A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: On Things I’ve Read

Joan Didion – Thinking for one’s self involves mastery of the language

They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words–words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips–their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.

That from Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” My quoting them by themselves deprives them of the power they earn from 39 pages of descriptive set up, but the words are still profound. They continue a conversation that includes Orwell and they help justify my teaching.

Insincerity: The enemy of clear language

In “Politics and the English Language” George Orwell writes, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” This year I have been emphasizing this line with students and using it to jump into an article Jonathan Rogers wrote for his newsletter, The Habit. There, Rogers defines the subtext and, too often, the real text of academic essays:

The text of an academic paper can be about almost anything—mitosis and meiosis, the Weimar Republic, existentialism, federalism, Paradise Lost, What I Did Last Summer. But whatever the text is about, all academic papers share more or less the same subtext: GIVE ME AN A. THINK I’M SMART. APPROVE OF ME. Really, I don’t see how that could NOT be the subtext of any essay you’re submitting for a grade. 

But too often, I suspect, students think of GIVE ME AN A as the real  text of an academic essay, papered over with just enough information about the purported subject (Romeo and Juliet, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc) to make the A possible.

That kind of thinking is behind students’ diligent efforts to figure out “what the teacher wants.”

So when a student writing about the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan faces a complex idea in her essay–an inevitability if she’s engaging it truthfully–her priority, her driving concern, could accidentally become not finding the words that articulate that complex idea, but finding the words that sound like a teacher would assign an A to them. The result in that moment is a disregard for Orwell’s key advice: “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” When the real text is “give me an A,” the student will choose the word that sounds like it merits an A–and the word will choose the meaning.

And since the topic of their paper is the atomic bombs, her pursuit is insincere. Ideas about the atomic bomb are not what she means to say.

Of course, if a teacher has assigned the topic, it might be difficult for a student to engage sincerely in it. But it is possible for a student to tweak a topic so as to make themselves invested in it, to make their interest sincere. In Writing About Your Life, William Zinsser challenges writers to adapt such constraints editors put upon them, and his advice applies easily to teachers:

Don’t assume that editors know exactly what they want. Often they don’t. Don’t shape yourself to a dumb assignment; that’s no favor to you or to the magazine or to the reader. Shape the assignment to your own strengths and curiosities. (134)

A student can find a question worth pursuing within a restricted topic, but she has to be willing to search for it.

Zinsser goes further than this, suggesting that a writer might “come up with a better idea. You make your own luck.” That might seem like it could never apply to a classroom, but I’ll say for myself that if a student reaches out to me with an alternate assignment that meets or exceeds my expectations with the original, I’d be thrilled rather than annoyed.

Such efforts might be harder, but striving for sincerity is worth a student’s while–the results will be obvious in the clarity and energy of the final piece of writing.

Connecting A Confederacy of Dunces to its reference

I began John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces recently and while I haven’t cracked it this week, I plan to finish it. It has fallen somewhat victim to my habit of reading handfuls of books at a time. I’d put Confederacy down when Alan Jacobs’s Breaking Bread With the Dead released, and I’ve been slow to finish Breaking Bread because I’m also working through Zack Eswine’s The Imperfect Pastor. I could finish any of these, I realize, but at school I’m also reading William Zinsser’s Writing About Your Life, which I haven’t finished because I keep pausing to look at Ward Farnsworth’s Farnsworth’s Classical English Style.

So while I have not made it far in A Confederacy of Dunces, I have made it far enough to realize that, though the central character Ignatius J. Riley is a wonderfully eccentric dunce (“Ignatius hasta help me at home,” Mrs. Reilly said. . . . “I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman.), the dunces are definitely plural. So that aspect of the title was obvious, I figured. But what of the confederacy?

Was it a playful knock on the South? The book is set in New Orleans, but within the story, such an idea makes no sense (so far). Was it a way to tease the growing number of fools around which the story turns? That has been my best guess.

But today in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, I came across a quote that Farnsworth cites as an example of the rhetorical announcement–writing becoming conscious of itself and prepping the reader for a statement to come. The example is from Jonathan Swift’s Thoughts on Various Subjects:

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.

