Posting around here has been sparse due to excessive other demands, so I thought I'd just give a glimpse into what I've been up to. Yesterday taught a favorite novel, Amelia Alderson Opie's Adeline Mowbray: or The Mother and Daughter. Today, another really wonderful and underrated novel, William Wells Brown's Clotel: Or, The President's Daughter. (Titling coincidence merely serendipitous - but see Franco Moretti's argument about direct and indirect articles in "Style, Inc."!)
Here's the critical reading assigned in addition to the novel for tonight's lecture (which I am still in the process of writing):
#Ann duCille, “Where in the World is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History,” American Literary History 12:3 (2000): 443-462
#Jonathan Senchyne, “Bottles of Ink and Reams of Paper: Clotel, Racialization, and the Material Culture of Print,” in Early African American Print Culture, ed. Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 140-158
#Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (2008): 1-14
And here's the assignment students will write for seminar this week. It is the last of four short assignments that they write as they build up to working on a final essay that will include both close reading and critical argument; it is designed to let students practice skills as well as coming to a deeper understanding of the novel itself.
Please write answers to the following questions.
1. One of the critical essays you read for this week offers this overview of critical assessments and interpretations of Clotel:
The runaway slave’s mastery of neoclassical diction, which some see as little more than a flaunting of his educational attainments, is for other readers a subversive deployment of the King’s English to tell the slave’s story. What one critic views as structural chaos, another sees as a creative appropriation of multiple forms – from the oral tradition of the slave narrative to the sentimental emplotments of women’s fiction. Where one sees only the bourgeois pretensions of the black middle class, another finds an “informed use of folklore” that offers an insider’s view of the plantation system[.] (Ann duCille, “Where in the World Is William Wells Brown? Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History,” American Literary History 12:3 : 443-462; 456)
a. Make a list of three to five of the novel’s most conspicuous formal or stylistic traits (you can include the three that duCille isolates here, only I would like you to describe them in your own words and in as factual or descriptive a manner as possible).
b. Then offer at least two possible arguments concerning the way each particular trait works in the novel. Make sure that these arguments are formulated so as to satisfy the implicit expectations we have of interpretation: not just what the trait involves or how it works, but also what it’s for or why it matters.
2. Near the end of the essay, duCille writes: “When all is said, done, and disposed of—the borrowing, overplotting, preaching, and propagandizing—the real problem with Clotel lies in the particular slippery nature of Brown’s brand of realism, which both deploys and denies the documentary impulse that drives the reading, if not the writing, of African-American literature” (458).
a. Write a paragraph or two that first paraphrases and then amplifies or illuminates this critical assertion. What does duCille have in mind when she lists borrowing, overplotting, preaching, and propagandizing as crucial elements of Clotel? Give specific examples; you can refer back to your answer to question 1 if you feel you’ve already touched on some of the relevant details.
b. What does it mean to say that this novel’s “brand of realism . . . both deploys and denies the documentary impulse”? Pick that statement apart by explaining what duCille means by “the documentary impulse” and identifying where it can be seen in Brown’s novel – three or four examples will do. Then consider what it means to make a distinction between deployment and denial in this context.
3. One obvious oddity of Brown’s novel is that though it regularly invokes real historical incidents, the timeline/chronology is distorted: there are a number of internal contradictions as well as departures from real historical chronology. What are the effects of these contradictions and anomalies? What do they tell us about the novel’s mode of representation? Offer a thesis and support it with specific examples.
4. Jonathan Senchyne uses the phrase “strategically edits” to describe what one chapter in Clotel does to and with Lydia Maria Child’s story “The Quadroons” (“Bottles of Ink and Reams of Paper: Clotel, Racialization, and the Material Culture of Print,” in Early African American Print Culture, ed. Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012, 140-158; 157). That phrase itself represents a kind of argument about Brown’s fictional practice. Use the phrase “strategically edits” as the jumping-off point for a fuller description of what it means and why it matters when Clotel borrows and adapts another literary text.
5. When I lecture on Clotel on Tuesday evening, I will consider some questions about the advantages and limitations of close reading as a method for getting a grasp on novels. In some ways, Clotel is very different from, say, Emma (it’s more like Paradise Lost in the sense that it would be perverse to read it without considering questions of history and politics). But it remains important, I would say, to attend closely to the novel’s narrative voice. Find a two- to four-sentence stretch that you think can fairly stand in for the novel’s narrative voice more generally. Then write a paragraph characterizing that narrative voice. What do we know about the narrator? What are the predominant traits of the narrative voice? Make sure to consider intellectual, affective (emotional) and political dimensions as well as more narrowly stylistic ones.