Ocean Sunrise, Melb Beach Mar2016

[Sunrise over Melbourne Beach, Florida. March 2016.]

Teaching shorter versions of Baldwin’s & Lethem’s narrative essays.

I.

Gay Talese’s essay in the current New Yorker, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” makes me wish I were still teaching journalism. It’s about a man who bought a motel near Denver in the late 1960s so he could spy on guests, which he did for decades. It’s creepy and horrifying, his behavior and Talese’s tale, but you can’t look away. Or stop thinking about the man and what he saw with his wife, including their aim, sex, but also lots of disquieting behavior, including a murder. Talese’s pleasurable but ethically problematic account is over 30 pages. Yet students would gobble it up like candy.

Reading this page-turner narrative essay coincided with my recent brooding about reading. This involves mine and the reading I assign to students. Most people seem to read largely to seek pleasure. Do we grow by tackling more difficult work? Probably—but so what, for casual readers? For students, must I stick with something that’s genius but to them not very enjoyable? Since I read largely as a writer now, I’ve agreed to the harder path, but most students haven’t.

After my share of classroom disasters, I’ve learned to meet students where they are. Which partly means assigning books, essays, and stories that they’ll at least tolerate . I also must admire the works, of course. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life is genius and so is Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. Which do you think a class of eighteen year olds would actually read? Most undergraduates, even many writing majors, cannot yet appreciate certain works.

For one thing, they aren’t yet old enough to identify readily with older folks and certain situations. For another, they lack endurance, especially for dense exposition.

II.

Baldwin Notes of Native 2

[Native Son: Baldwin was only 31.]

Teaching senior citizens this year in continuing studies classes, I expected a big difference. Indeed they could identify with a wider range of ages. But they were beginning writers, too, and they balked at demanding nonfiction. Such as James Baldwin’s classic essay “Notes of a Native Son,” which depicts his and his father’s cruel suffering caused by racism. These older students seemed to respect it, but most of them didn’t seem to enjoy it. Baldwin’s prose, to me, is delicious, his story compelling, his ideas profound. But “Notes of a Native Son” is dense, with long, unbroken expository paragraphs. And only two space breaks, which demarcate the essay’s numbered sections, emphasizing its classical three-act structure. Just two slender spaces where readers can regroup.

From now on, for beginning writers—and probably for everyone except graduate students—I’ll probably assign the shorter version of “Native Son” that first appeared as “Me and My House” in Harper’s Magazine (it is available to subscribers as a pdf download; nonsubscribers must purchase the entire issue, on Harper’s website, for $6.99). This publication came in November 1955, and it’s a page and a half shorter than what appeared that same year in Baldwin’s collection Notes of a Native Son as its title essay. Whether Baldwin cut it himself to fit the magazine’s space, or whether an editor pared down his essay, it’s a brilliant editing job—a few orotund clauses clipped on this page, an elaborating sentence shaved on the next.

A writer whose aesthetic judgment I respect, however, gave me grief when I first pondered teaching the Harper’s version. Granted, “Notes of a Native Son” is iconic. I call it America’s greatest essay because it’s about America’s great topic, race, and because of its memoiristic and structural brilliance.

Most people, like my writer friend, aren’t aware that “Notes of a Native Son” initially appeared in slightly more slender form. I’d rather have students read it than zone out, or not be exposed at all, to Baldwin’s ideas, artistry, and moving story.

III.

jonathan lethem

[Jonathan Lethem.]

What finally cemented my conviction was my experience this semester teaching another masterpiece, Jonathan Lethem’s thrilling postmodern essay about influence and loss, “The Beards.” It’s from his 2005 collection The Disappointment Artist. I’ve often taught Lethem’s in conjunction with “Notes of a Native Son,” which is how I first studied them myself, in an MFA seminar at Goucher College taught by Leslie Rubinkowski. Though both essays are very long, they helpfully demonstrate strikingly different approaches to writing about a parent’s death.

Lethem’s account of his geeky, art-saturated adolescence occurs during and in the wake of his mother’s early death, from cancer, when he was 14. It’s a heavily segmented essay, with each segment dated according to his mother’s status (stage of illness or length of time dead). His disorientation, devastation, and ongoing sense of loss are mirrored in the essay’s disjointed structure, most obviously by the fact that the segments appear in non-chronological order. His grief from her death is ongoing, ever-present, endless.

As depicted in “The Beards,” Lethem’s intense saturation in cerebral rock music, foreign films, and countless classic and cult novels is awe-inspiring. But Lethem’s arts analysis in “The Beards” also forms a hurdle for novice readers. My continuing studies students bounced right off it. “What was that? All that stuff about music?” asked a talented novice writer, a fan of segmentation, who’d stopped reading it early on. Thus I recalled that “The Beards” tends to exhaust and bewilder my undergraduates as well. For one thing, it challenges almost anyone’s own artistic depth.

