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Week 5--Theorizing Genre

Anne Dalke's picture
We begin to dig, this week, into David Duff's collection of essays on Modern Genre Theory. What intrigues you, amid all the claims of his introduction, or in Benedetto Croce's initial crochety piece about the limits of thinking generically? How does any of this theorizing intersect with your experiences in finishing off Moby-Dick?
AF's picture


One thing Christina recorded from last class I found very interesting. She said, "In this course, we are trying to have more of an emerging story just like Duff is trying to do in Modern Genre Theory." I guess it just made me think about what we really are doing in this course and it made me wonder what I am expecting to get out of my time in Dalton 119. After my conference with Professor Dalke I began to meditate on my current and past courses here at BMC and I realized that not one of my other eight courses has ever come close to being taught in this way. 


In all honesty, I don't really know how I feel about that. I do know however, that this is one of my favorite classes this semester in spite of the fact that I am terrified to post anything I write online. I also love the idea of composing a class with improvisation rather than the foundations  academia seems to mandate we follow. I guess I'm just really happy to be a part of something new.

Claire Ceriani's picture

What Is a Classic?

I was thinking more about what makes a book a classic, and think maybe there exist several different types of classics.  There are books like “The Jungle” that are significant because of the impact they made when they were first written.  (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” would also fit this definition.)  I’ve read “The Jungle,” and I think I speak for a lot of modern readers when I say that it’s pretty awful.  The subject matter is unpleasant to read in the first place (I unintentionally became a vegetarian for several weeks), and I just don’t think it’s a very well-constructed work of literature.  But that was never the intent of the book; it was meant to be social commentary, and it was recognized as socially important.  I wouldn’t include it in a list of literary classics, but I think it deserves the place it has earned in history.  I think “Moby-Dick” also deserves to be considered a classic from an artistic perspective.  It may not have been popular when it was first published, but it has since made an impact on literature itself.  It broke a few rules and pushed literature in new directions.  There are also works that I believe deserve to be classics based on their entertainment popularity at the time they were published.  I may not be a big fan of Dickens myself, but many people were and are, and his body of work provides us with an example of what “good literature” was to people in the Victorian era, especially with the idea of the serialized novel being so popular.  For this reason, I think novels like the “Harry Potter” series can be considered future classics, because many years from now, JKR’s septet will be remembered as The Books of this decade.

Louisa Amsterdam's picture

Two (Separate) Thoughts Stemming from Thursday's Discussion

In our discussion of what constitutes a “classic” (American) novel today, something I found striking was that the idea of a “classic” novel includes some element of that novel’s place in (past) time. Moby Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were both published more than a century ago; they have, to use a cliché, withstood the test of time (Interestingly enough, Moby Dick has not had to endure as long a test, as it was not “discovered” as a classic until the 1920s). The phrase “instant classic” is often now used to describe new novels (or films, or albums), but can there be such a thing? How long must a piece of literature be around before it can be considered for the “classic” category (As to what other factors count for membership to the category, I cannot even guess)? Honestly, I have no good answer for this at the moment, but I think it is something worth thinking over.

On an unrelated note, I could not help but think about the novel You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers during our discussion of Terror Management Theory. The novel’s narrator, Will, has certain parallels to Ahab; to bring the novel to its essence, he hopes to counteract negative events in his life by doing one enormous good deed, and by doing this, he believes that he will receive some sign that the universe is ordered and balanced. The novel is highly focused on mortality: The narrator’s close friend recently died, and the narrator himself is, we learn in the first sentence, dead. The desire for order is intimately tied to the fear of death; the novel never makes explicit how exactly this connection works, but I instinctively draw this connection, too. Perhaps this is what makes certain books that focus on death comforting: In describing mortality, we give it some sort of order (Even if it is not black and white, good and evil, like that desired by Ahab). In the same way that our culture gives us rules and set expectations that shield us somehow from death, a book that talks about death gives it some sort of order, and that order is the buffer.

Christina Harview's picture

Week Five Summary

Here are the notes from this week: I have separated them by date. I hope that this helps.

