Lesson 111. The Political 1930sDos Passos, USA Read “The Body of an American” (Links to an external site.)Faulkner, “Barn Burning” (D771-83)Steinbeck, “The Leader of the People” (http://www.d.umn.edu/cla/faculty/tbacig/cst1030/1030anth/steinbec.html (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site. )Discussion 11Pick one of the three questions:1.How does Dos Passos use technique in “The Body of an American” to convey the upheavals of war?2. What is Faulkner saying about the division between rich and poor in “Barn Burning”?3. What is Steinbeck saying about American expansionism in “The Leader of the People”?LEARNING OBJECTIVES: STRONG OPENING THESIS, DEVELOPMENT (500 words), SUPPORT (quotations), OBJECTIVE TONE (No “I” or “we”).Lesson 122. Contemporary PoetryGinsberg, Howl (E487-95), “A Supermarket in California” (E495)Plath, “Daddy” (E626); “Lady Lazarus” (E622-25)Bishop, “The Fish” (E56-58), “The Moose” (E68-72)Lowell, “Skunk Hour” (E301), “For the Union Dead” (E303-305)Discussion 12Rank the poets you read for this lesson from least to most confessional. In other words, which of them seems most absorbed with personal feelings, experiences, etc., and which seem less so—and why? (Don’t simply make a list—you must rank them with a justification)LEARNING OBJECTIVES: STRONG OPENING THESIS, DEVELOPMENT (400 words), SUPPORT (quotations), OBJECTIVE TONE (No “I” or “we”).
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Lesson 12
Contemporary Poetry
Postmodernism
(1950-1990)
Identity politics
Games & puzzles
Absurdity & coincidence
CONTENT
History is a form of narrative and thus indistinct from fiction
Media is omnipresent
Embraces popular culture
STYLE
Narrative (surface over depth)
Reinstitutes authorial presence
metafiction
present tense
direct addresses
Challenges the authority of aesthetic traditions;
insists that values are “local” or “historical”
EFFECT
Texts are part of culture
Erodes the distinction between high & low culture; is populist
post-WWII affluence
logic of late capitalism
CONTEXT
media culture abstraction of values &
institutionalization of irony
(A good illustration of postmodernism: on the left is Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory from 1931, a
surrealist piece dramatizing the dream-like un-reality of life. On the right is a takeoff on the painting from The
Simpons, in which pop culture images replace the symbols of time)
Above are the characteristics of the postmodernist period that we enter into with today’s lesson.
The main thing we should remember about postmodernism that is it reintroduces those elements
of communicability that the modernists took out. In other words, instead of juxtaposition,
fragmentation, etc., postmodernists try to engage the common, everyday reader by giving us a
vision of the absurdity and alienation of everyday life in the post WWII era. Often, the literature
critiques the prosperity and affluence of our age, claiming that it has spiritually deadened us.
Today’s poems belong to a genre called confessional poetry. That is, unlike Eliot, Pound, etc.,
these author locate the author’s autobiographical concerns as the primary interest of the reader,
and they tend to document what’s happening in the poet’s life in sometimes excruciatingly
intimate details. We should remember, however, that there are different levels or degrees of
confessional intimacy. Indeed, your discussion question for today will specifically ask you to
rank the poets in order of their intimacy.
Ginsberg’s Howl offers a good if profane example of this self-mythologizing technique. The
poem uses autobiographical experience to create a generational identity: Ginsberg is telling the
story of the infamous Beat Generation of the 1950s—the young men like him and Jack Kerouac
who rebelled against the conformity of the 1950s by indulging in drugs, sex, and bebop music.
