Sunday, May 3, 2015

To Graph(ic) or not to Graph(ic)

So here we are, at the end of all things -- well, not really, but we are at the end of the semester. I've been asking everyone what they've thought about the idea of an English 100 course using all graphic adaptations -- first, as to the idea itself: what does it add? Is there a downside? And, while it may make understanding some kinds of literature easier to understand, doe that mean it's easier, or more fun to write about? Lastly, what about The Graphic Canon? Do you think that its adaptations offered consistent interest, and value for the price? One other option I'd considered was using a series of graphic novels rather than the three-volume anthology; the titles would probably have included things like Culbard and Edington's A Study in Scarlet, Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein, Art Spiegelman's MAUS I & II, and some free-standing graphic novels such as Alan Moore and David Lloyd's V for Vendetta, Lynda Barry's One Hundred Demons, and Derf Backderf's My Friend Dahmer. Would any of you have preferred a course of this kind, with fewer but more substantial graphical texts? I'd value your thoughts, and a response here will count for the class.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Gregor Brown and Cthulu Seuss

What happens when a graphic adapter chooses to emulate -- nay, to inhabit -- the precise style of another artist? One may well ask, what kind of element is style, either in writing or in art, or music? Does using someone else's necessarily compromise one's work? In music, as we've recently seen, there are quite a few "blurred lines," between the style of one artist and that of another -- is imitation a compliment? or a copyright violation? Bear in mind that, technically speaking, copyright protects only the work itself, not its subject, its style, or even its title (titles are specifically excluded from copyright protection). It gets even trickier, of course, when the artist being imitated is dead.

In that light, what do we make of Franz Kafka meeting Charlie Brown in "Good ol' Gregor Brown," or of seeing H.P. Lovecraft's "Call of Cthulu" drawn as though illustrated by Dr. Seuss? Do we feel betrayed? Amused? Confused? And, as iconic artists whose work is so central to many of our childhoods, how might the late Charles Schultz or Ted Geisel feel if they had lived to see these works? And how do either of them compare with the numerous new graphical interpretations of the classics that, whatever their merits or lack thereof, did not lean so heavily on the style of another?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Graphical Ulysseses

James Joyce's Ulysses is widely hailed as the great modernist novel, one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, or of all time. And there's no question that, in its own day, it was a revolutionary text: an epic (or mock-epic) tale, doubling Dubliners with Greek mythology, all of which takes place in the course of a single day.

First published in France in 1922, it was soon declared to be obscene in both Britain and the United States; copies had to be smuggled in (one innovative British couple hid theirs in a box of "sanitary napkins"!). A famous court case in 1933 lifted the ban in the states, after which Random House brought out its first edition, seen here in the hands of Marilyn Monroe.

It wasn't easy reading. The "stream of consciousness" style dumped the internal thoughts of the characters onto the page in a sort of real-time sequence, connected as much by personal association as by plot. Guidebooks on how to read Ulysses sprang up, with Stuart Gilbert's being the first and best-known. And, more recently, disputes over textual variations -- the original edition was set by printers in Dijon who spoke no English, and subsequent editions did an imperfect job of implementing Joyce's corrections -- has led to duelling versions. I myself recommend the first edition of 1922, which, as its copyright is now expired, can be had in an affordable paperback from Dover Books.

In The Graphic Canon, we have two Ulysseses --the first by Robert Berry and Josh Levitas, the secind by David Lasky. Berry and Levitas offer a lush, colorful version, filled with the melodious phrases of the original novel; in contrast, Lasky offers a black-and-white and nearly wordless one; what few words there are are paraphrased. Barry and Levitas are adapting the full novel as an iPad app, under the title Ulysses Seen, and so far, theirs follows the text quite closely, though it acknowledges in its very title that seeing is quite different from reading. Lasky's stab at Joyce's novel appears to be just that; he's best known for his graphic history of the Carter Family, regarded as among the founders of modern Country music.

