Friday, December 30, 2005

Trout Fishing in America

Richard Brautigan

Understanding the misery I put students through is easy when I read Richard Brautigan. And actually I’m surprised. I like the Beats. Somehow, though, the meaning of Brautigan is sealed up tight in some kind of a metal drum. He’s like having a keg without a tap—an apt simile, as it turns out. I have to confess right off that I had to read a good bit of criticism before I could comment on him, and I was surprised that I did, since the Beats usually make sense to me. Having done so, though, gave me some insight about why students end up plagiarizing literary essays.

We (English teachers) expect them to have the same kind of immediate insight that we do into the literature we just automatically love and when they don’t, we don’t understand. So many professors forbid students from reading criticism, calling that “cheating,” and forcing them to pound their heads against these metal drums (bong, bong, bong) in what must feel like a futile effort. Perhaps at one time, when information wasn’t so easy to come by, after a certain number of hours of head-banging, the headache paid off. But now that information takes no more than the soundless effort of our wireless connection, doesn’t it make sense to consult the critics? It did for me.

Surprised that I could not crack the code and step inside Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, I continued ahead and read The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar (all in the same volume). Brautigan’s poetry in Pill was much more accessible and I liked it better than his fiction, though I found even that to be the stuff of student writing—that sort of narrative ramble that is generally lacking in images which I would, in a workshop, direct the writer to revise by “showing,” rather than “telling.” For example, in “Albion Breakfast,” the speaker tells of his “long pretty girl” who wants him “to write a poem about Albion, / so she could put it in a black folder.” And then he tells us:
I said yes. She’s at the store now
getting something for breakfast.
I’ll surprise her with this poem
when she gets back.
I get the feeling from that one that the poet simply included something that transpired between him and a (probably former) lover: more than I care to know about a private event. However, on the other hand, another simple, incidental prose poem is lovely because it captures an image so carefully:
In a Café
I watched a man in a café fold a slice of bread
as if he were folding a birth certificate or looking
at the photograph of a dead lover.

But Trout Fishing in America is another animal altogether. Like Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, it is a novel told in short, titled vignettes, some as long as little chapters, and others as short as one-page prose poems. Unlike Connell’s work, though, Brautigan’s doesn’t really hang together. I understand—and usually like—absurdist works. But this one didn’t engage me somehow. There’s a protagonist, the narrator, “I,” and as it turns out “Trout Fishing in America” which is both an occupation and a character (though it’s hard to know that until we’ve read in a few pages). Understanding a real plot, any sort of narrative at all, is a challenge. Instead, Brautigan attempts a whimsical jaunt that, to my mind, doesn’t engage readers. I do think the novel is interesting for the sense of place that it evokes. In a chapter, “THE SALT CREEK COYOTES,” we read the following:
The smell of the sheep grazing in the valley has done it to them. Their voices water and come down the canyon, past the summer homes. Their voices are a creek, running down the mountain, over the bones of sheep, living and dead. (53)

And even a little later he describes a sign that warns against the coyotes—and the cyanide capsules “put along the creek to kill” them, even stopping to describe the sign in Spanish: “CUIDADO CON LAS CAPSULAS DE CIANURO: MATAN” (53). So the place is visible in the description and we understand the danger—as well as the danger to the animals. It seems like a place, as they say, not fit for man or beast. He’s captured, whimsically, the decay of nature.

But in terms of any real broad comedy, on my own I was lost. The prose didn’t strike me funny. That’s why I had to turn to what a few of the critics said—to help me tap into the metal drum. I didn’t see why it would hurt a student to do the same, I thought, as I did it. (Incidentally, if you’re reading this, it’s perfectly fine with me if my students read criticism when they take my literature courses). A quick web search was a great help, in fact. I happened upon Birgit Ferran’s fantastic Brautigan Archives site (at Ferran lists an address in Spain in her contact information, not any university affiliation. However, she urges the interested reader to join a Brautigan listserv, and describes the purpose of the site as “a place for Brautigan fans and scholars to share ideas and information on [his] life and work.” I take it from her statement of purpose, as well as from the quality of the more than 175 articles about Brautigan and other authors on the site that Ferran is a scholar. This kind of website evaluation is what we should ask of our students, rather than forbidding them to use online sources.

