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Week 6--Literary Facts and Transformations

Anne Dalke's picture

We're beginning this week with a range of genry theory written by the Russian Formalists, then turning our attention on Thursday to Uncle Tom's Cabin, a 19th century American novel that differs strikingly from the one we've just finshed.

Come to class on Tuesday ready to put "your" theorist into play with those others will be reading...and talk outloud here about what you noticed as you did so, and/or as you encounter the sentimental fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe for the first time.

Marina Gallo's picture

Week 6 or 7?

I can't remember which week we discussed this, but one of the authors talked about new genres such as letters and today I came across something about new types of genres. I was reading More magazine and one of the articles was about "genre busters" and new literary forms. There were four books that they highlighted. One was part memoir part how-to. That book also includes quotes, quizes, and illustrations. Hearing what it included reminds me of the book, "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close". EL&IC had many of the same elements that cross genres. The second book they discussed was a fictionalized biography. the next was jounalism and journal entries and the last was a biography with primary sources and a social chronical told through lit. analysis.

The idea of new genres and mixing genres makes me think that this is the

Claire Ceriani's picture

I think Uncle Tom's Cabin is

I think Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of those books that everyone should read, but should not be praised as a great work of literature.  What I mean is that this book was a hugely significant work in many social and political ways, and I think reading it gives us a window, even a foggy one, to this time.  The issues surrounding it are very complex, and for that reason, I really think it's a book that everyone should study, rather than just read.  To the modern audience, this book does not really stand as a novel to be read for pleasure.  Reading the Diary of Anne Frank means nothing without the historical context in which it was written.  The same is true of Uncle Tom's Cabin; it's a key part of this period of history.  I do think it's unfortunate that the book shaped so many black stereotypes at the time, such as the Uncle Tom and the pickaninny, because modern readers see these stereotypes as a much larger part of the book based on our modern perspective.  The anti-slavery message doesn't seem as strong when we read it with modern eyes, because we see all the stereotypes in the characters.  At the time it was published, these stereotypes would be seen as much more factual, even by abolitionists.
Louisa Amsterdam's picture

Imitation, borrowing, Uncle Tom's Cabin...and Vampire Weekend?

Something that really interested me during Thursday's discussion of Uncle Tom's Cabin was a shared discomfort (to put it lightly) about the way that Stowe portrays the speech of the slaves. The line between mimicry and mockery is a fine one, and I agree with what seemed to be the general consensus on Thursday, that Stowe crosses it regularly. When I was reading, the thing that stood out to me about the speech of the slaves was that it seems somewhat inconsistent; if I am remembering the Intro to Linguistics class I took first semester freshman year, a hallmark of a separate dialect (or language, if you have the army) is that it follows patterns and rules, and the slave speech seems somewhat haphazard in its construction, as Stowe portrays it. Additionally, I thought it was interesting that Eliza and George seem to speak in a more "refined" (or, white) manner than the rest of the slaves, mirroring the idea that they are considered in some ways less "black" because of their ancestry.

In a very modern example of art that provokes us to think about who has the right to borrow or imitate what, Vampire Weekend (one of my favorite bands) was given a rather critical cover story in last month's Spin Magazine ( ). The band plays indie rock with Afro-Caribbean percussion. The article, in my opinion, is rather poorly written, but it brings up a rather important question: Should we be uncomfortable that four wealthy Columbia graduates, none of whom have any African or Caribbean heritage, are so blatantly using this as part of their music? Listening to the music, it is clear that there is not meant to be any echo of a minstrel show, unlike when reading slave speech written by Stowe. However, there is still something I can't quite put my finger on that makes me feel that this should make me slightly uncomfortable. I don't know; I would be interested to discuss this.

AF's picture

Uncle Tom's Cabin

I carry Uncle Tom's Cabin around, like I do with most books I read, so that when I have free time I can just dive right in. However, I have never gotten so much attention for reading in public on Bryn Mawr's campus before. Even my custom's group acts weird about it. We were all walking to dinner the other day and I was innocently carrying my copy of the book, when suddenly I notice the look on their faces. All five of them had a facial expression that was some sort of mix between confusion, terror, and repulsion. Then came the loaded question, "Your reading Uncle Tom's Cabin? WHY?" Noticing their reaction I quickly explained it was an assignment for class. Everyone laughed off the tension, but I still felt strange for the rest of the evening.