It could be argued that a big, wordy, and (purportedly) difficult classic could use a lighter, more visual treatment -- or else that, without its language, Ulysses isn't, well ... Ulysses. Which side are you on?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Modernist Canon: Eliot and Joyce

Literary Modernism, a movement that can be traced to the years immediately before a World War I, provides many of the next few texts for adaptation in The Graphic Canon. This week, we have two key works of this kind, one a poem composed of seeming prose, the other a piece of prose that verges on poetry. The legacy of American-midwesterner-turned-high-church-Brit Thomas Stearns Eliot is in one sense a limited one -- very few have taken up his style of dry, chanted lines, blank except for the occasional whimsical rhyme -- and yet at the same time, his influence has been enormous. This paradoxical situation was aptly summaries by a friend of mine some years ago in this bit of comic verse:

Mr. Eliot, beloved of Pound
Is riding his crafty go-cart 'round
While many a gifted latter-day poet
Is eating his dust -- they sure can't sow it.

This paradox is underwritten by Eliot's own, internal conflict; he famously described poetry not as the expression of emotion, but the escape from it. Perhaps as a result, there's a strange mixtures of tones in his best poems, combining a kind of unemotional dryness with a rich, sometimes biting wit. Both are on ample display in his early masterpiece, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," here adapted by Anthony Ventura.

Ventura chooses not to illustrate each line, but instead provides a series of scenes -- we see the statue of David, imagined as perhaps the work by Michelangelo that the women in the poem are discussing; followed a version of Prufrock as a sunglassed, balding Mad Men-era businessman, complete with dangling cigarette. A lone woman, with bouffant hair and oversize Jackie-O sunglasses, reposes with a cup of tea on a bench seat, beside a skull which plaintively declares "That is not what I meant at all"! All are illustrated

The Irish writer James Joyce, during his career, sought to establish himself as the great voice of Modernism, and something more, its representative -- a goal in which he largely succeeded. He was once heard to boast that his writings would give scholars something to think of for the next three hundred years, and what for others would be a boast was for Joyce an understatement.

Although he did not originate the technique of "stream of consciousness," his "eiphanies" -- which began with Dubliners in 1914 -- recast the notion, and with Ulysses (1922) he had his greatest triumph. The story adapted here, "Araby," is from Dubliners, and offers a characteristic example of Joyce's technique of 'epiphany' -- in which a small, crystalline moment of realization, often framed by disappointment and loss, briefly illuminates 'dear old dirty Dublin' and brings its ordinary people into a suddenly lyrical light.

The artist Annie Mok employs style that evokes both realism -- in its streets, stones, and buildings -- and an expressive, manga-influenced rendering of human faces. The palate is a blue one, suggesting perhaps the cool and damp of turn-of-the-century Dublin, as well as the old cyanotype photographs that could be bought at photo booths in the form of ready-made postcards.

In his final work, Finnegans Wake, Joyce coins the word "fadograph" for such images -- those which, like old snapshots, fade with time, as does human memory; the word fádo is also Irish Gaelic for long ago," and the word that starts many a folk and fairy tale from the Irish tradition.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Gender and the Graphic Canon

We've seen the kinds of issues that the race of an author or a graphical adapter can raise -- but what about gender? Women writers have labored, for much of literary history, under the burden of being taken less 'seriously' -- with all that it implies, including having a harder time making a living, getting published, and entering the 'canon.' Women graphic novelists, today, face similar barriers; the perception -- and the reality -- that comics and graphical works tend to be dominated by male readers, and male artists -- has shadowed their work as well.

So this week we have several women writers -- Emily Dickinson, H.D., and Kate Chopin -- adapted by Dame Darcy, Bishakh Som, and Rebecca Migdal. Darcy is perhaps the most prolific of the three; her comic series Meatcake has been published by Fantagraphics since 1992; set in the warped land of Faeiry (her spelling), it's a world she describes as "for folks with their heads in the 1800s and their crotches in the 2000s." Som, for his part, is one of the most eclectic artists in any of our volumes; born in Ethiopia in 1968, he says he was raised on a diet of Tintin and Indian folklore; he wryly says that nearly everything he learned about his parents' native India, he learned from comics. He's also a Harvard-trained architect -- and much much more -- check out this extensive profile at The Rumpus, which features a retrospective of his work. Rebecca Migdal is perhaps the least familiar of the three; her most widely known graphic work has been in Seth Tobocman's ongoing World War 3 series, but she's also worked in a wide array of media, including film, puppeteering, and performance.