I found on Ferran’s website Philip C. Kolin’s most helpful essay, “Food for Thought in Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America” from a Spring1981 volume of Studies in Contemporary Satire, where Kolin argues that the point of Brautigan’s novel is to satirize American values using images of food. When I read the introduction to his essay and the first few supporting paragraphs, I felt stupid. “Of course!” I thought. “He’s absolutely right. How could I have missed this!” Students often say the same thing when we discuss thematic elements of stories and symbolism in poetry and film. I tell them that ideas like the ones we discuss in class will be more obvious to them independently when they learn to look for them. Well, in this case these ideas sure as hell weren’t obvious to me. Maybe if you’re a literary scholar, you’re thinking….well it’s just this reading about food imagery that didn’t jump out at me. But NO reading jumped out at me. Brautigan’s prose just seemed flat and meaningless—and that’s how literature seems to students many times, when they can’t crack the code that encases it.

But back to Trout Fishing in America: In arguing that Brautigan’s food imagery represents certain American values, Kolin first has to define satire, which he does by citing Alvin Kernan’s definition from Plot of Satire. Satire, says Kernan, determines:
such matters as what kind of food to eat, how to manage your wife and household, how to dress, how to choose your friends and treat your guests, what kind of plays to frequent and what kind of books to read, how to conduct political life. (qtd. in Kolin)
In other words, the satirist will decide what the characters will eat, how they marry and so on, based on the agenda for satire. Indeed, notes Kolin, “[m]uch of the action in Trout Fishing in America, therefore, is occupied with food - its description, preparation, consumption, and spoilage” (Kolin). So, explains Kolin, the trout in the story are becoming less and less “plentiful,” contrary to expectation in what is known as the land of plenty.

Furthermore, we read examples in the novel of “objects transformed metaphorically into food” (Kolin). A good example takes place in the chapter called “Trout Fishing in America Terrorists,” where the narrator describes having been called as a child to the principal’s office for misbehavior, “and looking up at the light fixture on the ceiling, how much it looked like a boiled potato" (38). According to Kolin, what Brautigan means here is that “the light of education is neither clear nor creative but as bland and unexciting as the potato, which seems like an appropriate symbol for a shriveled society that propagates conformity” (Kolin).

Another way food symbolism comes into play in Brautigan’s novel is in the opposite, where “food is compared to inedible objects” (Kolin). In other words, “[i]n the absurd world of contemporary America, trout become anything but edible” (Kolin). I love the example that Kolin gives—and truly if I had been paying attention, I should have noticed this one. Brautigan’s narrator says:
We read books like The Thief’s Journal, Set This House on Fire, The Naked Lunch, Krafft-Ebing. We read Krafft-Ebing aloud all the time as if he were Kraft dinner. (93)
Actually, that is sort of funny, and it should catch the attention of the reader, as should the narrator’s desire to end the book with the word mayonnaise. That did catch my attention. What was it about that word, I wondered? It piqued my culture ear, so to speak, because I immediately thought of mayonnaise as “white people’s food.” But I figured that unless Brautigan had been Black, he wouldn’t have written about that in the 1960s, and I would guess that Brautigan, who looks (at least in his picture) about as white as me, would not be hip to that significance of mayonnaise unless he had lived to the present. So ending on mayonnaise SHOULD have been my signal to read this book more deeply for food images, and if I were teaching this book, I would have to tell my students that noticing such a clue would be important for a good scholar.

