Death Comes for the Archbishop

We began our class on Death Comes for the Archbishop by focusing on the novel’s historically suspect account of the American Southwest as the site of idyllic, even Edenic, encounters between global authority and local populations.  We turned to the generic mystification of the novel—Cather refers to it as a “narrative”—to make sense of the text’s ostensible repression of colonial violence in Southwestern history. We read the text’s generic ambiguity not as a claim to documentary or historical authenticity, but as the generation of a regional mythology particular to the Southwest.

While the interactions between the French priests and the Southwestern locals appear remarkably egalitarian, the novel marks these relations as regional contingencies, produced by the infrastructural instability and arrested rate of modernization on the Southwestern frontier. Without steady lines of global communication or even reliable forms of local transportation, global power structures like the Catholic church appear unable to reproduce themselves fully on the regional level. Within Southwestern localities, the typical vectors of colonial power invert, and we see the French bishops appealing to their own parishioners for physical protection and the legitimation of their authority.

The novel’s form, which seems organized by encounters with regional art—the Santos tradition and other religious art in particular—allowed us to talk about material culture and the transmission of regional history. We looked at the moment where Latour and Vaillant appraise a church bell and dispute the indebtedness of Spanish silverworking to Moorish craftsmanship. Latour celebrates the Moorish origins of the craft, seemingly eliding or repressing the violent history that allowed that craft to develop in Europe. Jason suggested that repressions of this kind may be endemic to the material archives on which Southwestern regional histories rely, and from which the bell issues. Material, as opposed to textual, archival objects are by nature unable to give a full account of their origins, enfolding a necessary repression of the violence that might characterize their genealogy.

We turned to how visual art both mediates Latour’s relationship to the Southwestern landscape and how it structures the novel’s representation of New Mexican locality. Latour’s aesthetic sense is both the reason for his dispatch to the Southwest—his ability to appreciate art is one of the primary reasons he’s made bishop—as well as an essential and perhaps inextricable part of his devotional practice. The revelation of the cruciform tree in the opening chapter consolidates his missionary purpose, while the construction of a cathedral, formally wedding both his aesthetic values and religious devotion, functions as the capstone achievement of his life.  We discussed how art, almost without exception, takes on a devotional function in the novel—from the santos artwork to the cloth painting ostensibly made by the Lady of Guadalupe, the kind of visual art documented by the novel produces locality as it elaborates religious belief and practice.

From there, we looked at the novel’s attention to the Southwestern landscape to understand how cross-cultural exchange functions within the context of ecological practice: specifically, how the local populations abandon an abusive priest’s draconian gardening projects after his death, and how Latour reacts to local practices which ritualize nature and natural formations. For Latour, the relationship of Southwestern populations to the landscape evokes or is implicated in a history that is not only premodern, but pre-Christian—a history that proves both threatening and inaccessible to Latour, a foreigner and a clergyman. For the Mexican and Native American populations, ecological practice allows for both the production of locality and a primary form of local control. After Friar Baltazar is executed, his church is left intact, but his garden is left to wither—suggesting, perhaps, that his abuses of power were felt most strongly in their ecological, as opposed to religious or social, effects.

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Short Paper Outline - Sandburg's Crowds


Intro: Sandburg is fascinated by crowds/masses of people, and they way they make up a city.

Thesis: Sandburg uses each crowd he describes in order to emphasize a different facet of the Chicago community.


By ethnicity

Fish Crier (pg 7)—Jewish man – here he is singular, but he represents the mass of Jewish fish sellers—happy in his own ignorant way

The Shovel Man (pg 7)—Juxtaposition of shovel man working for almost no money to the dark-eyed woman who believes that the immigration to America was good for them

We need someone to love us to be worth anything in the world – either a group or an individual person that gives us affirmation

Picnic Boat (pg 8)—optimistic view of immigrants

Happiness (pg 8)—Crowd of Hungarians – Hungarians are a bit of red herring – they are indistinguishable; if you like somebody, you refer to them as a single person, but Sandburg gives this Hungarian crowd a distinguishing factor

Population Drifts (pg 13)—life beats the romanticism out of you: is it worth it?