(Left: Ginsberg in the fifties. L: Members of the Beat Generation: including l to r, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and
Ginsberg)
You can imagine how shocking this poem was when first performed in 1956 at San Francisco’s
Gallery Six—the eventual print version was deemed obscene and led to a landmark trial that
eventually cleared it of that charge. The point is to shock by its graphic references to sexual
activity—both homosexual and heterosexual. But equally important is Ginsberg’s criticism of the
materialism of the 1950s, especially with the repeated references to the Hebrew “devil” Moloch,
whom Ginsberg viewed as the soullessness of consumerism that was devouring America. Also,
note that a common motif of 1950s literature is the invocation of electroshock therapy, a
treatment for depression at the time that—believe it or not—involved shooting jolts of electricity
into the brain. The idea was to cure depression by wiping out short-term memory, which was
considered the storehouse of neuroses. For Ginsberg (and Plath in her novel The Bell Jar or Ken
Kesey in his One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), electroshock therapy and mental institutions
more broadly are houses of socialization—they are the places where people who can’t conform
are sent and made to fit in.
Ginsberg’s “Supermarket” offers a
good example of why the Beats revolved against 1950s culture. Think about what a brand new
supermarket would be like in the mid-1950s, and how differently it says something about
Ginsberg’s America than Whitman’s. Ask too what the classical allusions suggest. Howl is a little
tougher, and yes, more obscence. Ginsberg’s poem is a generational chant of rebellion, a defiant
admission that his peers pursue dope, music, and bisexuality in order to escape the conformity
and absurdity of 1950s’ America. The poem isn’t without form, however. Notice how AG uses
specific devices of repetition to create a chant that audiences to whom he often read the poem
aloud could clap to.
Plath is perhaps the most famous example of a confessional poet,
because of the legend surrounding her suicide. These two poems both explore what we might call
“the morality of metaphor,” the propriety of using certain images to dramatize one’s personal
experience. Think of the “Nazi” imagery in “Daddy”; essentially saying a father-daughter
relationship is fascist is one thing, but equating the memory of your dead father with Hitler is
more offensive to those who actually lived through the Holocaust.
Bishop offers an example of what we might call
“observational confession.” That is, she gives a scene and asks us to ponder its significance, but
her narrator is merely a point of view, not a participant in the poem. Reading it, ask what point is
Bishop trying to make by asking about these animals.
Lowell, by contrast, is an example of
“experiential confession,” which means the world around him reflects the inner turmoil of his
depression and despair. Notice, for example, how the lover’s lane in “The Skunk Hour” stirs up
only feelings of loneliness, not passion. And what does Lowell learn from the proud skunk at the
poem’s end? “For the Union Dead” does something a little different: it captures the Northern
sense of sacrifice that has been lost amid encroaching modernity, a reflection of American
culture’s alienation from its historic past. For Lowell, the idea that this statue is lost amid the
traffic of Boston says that we have forgotten the sacrifices it took to make America.
Lesson 11
The Political 1930s
For obvious reasons, literature in the 1930s suddenly aligned itself with politics. The stock
market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression incited writers to address the situation of
the average American worker, who found himself increasingly incapable of making a living.
Many writers didn’t believe that the economic misfortunes of the country were accidental,
however; the believed that exploitation of labor was an inevitable effect of capitalism.
Accordingly, many writers like Clifford Odets identified with the burgeoning socialist movement
in America. In this way, American literature in some cases being explicitly ideological; that is,
literature was no longer seen as an aesthetic or artistic enterprise but a tool vital to bringing about
a change in the system of government—a tool of the revolution, in other words.
Before we get to the 1930s, however, we want to remember that literature was political in
previous periods. Specifically, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle advocated Socialism; indeed, in the
30s, Sinclair ran for governor of California, and in one of the most corrupt races ever recorded in
America, was soundly defeated because he was slandered as a “Red.”
Dos Passos’s “The Body of an American”—the final chapter of his novel 1919—offers a good
example of how modernist expatriates placed their experimental prose in the name of politics. Of
all the Hemingway-Fitzgerald generation, Dos Passos was always the most politically minded,
but in U.S.A. (a collection of three novels), he set out to illustrate how capitalism and democracy
conspired against the individual.
In this section we see two of the three experimental techniques that Dos Passos used in his
novels:
1) The newsreel—in which he incorporated actual headlines in order to approximate the
experience of viewing the short film clips of news that used to precede movies in the
1920s and 30s (this was how people “saw” news before the age of TV)
2) The “camera eye”—in which a nameless character is conveyed as though he were a lens
from which we see events unfold (as opposed to seeing that character from the outside).