Then today someone else said something to me. They asked the same  question and when I supplied them with my answer they suggested that I "put a sign on the front of my book so that when you get questioned again you can just hold it up for them to read." But the most recent occurrence was also the most surprising. At dinner tonight, upon spying the book behind me on my seat, one of my companions told me "to be careful with that." They acted as if I had a loaded weapon or something. 

I guess what I was trying to get at with this is that I had no clue that people were so upset just by the mere thought of someone reading this book. It really makes you think about weight of the topic and how much racial issues are still present in our society today.  

Marina Gallo's picture

Uncle Tom's Cabin

On a different note, Uncle Tom's Cabin is not something I would read on my own. I don't really enjoy the story and when we were questioned about it in class I really got to thinking. As I said in class, I don't like the way they make the slaves sound and it is hard to read and understand. 

In terms of how long a book should be around before it can be considered a classic seems irrelevant. One could always compare it to previous classics and also try to guess as to whether is will be relatable to generations to come.  

Marina Gallo's picture

Bakhtin etc

After reading some Russian Formalist theory and discussing its application to our novels I was better able to understand some of the connections to genre we are trying to make. 

Bakhtin especially grabbed my attention because he talked about how genre is constantly evolving and that made a lot of sense to me. I think all genres have to evolve in some way so as to stay applicable to life. 

He described the letter as a genre and I had never thought about a letter being a genre before. Today letters seem so short and unliterary that it doesn't even seem like it can be compared to or put in similar categories as novels and poems. Should letters even be considered literary?  

Hannah Mueller's picture

Overview of Thursday's Class and Sign Language Poetry

We started out by looking at some postings by Louisa and Claire about what makes a classic. Is the phrase “instant classic” an oxymoron? Claire suggested that books that are extremely popular when they’re first released can be considered instant classics if the basis for that distinction is social impact; but other standards for “classic” standing could be artistic, entertainment, etc. We also looked at Ellen’s diagram of the deceptively simple sentence “Call me Ishmael” and talked about her question of how useful, really, is physical grammar in examining underlying meaning.

Today we delved into Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first by talking about our initial impressions and then by taking a look at some theorists’ opinions. One sense that Megan and others came away with was that the book feels racist because of the use of dialect and the way some slaves are depicted as dumb (“bobservations”) or very subservient to their masters. Claire talked about how comedy plays a (sometimes problematic) role in African-American literature. We talked about how Stowe's and her contemporaries’ expectations about race are not ours, and we don’t accept her invitation to laugh at the slaves’ mannerisms, etc.

Another reading by Jess and others was that the book was radical in its day despite the aspects we still find racist. Even black characters played for laughs are smart. Although in the Civil Rights movement and today an “Uncle Tom” referred dismissively to a black person who cooperates too much with white culture, Uncle Tom’s character in the book is actually more complicated; he obeys, at least in large part, to save his family from being sold.

We also talked about the form of the book, which we designated a sentimental novel, though at some points it feels like an essay because it didactically tells the reader what to think. There’s the basic narrative, interspersed with comments by the author that especially address women/mothers. The women are the moral ones in the book, and they are guided by their feelings. The characters supported by the author’s voice are the ones who rely on emotion, and this is the suggestion to the reader as well.

James Baldwin had a problem with this sentimentality; he said that it is not purposeful, but instead focuses on a performance. We said that he would have preferred a different genre, a protest novel, with the aim of making readers angry instead of sad, responsible for their actions instead of wallowing in an emotional reaction. Jane Tomkins (BMC grad!) on the other hand, has the opposite opinion; she thinks Uncle Tom’s Cabin is so effective because it’s a sentimental novel. Her analysis changed the way the academic world looked at this novel and all literature with a socio-political agenda—helped cause these books, in fact, to be accepted as literature. We did take umbrage with the fact that she focused on the book as women’s literature instead of a book about slavery and race.