Anyway, in Kolin’s view, mayonnaise is as important as trout in the novel in terms of symbolism because “mayonnaise [...] contrasts with the dying trout and other blighted food” (Kolin). In the chapter, “Trout Fishing on the Street of Eternity” we read of the narrator’s working for an old lady. In return, she makes him lunch: “little egg sandwiches with crusts cut off as by a surgeon and [...] slices of banana dunked in mayonnaise" (80). Kolin argues that “the mayonnaise - soft and white - represents familial security and the loving care for the young narrator who buys it for her. Mayonnaise, therefore, is a symbol of personal though nationally unattainable hope at the end of an otherwise bleak study of America. It evokes fond memories of a generally disappointing childhood across the flotsam of time” (Kolin). Thus, Brautigan’s imagery of food is a key to his satire of American cultural values.

Having read Kolin’s essay carefully and spent a lot of time journaling about it, I can see now how an inexperienced writer on a deadline winds up plagiarizing parts of his or her paper. Nonetheless, I don’t see that the solution is to forbid students from using the internet to do research. That just seems unrealistic. Wouldn’t it make better sense to find a way to make the resources educational rather than pretending that students—and faculty alike—use the riches that are out there?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Dorothy Parker's Complete Stories

Dorothy Parker

Parker is tricky. She seems to be out of style, at the present, and I think it’s because she’s fooled a good many of the present-day audience. A careless, surface reading of her short stories is likely to give one the impression that she’s as shallow as one of her Park Avenue protagonists. A common conflict occurs in “Mrs. Hofstadter on Josephine Street,” in which a young couple (“The Colonel” and the narrator) hire “a man to market, to cook, to clean,” and they want a man specifically because “maids [meaning women] talked a good deal of the time. [...] We must insist [...] that our servant be, before all things, still” (Complete Stories 236). Another story deals with the inner conflict concerning a young woman who is upset over her choice of dance partners. She thinks, “I’m so glad I brought it to his attention that this is a waltz they’re playing. Heaven knows what might have happened if it was something fast; we’d have blown the sides right out of the building” (“The Waltz” 210). Still another depicts an upper class couple who are the envy of all their neighbors, are extremely polite to each other, saying things like, “See my pretty daffy-down-dillies?” but who, we learn from the gossiping neighbors, are getting divorced (“Too Bad” 17). In “The Sexes,” we read of a tiff between lovers, in which the young woman finally says, “Why don’t you go up to Florence Leaming’s? I know she’d love to have you?” (75). So on a surface read, the reader might begin to wonder whether these stories truly offer conflicts worth pondering.

At present, I believe, we have a reverse classism in literature. There’s a certain shame in reading literature that represents the upper classes, especially where I teach (in the introductory College English courses in a community college). The idea is that we want to represent, perhaps, the socioeconomic status of our students somewhat more accurately than do stories that were written for the upper class of New York society of the 1930s. But even among scholars and colleagues who don’t have those same concerns, I believe that Parker has somehow less status than she once did—and unfairly so.

Those who disregard Parker or view her as somehow shallow miss the boat because they don’t read deeply enough to see Parker’s biting satire of the very women she writes of. In part, I’m sure, it’s the first person narrator; so many people can’t get past believing that when the author addresses the audience as “I,” she is speaking as herself, rather than as a character. Furthermore, even among the more sophisticated audience members who understand the nature of the first person narrative, as well as satire are those who believe the 1930s women about whom Parker writes are outdated. At this reading, though, I find myself even more engaged with her characters, if possible. These are the Paris Hiltons, Nicole Richies, the Desperate Housewives, the Botox injectors, the anorexia women. Their behaviors may vary slightly according to the decade in which they live, but essentially, they’re the very empty-headed women about which E! and VH1 spend their entire programming schedule on. In fact, it might make an interesting popular culture paper (Dorothy Parker and the Women of the E! True Hollywood Story)…but there are only so many papers and so little time.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Assassination Vacation

Sarah Vowell

Reading S. Vowell for me brings up a range of emotions from feverish laughter to horrific despair and jealousy. The funniest part of Assassination Vacation is the preface, in which Vowell describes her reluctant breakfast at a B&B—something I can so relate to. She explains, “I understand why other people would want to stay in B&Bs. They’re pretty. They’re personal. They’re ‘quaint,’ a polite way of saying, ‘no TV’” (2).