So I was seeing in Toole’s title an allusion whose source I knew nothing about. But now, armed with Swift’s rhetorically fine phrase, I find Toole’s title delightful.

Ignatius J. Riley, a reader of the book knows by page three, is the true genius who has appeared in the world. That is, according to Riley he is the true genius, laboring to write the world’s great historical magnum opus one scattered and random page at a time. And this confederacy deployed against him–a confederacy that lists his own mother in its ranks–is definitely, Ignatius knows, made up of dunces.

Riley’s being the grandest dunce of them all only raises the delicious quality of the book’s irony.

So while my random and distracted reading habits may have kept me from finishing any number of books in good time, they have also helped me connect a fine allusion to its source. The result has increased my enjoyment of A Confederacy of Dunces even when it sits untouched beside my bed.

Note: I later went to my bedside and thought I should look into A Confederacy of Dunces again. Sure enough, before the foreword was the Jonathan Swift quote. But it was more fun to discover it in another book entirely. 🙂

Do Lincoln’s simple rhetorical finishes work like jokes?

In the second chapter of Ward Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, called “The Saxon Finish,” Farnsworth examines Abraham Lincoln’s habit of beginning to express ideas with complex Latinate words and then finishing off his statement with shorter, Saxon expressions. Lincoln did this so much Farnsworth is able to share examples from his letters. This one is to James Conkling (1863):

But the proclamation, as law, either is valid or is not valid. If it is not valid it needs no retraction. If it is valid it cannot be retracted, any more than the dead can be brought to life.

Farnsworth describes Lincoln’s method this way:

The sound of Lincoln’s prose is made of many elements. This is just one of them, but it is important. Lincoln is well-known for his love of simple language, but he was also at home with Latinate words and mixed the two types to strong effect. He especially liked to circle with larger words early in a sentence and then finish it simply. The pattern allowed him to offer intellectual or idealistic substance and then tie it to a stake in the dirt. (16)

Farnsworth’s litany of examples proves his point, but I find myself thinking how second nature this must have been for Lincoln, who was famously fond of funny anecdotes and jokes. How many jokes and stories work precisely the way Farnsworth describes there? The storyteller circles with a set up, often purposely building a mood antithetical to what he’s about to launch, sometimes purposely distracting the listener, and then he swoops in for a quick zing to close it out.

There are other ways to tell stories, many of them much funnier than setting up zingers, as Mark Twain, that lover of the slurred point, observed. But while I have often read how Lincoln liked to tell stories and jokes, I have always wondered what those jokes and stories were like. I am guessing that Farnsworth’s analysis has actually tipped me off better than historians have been able to show me.

Rules for Reading Aaron Belz’s Poetry

If a person were to ask me why they should read poetry–and my students do this annually–I would struggle to answer persuasively. In fact, I probably wouldn’t attempt an answer. If someone is resistant, what’s the point?

But if that person were to have a sense of humor, I might attack them with an onslaught of Aaron Belz’s poetry.

From the beginning, I have felt a compulsion to read Aaron’s work to as many people as will pause to listen. With so much practice–as a teacher I am granted a new audience every year–I have learned the best ways to approach an introduction.

Rule #1: Start with something small. If someone isn’t sure they want to listen, this may get them laughing before they’ve had time to resist. With Aaron’s latest collection, Soft Launch, I begin with “F. Scott Fitzgerald”:

So tired of people shouting

“F. Scott Fitzgerald!”

I happen to like

Scott Fitzgerald.

Rule #2: Read a lot of poems. One Aaron Belz poem will strike a listener as a joke, like a one-liner about how “Fruit flies like a banana,” but an avalanche of poems allows them to work through the poetic stages of grief. With another short poem, maybe “Love”:

We fit together perfectly

like two halves of an ape.

they’ll begin to deny this is poetry. Upon a third (“Starbucks,” perhaps, where Belz crafts a hall of mirrors moment in heaven with a Starbucks inside a Starbucks), they’ll bargain with me, admitting it is funny but still not sure it counts as poetry.