Notice how this section is depicted as a prose poem.
The one we don’t experience here was
3) the entrepreneurial biography—in which Dos Passos inserted mini-biographies of major
historical figures (usually a chapter or so long). The goal was to demonstrate the
networking and manipulation of success that occurred behind the “self-made man” myth
of American success.
(Above: President Warren G. Harding giving the speech depicted in “Body”; Below: the unknown soldier casket)
Through these techniques, Dos Passos critiqued American capital, the hoarding of resources by
the rich that creates poverty, war, etc. As a committed leftist (and, for a time, a Communist), Dos
Passos felt capitalism was a corrupt system.
Faulkner, “Barn Burning”
Although it’s set in the late 19th-century, this story captures class tensions between rich and poor
during the Depression. It is one of Faulkner’s most anthologized stories, second only to “A Rose
for Emily.” In the conflict between Major de Spain and Abner Snopes, we see the conflict
between the 1 and the 99 %—the conflict, that is, between the holders of capital and the laborers.
What makes the story great is something that a lot of 1930s’ proletariat fiction doesn’t do: it
doesn’t take sides. While we might sympathize with the Snopes family’s pride, we don’t support
Abner’s pyromania. And while we might understand the Major’s offense at someone ruining his
property as Ab does the carpet, we likely see his charging 20 bushels of corn as unfair and an
abuse of power. At the center of this ambivalence is the main character, Ab’s son “Sarty,” who is
torn by his loyalty for his father and his intuitive sense of wrong and right. At heart, “Barn
Burning” is a coming-of-age story in which a young person discovers the moral complexity of
the world. Also playing into that complexity is the unrevealed ending of the story: Faulkner
cleverly refuses to tell us who—if anybody—is on the receiving end of those three shots.
The main symbolism of the story is the barn itself: the question of what barn burnings in rural
counties meant up until the 1940s and 1950s is integral to appreciating the political aspect of the
story. Basically, burning down an employer’s barn was the worker’s lone way of expressing
outrage at his economic exploitation. The Snopes are sharecroppers, after all, a feudal system of
employment that guaranteed families would remain in poverty. Notice that Ab Snopes never
burns down a main house: that would be murder. Barn burning, by contrast, is leveling the
playing field.
(R: Cast of the 1949 film The Red Pony, of which “Leader” is the fourth and final section)
Steinbeck, “The Leader of the People”
This story gives us a different take on American politics through history. You probably know
Steinbeck from The Grapes of Wrath. Even if you’ve never read this book, you’re probably
familiar with the story of the Joads, the archetypal Dust Bowl refugees who set out from
Oklahoma to California to find “the promised land.” A central theme of that novel was
Steinbeck’s political theory of the phalanx, a term that originally comes from military history. It
means a group of men serving as a kind of human shield. Steinbeck actually drew the term from
its use in biology (one of his best friends, a man named Ed Ricketts, was a biologist who deeply
influenced his thinking). In evolutionary terms it meant collective development—i.e. how a
group has to adapt to survive. For Steinbeck the term represented the conflict between the
individual conscience and group action—the way that the individual sense of right and wrong
typically gave way to go along with an institutional action that it knew was wrong.
“The Leader of the People” is the last entry in the four-story sequence known as The Red Pony, a
popular work often taught in junior high. The three other parts are about a boy initiated into the
life cycle, but this one—written a decade after the other three had been published—is about
questioning the renewed American belief in its image as “the shining city upon a hill” in the
aftermath of WWII. If the 1930s saw a severe interrogation of whether American democracy
exploited people, the postwar era re-embraced the myths of American nationhood, which
troubled Steinbeck. Jody’s grandfather represents his warning against this trend. On the one
hand, his nostalgic vision of “westering” seems to represent the vision of American
expansionism as delivery democracy to the world, but when the old man suddenly announces
that “westering” is dead, we’re left to wonder where America stands in the new world of global
wars. Nobody knew it in 1945, but the answer was the Cold War: America was entering a 45year stand off against the Communist east.

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