Her writing is so good and so detailed, descriptive of places and historical events—particularly when I think of how young she is, fourteen I think, I fall into a terrible despair and want to kill her in the same way she describes wanting to kill G. Bush…well, even less so, really, because I don’t even really hate her. I just hate myself for not being as fabulously successful as her. This book is great, and she is greater.

The premise of the book is that she has had a lifelong fascination with the assassins of the four U.S. presidents who have been killed on duty. So, she takes us on her pilgrimages to the places where she goes to learn more about the places and relics surrounding the assassins. I was especially interested in the book because of its sense-of-place/travelogue aspects. It was interesting to me in form because she wrote this for a wide, commercial audience, clearly, rather than a scholarly audience—evident from her lack of footnotes or bibliography. The only credit she gives to sources is in her preface, where she discusses some of her main historical sources (like, for example in researching McKinley’s assassination, Vowell discussed Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, which she called a “great history of European and American events leading up to World War I” (7) mentioning a chapter on anarchism that was especially helpful).

I expected to be able to use more of her work to help me define place, but what I found instead was some interesting information in the chapter on Lincoln. First of all, it will probably help the reader to know that I never studied American history at a very high level—say beyond primary school. I think I must have taken a semester in high school, but let’s just call that a blur. Otherwise, I went to school in Latin America, where we studied Latin American history. So I never really knew more than the superficial details of Lincoln’s assassination—especially the ones Vowell discusses in this chapter. I viewed this chapter in history through hindsight, thinking Lincoln was a popular president, so imagine my surprise to read Vowell’s statement, that she was “amazed Lincoln got to live as long as he did” (28). Indeed, apparently detectives had foiled at other assassination attempts before the successful one, and throughout his term, “Lincoln kept a desk drawer full of death threats” (28).

But putting my historical education aside, I found some of the historical information about Maryland as a place was very interesting, and as I read along, I began to think about the information as a foundation for the dissertation chapter on John Waters.

What I found in the chapter will help me to define Maryland as distinctly Southern.

She says, “While technically Maryland remained in the Union during the Civil War, it was the border state, a schizophrenic no-man’s land with the North at its door and the South in its heart” (56). She goes on to discuss the lyrics of the state song, “ Maryland, My Maryland,’ the song says, ‘spurns the Northern scum!’ The song also calls for seceding from the Union, to stand by its sister state Virginia” (56).

That’s enough for tonight—but I strongly recommend the book for a great, entertaining read!

Friday, December 09, 2005

Black No More

George Schuyler

Trying to reason why Schuyler’s Black No More is hard to find in the average library can take one down a number of paths. My first assumption was that librarians might be afraid to add the book to a library’s collection since Schuyler was known to be conservative (and by conservative, I mean a member of the John Birch Society), so adding Black No More to any collection might make some sort of political statement. And librarians get so nervous about making political statements with their collections. But then I thought, well that’s silly. Libraries have all kinds of books representing all points of view on purpose. Another reason not to have Black No More in, say, an average medium-sized collection would be that Black No More is (mayhap as a result of its controversial satire) not such a popular work of Schuyler, who is himself, well, sort of a lesser-known African-American writer. When we consider that even the better-known African-American writers have had to elbow (after a fashion) their way in to the canon, then…it’s easy to explain Black No More’s absence with the marginalized-by-the-white-majority excuse. However, to do so might be oversimplifying; to leave out the most insidious explanation would, I’m afraid, cause Schuyler himself to spin on a mini-rotisserie in his grave. I speak here without any research to support my argument—which is the most fun to do (it’s my blog, dammit!)—but it would seem to me that African-American scholars have done a great deal of work to encourage the inclusion of African-American writers in the canon. Were it not for their solid work, perhaps white scholars might have ignored the important work of many black writers. Could it be, then, that many black writers overlooked or ignored Schuyler not just because of the message of Black No More, but also because of some of the activism Schuyler himself undertook? For example, according to Ishmael Reed’s foreword to the novel, “Schuyler denounced the platform of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” though it was because “he believed it fostered violence” (vii). I imagine, however, that Schuyler’s conservatism, matched with the cruel satire he writes in this book (like, for example, of the cultural icons such as W.E.B. DuBois) might have made him unpopular within African American culture. It certainly would make for some interesting debate.