Rule #3: Read it deadpan. Subtle presentation is something I learned from Belz himself (and which Belz credits in part to Mitch Hedberg). In my early endeavors I would read Belz like I read almost everything, with bursting energy and dramatic expression. But this is antithetical to Belz’s reading. He is steady with his deadpan, refusing to look up at the end of a poem, permitting the listener to discover the puns and verbal wit.

Rule #4: Build to moments of sincerity. Once the listener has loosened up and is allowing me to read, I sneak toward my favorites. Around poem four, they will have recognized a bit of what is happening–they’ll accept the switched contexts and twists of phrase; they’ll be listening for pivots, but they won’t be expecting a veer into sincerity. This is where I spring upon them “The Man Who Was Unnecessarily Authoritarian With His Coffee” and “This Morning.”

I find that if I follow these rules and don’t ruin the enterprise with my own laughter, I create a fan or two. Maybe not of poetry, but at least of Aaron Belz. And I also find that every time I read these poems to someone new, I delight in them even more. They grow in the sharing.

(Related: if you haven’t read the review I wrote of Belz’s Soft Launch, please do!)

In sketching a picture of the slave trade, the British never asked former slaves what it was like

The Privy Council’s report on the slave trade . . . was a vast document, 890 large pages long, compiling interviews, tables, letters, reports, accounts, colonial and British laws, surgical journals, muster rolls, land surveys and ship dimensions. It contained the results of fourteen months of interviews with fifty witnesses, detailing–amid a forest of economical and geographical data–the killing of unsaleable slaves, the torture of rebel slaves, the dejection and disease of all slaves, the treatment of ‘mistresses’, the conning of sailors into the trade and marooning them in the Caribbean when slaves were unloaded. What it did not include, however, except for a short letter from [Olaudah] Equiano, was any testimony from a black person. Parliament solicited the opinions and stories of soldiers and doctors, merchants and ministers, colonial governors and even the curator of a museum in Stockholm, but at no point in the course of the investigation was it thought necessary to obtain the information and experiences of slaves themselves, although there were hundreds of former slaves at hand in London. It is not clear whether this is because the prejudice of MPs was so entrenched that abolitionists knew they would not listen to black voices, or whether the prejudice of abolitionists themselves was so entrenched that it simply never occurred to them that the slaves might have something useful to add to their researches into slavery. Either way, the most well-informed witnesses with the greatest right to testify were never heard, depriving us forever of a record of their experiences. (73)

Stephen Tomkins, in William Wilberforce: A Biography, on the report presented to the House of Commons on 25 April 1789 to propose the abolition of the slave trade in Britain.

White Rage at Interracial Romance

In the eighteen-nineties, a new political movement calling itself the Fusion Party—a multiracial group made up of white populists and radical Republicans, many of whom were black—was gaining power in North Carolina. Although much of the state was controlled by white supremacists, Wilmington had become a stronghold of Fusionist power. The wharves there had created work opportunities for free black people. After the Civil War, African-Americans in the city began to start businesses, own property, and win political office. In 1898, a local black newspaper editor, Alex Manly, published an editorial arguing that, as often as not, interracial relationships in the South were consensual. Democratic editors reprinted it over and over, for months, in newspapers friendly to the white-supremacist cause, deliberately fomenting a readiness for violent action among a large part of the state’s white citizenry.

On October 27th, Alfred Moore Waddell, a onetime Confederate colonel and a former U.S. congressman, whose career was in decline, gave a speech to hundreds of white supremacists from the stage at Thalian Hall, a big theatre downtown, advocating for a violent takeover. He declared that the whites of Wilmington would “have no more of the intolerable conditions under which we live,” and that they were “resolved to change them, if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses.” Two weeks later, on November 10th, Waddell went on to lead the takeover, marching at the front of a white-supremacist mob with a rifle over his shoulder. An unknown number of black people were murdered in daylight, and the progressive Republican city and county governments were overthrown. Some historians consider it the only successful political coup in American history.

from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s profile of Rhiannon Giddens

I’ve read a lot about the struggles between races, particularly about the way white men went bonkers at the suggestion of interracial relationships, but it is easy to get lost in generic statements. Each specific story helps solidify and confirm the reality.