Tag Archives: literature

Confederates in the Attic

By Carrie Levesque

It’s an experience not uncommon to people who love books: every so often, you stumble across one that changes your life.

Years ago, I was catsitting for a neighbor, a Duke administrator with an extensive personal library of contemporary world literature.   It was two weeks before I was to leave for Prague to begin research on one dissertation topic, when I found myself throwing myself headlong into an entirely new topic after being blown away by a book I had randomly selected from his shelves.  I didn’t know then as I poured over Dubravka Ugresic’s The Culture of Lies that I had found not only a new dissertation topic, but also a timely new teaching field that would inspire me for many years to come.  I’m very thankful today that this book and I crossed paths (and especially that my advisor was willing to go along with that abrupt change of plans).  I don’t know that “Czech Women’s Symbolist Literature” would have found the same broad appeal as “Women, War and Terror” as I joined the BLS program a few years later.

So this summer, it happened again.  A recommended title I jotted down from a newspaper article on Southern culture turned up a few weeks later at my county’s Friends of the Library sale and bam- I had a live one.

I devoured the first 300 or so pages of Tony Horwitz’s wildly thought-provoking and entertaining Confederates in the Attic and then dawdled through the last 90 because I could not bear for it to end.  In his quest to understand “how the Lost Cause still resonates in the memory and rituals of the South” (book jacket), journalist Horwitz interviews some often colorful, always impassioned figures, white and black, from urban eccentrics to quiet, small-town folks, struggling to preserve or just make sense of what it means to be Southern roughly 130 years (at the time of writing) after the War Between the States.   He probes the relationship between the Civil War and the South through its symbols (the rebel flag controversy), its branding and marketing (lunch with Scarlett O’Hara, anyone?), and most fascinating, its reenactors, the most hardcore of which spend many damp, cold nights in the fields of Virginia and Pennsylvania, huddled, hungry and stinky, trying to get close to the experience of poorly-equipped soldier-ancestors on the march into battle.

Prior to reading this book, I confess I had an attitude toward the Civil War common to many of us born Yankee: I knew just what I needed to know: the North whupped the South and put an end to a certain deplorable ‘peculiar institution.’  It was, to me, in my shamefully glossed-over understanding, not much more than a tragic means to a well-overdue end.   But, of course, it was that and infinitely more than that.  It was the most horrific 4 years this country has ever seen, with over 620,000 dead and unspeakable suffering on the front lines and on the home front.  In some of the fiercest battles, a soldier died nearly every second.   It was a conflict started in part by tensions between two culturally and economically very different parts of this country, and both its liberating and shattering effects continue to shape this enduring tension 150 years later.

Since I finished Confederates, the pile of Civil-War-related books at my bedside grows almost daily.  With over 70,000 books published on the Civil War as of 2002 (Library of Congress), I’ve got my work cut out for me in pursuing this new personal and academic obsession.

My daughter at the burial site of Stonewall Jackson's arm.

Though my husband and I aren’t yet outfitting ourselves for a march to Gettysburg, we have begun dragging our daughters and any other willing family members to battlefields and other related sites (though not yet on quite as intensive a schedule as the “Civil Wargasm” tours of Horwitz’s star reenactor, Robert Lee Hodge).  A pilgrimage to Lexington and Appomattox is planned for spring.

And of course I’m intrigued about the possibility of bringing this interest into an updated version of Women, War and Terror.  There is a considerable body of exciting research on the role of women in the Civil War.  Mary Chestnut’s famous diary is cited in every source I come across.  I’m about halfway through historian Carol Berkin’s Civil War Wives, which has been a riveting read.  And I’m dying to know more about Jennie Hodgers, aka Albert Cashiers, one of 400 documented cases of women who disguised themselves as men in order to fight as soldiers in the Civil War (http://www.civilwar.org/education/history/biographies/jennie-hodgers.html).

So what book has changed your life?  Or another question I’d love a response to: what is your relationship to the Civil War?  If you’ve got family stories to tell, you’ve got an eager ear right here!