Main points Sandburg brings up: Disillusionment with the American dream/immigration; optimistic view of happiness in profession and ethnic community


By labor

Halsted Street Car (pg 4)—calling upon cartoonists because the faces are almost caricatures of helpless workers

Working Girls (pg 14)—juxtaposition of romanticism; certain pride in the knowledge that accompanies being a “working girl”

To Certain Journeymen (pg 17)—all are equal in death

Ice Handler (pg 19-20)—repetitive and almost obnoxious facet of working in the ice industry is that the ice will melt—you will have good days and bad days on the job, and you will feel worthless, but you are not

Main points: Individuals represent the workers of their profession as a whole; you will toil but you have certain knowledge of the city and of the real world that you should take pride in


By the generalized “masses” in Chicago (labor + ethnicity)

Chicago (pg 1)—Sandburg is biased, proud of his city

Masses (pg 2)—poor don’t have to show off like the epic nature does, but it’s a beautiful mass all the same

The Walking Man of Rodin (pg 6)—The working men are the legs of Chicago and they’re the foundation of Chicago: the head is the faces, politicians and rich upper crust but you don’t really need that, you need the poor manual labor. Brings out dignity of not thinking, a non-intellectual life

Fellow Citizens (pg 20-21)—happiness of mayor and millionaire, who think they know happiness vs. the true happiness of an accordion player

Bronzes (pg 25)—Move from passive to active – as if they could get up and go tomorrow

Not such a bad thing for them to be bronzes either – we do need monuments – we need something that will last and will not fail like the rest of us

Skyscraper (pg 29-31)—idea of enduring monument

Main points brought up: Chicago is a city of endurance, exemplified by the monuments and skyscrapers—the poor people who you don’t give a second thought to actually shape the city


Conclusion: do the crowds shape Chicago, or does Chicago shape the crowds?

Answer: the crowds shape Chicago


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Signing Off

April 27, 2014

We're converting the blog into "News & Field Reports," a forum for the community.

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Nonsecular: William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison

April 19, 2014

Toni Morrison says in a Paris Review interview: "I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come."   It's a ritual that conjures into being "a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process."

I don't necessarily see The Bluest Eye as being written in this space.  But Beloved has got to be.

It's also the space, I think, where William Faulkner and Garcia Marquez become such resonant names for Morrison.  "Nonsecular" isn't necessarily the first word that I'd reach for when it comes to these three -- it's close, but not quite spot-on.   But then no other word is spot-on either.   How to describe that particular combination of the over-the-top and the matter-of-fact, outrageousness and everydayness?   Garcia Marquez says that he himself is genuinely unsurprised by bizarre occurrences, but that Faulkner also makes out to be that way.   Well, that could be, but as far as I'm concerned, the two of them are about even, and Morrison seems a little less extreme only because, in her racialized world, the "nonsecular" equivalence of the matter-of-fact and the over-the-top happens to be shared by other authors.


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2014 Conference

April 12, 2014

All these things that I didn't know before the conference: Daniel Venegas' Don Chiopote, the Creole folklore collected in Louisiana by the Federal Writers' Project, and (I'm ashamed to say) Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of  Loss, writing the story of the Indian diaspora through what Arjun Appadurai calls a "gastro-politics" -- tastes, textures, and smells circulating across the Indian Ocean, across the Atlantic.

I guess this is the bare minimum we have a right to expect from every conference: a not unhealthy embarrassment, if not outright shame, from not knowing these things.

In this case, though, just looking up this material isn't going to be enough, and spending hours and hours on them won't be enough either.  In fact, probably no amount of time I can spend at this point would make me competent in Creole, or fluent enough in Spanish to get all the jokes in Don Chipote.

So maybe this is the other bare minimum that we also have a right to expect from every conference, especially one that calls itself "American Literature in the World": a not unhealthy sense that we're not up to lots of things, that we'll never be up to them on our own.   Collaboration has long been a norm among scientists, why not among humanists?

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Malcolm X's Reading

April 3, 2014

I'm always a little suspicious when people make a big point about what books they've read, when they throw around big name like Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche.   But Malcolm is pretty scrupulous.   Of Herodotus, he writes: "I read Herodotus, "the father of History," or rather, I read about him."   It was Will Durant's Story of Civilization that he was reading, that taught him not only about Herodotus but also about "Aesop being a black man who told fables; about Egypt's Pharaohs; about the great Coptic Christian Empires; about Ethiopia, the earth's oldest continuous black civilization."

He had gotten into the habit reading while at the Norfolk prison colony.  The Parkhurst Collection was especially strong in philosophy and religion.

It's probably not surprising that W.E.B. DuBois should be on the reading list,  or Spinoza, the "black Spanish Jew."   But there's also the Findings in Genetics by Gregor Mendel: "I really studied this book by the Austrian monk. Reading it over and over, especially certain sections, helped me to understand that if you started with a black man, a white man could be produced; but starting with a white man, you never could produce a black man-because the white chromosome is recessive. And since no one disputes that there was but one Original Man, the conclusion is clear."

That's Malcolm X.

