Lesson 131. Read texts:Fiction in the FiftiesBellow, “Augie March” (E207-18)O’Connor “Good Country People” (E435-49)Cheever, “The Swimmer” (E140-48)Discussion 131. Choose one of these stories and analyze what it says about America at mid-century. What are the pros and the cons in terms of middle-class affluence, ethnicity, and/or religion?LEARNING OBJECTIVES: STRONG OPENING THESIS, DEVELOPMENT (500 words), SUPPORT (quotations), OBJECTIVE TONE (No “I” or “we”).Lesson 141. Read texts:The 60sPynchon, “Entropy” (E730-42)Le Guin, “Schrodinger’s Cat” (E588-93)Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five (E344-55)Discussion 141. Choose one of these stories and analyze what the controlling metaphor (entropy, the cat, etc.) says about the author’s vision of postmodern America.LEARNING OBJECTIVES: STRONG OPENING THESIS, DEVELOPMENT (500 words), SUPPORT (quotations), OBJECTIVE TONE (No “I” or “we”).
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Lesson 13: Fiction in the 1950s
The works for this lesson reflect the transition between modernism and postmodernism in
fiction. By and large, the style of these stories remains modernist. They are heavy in
metaphor, symbolism, image, and other modes of suggestion associated with writers such
as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others. In terms of theme, however, we see these writers
struggling to address issues relevant to the post-World War II era: racial and gender
concerns, the rise of popular culture and advertising, rock music and radio, the loss of
religious significance, and the overall sense that things in America have gone awry.
Saul Bellow, “Augie March”
This book is a Jewish Bildungsroman dramatizing the search for American identity in this
decade. Notice the opening: Bellow’s hero is declaring the connection between country,
ethnicity, and self. It demonstrates how centrally Americans began to see the influence of
immigrant culture on identity—the emergence of Jewish culture would eventually
encourage other writers to explore African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American
heritage. There is also a self-conscious effort to be epic here; reflecting the American
belief at mid-century that America was a superpower, the book seeks to capture the
superness through this representative American.
Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People”
Believe it or not, Flannery O’Connor is most often characterized as either a Catholic
writer or a Southern writer. The second categorization perhaps makes more sense
because, as with the one you’ve read, all of her stories are set in the South, usually in her
native state of Georgia. O’Connor saw herself as a fundamentally religious writer,
however, and in particular, she was exploring Catholic notions of grace and blessing in an
era that was rapidly becoming, for most observers, godless. What makes it difficult for us
to recognize her Catholicism is the absurdity with which she treats her characters. In
“Good Country,” for instance, we have a tale in which the good people (the mother) is
essentially the villain, while the shyster preacher is—if not an outright hero—at least the
center of the narrative’s sympathy because he embodies the fierce, angry need for some
kind of authentic religious presence in the modern world. In general, you can say that the
preaching is claiming both the mother and the crippled daughter (who embodies
dispassionate reason) needs reminders of their humbleness under God to make them cling
to the hope of God’s blessing. As you read the story, consider what it means to be
“good”—does the mother’s morality represent Christian thinking?
John Cheever, “The Swimmer”
Cheever’s story reflects the growing disillusionment with American suburban life. The
swimming pool—the status symbol of the 50s and 60s—becomes a metaphor for
isolation. As the protagonist swims from friend’s pool to pool, notice how ultimately his
life proves, until we get to the realization that he has lost his own wife and family.
Adultery and alcohol are also present throughout as signs of American corruption. This
story is hard on the middle-class, suggesting that aspiration leads to moral dissolution.
(A poster for the excellent movie version of the story, starring Burt Lancaster)
(Burt was 55 when he made this movie, btw.…)
Lesson 14
Postmodernism
Our texts today—two novels, and a short story—illustrate one of the major theses of
postmodernist literature: the absurdity of modern life. For a “pomo” writer, the world has
become a bizarre chain of random events, coincidences, peculiarities, and just enough
hint of a conspiracy to make us wonder whether we’re not being manipulated by
ambiguous power brokers. Accordingly, there is a level of paranoia in these works that
complements their sense that we live in a world of the weird.
Thomas Pynchon, “Entropy”
(One of the few known pictures of Pynchon; for fifty years he has refused to allow pictures of himself to be
circulated. As a result, no one really knows what he looks like)
This story defines what becomes the central metaphor in Pychon’s writing: entropy,
which refers simultaneously, to two different things: 1) from the perspective of science,
entropy is the loss of energy that accompanies any thermodynamic process; and 2) from
an information or communications point of view, it represents the inevitable element of
“feedback” or “noise” that interferes with the conveying at a point. In both sense,
“entropy” represents for Pynchon a metaphor for the chaos of the postmodern age.
Some things to note:
1. How one theory or system becomes an extended symbol of life: For modernists, some
overarching system of human behavior or history was meant to bring order to chaos. For
postmodernists, however, there is the realization that there is no order; randomness is the
only explanation for events, and for Pynchon, the idea is that history is “running down”
or losing energy in a way that creates a sense of ennui or detachment.
2. Stylistic exaggeration. There’s a real aggressiveness in this sort of comic pomo
writing. It’s different than what we saw in naturalism, where the effort was to shock us.
Here, it’s more an attempt to overwhelm us with the bizarreness of a world we might take
for granted.
3. Observational disengagement. A hallmark pomo idea, which suggests that we observe
life as the media presents it to us rather than experience it directly. The point is that we
live life once removed from its immediacy. In other words, we watch ourselves living our
lives.
Ursula K. Le Guin, “Schrödinger’s Cat”
“Schrodinger’s Cat” is another example of using a scientific proposition as a metaphor
for contemporary life. Let me quote what the terms refers to from Wikipedia:
Schrödinger’s cat is a seemingly paradoxical thought experiment devised by Erwin
Schrödinger that attempts to illustrate the incompleteness of an early interpretation of
quantum mechanics when going from subatomic to macroscopic systems. Schrödinger
proposed his “cat” after debates with Albert Einstein over the Copenhagen interpretation,
which Schrödinger defended, stating in essence that if a scenario existed where a cat
could be so isolated from external interference (decoherence), the state of the cat can only
be known as a superposition (combination) of possible rest states (eigenstates), because
finding out (measuring the state) cannot be done without the observer interfering with the
experiment — the measurement system (the observer) is entangled with the experiment.
The thought experiment serves to illustrate the strangeness of quantum mechanics and the
mathematics necessary to describe quantum states. The idea of a particle existing in a
superposition of possible states, while a fact of quantum mechanics, is a concept that does
not scale to large systems (like cats), which are not indeterminably probabilistic in nature.
Philosophically, these positions which emphasize either probability or determined
outcomes are called (respectively) positivism and determinism.
Make sense? Ok, it doesn’t to me either…
But the basic idea is that the fate of the cat is unknowable outside the limits of the box. In
essence, there is no such thing as human perception “outside of the box”: we are limited
in our power to know, and that renders us powerless in the universe.
Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut
This is our example of an anti-Vietnam novel based on Vonnegut’s own experiences in
the Dresden fire bombings in WWII. Interestingly, Vonnegut uses science-fiction idea to
illuminate the basic incapacity of humans to exert control over their environment: the
random shuttling of Billy Pilgrim from historical moment to moment reflects the
postmodern idea of the uncontrollability of life. There is a lot of absurd humor here that
likewise documents the essential thought that the universe unfolds without reason or
purpose.
(Tattoos of the book’s slogan have become very popular.…)

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