidate Ted Howell for a public lecture on how scientific discourse informs cultural production and expression in literary works.
Howell is also working on a dissertation about modernist fiction, early ecology and vitalist philosophy, which features a chapter on Joyce developed from material presented at three James Joyce conferences. He currently teaches in the Department of Writing Arts at Rowan University and leads a reading group on Ulysses at the Rosenbach. His course at Temple University on climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” has been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic and The Chronicle of Higher Education.
The Nov. 2 lecture by Howell will take place in Room A of the University Center from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. All are welcome.
We take the greatest pleasure in sharing the news that Professor Daniel Robinson has been honored with the University Outstanding Researcher Award. Faithful readers of our blog will know that Professor Robinson has undertaken a robust and internationally-recognized research agenda on the poetry of the Romantic period, including his current project of editing a major new anthology on the subject for Bloomsbury.
Professor Robinson has also involved students in his research through the program he has developed for Widener English in Textual Scholarship. Undergraduates at Widener have a unique opportunity to work with original manuscripts at the Jerwood Centre in Grasmere, England, supported and advised by Professor Robinson.
This award is highly competitive, with nominees evaluated by a distinguished panel of outside reviewers. We are incredibly proud of Professor Robinson, and grateful for all he does for our students!
We are beyond proud to announce a banner week for Professor Pobo!
- Circling Rivers Press has accepted Loplop in a Red City, a collection of ekphrastic poems, due to be published in Spring 2017
- Grey Borders has announced Professor Pobo as the winner of their Wanted Works chapbook contest; they will be publishing Dust and Chrysanthemums
- Encircle Publications has announced they will be publishing Professor Pobo’s chapbook Calligraphy with Ball in March 2017
Congratulations, Professor Pobo!
Welcome back from Widener English and Creative Writing!
Our faculty and students had a busy summer traveling, writing, presenting, and publishing. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Daniel Robinson, along with senior English majors Ashley DiRienzo and Taylor Brown, presented at the Wordsworth Summer Conference in August
- Janine Utell presented at a conference on Letters and Letter Writing at Oxford University
- Michael Cocchiarale presented at a symposium in Chicago on sports and civic identity sponsored by the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature
- Mark Graybill presented at the annual conference for the American Literature Association in San Francisco
- Ken Pobo won the LGBTQ Flash Fiction Contest at Sweater Weather Magazine (read here!), and had work published at Quail Bell Magazine (read here!) and GFT Press (read here!), among others
- Kelly Helm published a piece with the Naval Historical Foundation on Godzilla and the Bikini Atoll (read here!)
Now that the fall semester is up and running, make sure you add these dates to your calendar:
- 9/14 at noon: Welcome Back Pizza Party for English/Creative Writing majors and minors in LC 339
- 9/15 at 7pm: State Street Reading Series at the Media Arts Center Gallery
- 9/21 at 4pm: Lecture by Martin Holt, visiting professor from Greifswald, Germany, in Freedom Hall Theater
- 9/22 at 7pm: Open Mic (in honor of Susan Hastie) in LC 1
- 9/26 at 3:30pm: Fall Faculty Lecture by Dr. Utell in UC Room G
Hope to see you out at these events! Stop by and say hi, or get in touch with news!