In other news, I went to the “British Sign Language Poetry” performance by Paul Scott at Haverford today and was really impressed. I hadn’t known that such a thing existed—for me, it’s a totally new genre! Interestingly, the presenter mentioned how not many different genres of sign language poetry are accepted today. That comment seemed to express the idea that if a form of artistic expression has many sub-genres, it is seen as more legitimate, maybe because that would mean that many people put effort and creativity into it and it is a versatile form. Sign Language Poetry definitely has that potential, and I hope it becomes more popular, especially in the U.S. As was emphasized at the performance, it is a great way for people in the deaf community to come together, express themselves, and educate the non-deaf. And it offers possibilities for expression that poetry in spoken or written languages can’t offer—for example, the use of space and symmetry and visual rhymes and rhythms, which are just really amazing. I liked how the poetry is not exactly BSL, but it uses elements of the language in a way so that even people who don’t know it can understand the meaning.
M. Gallagher's picture

Formalist Failures and Musings

I find the idea of Formalism, or at least that of the Russian Formalists, incredibly intriguing. I've been taught time and again to look at the structure of a piece and then to look at the context within which it was written or constructed (either artist's life or general movement), so as to get a full picture of what the piece could mean. In fact, I find it hard to comprehend any form of art without a basis in the socio-political spectrum. I mean, we had an entire section of the rubric for our IB art journals focused on context and we read twice as many critical articles, biographies, author's statements, and reviews of the literary works than the text of the actual works themselves. I'm having trouble even comprehending a Russian formalist approach because I'm constantly trying to extrapolate to find significance and value to form without even meaning to.

At any rate, in reading Uncle Tom's Cabin I'm finding it almost impossible to distance myself from the text, unlike I might be able to do to at least some extent with many novels. I have a feeling that this is why-- combined with the fact that it's a commentary on such a salient topic-- that it is and has been so popular. She also speaks directly to the reader at times, very blatantly telling them how to think-- which tends to make a thing popular. It's easy to digest, the message is clear... even when controversial.

However, maybe when I get a little further into the text, I can try to look at it in a formalist perspective as the overarching form of the text beyond massive quantities of dialogue and blunt characterizations.

Hannah Mueller's picture

Overview of Tuesday's Class

On Tuesday, we began class by taking a look at “Hillary’s Inner Tracy Flick,” a mash-up of two genres that ironically portrays Reese Witherspoon as Hillary Clinton in an angry tirade against a less-qualified but more popular opponent (Obama). This exemplifies how scripts of real-life campaigns (and what we do in our own lives) copy scripts that have already been written.

In three groups, we looked at three Russian Formalist genre theorists’ work and how it relates to Moby-Dick and other theorists we’ve read. First, we had Yury Tynyanov’s “The Literary Fact,” which emphasizes change. He says that there cannot be set definitions within literature because all literature is constantly in flux. One interesting idea he puts forth is to think about genre in terms of how much energy goes into making a certain genre. Like Rosmarin, he emphasizes randomness, but talks more about “chance” than “mistakes.”

The structuralist of the group is Vladimir Propp, who wrote “Fairy Tale Transformations.” He looks for invariance, instead of change, to define a specific genre, the fairy tale. Propp came up with 31 functions that define a fairy tale, and he talks about how these functions are either basic (based on old religions) or derived (based on reality). He uses evolutionary terms to describe which plot elements or functions precede others; for example, a “heroic treatment” is older than a “humorous treatment.”

We also looked at Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Epic and Novel” and “The Problem of Speech Genres.” The latter argued that spoken languages compose genres just as literature does, and in fact language genres are primary while literary genres are secondary. There are infinite possibilities of genres. Bakhtin talks about “utterances” as the basic form of communication that has a meaning: a book, a chapter, or a word can be talked about as an “utterance.” In “Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin praises the novel as the only living genre: epics and lyrics are complete, but the novel is ever growing and constantly using other genres. We argued that other genres are still alive (e.g. “The Penelopean,” a new epic poem). We thought that Moby-Dick is an exemplar of his kind of novel because it is very much in contact with reality and does new things with the novel form.

