The Chronicle Review

Portrait of the Artist as a Case Study

Katherine Streeter for The Chronicle Review

January 01, 2017

I have been arguing with my undergraduate English students. Nicely and very carefully, but still, we are arguing, and I have the distinct sense I’m losing.

The subject of contention is a certain phrase they have heard often and hold dear: "you write what you know." Many of them find this statement self-evident and undeniably true, like "Gravity exists," or 2+2=4.

At first I responded with a question: "But what does it mean to ‘know’ something?" They were not impressed. Our arguments then take various forms: Some of the students insist that Edgar Allan Poe must have contemplated murder, otherwise he never could have written "The Tell-Tale Heart." I bite the insides of my cheeks and suggest that Poe might have used his imagination to create his stories.

At other times, the students maintain that Emily Dickinson’s poem "The Soul selects her own Society" is about her refusal to marry. Because most women in the 19th century married, and Dickinson didn’t — see? Again I bite my cheeks and say, "Let’s back up." Then I see some of them pursing their lips, and our American-literature survey becomes painful. I wonder why they find it so hard to believe that an author could write something figurative, indirect — imaginative. I don’t know what they’re wondering. Perhaps I don’t want to find out.

I notice in my students a growing certainty that everything an author writes is a cry from the inmost heart.
My wonder provokes worry. Over the past few years, I have noticed a growing resistance in my literature students to the concept of imagination, and a concomitant certainty that everything an author writes is a cry from the inmost heart. Delving into this particular pedagogical dilemma, I look first to the past: Several years ago, I read Trysh Travis’s essay "Heathcliff and Cathy, the Dysfunctional Couple," published in The Chronicle in 2001. It is an incisive look at how the culture of popular psychology permeates contemporary reading experiences in profound, perhaps unalterable ways. Travis sees this in the pervasive language of self-help, rehabilitation, and recovery that her students use when talking about texts. The title refers to her students’ belief that if only Emily Brontë’s classic couple had had access to some form of therapy, they might have been able to make a success of their relationship.

Travis is fascinated by the ways in which popular psychology, whether talk shows or 12-step programs, shapes our contemporary understanding that all forms of unhappiness, disappointment, and failed romantic liaisons are quasi-medical conditions that not only can but should be fixed. What struck me most powerfully in her sharp, unsettling piece, however, was the fate of Wuthering Heights and texts like it. Did the advent of "recovery culture" mean that current and future generations might simply be losing the ability to understand authors like Brontë on their own terms? That a Brontëian world in which people cannot be "fixed" — in which fixing, as a human tendency, is not a "thing" and does not exist — might now be inconceivable to most Americans?

At the time, in 2001, this idea terrified me, because my research area is not the present but the past, and to me that past has always been intensely and passionately legible, audible, at times even palpable. Travis’s essay, and my foreboding about how past worlds were becoming incomprehensible to many readers, has come back to me with a vengeance recently.

In my American-literature survey, I have been teaching works by Poe, Dickinson, and others that apparently tempt students’ most vehement insistence on autobiographical verisimilitude. Everything our authors write is what they really feel, a skillfully arranged and titled page straight from their diaries. One student tells me that "The Tell-Tale Heart" is a hallucination, which he thinks fits with Poe’s opium use. Another tells me it is the record of a failed suicide attempt, and that what the narrator has killed is that part of himself he most loathed. (They remind me that Poe was a drug user and an alcoholic, therefore he hated himself and was very unhappy. Ergo…) The majority of them insist on such one-to-one correlations from biography. How could you write such dark things unless you felt such dark things?

If I don’t provide them with sufficient biography, they probe for more. They ask about Fanny Fern’s marriages, and which of her newspaper columns were written during which happy or failed union. I say I don’t know. They hate that so little information is available for Julia C. Collins. I secretly rejoice and then feel bad about it. Herman Melville? Disappointed by life, hence his disappointed character Bartleby. Harriet Beecher Stowe? She may be an excellent storyteller, but her baby! Her poor, dead baby! So important does little Charley’s ghostly figure become in inspiring his mother’s masterpiece that I am tempted to twist her famous line and assert that God didn’t write Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Charley Stowe did. Line by line they find evidence of Emily Dickinson’s reclusiveness in her poetry, her agoraphobia — because, yes, even if they didn’t call it that, it was agoraphobia (too bad she couldn’t be diagnosed, et cetera, et cetera) — her "failure" to marry or have children, her fear of public scorn (why else refuse to publish?), and, of course, did I mention she was agoraphobic? All those elements of Dickinson’s life that Adrienne Rich saw as evidence of her "will and pride," and of a necessary "nonconformity," become instead so many symptoms on a checklist. The doctors will see you now, Emily.