So, in terms of gender at least, Darcy and Migdal are a match for their subjects. Still, it seems that elements of style and approach loom larger than those of identity here; Darcy's flowery get gothic faeryworld seems appropriate for Dickinson's poem; Migdal's sepia toned snapshots evoke the turn of the century with both artistry and realism, and Som's whimsical yet meticulous imagery seems to fit H.D.'s (H.D., an avant-garde writer closely associated with the Imagist movement, worked in genres that cross over the conventional lines between poem, play, and prose.

All the same, there's no way to anticipate how readers today might respond -- so what's your take? Are these artists and texts well-paired? Does gender even enter into it? And which of these spoke most strongly to you, and how?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Graphic(al) Children's Books

Children, of course, are the one group of readers for whom we always assume that a graphical story would be appropriate; from board books to early readers to YA fiction, there's no shortage of illustrations, and indeed a special award, the Caldecott Medal, is given year for the finest illustrations to a children's book.

And yet, bringing the sensibility of a graphic novelist to to the endeavor inevitably produces some strange new possibilities: re-illustrating Struwwelpeter, an already-disturbing lesson book filled with severed tumbs and gun-toting rabbits, with even-more-distrubing seriagraphs; depicting the Wonderful Wizard of Oz with 3D dioramas that re-purpose dolls and household items, and an Alice gallery by artists that run the gamut from underground comic legend Kim Deitch to psychedelic collagist John Coulthart -- not to mention a shadow-puppet Jabberwocky that's quite a contrast with the silly-symphony version of Disney's 1951 Alice.

Oz, and Alice's looking-glass worlds, were already among the most richly illustrated of all children's books. The original artist for L. Frank Baum's masterpiece was W.W. Denslow, whose singular style so perfectly suited the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion; he and Baum had a falling out when Denslow spun off the figures as newspaper comics. The second "Royal Illustrator of Oz," John R. Neill, worked on all of Baum's 13 further Oz books, as well as those of his successor Ruth Plumly Thompson; after her retirement he wrote and illustrated two of his own. Alice was definitively brought to life by Sir John Tenniel, a regular illustrator for the British humor magazine Punch. But this hasn't stopped other illustrators from having at it, from Ralph Steadman to Moomintroller Tove Jansson to Lisbeth Zwerger and even Salvador Dali.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Color of The Canon

As in other areas of artistic and literary endeavor, African-American illustrators and graphic novelists have labored under a variety of different burdens -- the question of having to "represent," the market's perception that strips and graphic works about black folks would only be read by black folks (and therefore be less commercially viable), along with the expectation that the themes and subjects of their output ought necessarily to deal with the history of African-American struggle rather than other kinds of subjects.

Some artists, as a result, have taken up a strategy of resistance, among them Milton Knight, adapter of Hurston's "Poker!" here, who calls himself America's Last Untamed Cartoonist. He names as influences decades of cartoonists and animators, among them Will EisnerBob Clampett, the Fleischer Studios (Popeye and Betty Boop), and even Chinese woodblock art. As an African-American illustrating a 1931 African-American text with a jazz-age style, he seems a perfect choice.

Seth Tobocman, adapter of Frederick Douglass's "Message from Mount Misery," which refers to the name of the plantation where Douglass was sent to be tortured (and which is now owned, ironically enough, by Donald Rumsfeld), is white. Still, his radical politics -- among his books are You Don't Have to Fuck People Over to Survive and Disaster and Resistance -- resonate with those of Douglass, who once compared those who wanted progress without struggle to "Men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters."

So how do each of these adaptations play out, not only with the contents of their respective texts, but with the way they've adapted them to contemporary readers? Your thoughts below.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Graphic Nonfiction

This week, we venture into new territory: the idea that nonfiction, particularly two famous treatises on natural science and psychology, could potentially be adapted as graphical narratives.

The first is Darwin's On the Origin of Species, adapted by Keller and Fuller. Here, we're on somewhat more familiar ground; indeed, natural history is the one genre of nonfiction which has almost always been heavily illustrated to begin with. Whether by Darwin himself, or other noted naturalists such as Charles Maplestone, John Muir, or Charles Dixon -- or by relative unknowns like John Smith, the field-sketchbook has been an essential part of studying nature in all its forms. Indeed, without illustrations, the value of almost any text of this kind would be greatly reduced.