The Russian Formalists were persecuted for their literary convictions (strange as that seems to us now). They believed that all the meaning to be gleaned from a text is inherent in the text, so there is no need to examine the historical/biographical background to interpret it. They wanted to create a science of literature that relied on linguistics. This was controversial because they said that art was defined by form, and that tradition and subject didn’t matter; Trotsky, on the other hand, said that formal analysis neglects the social world, that men are not empty machines and that psychology is the result of society. We decided that this overview of Formalist criticism is distinctly non-formalist.

We mapped out the first sentence of Moby-Dick according to a Formalist perspective: The implied “You” lends ambiguity to the sentence. Formalists wouldn’t talk about Ishmael’s psychology or the history of his name.

When we thought about what Melville would say to the Formalists, we decided he would parody them. Specifically, he would argue that “a book is but a draft” and there is no such thing as a complete, closed system. The Cetology chapter can be seen as a response to the theory of invariance and Propp’s 31 functions. Melville would say that you can’t understand the world from your armchair, and you can’t understand a book without digging into its context.
egoodlett's picture

Call me Ishmael

I'm not sure how helpful this will be, but I went to talk to one of my linguistics professors after class today about the tree-structure for this sentence, since it's a much more complicated one than I've ever drawn (in beginning syntax, all we covered were declarative statements and questions, which are a variation of declarative statements anyway).

This is not a full tree, because a full tree version involves a lot more (above the TP - Tense Phrase) which I didn't learn, and which would probably take several classes to explain in and of itself anyway. But there's more in the tree that would categorize this sentence as an "operational" one (a command sentence).

If you're interested, this is the structure tree that I drew (a more basic version). Not sure what the HTML code is to make this show up as a picture, but, there's the link if you want to look?

The DP is a determiner phrase (because, linguistically speaking, a noun phrase isn't necessarily just a noun phrase - it could have a determiner "the", "a", etc, attached, so this allows for it). I abbreviated the structures of the rest of them, but in the DP I drew the full structure so you can see it. The little vP is a different kind of verb phrase, not one I'd learned before, but apparently it's used when both a direct and an indirect object are present, to show that the verb (which, in the underlying grammatical structure, appears between the two nouns), in the physical pronunciation of the sentence, moves up before them.

As for the "you", as we mentioned in class, it's the understood subject of the sentence, though it's not actually pronounced (hence the parenthesis). In most English sentences, the subject's underlying property is contained in the same VP (or, vP in this case) as the verb, but since it's the subject, it's moved up to a place of focus in the TP (also, there is no tense indication under T here since it's a command, but I suppose you could write (present) there or something). That doesn't mean the subject would be pronounced twice (or in this case, at all), I just drew the structure here twice so you could see what a full DP section looks like.

And I apologize if this is horribly confusing, it would take probably a few classes to explain it in full (it took us a year to even get to this stage in my syntax class, and already modern syntax theory is saying parts of what we learned are wrong), and like I said, there's a lot that comes before this that I don't haven't learned about yet at all.

Also, I'm not really sure, like I said, how much use this will be in examining Moby Dick, or Bakhtin's theory of speech genres, since these structures deal with the physical grammar of sentences, not so much the underlying meaning (that would be a semantics course).

But, I was asked about it, so, I did my best to get an answer...

Calderon's picture

Fairy Tales Transformation!!!


 “Fairy TalesTransformation” was a very interesting reading, how the motifs of the fairy tale are analyzed, and how this reading does not focus on its form.  What was interesting was that Propp did not pay much attention to the function of the motifs, but instead what fairy tales have in common. He thinks that fairly tales have a common structure and to prove it he uses 31 functions. According to him these functions have the commonality to occur in asimilar sequence. However, I was having trouble with how he believes these 31 functions apply to all fairy tales. Now that we have an emergence of new fairy tales that are not “traditional” and seem to have a different structure, should we then still apply his 31 common functions? Or should we come up with other common functions to apply to the structure of new fairy tales? Do we need to have set of functions?