It may sound as if I hate my students. I do not. Frustration and love can mix, and, indeed, they usually do. It is not that I don’t push students, prompt them, occasionally chide them, and often beg them to consider something called imagination: the idea that Poe, Dickinson, and all their friends might have transformed the stuff of their lives, altered, rearranged, embellished, reassigned, rediscovered it … that, indeed, they might have made things up.

Students seem so unwilling to consider that Poe and company might have possessed vivid worlds within their heads.
To the majority of my students, though, there is no distance between the historical person and the speaker or narrator on a page. The only mediation between a lived life and something we call fiction is that the latter has page numbers and a nice typeface.

I do not want to taint their love of reading with my nagging, for they are all English majors, and they like most of these authors. Their fondness counts for something. Yet they seem so unwilling, maybe even unable, to consider that Poe, Dickinson, and company might have possessed extraordinary, vivid, unlocatable worlds within their heads; that they could see the stories of those worlds, sans address or GPS, and give them shape on the blank paper before them. They did not need to live them on the streets of Brooklyn or Amherst: They lived them, and countless others, in the corridors of their own minds, dwellings called "Possibility," and thus opened their superior windows and doors to those who could never get to New York or Massachusetts. Isn’t that why we read, to experience things we have not "actually" experienced? Then why would that not also be a reason why we write?

This desire for biographical, correlative truth overwhelms me, makes me think that something about Dickinson’s "Possibility" is now impossible for them; that the gothic fun of Poe’s imagination is now just his fevered delirium tremens. In reaching out to colleagues for ideas, I receive fascinating, thought-provoking responses. One reminds me of memoir’s commercial popularity, noting that many "common read" texts selected by cities and schools fall into that category. Perhaps students now expect autobiographical substance in what they read, regardless of genre?

Another, with greater knowledge than mine of K-12 curricula, informs me that "personalizing" classic texts and applying contemporary lenses to them is a popular way of presenting those works to new and young audiences. My friend gives me an example: "What if Romeo and Juliet could text?" I’ll admit that I went to the refrigerator after that one. I’m not unwilling to contemplate Shakespeare’s lovers with iPhones, but I wanted a pale ale while I tried it.

A third friend speculates that the emphasis on STEM curricula, the devaluation of the humanities, and the push toward "real world" training, may result in a failure to consider unfettered imagination as a creative source — or even to be creative oneself. Choosing autobiography rather than analysis is easy, he suggests. Still another colleague infuses this with a kinder spin, and a plea: that I need to remember how young some of my students are. Reaching for the easy answer might not be the worst idea when you’re 19, she says. I agree. But … isn’t my job to challenge them?

I try humor on another day: I ask my students, How do you explain the genre of science fiction? Fantasy? What about Stephen King? He’s said to be a very nice man! He has never turned into a homicidal car, or dog, or lunatic innkeeper. For God’s sake, how do you explain Harry Potter? Are you telling me that J.K. Rowling must have an invisibility cape somewhere, and at one time was a 10-year-old orphan boy living in a closet under the stairs? She must have a secret, lightning bolt-shaped scar? Come on!

They laugh, nod, and then they tell me that "I’m Nobody! Who are you?" is about how Emily was scared to go beyond her garden. (They will concede that Dickinson did not actually experience death before writing "I heard a Fly buzz," or "Because I could not stop for Death." That they will grant me.)

After the wondering, the humoring, the cajoling, and occasional deep-breath taking, remains a small fear. It is the thought that my experiences are not an anomaly but a harbinger, and that I will have to let some of these authors go. There are other writers and texts that I no longer teach. I simply became tired trying to help students see them as something more than a glorified "My Journal" and continuously failing. So though I’m not proud of it, I gave up.

And yet, what if the sheer cantankerous qualities of Melville are fading, and his ardent embrace of ambiguity is now just cowardly indecisiveness? Is Frederick Douglass ultimately an angry victim or one of the most skillful orators and wordsmiths ever to walk this earth, despite what his world tried to do to him? María Amparo Ruiz de Burton: brilliant satirist or displaced person? Henry James: ambitious artist or stunted shadow of his family’s expectations?

You think I jest, but this is my fear: that my students’ reductiveness is not about refusal but rather inability. That Poe, Dickinson, and other 19th-century authors are now illegible to them, newly resident in Emily Brontë’s dysfunctional moors. They are not breathtaking hero-writers for whose existence I am daily grateful: They are victims, period. None had therapists, modern medicine, or legislative justice at their beck and call, and thus they were forced, effectively, to write of death, doom, sorrow, and loneliness. Alas!

I don’t want my students to ignore the very real brutality of our history. But neither do I want them to think that we inherited nothing but a plain record of that brutality. Our literature is so much, so much more. To me it is a beauteous everlasting Sky where narrow hands can grasp at Paradise. Perhaps, at some point, I will figure out a way to show them that. In the meantime, I guess there’s always more pale ale.

María Carla Sánchez is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.