More interesting still, though is to look at the novel. If you haven’t read it, just go buy it. Likely as not, unless you live near a large library or have privileges at a university library, you’ll just have to order it from Amazon. It’s worth the price, though (less than $15). The novel’s premise is that a cleverly named Dr. Crookman develops a way for Black people (called “Negros” in the book—which was written in the 1930s) within seconds to be turned into blonde, straight-haired, blue-eyed white people. There’s only one catch: the change lasts through only one generation. In other words, the formerly black person will be immediately identified upon the birth of progeny with potentially humiliating results.

Max Disher, the protagonist, whose “negroid features had a slightly satanic cast” when he lived in Harlem and dated “his high ‘yallah’ flapper” (5) saved his $50 to have “the world [as] his oyster [...] and the open sesame of a pork-colored skin!” (19). Yet after first changing his name to Matthew Fisher, he finds life a little less interesting. He notes that, in all, white people are “less courteous and less interesting.” He misses the “happy-go-lucky, jovial good-fellowship” of the “Negroes,” but when he goes to the old neighborhood, his former friends no longer know him as a “Negro” (43).

So “Matthew Fisher” nee Disher moves to Atlanta to find a white woman who once turned him down for a date. Now that he’s white, he can pursue her.

In his travels, he by accident happens upon the headquarters of the Nights of Nordica, an analogue of the KKK. The Grand Wizard is just the kind of idiot one would expect in that kind of job. Matthew lies and somehow manages to have himself appointed to an officer post, the Grand Giraw—a brilliant plan, especially when he finds out that the Grand Wizard’s daughter, Helen, just happens to be the woman he loves.

Meanwhile, we meet the National Social Equality League (which, I gather is supposed to be the NAACP), which includes a number of “Negro leaders of the country” (65). Here is where the cruelest satire takes place. We meet Dr. Shakespeare Agamemnon Beard, “graduate of Harvard, Yale and Copenhagen (whose haughty bearing never failed to impress both Caucasians and Negroes)” (65). He’s pretty obviously meant to satirize W.E.B. DuBois. We read of him:

For a mere six thousand dollars a year, the learned doctor wrote scholarly and biting editorials in The Dilemma denouncing the Caucasians whom he secretly admired and lauding the greatness of the Negroes whom he alternately pitied and despised. [...] Like most Negro leaders, he deified the black woman but abstained from employing aught save octoroons. He talked at white banquets about “we of the black race” and admitted in books that he was part-French, part-Russian, part-Indian and part-Negro. (65)
OUCH! (I read somewhere, I don’t remember where, that DuBois thought it was funny…but who knows!?).

Another character, who satirizes I-don’t-know-who (but does it really matter—it’s so cruel!) is Dr. Jackson, of whom the narrator says, “There was no fear of Dr. Jackson ever winning a beauty contest.” We hear that he has “long, ape-like arms, a diminutive egg-shaped head that sat on his collar like a hen’s egg in a demitasse cup and eyes that protruded so far from his head that they seemed about to fall out” (67). The horrific physical description goes on, but the worst part is that his “chief business in the organization was to write long and indignant letters to public officials and legislators whenever a Negro was mistreated, demanding justice, fair play and other legal guarantees vouchsafed no whites except bloated plutocrats fallen miraculously afoul of the law, and to speak to audiences of sex-starved matrons who yearned to help the Negro stand erect” (67).

Another interesting character is Dr. Gronne, who appears to be college president (but who at one time or another had been “a college professor, a social worker, and minister”) who was very popular because “he very cleverly knew how to make statements that sounded radical to Negroes but sufficiently conservative to satisfy the white trustees of his school” (69). It doesn’t matter who this guy satirizes from the 1930s, he—all of them for that matter have analogues today!