19th – NOTES “Those of you who have done the summaries so far have done a great job.” -Anne Dalke

Harvard voted to publish all works for free on-line. Think about the connection to our previous discussions about posting online. Intellectual property should be available to all because some people cannot afford to buy all of the journals that some people are publishing in. Can ideas be copyrighted? J.K. Rowling does not own the Harry Potter books because she sold the rights to Penguin books. She no longer has control over it because it no longer belongs to her.

What form does Melville, Ismael, Ahab use in the writing of Moby Dick? Is it an anti-story, emerging story, non-narrative foundational story, or a narrative foundational story? The plot is a more organized part where Ishmael is talking to himself would be experimental chapters that each has their own little goal. They may also be exploratory in themselves. The exploration is a journey for Melville as much as it is for Ishmael.

Ahab seems to want there to be a narrative-foundational story behind it all. He wants there to be a meaning built upon past occurrences in which time is relevant. He wants to reach something that is foundational; he wants an explanation for what has occurred with Moby dick that is not random or by chance, but that has meaning behind it.

Jessie said that humor makes it possible to make several statements at once. Satire may be a way to mask something deeper. What is it that Melville is masking?

The book called Anatomy of Criticism written in 1957, the author describes the four types of writing: romantic (narrative foundational), memetic (emerging), ironic (anti-stories), and mythic (non-narrative foundational). It is interesting how these categories parallel Grobstein’s categorizations of writing.

Anthology: We discussed the evolution of American Literature anthologies over time. Five anthologies, published in 1956, 1874, 1979, 1989, and 1990 reveal an interesting view of how people saw American literature in each time period.

What is the story that is being told in the Introduction to Modern Genre Theory? What did you learn from the reading? The term ‘genre’ is much debated. The different schools of thought he referenced were interesting. The author muddles up the timeline of genre theory because it is not chronological. Previously, it was difficult to understand how to think about genre, but he defined it very well. We did not start the class with this so that we could learn to develop the context by ourselves. We naturally want the narrative-foundational story, but by leaving this out until now, Dalke has denied us that and hopefully opened our eyes to the peculiarities of the non-narrative foundational story.

Duff talks about the Germans as the source, but they got their ideas from the Plato/Aristotle bunch. Hegel said that any statement is a thesis and generates an antithesis. You put the thesis and the antithesis together to create a synthesis which forms dialectic. That synthesis is then a new thesis from which a new antithesis can be derived and thus another synthesis (and so on). A Darwinian sense of genre theory posits that genre is not static in time, but that it changes constantly.

Duff says that it doesn’t matter what Melville intended, what matter is how his writing is received by readers.


21st – NOTES We will all read essay number four (Bakhtin) and one of the other three essays of your choice. I will read the other Bakhtin along with Ellen. Marina will read the one about literary fact, Ingred will read the one about fairy tales.

Maybe all of those anthologies are narrative foundational stories. In this course, we are trying to have more of an emerging story, just like Duff is trying to do in Modern Genre Theory.

The picture on the cover of each anthology may help to reveal the contents of the stories itself. Herman Melville is found in all of the anthologies. Moby Dick’s chapter 54 is found in two of them, but all of the others leave out Moby Dick altogether.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin chapter 7 is included in two of them. Nine chapters are included in another book. Stowe is ignored in anthologies before the 1974 anthology.

What is a classic? Do we gauge it based on:

  • Its affect on society?
  • How easy it is to interpret?
  • Its meaning/ substance?
  • How it challenges literary conventions?
  • How unique it is?
  • How people react to it?

      Anatomy of Criticism “The ethical purpose of a liberal education is to liberate” the then goes on to say that they work to see society as free, classless, and urbane etc. No society like this actually exists so we need works of imagination that allow us to imagine what such a society may be like. Therein lies our liberation.

      What genre is Moby Dick? Is this a useful question to ask?

Marina Gallo's picture

English and Biology

After listening to the discussion about how biology and eng can interact I was inspired. I really enjoyed the idea that there are 4 types of stories for all novels. I thought it was really cool that we talked about the presidential race and politics and wove that into the topic of stories. I think Melville was writing more of a narrative with a base in the past. the story has to do with time and foundational characters. Those seemed like two important elements for both the book and the narrative foundational stories.

I was thinking about the question posed in class about whether Moby Dick is complete and I still have not come up with an answer. I know it has an ending, but I'm not so sure it is complete...It does seem as if the story winds around a bit without order at times.