At the other end of the spectrum, Tara Seibel's version of Freud's 1889 classic On the Interpretation of Dreams brings a visual element to a text that, in many ways, would seem to defeat any endeavor to transpose it into graphical form, unless it be that of a series of talk bubbles coming out of Freud's head! Seibel manages, though, to augment as well as simply illustrate Freud's arguments, bringing a new sort of vision to his iconic work.

Taken together, these two adaptations widen the range of the 'graphic' well beyond the novel -- but do they work? And how do they contrast with the balance of the books, almost all the other contents of which are based on fiction or poetry?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Illustrating Moby-Dick

It's a candidate for the "Great American Novel" -- and perhaps for the "great American illustrated novel" as well.  Since its first publication in 1851, there have been, quite literally, hundreds of illustrated editions of Melville's magnum opus, ranging from those with a single frontispiece to Matt Kish's version, which features one illustration per page of the original novel (of the which the 12 in The Graphic Canon is but a tiny selection). The best-known illustrations are doubtless those by Rockwell Kent, an artist who himself travelled to the ends of the earth to sketch its landscapes and creatures, but there have been many others: Barry Moser, C.M. Butzer, Mike Huddleston, and Garrick Palmer, as well as numerous comic-book and graphic novel versions. It's also been translated into dozens of other languages, and illustrated in many, including Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Spanish. Throughout all this, though, Kent's illustrations are still the most iconic, and it's almost impossible to imagine any other illustrations which wouldn't, in some way, reference.

Friday, February 27, 2015

What it means to be Graphical

Although "graphic novels" as such are purportedly a late-twentieth-century development, if we see them as a form in which literary texts are told, in large or significant ways, through images, then it seems that we've had them around for quite a long time, at least since our ability to print images alongside text. Many literary texts had illustrations, at least a frontispiece (an illustration printed opposite the title page), and quite a few had a number of in-text illustrations. Artists such as William Blake took this to the next level in the late 1700's; he illustrated all of his books, and indeed every word of his work was engraved on copper plates alongside or within his own illustrations. The William Blake Archive has all of his works, in all their many printings; the plates were hand-colored by Mrs. Blake, and so each copy is essentially unique. His "prophetic books" were the darkest and densest of his works; in the case of Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, this summary from Wikpedia may be helpful

In the nineteenth century, it became common for an author's books to be illustrated; the novels of Charles Dickens were all illustrated with engraved plates; his partnership with the artist "Phiz" (Hablot Knight Brown) was the stuff of legend. Dickens's contemporary William Makepeace Thackeray was himself a capable artist, and illustrated his own novels. Around that same time, illustrated magazines such as Punch, and even newspapers such as the Illustrated London News, moved images from the back seat to the front of their publications.

By the twentieth century, it was less common for "serious" literary fiction to have illustrations, though some publishers, such as the Folio Society and the Limited Editions Club, specialized in commissioning illustrations special editions of literary works. In one infamous case, Henri Matisse was called upon to illustrated James Joyce's Ulysses -- it wasn't until he was nearly done that the publishers realized he'd mistakenly been illustrating Homer's Odyssey. And, although he was more exception that rule, the writer Lynd Ward, in addition to working as an illustrator, published a number of works of wordless illustration, some of which have recently been reprinted as Six Novels in Woodcuts.

So what of a graphical story in which the text and the illustrations are folded together, as with Blake? What of an illustrative story, where the novel is external to the whale's tale? Your thoughts here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Graphic Romantics

The Romantic era of English literature -- roughly from 1798 through the 1840's -- was one of intense, passionate, imaginative literature. It was the era of Frankenstein, the era of Kubla Khan, the era of Byronic heroes who gave dark glances and roamed the wild in search of their lost souls. In America, too, writers such as Hawthorne and Poe expanded the realm of the fantastic, and the first detective fiction -- Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" -- was written. It was an era of dark visions, fueled by opium and laudanum and absinthe, hounded by incurable maladies such as tuberculosis (known then as "consumption"), damp houses, and lonely moors. And, not unexpectedly, it was an era of great visual art, ranging from the self-engraved plates of William Blake to the nightmares of Fuseli, from the lone wanderers of Friedrich to the twisted prisons of Piranesi. And, just in case all that weren't enough, it was the era of Grimm's fairy tales and Hans Christian Andersen -- both very dark, and nothing at all like the Disney versions.