I think what Schuyler does with these characters is to show them for the buffoons that they are. At the risk of pissing off anyone who reads this, I would nominate a present-day example of the kind of person Schuyler means: Jesse Jackson. How different is he from “the Right Reverend Bishop Ezekiel Whooper of the Ethiopian True Faith Wash Foot Methodist Church”? Schuyler’s definition of Whooper was that “he had a very loud voice and the white people praised him. He was sixty, corpulent, and an expert at the art of making cuckolds” (71). Take out the corpulent and you’ve got Jesse Jackson: He’s a blowhard who claims to be making a difference, but who in actuality is shucking and jiving to placate the white man. What does he really do? No one really knows where all that money goes that he “fundraises.” But I digress. I only mean to say that every generation, every era has liberal fundamentalists as well as the conservatives. They just dance a different dance, I guess. I just love the way Schuyler shows them up.

Ultimately in the novel things get ridiculous. The plot begins to remind me of the Dr. Seuss book, The Star-bellied Sneeches, which is such a wonderful allegory. We read of star-bellied sneeches and sneeches with no stars on their bellies. But, guess what? All the sneeches want to have stars on their bellies, and so they devise a machine to add the stars. But when the original star-bellied sneeches realize it, they devise a star-remover, so that they can be exclusive once more (though I doubt that old Ted Geisel really came up with a rhyme on exclusive). Ultimately (ditto on ultimately), an endless cycle begins through the two machines until neither group can tell who had which (star or not) on the belly to begin with….so it ceases to matter. Same goes in Black No More with the white—when the rumor begins that the people with the whitest skin were once black and (prescient Schulyer predicts) white people start going to tanning salons.

So much to discuss in this book, but the idea it ends on is powerful, that race is no more than a color that one can spray on. It’s an artificial construct that we assign far more cultural meaning than it deserves. So even when Max Disher misses the relaxed lifestyle of his Harlem friends, he’s missing an artificial construct. And similarly, when the uptight white, mayonnaise Atlanta lifestyle gets him down, maybe we are to gather that it’s more of a culture, class, or regional construct than of race.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Friday Book

John Barth

This isn’t a confession. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m no John Barth fan—generally speaking, that is. My distaste goes back to early adolescence when my dad tried to get me to read Giles, Goat Boy, a novel, if you don’t know, that’s just entirely too heady for most fourteen- or fifteen-year-olds, even me at the time (I was pretty strange). In college I was intrigued with “Welcome to the Funhouse,” the story, not the collection. I have found Barth’s fiction writing generally verbose, purposely hard to understand. Like Pynchon’s, it’s self-conscious, experimental, story-for-the-sake-of-story, showing off. Fiction like that always gives me a terrible image of the author writing the original prose, like he was practically masturbating words onto the page at the typewriter, saying “look, aren’t I clever?”

There, now. I think I’ve made my point.

But I read The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction specifically because of its two essays, “The Literature of Exhaustion” and “The Literature of Replenishment,” which are important because in them Barth defines postmodernism, at least for himself. What I found surprising was that upon looking at the introduction and other early parts of the book, I felt compelled to read almost all the essays out of a strong interest in what he was saying. At first I thought it was because this non-fiction Barth was a different character than the guy who writes that insipid metafiction, but truth told, Barth’s nonfiction narrator is much the same as the fiction Barth. In fact, the first three mini-essays in The Friday Book are self-conscious comic pieces giving advice about writing the type of book he’s writing. The very title page—before the essays—parodies an actual title page, saying:


and Other Nonfiction

Then, in the first piece, “The Title of This Book,” he points out that his own title, as well as The Canterbury Tales, Moby-Dick and several others, “are straightforward” (vii). Importantly, though, he insists, “[c]comic works need not bear comic titles,” giving examples such as “The Frogs. The Birds. Don Quixote. Tom Jones,” etc. (viii).

A little later, in an epigraph, Barth goes on (with comic effect) to show why epigraphs “should be avoided” because there “is something hokey about an epigraph” since they are “a kind of rhetorical attitudinalizing” (xvii). And so on.

