Friday, March 30, 2012

Founding Father

A fascinating passage from Annette Gordon-Reed's The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family:

The terrible predicament the Jeffersons, and other couples, faced—marriage with no birth control—pitted Jefferson's own sexual desires against Martha Jefferson's health, and Martha lost. Jefferson, it must be said, acted in accordance with the mores and expectations of the time. Martha Jefferson probably did as well, for she and Thomas were raised in a society where husbands were expected to have unfettered access to their wives' bodies, and girls were raised to submit. This is not at all to suggest that Martha did not benefit in her sexual life with her husband, that she was not a sexual being herself. The reality was, however, that she and other women had to think about sex in a different way than their husbands. As an elderly man, Jefferson remembered his marriage as "ten years of unchequered happiness." But he had survived his marriage, and we cannot simply assume that Martha Jefferson, who did not survive, felt the same about it—that she was unequivocally happy to have to endure nine months of pregnancy, six times within ten years, and to be brought to death's door nearly every time. For practically her entire marriage she was either pregnant or lactating. Her body was not her own. Women of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ... expressed exasperation with constant childbearing. In fact, women have rather dramatically shown the world, and everyone inclined to romanticize perpetual pregnancy, how they really feel about the matter. In every society where they have had the choice, they have dropped the birthrate down to at or below the replacement level. After all her struggles with childbearing, Martha Jefferson died at age thirty-four, when she did not have to. Jefferson understood this, and it fueled his agony.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Writing: A Miraculous Technology All Its Own

As an English teacher and a devotee of the written word, I was interested and disquieted by this essay by Robert Moor in n+1, and this passage from it in particular:

The problem with Our Choice [a recently published multimedia "book app"] is that among the elephantine hi-def images and infographics, the text gets buried. Reading it feels like flipping through a coffee table book: grazing the lush images, you avoid eye contact with the daunting gray bricks of text. If this is the future of the book, then the book is indeed doomed. Writing is a miraculous technology all its own—a code that, when input through the optic nerve, induces structured, coherent hallucinations. An equivalent experience does not exist. Words have shape and musicality. They almost have a flavor. But they are too easily drowned out by stronger stimuli.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Fictional Gloss and Brutal System

Faithful longtime readers of this blog know that one topic I've returned to multiple times is the HBO series The Wire. One of the topics I've considered on numerous occasions is the show's portrayal of African Americans. (See, for example, "Watching the Detectives," "Black American Lives and The Wire," and "The Wire and Winter's Bone.")

I thought of The Wire and those posts this evening when I read this paragraph in Michelle Alexander's 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness.

We may think we know how the criminal justice system works. Television is overloaded with fictional dramas about police, crime, and prosecutors—shows such as Law & Order. These fictional dramas, like the evening news, tend to focus on individual stories of crime, victimization, and punishment, and stories are typically told from the point of view of law enforcement. A charismatic police officer, investigator, or prosecutor struggles with his own demons while heroically trying to solve a horrible crime. He ultimately achieves a personal and moral victory by finding the bad guy and throwing him in jail. That is the made-for-TV version of the criminal justice system. It perpetuates the myth that the primary function of the system is to keep our streets safe and our homes secure by rooting out dangerous criminals and punishing them. These television shows, especially those that romanticize drug-law enforcement, are the modern-day equivalent of the old movies portraying happy slaves, the fictional gloss placed on a brutal system of racialized oppression and control.

I want to think more about the extent to which Alexander's point applies to The Wire.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Light in August in Winter

This past month, I've continued my preoccupation with Faulkner, re-reading his 1932 novel Light in August along with a couple of my colleagues, one of whom is teaching it to his junior Honors English class.

Faulkner scholar Theresa M. Towner writes that "Faulkner shared some of the racial prejudices of whites in his region, but he came to see those prejudices as self-delusional and unjust; indeed, his fiction is ahead of its time in representing the warping effects of racist ideology."

Light in August supports Towner's claims, as it demonstrates powerfully the warping effects of a variety of racist ideologies, which take on the character of religious belief for many characters in the novel (and indeed are often combined with warped religious belief).

We're nearing the end of the novel, and I've been considering some of the various cover images that have accompanied various editions of the book over the years.

One way of looking at the novel is as the story of a lynching—with an incredible amount of backstory and context, so that you might not realize this is the story of a lynching until you're well into the experience. The image on this cover creeps up on you in the same way: only after thinking about it in connection with the novel do you realize that the silhouetted image of a window resembles a gallows.

Faulkner has a way of combining the cartoonish with the dramatic and profound, and I think this cover captures that aspect of the novel nicely:

This one, another Vintage International edition of the novel (and the one I'm currently using), is lovely and evocative, but perhaps a bit too sepia-toned and pastoral for a novel that is, after all, pretty disturbing and violent.

I like the concepts of these next two Penguin Classics covers, but I feel that the execution leaves something to be desired. The wild multifariousness of this one does a good job of suggesting how many different characters and worldviews the novel will incorporate:

And the rough-hewn, folksy feeling of this one—combined with the modernist Picasso vibe—is also quite appropriate to Faulkner's aesthetic:

I think this image is from the first edition of the novel. Perhaps it's meant to represent the home of the disgraced minister Gail Hightower, where Joe Christmas meets his end in all of its Christian echoes of crucifixion.

This cover appears to portray Joe Christmas himself, though he seems too imposing and solid, too definite in identity for a tormented and, at bottom, vulnerable soul like Joe.

My favorite, though, may be this one. Abstract and symbolic like the window/gallows image above, it seems less limited than that one. The telephone poles in the distance may be crucifixes (Joe Christmas), yet they may also be connections between human beings (Lena and Byron). The road goes two ways, and though it may be soiled and cracked, there's more than a hint of green in the landscape, and a sky that seems poised equally between cloudy and sunny.

This dense, huge, rich book—Malcolm Cowley and others consider it perhaps Faulkner's greatest novel—gives us so many indelible images. I can see why it's inspired so many different cover designs. It's hard to capture the complexity of the novel in one single image.