So it's little wonder that, for the artists of The Graphic Canon, it's proven to be a fruitful era for adaptation. One may well ask, though, what sort of approach best suits this material? Should it necessarily be dark and haunting, like S. Clay Wilson's illustrations of Grimm and Andersen? Or might it be whimsically grotesque, as with Hunt Emerson's version of Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner"? Dreamy realism along the lines of Alice Duke's "Kubla Khan?" If ever an era had a dominant mood, the Romantic period is it -- and yet, in The Graphic Canon, there seems to always be more than one way to slice a classic.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Graphic Poetry

So many of the adaptations we've read so far cut out much of the original language of their sources just in order to "tell" the story. Thankfully, you can't do that with a poem; in fact, with each line illustrated, an entire new dimension appears, one that expands rather than condenses the essence of the text. Time, which almost seems to rush by in the steady narrative frames we've seen so far, now almost stands still; indeed, in his adaptation of Shakespeare's Sonnet #18, Robert Berry and Josh Levitas often break a single line into three bubbles, as he does here. Berry also manages to give the poem a new, redoubled subject: the death of his own mother, and his memories of her. The "summer's day" gives the panels their dominant, golden color, and the passage of time moves forward and backward from memory to the present, where the poem is "set" in Levitas's own home studio.

Not everyone seems to be fully at home with the slower, more methodical pace of poetry; Yien Yip's version of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" seems to almost rush by, cramming the poem itself into the corners of its slapdash, unengaging artwork. And yet some can be remarkably lush, as with Duke's adaptation of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," whose vivid colors and elaborate detail match those of the original poem's opium-induced hallucinatory vision.  And, although it's more an illustration than a full graphical realization, Ventura's "Ozymandius" panel certainly dramatizes its subject forcefully.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Canon as Foundation

Every modern language seems to have its vital, foundational literary work: Italian has Dante's Divine Comedy, Spanish has Don Quixote, and English has Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. And yet, like other such works, the writings of Chaucer are often more often talked about than read; unlike Shakespeare's, his characters have not so often strutted upon the stage. In the UK, the BBC has done them both as a period puppet piece as well as a modernized version, and in 1972 the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made a memorable film version -- but here in the US there have been no major film or television adaptations.

All of which makes Seymour Chwast's version -- from which we have "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale" -- all the more remarkable. Chwast has also adapted Dante, and his version is one of two that we'll read, the other one being by Hunt Emerson; this is the first of several works we'll see in competing versions.

Chwast's style -- linear, loopy, childlike and yet oddly adult, is perhaps a good mirror of Chaucer's own. The great poet, after all, chose to write in his own humble English vernacular, rather than Latin or French (the established literary language of his day), and his characters are everyday people, just about as 'down to earth' as you can get. I don't think it works quite as well with Dante; he doesn't seem to quite be able to manage the darker, more epic tones in the Inferno. Emerson perhaps fares a little better, but neither comes close to Gary Panter's twisted series, Jimbo's Inferno, Jimbo in Purgatory, and Jimbo's Adventures in Paradise. I'd certainly recommend seeking these out if you're curious.

But in the meantime, with the adaptations we have: do these "foundational" works benefit in a different way from being "graphicalized"? Are they more accessible, more engaging, less off-putting? Or is there, perhaps a mismatch in your view? Your comments below.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Scripture as Canon

After all, one might say, sacred 'canons' were around long before literary ones. So why not add them to the list? The idea is at least as old as the typical "The Bible as Literature" course, which has been taught on many college campuses since the 1960's.

Still, reading the Bible -- or any other sacred text -- "as" literature is no easy task. The sacred mode of reading, in which every word is regarded as the word of God, and must be filtered through thousands of years of theological thought and debate, is far different from the 'literary' mode, in which meaning is debated anew, everyone's 'response' is (potentially) meaningful, and one can talk about things such as style, pacing, and characterization. It's not disrespectful to religion -- but religious right and wrong have to be set aside in order to discovery literary meaning and value.

This is easiest with those sacred texts that are narrative in form, as opposed to those which are more collections of hymns, prayers, or sacred sayings. The Bible has an ample supply of both; at the core of the Old Testament is the history of the Jewish kings of old, and the many prophets sent to get Israel back on the right track. Alongside these, there are others -- the Psalms of David are hymns, and the Song of Songs is an erotic love poem, one whose meaning has had to be re-directed over time to a 'higher' plane of understanding.