The book is particularly appealing to someone in the process of writing a book—even though Barth is obviously (to me) parodying the angst a writer goes through when s/he’s putting together a book.

When I figured that out, I realized that when my dad asked me to read Barth’s novels in early adolescence, he was asking me to read something too abstract for my age. I wasn’t ready for metafiction until right now. (You’ll note that I’ll be writing about the Sot-Weed Factor then shortly, because I’m in the middle of reading it at the moment. I still like Barth’s non-fiction better, though.)

Nevertheless, another reason why the essays were so appealing was that Barth talks about speaking to groups of college students about literature and writing, an experience any English faculty member like me can relate to.

That’s exactly what Barth was doing when he gave the lecture on “The Literature of Exhaustion” (at the University of Virginia). The idea of “exhaustion,” he says, comes not from the traditional sense of the word, but rather from “the used-upness of certain forms or the felt exhaustion of certain possibilities,” which makes sense (64). If postmodernism was the beginning of a new “movement” in literature, it happened because every possibility had already been exhausted in modernism, so this new movement had to arise in order for writers to try new things. Indeed, Barth calls himself an “author who imitates the role of an Author” when he wrote the Sot-Weed Factor (which itself parodies the colonial American poem) (72). So the main point of the essay is that parody and the reuse or retooling of stories are part and parcel of postmodernism.

Another interesting essay in the collection is “The Spirit of Place.” He begins this essay by paraphrasing Hemingway, who said that “every writer owes it to the place of his birth either to immortalize it or to destroy it” (127). Barth also says “A good writer may be inspired in part by the locus genii of the place where he was born or raised [...]. But at least as often, the writer’s place of origin may be of little or no significance to the work” (128). In other words, postmodernism (unlike modernism) frees writers from being bound to setting.

Barth discusses the matter still more specifically, saying “the ‘postmodern’ writer may find that the realistic, even tender evocation of place (for example) is quite to his purpose, a purpose which may partake of the purposes of both his modernist fathers and his pre-modern remoter ancestors without being quite the same as either’s” (129). Ultimately, then, the details, now are up to the writer, rather than up to the period. The piece determines the rules.

“The Literature of Replenishment,” says Barth, is “meant as a companion and corrective to” the previous essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion” (193). As of 1979, when he gave the original lecture, the word “postmodernism” had not yet made it into “standard dictionaries and encyclopedias,” Barth reports, yet at the time the topic already was hot at the university and the MLA. At first Barth takes up the definition of postmodernists—who among the white male canon may be considered to be postmodern. For example, Vonnegut: is he or isn’t he? Some of the theorists say yes, and some don’t. Some trace postmodernism as far back as Virginia Woolf, Baudelaire, and de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. According to some definitions, variations may be judged “among the productions of a given writer” (196). For example, Barth classifies “John Gardner’s first two published novels” as “distinctly modernist works” whereas “his short stories dabble in postmodernism” (196). Barth even sees “both modernist and postmodernist attributes” in his own work (196).

The term “postmodern,” says Barth is not easy to define, since it has such broad applications. A number of theorists, according to Barth, begin with the premise that postmodernism in some way extends some of the ideas of modernism (197). But the way Barth sees it is different. He says:

My ideal postmodernist author neither merely repudiates nor merely imitates either his twentieth-century modernist parents or his nineteenth-century premodernist grandparents. He has the first half of our century under his belt, but not on his back. [...] The ideal postmodernist novel will somehow rise above the quarrel between realism and irrealism, formalism and “contentism,” pure and committed literature, coterie fiction and junk fiction. Alas for professors of literature, it may not need as much teaching as Joyce’s or Nabokov’s, or some of my own. (203)

Barth ends by saying that while he argued in his original essay that “The Literature of Exhaustion” could refer to having exhausted the possibilities of modernism, “The Literature of Replenishment” was actually a better term for Postmodernism because of the many possibilities it offered for literature of the future.