"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Friday, August 24, 2012

Eng. 180: If It Bleeds, It Leads

Today, as I prepped to teach my English 180 Lit students about Edgar Allan Poe as the father of crime literature (though I actually sort of disagree with that, because crime lit can be traced back to ancient literature like the Bible), the father of the detective story (more people agree on that), I opened my Safari to see that Lance Armstrong will be stripped of his Tour de France titles and banned for life from the sport.  A gunman has shot several people at the Empire State Building.  If it bleeds (even it's emotionally), it leads.

Today's Reading:  Edgar Allan Poe.  "A Cask of Amontillado," "Fall of the House of Usher," and "Murders in the Rue Morgue."  Also, Margaret Kane, "Edgar Allan Poe and Architecture."

But that was a good way to segue into my class, as we're questioning what constitutes literature--and I referenced how many of them wrote in their Short Histories about preferring to read articles and such online.  Most of the exposure we get to crime "literature" is actually on the front page of our newspapers.  Food for thought, if nothing else.  And, I said, what I saw today just in those three articles is an extension of what I talked about on Wednesday.  If crime literature is the literature of maintaining social order, then to see that Lance Armstrong is being punished for cheating (regardless if you think he's guilty or not), to see that Anders Breivik is being punished for killing 77 people--that simply reaffirms that crime disrupts the social order and the purpose of whatever we write about it (of course, that's a huge generalization) is to reestablish that social order.

I started class by asking my students to free write for a bit, about where they're starting to see connections, where they're starting to see things showing up in what they're reading that becoming familiar.  I always find that students participate in a discussion much more willingly when they've had a few minutes to think through their pens and have an answer of a sort in front of them.  Had I just asked that question point-blank, I would have gotten nothing.  When we came back together, they had some good answers (and I hope they use some of them in their first Think Pieces, which are due on Monday) about being able to pay attention to what Margaret Kane was writing about (we read her 1932 article on Poe and architecture).  I came into class this morning, admittedly, pessimistic, wondering how many of my students would just read the Cliff's Notes...

Today's shocker:  when I asked how many had read Tom Clancy, nobody raised their hands.

We talked our way through Margaret Kane first, because this is their first exposure to a critical article.  Yup, not anybody's idea of fun.  But not all writing is here to entertain you (a dig at how many of them said they hated reading and literature because they expect to be entertained by it, they expect to be able to relate to it)--and I was fairly pointed on that fact.  And in the scheme of things, Kane is pretty tame.  I asked how many of them read the information about where and when it was published (nobody) and the looks of surprise when I said it was published in 1932, priceless.  Of course, I needed to mention that a woman writing literary criticism like this in the 1930s is pretty rare--and thus important.  I drew a map of sorts on the board (ironically, with a red marker) of Kane's article as we deconstructed it, made an outline, sort of.  My outlines never follow linear patterns.  They loop, they have arrows that go different places, and this article outline was no different.  But by the time we got through it, and I asked how many were starting to see what she was doing, I got nods from most of the class.

This is good.

I asked how many had read Kane first (not too many) and it's definitely a different reading experience when you read her first and then read the Poe stories, knowing what to look for.  So after we talked about the exteriors Poe uses, huge and old and decaying, and the interiors (the ways he uses irregularly shaped rooms, windows to control light, etc.) I divided them up into groups, gave each group one of the stories, and had them look for these things.  Because about half my class showed up without the stories or the article, it was hard, and by this point in the class I felt extremely rushed, because I hate 50 minute classes.  I feel like we just get into something and then we have to shut it down because the class is over.  So I rushed through what they found--and I also didn't want to make any more of how many of them did not bring their texts to class--and then I talked through the stories.

I started with "A Cask of Amontillado," mentioned various things about class and the built environment--and that it's a good example of what I talked about on Wednesday about early crime literature being in the realm of revenge/justice.  (Heads nodded when I said that--yay, connections!)  But the whole point of me assigning this story is not just the built environment leading to Fortunato's death, or that this is a story of murder without a detective--it is the story of the perfect crime.  Montressor never gets caught, not even after fifty years.  Admittedly, Gothic is not my specialty, but this strikes me as an anti-Gothic story--that a secret from the past that should threaten Montressor's present doesn't.  This is a story of the perfect crime.

In "Fall of the House of Usher," I asked my students how many of them knew what a "tarn" was.  Nobody.  How many looked it up?  Nobody.  Google is your friend, people.  In this case, it's important.  A tarn is a mountain pool that is formed in the circque created by a glacier.  (And in my head I could see Hart Lake at Holden Village, up in the Cascades of Washington State.)  The reason it's important is not just in terms of the natural environment, but it is a shaped environment, a built environment of its own.  We made the easy connections of equating identity with the built environment of the house, even to questioning whether it is the house itself which is killing both Madeline and Roderick.  I told my students that gender is really interesting in Poe stories, because the women are generally dying, dead, or completely off stage.  We didn't get time to talk about all the interiors Poe uses here, which made me sad.   We get the juxtaposition of pre-Enlightenment superstition against the post-Enlightenment reason--against the Victorian obsession with death.  (I talked about Victoria and Albert, but when Usher was published, Albert still had two decades in front of him.)  We talked about the Victorian fear of being buried alive (as this was an extension of the pre/post-Enlightment conversations about what happens after death.  We talked about how the good crime/suspense writers play into the contemporary fears of its audience.  For Poe, it was being buried alive.  For Tom Clancy, it was the Cold War.

And then we only had a precious few minutes to get through "Murders in the Rue Morgue."  I told my students that if they only skimmed this or if they didn't read it, go back and spend some time with it, because this is the first detective story.  This is the root from which everything else grows--either follows and imitates or goes the other direction.  (I got some nods.)  I talked about the divide between the police detective and the private detective.  The emphasis on reason.  The importance of physical data as a means of deciphering truth.

All in all, I was fairly satisfied with the day, our first real time together talking about the page.  I did assign too many stories, and maybe I'd choose to spend my class time differently next time so we could actually talk about the stories--but the reality is that it's Friday, most of my class didn't bring their texts so they couldn't really talk about the stories, so even if I'd assigned something different, I don't think it would have mattered in the long run.  On Monday, we start Arthur Conan Doyle--and I'm doing the author presentation for that one.  Should be interesting!  Might have to watch some Robert Downey, Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch for extra research.

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