Imagine my surprise when, after my latest disappointing performance in teaching “The Beards,” I went looking and found the version that the New Yorker originally published, in 2005, as an excerpt from The Disappointment Artist. Way shorter. So far, I haven’t quantified the full difference, but the magazine version appears half as long as the one that fills 24 book-pages.

I know this is heresy, but guess which version I’ll assign to freshmen composition students and novice writers? The other I’ll reserve for more experienced and ambitious readers and writers.

Sunrise, MD, Easter 2016

Sunrise near Frederick, Maryland. Easter 2016.]

17 Comments

  • Hi, Richard. I have a confession to make: I have never felt comfortable with the shorter version of anything, because of the dread that I might be missing something. Moreover, plain different versions or editions of the same text I have always found unsettling, which probably means I’m not as much of an academic as I think I am. I don’t know what it is, but I suppose there’s a certain aptness in the fact that my Ph.D. thesis was on Henry James, who as you probably know considerably lengthened the works of his which he chose to revise for the now famous “New York Edition.” Even when the shorter versions sound crisper, I like the orotund quality of the longer versions, because I suspect that James was being wordier in order to get at his most precise and exact meaning, and I long to know what exactly he meant. Of course, sometimes the longer versions are SO orotund that they defy easy explanation, but I’m one of those who don’t give up that easily. To each his own, I guess?

    • Richard says:

      I know, I know—my inclination as a reader is the same! But to be clear, this is about a shift in my teaching, at this point actually theoretical, based on disappointments in teaching the long, book versions of these two magnificent essays.

  • Mathina says:

    I love that you are meeting your students where they are. That’s pedagogy 101, although sadly many teachers never took that course. Babies start with purée and graduate to chewier morsels. Undergraduates are no different.

    Thanks also for alerting me to Lethem’s piece. Love him and somehow have missed that one!

  • shirleyhs says:

    Richard, your respect for and interest in your students, whether they be undergraduates or seniors, shows up in every segment of this essay. Three segments. :-) They allow breathing room for taking in what you admire in both James Baldwin and Jonathan Lethem. You blog in so much more depth than the average blogger. I enjoy reading you because I am always learning from you how to be a more observant reader and writer.

  • Ron D. White says:

    As an older reader trying to improve his writing, let me suggest that all students start with the full text from which the clip below comes. The danger is to think The Old Man and the Sea is about a fishing trip.

    Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 21 (1958) Interview of Ernest Hemingway (EH) by George Plimpton (GP)

    (GP) Would you say, ever, that there is any didactic intention in your work?
    (EH) Didactic is a word that has been misused and has spoiled. Death in the Afternoon is an instructive book.
    (GP) It has been said that a writer only deals with one or two ideas throughout his work. Would you say your work reflects one or two ideas?
    (EH) Who said that? It sounds much too simple. The man who said it possibly had only one or two ideas.
    (GP) Finally, a fundamental question: as a creative writer what do you think is the function of your art? Why a representation of fact, rather than fact itself?
    (EH) Why be puzzled by that? From things that have happened and from things as they exist and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason that you know of. But what about all the reasons that no one knows?

    • Richard says:

      Love the excerpt you’ve provided, Ron. Indeed the motives and the result of art remain mysterious. Isn’t it what we can’t quite get at? Why this discussion is endless?

  • Ron D. White says:

    Thank you, sir.
    Unless our mental health is seriously damaged, things change. EH is correct about Death in the Afternoon, but not many of us has a marked up copy on our bookshelf. When teaching I begin by asking what those taking the class seek to learn from it? The answer should change about half way through the course for both teacher and student.

    • Richard says:

      “When teaching I begin by asking what those taking the class seek to learn from it? The answer should change about half way through the course for both teacher and student.”

      How profound and inspiring! It articulates how a teacher tailors and the growth a teacher hopes to see and rise toward.

  • dclaud says:

    Thanks for challenging my laziness in reading. once upon a time, I read because my day job was so exhausting and challenging, I needed to veg out. Now, I have the mental energy to tackle dense and meaninful prose.

    • Uh, oh, dclaud. Time then to read or reread Anna Karenina? To the Lighthouse? But if you really want your butt whipped, pick up Beloved . . . Nonfiction in this league, though fairly easy to read, is Dillard’s For the Time Being.

  • Hello from my newly screened-in porch. I made up a daybed out here today and set up two lamps. This is now my favorite place to read (and to be).

    Enjoyed your piece (first post I’ve read out here) and especially relished your praise for the editor of Baldwin’s essay. It would be fun to learn more about that editor (and all the greats).

  • Soon as I finish with the porch, I’ll send you a picture. :)

  • The book that has struck me completely differently the two times I’ve read it (once in my 20s and once in my 40s) was Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony.” I’m coming up on my third 20-year anniversary reading (or would that be second?)–can’t wait to see what it means this time around. It is a difficult work as it too takes us into cultural differences, exploring death, racism, and what happens to young men newly returned from war. Read it the first time for pleasure, the second to teach, and your essay inspires me to read it again–for the difficulty of understanding and the beauty of language

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