The Threepenny Opera

By Marc Williams

The Threepenny Opera at UNCG

UNCG Theatre began performances of The Threepenny Opera Wednesday evening.  While it is best known for the song “Mack the Knife,” The Threepenny Opera is a tremendously important piece of 20th century dramatic literature and is certainly among my favorite plays.

While the play does indeed feature lots of music, it isn’t an opera in the traditional sense–it isn’t “sung through,” so most of the text is spoken.  This balance of spoken dialogue and song may seem akin to musical theatre–but The Threepenny Opera doesn’t really fall into that category either.  In most works of musical theatre, singing emerges from intense dramatic situations; a character may need a song to express an idea that words alone cannot capture.  In The Threepenny Opera, songs sometimes relate to the dramatic situation but just as often, the songs are only tangentially related to what is happening between the characters.  And in some cases, the song is a complete interruption of the action.

The creators of this piece, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, were artist-activists and viewed every piece of theatre as a political statement.  To them, a work of art either supports the status quo or challenges the status quo.  To encourage their audience to think objectively and politically about the situations in their plays, they worked to prevent the audience from developing an emotional connection with the play’s characters.  This attempt became known as the “alienation effect,” and resulted in a style of performance that keeps the audience at an arm’s length from the play’s action. To achieve the alienation effect, characters might directly address the audience, reminding them they are only watching a play.  Design elements might be merely suggested rather than rendered in a realistic, lifelike manner.  Performers might deliver lines sarcastically or without realistic expressiveness, ensuring that audience members won’t empathize with the character.  And in the case of The Threepenny Opera, like many other Brecht plays, songs are used to interrupt or comment upon the action.

In my Big Plays, Big Ideas class in the BLS program, we read another Brecht play, The Life of Galileo, and discuss the ways in which Brecht alienates the audience to ensure they observe the sociopolitical circumstances that inform the characters’ behavior.  In studying other works of dramatic literature from a variety of historical periods, we find that the alienation effect was not invented by Brecht and Weill at all.

Projections and suggested scenery demonstrate the alienation effect in The Glass Menagerie.

Theatre artists in Ancient Greece employed such alienating effects in their work, and many artists in the decades since Brecht have incorporated alienating effects into their work as well.  Even Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, often considered a work of 20th century realism, is in fact inspired by Brecht and contains a variety of alienating devices.

Have you encountered the alienation effect in the theatre, or on television or in a movie?

Bobby Darin sings “Mack the Knife.”

Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper starred in a 2006 revival of The Threepenny Opera.  This performance is from the Tony Awards broadcast.

A Thousand Faces

By Marc Williams

I teach a number of courses involving dramatic literature, including Big Plays, Big Ideas in the BLS program at UNCG.  In most of these classes, I discuss dramatic structure—the way that incidents are arranged into a plot.  Whenever I teach dramatic structure, I always turn to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to serve as an example.  Aristotle believed this play to be tragedy “in its ideal state,” partially because the incidents are arranged in a clear cause-and-effect manner.  One incident logically follows the next and although there are some surprises, none of the events are random, accidental, or tangential.

The story of Oedipus is an ancient myth.  20th century mythology scholar Joseph Campbell wrote about Oedipus frequently, including in his seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In this book, Campbell outlines the “monomyth,” a dramatic structure that many, if not most, stories seem to adhere in one manner or another.  The monomyth consists of several stages of the hero’s journey: a call to adventure, a refusal of that call, followed by aid from a supernatural entity, crossing a threshold into unfamiliar territory, entering/escaping the belly of the whale, traveling a road of trials, and so on, all the way through the hero’s return.  Oedipus’ journey follows Cambell’s pattern almost perfectly. The pattern applies not only to Ancient Greek myths but to stories from virtually every culture across the globe.