The history of illustrated Bibles is an interesting one: first, of course, the old prohibition on images, which is in the Second Commandment, had to be set aside; if the semi-literate could understand better from pictures, it was reasoned, why not use them to share and spread the religious message? It doesn't always work out so well -- R. Crumb's illustrated Book of Genesis was widely hated by evalgelical Christians in the U.S., even though its pictures and text are very strictly based on the King James text of the Bible.

In Russ Kick's version we have several different styles and approaches. In J.T. Waldman's adaptation of The Book of Esther, the original Hebrew text is there, and the style of drawing is woven in and out of the wide and narrow lines of its script; in Benjamin Frisch's Book of Daniel -- he chooses, aptly enough, the parable from Daniel about idol-worship and the Fiery Furnace -- the figures look like stained glass windows come to life. Finally, in Rick Geary's Book of Revelation, we have a fairly spare, figurative style that seems to me to hark back to the old Classics Illustrated.

Is one of these more suited to its subject than the others? Should the approach to illustrating such stories be reverential? Humorous? Both? And what does seeing them add to these stories?

Your comments below.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Gilgamesh and Beowulf

Just being old doesn't guarantee you a place in the canon. There are plenty of ancient texts -- the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the I Ching, or the Rig Veda, which are unlikely to appear in a list of "great" literature, though they are undoubtedly of great value.

The element missing from ancient texts such as these is narrative -- and without narrative it's hard for us to think of something as literature. The human desire for stories is at least as old as civilization itself, but early writing systems were used, at first, primarily for prayers and sacred texts -- and writing itself was often reserved to a priestly caste; the word hieroglyphics means 'priestly symbols.'

And yet, even when these ancient texts were the only written ones, oral tradition was filled with stories, stories that passed from mouth to ear to mouth through generations, without ever having been written down. Sometimes, at just the point when the oral tradition was fading, some scribe decided to write them down, and it's to these accidents of survival that we owe many of the world's earliest narrative texts, among them the Epic of Gilgamesh and Beowulf.

Gilgamesh is by far the older, dating to around 2000 B.C., which makes Beowulf, composed probably in the period from 500-600 A.D. and written down in the ninth century, quite 'young' by comparison. The idea of its being an 'epic' is a modern one; it might be better described as a cycle of legends; in the ancient clay tablets on which these legends survive, each has its own textual history. Which makes the adaptation in Kick's book, by Kevin and Kent Dixon, and which treats only one portion of the overall cycle, true to its sources (they have, in fact, tackled the entire epic in their own publications, organized by the 'tablets' on which it was recorded). Indeed, Gilgamesh has been adapted many more times, and in more media, than one might at first suspect.

Beowulf, unlike its epic forebear, exists in only one manuscript, which has survived both the nibbling of rats at its edges, and a fire which destroyed or damaged much of the Cotton collection of which it was a part. It encapsulates the warrior culture of the Anglo-Saxons, in which loyalty, bravery, and the generous giving of gold by warlords are the greatest good. Composed in pre-Christian times, it has had a veneer of Christian belief added to its text, but in the end, preserves what we might see as the fatalistic worldview of the Saxons: man's fate is foredoomed, his struggles here in life difficult, and his eventual destination unknown.The adaptation by Gareth Hinds treats only of one -- albeit pivotal -- episode in the tale: Beowulf's combat with the monster Grendel; compare it with a translation of the original here.

Do the Dixons discover something new in Gilgamesh? Does Hinds, with his wordless version, capture the essence of Beowulf's battle? That, dear readers, is up to you: write your comments below.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Of Can(n)ons and Curricula

The word "canon," as Robert Scholes notes, comes from the ancient Greek word κανών, denoted a hollow reed used as a measuring stick -- and thus contains both the notion of measurement as well as that of discipline ('spare the rod and spoil the child'). When, following the importation of gunpowder into Europe in the later medieval period, large guns were made that hurled missiles into the air, they became cannons, from the same root but a different route.

