The Annual English Honours Colloquium

April 22, 2016

Today was The Annual English Honours Colloquium featuring nine diverse and fascinating projects from some of our top students. Projects ranged from a look at Herman Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor to John Williams' novel Stoner to a look at Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt's poetry. A huge thank you to everyone who attended and our fantastic group of honours students, Michelle Allin, Zane Lucow, Rachel MacPhail, Francesca Preckel, Brian Shannon, Sam Weselowski, Kevin Cherney, Gianni Laurino, and Shaun Maguire. Here's a look at some of the excellent and exciting projects presented today:

Michelle Allin

“The Great Picture of His Life:” Narrative Flattening in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Writing on Death Comes for the Archbishop (DCA), Cather states that she wanted to evoke a legend format, removed from typical dramatic action in novels, and that the effect of such writing should be “to touch and pass on” (OW 9). I argue that Cather was successful in this attempt, and that she effectively recreates this legend format by creating a new narrative style, modifying the written form by adding visual elements that underscore her narrative aims. The resulting integration of written and visual is signalled to the reader most thoroughly by the invocation of Medieval forms, including the incorporation of parataxis and chiasmus, and Hans Holbein and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, whose referenced works both draw on Medieval tropes and visual styles. I have created the term ‘narrative flattening’ for this new style, which is characterized by the minimization of significant events in favour of the everyday, and flattening of action, mimicking in written form the visual style of Medieval painting and fresco, with its flat, static figures that recall the legend format. Further, narrative flattening recreates the levelling powers of death, representing it as inescapable and democratizing, while aesthetically, death flattens characters into objects and signifies a loss of perspective, allowing for characters lives to be read as tableaux.

Zane Lucow

Poetic Sensibility in Billy Budd, Sailor: The Trajectory of Herman Melville's Late Career.

From the end of the Civil War until he returned to prose with his final novella, Billy Budd, Sailor, Herman Melivlle’s literary output consisted entirely of poetry. His poetic method was to play against audience expectation so to morally reevaluate conventional poetic subjects. We can develop useful insights if we read his return to prose in his final novella as an extension of Melville’s career as a poet, rather than as a deviation therefrom. Melville originally intended the work that became Billy Budd to serve as a prose introduction to a poem entitled “Billy in the Darbies.” Slowly, Melville developed Billy Budd into the tragic masterpiece we have today. If we read Melville’s final work as an extension of his poetic career, then we see that in his embrace of tragedy he does not recreate the classical tragic form. Instead, he inverts the classical structure. He gives human beings the power of transcendent fatalistic forces. He also attributes to human beings the arbitrary destructive capacities of a disinterested fatal order. He cautions against believing that we can thwart human evil, because the institutions that we establish to defeat evil are as human and as corruptible as the people against whom we build our institutions.  

Rachel MacPhail

Our Morals are Only as Sound as Our Pocketbooks: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Economics of Morality in the American Slavery Debate.

The most significant character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist text Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the commonly overlooked Augustine St. Clare. Though he is neglected in much antebellum scholarship, St. Clare is Stowe’s insightful political mouthpiece, cutting through religious and political rhetoric to reveal the economic roots of the slavery debate. He is the ideological mess that was the antebellum United States, contained in one human being, and as such he is fundamental both to the novel and to our understanding of the tensions of his era. He represents American general discomfort with the institution of slavery, compounded by a hesitance to accept abolition because it threatens the economic interests and comfortable lifestyle of the elite white. He is a pitch-perfect portrait of the ideologically paralyzed, self-interested American citizen, who wants to be moral but isn’t really willing to fight for it. Through St. Clare, we come to understand that the slavery debate was far from a simple binary, and that, contrary to popular belief, the Civil War was fought over competing white interests, rather than the improvement of the oppressed black population.

Francesca Preckel

Poetic Provocation: Piatt Identifies the Political Power of Perception.

Sarah Morgan-Bryan Piatt was a  nineteenth-century American poet. She did not paint, but she did provoke. Her poetry examines the power of perception; Piatt pursues this investigation in her poems that assert aesthetic arguments. “A Life in a Mirror” and “A Swallow in the Hall of Mirrors,” for example, denounce photographic realism. These poems imply that mimetic representation objectifies women and suggest that mimetic reproductions perpetually confine women within two-dimensional images. Piatt additionally criticizes artistic idealism in her poems “Transfigured” and “Beatrice Cenci.” These poems suggest that idealism removes unattractive realities, producing idealized artworks that fail to enlighten the real or communicate universal truths. The two poems make this argument in relation to male artists who over-idealize and misrepresent their women art subjects. Piatt and her poetry refuse to condone artistic realism or idealism, yet Piatt does not attempt to resolve this contradiction. Instead, she provokes her readers to participate. “An After-Poem” implicates the audience as the final participant in artistic production. The poem forces the reader to recognize his (or her) power to interpret artworks through her subjective viewpoint. The poetry demands that the reader be attentive, and so Piatt compels her readers to act as a critical art audience.