Campbell describes the stages of the hero’s journey at length in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and also diagrams the hero’s journey thus:

I was instantly reminded of Joseph Campbell and his diagram today when I came across this:

1.  A character is in a zone of comfort
2.  But they want something
3.  They enter an unfamiliar situation
4.  Adapt to it
5.  Get what they wanted
6.  Pay a heavy price for it
7.  Then return to their familiar situation
8.  Having changed

This diagram was developed by Dan Harmon, creator of the NBC sitcom Community, and according to this article on Wired.com, is apparently the inspiration for every episode of the show:

Dan Harmon

[Harmon] began doodling the circles in the late ’90s, while stuck on a screenplay. He wanted to codify the storytelling process— to find the hidden structure powering the movies and TV shows, even songs, he’d been absorbing since he was a kid. “I was thinking, there must be some symmetry to this,” he says of how stories are told. “Some simplicity.” So he watched a lot of Die Hard, boiled down a lot of Joseph Campbell, and came up with the circle, an algorithm that distills a narrative into eight steps:

Harmon calls his circles embryos— they contain all the elements needed for a satisfying story— and he uses them to map out nearly every turn on Community, from throwaway gags to entire seasons. If a plot doesn’t follow these steps, the embryo is invalid, and he starts over. To this day, Harmon still studies each film and TV show he watches, searching for his algorithm underneath, checking to see if the theory is airtight. “I can’t not see that circle,” he says. “It’s tattooed on my brain.”

The eight-step Harmon embryo model is simpler than Cambell’s monomyth, which contains seventeen structural units. Harmon’s embryo model, because it is simpler than Campell’s, is probably also more universal.  And indeed, Harmon uses this embryo as a litmus test to determine if an episode of Community is structurally sound. It is, after all, a tried and true formula for great storytelling.  So where else can this structure be seen?

The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars come to mind.   Have you encountered a monomyth on television or in a movie theatre recently?  Or a story that follows Harmon’s embryo model?

Are You Ready for Some Football?

By Marc Williams

I’ll begin by confessing that I am among America’s truly die-hard football fans.  I follow football throughout the year, even though the season only lasts about four months.  Serious fans like me are thrilled this morning: the NFL’s 130+ day lockout appears to be ending today following months of intense negotiations.

During the past few months, analysts have criticized both owners and players in news articles and fans have sounded off on sports talk radio.  Given America’s economic struggles, how could these sides complain about having to share $9 billion in revenues?  While the owners initiated the lockout, most of the criticism I heard seemed to be directed at the “overpaid” NFL players.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, and NFL Players Association Director DeMaurice Smith, right.

Listening to talk radio over the past 130 days, I often heard fans suggesting, “the players should be more grateful–I’ll go play football for a fraction of what those guys make.”  Every time I listened to the radio, I heard someone cite his $30K salary, how hard he works, and how happy he’d be to play football for the minimum NFL rookie salary, which was $325,000 in 2010.  What many fans fail to realize is that these players earn a minimum of $325,000 because they have specific skills and physical attributes that are exceedingly rare and have found a way to capitalize on those traits.

Consider one of my favorite players, wide receiver Calvin Johnson, as an example.  In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt covered the first 40m of his record-breaking 100m run at a speed of 8.6m/second.  When Calvin Johnson was entering the 2007 NFL draft, he was timed at a similar distance at about 8.4m/second, only slightly behind Bolt’s pace. These numbers are especially notable since Bolt, the 100-meter world record-holder, weighs only 198 pounds while Johnson weighs almost 240 pounds. Further, Johnson is 6’5” and has a 42” vertical leap (four inches better than NBA star Kobe Bryant’s). Johnson, like most NFL athletes, possesses not only exceptional football skills but also a rare combination of size and athleticism.

While these physical attributes are indeed rare, many argue that twenty year-olds have no business earning so much money for simply playing a game.  After all, many of us go to school, earn degrees, work from the bottom-up in our chosen fields, taking years to earn promotions and raises, and never approach the $325,000 minimum NFL rookie salary.  Is this evidence that something is out of whack?