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Black Philip Roth

March 28, 2014

Not biologically black, of course (though what an "African-American biology" might mean is not entirely clear either).

Still, Philip Roth might be said to be partly black -- through mediation, association, and, perhaps most of all, contention -- in at least one novel.   Coleman Silk, the professor who passes as white in The Human Stain -- is assumed by everyone to be inspired by Anatole Broyard, literary figure and frequent New York Times contributor, whose racial identity became public knowledge after his death.  Wikipedia proceeded on that assumption.   Philip Roth, chagrined, posted an open letter on the New Yorker blog stating, in no uncertain terms, that Coleman Silk was based, not on Broyard, but on his friend Mel Tumin.

Bliss Broyard, chagrined in her turn, argued on Facebook that there was no way her father's two memoirs, and especially Henry Louis Gates' long and much-discussed piece about him in the New Yorker, would have gone by unnoticed by Roth, leaving no traces in his mind.

Maybe that's how we should think about this: Mel Tumin as a "strong" template for Coleman Silk in Roth's mind, and Anatole Broyard as a weak, perhaps unconscious, but nonetheless not-absent template.

Strong and weak, present and not-absent: it's not a bad way to think about the phenomenal field of race, especially when channeled through things like the New Yorker, Wikipedia, and Facebook, media that disseminate, accentuate, and dilute.

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Frank O'Hara, Amiri Baraka: "The Day Lady Died"

March 19, 2014

Frank O'Hara and Billie Holiday had probably never met, never exchanged a single word.   There's no record of the two of them at any gathering.

What I found instead is an  image of Amiri Baraka and Frank O'Hara, part of the footage taken by the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas, showing them hanging out at the Living Theater, 1959, the same year that Holiday died.

Billie Holiday has been pivotal for Amiri Baraka over the years.   She's there: in Black Music, in Three Books.   In "Dark Lady of the Sonnet," he writes: "more than I have felt to  say, she/ says always.  More than she has ever/ felt is what we mean by fantasy/ Emotion, is wherever you are.   She/stayed in the street."

It's fitting that Holiday should be front and center for Baraka, an anchor, a given.  She's nothing like that for O'Hara.  "The Day Lady Died" is a perfectly normal day, hot and muggy, with the usual food, usual frustrations, and only a reference near the end to a "New York Post with her face on it."   By then the sweat that comes pouring out isn't just from the weather, "while she whispered a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing."  

That seems about right to me: it takes two to capture the contradictions of Billie Holiday: her cultural centrality on the one hand, marginality on the other; her face on the front page of the New York Post, and dying at age 44, under arrest in the hospital for drug possession, with $0.70 in the bank.

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Falling out

March 12, 2014

I know it's about Vietnam, about the contested nature of poetry as precipitated by that event.   And it couldn't have been more public.  Their letters, now collected into a volume, documented the widening gap, followed by a collection of scholarly essays, edited by Al Gelpi and Robert Berthoff, Poetry of Politics and Politics of Poetry.   Surely, every conceivable angle ought to have been covered.

And yet the falling out remains murky in my head.  It couldn't have been the case of one being in the wrong and the other in the right, or even one being Jewish and the other not. And it's definitely not a case in which one could weigh in, take sides.

I'd rather think of it as being like a disease, like Alzheimer's, or arthritis,  about which there's really not much to say, except that it's there.

That's how I think of the falling out between James Baldwin and Richard Wright.   And that's how I think of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.


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Denise Levertov's Ghazals

March 7, 2014

I wonder what they  thinking, these authors who write poems that they call ghazals, that bear no obvious resemblance to the traditional form in Urdu and Persian and Arabic?

Denise Levertov's "Broken Ghazals" is simply one poem  in a heterogeneous collection, sandwiched between "Decipherings" and "The Gaze Salutes Lyonel Feininger While Crossing the New Jersey Wastelands."  The highlight of the volume is probably the 14 poems by Jean Joubert -- translations in the commonly understood sense.

But perhaps the ghazal-that-doesn't-look-like-a-ghazal points to a less common but equally plausible idea of translation, based not on resemblance, an attempt to reproduce or approximate the semantic or formal contents of the original, but on something far less nameable, something like flavor, tone, or even the degree of finality of an apparently completed sentence?

On the front, Levertov's "Broken Ghazals" actually reminds us a lot of Agha Shahid Ali's.  I especially like the penultimate stanza: "Squinting toward light:/ a tree has filled it/ with green diamonds.  Or there's the air, bemused:/ newfallen snow."

But then it occurred to me that maybe I like it so much because the last line sounds exactly like a Tang poem.

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