Literary canons, too, can be weapons in a war, a war of claims and counterclaims about which books are good -- or bad -- for students to read. Back in the Victorian era when public schooling was first established, there were a number of "set texts" -- texts that would be studied in order for students to be examined on them later -- which formed in a sense the first English canon. Among these, excerpts from the Bible were the most common, along with the inexpensive pamphlets produced by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Under later Victorian "reforms," spearheaded by the poet Matthew Arnold, a dab of imaginative literature was added: Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Milton's Paradise Lost, and the Tales of Maria Edgeworth (of Castle Rackrent fame). Arnold referred to these as the "mighty engine of literature in the education of the working classes" -- while at the same time lamenting the fact that much of its energy was wasted on merely getting pupils ready to read a newspaper. Arnold believed that great literature, even more than the Bible, had a 'civilzing' influence, and he was a hearty preacher of its gospel.

To these narrative works were later added a few selections of verse, which were to be memorized. The poetry of Felicia Hemans, particularly "Casabianca" (better known by its first line as "The boy stood on the burning deck"), along with her "The Homes of England," led the list, along with a selections from Shakespeare, Bacon, Pope, Byron, and Lamb (one can look over the entire list in Walter Low's 1876 compilation A Classified Catalogue of Educational Works). And yet, by the end of the century, literary works were once again disparaged in favor of more practical and "useful" books -- a trend which -- as with many Victorian educations notions (such as docking teachers's pay if their students did poorly on standardized tests) are being revived all over again today.

The effort to establish a single common canon of literature, however, never fully took hold at the elementary level; its time came at last with the boom in college attendance in the United States following WWII and the original GI Bill. The WW Norton company brought out its first Norton Anthology of English Literature in 1962, under the editorship of M.H. Abrams (who, amazingly, is still its 'editor emeritus' at the age of 102). You can, if you like, look over the original tables of contents for Volume I and Volume II, and (for comparison) those same volumes in the Ninth Edition used today. You may note that the 1962 edition has only one woman writer -- Katherine Mansfield -- among its 3000+ pages, while the ninth edition has 45; the first edition also had no writers of color, while the ninth has eight.

So who chooses what's in a canon? What falls out, and what comes in, and why? We should ask these questions as we approach Russ Kick's Graphic Canon, where the choices are entirely his. He has not been limited, of course, to British literature as is the Norton; the whole world is his oyster. Still, no choice is without its political dimensions, and there's no reason not to look at that aspect of his selections.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Welcome to English 122

Welcome to our Spring 2015 section of English 122, 'Literature and the Canon.'

Of course, you probably have one question: what exactly is a canon? The word goes back to the ancient history of the Catholic church, where it signified conformity to a rule or principle; Church law is known as "canon law." This sense was extended when, in the fourth century, councils met to determine which books would be considered authentic when it came to the Bible. We're not generally aware of it, but there were many candidates; in addition to the four 'canonical' Gospels, there were others -- the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and even a Gospel of Judas. The Apocalypse of St. John, now in every Bible, was one of a great many competing Apocalypses. Those others were rejected, although texts of many of them survive to this day.

Fast forward to the later half of the nineteenth century, when educators such as Matthew Arnold sought to devise a proper curriculum for national schools. They looked at books in terms of the excellence of the writing, their having stood the 'test of time,' and their value in inculcating proper British values. It's no surprise, then, that Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton came out on top, nor that the works of women and minorities were neglected. The list began at once to evolve, and many names that were once familiar on school lists -- John Greenleaf Whittier, Felicia Hemans, James MacPherson, and even Carl Sandburg -- eventually vanished. New names came in their place: Margaret Cavendish, Olaudah Equiano, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Rhys. In the United States, the WW Norton company issued its first Anthology of English Literature in 1962; this book has been through nine editions since then, each subtracting and adding different texts to the core of "generally accepted" ones.

So, unlike the Church's canon, the secular literary canon evolves, changes, alters over time -- and that's as it should be. This semester, we'll be using a rather different form of this canon: Russ Kick's three-volume Graphic Canon. Kick's selections generally follow those of the anthologies and lit. courses of today, though there are a few surprises. And, in its turn, by translating these canonical texts into graphical ones, it is a collection of adaptations, an interpretative canon, one which makes judgements and invites them, and one which embraces a diverse range of styles. It's my hope that, among them, each of you will find provoking texts, provoking images, that will spur thought and discussion as we went our way through the classics from Gilgamesh to Jonathan Franzen.