Shakespeare

Perhaps what is truly out of whack is the notion that education, job skills, and a lifetime of service should entitle one to fame or a generous salary.  Consider Shakespeare as an example.  Unlike most of the successful poets and playwrights of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare was not college educated.  His success generated enormous jealousy from writers who had “paid their dues” through university education.  To this day, there are scholars dedicated to attributing Shakespeare’s work to other individuals from Francis Bacon to Queen Elizabeth herself, arguing that an uneducated son of a glove maker couldn’t possibly be the author of Hamlet and King Lear.

 In my BLS course on Shakespeare, we discuss this “authorship question,” a premise I dismiss as snobbery.  Perhaps Shakespeare was simply brilliant; an individual with exceptional skills who was creative enough to find a way to apply and capitalize on those skills.  Mozart composed his first opera when he was twelve years old—there is no accounting for that kind of genius.  Isn’t the same true of professional athletes? When we express jealousy about the financial success of professional athletes, are we jealous of their unique gifts or are we jealous because we haven’t figured out what to do with our own talents?

Usain Bolt breaks the world record in the 100 meters, Beijing 2008:

Calvin Johnson in action:

Maybe Almost Probably the End of Harry Potter (perhaps)

By Marc Williams

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II

The eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter film series is to be released this week, one of the most eagerly anticipated films in years.  It has generated excitement reminiscent of the release of the second generation of Star Wars films.  Indeed, tickets for Friday’s opening began selling out in the U.S. several days ago–a week ahead of the July 15 premiere–making it one of the fastest-selling films ever.

The opening is bittersweet for many fans who would like to see the series continue and at the July 7 London premiere of the final film, author J.K. Rowling left open the possibility of future Potter stories. While her statement doesn’t indicate that more stories are imminent, the possibility is tantalizing for fans.

In the meantime, serious fans await Rowling’s online venture, Pottermore, which won’t be fully available to the public until October but promises some new Potter content that has not been previously available.

Here’s J.K. Rowling on Pottermore:

Fans can also visit Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, home of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a very impressive theme park treatment of Rowling’s vision that allows fans to immerse themselves in the world of Potter.

What are “liberal studies” anyway?

By Marc Williams

This entry begins the official blog life of UNCG’s Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program.  We’ve begun our Facebook life with some discussions on education.  Perhaps it would be worthwhile to begin our blog with the term “Liberal Studies.”  What exactly does that mean?

Image from "Education in Ancient Greece," Michael Lahanas

The phrase derives from artes liberales (“liberal arts”), which describes the kinds of knowledge (“arts”) that free citizens (“liberated”) should possess. This definition of liberal arts can be traced from Ancient Greece all the way through the Middle Ages.   Artes liberales can be contrasted with artes illiberales, which refers to a kind of education intended specifically for economic gain (such as vocational training).    The branches of knowledge that comprise the liberal arts include mathematics, music, literature, logic, rhetoric, grammar, and oratory.  In this regard, a “liberal studies” education is intended to be broad in focus and inclusive of a variety of disciplines.

Most universities today offer degree programs with a liberal arts structure. First-year university students are often surprised by how many courses are required outside of their intended field of study.  “How will a philosophy course help me if I want to work in advertising?”

One answer to this question comes from a recent Carnegie Foundation study, recently outlined on Businessweek.com by William M. Sullivan:

More than ever, American business needs leaders who are creative and flexible enough to innovate in a complex, competitive, global economy. The recent near-collapse of the world economy underscores the importance of business professionals who can act with foresight and integrity, aware of the public impact of their decisions. […].

The Carnegie Foundation study found that undergraduate business programs are too often narrow in scope. They rarely challenge students to question their assumptions, think creatively, or understand the place of business in larger institutional contexts. […] .

The study, soon to appear as Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession (Jossey-Bass/Wiley), went in search of business programs that set out to provide students with more than tools for advancing their careers, as important as those tools are. […].

Not surprisingly, this report suggests business programs include a healthy dose of liberal arts courses—courses that specifically develop the analytical and critical thinking skills required to deal with ambiguous and complex questions, as well as courses that manage to connect to the business curriculum.  These critical thinking, analytical, and creative skills are precisely the focus of the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  To learn more, please visit http://www.uncg.edu/aas/bls.