Brian Shannon

Orality in Literature: Allan Ramsay and Robert Burns’ Challenging of an Elite English Literary Hegemony.

Pressured to assert a national identity in the face of an elite Anglophone literary hegemony, eighteenth-century Scottish writers Allan Ramsay and Robert Burns both turned to non-elite, popular, and specifically oral Scottish culture. Establishing an artistic tradition which embraced lower-class cultural expressions, these two writers asserted their peripheral position in opposition to elite values and culture. Ramsay mediated between both elite and non-elite culture, working to demonstrate the value in a British culture which utilized Scottish and English culture, rather than replacing Scottish with English. On the other hand, Burns embraced his differences and distance from the elite English, asserting his own cultural values. Both Ramsay and Burns challenged the concept of cultural hierarchies, and by placing elements of orality within their writing were able to resist becoming trapped between an oppressed Scottish lower-class culture, and a domineering English elitist culture. The works of both writers demonstrate the important role that language, both written and spoken, plays in enforcing cultural hierarchies. Understanding the complex position which marginalized cultures are placed in against a larger hegemony demonstrates the innovative tactics needed to defend their identity.

Sam Weselowski 

A Counterpunching Radio: Notes on the Spicerian Serial Poem.

The postwar United States saw an outburst of literary experimentation that could be felt across the country: there was the New York School, the Beats moving to and from the East and West coast, Black Mountain College out of North Carolina, and the Berkeley Renaissance in California. Although these geographical and literary delineations were often porous, the poetics of each group held fast to specific modes of expression, with ideological and political reasons for doing so. The poetry of Jack Spicer in particular is a significant departure from not only the other locales of the American literary avant-garde, but also among his own milieu of Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan. Spicer’s long poems, or serial poems, assert a postmodern-specific form of poetry: postmodern in terms of its historical moment (the 1950s and 60s) and in terms of its reaction to modernism. Furthermore, the serial poem reflects the postmodern elements of instant information transmission, dissemination, feedback loops, and polysemousness, as generated by the technological innovations after the war, and the subsequent ubiquity of those innovations in domestic, commercial, private, and public life. By rigorously defining the Spicerian serial poem with its postmodern historical moment in mind, I will argue that Spicer’s book-length poems are unique because the relationship between each discrete or fragmented unit and the sequential whole of the text is left unresolved. Where previously the poetic fragment represented historical connection and continuity with classical antiquity, as well as reinforcing ideas of canon, archival desire, objectivity and a literary elite, Spicer suggests (in some ways anticipating post-structuralism) the semantic and linguistic break-up of single meanings in modes of expression (poetry), cultural objects and perceptions (entertainment and ideology).

Kevin Cherney 

Lower Middle Class Modernism and John Williams' Stoner.

John Williams’s 1965 novel Stoner made no impact upon its initial release, but is now regarded as a lost American classic. It sold its initial run of 2000 copies and remained mostly out of print until it was republished in the UK in 2003, and in the US in 2006. After several years of slow sales, the novel would go on to sell 130,000 copies in the latter-half of 2013, and hundreds of thousands more in the subsequent years; appearing on best seller lists around the world, critics suggest that it is one of the finest American novels ever written. So, why was Stoner marginalized upon release, and what is it about the novel that is resonating today? I suggest that the novel was caught between audiences, leaving it without one. Through analysis of reviews, publication correspondence, and rejection letters, I contend that Stoner was ignored by highbrow audiences because it was perceived as being too traditional, too simple, and too plain in an era when experimental postmodern writing was at the fore. Through a close reading of the novel’s class dynamics, I unpack the ways in which the novel was unappealing to middlebrow readers in the professional middle class. Finally, to explain the novel’s present day popularity, I argue that Stoner, rather than being plain, is an example of Mark McGurl’s notion of lower-middle-class modernism: “elevated, literary, self-reflexive, and yet responsive to a ‘normal’ person’s taste for character and story above feats of metalinguistic trickery.” This concept will allow me to demonstrate that Stoner’s present day popularity stems from its articulation of modern anxieties surrounding class mobility in light of the modern concerns of professional instability and the phenomenon of the disappearing middle class.

Shaun Maguire 

Engine of Ruin: Bad Faith in Cormac McCarthy's West.

The kid’s failure to choose effectively denies him a stake in his own existence and foments ruin in all that he partakes, eventually precipitating his murder. Using the kid as a basis for comparison, John Grady Cole from Cities of the Plain and Sherriff Ed Tom Bell of No Country for Old Men delineate a fuller spectrum of how authenticity, agency and denial empower or disenfranchise McCarthy’s characters.