Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Not Resigned

One of the more controversial aspects of the controversy-saturated Common Core is the effort to infuse more non-fiction into the literature curriculum.   They're not adding more days to the school year, so when you welcome non-fiction aboard, some treasured fiction or drama has to walk the plank.  These compulsory sacrifices have led to bitter feelings among some English teachers.  The losses are unfortunate, but the necessity of purging the curriculum has always been part of the story of our discipline.  Thank goodness for that.  What a relief it was when I started teaching in 1990 that Silas Marner - a staple of the lit curriculum when I was in high school - was nowhere to be found in the Meadowcreek High School bookroom.   As for the increased presence of non-fiction in the literature classroom, count me among the already converted.  I’ve had the pleasure in recent years of teaching Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Henry Louis Gates’ Colored People, and Larry McMurtry’s Crazy Horse.   These books aren’t always to my students’ liking, but they are such rich texts, and non-fiction such a significant presence in the contemporary literary scene, that it seems imperative to take my students through books such as these.

The Wills book, a trenchant exploration of the intellectual and historical origins of the Gettysburg Address and the rhetorical qualities that characterize it, is one of my favorites.  I particularly like Wills’ section on evolving attitudes toward death in the mid 19th century (Perhaps the previous two sentences suggest why my students don't always like the non-fiction I choose, but we'll leave that alone).  Wills explains that the leaders of the so-called Rural Cemetery Movement, under the influence of Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists, endeavored to make cemeteries like parks, to locate them in lovely, pasture-like settings (as opposed to the usual gloomy churchyards) so as to make cemeteries not places of death but “schools for life.”  People who came to mourn the dead would see nature’s beauties – trees, flowers, etc. –, reflect on the ongoing circularity of life, and find their grieving mollified and their spirits invigorated.   As Wills puts it, “The associations of a picturesque rural site would instill healing truths of natural death and rebirth, in the cycle of seasons.”  Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta is a product of this thinking, as is Oconee Hill Cemetery in my hometown.  One can also hear such ideas in the Gettysburg Address (the Gettysburg National Cemetery, which he was dedicating, was itself designed according to the principles the Rural Cemetery Movement).   One of the motifs of that speech is life from death:  “those who gave their lives that this nation might live,” “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause,” etc.    Attempting to rally his beleaguered nation to finish the fight, Lincoln - in a few brilliant rhetorical strokes - tapped into a hopeful philosophy that was not only circulating among the intelligentsia in his time but embodied in the very place where he was speaking 

The Rural Cemetery Movement was hugely influential, but not everybody accepts its premises.   For many Christians, to seek ultimate meaning in springtime flowers is to be in danger of disregarding an essential tenet of the faith.  In a brief essay on the Resurrection, Frederick Buechner writes, “We try to reduce [the Resurrection] to poetry: the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. In their way they are all miracles, but they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole Christian faith points.”  I think Lincoln, who grieved so over the premature deaths of his sons, would probably concur with Buechner that a tree in blossom is not the empty tomb.

I came across another objection to the notion of cemeteries as places to find "healing truths" through another work of non-fiction that I teach, but in an indirect way.   With a colleague I have twice taught a short term course where my role is to lead our students through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot’s celebrated account of how a poor black woman’s endlessly replicating cancer cells have led both to revolutions in medical science and an ethical reckoning in the medical community about treatment of tissue donors.  This book is a great example of what can be special about non-fiction in the classroom.  I want my students to absorb and reflect upon the material from this text, but I also hope they learn from it something of what it is to let curiosity pull one deep into a subject, to master the subject, and to tell its story well.   This may be something that non-fiction teaches – implicitly – better than any other form. 

One of the key moments in Skloot’s book is when she gets her hands on a bootleg VHS tape of a BBC documentary about Henrietta Lacks and the story of her cells.   It is now available on youtube, of course.   The documentary and Skloot’s book both tell of a time in the sixties when researchers believed (erroneously, of course) that they were on the verge of discovering a "cancer virus" and that it would take just one big push to end cancer forever.  Part of the push was that staple of American mass effort, the star-studded telethon.   The documentary features clips from Crusade ‘67, hosted by Bing Crosby and featuring Sammy Davis, Jr., Jack Benny, and other late-sixties luminaries.  One of the most bizarre clips is of Joan Crawford, in all her "Mommie Dearest" over-the-topness, reciting part of a poem called “Dirge Without Music,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.    

Once I got over my astonishment at Crawford's delivery I looked up the poem.  It stood out to me immediately as a defiant rejoinder to the philosophical acquiescence counseled by the Rural Cemetery Movement.   The speaker will not turn her thoughts from earth to heaven, and perhaps that is what I love about this poem, how directly it expresses the outrage of those who grieve, those who refuse to accept the existence of flowers as consolation for great loss:  

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains — but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

No comments: